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Developing hard copy print-on-demand books of your content offers several interesting potential advantages and opportunities.
For instance, let's say you have a collection of specifically themed short stories and perhaps even a related novel packed away. You could offer a substantial sampling of this content free online-- with some sections or portions available only in the complete or full edition of a print-on-demand book or compilation.
This option offers the following theoretical advantages for some authors:
#1: You can make large chunks of your content freely available to online visitors to help build up a readership following and loyal audience, while at the same time also marketing the full or complete work for sale-- and hard cash profit.
#2: You can leverage both the free and for sale content via various other spin off products or services.
#3: The content available only in print-on-demand format can include material possibly too hot or sensitive for your online site. Making it available only in off-line sold content makes it less likely non-adults will access it, while at the same time removing any negatives such content might pose in various search engine rankings for your site, or related advertising sales, were it to be online.
#4: With some content being available exclusively in print-on-demand format, the threshold for online pirating of that particular content is made significantly higher than might otherwise be the case.
#5: Although hard copy books can never match the internet for ease of updating, periodic release of newly updated or expanded print-on-demand editions of your content can become marketing events in themselves.
Now let us examine the more 'iffy' and real world aspects of print-on-demand publishing...
So-called 'print-on-demand' books (or e-books) may be bought on request through various brick and mortar retailers, as well as sold online. Keep in mind that your web site will usually be the only promotional and marketing platform for your book-- unless it sells well enough to catch the eye of a 'real' publisher (which appears to be occuring in some isolated cases already).
Note that although your books would technically be small ticket items, being the author and taking the print on demand route you'd get a much bigger pay off per item sold, compared to selling mass market items created by others, and only indirectly sold by yourself.
So just how successful are print-on-demand books at this early stage in their development? Apparently most such titles sell only in the hundreds of copies, with greater sales (perhaps up to between 1000 and 5000 books) requiring tons of promotional efforts by the authors themselves.
In at least one case where I looked into it, such titles had to sell for no more than six bucks each, but the author might get back 50% of the proceeds from each sale (three bucks). Figuring that the total real upfront costs of publishing through the present POD channels run around $200 at minimum, an author would have to sell 67 books just to break even. And that totally ignores any time or money invested in writing the book in the first place or trying to market it after publication. So if the author sells 300 copies, he'd end up with about $700. If by tons of effort and some luck he sells 1000 copies, some $2800 would come of it (where the time and money expended on promotion was ignored). And at the almost unattainable 5000 copies benchmark? A more respectable $14,800.
So there's quite a bit of risk involved in POD book publishing at the moment, with likely rewards somewhat measely. Especially when you consider that many books can require years to write, then must likely be further formatted or edited to fit the publishing formats of POD. Not to mention the need for cover illustrations and maybe others inside. Then there's also the fact that books are not nearly as easily updated or corrected as web sites.
BUT...keep in mind that should your web site traffic get large enough, and/or you attain a high enough profile regionally, nationally, or globally in your chosen field, POD publishing potential for you might rise steadily in revenue possibilities while declining in terms of risk and the extra work involved. Promotional efforts might become as simple as decent presentations on your web site pushing the books. The work involved (or bulk of same) may already be weeks, months, or years past, and have already benefited you in terms of web traffic or building your credibility-- so publishing in POD would merely be another way to milk past efforts for financial gain. Updates would be less of an issue for content which is pretty much complete and rarely in need of further revisions-- such as fiction or artwork.
But there's no law saying you have to sell your books in the Print-On-Demand channel. Though there may be some niceties to the POD route, such as a third party maybe creating your cover for you, and lightly guiding your promotional and marketing campaigns, and big name, established retail web sites handling the e-commerce/distribution/shipping aspects, there's also the hard facts that most such authors will likely sell negligible numbers of hardcopies of their books through brick and mortar sellers-- or maybe even online stores themselves (so the 'print-on-demand' aspect may not add much value), and the lion's share of promotion will still rest on your own shoulders and/or web site, even while you're possibly heavily restricted in setting the selling price for your wares, and having to fork over a hefty percentage of what sales you do get to the various middlemen involved.
