The Truth About Self-Publishing and Returned Books

By on July 20, 2015
The Truth About Self-Publishing and Returned Books - Writer's L

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If you’re hop­ing to have main­stream book­store dis­tri­b­u­tion, using a Vanity Press may present some obsta­cles. Book buy­ers will likely tell you, “your book may be excel­lent, but you’re using a Vanity Publisher and the vast major­ity of their books are poorly edited. We’d have to read hun­dreds of their titles before locat­ing a gem. We have nei­ther the man­power nor the time to spend on that endeavor.” While this isn’t true of all Vanity Publishers, it’s true of many.

If you are thinking of self-publishing your first book, then you might want to check out Writer's Life webinar  called How to Get Published, Sell Books & Attract Tens of Thousands of Readers by Selling Your Content on Amazon’s Kindle  CLICK HERE!   In this course you will taught how to publish online and sell to Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Platform and Market. However be aware of some of the pitfalls of dealing with returned books mentioned in this article.

There is a dif­fer­ence between engag­ing a Vanity Publisher and being a Self-Publisher with your own imprint. A Vanity Publisher charges oth­ers to pub­lish their works and then uses a ser­vice like LSI to do their Print on Demand print­ing. A Self-Publisher with their own imprint and their own ISBNs can use either a tra­di­tional off­set printer, an off­shore printer or a PODprinter depend­ing on their needs and cir­cum­stances. Apparently, many book buy­ers won’t con­sider POD-printed books cit­ing the same con­cerns they have about Vanity Publishers.

Having your own pub­lish­ing entity won’t guar­an­tee book­stores will be will­ing to carry your book for many of the same rea­sons they won’t carry a van­ity pub­lished book, but it can pro­tect your work from “guilt by asso­ci­a­tion.” What’s clear is seri­ous self-publishers must main­tain the high­est stan­dards of design and pro­duc­tion or risk being sucked under by the tide of mediocre books retreat­ing into the ocean of well-meaning do-it-yourselfers.

Another rea­son book­stores hes­i­tate to buy self-published books is they’re usu­ally not return­able. Are you will­ing to gam­ble your books will sell? If so, when book­stores return unsold inven­tory, you bear the cost of the book plus ship­ping. If not, you’ll at least have to pay ship­ping costs for the torn off book cov­ers prov­ing the books were destroyed and the whole­sale cost lit­er­ally goes into the landfill.

With most Vanity Published books whole­sal­ing at around $9 per book, imag­ine hav­ing three books in every Barnes and Noble across the coun­try. That’s 777 stores and 2,331 books. At $9 per book, you’re gam­bling $20,979. Let’s say you sell an aver­age of one book per store and you’re mak­ing $3 profit per book so you make $2,331. They return 1,554 unsold books to the printer expect­ing $6 per book (print cost) to be returned plus around $1 per book for ship­ping. $7 times the 1,554 unsold books equals $10,878 dol­lars you owe the book printer. You lost $8,547 on a deal you you started off celebrating.

Large pub­lish­ers need to sell as many as 25,000 to 30,000 books to break even after absorb­ing returns and shrink­age. Lack of aware­ness of this busi­ness envi­ron­ment leads many small pub­lish­ers blindly into a risky busi­ness. Big pub­lish­ers choose books much like big investors choose stocks. Publishers rely on agents, just as investors rely on ana­lysts and bro­kers, and both are pre­pared to risk big money to make big returns. Most self-publishers and van­ity pub­lish­ers are not.

Here are some scenarios:

1. Your agent got a bite on your novel from a New York pub­lish­ing house. They’re offer­ing an advance and a com­mit­ment to pro­mote the book. — Go for it. They’ll take a big­ger piece of each book sold, but you’ll prob­a­bly sell a lot more books. Certainly, you won’t get pro­mo­tion like that on your own. Hire a lawyer to nego­ti­ate the con­tract and sign. You’ll have found some­one else will­ing to take the risk on your busi­ness; a rare oppor­tu­nity. Plus, you’ll prob­a­bly make it to the book­stores after all. That said, don’t think you can sit home and wait for roy­alty checks. There will be plenty of work to eat into your writ­ing time.

2. You’re a nov­el­ist and your man­u­script is fin­ished. You’re will­ing to hire some­one to pro­duce it or you’re capa­ble of putting it together your­self, and will­ing to work to gain pop­u­lar accep­tance and income — Get some ISBN num­bers and self-publish it with a POD printer like LSI or CreateSpace. You have access to the same online dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels that iUni­verse or Xlibris does. Build a blog and start mar­ket­ing. Focus on online chan­nels unless you have money to risk on your venture.

3. You’re a nov­el­ist and your man­u­script is fin­ished. You’re will­ing to hire some­one to pro­duce it, but you’re on a tight bud­get. You have no stom­ach for blog­ging or dis­cus­sion forums. You pre­fer to put the book into dis­tri­b­u­tion, accept what­ever sales result from that and move on to writ­ing the next book. — In this case, the Vanity Press may be a good solu­tion. And this sce­nario is applic­a­ble to more peo­ple than you might think. If you write because you love writ­ing, the psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual ben­e­fits of know­ing your books are fin­ished, sharable, and in dis­tri­b­u­tion but not inter­fer­ing with your ongo­ing work will cer­tainly out­weigh the returns from ten­ta­tive, spo­radic and impas­sion­ate mar­ket­ing efforts. Specifically, you’re not a pub­lisher; you’re a writer and that’s a fine thing to be.

4. You have a non­fic­tion book about a topic of inter­est to a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity. (If your book is about self-publishing and you really want to have fun, try shop­ping it around to pub­lish­ers). Self-publish and engage with the com­mu­ni­ties that are expressly inter­ested in your infor­ma­tion. Establish your­self as a source of exper­tise and inspi­ra­tion within the com­mu­nity you serve. Set your­self up to be found when some­one searches for your topic, espe­cially on Amazon. Pick up a copy of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, by Seth Godin. Make lots of noise. Offer sem­i­nars and con­sult­ing services.

It’s impor­tant to make a real­is­tic assess­ment of where you stand in the book pub­lish­ing food chain, espe­cially if your tar­get is the main­stream. Knowing your place and the risks/benefits of your var­i­ous options can make the dif­fer­ence between being a happy writer or a bro­ken investor. Moreover, if you’re not using a tra­di­tional pub­lisher, set your sights on non-traditional dis­tri­b­u­tion sources, and think out­side the bookstore.

Staying on track as a writer takes some organization and time to sit back and brainstorm the future of your projects. The Writers Life creative team has put together a product called The Get It Done, Writer's Toolkit.  This is an ebook/CD combo set that can teach you how to overcome writer's block and procrastination. You will learn how to stop stalling and see the big picture so you have more time to manage your publishing projects with some personal vision.

Thanks to Timothy Brady for the inter­est­ing book­store return statistics.

This post by Dave Bricker was originally published with the title Many Unhappy Returns -- Think Outside the Bookstore at

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