To Print or Not To Print

With the sale of e-books on the rise, many publishers do great business without ever sending their books to print. Others rely on a mix of e-books and print books. In both cases, we’re told that the cost of sending a book to print is far greater and sometimes prohibitive.

But some of the key costs of the books—namely the editing, cover art, formatting, and marketing—remain the same no matter what format the book takes. So the difference must be in the printing costs, the storage, and the shipping to distribute the physical books. Anyone who has bought printer or toner lately or tried to ship something through UPS or the Post Office knows those costs can really add up. Then there are the remainders and returns to worry about with print books—something you don’t see with their electronic counterparts.

There are options. Print-on-demand, for instance, creates shorter print runs, faster turnaround, and prevents an overproduction of titles that might not sell well down the line. The lattermost is especially important. POD books dodge the bullet of those dozens of hardcover books you see sold for pennies on the dollar in the bargain bins of physical bookstores.

Some e-book publishers contract to meet their print needs. Ellora’s Cave, for instance, is represented by The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. Yes, a publishing company can have a literary agent. Ethan Ellenberg negotiates deals with Pocket, a print publisher, to put Ellora’s Cave’s books into print. Not sure what the cost vs. profit is on these deals, but I’d have to assume Ellora’s Cave does better having Pocket print its books than if it produced its own print books.

So a lot of factors go into the cost of a print book, including whether the publisher does its own in-house printing or contracts that work out, and whether it does POD or a traditional print run. Then there’s overhead, employee and management salaries, author royalties, and the fore-mentioned cost of editing, artwork, formatting, and marketing.

But I thought authors in print—even in print at a smaller publishing house—made better money? Well, print books are usually priced higher, though authors often make a much smaller percentage of royalties off the print books. Print also reaches a different (though overlapping) audience of readers, and print sales are still going strong even as e-book sales go up. There is a confounding variable, though. Publishers who specialize in e-books don’t usually put a book into print unless that author is already selling very well. So those authors may not make more because they’re in print, but simply because they’re popular enough to be put in print in the first place.

This is a complicated business, and various reports don’t agree on the stats. What are your thoughts?

6 responses to “To Print or Not To Print

  1. I can’t speak for all authors, only for two that I know well: myself and a close friend. For me, print books are good to hold and sometimes easier to read (versus listen to) than an ebook. But lately I’ve been having trouble finding obscure authors on the shelves. And these were authors I used to find. Also, some of them weren’t *that* obscure. So I have to wait for print-on-demand, which leaves me one of two choices with certain bookstores in my area. 1) Have the book shipped to me if the bookstore is far enough away. This method both saves me from having to book a four-hour trip on paratransit but often costs me extra in shipping. 2) Come back when the book is available and spend that four hours on paratransit, plus the $8.00 fare it costs to use the service. Not so convenient. So I often seek out ebooks, when available, to save myself frustration.

    My good friend refuses to consider herself truly published until she’s in print. Not print-on-demand (she accomplished that with her second book) but PRINT. She told me she wants to walk into the romance section of a bookstore and see her book nestled there beside all the big names. I can appreciate her need, but I’m not sure I understand it. Remembering the day Loose Id asked me to rewrite Dragon Food so they *might* be able to contract it still makes me grin, even four three published ebooks later.

    There seems to be a balance between ebooks and print books now. If possible, I’d love to see that balance maintained. Just so long as both sides remember: no matter if you’re published on the print or electronic side, you’re still a published author.

    P.S. Allie, check out a contest on my blog. I can’t figure out how to post it on lucidescapes and the reader’s group.

    • I agree about having a balance between print and e-books. I enjoy both and would hate to see the print books go extinct, but e-books deserve respect, too. For me, I get something a little different out of each format.

  2. There’s a ton more involved in print than that Allie. Print books are sent to physical stores on consignment. If the books are not sold by a certain date, the stores are required to return them, but they must deface the book first by tearing off the cover and a certain number of specified pages. The returned books are trashed. That must be factored into the cost of the book.

    For myself, I have no desire for print. My three boys rarely read anything if it’s not available online or on Kindle, and they are avid readers. It’s the way of the future. Add to that the fact I can tag and bookmark any book on my Kindle and retrieve those ‘highlighted’ phrases by category or a simple search, and I now actively dislike having to do research on print books. it’s very difficult to go back to earmarking and flipping through pages.

    My mom, who’s 77, and has read all of my books won’t read a print book anymore. She’s totally addicted to her Kindle and even has the Bible on it! Go figure.

    Everyone is different though and i totally respect those differences.

    • Good info, Jianne. I didn’t know bookstores defaced the physical copies before returning them. Speaking as a bibliophile, that’s terrible. I really do like both e-books and print books. When it comes to speed, delivery, and convenience, there’s no beating an e-book. I get a warmer, more nostalgic feeling when I hold a printed book in my hand, though. And reading my Kindle in the bathtub scares the hell out of me, LOL. I mean, you drop a paperback in the water and you can dry it out, or at least you’re only out the price of that book. You drop your Kindle and…yeah, total annihilation of your e-reader.

  3. I have to say, it’s been a ride in this modern era of publishing. I feel like we writers are caught in the midst of a shapeshifter changing from a lion to…who knows what. I can only speak for myself, but the small independent publisher I work with has just opened up for print runs.

    They are doing it through a POD model and have partnered with a good POD distributor that puts the books in major book catalogues like Ingram. This will allow me and my publiher to flirt with my local bookstores to get them on the shelf.

    There is some re formating activities to ready it for print from its ebook format. I didn’t realize the formatting differences between the two distribution styles. I think my publisher is being really smart about it, starting slow with their strongest selling books and then expanding the option to all authors.

    • There’s no predicting the future for sure, but for now I think a two-pronged attack — selling books in both e-book and print format — seems like the best marketing strategy for maximum exposure. It will be interesting to see what happens in the industry over the next five to ten years.

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