In light of all this, many might consider going it alone (and mostly or entirely virtual). That is, selling your wares entirely or mostly in the form of downloadable e-books, pretty much all on your lonesome.
Sure, this would mean you had to take on some added responsibilities yourself in terms of e-commerce and distribution-- but in practical terms the differences in your duties might not be very large compared to what you'd have to do via the POD route too. And when you consider all the 'rules' of conduct and content creation you might have to endure with the POD choice, the 'do-it-yourself' method might actually be easier and quicker.
Plus, there's the added benefit of getting more freedom to price your wares.
Going wholly virtual in your product line may not be too outrageous either, circa early 2003. After all, it appears over half the folks in the developed nations now have internet access, and everyone is upgrading their PC and handheld platforms over time, even as those platforms get ever cheaper and more powerful. At some point the majority of popular books and magazines will be read most of the time on some sort of personal computer or handheld device, rather than within dead wood pulp. The usefulness of the internet in general for reference, entertainment, and communications is pushing this trend throughout society. So although offering nothing but electronic works might limit your potential customer base at the moment, that limit is fast going away.
Those of your customers who wish a hard copy and possess their own printers could make their own dead wood versions for no extra cost, so long as you make the option available in the e-book they buy from you.
If you wished, you could still offer users a hard copy of your book as simply another product item in your catalog. Perhaps readers who'd already purchased an e-book version would get the original amount back as a discount on the more expensive hard copy.
Considerable manhours, hardware, software, and related maintenance and supplies can be necessary to publish and assemble hard copies from your desktop computer the old-fashioned way (if not using modern print-on-demand). Although again, I'm unsure if POD is much easier on a small book run author-- especially considering the fixed price rule for finished products.
In some cases going the old fashioned route you may find a local print shop could create several hundred to a thousand copies for you at a price you could still make a profit from, and save yourself lots of work at the same time. But you must be wary of piling up a lot of inventory for a title which might sell only a handful of copies, or require an important revision in the not too distant future; in both cases the possession of such inventory will only cost you money rather than profiting you. Inventory in storage can be stolen, damaged, destroyed, or otherwise lost as well. So don't make the decision to print up lots of copies ahead of time lightly!
When setting the price on non-POD hard copies, be sure you've already gone through a real world example of the entire process from customer order through shipping the product, carefully noting costs in money, time, and labor along the way. Don't forget to add on a reasonable profit for yourself. Your profit margin here should be enough to make all the extra trouble involved in you printing and shipping a hard copy worth it to you (literally a reasonable hourly rate)-- plus include a little extra to account for nasty surprises in your cost structure along the way.
If after such calculations you get a price that simply doesn't sell online (assuming there's sufficient traffic that it has the chance), then either you need better marketing and promotion, should re-examine your cost structure on the item to see if it's really as low as it should be, or should replace that product with something else in your offerings. I recommend AGAINST cutting your profit margin or hourly wage rates you're paying yourself for the work-- unless you really did charge way too much to start with for those. Keep in mind the hourly rate you're charging to manufacture and ship the books should be at least what you could get via minimum wage in the local job market. And if you're qualified for better paying jobs than that, plus have proved it by real world wages in the market, then that should be a guide for your hourly rate here.
Undercharging for your products can bring you more grief than you might think. For example, if they're priced too low you may get too many orders, resulting in you being worked to death, and ending up getting paid something ridiculous like a buck an hour-- or even worse, losing money in the deal, which works out to the same thing as paying folks to let you ship them your books. AGH!
Quite a few people also regard prices as one sign of quality. If prices look cheap, it can make the product seem shabby too.
There's several different ways to produce and distribute e-books these days. But to my way of thinking at the moment, it'd probably be best to stick with one of the top two or three e-book formats-- or even publish in all of them simultaneously. Adobe Acrobat PDF is likely the number one choice for many circumstances, with Microsoft's e-book format the runner up. Adobe likely works hard as the market leader to stay that way, which should help potential authors subscribing to their format in many aspects of the business. Microsoft might from time to time pull slightly ahead of Adobe in certain niche or specialty areas, such as supporting more different PDA platforms perhaps. Heck, if Microsoft decided they wanted to take over the market, they might just do it 5-10 years down the road. So both these companies and their products should be watched closedly and be strongly considered by authors. But there's plenty of other alternatives out there as well, especially for the adventurous, those who require lower distribution or licensing costs, or those requiring certain unusual elements the two market leaders may not provide now or ever (see the reference links previously offered above for some alternatives).
