Selling eBooks vs. Selling Print Books

Here’s a question. Would you rather author a mediocre book gathering cobwebs at Barnes & Noble – or a hugely profitable eBook with a fraction of the prestige?

One glance at the Internet Marketing landscape and you should be calling me a fool for begging the question. eBooks are cheaper to produce, more lucrative to sell, and a whole lot easier to distribute.

Why, oh why, would anybody bother with print publishing in the 21st century?

More specifically, who in their right mind would choose the traditional route through a publishing house when it’s a million times easier to self-publish through services like Lulu and CreateSpace?

Why I Love and Hate Selling eBooks

I’m no stranger to selling eBooks. I spent the first half of my online career bitching about them, deploring the very thought of committing my ideas to a PDF in a shitty $5 cover-art.

Well, somebody must have woken me up and splashed coffee up my nostrils. It sure didn’t take long for money to change my attitude.

I eventually sold out jumped on the gravy train and started publishing them on this very site. I now have six fully fleshed volumes of Premium Posts, a title that I specifically chose to avoid having to use the term ‘eBook’.

There are obvious advantages to the eBook model.

In the 12 months since Volume 1 went live, I expect revenue to nudge past $100,000 from zero marketing spend. While that is certainly not ‘baller status’, it’s personal justification that I made the right decision in asking people to pay for my best blog posts.

You might have noticed that I no longer have ads on this site. That’s a positive upside to monetizing through the eBook model. I make more money by dedicating pixels to my own real-estate.

In terms of fast, easy money – selling eBooks is infinitely more appealing than taking my ideas to a publishing house and spending the best part of 18 months ball-dallying back and forth.

The downside to the eBook model is that it’s tarred by default.

How many piece-of-shit guru products grace the marketplace?

Before any of you smartarses reply with “Six, all of yours“, let me turn your attention to the insanity you’re confronted with with every time you log in to Clickbank.

Crazy eBook Ideas

No niche escapes Clickbank unscathed.

There are gazillions and bazillions of “WTF?” eBooks burning consumer trust as we speak.

A whole raft of them belong to the Make Money Online space, but let’s not be too inclusive. Very rarely does a niche escape without at least a handful of shoddy eBooks stinking up its ranks.

The problem with eBooks is that just about anybody with an FTP client can smuggle one on to the web, and it doesn’t have to be verified or edited by a reputable agent along the way. Christ, many eBooks are available without being proofread by their own creators. What does that say?

No great writer justifies his claim with the opening statement, “I once wrote an eBook.

It just doesn’t happen.

But many great writers do leverage authority by saying, “I’m a published author.” Especially if their book hasn’t been self-published out of vanity (or industry rejection).

I’m sure this is nothing you haven’t heard before. Why does respect matter? Who cares about aiming for the airport’s bestseller shelf when you can make fast, easy money by distributing digitally without even sniffing life outside your mother’s basement?

It matters to real writers who care about their craft as much as they care about their bottom line. It’s an enormous achievement to publish a book through the traditional means.

For me, it’s the pinnacle.

Acceptance as a professional writer.

An acknowledgement that you’re more accomplished than the whimsical step-aunty who keeps threatening to turn her diarrhea of half-thoughts in to a bestselling novel.

The Pros and Cons of Traditionally Publishing a Book

Is it any wonder that so many writers choose eBooks to distribute their ideas when the road to Barnes & Noble is littered with snail-mail rejection, drawn out contracts (if you’re lucky) and scarce reward for the small fish?

For many reasons, it would be impossible for me to release my Premium Post content through a traditional publishing company. It typically takes at least 12 months and sometimes up to 3 years to get a book published. By the time my book hit the shelves, affiliate marketing might actually be dead.

You must first decide between approaching publishing houses directly or going through a literary agency.

If you are a well-known name, or have a stack of accreditation on your mantlepiece, it’s possible that a publisher will take you on based on the book concept and your reputation.

Likewise, if you have an insatiable audience of 250,000 subscribers waiting to devour your every last word, it shouldn’t be too long before a publisher is blasting your door down for a slice of the pie.

Their chief concern is selling enough copies to make a profit, and with an army of fans, you tick the right boxes. There’s a market attached to your name. People waiting to buy your precious hardback. That alone can be enough to secure a book publishing deal.

