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.