Not so long ago, the standard way to buy new books was to go to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Remember the big tables of new releases, the spinning paperback racks with low-cost trades, usually accompanied by the scent of fresh lattes and inked paper? Bookstores are, undoubtedly, magical places.
But they’re not really necessary or central to bookselling today. Traditionally published authors will still be in bookstores, but indie authors who self-publish and own the entire publishing process usually won’t go through the effort to get their book in a store. That’s because the vast majority of sales are going to come from people who want your book, not from casual shoppers browsing for a new book.
The way we buy books and authors sell books has changed.
Self-Published Authors Are Content Entrepreneurs
Back around 2019 or so, we started to rethink the way we imagine being an independent author. For a long time, authorship was predicated on publishing with a traditional publisher and getting a contract that would pay enough (though sometimes not enough) to be a professional author.
After that, it was just a matter of writing more books and sending them off to be edited, revised, and designed. The author’s job was centered around their writing.
Today, indie authors are anything but beholden to their publishers. In fact, thanks to services like Lulu, Amazon KDP, and Blurb (among numerous smaller publishing services), self-publishing makes it easier than ever before to create, publish, and sell books without any input from a publisher, agent, editor, or anyone at all.
Indie authors are essentially content entrepreneurs—self-motivated creators who want to turn their creative work into a business.
If that’s you, the question is often ‘how do I sell my books?’
Ways Indie Authors Sell Books
In the modern creator economy, you’ll find any number of ways entrepreneurs are selling their products or services. Historically, buying books happened at bookstores and through online retailers. And that’s it.
But today, you’ve got options.
While there will always be a portion of indie authors who traditionally publish, many are taking control of their author business by self-publishing. Doing so brings new challenges—like editing, page layout, and cover design—but puts you squarely in control of your writing and your business.
Here’s a quick list of some of the publishing options an indie author might choose:
- Ebook on Amazon
- Paperback on Amazon
- Paperback through Ingram (for bookstore access)
- Paperback on your website
- Hardcover on your website
- Free snippets or chapters on your website
The first few options might be familiar. Publishing through retailers is almost required. You need to give your readers the option to buy on their preferred platform. While publishing and selling on Amazon or through the Ingram network will lead to less income per sale, you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity for any sales you can get.
But what authors are discovering recently is that a shift toward direct sales is a huge boon for their audience-building efforts and their wallets.
Why Indie Authors Are Embracing Direct Sales
To begin with, ecommerce platforms like Shopify, Wix, and WooCommerce have become affordable and accessible. You can spin up a Shopify store in a day or less and begin selling just about anything.
Indie authors know that their success is built around their audience. You need people to read your books if you want to write and sell books. Direct sales solve a problem a lot of authors didn’t realize they had: access to their audience.
Selling an ebook on Amazon for $0.99 profit is nice. Your book is in a reader’s hands! That’s the whole point right?
But once that sale is complete, you know next to nothing about the buyer. How did they find your book? What other kinds of content are they interested in? Where in the world are they?
All that information belongs to the retailer.
Selling directly to your fans fixes that issue. Now you can directly communicate with your buyer. You can ask them to join your mailing list. You can follow the analytics trail to understand the customer journey (did they come from a blog post you wrote? Maybe they found you through a Google search?) and what other pages they looked at both before and after buying your book.
Did you know that according to the Baymard Institutes aggregated study, nearly 70% of people add a product to their cart but don’t checkout? When that happens on your own site, you’ve got options to help encourage them to come back (such as a cart abandonment campaign).
Earning More From Each Book Sale
Making more money shouldn’t be the primary reason you sell directly to your fans (growing and engaging your audience should be at the forefront), but it is worth noting that you will earn more when you sell direct.
Here’s a simple comparison using Lulu Direct as an example and the following book specifications:
- 5×8 in | Paperback | 300 pages | Black & White ink
|Seller||Print Cost*||Sale Price||Profits|
*prices as of March 2023
As you can see, retails take a big cut of the profits when you list your book on their retail channels. But when you sell directly to your audience, there is no splitting. Instead, you pay for the printing and your customer pays you. The difference is 100% yours.
Going Wide Is Still The Right Choice
Before I start detailing how you can set up direct sales for your book on your own website and on your social media profiles, we need a disclaimer.
You can and often should sell broadly. It isn’t an either/or scenario. Your aim is to bring your book to the widest, best audience you can. That means people who are excited to read your book and are likely to at least consider purchasing.
Indie authors lean into direct sales methods because they drive better engagement and earn more revenue, but it will be rare to see any author not selling on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and any other large retail site.
Direct sales is one more important sales channel you’ll need to consider. You need to go as wide as your audience demands or you risk missing opportunities to sell your book and earn new fans.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get to the details.
How Indie Authors Sell Direct
Step one is always to pick a printing platform. I (in my infinitely biased opinion) like Lulu, but any book printer can fulfill your needs. You just need a service that will print books for you at a reasonable cost, without requiring that you order 10,000 books per print run.
Print-on-demand is a given for indies selling direct.
That said, you’ve got two common ways to manage your direct sales:
- Fulfill orders by hand
- Dropship orders to your fans
There are pros and cons for both, which I’ll cover momentarily. But, like my comments about choosing a sales channel, you can (and sometimes will) do both.
