When Amazon's Createspace and DIY Culture Collide

Indie publishers Shawna Kenney (left) and Cara Bruce (right) on why "print on demand" is not a dirty phrase.

Writing is one thing. Publishing is a different animal altogether. Both of us have both been published by major and independent presses, we have separate agent representation for our individual writing projects, but we started our own indie press as a natural extension of things we were working on together—teaching online writing courses and booking literary events. We had an idea for a line of themed nonfiction anthologies, true stories of people struggling with a question from various angles. Our first anthology, Robot Hearts: True and Twisted Tales of Seeking Love in the Digital Age (May 2010), was born of a love for stories, particularly stories about technology and relationships. It was technology that brought us together (Cara reviewed Shawna’s first book, I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, in 2000); Facebook reunited us in 2009; now we are using Createspace (Amazon.com’s “self-publishing” arm) to publish the work of others on our own imprint name.

Both of us come from punk rock’s DIY culture, so we realize that it might seem strange to use a corporate entity in an indie publishing venture, but we see “print on demand” as a valuable alternative, not the dirty phrase that some in the literary world have made it out to be. Sure, Amazon gets a cut for having our book on the site and printing it, but like any other small press, we maintain control over the quality of work accepted into our books, we choose the cover art, and hire our own book designers. We also purchase our own International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) so we own all of the rights, and we can let our authors keep the rights to their stories. And at the end of the day, we don’t have hundreds of books sitting in our homes, waiting to be sold, because they are printed at the time they’re ordered. It’s an economically sound environmentally-friendly way of doing business.

Using print on demand lets us make quality books for less money. Anyone who has ever tried to make a living off of writing books understands the reality. When you work with a major publisher you may get an advance and you may get royalties. Typical royalties usually come out to anywhere from 50 cents to two dollars a book, payable only after you repay the advance. With print on demand, we have the potential to earn more money per book. We do have to put up the original printing costs and marketing costs, but whatever happens—book sales, licensing agreements, or anything else—is a direct result of our hard work and we get to reap the benefits.

Createspace’s Expanded Distribution Channel gives us access to major distributors, so our book can be ordered by any bookstore. Of course, like other small presses, we don’t have the budget to advertise our books to them at the big conventions or to the public in airports, malls, bus-stops, etc. But we do have the Internet—this free, glorious tool that can be used to reach media outlets anywhere in the world—and word-of-mouth. The struggle for any writer is to have his or her voice heard. We’ve known authors on major publishers to pout about how little the house did to promote their work. The truth is that every author must market themselves, whether on an indie or a major. It takes creativity, hard work and a strong belief in what you’re doing to get your work out into the world. No one will ever care about your book as much as you do.

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Comment by Toni D. Weymouth on July 1, 2010 at 9:48am
I wrote a book about the use of sex toys by women called "The Other Toy Box" based on my doctoral project in '96. I think this is exactly the type of book to be self published. I've not heard too much about create a space but I intend to find out more. Thanks for the information and good luck with your publishing company. Toni W
Comment by Leigh K Cunningham on June 28, 2010 at 10:06pm
Hi Shay, I price my books according to comparative titles in the market eg books by Carl Hiassen have a similar theme, message and readership, albeit his books sell by reputation alone!

Member, Association of Independent Authors (AiA)
Comment by Holli Castillo on June 28, 2010 at 1:50pm
My indie publisher, Oak Tree Press, uses Print On Demand, and while it's not without a few limitations, I think the owner, Billie Johnson, is pleased all around with it.

