Lint rollers: or why you can’t find my paperbacks on Amazon any more

A model of planet Earth hangs in the nave of a cathedral

I went to my local homes and gardens shop the other day, looking for a lint roller. The man on the till explained that they did not stock them, as the peel-off sticky bits can’t be recycled. He offered me a clothes brush instead. I said that so long as it would get cat hair off the sofa that was fine with me.

I publish my paperbacks through Lulu. It can be a massively frustrating process, but I have yet to hear of any other print-on-demand service being noticeably better. There are two ways to get your books out there. Or one and a half, really, I suppose. You can sell them through the Lulu bookstore. You can also choose ‘global distribution’, which makes it available through all the big retailers.

The snag – and this has become much more of a snag in the five years since I started doing this – is that the big retailers also wish to take their cut along the way. Which is fair enough. But printing costs have gone up, and so, I think, has the cut, and the gap is getting wider and wider.

Take The Real World. The minimum I can sell it for on Lulu is £6.90. If, however, I want to put it in for global distribution I have to whack the price all the way up to £13.72. Which is a silly price, so I put it as £13.99.

So I was in the slightly ridiculous situation of having to charge four pounds more than I considered reasonable for a paperback in order to sell the item on a platform that made me feel skeevy (because it was almost always Amazon) to make a few pennies on the sale.

And then nobody was buying them. Quite reasonably. I wouldn’t spend fourteen quid on a paperback. (OK, I do spend thirteen quid on the Girls Gone By reprints of the Marlows series: but have you seen how much they go for second-hand?)

One solution would have been to dump Lulu and go with KindleDirect Publishing. Or go with both. I couldn’t face wrangling a third platform, so ‘both’ was out. And going exclusively with Amazon would have made me feel very skeevy indeed, and probably also have lost me a few sales.

(I don’t avoid Amazon entirely, but if I can get a book somewhere else, I will. For various reasons. And it does make a difference as to whether I get it in the first place. There are a couple of authors who’d be instabuy for me if only they weren’t Amazon exclusive. As it is, I only buy the books that really, really, really appeal to me.)

Anyway, I was fretting about this for months. Then Lulu emailed to say they were putting their prices up. And I realised: I could pull my books from everything except Lulu.

I know, I know. It doesn’t seem fair to react to ‘Lulu putting their prices up’ by ‘removing my books from everything except Lulu’. But see above. Lulu drive me up the wall, but they don’t make me feel skeevy. And actually, a company being honest about the true costs of something was surprisingly refreshing. Stuff does cost money, and if we’re not paying for it, chances are someone else is.

So. The best place to get paperback copies of my books is now Lulu. It’s worth waiting until they run a 10% or 15% sale, which they do quite frequently; this ought to go some way towards covering the cost of postage. (Alternatively, my mother has six copies of The Real World which I got sent to her address and then forgot to sell when I was there, and then forgot to take away with me. Sorry, Ma. Do you want to post them?)

The ebooks of the two Stancester novels are on Smashwords, from which you can download them in every format I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. I have made my peace with their not being on Kindle: when these ones sell, it’s usually because someone’s enthused about them on Weird Anglican Twitter, and the denizens of WAT tend to be sufficiently net-savvy to track them down. A Spoke In The Wheel is still on Kindle. I have no idea why the others broke and this one didn’t, but for the moment I’m going to let well alone.

But what of my principled local homes and gardens shop? Well, I didn’t buy a lint roller. I didn’t buy a clothes brush, either, but only because I phoned home and discovered there was one on order. I did buy a garlic press, a potato brush, and an ash bucket in which to keep the dried cat food. The cat meanwhile, has decided that she prefers sitting on the windowsill, which is much easier to sweep.

Fluffy black and white cat curled up on a cushion

Ebooks!

Kobo ebook reader showing the first page of 'The Real World'

I am not a particularly patient person. I’m also not particularly fond of hassling people. You can imagine, therefore, my state of mind over this past week, waiting for Lulu customer service to tell me what the hell was wrong with my book and why it wasn’t showing up anywhere except Lulu. (At least it’s been a distraction from the US election, which has also had a certain ‘hurry up and wait’ quality to it. US friends, you have my deep respect. When there are elections on over here, I usually go to bed half an hour after polls close so that I can face whatever joy or gloom the morning might bring on a decent night’s sleep. I don’t know how I’d have coped with this endless election week that you’ve had to go through.)

Well, I got a reasonably helpful response from one person. I acted on their suggestions and uploaded the new file. It took me a while to get the thing to recognise that this was a new submission. It gave me an ‘Error approving your project for distribution’ message within a minute. It did not tell me why. Nor did customer service.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lulu kept spitting the book back at me, giving me no indication as to what might have failed. Yesterday I gave up, retired the ebook from Lulu, and made myself an account on Smashwords instead. Smashwords also kept spitting the book back at me, but it did tell me that it didn’t like my numbered lists.

