Must You Publish a Print Book?

Image by <a href="">Robin Higgins</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>Sometimes when you’re cruising the intertubes, something jumps out at you that makes you want to spit out your coffee. For me, it was a gem of advice in a Q&A on Quora.

The query, edited for length, was: “What do traditional publishers provide that self-publishing doesn’t?” The question drew the typical answers: a cover from a professional cover designer (which indies can also buy), great editing (ditto), marketing assistance (a little harder, but doable – and midlist authors at traditional houses often have to find help, too), and placement of your book at brick-and-mortar stores (okay, I’ll give them that one – although it’s not impossible for indies).

But it was this throwaway line at the end of one comment that caused my spit-take: “Don’t forget to do a POD print edition, even if its layout is pure template-driven and it’s not up to pro standards in production values. Ebooks with print editions sell better than ebooks without.”

There’s so much here to unpack.

First, if you’re fairly new to the indie author business, POD is an acronym that you may not have come across. It’s short for “print on demand,” and it refers to the way IngramSpark and CreateSpace, and now KDP, do business. Traditional publishers print up a few thousand copies of a book and leave them sitting in a warehouse until a brick-and-mortar store places an order for some of them. That’s an expensive way to do things. There’s the upfront cost of printing books you may never sell, as well as warehouse rent. Modern publishers (ahem) print books on demand – in other words, only when they’re ordered. It’s more cost-effective and it saves trees. All good things, right?

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can talk about the rest of that sentence: “Don’t forget to do a POD print edition, even if its layout is pure template-driven…” Here, she’s talking about the look of the interior pages of your book. I guess you could hire a graphic artist to style your interior, but why? You can do a lot of styling yourself by gussying up a template. (I don’t use interior templates, personally – I do all my own formatting. Why, yes, I do enjoy inflicting pain on myself – why do you ask?)

Then she whacks indies on the noggin: “…and (if) it’s not up to pro standards in production values.” Now hang on there a minute, sister. I’ve been making money from my books for nine years. I am a professional. I produce professional-quality work. And I’m not crazy about your implication that I’m just a hobbyist or something.

So now that she’s insulted me, she goes on to say this: “Ebooks with print editions sell better than ebooks without.”

Really? Where’s your evidence for that? Because I’m pretty sure all the erotica authors out there would beg to differ.

We did a quick survey of the IU minions, and it turns out none of us could support her thesis. Most of us sell way more eBooks than we do paperbacks – and that’s true whether or not a print edition is available. The exception is those of us who do public appearances at book fairs and other events. They do pretty well with selling print editions.

There is a reason to create a print edition of your eBook: It can help you with marketing. I created an omnibus edition of my five-book series The Pipe Woman Chronicles so that I could market the eBook as a steal (“more than half off the cover price!”). I’ve yet to sell a single copy of the paperback – not even to myself.

There’s one other way that a print edition can help you: If your main business is not as an author, but as an authority in some other capacity, you’ll want to make your priceless pearls of prose available in print. And in fact, the woman who made the comment above has written a book about making a profit from publishing. She published her book in 2009. And guess what? It’s only available as an eBook.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “Must You Publish a Print Book?”

  1. Obviously some people are pretty adept at pissing off a lot of people with just a few sentences. I, too, take exception to the notion that POD books are less than professional quality. I teach self-publishing through my local community college, and I always bring several of my paperbacks to class so I can show my students the quality of the books–professional quality. Some of these example books I have toted around for years, yet they still look great. As for the notion that eBooks sell more if there is a paperback available–who even checks for that? When I go to buy a book, noting if there’s a paperback is about the last thing I look for. Blurb, yes. Reviews, yes. Price, yes. Paperback? Uh, no.
    And then to follow this “advice” by not even adhering to it herself? That doesn’t speak much to her commitment or confidence in her own words.

    1. It does seem odd to recommend that authors publish a print edition when she doesn’t have one herself. Maybe she had one at one time, but marketed it only on her website or something?

  2. Spot on. I have several books that are e-books only, and except for one of my books that is both e-book and POD, which happens to be the same genre as some of e-books only, those that are only e-books are outselling almost all of my other books. What seems to determine sales is, 1) popular genre, 2) well-told story, and 3) relatable characters. BTW, I seldom trust the information I see on Quora, anyway.

  3. I would never pass up on doing bother versions – and they must be top quality for both. I sell print versions locally and actually make more from them than e-books. And let’s not forget that some people, many actually, still love the feel and experience of a print book versus the e-version. It is a mistake to take either for granted.

  4. Ha ha. Thanks, Lynne. I enjoy your sense of humor. Then there’s Yvonne with her “bother versions.”

    I’m glad I stopped by to read something that agrees with what I’ve found. My print books sell, but I can’t claim I sell more ebooks because the print editions exist. What I have found, however, is that some readers buy both editions.