Before jumping into these two methods for selling direct, we should spend a few minutes looking at your ecommerce options.
The popular and pervasive ecommerce platform Shopify has become synonymous with direct retail. Powering 4.4 million stores online, Shopify offers some of the easiest and lowest-cost methods for selling. Their platform includes a website designer so you can build your entire store (including site pages and a blog) right on their platform.
Connected directly to WordPress, WooCommerce makes it easy to turn your existing WordPress site (which is like half the internet) into your online store. This is perfect if you’re already on WordPress or plan to use the platform for your author website.
Featuring one of the easiest website builders, Wix is a leader in simple, effective design. Coupling their easy-to-use site designer with integrated ecommerce means you can create and manage your author website with absolutely no knowledge of coding or software development.
Another platform built on simplicity, Squarespace has long been a favorite amongst creatives. While its platform doesn’t offer anything particularly unique, Squarespace makes a name for itself by being a uniquely people-focused company that aims to grow responsibly, with a focus on its employees and the people who rely on its services.
Selling Books Direct: By Hand
You’ve got your author website and you’ve picked an ecommerce platform to sell through. You’re promoting your content on your own site and building an email list of excited followers.
Now you are ready to sell your book!
Initially, you’ll need to develop a product page to highlight your book, and any options your readers might have (like an ebook, paperback, hardcover, limited editions, etc.), and to connect them to your shopping cart.
Once the book sells, you’ll get paid from your ecommerce platform and you’re ready to send them a book!
If you’re doing this by hand, that will mean you already ordered some books and have them stored. Now you will pack up that book and ship it to your buyer.
Bam! You’re selling direct!
Pros of By Hand Sales
- Control over the shipping process
- Option to include extras (stickers, bookmarks, etc.)
- Can ship faster (the books are already printed)
Cons of By-Hand Sales
- Manual packing and shipping
- Buying and storing unsold books
- New editions will result in outdated books (and unsellable inventory)
Selling Books Direct: Automation
The main difference with automated sales for your books is that you’ll stay ‘hands off’ the entire process. In this scenario, you’ll use a print-on-demand service like Lulu Direct, connected to your website and ecommerce platform, to immediately print and ship the book to your buyer.
You never have to touch the book, so there will be no packing or trips to the FedEx dropbox to complete their order.
When you’re starting your bookselling efforts, automating your direct sales might seem like too much work. But as you scale your business and earn more followers (who become customers), you’ll find packing and shipping books by hand is a LOT of work. Automating the process frees your time up to do more interesting (and impactful) work while you continue to collect more sales.
Pros of Automated Sales
- No handling your books
- Faster processing times
- Scale your sales easily
Cons of Automated Sales
- Set up and testing take time
- Requires integrating your website, ecommerce, and printer
The Logistics Of Direct Book Sales
The upsides of selling directly far outweigh the work that goes into setting up the automated platforms. If your audience is growing and you’re hoping to continue to grow your author brand and you’re not leveraging direct sales, you’re leaving a lot of money and customer information in the hands of retailers.
To break down the logistical challenges, you’ll need:
- Your author website
- Your ecommerce platform
- Your print-on-demand platform
- Your book files
If you already have an author website, you’ll want to look for compatible ecommerce platforms. This is vital—you don’t want to abandon your existing site but you need to connect an ecommerce service to sell anything to your fans.
With your website and ecommerce plans aligned, you need to introduce book printing. Now is where you also need to decide how you’ll handle those direct orders: by hand or automatically.
If you’re planning to fulfill by hand, look for a book printer with the best quality-to-cost ratio. You’ll likely be buying in bulk, even if it’s only 500 books. So the bulk rates of your preferred printer will heavily come into play.
The more efficient option—selling and fulfilling directly to your readers—means you won’t have to invest in books upfront. What you will need to do is connect your website and ecommerce platform to a self-publishing, print-on-demand provider.
Setting up a direct sales connection requires a few steps. If you use Lulu Direct, you can use Shopify and WooCommerce to sell through your site by following a few steps (each platform does have some unique elements, but this broadly covers it):
- Create a product in your ecommerce platform
- Prepare your print interior and cover PDFs to match printer requirements
- Create a product page for your book
- Upload your files and publish your book
- Do a test order and make any adjustments to your files
Once you’ve completed the setup and saved your payment method, your books can be purchased, printed, and shipped without ANY input or action from you.
The Many Benefits Of Direct Sales
We covered some of these earlier, but it’s important to end on this note too. Selling directly to your readers does involve more time and work on your part. The payoff comes in the form of more customer data, the opportunity to engage your fans on your own site, and the freedom to control every aspect of your business.
And because direct sales can easily be fully automated, you’ll have time to explore other aspects of your author business. That might mean spending time developing connections on social media, working with ads to boost visibility on retail sites, or writing your next book.
The overriding principle is control for you. Writing and selling books is your business, whether that’s a full-time job or something you do for fun and extra income. Taking control over the way your fans find and interact with you, how they consume your content and how they buy your books, will pay dividends in the long run when you have a devoted, passionate fan base coming directly to you for their favorite stories.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he’s not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.