For lesser known names with smaller followings, a few thousand subscribers is by no means a guarantee that a publisher will share the vision of your million dollar idea. It’s better than nothing though. I find myself in this bracket. I have enough readers to justify an industry presence. But not enough readers to rename myself Sir King Honeybadger of the Affiliate Marketing Masses.

Give it 4 months. I’m working on it.

My best option is to write the book, approach an agent and pray that I haven’t sold his goodwill down the drain on an acai berry subscription in the recent past.

Many publishing houses will refuse to even look at your manuscript unless you go through a literary agency.

The agency is the middleman. They will negotiate better rights for your work, including the essentials that are difficult to secure when you’re flying solo: translation rights, brand ownership; even movie rights if you hit the jackpot. In return, you give them a slice of your advance, which may or may not add up to a handful of magic beans.

Ah yes, the advance.

The idea of being paid before you’ve finished the job will be music to the ears of those who’ve pummelled Elance for article gigs in the past. You can expect to receive an upfront payment based on projected book sales if a publisher agrees to send your crazy ideas to print.

You’ll usually receive 50% of your advance upfront, and 50% when the manuscript is turned in. Times are changing, however, and some publishers are now dividing the payment in to deliverable milestones. A subtle way of saying “Write, monkey, write. We haven’t got all decade.

That leaves a crap ton of writing to be done, and very little immediate financial return. Possibly just enough to brush your teeth and wolf down a Rustlers between rewrites.

Far from being a ticket to your first million dollar mansion, securing a book deal is actually quite a damp squib in the financial stakes – particularly for first time writers.

Rough estimates of a first-time advance range from the low 4-figures to $35,000. Much depends on the publisher, genre, your credentials and how much a faceless fat cat likes your schtick. Non-fiction authors traditionally receive more than those writing fiction.

While the advance makes for some nice coin on a rainy day, it’s certainly a low return when you consider the investment of time. And especially how much you could make slinging eBooks in the same time.

Do you know what meticulously researching, structuring, writing, editing and then tearing up 80,000 words feels like it? No, me neither.

I can imagine it’s about as pleasurable as shagging a lamp post over and over again.

Seth Godin says it best: “Book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.

So who’d be a traditional author?

Thankfully, there’s an upside. If you write a massive bestselling hit that lands at number 4 in the NY Times and gets translated in to 17 different languages, momentum becomes your best friend. You’ll never have to worry about driving sales from AdWords coupons ever again.

Score a 4-Hour Work Week style success and the royalties will make you very rich indeed. If we go by the traditional theory that you can expect to make around $1 for every book sold (after your advance has been earned back), you need only sell a cool 1 million copies before you can call yourself a millionaire.

But how many books sell like the 4-Hour Work Week? It’s only a tiny, tiny minority.

The average deluded writer is probably more likely to win the lottery.

Most books hit the shelves, gather some dust, then disappear to be talked about only in the author’s Twitter bio.

The actual marketing of the book is a responsibility that publishers are increasingly passing on to the authors. Only a very small selection of books receive the Fifth Shades of Grey publicity treatment.

And that’s just as well or my list of ‘Undeserving Writers to Hunt Down and Punch in the Face‘ would grow immeasurably huge.

The Fallback: Self-Publishing Print Books

At the top of this article, I referenced two popular self-publishing platforms: Lulu and CreateSpace.

These platforms allow you to self-publish physical copies of your book and sell them on a single order basis.

If Cousin Jeff wants to buy the novel you’ve been bragging about all over Facebook, he can place an order and have it shipped to him. You might only receive 25% of the sale, but that’s still a much better rate than any traditional publisher will offer.

In the past, this form of ‘vanity publishing’ required ordering in bulk – potentially hundreds of copies at a time. Many self-published authors would thus end up with an attic full of yellowing pages and unshipped reminders of their broken dreams.

A situation not too dissimilar to the episode of Alan Partridge where his Bouncing Back memoir gets pulped.

Tragic times.

The ‘indie publishing’ scene has grown at a rapid rate over the last few years. The arrival of Print On Demand services has reduced the risk behind self-publishing while also providing a welcome middle ground. If you feel that your book deserves a physical testament to its awesomeness, you can produce one for very little cost.

