Self-publishing options compared
You can spend thousands on self-publishing your book, or you can do it almost for free. In this section we'll take a look at the various options, and reveal the path that we've settled on after exploring this area over the years since we first started publishing print books back in 2013.
The different options all have their benefits and disadvantages, but broadly speaking it comes down to balancing financial cost on the one hand, and your time, effort, and technical expertise on the other. The more you can do for yourself, the less it is going to cost you – but remember that sometimes it's worth paying a little extra to get a professional finish to your book.
iUniverse is a well known and long established self-publishing company set up in 1999. They offer complete packages for getting your book published, but the least you're going to spend with them is $899. The most expensive package costs $4,299.
If you ask us, this is an outrageous price. Worse still, the royalties are barely better than traditional publishing, and the cut that iUniverse takes of sales is enormous – far higher than the cut the authors themselves receive. This makes it impossible to price your book competitively so that it will sell, and impossible to make a decent return on any sales you do make.
On top of that, you have very little control over the content or the final result. The cover they create belongs to them, as do the press files they create (despite the amount you are paying them to create them), and if you want to move to a different publisher you have to pay them hundreds of dollars (we've heard as much as $1,500) for them to give you the files that you already paid them to create. You're not even allowed to use the same ISBN.
We wouldn't consider this path to self publication.
Note that iUniverse is owned by Author Solutions, Inc., which also owns AuthorHouse, Trafford, and Xlibris, and which is in turn owned by Penguin Random House.
Lulu.com is another well-known self-publishing brand, but takes a very different approach. They emphasise the fact that you can use their system to start publishing your book for free – no huge fees like iUniverse. However, when you look at the amount of each sale that you'll actually receive, you can see where they are making their money. The example they give on their website boasts that you will receive $7.76 from a 200-page book retailing at $14.95 – which sounds impressive – but this is only for books sold through Lulu. Do you know anyone who buys books from Lulu?
All these self-publishers will use this kind of eye-catching headline figure for books sold direct through their site, but it's important that you ignore it. The reality is that you will probably never sell any books direct from their site. You are unlikely to ever earn this rate of royalty. The important figure is further down the Lulu example and is the amount you take from a book sold on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through Ingram: a far more modest $1.58 – that's only slightly over 10%. They try and make it look like they are only taking a modest cut that's smaller than what the author receives ($0.40), but their real profit lies in their artificially inflated printing and distribution costs, which are much higher than industry norms.
The high production costs mean that just to break even you will probably have to price your book so high that it will not be able to compete with traditionally published competitors, and is therefore unlikely to sell.
And of course you don't get any support with preparing your files for publication – unless you pay for it. Charges for designing covers and fixing the text files for publication can run into hundreds of dollars, making this option not quite as free as it likes to make out.
CreateSpace is the self-publishing arm of Amazon. Like Lulu, it's free to join up and free to get started, but its production prices are much more reasonable. For the same book as described above, where Lulu left you with just $1.58 from the $14.95 retail price for a sale on Amazon, CreateSpace would give you $5.72. That's over 30% of the sale price (which is more than double what a traditionally published author would normally get from each sale), and over three and a half times what you'd get from Lulu.
For a direct sale from the CreateSpace eStore you get an even more impressive $8.71 – but again you should ignore this figure. We looked at a sample period for one of our books published through CreateSpace, over which it sold well over 300 copies. Not one of those was sold through the eStore.
But even ignoring the eStore price, CreateSpace will still offer you much better returns than Lulu. However, that isn't to say that CreateSpace is the cheapest way of getting your books to market – it isn't. There are cheaper ways to produce your book, but, in our experience, using CreateSpace offers critical advantages on Amazon. It ensures you are listed promptly, and allows you to control the content of your listing. In the past, where we've gone to market through other means, we've found that the resulting Amazon listing, once it arrives, can be nothing more than a stub, that can for a long time lack a cover image and doesn't even have a description.
We found that though we could arrange cheaper ways of printing and distributing our books than using CreateSpace, the books sold so much better when published through CreateSpace that there was far more money to be made when using this route – as well as being able to reach a much wider audience. We also found that Amazon was far more likely to offer significant discounts on the retail price (which is taken off Amazon's margin, without affecting the amount of money returned to the publisher), making books more competitive against their competition.
Given the factors above, we'd recommend that whatever else you do, you have to have a version of your book through CreateSpace. The contract with CreateSpace is not exclusive, however, so that doesn't stop you exploring other routes to market at the same time.
One reason you might want to consider other routes to market is the big Achilles' heel of the CreateSpace route: distribution to brick and mortar bookstores. Amazon offers an "Expanded Distribution" option which is supposed to provide this, but in reality bookstores will rarely take books through this route, and so it accounts for less than 1.5% of the books we sell. The royalty rate is also far lower: only $2.73 (about 18%) on the example book we've been using. Still better than Lulu, but not much better than traditional publishing.
With over 98.5% of our CreateSpace sales going through Amazon we think CreateSpace is a great way of selling on Amazon (which is the most important part of any self-publishing exercise), but not such a great way of selling elsewhere.
Print on Demand Printer
The final option we're going to consider is going straight to a printer, and organising all other aspects of selling your book yourself. In line with the constant rule of self-publishing, this is both the most cost effective way of producing your book, and the most labour-intensive.
The upside is that you will get to keep a lot more of the amount paid by the customer for each book. For the same example book as we looked at above, you could be looking at keeping 40% or more of the retail price, regardless of where you sell it (so compare against 18% for the Expanded Distribution on CreateSpace, or just over 10% on Lulu). Your book will also be likely to sell better to bookshops. We produced the same book through CreateSpace and a print on demand printer, and we sold more than six times more books through the print on demand printer than we did through CreateSpace's Expanded Distribution. You'll also get more control, being able to choose for yourself what discount to offer to booksellers.
The downside is that you will have more work to do to get your listing on Amazon to look competitive, and this path won't sell nearly as many copies on Amazon, for the reasons described in the section above. You may also find yourself having to process orders from bookshops and arrange their fulfilment. You may have to spend some time shopping around for different printers and you may find that you have to have relationships with different printers in different countries to avoid high delivery charges.
In the end, the path you choose will come down to how much money you want to spend, and how much you think you can, or would like to do yourself. However, what we'd suggest is first of all forgetting about iUniverse and Lulu – these are both, in their own ways, expensive and restrictive.
We'd then suggest you get your book out there with CreateSpace, ensuring you get the most effective presence on Amazon that you can.
Then, finally, we'd suggest setting up a complementary solution through a print on demand printer of your choice, aimed at serving brick and mortar book stores.
Following this path, we think you'll be able to maximise both your return and your audience, and have the best chance of making a success of self-publishing.