We’ve been meaning for a while now to use our low-quantity-but-hopefully-high-quality blog to post about sales channels.
We actually got started on this post late last year, and started pontificating for a bit on the pluses and minuses of various ways of getting books into readers’ hands. But then we realized we were missing something important: actual numbers.
Yes, it’s true. We’re pretty rigorous about doing a monthly profit and loss statement for the business at the close of every month, and calculating and paying all royalties due, so we always have a pretty solid idea of WHICH books are selling, but we’ve been lax about classifying all of our sales so we can figure out HOW those books are selling. Which, frankly, is kind of dumb—it’s easy to tell yourself stories about what works and what doesn’t, especially for something as emotionally charged as selling books you’ve poured your heart and soul into, but until you actually crunch the numbers, you just don’t know whether or not those stories are true.
Until now. As part of our year-end financial process—which is fairly involved, since we have to pay state sales tax for the year, and issue 1099s for our authors, and provide various contractors and associates their payment totals—we’ve gone through our revenues and figured out, for all of 2018, just how every dollar flowed into the mighty Tortoise bank account. And so, in the interest of the transparency which is so often lacking in the book business, we’re going to post about each channel. We have a lot to say about each one, so we’ll do one post a week, and tell “the story” for that channel, and then we’ll post the numbers—which, in some ways, contradict the stories we’ve told ourselves. And we’ll post the overall lesson we’ve learned from all of this exercise. (Which, we think, is a good lesson.)
(“Now, hold on,” you might be saying. “Tortoise is a hip cool indie press, and money is uncool. It’s all about the writing, right?” Well, yes, and no. It’s easy to get into this business thinking money is beneath you, unimportant, not worth your attention—and there’s no surer way to get yourself into deep financial doo-doo. Because then magical thinking sets in, and with it, a gambler’s mentality. You start to think a given project will just make money because it’s amazing, and once the world realizes how amazing it is, the dollars will just start rolling in, enough to make everyone happy, enough that you can stop worrying about the nitty gritty stuff like monthly financials, and start planning cool vacations to Paraguay or Bhutan or some other place you’ve only seen on Anthony Bourdain. And then, when that project disappoints you financially, and you have less money to launch the next project, you may end up doubling down, thinking the new project is even more amazing, and maybe you’ll go into debt to finance it, and eventually you’ll end up homeless and penniless, living in a van down by the river. ANYWAY, yes, money is beneath you, but the floor is beneath you, too. And you need a stable reliable floor to do most things in life. So think of money that way, as something you have to get right to make everything else possible.)
ANYWHO, we are going to post about each channel in turn, one a week, in the following order:
Createspace and KDP Paper Sales
KDP Electronic Sales
The Goodies (We’ll explain later.)
We’ll be as honest as possible without hurting anyone. (As someone told our founder once: “Honesty without compassion is brutality.”) And hopefully we’ll all learn a little something about how to do a better job of getting great books from amazing authors to awesome readers. And so, without further ado:
For those of you new to the business, or to this side of it, IngramSpark is a print-on-demand service. Rather than, say, estimating that a book will sell 1,000 copies (the general size of an economical print run using more traditional methods, although that’s not necessarily the case nowadays), you can upload a cover and an interior .pdf to Ingram; once the files pass technical validation, Ingram—which is also a major book distributor for independent bookstores—can then print copies whenever a store orders a book. There’s a lot to be said for this approach; since you don’t need to sell a set number of books, you don’t need to chase fickle trends and publish books about subjects with a built-in following, like sparkly vampires or Jersey Shore castmembers. (Sorry, it’s too easy to hate on these things. We’ll try to be more positive.)
ANYWAY, using Ingram’s online portal, it’s relatively easy to upload files and make your books available for sale. Bookstores can then order the books at terms that are reasonable to them. (A 55% discount off the cover price, and returnable, which means bookstores can send copies back within 90 days for a refund.) And it’s necessary to at least try to do well in bookstores—a physical book is advertising for itself, so having one on a shelf (or, God willing, a display table) gives you a level of visibility and a chance for random discovery that can’t be easily replicated online.
Even without crunching the yearly numbers, it’s possible to say a few things about IngramSpark, financially. Unless you’re setting up your titles with your eyes closed, you’ll see that revenue per unit sold is decently low, lower than if you upload the same exact files to Amazon’s print-on-demand platforms. (The posted technical specs for the two services are slightly different, BUT they are tied together behind the scenes, and they even use the same printers to fulfill orders. More on that later.) BUT if you do a decent amount of publicity and promotion, you’ll sell into more bookstores than you will if you just use Amazon’s POD service, even its “Extended Distribution” option.
Ingram also allows you to order production-quality copies of your book before it’s on sale to the general public—which is essential if you want to do proper pre-publication work. (We USED to be able to do this through Amazon’s CreateSpace, although it was a bit of a hassle—we could order production-quality pre-pub copies through their portal, tweak the files as necessary to get everything right [or just pretend to tweak them, and then re-upload the same files], and order more copies; we could then use those for promotional work, and sell any extras at book fairs. But Amazon now slaps a big NOT FOR RESALE banner on these copies. Which, of course, doesn’t stop us from doing what we used to do—it just means we place more pre-pub orders on Ingram.)
