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Age of the Authorpreneur



By Paula Gruben


An authorpreneur is an author – traditionally or self-published – who adapts the savvy ways of an entrepreneur in order to build a business and grow multiple revenue streams around their book. In this guest post, Dave has asked me to share with you guys how I’ve managed to build a business around my debut novel Umbilicus, which I self-published in 2016.




Clicks vs Bricks

Worldwide, we are seeing a trend towards an ‘omnichannel’ retail approach, or a combination of physical stores and ecommerce.

Amazon opened its first bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle in November 2015. Two years later, the company has a total of 13 Amazon Books stores, with plans to expand to more locations. Last month, 11-year-old YuppieChef opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in Cape Town, also with plans for national expansion.

Savvy authorpreneurs will be sitting up and taking notice of this next evolution of retail, and making sure the print edition of their book is as easily available to customers in-store, as the eBook edition is available to them online.


My distribution channels for Umbilicus included, or still include:

  • Online + bricks-and-mortar retailers, {Think Amazon and Createspace - Dave}
  • 'Back of room' sales at the many events at which I have been invited to speak,
  • A handful of very kind individuals on the ground to whom I've entrusted small batches at a time for location specific distribution (UK + Ireland, Australia + New Zealand, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria),
  • Plenty of shameless hand-selling to friends, family, and colleagues.

Each distribution channel yields a different profit margin, anywhere from R20 - R150 per unit sold. Why the huge discrepancy? Well, below I am going to weigh up the pros and cons of two important physical distribution channels – namely Exclusive Books (lowest profit margin) and back of room sales (highest profit margin) – as this is where I feel there is still a lot of untapped potential for fellow South African indie authors to build a business around their books. {Excited clapping of hands by Dave}


Exclusive Books

Whether local indie authors like to admit it or not, they would all like to see their books on the shelves of EB. It is still considered the holy grail of bricks-and-mortar bookstores in SA, and lends tremendous weight to an author’s credibility, in the eyes of the public and the publishing fraternity.

Sadly, the profit margin on EB sales for authors is laughable. Earlier this month, well-known wordsmith Paige Nick revealed that the average traditionally published South African author makes around 12% of the wholesale price of each book sold. And the wholesale price is usually 40 - 55% less than the retail price. So if a book retails for R287, the author makes R8 - R12 per book.

Because indie authors have fewer middle men (publishers, distributors, warehouses, publicists), all needing their slice of the pie, our profit margins are a bit higher, at around 20% of the wholesale price of each book sold. With projected sales of just 600 copies for the average novel written in English by a South African author – whether traditionally or self-published – it’s a seriously bleak picture.

So why bother writing fiction for the local market? And why bother with EB? Well, in terms of writing, because there is a chance – no matter how small – that your novel, yes your novel, might just capture the public’s imagination and catapult you to international fame and fortune! And in terms of distribution through EB, well, besides the credibility factor, and the invaluable exposure it provides for your work nationally, it’s still profit. Profit you may not have realised otherwise. Also, every unit sold contributes to the all-important total sales figure which brings you one step closer to prestigious ‘bestseller’ status. A coveted badge of honour which can obviously be leveraged for marketing purposes, as well as in pitches to agents and publishers down the line. For South African fiction authors writing in English, 2,000 sold copies of your novel officially qualifies you to label yourself a ‘bestselling author’, and your book a ‘bestseller’. So, irrespective of how much (little!) profit you make from EB sales, you need to see it as part of the bigger picture, a long-term strategy in building your career as a successful author.




The Holy Grail

Okay, so now you understand the importance of getting your self-published book into EB, how do you actually go about joining the ‘big league’? Well, unlike independent bookstores which indie authors can approach directly (a pretty Herculean task if you want national coverage, let’s be honest), to get physical copies of your book onto the shelves of EB, you have to go through a distributor on their vendor list. These are strictly limited to the following seven companies: Bacchus Books, Blue Weaver, Faradawn, PSD, Phambili, Xavier Nagel, and Feather Communications.

The book buying at EB is done by individual store managers, not centrally. And store managers can only be approached by one of the afore-mentioned registered distributors. A store manager makes buying decisions in much the same way a traditional publisher does. The book's design, the author, and local interest in the subject matter are each factors that will persuade a store manager to order and stock a particular title. This is why it is so important for an indie author to NOT try and cut any corners in the production process. Your book will need to be able to sit comfortably alongside its traditionally published counterparts on the EB shelves, without sticking out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, I (still) see a lot of self-published books whose editing / layout / choice of paper makes me cringe. And this is probably why you don’t see too many indie authors represented on the shelves of EB. If your product is not up to par, good luck with convincing an EB registered distributor to risk their reputation in repping your book, never mind persuading an EB store manager to order and stock your book in their store. {Hallelujah Paula, this is by far the biggest reason authors fail to move beyond the neighbourhood bookstore – Dave}

As an indie author working with a distributor, you will need to supply your distributor with stock of your book, as well as an Advance Info (AI) sheet, which is basically an A4 page showing the book’s cover, title, and author bio, plus the blurb, a couple of testimonials, some technical details – like ISBN, number of pages, and recommended retail price – as well as the distributor’s name, so store managers can easily place orders. Below is the AI sheet I created for Umbilicus.