Unfortunately, the stigma of being self-published still remains.

Reviews are seen as the driving force behind bestselling hits. And most reputable journos will refuse to touch a book that hasn’t come to market through the traditional means.

Note: There are exceptions. Sites like Kirkus Indie and PW Select operate on a pay-per-review basis. I have doubts that paying to be reviewed alongside other desperate self-published authors is worth the money, but I may be wrong.

Successful print books – the few that make it – have a much greater capacity to spread around the world and capture the imagination of a giant audience when compared to your average popular eBook.

You need only look at the raging Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon – a series that was originally self-published – to see how getting a physical book to market can lead to bigger and better things.

Many publishers will swoop to pick up vanity projects if they gain momentum (and enough sales).

Where Next?

Personally, I can see the merits in both extremes of the eBooks vs Print Books argument.

From a purely financial perspective, there is no better way to distribute content than by slinging eBooks. I charge $34.95 for my Premium Post products and pocket about 95% of the sale, unless an affiliate has referred the customer. Both the markup and the profit margin are miles apart from what I would receive by releasing a book through a publisher.

My eBooks also take just 15 days to bring to market, compared to the year it would require to get a hardback on a shelf. Let’s not even consider the odds being stacked against a publisher accepting it in the first place.

What does that mean for you guys?

If you’re an Internet Marketer looking for the fastest road to profit, do yourself a favour and stick to slinging eBooks. It will get you there in a fraction of the time.

My problem is that I’ve only ever been a reluctant Internet Marketer. Writing is my passion.

Getting a book published professionally through the traditional means – and received well – is the ultimate acid test. You can’t pass it without being one of the best at what you do.

That means more to me than the money I make from eBooks, which is why the Premium Post series will be ending soon.

My next challenge is to step away and brainstorm how I can write a book that will sell millions rather than thousands.

It’s a huge task, biblical in scale, but exciting in the sense that it puts me back on the tail of what I saw myself doing before affiliate marketing came along and replaced my ambition with a thousand quick ways to make money.

Every affiliate marketer needs to be working on something more fulfilling than peddling somebody else’s links. There comes a tipping point where it’s no longer satisfying. I do it because it makes me money, but that’s where the relationship ends.

So, here’s another question…

If you won the lottery and had 148 million Euros deposited in to your account tomorrow, would you still be doing affiliate marketing?

Most people will answer a resounding “No“.

I don’t blame them.

Well, at what point will you be earning enough money to focus less on affiliate marketing, and more on the work that you could see yourself doing for the rest of your life?

The answer was quite a kick in the balls to me. I’ve been earning enough money for a long time. I just didn’t want to push myself with a challenge that I was likely to lose.

No doubt, I’ll probably still lose. Bestselling authors are a rare breed, and chance has as much to do with perfection in the making of their success. But it’ll be fun to try.

And failing all else, if I can set a world record for most ball references in a manuscript, I’ll be chuffed.

Have you had success with the eBook model? Would you ever consider the traditional publishing model? I’d be interested to hear your experiences.

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About the author

Finch
Finch

Hi, I’m Finch. A 26 year old high school dropout (slash academic failure) who makes a lot of money from the Internet.

  • Ed Bryant

    I am surprised you didn’t mention Amazon and kindle publishing, it’s all the rage.

    I gave it a shot and published an old fiction novel I wrote for NANOWRIMO 2007, so far I have made $9.98

    That’s ok, I am tall as hell.

  • Finch

    Yeah, I’ve been looking in to repackaging and developing content for the Kindle. My girlfriend released a product straight-to-Kindle too. It has a lot of potential as a marketplace.

    I think at the moment my content is more suited to being sold via this blog. But with a less specialised product, it’s definitely something I’d consider.

    Congrats on the $9.98 megacoup! Did you promote it or just upload, set and forget?

  • Jimmy

    Will you be writing fiction or nonfiction? You are most definitely “pro writer” caliber.

  • http://www.affiliatehelp.info Jon Rhodes

    I’ve heard that the sale of e books is rapidly increasing, whereas physical books is decreasing. So it would seem that e books is the future. Kindles and other readers are also getting better and cheaper so I expect this trend to continue for quite some time yet.

  • NIckH

    Interesting post. Although I just lost half an hour watching Steve Coogan clips.

