On Not Getting Ripped Off When We Publish Ebooks

ebook publishing

Can’t authors AND publishers make money on ebooks?


Here’s what I think I think about pricing ebook publishing services — or how websites like Pressbooks, LuLu, BookBaby, Smashwords. Amazon, et al can make a lovely profit, provide good services to writers and authors, and allow writers and authors to make a living. Consider that

  1. The average ebook sells fewer than 200 copies
  2. Many writers don’t have a lot of money to invest in a project up front, which is why so few self-pub books are professionally edited or proofed.


It seems to me that Smashwords and Amazon’s models of taking a per cent of sales is far more realistic than the sites that require up-front and annual fees. But sites that dip into your pocketbook before you sell a single copy are worried that you won’t sell a single copy. And that is a realistic concern.

If an ebook doesn’t sell, and the publisher doesn’t charge the author upfront, the publisher won’t get paid. I suggest they scrap the $99 (and more) per book plus add-on fees model and go for charging a small upfront set up fee like $25 or $50. At $25 they’d get lots of paying customers, at $50, fewer. Their marketing material would need to point out that they are footing the cost of bandwidth, programmers, tech support etc. But, the process is, after all, a do-it-yourself for the author – so perceived value has to consider that fact.

Traditionally, authors get paid royalties, really pathetic royalties, by print publishers. We’re used to being paid after our books sell and we don’t object. However, we’re clever enough to realize that the cost of making ebooks is far lower than the cost of printing and distributing paper books, especially since we, the authors are doing the grunt work. So ebook publishers would want to pay substantial royalties that make money for their companies while allowing the author to realize profits. So I’m thinking, I’d be ok paying someone 10, 15, even 20% of my sales as long as I perceived that they could actually do something for me, like getting distribution with major players and promoting their book store all over the Internet. I’ll even do my own marketing for my titles – I’d have to with a traditional publisher anyway.

What About Profit for the Poor eBook Publishers?

Say a new publisher garnered 10,000 customers in the first year – a very small number for an established publisher/distributor. At a $25 set up fee (upfront fee), they’d gross $250,000, even if no book sells a single copy. Not bad for sales in a new business. Some books, not a big percentage, but SOME will sell a modest number of books. I think the current figure is that the average ebook sells 200 copies (many will sell zero, some will sell thousands). I’m projecting that the average retail price will fall around $5 to $6 per book. You can do the math, my head hurts, but the publishers will make money at that rate. Remember, many ebook authors turn out books quickly. I have four almost ready to go. $400 to get them online? Nope. I have a client who claims to have nine novels finished and on his desktop – he’s ready to become published. He lives on a boat in Africa somewhere — bet he doesn’t have a grand to hand over to a publisher, and then A hundred or two per year on top of that.

Would a publisher have to require authors to sell their books through the publisher’s site?  Nope. The set up fee covers that. Most authors, if they trust a publisher and they perceive value, will stay with that publisher even if they also list with other sites. For me, putting my book where ever I can without racking up a ton of costs is the best idea. Paying each site a hundred bucks per book just isn’t gonna happen in my world. Maybe charge $10 more to list a book for sale? Ok, that’s easy for me, ten bucks is not tough to fork over and it’s another $100K for the publisher.

I’m a professional writer with three hard cover books, about a dozen ebooks, and dozens of client books to my credit. I can talk myself and many clients into listing books at Amazon and Smashwords without much worry about the royalty structures. I can even give good reasons to submit to print publishers and PODs. But I have yet to be able to find good reasons to pay an upfront and an annual fee to someone who will simply allow me to do the work to format and submit my books, then allow me to market the book and hope it sells enough to make back the upfront and annual fees. Then consider that if the vendor goes toes up after I have paid a bunch of annual fees, I am out a bucketful of money by my standards and have no books to sell. Gotta begin all over. Add to that the fact that many, many ebook publishing sites have terrible reputations and writers are very worried about getting taken for an expensive ride.

Ebooks Are Here to Stay and Someone Will Step Up to be Fair to Authors and Publisher

Right now, there is more crap in ebook stores than there are gold-quality books. The vast majority of books sell nothing, not because there are no buyers, but because the crap doesn’t garner word-of-mouth to grow sales and the gold is buried among the mounds of crap. Authors/writers are becoming more gun-shy. Upfront pricing on ebooks makes no sense to me. But that’s me, maybe others are champing at the bit. Of course, if you look into Vooks’ history, it doesn’t look like they raked in money hand-over-fist, or why would they keep reorganizing?