Most retailers, including EB, work on a sale or return (consignment) basis. After three to four months, whatever stock hasn’t been sold is returned, to make way for new stock. This timeframe goes for all titles, whether traditionally or self-published. Remember, bookstores only have a finite amount of shelf space, and there are new titles coming in all the time. Your title will, however, remain on EB’s database, and customers will be able to order imported print-on-demand copies of your print edition, provided it’s available on Amazon.

In September (2017) I received the sales report from my distributor. Although I didn't make a ton of money from my EB sales, 84% of the stock I supplied was sold within the timeframe of their sale or return policy, which proved that my efforts were not a waste of time. There is certainly a viable market for stories like mine, contrary to what a certain publisher, who shall remain nameless, said when I embarked on the querying / submission process with traditional publishers back in early 2015, prior to deciding on the self-publishing route.


Back of Room

Where intrepid indie authors can make a handsome profit is by selling directly to audience members at events. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my author talks, but I tailor the content and message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience.

Firstly though, in order to capitalise on this potentially lucrative ‘author speaker’ platform, you have to be willing / able to speak about yourself and your book in front of a live audience. For some authors, the fear of public speaking will make this seem like a near-impossible task. I say, have a stiff drink, and just do it!

Most events at which you will be invited to speak won’t offer a speaker’s fee. In fact, it will probably cost you time and money to prepare for, and travel to/from the event. But turning down any opportunity to talk about your book in front of a live, captive audience simply because the gig is unpaid, is short-sighted. Any chance you can get to raise your public profile should be grabbed with both hands. The free publicity and exposure will be invaluable as you expand your reach and build your brand.

That said, you need to remember there's no such thing as a ‘free’ talk. You have to make sure there’s a value exchange. Like Bronwyn Hesketh advises on page 143 of her 2017 self-published book, Speaker Savvy: “Ask the organiser for a list of the delegates attending so that you can market to them afterwards; agree that you will be allowed to sell your books after your talk (and that there is time in the programme allocated to this, in the form of a break, immediately following your talk, or as soon as possible thereafter); or that you get an HD copy of the video they are making of the event. Something that is of value to you. Then it's a win-win, not a freebie." {Really great advice for author-speakers – Dave}

With back of room, I average sales of 5 - 10% to a live audience, regardless of audience size, eg. 5 - 10 paperbacks to an audience of 100, 15 - 30 paperbacks to an audience of 300. So bigger audiences are definitely better! And even if you sell less than a dozen copies per event, you never know who is in the audience, and what future business prospects this serendipitous encounter might yield.

For example, in November last year I was invited to present my Triad Talk to 300 delegates at the ‘Adoption 2016 and Beyond’ Conference. Shortly thereafter I was invited by a social worker and adoption specialist, who had been in the audience, to do a similar talk for around a dozen prospective adoptive parents at her private practice in January 2017. And a few months after that I was invited by the GM of a Children’s Home, who had also been in that original conference audience, to be the guest speaker at a fundraiser with 150 guests in September 2017. I used each of these events to network like a mofo, and yes, I even managed to sell a few signed copies of my book!




Looking Ahead

My ultimate goal for Umbilicus is to see it included on the list of recommended reading for the new Comprehensive Sexuality Education syllabus of the Life Orientation curriculum. Because besides adoption, the book covers many other issues pertinent to adolescents, like crisis pregnancy, abortion, teen suicide, self-esteem, and identity, and I firmly believe there isn’t a single high school student, or teacher, in SA who can’t learn something from my story. Perhaps with the clout and connections of a traditional publisher behind me I’d have achieved this goal by now. But there’s no way of knowing. I did meet with and pitch my ideas to the powers that be from the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Social Development in February 2017. Although I haven’t had a ‘yes’, I also haven’t had a ‘no’, which means that I haven’t given up on this dream just yet.

Many authors nowadays are both traditionally and self-published. They are known as hybrid authors. As for Incomer, the sequel to Umbilicus, I have decided to give traditional publishing another bash. But this time I’ll be casting my net wider, in the hopes of finding a UK-based literary agent. I feel like I have paid my dues, and will hopefully be taken more seriously than the first time I dipped my toe in the water, as a complete 'unknown'. But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll self-publish again. Nothing will stop me from getting my stories out into the world.

If you guys would like to find out more about me and my publishing journey, you’ll find loads of info on my website and Facebook page.

Wishing you all the very best as you birth your own book babies and send them out into the big, wide world! Remember: Hustle hard, and stay humble. {We love you Paula, thanks for sharing this advice with our readers! - Dave}



Author Book Launches in Cape - November 2017