There are no numbered lists in The Real World.

This was almost as frustrating, but I eventually tracked the problem down to the chapter headings. By this point it was getting on for midnight, so I gave up and went to bed.

This morning I deleted all the chapter headings, put them all back in as body text, and made a hyperlinked table of contents with my own fair hands. And here we go.

It’s now waiting for manual review, which won’t happen over the weekend, but my hope is that it’ll be fairly quick next week. And if there still are any problems with the file then at least a manual reviewer will be able to tell me what they are. If not, it should then start filtering out to more mainstream suppliers.

I should say at this point that Amazon won’t be one of those, unless I manage to sell seriously vast numbers through Smashwords. So I need to work out what to do about that. The MOBI is available from Smashwords in the meantime, and the paperback is staying on Amazon.

The great irony is that I got everything done – or so I thought – in September, and then sat on it to give it a chance to get through the distribution channels.

Well, look, you’d have thought so too if your book had been sitting there all that time with a little message saying ‘Your project has been approved for distribution’. It’s only since I started asking politely why it wasn’t showing on any of the other platforms, and why, come to that, both the other two had started falling off, that the ‘Error approving your project for distribution’ message appeared.

Now I need to work out what to do next. I’ll probably move the other ebooks over to Smashwords too, beginning with Speak Its Name. I also need to work out how I feel about Kindle Direct: i.e. whether I think I’ll sell enough ebooks through Amazon, given the fact that Smashwords does a decent MOBI file, to make it worth getting my head round it. (I’d be interested to hear from Kindle owners on this, though I make no promises.) But this is not a decision to make before I’ve had a cup of coffee. I’m off to make one now. In the meantime, here’s The Real World.

Annoying pricing news

Corner bookshelf stacked with books

I’m sorry to say that the prices of Lulu’s paperback books have gone up quite a lot. I’d intended to price The Real World at £8.99, the same as the other two, but I find upon uploading the file that it won’t let me put it on at anything under £13.06. Which is a silly price, liable to change with exchange rates. And it’s a bit demoralising for me not to be paid anything at all, so I’m afraid that when it appears it’ll be £13.99.

Worse news: the other two books will also have to go up, because the current cover price isn’t covering the printing and distributor costs. (This might explain why I don’t seem to have been paid for any Amazon sales recently.) Oh, well: I suppose I was making new covers anyway (a complete redesign for Speak Its Name, and adding an award badge to A Spoke In The Wheel) – so I might as well add the updated prices.

I do understand that there’s a pandemic on, and no doubt printers’ costs have gone up the same as everything else, but I feel that fourteen quid is a bit steep for a paperback myself. So I’m going to knock another quid off the price of the ebook. I also understand that ebooks don’t work for everybody, and fourteen quid is still a bit steep for a paperback. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s worth waiting for Lulu to do a 10% or 15% off promotion, which happens quite frequently (though you may still get dinged on the postage). If you’re really not in a hurry, Amazon occasionally makes substantial reductions on POD paperbacks (I note for the benefit of fellow Clorinda Cathcart fans that A Man of Independent Mind is currently down to £3.37, for example) but I can discern no rhyme or reason to this, and it may never happen to any given book.

I’ve no desire to set myself up as a bookshop, but in exceptional circumstances I’ll consider supplying the paperback at [cost price] + [postage and packing]. If, when the time comes, you’re someone for whom the difference between £8.99 and £13.99 is really quite a big one, drop me an email and I’ll see what I can do.

In the meantime, you can find a number of free reads (and listens!) linked from the menu at the top of this site, and there are a couple of exclusive ones available if you sign up to my newsletter. Which I really must get round to sending, as I have a couple of things to announce…

Living the life (and living with Lulu)

The high life in a basket
The high life in a basket

Today, I shall be making use of the Christmas present from my sister-in-law and her family. Thank you, Kat and all! I used to hate colouring – the legacy of a secondary school religious education teacher who used to set it as homework – but since it dawned on me that I didn’t have to finish anything ever if I didn’t feel like it, and nobody was going to mark me for ‘not putting enough effort in’ it’s become a joyful form of pointless quietening. Wine, chocolate and candle are of course guaranteed to improve a day.