And once you get blurbs and reviews, you can manage them on the Ingram portal—one of the few areas where their portal’s clearly superior to Amazon’s. All you have to do is copy and paste the relevant review quotes, and they’ll flow on through to your various online product pages.
Of course, this channel isn’t all sunshine and smiles. As we mentioned before, if you want any decent bookstore penetration, your books have to be return-eligible. Which sucks, sometimes. A store can order, say, ten copies for an author event, and only sell three, and ship the rest back to Ingram, who then sends them back to you. On the plus side, the books usually come back in decent shape, and you can sell them elsewhere—directly through your website, at fairs, etc. Still, there are few things more disheartening in this business than when you already have decent inventory for a title (for a suitcase press, 10 copies or so), and then you get, say, 17 copies of a book shipped back to you, and all of the sudden you are running out of closet space to store all the books, so you’re stacking up carboard boxes next to the bed, and your wife is yelling at you, and you know even if you discount it, it will take a LOOOOOONG time to sell them all. And of course, you have to pay for those copies. And since the printing charge for a POD book might be three or four times the royalties you earn from sales of that book, it doesn’t take a lot of returns to wipe out a lot of royalties. Returns are, regrettably, a fact of life for book publishers; we do our best to structure our author agreements to take them into account and give ourselves a chance to recoup those losses. But it’s still a kick in the nuts when someone sends your books back to you, and takes money away from you to boot.
Also, Ingram charges setup fees, and revision fees. The setup fee—$49—is actually not awful, but only because they waive it if you order 50 copies within a few months of setup, and ship them all to the same address. (Since you’re probably going to need 50 copies anyway, you’re usually not stuck with that cost in the end unless you really want to be.) The revision fee—$25—is the more shortsighted fee, because it makes it harder to make sure the book looks good in print. (Since we’re usually setting up our books on both IngramSpark and Amazon’s KDP, we’ll print the proofs on KDP and verify them that way—the posted file specs are slightly different, BUT their systems are tied together behind the scenes, and they sometimes print from the same printers. So usually, despite their protests to the contrary, what looks good on one will look good on the other.) The revision fee also makes it harder to do the kind of favorable tweaks that help books sell once they’ve come out. If you set up your books well, and you get a few nice pre-pub blurbs from cool authors, you have a good product that’s ready for the marketplace. But if you then, say, get an even better blurb with the help of one of those initial copies—or if you win an award and want to put the medallion image on the front—you’re usually stuck deciding whether or not to pay a $25 fee to update the cover. And frankly, since you can order books with basically the same specs from Amazon’s KDP platform WITHOUT paying to update the files (and get the books printed at a slightly better cost), it usually makes more sense to just update it on KDP and order copies from them if you need more copies for book fairs and such. Then you can wait to update the Ingram version until Ingram does a free update promo, which they tend to do once a year or so. (At least two of our books are in this situation—WGN Radio’s Rick Kogan called North and Central “a terrific, terrific novel” on air, and we updated the cover on the KDP version to accommodate the blurb, but figured we’d wait to change the Ingram version so as to not wipe out a few months’ worth of profits for the title. So, too, for Joe Peterson’s Gunmetal Blue—Kirkus Review called him “One of the Windy City’s best-kept secrets,” and we’ve put that blurb on the cover of Amazon’s version, and ordered new copies that way.) So, more money for Amazon, less money for Ingram.
Still, if you’re a small indie looking to make a big name for yourself, you really have to go through Ingram. Even if you set up only on Amazon’s KDP platform, if you click the “Extended Distribution” option, THEY will be using Ingram to get your books out there. (That option is basically a white-label pipeline into the Ingram system; when you select that, Amazon sets the books up in Ingram, but WITHOUT the returnability and discount options the bookstores want, so you’re not going to move a lot of units that way—probably not any, because the bookstore’s not going to stock it, so unless you send a friend to go to your bookstore and have them special order it, you won’t make any “Extended Distribution” sales. And Amazon comps those sales at a lower royalty rate than the Amazon.com sales anyway, so there really isn’t any advantage, other than avoiding the setup fees.)
Plus, there are advantages to bookstore sales that you just don’t get elsewhere—basically, you want your book where book people can see it and talk about it, and while that doesn’t necessarily happen a lot at a bookstore, it still can happen. True, there are other ways to sell books at bookstores—placing books on consignment, or selling to the store directly, both of which we’ll discuss later—and there are times when those ways are best, BUT they also only tend to happen if you have a strong relationship with a bookstore. If you’ve done the right things to sell your books to strangers, like getting pre-publication reviews in trade publications, you want to be in a position to take advantage of that, and the best way to take advantage of that is by setting up on Ingram.