Piracy represents one potential problem with e-book sales. Once a printable e-book is out of your hands what's to prevent a crook from printing oodles of hard copies and selling them, or re-distributing copies of the virtual e-book online themselves? Well, copyright laws provide you some protection here. Plus plain old practicality-- as anyone wishing to steal your profits by re-distributing your book themselves would face many of the same obstacles you do yourself-- and so such a crime would not be worth it for most. Of course, this partly depends on how a high a price you set on your goods. If the price is outrageous, a thief might 'clean up' offering illegal copies for a lower cost. But again, this would mostly be a danger to high priced original goods which were 'high-profile' as well, with massive legitimate promotion efforts behind them, like some sort of 'Harry Potter' or 'Lord of the Rings' trinkets, circa 2003. For your own e-books, known about and desired by a relatively tiny cadre of site visitors, such risks would likely be practically negligible.
Plus, add to the security roster all the options built-into top-of-the-line e-book wares these days, which allow the author to restrict as many or as few options as desired for users, and with a little forethought and testing you should be able to sleep very well at night, where piracy matters are concerned.
One low tech way to sell e-books is to divert buying customers to a shopping cart service like PayPal from your site, via link, then when/if they actually buy redirect them to a location on your site where they can download the e-book.
There's a few potential problems here though. One, if your small-time site frequently goes down (or maxxes out on bandwidth), your customers often won't be able to get their downloads, and that won't bode well for your finances or reputation online. So for reliability you might want a sturdier third party site hosting your wares in such a case.
There's also the matter of 'keeping the barn door closed'. I.e., if you simply make your e-books downloadable on your site and redirect buyers there after a purchase, access to your wares might become visible in Google or elsewhere, allowing anyone to bypass your selling channel and directly download the items on demand. Previous customers could also divulge the download URL to others, allowing folks to bypass paying you that way. By contrast, more developed business sites can control downloads access via temporary URLs which only last a few days, as well as other methods.
Then there's the payment compatibility matter. It's always best if your buyers can pay you with any one of a variety of mainstream credit cards, etc., without having to first join a third party payment system. In other words, you want your customers to be able to buy from you as easily as they could from someone like Microsoft or Apple Computer.
Lots of these matters and others can be taken care of with a suitable shopping cart system for your site-- or merchant account, as I write about elsewhere in pages related to this subject. There I point out some significant downsides to such accounts for small sites. But recently I ran across some firms which may be worth trying for small site owners, as they may be able to well control the downloads of your content while also handling the purchase process and accepting payments just like the big boys do.
As mentioned elsewhere, Paypal is available, and appears to be expanding its offerings to site owners in terms of shopping cart options.
However, I'm unsure at this time about PayPal's offerings relating to the type of download transactions I'm speaking of here.
Kagi.com, which began ages ago (in computer years) by helping make it easier for shareware authors to make a buck or two on their software, by rendering it more convenient for users to pay up, is one of the choices available today. Hopefully their longevity and focus on small-time sellers has helped them work out many of the bugs that lots of later entrants to the field are still fiddling with today. Before listing them here I did a search on Google for anyone who had bad things to say about them, and could find negligible such complaints. Indeed, I mostly found accolades. Plus, I've seen many complimentary things about them year after year after year from a wide variety of sources on the net.
But to provide their service they do charge a hefty fee on transactions. On the other hand, you only pay Kagi when you sell something through their service, and there's no additional subscription or set up fee that I'm aware of right now, or onerous minimum sales requirements, as may be the case with many other similar accounts. At last check the two links below could offer you some details on some of Kagi's service offerings:
What are Kagi's fees?
Kagi Digital Download Service - Overview