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, 2020 · 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

Some print-on-demand services have their own online stores that sell your book. For example, see Blurb’s Bookstore or BookBaby’s BookShop. Your book gets its own web page you can direct customers to, and is discoverable on their platform. If you’re looking for the easiest option and you’re not too bothered about profit, then this option is fine. It requires almost no setup and no input from you (i.e. no maintenance and no processing orders).

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 used Amazon’s KDP print-on-demand (POD) service, then I believe your only option is to use Amazon to sell your book. If not, most other POD services offer automatic setup of your book to be sold on Amazon, whereby your sales on Amazon are automatically transferred to the POD service you use to fulfil and ship to your customer. Again, there’s very little setup and no ongoing work is required by you.

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)

I went into more detail of how Ingram works in my previous article about print-on-demand services. But in brief, Ingram is the largest wholesale and distribution network of books in the world. Bookstores can order a stock of any book in Ingram's inventory to sell in their stores at a wholesale price. Similarly, online book stores can instantly sell any book in the inventory, only the sale on their website is transferred to Ingram to fulfil the order. Some print-on-demand services offer to make your book available via Ingram as part of their service, or you can add your book to Ingram’s inventory yourself.

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

To recap and to pick up where we left off in the previous article in this series: at this point in our own self-publishing process, we had a large stock of books printed and ready to sell ourselves. While our experience in getting to this point was far from ideal… It turns out we now had the best and most profitable options available to us.

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:

You have full access to analytics and information about your customers. This is good for so many reasons, including:

  • 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.

Creating custom discounts is ideal for sale periods like Black Friday, treating your family and friends, or offering exclusive offers to people who registered interest in your book pre-launch or targeting specific audiences.

An on-brand experience tailored to your book is the cherry on top that your hard work deserves. A well-designed e-commerce experience improves your chances of a sale. You can also fine-tune your book’s website to improve your standing in Google’s search results or tweak your content, pricing, and special offers to see what impact your changes have on your sales. I found myself doing this a lot, yielding good results.

I ran the projections with the 3 options (earlier in this article) and our profit margin came out at $0–2 per book. After several months of hard work, taking time out of work to produce the book, and investing in a stock of printed books, you want to 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?

Aside from being a self-published author, I’m also a web designer and developer, so I was fortunate in that I could build a bespoke website to sell our book. But don’t worry, you don’t need to know how to build websites to sell a book — you can use one of Shopify’s themed stores.

Shopify costs $29 USD a month for their basic package, which is brilliant when you compare it to what Amazon charge. Below is a comparison of what Shopify and Amazon charge in fees per order*, for a book sale price of $30:

  • 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.

Integrating with Shopify Lite is very simple! You create your product(s) in Shopify and generate a checkout link (URL), which you link to from your own website. For example, I generated this link for an eBook product and this link for a paperback product. You can also customise the URL to add a discount code or add multiple products to the checkout. For example, we have a package deal where you get 50% off the eBook when you buy it with the paperback. This checkout link plus an automated discount I setup in Shopify adds both products to the customer’s checkout and applies the discount.

Shopify is very relievingly simple on the payment side of things. Shopify Payments processes credit card transactions, and you can optionally add PayPal or Google Pay as express checkout options. You’ll need to set up a PayPal Business account (so you can issue refunds), but it’s worth it — I’ve found that a lot of customers opt to pay with their PayPal account over their credit card. Shopify and PayPal both charge a small percentage of the sale price, which is automatically deducted from your payouts. And best of all, unlike Amazon — which makes you wait weeks to claim your money from sales — you can easily cash out your Shopify or PayPal sales anytime you like.

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

Shopify takes the pain out of shipping because it partners with carriers like USPS, UPS, and DHL to get discounted rates and real-time costs. As the merchant, you can set whether you want real-time shipping costs to be presented to your customers at checkout (so they can choose), or you can add custom shipping prices. You can also add a markup to the carrier prices if you wanted to account for packaging costs or a ‘handling fee’.

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).

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for shipping internationally. While USPS (the United States Post Office) is still by far the most affordable option for shipping — even internationally, weirdly — the costs are extreme! As I write this it costs us $22.80 USD to ship a single book from California to anywhere in Europe. It costs $26.36 to ship to Oceania. 😬 Our book costs $30.

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. 🤷‍♀

Once you’ve selected your shipping method, you need to print a shipping label to affix to your package. A shipping label simply has the package’s details, destination, sender info, and a barcode for the carrier to scan. You could print these labels on your home printer, but then you’d need to trim them down to size and tape/stick them to your package — which would be a real pain in the ass if you’re processing hundreds/thousands of books! For sanity’s sake, we bought a label printing machine that prints shipping labels onto an easily affixable sticker. I highly recommend getting a label printer! I dread to think how many hours it’s saved us.

Packaging

Shipping a book is tricky, as books can be easily damaged in transit. We tried 3 different mailers. We tested them so you don’t have to:

  • 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

This is a tough one, and good to be as prepared for as you can be. Unfortunately, sometimes packages are held at customs in the country you’re shipping to. If this happens, your package is only delivered if the customer pays a duties charge, which is essentially an import tax. As we have experienced, it’s not uncommon for packages to go unclaimed, which happens if customs couldn’t reach the customer or the customer refuses to pay the charge. When this happens, sometimes the book is returned to the sender, other times it just goes ‘missing’. 🤔

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

If you’re selling an eBook version of your book as well as a paperback version, then you need a service to distribute the eBook download to the customer after the sale is made. Shopify has a free add-on (app) called Shopify Digital Downloads that’s great for this. The customer can instantly download their eBook after their payment is made, and they are also sent an email with a link to their download. It also automatically notifies your customers if you later make a change to the eBook, so they can download the latest version.

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

Shipping books is hard work! While Shopify and a label printing machine make things much easier — it’s very time-consuming processing orders, packing books into mailers, shifting heavy boxes, and driving shipments to the post office every day. Don’t plan to do much other than processing orders for at least the first couple of weeks after launch. And I’m not just talking about processing orders — you also have to market the book, answer questions from customers, and troubleshoot all sorts of things you didn’t see coming, like customs holding your book hostage in foreign countries, books not turning up at their destination, etc.

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?

If we self-published a book again, we wouldn’t waste our time with print-on-demand services. We’re glad we explored the options, but we know better now. Next time, we would source a traditional, local (or overseas?) printer. We would definitely use Shopify again.

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…

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.

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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