Journalists and trend watchers writing about the book industry have a tendency to position print books and ebooks as competitors, using comparative sales numbers to spin narratives about the “death of print” or “digital fatigue.” There are disputes even about the numbers themselves, with mysterious figures like “Data Guy” offering up ebook sales numbers that differ dramatically from those reported by traditional publishers. (Porter Anderson and Jane Friedman have a useful review of the latest numbers controversy in their report from January’s Digital Book World Conference.)
The truth is, the book industry is in a period of dramatic change, and no one knows how things will shake out. What does that mean for authors, and indie authors in particular? My advice is to take the trend reports and even the sales numbers with a grain of salt and to watch your own bottom line, focusing on what is working for your books. At the same time, keep your eyes open for products and strategies that might help you add to your sales or increase your audience. It’s possible that print books could be part of that strategy.
What are your buying habits?
Rather than getting swept up into the emotions swirling around indie authors’ fight for acceptance and traditional publishers’ struggles to stay afloat in the age of Amazon, let’s consider the habits of actual book buyers for a moment.
If you are a writer, you are most likely also a reader. What are your own book-buying habits? What do you read digitally, in print, or via audio? When and where do you read? When you read a print book, how do the physical features of it impact your experience? Even better, ask your readers these same questions, paying particular attention to when and why they purchase books in print.
I am likely not a typical reader (if there is such an animal at all), but I am an important one in that I buy dozens of books a year. Until very recently, I lived across the street from a wonderful bookstore that primarily sells used books, but also has a well-curated selection of new releases. I stopped in once a week to buy a Sunday New York Times (yes, I do have Luddite tendencies) and often made another purchase while I was there. I make impulse borrows about once a month from the library, usually of books that I don’t think I will reread or reference again. When choosing to buy something in print, I gravitate towards books that are beautifully produced, books that I suspect I will want to reread, and books that are browsable. I go digital for many of my reference books, anything I want to read while traveling, and most genre fiction. I almost never buy inexpensive paperbacks anymore, unless they aren’t available as ebooks.
The Revenge of Analog
David Sax’s recent book The Revenge of Analog tracks the resurgence of analog products in a number of creative industries. These analog products are being positioned as both more authentic and more luxurious than their digital equivalents.
In a chapter on the success of the Italian company Moleskin, whose notebooks are used by writers and bullet journalers everywhere, Sax notes: “By losing its job as the dominant form of communication, paper has been elevated to an exalted place, where it can play off its intangible analog advantages. In the process, it became cool, in the way that candles and bicycles are cool, even if they are technically ‘obsolete.’” Similarly, Sax documents the success of a new breed of print magazines which have expensive production values and limited runs. Rather than printing and then pulping thousands of copies, like the mass-market glossies do, these boutique magazines are succeeding with “smaller print runs of a higher-quality product, targeting a smaller, more valuable audience of readers.”
Targeting the high end of the market
So if Sax is right, and I think he is, how might indie authors tap into a potential market for higher-end print products? The plain vanilla print-on-demand paperback from CreateSpace or Ingram should be available to readers who want an inexpensive print version of your books, but it’s not the high-end luxury product Sax is talking about.
If you are a nonfiction author with a business or self-help book, think about doing a journal or workbook that provides readers with the space and motivation to complete the work you recommend. If you have written a biography or memoir, consider an expanded edition that includes primary source material, maps, or photographs.
If you are a fiction author, including research materials or inspirational photographs are a good choice (if copyright restrictions allow). You could also include an alternate draft or canceled chapter, or an essay on your creative process for the book. You might consider commissioning a new cover illustration or design. You could also strictly limit the number of copies you print, and sign and hand-number each book.
IngramSpark offers hardback printing, as well as the option for special touches like stamping and dust jackets. The number of independent printers who are catering to the self-publishing market is also growing every day, so do some research to see if there is a printer in your area who will do small print runs at an affordable price. The Independent Book Publishers Association maintains a useful list of resources, including printers.
As with any new venture, start slowly and increase your investment only if you see good returns.