Over the last decade, buying books online has become commonplace thanks to big-name stores. And we’re not just talking about that online-only store, either. For any reader who’s trying not to default to using the ‘Zon, simply performing a quick ‘where to buy books online’ search offers over 3 million answers.
In this blog, we’re going to take a brief look at purchasing trends, why more readers seem to be happier now to buy books from publishers, and explain why purchasing eBooks and paperbacks direct online makes such a big difference for a small press and its authors.
If one good thing came out of 2020 for readers, the surge of online eCommerce portals created by indie brick-and-mortar bookshops and small publishers has to be at the top. We all love going to bookshops to smell the books browse and purchase, but when that’s not a possibility, readers can at least still support their local haunts by ordering online.
According to a Guardian article quoting Nielsen Data, the big winner during the first half of 2020 was (unsurprisingly) eBooks. While paperback sales fell by an eye-watering 11%, eBook sales in the UK increased by 17% compared to 2019, and UK publishers were set to have the best year for eBook sales since way back in 2015.
Of course, the Big 5 (now 4) took the lion’s share of this as smaller presses struggled and scrambled to create an online presence to sell their books directly.
This is nothing new — Inspired Quill (IQ) has had an online bookshop for a few years now, but that’s mainly because we have a digital marketing ninja at the helm, squeezing in time after the Day Job™ to make sure our titles are available to the world at large. Indie publishers are usually under-staffed and over-worked, with the owner being a one-person-band wearing far too many hats and running their press with a heady mix of coffee and willpower.
While we don’t have specific figures just yet, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that many folks who had been used to taking frequent trips to their favourite IRL bookshops had to suddenly get used to ordering online. This hasn’t been without its frustrations for all involved — publishers, bookshops and readers — but thankfully these new online stores are forever, not just for pandemics.
Hooray for removing a (tiny) portion of reliance on third party websites such as the ‘Zon, which (as we all know) can click its fingers and hide books or make them disappear completely for no apparent reason.
There are plenty of benefits to purchasing your next novel from independent presses, direct from their online bookshop. Here are just a few:
Often, independent publishers (especially us micro-presses) are run by a handful of employees or volunteers and operate on a shoestring budget. Purchasing direct means a bigger portion of the RRP goes back into the business to keep finding and mentoring exciting new debut authors, and taking chances on non-mainstream voices, stories and formats.
We’re not paying middle-managers or shareholders. For us, it’s personal — which means we care deeply about every title we publish. As the Big 5 become the Big 4, it’s the smaller presses that continue to offer different publishing flavours to both authors and readers… but only if we’re supported enough to stick around!
Plenty of small presses are doing their bit to reduce their carbon footprint, including re-using packaging or opting for eco-friendly options. We’ve never heard of an indie publisher wrapping a book in 20 layers of bubble wrap and shipping it in a box five sizes too big. And, unlike some online stores, we also pay our taxes and don’t abuse our staff/freelancers.
Inspired Quill also lives by its Diversity pledge and is in the process of writing an Eco pledge to sit alongside. These more formal, written pledges may not be common in the industry (yet!) but loads of other publishers have similar views and purpose-driven business practices.
And if that wasn’t enough, we (and many others) are super community-driven, constantly considering how we can give back to society at large, whether that’s through one-off donations or ongoing schemes such as our new initiative which will see us donate a book for every 10 direct sales. Any non-profit business (such as IQ) also reinvest any profits, which means more fantastic books by amazing authors, rather than lining the pockets of silent shareholders.
What comes first: market demand or book saturation? Book lovers can often forget that publishing is a business like any other, so when one of the Big 4 has a massive hit with a YA love triangle, all we see on the shelves of big chain bookshops are similarly-covered books with similar protagonists in similar genres. Specifics may vary, but the flavour remains the same. And if that’s all you find on the shelves, of course you’re going to buy it. It becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When you take a look at a book catalogue by an indie publisher, you’re much more likely to see a whole variety of shiny titles on a massive range of different themes, genres, writing styles and authorial backgrounds.
Readers who look at their current collection and decide they’d like to expand their reading range to a certain genre/voice/style can also look to specific publishers and take a chance on unknown (to them) authors. There are indie presses such as IQ that focus on non-tokenistic diversity across whole spectrums, but others specialise in Own Voices or representation of certain types — perfect for folks who know generally the sort of thing they want to read next.
Even if you don’t really care who releases books from your favourite author, purchasing from ‘the source’ means that more money will wind up in the author’s pocket. (You can see a fully transparent breakdown of this in the next section). While the UK average author income is under minimum wage (as of 2018 — and continuing to drop), the majority of authors published by smaller presses barely scratch the surface of this amount.
And purchases aren’t just about the money, either. Knowing that readers are continuing to enjoy books in the months and years after their initial release is often the necessary tonic for motivation to keep creating (and publishing!).
