Making Tough Business Decisions as a Self-Publisher

Making Tough Business Decisions as a Self-Publisher

Nothing personal, it’s just business.
— Otto Berman

The last week was surprisingly challenging. It culminated in a book design decision that, although in the long-run won’t be an issue, really had emotional weight for me. On the one hand, I wanted to stick with my design principles and vision for my novel. On the other hand, the logistical challenges that stacked up against me demanded I make a change.

What Happened

The last few weeks - well, ever since I decided to go the self-publishing route, really - were really exciting. With the design of my book cover and typesetting finalized, I started ordering paperback proofs of ETERNAL SHADOW. My first proof came from Amazon KDP, my chosen ebook distributor. However, thanks to the advice of another Trevor, I decided to also allow POD (print-on-demand) of my book through KDP as well. For general paperback distribution I chose IngramSpark, a popular choice for self-publishing writers who want their book to get the greatest reach into as many brick-and-mortar bookstores and resellers as possible.

The first proof that arrived had a matte cover which was much darker than expected. Not a problem. I shared the feedback with my designer, Anamaria, who quickly made a series of color adjustments, correcting the issue. The second proof was ordered also from KDP - this time a glossy cover. This one was PERFECT - it satisfied my vision to a T.

“If it looks this good from Amazon, I’m sure it’ll be about the same from Ingram,” I told myself with glee.

Celebrated Too Soon

I placed an order for a glossy paperback proof from Ingram immediately after receiving the proof from KDP. When the Ingram proof arrived… I was left both surprised and disappointed. The colors on the book cover were more muted - less poppy and vibrant. More critically, the “part pages” (ETERNAL SHADOW is split into four parts) which demarcate the ending of one part and the start of another had terribly visible white streaks running down their all-black pages.

That page-spanning white streak running from top to bottom was not a design choice.

That page-spanning white streak running from top to bottom was not a design choice.

At first I didn’t understand why this happened with the IngramSpark book and not the KDP book, but that was when I noticed the thickness of the Ingram book. In short, it was about 20% thinner than the KDP proof. THAT was when I dug a bit deeper into details I didn’t think too much about: paper weight.

In summary, paper weight is one value which represents the thickness of paper. The higher the value, the thicker the paper. I checked out KDP first which is where I learned they used 55lb paper for their paperbacks by default (they don’t offer any other size options). Ingram uses 50lb paper, though unlike KDP they do offer some additional options (more on that later). If you’d like to learn more about the variety of paper that exists for book creation, check out this web article from Bookmobile.

This difference in paper weight was the reason for the quality gap: 50lb paper simply cannot handle the printing of all-black on a page - but was that the end of the story?

Thanks to feedback from IngramSpark support, I learned another detail which you’d only find if you dug deep enough into their book design guides: they use inkjet printers for their book creation processes. Inkjet printers! Though Amazon KDP doesn’t disclose anywhere (I had no luck finding details at least) the sort of printers they use for their POD service, evidence would suggest they use laserjet printers, an option which IMO makes more sense than inkjet when you’re talking about printing hundreds, if not thousands, of books a day. After reading about the differences between inkjet and laserjet printers, the likelihood is was the case seemed even higher.

So to tally up the issues:

  • 50lb paper was used vs 55lb paper, resulting in thinner pages which would not take all-black pages well (the problem I saw would likely be very common according to Ingram). Related to this detail: the all-black pages were a bit curled and not straight like the rest of the pages, resulting in the part pages seeming to stick together.

  • Inkjet printers were used. Combine that with the all-black pages and you get the streaks of lines.

IngramSpark did offer to upgrade the paper weight I was using from 50lb creme to 70lb white… but their numbers matched up with what I found on their website: it would cost an insane fourteen dollars per book to print with 70lb paper. Fourteen dollars would be the cost to print, before applying list price! It would be possible to justify using such thick paper for my novel.


With this information in my hands, I realized that a tough decision had to be made.

  1. Invert the all-black pages to eliminate the printing issue at IngramSpark, thus allowing me to use their services for physical book distribution to bookstores.

  2. Stick with my original design. This would require me to either find an alternative distributor or use Amazon KDP’s “Expanded Distribution” option.

My gut reaction was to pursue #2. Throwing myself into the Internet, I found many businesses which operated on the same field as IngramSpark such as Xlibris, Lulu, and Blurb. However, my frown continued to grow as the reality of switching to these alternatives really began sinking in. Compared to IngramSpark, just about everyone else charged three dollars more per book which would mean I’d either make virtually nothing per book sold through them or I’d have to increase the book’s list price to compensate, thus locking out potential buyers.

Finding this situation quite distressing, I informed my CP, my wife, and the group of people who won my “Signal Detected” Twitter game about this series of events, seeking advice. Though they all empathized, the general consensus was to invert the black pages. One Twitter game winner, also a beta reader, mentioned that “not having it didn’t affect [his] enjoyment of the beta.” Another winner put it succinctly:

“Publishing is a business.”

My CP (such an awesome supporter) beared the brunt of my hem and hawing behind my reluctance to, in retrospect, make the best decision for ETERNAL SHADOW’s internal design. It took a little over a day to fullest embody the choice of inverting the part page colors, but once I came around, the lessons became clear.

If you intend on making any money with your book, even if it’s just a little, you’ll have to ultimately make decisions which will be better for your success - not as a writer, but as the seller of your book. If you decide to self-publish, the buck stops with you. It’s your book and you are in control of every detail behind it. This includes understanding how to best price your novel and who your audience will be. Can you get away with asking for twenty bucks for a paperback novel? From a famous writer, it’s likely, but if this is your debut novel and you’re not famous (yours truly falls in this category on both counts) the answer is almost certainly no. Sure, some people will take the chance on your paperback at that price, but most just won’t part with that much money on an unknown.

I want my book to reach as many people as possible. This means that it has to be competitively priced across the board. This also means that, despite the technology used there, IngramSparks would have to be my primary distributor for paperbacks. They offered the best print price per book, given its page length. This would allow me to offer the best discount to booksellers without breaking even or going in the red while maintaining a competitive list price.

Inverting the all-black pages was not driven by design or vision but by business.

…It just happens that I still like how it all looks.

ETERNAL SHADOW releases on November 9th, 2019!

What decisions have you made (related to self-publishing or otherwise) which were driven more by business than by your personal visions or principles? Share below!

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