I think taking today as annual leave was an excellent plan. If I’d been at work I would have spent the whole day drinking far too much coffee and refreshing Twitter every thirty seconds. This is exactly what I’m doing at the moment, but at least I’m doing it on my own time. And I like my day job. I wouldn’t want to give it up even if I could afford to (if you’re interested, Lulu tells me that I have made £28.61 so far; there’s a long way to go before I make back the cost of the ISBNs); the worst part is the fifty-eight-miles-each-way commute, and I can call that writing time. At least, when I’m awake enough to write I can call that writing time. Reading this article on the life of touring musicians reminded me how fortunate I am, that I can do what I enjoy and make a living, and enjoy what I do making a living, and make, if not a living, some money doing what I enjoy.

Returning to the subject of my in-laws, one of them asked me about my experience with Lulu. My first reaction was to point them at Ankaret’s blog (apart from anything else, she’s got a very nice post about Speak Its Name up there at the moment) because pretty much everything I know about Lulu I learned from Ankaret’s early posts. Things have moved on in Lululand since 2010, particularly in regard to their provision of ebooks, but there’s a lot that remains the same.

Apart from that…

Lulu is very intuitive and easy to use…

… right up to the point where it isn’t and you spend hours swearing at it and crying (not that this was me on Monday or anything)

Specifically, I have learned that if you have a paperback book on Lulu under ‘private access’, and you want it to be available to everyone, all you have to do is click on the title in the ‘My Projects’ thing and change it to ‘general access’. It sounds so obvious, but you’d expect that to be under the ‘Manage Distribution’ button, which is right next to it, and only deals with making it available on things other than Amazon.

You get out what you put in.

One of the things about self-publishing that I found daunting was the fact that I’d have to do everything myself, or find someone else to do it. Cover, type-setting, publicity, editing, proofreading – everything that would be somebody else’s job if I’d gone down the route of traditional publishing, I had to do, or organise its getting done, and the one that was freaking me out the most was the ‘making the book look good’.

Lulu doesn’t help you with that. It’ll chuck the book back at you if you’ve got the margins wrong, or forgotten to put the ISBN on the back cover, but that’s about as far as it goes. You have to make it look as good as you possibly can yourself.

I’m reasonably pleased with how Speak Its Name has turned out – I’m fretting a bit about the definition of the flower on the cover of the paperback, and I don’t much like Times New Roman as an ebook font (but it’s better than all the alternatives) – but it took a lot of work to get it to ‘reasonably pleasing’.

It really helps to know about…

… using styles in Word (or Word-alike – I use LibreOffice Writer) programs. The ebook converter insists on formatting being done this way. You can’t just hit the return key until the text goes where you want it to, because the converter strips that out.

However, if you are using a first line indent style and you want to signify a change of scene with a paragraph break, it will recognise one double return. And I only wish I’d known that before I’d gone through the whole document putting in line breaks with the ‘Insert… line break’ tool, because the converter strips those out, too.

It can be really, really sloooooooooowwww

This is partly the way that Lulu works and partly the way that everything else works. I submitted the ebook for checking prior to distribution to retailers other than Lulu nearly a week ago, and it’s still ‘pending’. And of course even once it has been approved there’ll be a delay before those retailers pick it up. Similarly with the print version – it will filter through to Amazon eventually, but by all accounts this will take the best part of a month, or possibly even longer.

I think that making all versions available on all platforms at the same moment is an impossible dream.

When you really, really want something, it takes longer to arrive

Which I suppose is just life, really. Lulu’s stated printing times for paperbacks are 3-5 business days, and of course with the first proof copy, which I really desperately wanted, it was the full five days.

This all sounds a bit negative

These are the whinges, but overall I’m pretty pleased with Lulu. I’ll post another time about the hell that was self-publishing in the nineties (I know because both my parents did it) but for the moment I’ll just say that Lulu cuts out ninety-five per cent of the hassle that I remember. I gave them a file and they gave me a book. What more can you ask for, really?

Free stuff that isn’t Lulu but that is useful

  • Paint.net, for the cover. Apart from the way it refuses to let you change text once you’ve added it, which is infuriating, it’s brilliant. Not entirely intuitive, but once you’ve worked out how to do something then it will do it.
  • LibreOffice, if you don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office. LibreOffice Writer does most of the stuff that MS Word does, albeit in a slightly different way.
  • the thing within your word processor program that converts to PDF. Essential, so far as I’m concerned, for peace of mind. I didn’t trust Lulu to convert my .odt document into a book. I didn’t really trust it to convert the PDF into a book, but it did do that properly, and the inside of the paperbook looks as I expected it to.
  • Calibre, for checking the ebook version. For doing just about anything with ebooks, actually. But I found myself downloading the ebook version over and over again, and Calibre lets me look at it on screen, add it to my Kobo, and convert it to different formats.

This is all that occurs to me at the moment, after a couple of months as a member of Lulu and forty-eight hours as a live author. No doubt I’ll discover more of its little quirks along the way. I’ll keep you posted – if, that is, its little quirks are at all interesting.