Whether it’s a wandering parcel or wondering what to read next, you don’t have to sit for hours on the phone listening to the same 80s power ballad on repeat to get an answer or resolve the problem. To small businesses, every customer is important. We know that if you don’t have a great experience with us, you’ll simply go elsewhere, so you’re more likely to have us go the extra mile for you when something untoward happens.
Also, because we are wearers-of-many-hats, you’ll likely be talking to the same person for the whole resolution process, instead of being passed around the proverbial houses.
Most indie publishers accept pre-orders and go the extra mile to make these special. When you pre-order a book direct through the Inspired Quill website, you can get your copy before it’s available in bookshops or online retailers. We also (usually) offer a 10% discount when you pre-order one of our titles and we include a personalised thank you note and bookmark to make your book parcel extra special. We also let our eBooks drop a full 24 hours before anywhere else, so you can get a head start on your favourite new series release.
Now, we’re not saying that just asking nicely will result in us sending out 10 free copies of our latest book. But if you’re a bookseller or a member of a book club, we (and many other publishers) are able to take a closer look at our margins and offer ad-hoc discounts for many of our titles if purchased in bulk. Because we’re the ones in charge, we can assess each situation on its own merit when it comes to deals. When in doubt, ask!
We’ve also been known to run exclusive deals and discounts on our paperback titles — something we don’t tend to do anywhere else online.
At Inspired Quill, we like to shed light to the darker corners of the industry, so here’s a quick breakdown for the curious among you.
You’ll have to forgive the ‘approximate’ numbers because we still use third parties to process payments and print our titles, so these numbers do (frustratingly) fluctuate somewhat. For paperbacks, it also massively depends on the size of the book (and, therefore, how much it costs to print). Some of our chunkier titles make less than £1 for an external sale.
(Note: These numbers reflect IQ profits per sale, having already accounted for author royalties).
eBook RRP: £3.49
Financial difference of purchasing eBooks direct = 92p per book (or +143.75%)
Paperback RRP: £9.99
Financial difference of purchasing paperbacks direct = £1.08 per book (or +117.39%)
Importantly, buying books direct means we get the money right away, too. When using third party platforms, it can take up to three months for us to receive payment. And while we’ve always been fortunate that payments are made on time, sometimes what we need is an injection of cash flow. Especially when we’re about to pay for an amazing book cover or making sure our latest kindle release is properly formatted (both of which we outsource to professional freelancers).
Every penny that Inspired Quill makes goes back into paying for more amazing titles to be produced, published and marketed.
Purchasing a title direct from a publisher isn’t always straightforward — especially if you know the title of the book but not the publisher. For example, typing ‘Queen of the World Ben Hennessy’ into Google will show you this list:
Now, we’ve done a lot of work on the IQ website to get us ranking for our titles, but this might not always be the case — especially for newer presses.
So how can you find the books in the first place without resorting to clicking the first retailer link? Well, there are two main paths.
If you already know the publisher:
If you don’t know the publisher, then you could search for ‘who published X’ or ‘X publisher’. Even if a big eCommerce website comes up first, they’ll usually list who published the title, so you can then go back and use that name in your subsequent search.
If you’re looking for multiple copies, it’s always worth trying to get in touch with the publisher through their contact form or direct email address before putting 5 copies in your basket and paying full price (although we’d obviously not stop you from doing so!).
Worst-case scenario is that the indie press can’t give any discounts for that title or for the amount of books you want to purchase (e.g. if it’s fewer than a certain amount). But you’ve at least got your club on our radar and you might be able to strike a deal in the future!
Truthfully, there are a few possible reasons why buying direct may not be the most suitable option. Of course, we believe that the pros massively outweigh the cons for both readers and authors, but for full transparency, here’s where the potential sticking points might lie.
Small publishers simply cannot afford loss leaders (when an item is sold at a loss to try and tempt a customer back for more items that you then make a profit on). This tends to mean that we either have to roll the shipping costs into the book’s RRP or charge separately. Also, ‘next day delivery’ isn’t usually a thing, either. Although we always do our best to get the books to you ASAP!
Remember the many-hats comment? When you consider that big stores have their own web developers, designers and marketers as different team members, just having a website at all is an achievement for plenty of small businesses! Sometimes smaller websites aren’t the most intuitive or the prettiest, but please don’t let that put you off. Remember — when in doubt, feel free to send an email! We can’t fix what we don’t know is a sticking point.
This is a tough one because so do we! There’s nothing quite like spending too much time wandering the shelves and making a chunk of paycheck magically disappear at the till. It’s the human touch that’s often missing from websites. If you do have a local bookshop you want to support, then the next best thing for us indie presses is for you to order our titles through them instead.
If you do need to purchase from a big chain store for whatever reason, then we just want to say thank you for still supporting an indie press and its authors, regardless of who you choose to fulfil the order with.
Ready to buy your next read and discover a new favourite author? If you’d like to support us, you can browse through our bookshop right here on the IQ site or check out our current bestsellers below.