The Summer of Jeff

eBook to Amazon Print-on-Demand: Eight weeks in

Posted in business by Jeff on October 18, 2010

For the last four years, I’ve been selling various GMAT prep eBooks, such as my most popular resource, Total GMAT Math.  The advantages to the eBook format are enormous: Set-up costs were negligible, I never kept an inventory, customers received their orders almost immediately, and I kept a very high percentage of the sales price.

These reasons kept me from seriously investigating options that would allow me to produce print versions of my books.  Occasionally prospective customers would email, asking if there was a way to buy a hard copy, but often those inquiries would result in eBook sales anyway.  I don’t know how many sales I lost because of my lack of hard copy options, but I always assumed that the advantages of the eBook format outweighed the disadvantages.

Enter CreateSpace

A few months ago, I discovered CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon, which offers print-on-demand services.  The most striking element of their service was the price: $0.  They offer a “Pro” plan for $39, renewing at $5 per year, which give syou better royalties.  If you can sell copies to the world outside of your immediate family, the Pro plan is a no-brainer.

Setting up a print version of Total GMAT Math through CreateSpace was laughably simple.  The eBook already existed as a PDF file (I originally wrote it in TeX), and CreateSpace needed a PDF file for the interior pages.  The designer who has made cover images in the past was able to easily generate a cover to the necessary specs.  The whole process took no more than a couple hours of my time.

Once you’ve entered some basic information (title, author, etc.) and the interior/cover files, they send you a proof copy.  (You pay the “member price” plus shipping.  I’m guessing that’s a little higher than their cost, but not much.  For me, it was $6.)  Mine was fine, so I ok’d the book and sent it out into the world.

Sales Channels

CreateSpace offers three sales channels: Amazon; an “eStore” hosted by CreateSpace; and an “extended distribution channel,” which allows libraries and bookstores to carry your book.  Royalties are different for each one.

Let’s get into the numbers a bit.  My print version of Total GMAT Math is a 7″ by 10″ paperback with 428 pages.  I sell the eBook for $49.95, so I set the retail price for the paperback at $59.95.  For sales through the CreateSpace eStore, I get about $42.  For sales through Amazon, I get about $30 (plus a couple bucks in affiliate income if the buyer comes from my website).  The extended channel is less; I’m not using that at this time.

(You can tinker with the specs and see the resulting royalties here.)

Given those parameters, I thought the eStore sounded like a great idea.  They allow some limited customization, so I got my logo on the page, but in the end, the eStore is pretty ugly.  I recognized that from the get-go, but for an extra $12 a book, I thought it might be worth a try.  At first, I sent prospective buyers from my website to the eStore.

It converted like crap. I think I sold one print book that first week.  My sales fluctuate, but this was in August (one of my biggest months), and I sold plenty of eBooks that week.  It’s not hard to see what held people back:

  • I was sending people to a domain they weren’t familiar with.  The limited branding wasn’t enough to convey trust with my brand name, and who has heard of CreateSpace?
  • CreateSpace uses an external checkout service (also unfamiliar), so by the time anyone places an order, they are on their third domain.
  • Shipping is expensive and slow.  “Economy shipping” for this book is close to $5, and the estimated ship dates are something like three weeks into the future.  Faster shipping speeds still sound slow, and are much more expensive.
  • Did I mention the eStore is ugly?

Long story short, it didn’t take long before I was sending my customers to Amazon instead of CreateSpace.  An extra $12 a book doesn’t matter if you’re multiplying it by zero.

It’s been fascinating watching Amazon integrate my book into the site’s ecosystem.  At first, there was just a product page with the cover image.  Then the background information I provided.  Another few days, and there was an author page for me (also showing my Kindle book).  Around this point, users could “look inside” and view the full text of the book.

Within a few weeks, an early purchaser had posted a positive review and I had gussied up an author page with a bio, picture, and blog feed (Amazon’s Author Central makes this easy).  Then, once Amazon’s algorithms got a few customers to work with, I started seeing other books show up as recommendations, and just last week, the product page started offering “Frequently Bought Together” packages.

As soon as I started sending my site visitors to Amazon instead of CreateSpace, sales went up.  So far in October, I’m doing a little better than one print book per day — not even half of my overall volume for Total GMAT Math, but not an insubstantial amount, either.  Amazon rankings fluctuate a lot based on the last few hours of sales, but I seem to be hovering just around the top 100,000; when I get a couple of sales at the same time, I’ve seen my rank go as high as about #20,000, good for about #20th in the “GMAT” category.

(Be warned: As soon as you’re on Amazon and people are buying your book, that sales ranking is seriously addictive.)

Amazon Quirks

One frustrating bit is that Amazon persists in calling my book “Total GMAT Math (Volume 1).”   It’s not “volume” anything. It may have been my mistake when I initially entered the book’s metadata.  Regardless, I haven’t yet been able to fix it.  Amazon has a user-friendly way for authors to submit fixes like this–a few weeks go, I submitted a change request, and I got an email back a few days later, saying the change had been approved, and would take effect in 2-3 business days.  Now it’s been about 10 business days, and no change has been made.

The biggest surprise came the day that Amazon discounted the print book.  I set the print book retail price at $59.95 in part to encourage people to keep buying the eBook–after all, I get more money that way.  A few weeks ago, Amazon discounted the book to $46.81, where it’s been since.

This explains the big difference been the royalty and the CreateSpace royalty.  No matter what price Amazon sets, I still get $30.  In any event, it works out as a great deal for my USA customers–they get a price point cheaper than my eBook, and they get free shipping!

Some Early Lessons

I don’t do huge sales volume, so in this length of time, it’s tough to make concrete conclusions about the sales and revenue effects of making a print version available.  With that in mind, I can still draw some preliminary conclusions.

  • Amazon converts. CreateSpace doesn’t. I don’t even really understand why CreateSpace, as an Amazon subsidiary, continues to offer their basic “eStore.”  The conversion rate more than makes up for the lower royalty rate.
  • I’ve sold more units than I would have otherwise.  There isn’t a huge shift in revenue, but that’s up as well.  A lot of my business comes from selling additional products to happy customers, so more books sold–even for the same amount of total revenue–is almost certainly a good thing in the long run.
  • Customers who have never seen my site are buying my book.  This is only a guess, but I’m surprised at how few of my book sales are generating affiliate commissions.  There are other explanations for that, but the Amazon ranking and recommendation systems do a good job of putting books in front of people that they aren’t explicitly looking for.
  • Print-on-demand may not be internationally friendly. Again, I don’t have the figures to prove this, but it looks like almost all the eBook customers I’m “losing” to the print version are domestic.  That makes sense–it’s one thing to pay $0 shipping and wait a week; yet another to pay $10 and wait two weeks.

The early benefits have been enough to convince me to publish print versions of most of my other eBooks.  Clearly, a segment of my customer base prefers them, and at the very least, I’m not losing money by making them available.  There are probably also long-term benefits in having a presence as an author on, if only by making myself look more like an externally-validated expert.

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