  5. I have another reason for producing a print book, which is perhaps driven by my age and life experience: editing. The very last edit for all of my books — and for my clients if they wish — is to read a print version backwards, one paragraph at a time. And I always find a few more errors.
    Like Yvonne, I also sell at Christmas Craft Fairs and other local events, and it’s nice to have a dozen titles or so spread out; it gives you status as a writer 🙂
    As for interior design, I took somebody’s advice years ago when I was starting out, and looked at a bunch of “professionally designed” books in my genre, picked the interior design I liked best and copied that.

    1. Great idea for settling on an interior design, Gordon – thanks for sharing that. And thanks for the editing tip, too. Seeing your work in different formats sure does make the errors pop out at you.

    1. Indeed they do, Steven. I have a cousin who, upon learning I was publishing novels, went a little nuts on one of my Facebook posts and commented about how much better real books are than eBooks. Uh… 😉

  6. lol – I consider myself to be a professional as well, and the implication that a poor quality product is better than none strikes me as just plain ‘wrong’. Ebooks may sell far better than paperbacks, but every print version out there acts as the ‘calling card’ of its author. Why would any Indie want to be dismissed as mediocre, simply on the basis of that calling card?
    Imho, it’s better to hold off on the print version until you either do a decent job yourself, or pay someone else to do it for you.
    Disclaimer: I’m another masochist who does internal formatting from scratch. 🙂

  7. No must involved, but there are good reasons to produce paper books. One is that they are the single best editing tool you can get… for your own once-overs and for friends and betas. Handing somebody a manuscript is asking them to work, handing them a book is a gift. Books allow you to give gifts, to do signings, to approach reviewers who will only accept physical books. The amount of work involved in producing them is negligible compared to writing and publishing the work, and the added expense is almost nothing.

  8. I don’t have any experience using templates. My wife and I ran a small publishing company for 9 years (we’re now shutting it down) and did all of our design and typsetting in Adobe InDesign. She did most of the work on that end, and learned a fair bit about typesetting in the process. Although I don’t have template experience, I might wonder how well the average indie author using a template understands typesetting, and how well templates actually manage the finer points of typesetting. It seems possible to me that a templated book might, in fact, not look as “professional” as a book set by an experienced typesetter. Probably most readers wouldn’t be able to point out typesetting issues in a book, but I suspect there might be cases were an avid reader might say, “This just doesn’t look right somehow.” Food for thought, anyway . . .

    1. Dale, I’m assuming anybody who uses a template has zero, or close to zero, design experience — which is why they’re using the template.

      Maybe someone who’s familiar with both templates and good design could speak to this.

  9. I do both ebook and paperback books and keep a small inventory of paperback books on hand. It seems a bit defeatist to me, when authors only have ebooks for sale. I think they are short sighted and fearful of rejection by not having book signings and nothing to show off at speaking events or book trade shows. When people go to trade shows, and speaking events they expect the author to be real and to give something more than just a canned – You can buy the author’s book online speech.
    With ebook sales off this year, except for those who heavily market their books on Amazon, it makes you wonder if relying totally on Amazon to electronically market your books is a wise decision?

    1. JB, to be honest, I haven’t done a signing or in-person event in several years. I stopped because the few events I did do didn’t result in many sales for me.

      Everybody’s got their own path up the mountain. Good for you for finding the path that works for you. 🙂

  10. As for me, I will bring out a print edition before I bring out an ebook edition. Mind you, I write mainly non-fiction. I first self-published a book in 1989. My books (mainly self-published) reached the milestone of having sold over 1,000,000 copies in September. In 2018, my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” sold 25,907 copies in a print edition and 3,480 copies in ebook editions. I use offset print runs for the print edition and print 17,500 copies at a time to get my costs down to $1.32 a copy. My “The Joy of Not Working” sold 3,116 copies in a print edition in 2018 and 803 copies in ebook editions. I have just brought out a new book called “The Joy of Being Retired: 365 Reasons Why Retirement Rocks – and Work Sucks!” I have done two separate print editions, one as a POD edition on Amazon’s KDP and another with a different ISBN for which I printed 1,700 copies as an offset print edition. I still haven’t done an ebook edition for this new book and it may be some time before I do. For the two print editions of this book I used a template.

  11. Thanks, Lynne! I do print books because people still ask for them, because they’re great for giveaways and the occasional author event. Those “Little Library” boxes sprouting up everywhere? Perfect. To each his/her own in independent authorhood, but I do my own formatting because it’s kind of fun. Now that I sort of know what I’m doing, I’d never dream of putting out something “not up to pro standards.” And I don’t know why this author suggests that others do so.

    1. To be clear, Laurie, I still do print editions of all my novels, too.

      I keep meaning to make the rounds of our Little Libraries and put in a book or two. One of these days I may actually get it done. 🙂

  12. Brilliant article, Lynne. I keep wondering when ideas such as publishers will do the marketing for you and self-published books can’t achieve the same quality standards as traditionally published ones will die…

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