Being a very sad (or is it ‘driven’?) individual I spent a large part of my week’s break reading up about, and doing calculations in relation to, printing on demand.
Superficially at least, the numbers did look moderately encouraging at one stage. The set-up costs are minimal and you pay as you go, which means no initial capital investment. Also, if you set everything up properly in the first place, you can tie-in to the Amazon distribution network and have them accept your payments and forward you the proceeds on a monthly basis. In fact, once you have set it up, other people do nearly all the work which is undoubtedly an attraction.
However … Amazon are not a charity. They take a discount on the sale price. This can vary, but in our case it was likely to be 20%. We would not find out for certain until we had everything set up, unfortunately, so we had to operate on a worst case scenario. Since the authors, too, would still be getting a royalty, and since there would be a printing cost per copy based on the page count, this would have one of two effects; either it would reduce the ‘bottom line’ figure, i.e. the Press’s share of the proceeds, to an unacceptably low level – between 3 and 11 US cents per book – or it would make the sale price of the book unacceptably high – ‘Sea Change’, for example, could not be sold for less than $14.50/£9.50, upon which the buyer would also have to pay postage and packing.
(You may ask why we don’t bypass Amazon and do the print-book sales ourselves, but it simply wouldn’t be feasible. For a start it would involve massive capital investment, which we can’t do, and then a huge amount of time devoted to processing and dispatching orders. We’ve done that – many years in the zine business are behind us – and we have no wish to do it again. Lugging armfuls of parcels to the Post Office is no longer for us. Thirty years ago it was fun; now, not so much.)
The only way it could possibly work – and that only marginally – would be if the authors agreed to take a 10% cut in royalty. On three of our current titles that would not make a huge difference, but one author would be significantly disadvantaged by it. Nevertheless we would have put the suggestion to them if it had not been for a couple of other random factors.
Remember I said that there would be no capital outlay involved in PoD publishing? Well, there would be one item and it’s a biggie. Each book would need a new ISBN for the print edition. It’s not a big cost, but if your sales are only clearing a maximum of 11 cents it’s going to take a hell of a lot of them even to recoup the initial outlay.
The other thing is currency fluctuations. It wouldn’t take a massive fluctuation in the world’s currency markets to turn a 3 cents profit into a 3 cents loss, and then you’re actively praying that you don’t sell any books – but Amazon is an ocean liner and it doesn’t turn around quickly. And if they aren’t a charity, even less so are we; our capitalisation is meagre, and we need to think carefully about every penny we spend. Nevertheless we could probably ride out minor fluctuations … but what if we found ourselves giving away 25 cents a book or more? In that case, this Press would be doomed; it simply wouldn’t be worth continuing.
Most of the above is strictly financial. None of it takes much account of the extra labour involved in preparing PoD editions and the ancillary paperwork and then actively marketing them via Amazon. There is a certain amount of follow-up effort required, a constant monitoring of sales, and more active participation than we are able to get involved in at the moment. We don’t have an extensive staff team; essentially there are three of us plus a few who help out from time to time. Nobody is paid, and we all have other responsibilities. We all, also, write. If administrative tasks were to get in the way of the writing, this Press would simply not be worth continuing with; administration is a fine and worthy activity, but writing is far more important to all of us. If we’re given the choice, none of us is going to choose extra admin work over time spent writing.
So, all things considered, we have reached the conclusion that PoD is just not for us. Our authors’ contracts are finite, however, and if an individual author would like to arrange a PoD edition of their own work once it’s out of contract with us we will be very happy to support them and make available our own text-PDF and layout file if it would be helpful. Not the cover illustration or the ISBN, however; the author would need to make separate arrangements for these him- or her-self as the ones we have are not transferable. However the author would then be able to keep the whole of the proceeds of the sale and would be able to set the price to suit their own requirements, which seems to us far the best arrangement.
We have told the authors of our decision but wanted to explain in full here exactly why we had reached it and what the considerations were. We cannot afford to get involved in anything at the moment which has the potential to actively lose us money; it isn’t just a question of not making as much as we would like … we are on very narrow margins here and a wrong decision on something as important as this could be disastrous. Therefore, for the time being, we will stick with what we know, and try to do it to the best of our ability – even if it does limit our potential for sales.
NB: despite being a UK-based operation we found it easiest to do the calculations in US$ for these purposes as we would largely be dealing with the US operation of Amazon and with US-based suppliers. The dollar, on the day we did the calculations, stood at roughly 63 pence.