Friday, January 8, 2016

How many of my publish-on-demand books should I order?

I mentioned in my last post that in 1990 I self-published a book of short stories that I found, decades later, to have some very minor typographic errors. As it happens, I dislike typos almost obsessively and I ended up pulping many hundreds of unread copies of the book. To me, the copes were worthless. Not only did I no longer want to sell them, I didn't want anyone to even read them.

So I came out with a 25th Anniversary Edition of the book, which has all the errors removed. But instead of ordering several thousand copies, as I had to at the time it was first published, I ordered 2. Instead of writing a check for $5000.00, I used PayPal to the tune of about $8, plus shipping. I have had a dozen or so books published since 1990, but it has taken me this long to finally get the message. Here it is: most published books contain errors; indie or self-published books contain even more. If you are terrified of people finding typos or other errors in your book, print as few as possible. Zero is even a possibility. Here's why: publish on demand.

Publish-on-demand companies take your uploaded manuscript file and cover illustration and create a professional-looking paperback copy of your book. Although there are many such companies, all with different policies, I use CreateSpace, even though it is owned by Amazon, who is generally no friend to authors. With CreateSpace I can upload my book file and cover for no charge. Zero. A small caveat here is that I am a professional formatter who also has enough knowledge of cover design to get by. Many people choose to pay for these services--either to CreateSpace or to private entities such as myself--but it is not required.

So let me make this clear. As soon as my book is approved by CreateSpace, it goes on sale worldwide, not only through CreateSpace, but through Amazon--the largest book distributor in history--as well. Your book cover and description will appear on Amazon search engines and on more general search engines like Google. Forever. The only reason you would actually have to pay CreateSpace a dime is if you wanted to order author copies for yourself or your friends. The cost on these depend, of course, on the number of pages and whether or not color is involved in the interior, but generally, for a 6 X 9-inch book of 250 pages--a fairly standard size--it will cost you in the neighborhood of $4 per copy, plus reasonable shipping. A bargain? You bet.

But--and this is the point of this post in case you were wondering--don't fly off the handle with excitement and order thousands or hundreds or even dozens of copies of your new masterpiece unless you are planning to go out on the road promoting them or you have copies pre-sold to people you know. Why? Because they have errors.

Here are a couple of cases in point. In my earlier post Why are there so many errors in self-published books? I mention my experience with a young author whose otherwise-excellent young adult novel had literally hundreds of errors, despite the fact that she had several advance readers. In another case, one of my own books was given a poor review because of an error that crept in during the conversion process from InDesign to Word. Luckily, this happened in the e-book only so it was quickly fixed and a new e-book file replaced the old one.

But what would have happened if the error had been in the printed version? Well, that's happened, too. I have published somewhere around a dozen books now, and there has never been a time when at least one typo or inconsistency was not pointed out to me. To my mind, those errors rendered the existing paperbacks worthless. By using a print-on-demand publisher, though, I was able to correct my book file within minutes. And because CreateSpace does not print a book until it is actually ordered, no unrevised copy of a book can ever be purchased.  Unless, of course, it is purchased as a used copy. And of course the fewer copies that are initially printed, the less chance there is of many used copies existing.

This post is not only for authors who publish themselves; it is also for those of you who publish thorough indie presses and have errors pointed out to you by your readers--readers like me. Most indie presses go through a publish-on-demand service just as I do. If they have chosen to have it print beaucoups copies of your book hoping for wonderful direct sales, they are not thinking clearly. And if they say that they can't afford to fix the errors that escaped their review process, they are lying. As I have posted earlier, the world is your editor.

I no longer give readings or make book-signing appearances. And because I no longer have to have a stack on hand, I now order only 2 copies of any book I print--enough for a casual sale and to have one in my bookcase for display. 99 percent of your books are going to be sold through Amazon anyway. Even if you do sell a few copies yourself, it only takes a week or two to receive new copies from CreateSpace. They are surprisingly fast. And when new errors crop up--and they will--you have lost almost nothing except a little pride.

So what can you do with all those error-filled copies of your book that you bought in the first excitement of its publication?  If you give them to a Goodwill store, people might buy them, see the errors, and give you a bad review on Goodreads or Amazon. You can donate them to a library, but then--same as the above. The only safe place to donate imperfect copies of your paperback books is to a prison library. Every prison has one, every prison needs donations, and prisoners generally don't notice grammatical errors or have access to Goodreads.

The only other solutions are to use them to fix the holes in your driveway or pulp them. Just hope that the people at the recycling station do not take them home, read them, and, well, you know.

Why I needed to publish a 25th Anniversary Edition

I self-published my first book, a collection of stories called The Principle of Interchange, in 1990. At that time, set-up costs for printing a book were considerable. The vast majority of that expense was in the pre-printing phase. If for some odd reason you wanted to print a single copy of a book (say, a novel of 200 pages with no illustrations), you would have to pay for typesetting, paste-up, printing machine set up, labor, binding, trimming, and a lot more. Although paper for a single book would cost almost nothing, the final out-of-pocket cost on such a book would be--if you used an inexpensive printing company--around $3000.00. In other words, to print a single copy of your book would cost you $3000.00.

To get a book's cost down to where someone might be tempted to buy it, you had to print more of them. Printing 100 copies, therefore, would bring the cost of each copy down to $30. Printing 3000 would get it down to a manageable price. Add a markup for yourself and then set a price for the book. In the case of The Principle of Interchange, I got the per-book cost down to somewhere between $2 and $3, then marked it for sale at $7.95 which, at the time, was a little high for trade paperbacks. Still, if I sold it through a distributor, who wanted 40 percent of the cover price, I would still be making a dollar or two. The total cost to me for printing somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 books was about $5000.00. Luckily I had a pretty good day job at the time.

A few months ago, I decided to rerelease The Principle of Interchange as an e-book. This presented a lot of problems, as I had no computer file of any kind to work with. I ended up cutting the binding from one of the copies and scanning each page into a tif file. Using Microsoft's One Note application, which has a character recognition feature, I was able to come up with a rough Word file in several days. Of course no character recognition software is perfect, so I had many hundreds of places where commas appeared as periods, question marks appeared as capital P, and so forth. And so the proofing began.

For one reason or another, I had never felt the need to actually read the printed version of the book, so this was a first for me. Before publication it had been read by several professional editors and proofreaders as well as myself (who was also a professional editor and proofreader at the time.) And no one who had ever read the book (and yes, there were some--it been used as a textbook in a literature class at Florida State University for several semesters) had pointed out even a single typo. Imagine my surprise, then, when errors began to pop up in my reading--errors having nothing to do with the scan.

My main goal in republishing the book was to get an e-book version, but when I kept finding errors I decided to do a print a paperback version as well. As I read  on I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories seemed to hold up over time. But no matter how happy an author is with his or her work, there are always just the little tweak here and there that would make the story a little tighter. So I tweaked here and there. Although I only found a couple of dozen actual typos, I ended up making over a hundred actual changes--all very minor. At this point, I decided to make the new version of the book a "25th Anniversary Edition," and with it came a new cover. Why not? With the Publish on Demand services now available, set up fees are a thing of the past.

But what to do with the dozens of boxes of the original version of The Principle of Interchange  that I have been carrying around with me for the last several decades and take up valuable space in my closets and attic? I am no longer a young man and no longer have visions of being discovered and having my early work command high prices and vast audiences (well, maybe I am, a little). In fact, I have been donating copies to libraries and thrift stores for years, as well as giving copies to my family and friends with instructions to do the same. And last month, the paper-recycling bin received ten full boxes or unread books.

Read my next post to see where I am going with this.