Self-publishing does very well in ebooks sales. But because of print-on-demand book quality, self-publishers will continue to lose out in print book sales.
There is no doubt that self-publishing has stamped its authority and found its place in book publishing. It is winning on many fronts.
However, its success has mostly come in the form of ebooks and through the power of the Internet.
But when it comes to retail book sales in bookstores, self-publishing has a very long way to go.
Print-on-demand book quality
The quality of print-on-demand (POD) paperback books is inferior to books produced with offset printing.
POD books use laser printing, which is a similar process to how a photocopier works.
At first, books were restricted to 300 dpi, but at least today the clarity is better with some POD services offering 2,400 dpi.
However, the choice of paper grades is still limited and rarely of trade quality. It’s also impossible to use POD for hardcover books.
Offset printing allows for an almost unlimed range of papers and grades and the quality of the printing is far superior.
POD paperbacks seem economical because you only pay per copy when it is produced.
Offset printing can be cheaper per copy when you order over 1,000 copies. If you order more, the price per copy reduces even further.
But for most self-publishers, investing in an order of one, two, or three thousand copies of a book is probably out of financial reach.
That’s what makes POD paperbacks so attractive to new self-publishers. But it comes with on downside.
Retail bookstores will rarely if ever agree to stock POD books on their shelves due to the poor quality of the paper and printing.
The ebook and book market
For self-publishers, ebooks are the main source of sales. But ebooks make up only a small percentage of the book sales market.
According to Publishing Perspectives, in 2021 ebook sales are only 12.3% of total book sales. However, paperbacks account for 33.8% and hardcover 37.7%.
After meteoric increases following the introduction of the ebook in 2007, ebook sales have now plateaued and are struggling to increase by more than single digits year on year.
The graph above from Publishers Weekly shows how ebook sales have stagnated over the last five years.
This means that the ebook pie won’t get much bigger. But the number of new self-published ebooks increases at a staggering pace every year.
It is very bad news for self-publishers because ebooks are their bread and butter sales.
On the other hand, paperbacks and hardcover books are the bread and butter sales for traditional publishing.
By controlling, manipulating, and even owning shelf space in bricks and mortar books stores, the big five have a monopoly on non-ebook sales.
But there are still many independent bookstores around the world, and there is no reason why they won’t stock self-published books if you ask. But it will always be a question of quality.
Print-on-demand books can’t compete
The quality of paperback print books is where self-publishing has made little or no ground whatsoever over the years.
Sure, self-publishers can offer a paperback version of their book on Amazon, but what about at a local bookstore?
What about with a chain of national bookstores? No way, no hope, and no possibility.
For most bookstore owners, print-on-demand books are not good enough.
Compared to trade published books, they are a very poor relation.
Ebooks have made considerable strides in quality in recent years.
But print-on-demand books are still very much the same as in 2002: poor quality, poor formatting, poor typography, and poor paper grades.
It is the real frontier that will for some time yet, hold back self-publishing as a challenger to traditional publishers.
Yes, there are independent bookshops that stock a few self-published titles, but it is the exception.
The tough truth is that bookstores and bookstore chains still sell a lot of books.
By using prime store placement, which publishers pay an arm and a leg for, this can turn almost any book into a bestseller.
But it would never, no matter how much money is spent, turn a poor-quality print-on-demand paperback into even a modest seller.
Self-publishing has been a winner, but only on one front. Ebooks.
The real challenge is for self-publishing to aim higher and challenge print book sales.
The best avenue of attack is, of course, still through print-on-demand books because of the economy it offers self-publishers.
But until online self-publishing services such as Amazon KDP, Lulu and others lift their game and can produce and provide paperbacks and hardcovers close to trade quality; there is little hope.
All self-publishing authors can do is to try to promote online sales through Amazon and Barnes & Noble as much as possible.
But, one can hope for change in the future with improvements and development of print-on-demand book quality.
Or perhaps, is this a current market opportunity for Vanity Press?
Although vanity publishers have somewhat of a bad reputation in the market, some offer the possibility to produce a quality book using offset printing.
As with everything, we’ll see what the future brings.