How do you sell a self-published book online and manage shipping?

Part 4: An insight into self-publishing a book

Andrew Couldwell
Feb 19 · 15 min read

This is the fourth and final part of a series about how we self-published a book. This part is about online selling and distributing your book.

There are various means of selling and distributing a self-published book. The service you used to print your books may go a long way to deciding — or even dictating — which method or services you adopt, which we’ll come back to. You can also use multiple sales channels to reach a wider audience. This article delves into the pros and cons of the options available to you and shares our story of how we sold and distributed our book.

Man processing and packing orders to ship
Man processing and packing orders to ship
Photo by Bench Accounting via Unsplash

I’ll start with the three options we didn’t do, and why.

1. Print-on-demand online stores

Unfortunately, the downsides are:

  • You get little to no analytics or insight into who’s buying (or not buying) your book, which severely limits your ability to effectively market your book and maximise sales.
  • You can’t create custom discount codes, which can be a useful selling tool.
  • There’s very little (or no) profit to be made after they deduct their fees.
  • Your book gets no special treatment. You can’t customise your book page or the checkout experience. A white label solution would be an amazing feature, but alas, no services seem to offer it.

P.S. I covered the above points in more detail in the previous article, where I reviewed each print-on-demand service.

2. Amazon

If you hold stock of your book yourself, or you’re willing to send Amazon stock to hold in their warehouse(s), then you can also take a more manual approach to sell your book on Amazon by setting up a Seller’s Account. But here’s why you might not want to do that:

  • Amazon takes a huge cut of your profit. They charged us 34% of our selling price. When you consider the print cost per book and the cost of shipping (which is particularly expensive if you’re shipping internationally), you make almost no profit. You might even make a loss unless you set your selling price very high.
  • Amazon takes forever to pay you (you know, your money). They “make funds from each sale available 7 days after the latest estimated delivery date”, which for an international sale could be several weeks. And then “it can take up to 5 business days for the money to appear in your bank account”. So you could be paid as much as 1–3 months after your sale!

3. Ingram (wholesale)

You set your book’s selling price and a wholesale discount price. The wholesale price is what the online or brick and mortar bookstores pay to purchase your book from you to sell on for a profit. Understandably, this price needs to be lower than your selling price or the merchants won’t invest in your book. Ingram recommends a wholesale price of 55% of your selling price.

With this in mind, the same point as I made above with Amazon applies. When you subtract the print cost per book, the wholesale price, and the shipping costs, you are left with little or no profit.


Yeah, I know, the three options above suck! 😬

Thankfully, there’s a better way:

Sell the book yourself

USPS van making a delivery in a city
USPS van making a delivery in a city
Photos by Christin Hume and Norbert Kundrak via Unsplash

The advantages of selling and shipping your own book are:

Analytics and customer insights

  • You know where your customers are so you can identify trends to help you better market your book, be it doubling down on hot geographic areas or trying to generate more sales in places you’re not selling so well.
  • You can convert abandoned carts into sales.
  • The emails you capture help you keep in contact with your customers.
  • Website analytics help you track where your traffic is coming from so you know which of your marketing efforts are working. They also help you identify areas of your website you could improve, be it SEO for more organic traffic or weak points in your sales funnel.

Create custom discounts

Freedom to customise everything

You can actually make a profit

Platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, or WordPress — or a simplified experience using PayPal or Stripe as a payment gateway — empower you to sell your book yourself for a significantly smaller fee than the options we’ve already explored.

We used Shopify. Here’s how we did it:

How did we sell our book?

What does it cost?

  • For domestic sales (in the United States), Amazon charges $12.19
    compared to Shopify’s $1.32
  • For international sales, Amazon charges $11.03
    compared to Shopify’s $1.61

*Data collected in January 2020 from real sales

In fees alone, selling 100 books via Amazon would cost you $1,103. It would cost you $161 on Shopify.

Shopify’s online store feature is what you’re mostly paying for with their monthly fee, which you can customise with different themes. Theoretically, you could have a totally new look for your store at the click of a button by switching themes.

As I was building my own website, I only needed Shopify’s checkout experience to process and take payment for our orders. Their online store feature was of no use to us, so instead of paying for one of their core packages, we signed up for Shopify Lite at only $9 USD a month.