    I can’t help but wonder how long it will take before getting a paper book published stops being the pinnacle of achievement for a writer. After all no one worries about their music being available on a CD any more. So is it the physically medium or the fact that a publishing house has picked it up that gives the prestige?

    In time I would imagine that a publishing contract will become more about marketing a digital book than actually getting an advance and paper copies out. That publishing contract might be with Amazon or Google rather than Random House or HarperCollins. Who knows, people may write the few first chapters to try and get crowd funding for the rest of the book.

    You have to admire Bezos and Amazon for recognising the death of paper and helping to kill it off themselves and lead the way in the next wave of publishing.

    Best of luck with the novel / book if you decide to go for it.

  • Brian

    Fiction or Non Fiction, Finch, what will it be?

    The book you write, I’m certain, will be more than adequate material for the zombies to consume in masses…

    BUT…

    Will you be able to deliver song and dance with it – a little something extra – to get you noticed and spark the interest of those same zombies, who seek only to be entertained – to awaken just for a moment from their pathetic lives.

    Can you rise above the allure of the Acai Berry promise that drives so many hypnotized consumers… and create a buzz for what you would like them to acknowledge: namely, your first hardcover creation?

    Or will you die with few copies sold, only to be “discovered” years later by a caveman when the world tries to recover from the apocalypse?

  • Finch

    @Jimmy – Thanks. It will be non-fiction. Non-fiction on the subject of Internet Marketing. I’m not straying too far from my expertise!

    @Jon – I agree. But there’s still a huge market for print books. Should be a very interesting decade for the publishing industry.

    @Nick – I think the prestige comes from being one of the very few writers that a publishing house deems suitable for the market. The agencies and publishers have access to a great infrastructure that can launch a brand quicker than digital self-published material. That may change. But I think the biggest compliment for a writer is to be picked up by a renowned publisher. It’s a mark of quality.

    @Brian – Hopefully not the latter! And it will definitely be a while before I crank out fiction. I’m sticking with what I know for now. Sleazy marketing non-fiction.

  • Jonas

    Where should I turn to get that quality a la Finch Premium Posts when you have decided to go Shakespeare on us? ;)

  • Finch

    @Jonas – I still have a couple of AM products in the pipeline. The book won’t be a replacement, just another side-project to make my life even busier than it already is!

  • Ed Bryant

    @Finch asked

    Congrats on the $9.98 megacoup! Did you promote it or just upload, set and forget?

    Well I think I got a few curiosity buys from running a free promo.

    I did make a half hearted attempt at promotion. I started a FB fan page called Hot New Authors and featured myself!

    Didn’t get any traction.

    Then I tried a landing page http://fans-pages.com/onetimestan/ but it was a huge flop.

    The thing that I did do that got a few sales was direct linking through Google content network directly to amazon book page. Running the ads on book review sites.

    The thing is I wrote it for fun and it’s not really in any kind of “niche”.

  • Nimble

    Ebooks are turning the model on it’s head. There are some god awful authors who published fiction ebooks first that somehow managed to take off (they have no clue) and based on the ebooks popularity and number sold (thank you amazon!), they were beating agents off with sticks and were avle to leverage that popularity to have a much more favorable contract devised. On all platforms and markets.

    One of the foundational keys to writing fiction (if that’s where you’re going) is to devise a series and have more than one book out. Release them in a tight schedule and price them according to the size of your audience. Series like Twilight/Hunger Games/Harry Potter set the example as a business model.

    I hope you understand what an advantage you have to the millions of poor schmucks who labor writing an ebook then haven’t the faintest idea what to do next. Your skillset is invaluable. INVALUABLE!

    Lastly, as I read your post a small section stood out to me:

    “It matters to real writers who care about their craft as much as they care about their bottom line. It’s an enormous achievement to publish a book through the traditional means.

    For me, it’s the pinnacle.

    Acceptance as a professional writer.”

    Finch, I’ve been reading your drivel off and on for a little while now and I can say that this is the first time I’ve seen where you let a little of the real you poke through. It’s refreshing.

    Remember, ambition is always good, except when it sits at the top of an imaginary mountain.

    Find and read JA Konrath’s blog/writings if you haven’t found them yet.

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