I’m good with Amazon. I make money, it’s easy to deploy a book, their marketplace is huge. I’m ok with Smashwords for similar reasons but I wish to heck they would simplify that incredible clunky, terrible to struggle with meat grinder process of formatting books. I love the Pressbooks idea. It’s do-able. Unlike Smashwords, the author doesn’t need a technical degree to make a book work at Pressbooks. They seem to care about writers and authors – so do I, and that’s good for all of us. I so get that publishers need to make a profit, but I also get that bandwidth is not expensive, programmers can be found for a reasonable investment, and overhead isn’t high in online businesses. Authors work for year son books, then have to format and build the e-version alone. Some writers won’t even attempt it and end up paying a lot to find that books sales are not what every new author expects.

The upfront $100 pricing model seems to gross like what, a million dollars at 10K customers? Hmm is my math right? And that’s if the writers never realize a single sale. Ok, publishers, if you want to jack the prices of cover design, ISBNs, and editing or proofing, let the buyer beware. We can contract all those services ourselves at reasonable rates, but if an author chooses to spend big bucks, that’s cool. But if you want me on your side, try to make a little money from each of a lot of happy customers instead of big bucks from a few who are uninformed and terrified that their ebook will never see the light of day.


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6 Responses to “On Not Getting Ripped Off When We Publish Ebooks”

  1. Penelope Tsaldari August 20, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Thank you Maryan,
    You have answered my major questions. Much appreciated,
    Ciao bella,

  2. Glad we could help. —mkp

  3. This is a comment made at LinkedIn by Gordon Williams, used with permission. Gordon has much to say of value for authors and writers.

    From Gordon: Gordon Williams • The sites that charge fees to list books for sale (I don’t call them publishers) are in the business of charging fees, not selling books. There is no incentive for them to increase exposure and develop a customer base because, once you’ve paid the “setup fee”, the company has made its money. The only way readers will find your book on these sites is if you yourself send them there.

    Most of theses sites also take a cut of sales as well so they get paid even though it is you doing the marketing. The more unsavoury operations will also push services such as editing and cover design — often of questionable quality.

    Personally, I think commissions on ebooks that Amazon, Kobo and B&N charge (they are retail commissions, not “royalties”) are too high. The rates are based on selling printed books through brick and mortar stores, which means very high overheads. But these — especially Amazon — are pretty much the main players so you don’t have a lot of choice there.

    If you’re not equipped to go through the process yourself of editing, converting an ebook, designing a cover, uploading to a sales site, etc., then the best way not to get ripped off is by hiring someone who is in the business of providing those services for a flat fee and has no direct attachment to a vanity publisher or retailer.

  4. Again from Gordon Williams, writer, publisher, and editor with decades of deep experience.

    It’s a Catch-22 for start-up retailers who mean well but don’t have a lot of capital behind them. If sales don’t generate enough revenue to provide the service without a set-up fee then there is likely not going to be enough market exposure to generate a lot of sales.

    The question to ask whenever someone is asking for an upfront fee is what they are going to do to promote your books. Then compare that with the exposure you would get from one of the major retailers. Keep in mind that anyone looking for a book is most likely to go to the major sites first. The average reader is going to be looking at price and availability in the formats they want. The percentage of sales going to the author will always be a lesser consideration.

    Find Gordon at http://www.baborabooks.com/

  5. Here’s my take (and I’ve been pushing this for some time): editing, formatting, marketing, and PR services are not supporting indie publishing. A simple model could change that: If the company that provides these services think they’re so great, they should be willing to put their money where their mouth is. In other words, for some small up-front fee ($50 almost sounds too much, $25 too little) + royalty sharing with the author (for > $2.99 pricing, we get 70% at Amazon), they should provide the editing, formatting, and marketing services, without the indie author losing his intellectual property. When the author wins big, they win big. As far as I know, TheRogueReader.com is the only group that does this, and they run a very limited operation. When this happens, we’ll have a true indie publishing revolution.
    Right now most of us foot the bill for the editing, formatting, and cover art work, and skimp on the marketing, because marketers charge so much. In fact, they’re the weak link in indie publishing. Most of us aren’t marketers. I, for one, would love to participate in something similar to TheRogueReader.com, but more democratic. It probably won’t happen… 🙂

  6. Thanks for your well-thought-out comment!
    For me, though I have a marketing background, I don’t provide marketing services because that’s a full time job that requires expertise and current experience, often targeted to the particular type of book in question. I feel like any business person who skimps on marketing, sales, or quality control (in that order) is compromising his/her product. Writers are business people unless they can afford to write for sheer artistry and joy – and I envy those authors. I’m an expert at what I do, which is ghost a book, or mentor an author. It’s full-time, time consuming, and I offer a ton of marketing advice as we go. I just don’t take on your book and promise to sell it. But I get your point and I wish you the very best with your progress! Come back often.