The two big drawbacks are (1) it is a lot more difficult to get books in stores, although not impossible. It does take a lot more work and educating bookstores on the policies of POD, such as books ARE returnable if they don't sell, something bookstores are finally beginning to comprehend. And (2) some organizations don't consider publishers who use POD to be as high up on the food chain as those who are less green and print out books before knowing if they will ever sell. This creates a problem for the writer in such organizations as Mystery Writer's of America, who will not approve any publisher who uses POD printing. Because my POD indie publisher is not on the "list," I can not be an "active" writer/member of the organization. While MWA acts as if this is no big deal because I can still be a lower member, I can not take full advantage of MWA's offerings, such as I will not be listed in their newsletter, my book release will not be announced, my book can't be entered in their big contest. There are organizations and websites other than MWA who limit themselves this way, but I usually try to push on and see how I can get in on it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The benefits to POD are plentiful, and I truly believe in today's economy and with the green revolution, POD is eventually going to take over traditional printing methods. Why print hundreds or thousands of books that may not sell when you can print only what will actually sell? It's better for the writer in the long run, even if it is more difficult to get the books into stores, because most publishers who use POD will not pull a book because it doesn't sell, because the cost is minimal to keep it at the printer, unlike a big publisher who may keep it around for 3-6 months and then discontinue it when it doesn't hit it big.

In today's flailing book markets, unless you're Steven King, Grisham, Evanovich, etc., you need to do a lot of your own marketing regardless of what type of printing is used. It's probably especially true for unknown writers who manage to sign with a big house, that doesn't want to waste a whole lot of time, effort or money promoting the unknown. Whether your publisher is an indie POD press, a big house, or you self-publish, promotion is going to be necessary regardless, so POD shouldn't be considered any more of a drawback than any other type of publishing.
Comment by Elizabeth Patch on June 28, 2010 at 12:41pm
Hi! I was hesitant about using POD, but when faced with "this doesn't fit any niche" rejection letters, I decided to just forge ahead and test the waters by putting out the product myself, also using CreateSpace (formerly Booksurge). While I have not yet made back my initial investment (I bought several hundred books to send out as promotional items), I have been able, in a little over one year, to attract the attention of an agent who specifically told me: "I love the fact that you self-published. I would have suggested that as part of building a platform (in addition to blogging and social media)."
I wish I could spend as much time creating as I do trying to market (!!!) but I was told by my agent that I will have to continue blogging, social media, get interviews, etc, anyway when I get a contract with a traditional publisher. And if I do not get a contract with a "real" publisher, I will self-publish the next book as well, and use it as another piece of my portfolio. BTW, CreateSpace/Amazon set the retail price, not me.
Comment by Cara Bruce on June 27, 2010 at 8:51pm
It is a hard balancing act... marketing and finding time to write. But, at least you can get rewarded for the work you put into it. Plus, I feel very lucky to have such a wonderful partner, it makes everything that we have to do so much more fun! Shay, I completely agree, no one knows your book as well as you do and no one care as much as you, it sounds like you are doing really well. As far as pricing goes we looked at many other books the same size as ours and chose a similar price. We can always put it on sale and we frequently pass out discount codes. You may think that it's better to charge less but writing and publishing a book is a lot of work and you deserve to get paid for it!
Comment by Christine Castigliano on June 27, 2010 at 12:53pm
Love to hear from other indie publishers. I chose Ingram's Lightning Source POD service for my first book, Twins of Tessar. Unfortunately the time required to promote the book has proved daunting, once I began writing 2 other novels. The reality is that even traditionally-pubbed authors (or any creative, for that matter) face the dilemma: making time to market and sell as well as to write. I've prioritized time to write around my day job. Publishing duties -- marketing and sales -- languish. How do you manage both?
Comment by Marva Dasef on June 25, 2010 at 1:37pm
Thanks, Shawna. I might rethink my pricing. I do make some royalties. I hoped that a low-ball price might attract buyers. But since I don't sell that much, I suspect it has a lot more to do with the marketing than the price.
Comment by Shawna Kenney on June 25, 2010 at 1:34pm
You've got the right idea, by knowing your market and selling directly to your audience.
Comment by Shawna Kenney on June 25, 2010 at 1:32pm
We based our selling price on other books we've done (& bought) respectively...my first book, I was a Teenage Dominatrix, was published by Last Gasp and sold for $14.95 at 125 pages.
Comment by Marva Dasef on June 25, 2010 at 11:31am
I also use CreateSpace. I noticed that your Robot book is $14.95 for 132 pages. I'm offering my own books at considerably less. Maybe I'm making a mistake by cutting to the minimum. As individual author/publishers, how do you calculate your selling price?


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