Shopify Lite

Payment

Below is a page on our website with options to purchase the book — all linking to a simple and secure Shopify checkout experience:

A page on our website listing options to purchase, and Shopify’s checkout

Shipping

When you process orders in your Shopify dashboard, you see a list of carriers and how much each shipping option costs. The options automatically update based on the destination and the weight and size of the package you’re shipping. The two screenshots below show shipping options for a domestic order (in the United States) on the left and international on the right:

Useful: Shopify has a great shipping label calculator ⭐️ to help you budget for how much shipping your orders will cost.

Thankfully in the United States, books qualify for a USPS service called Media Mail (as seen in the screenshot above), which is a reduced price service specifically for things like books. This saves you a lot of money and increases the likelihood of a sale, as it keeps your shipping cost low (although you’ll need a more expensive option if you need to ship multiple books).

Shipping internationally is expensive!

Unfortunately, because Amazon offers free shipping, customers worldwide more or less expect free (or cheap) shipping. Sadly, there’s no such thing, which is a real problem for small businesses. Regardless of what we charge our customers for shipping, it still costs us $22.80 to mail a book to them.

Of course, not everyone is willing to pay that much, so we decided to offer a discounted rate of $15 for international orders. Including the cost of packaging, our profit per book is cut by $8–9. This obviously isn’t great, but 47% of our sales are outside of the United States. We want to put our book in people’s hands all around the globe, this is what it takes to do that. 🤷‍♀

Pro tip: buy a label printing machine!

Packaging

  • Our first attempt at a protective mailer was a padded bubble mailer. We sent out a small batch of free books as an advanced preview, which gave the bubble mailers a test run. At least 30% of the books we sent were damaged in transit! 😬
  • We discovered a much better solution in stay-flat mailers made of rigid cardboard, which is much harder to bend or dent than a bubble mailer. Unfortunately, our first batch of stay-flat mailers proved to be inefficient. We sent hundreds of books in these mailers and didn't receive any complaints about damaged books, but after a couple of weeks, we had 3 customers report that they received the mailer with no book in it! Seemingly, the bottom of the mailer had burst open in transit.
  • We then moved onto a stronger stay-flat mailer, which is a lot sturdier and more secure, and so far has been fine.

Tip: invest in quality packaging! In the long run, it will cost you more in refunds and replacing damaged books than any saving you made buying a cheaper mailer.

Customs: your new least favourite people

A postal worker in the United States told me it’s basically down to the customs officer’s mood on the day as to whether they disrupt your order being delivered to your customer! 🤷‍♂ It’s even rumoured that some country’s customs are corrupt enough to steal packages or unjustly charge a collection fee for personal gain. Unfortunately, we have experienced multiple books going missing in particular countries. As a result, we have a growing number of countries we no longer ship to. 😢

Fortunately, books should technically be exempt from customs charges (although this varies from country to country), but this won’t always stop them from doing it, sadly. But there are things you can do to make it less likely they’ll stop your package. On the label of your package, you need to:

  • Declare what the package contains.
  • State its monetary value.
  • Include the appropriate HS (Harmonized System) code.
  • Sign and date the customs declaration label.

Shopify makes it easy for you to do all of the above. The first time you ship a package internationally, Shopify prompts you to “edit customs information”.The information you enter is added to the shipping label and retained for every international order you ship from then on.

Selling and distributing an eBook

Alternatively, you could use SendOwl. I have no experience using it, but I like owls and it seems like a good service. 🦉

P.S. You could also sell your eBook via Apple iBooks or Google Play, but they take such a large cut of the profits it’s hardly worth it. If you’re selling a fiction book, it might be smart to (also) sell via these services to reach a much larger audience. But with a niche market, as we have, it’s not worth it.

Our book. Learn more at designsystemfoundations.com

Be prepared

It’s also good to create a frequently asked questions and/or terms and conditions page on your book’s website. Be clear and up-front with your customers about what they’re buying, what your refund policy is, how long shipping takes, why does shipping internationally cost so much, etc.


What would we do differently?

While we endured some frustrating periods… Overall, I definitely recommend self-publishing a book. It’s a very rewarding experience. I’m proud of what my wife and I created together. 💛


If you’ve read our whole series on self-publishing a book, then thank you! We sincerely hope it’s helped you. If you found it helpful, please consider applauding this article and sharing this series with your indie publisher friends.

Oh, and please buy our book! 😉

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed…

Thanks to Meagan Fisher

Andrew Couldwell

Written by

Web designer & developer • Portfolio at: https://roomfive.net

How to self-publish a book

Books need to be written, edited, designed, printed, marketed, sold, and distributed. Self-publishing can be fun and rewarding, but also frustrating and costly. This series shares our experience, the hard lessons we learned, and advice to save money and succeed.

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