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Authors around the world are trying to reduce their reliance on Amazon. However, most of us still use and like Amazon. In fact, many of us earn most of our money from Amazon. But any company with a 90% market share can’t be fully trusted.

Indie authors can reduce their reliance on Amazon by selling directly from their own author websites. Selling directly protects you from the changes at an international company. It allows you to retain more money, control, and flexibility over pricing, bundling, and more.

In 2023, I interviewed Joanna Penn about selling directly on your website. We discussed author websites, how to sell, what software to get, and the reasons you should consider selling directly to readers.

During that interview, Joanna mentioned a new service called Bookvault, which she used to fulfill book orders from her website. Bookvault would print and ship the book directly to her reader, making selling physical books on her website almost as painless as selling on Amazon. Additionally, she got to keep most of the money rather than share most of the money with Amazon.

The service was primarily for the UK at the time of the interview, but Bookvault has now come to America.

bookvault logo, a printing and fulfillment company for authors

What is Bookvault?

Thomas: I asked Alex Smith. He is the technical lead at Bookvault and is responsible for developing the latest Bookvault features.

Alex: Bookvault is part of a larger company called Print on Demand Worldwide. We’ve been in the UK as a digital printer for nearly 30 years. Primarily we’ve always worked with larger academic publishers in the UK such as Taylor and Francis and Oxford University Press. Generally, we’ve always been a print-on-demand (POD) printer for single copies or very low-run quantities.

Bookvault has been around for about ten years and was built to service those companies and make it a hands-off platform where they could manage their orders and deal with distribution.

When Covid hit, everyone took a step back and evaluated their businesses. We did the same and realized it would be better to open it up to the wider market.

Thomas: Print on demand is not a new technology. Digital printing is not new. Many companies have the technology to print on demand, but few want to work with individual authors because it’s a hassle. The number of units is typically small, and they’d much rather work with a catalog company or academic institution that needs to print 100,000 units.

The trick is using the software piece, where authors can set it up themselves without having to pay a lot of money, which makes print-on-demand work in the real world.

How can authors use Bookvault?

Alex: We’ve always worked with larger publishers, but working with individual authors is a completely different mindset, which we actually prefer.

It’s nice to focus on making a nice product and giving people nice service rather than cutting corners and trying to make the cheapest book possible.

Thomas: Amazon and IngramSpark offer print-on-demand paperbacks, but you offer high-quality hardbacks, like cloth-bound hardbacks with foil and embossing, which feel like offset print books.

If an author wants to create a special edition or hardback, they really need a high-quality book. Younger readers, such as millennials and Gen Z, want nice hardbacks that they can display on their shelves.

Boomers grew up with cheap paperbacks, so they don’t mind a cheap paperback and may not want to pay extra for a fancy hardback. A millennial is more likely to choose the hardback for $30, while a boomer is more likely to choose the paperback for $15. Of course, an individual’s financial situation will affect those buying decisions.

Hardbacks and Special Editions

Alex: We’ve seen hardbacks and fancy editions sell for that higher price. Readers are also more likely to post about the fancy hardback on TikTok or Instagram, so having a high-quality hardback is a good way of earning more money and a good way to further allow your readers to market your book for you. It’s free advertising, really.

Thomas: They are concerned about how a book looks on a shelf. Think of it as shelf candy. I will buy special edition hardbacks of books I have previously listened to on audio. For example, I found Brandon Sanderson’s book by listening to Michael Kramer and Kate Reading read it to me on audio. But his special edition Kickstarter books are beautiful and look great on my shelf, so I buy them in addition to the audio.

Backlist Refresh

Alex: We’ve even seen people relaunch their backlists. They have readers who own the book, and when they relaunch a special edition, those same readers will buy the book again in the new edition. It’s a great way to rejuvenate your backlist.

What is the difference between offset printing and print-on-demand?

Thomas: The ability to print hardbacks isn’t new. We’ve been printing hardbacks since the folio some 2,000 years ago. Bookvault is special because you can print very nice hardbacks on demand.

Typically, if you want a nice hardback book, you’d have to use offset printing. In an offset print run, the printer makes big metal plates that are etched with the text of your book. Creating those plates is very expensive, but it is a one-time cost. Then, the printer rolls paper over the plates at an insane speed. All the pages are printed into a big stack, and then another machine binds it.  

It may take a week to produce the first copy of that book and 30 seconds to produce the second one. Traditional publishing makes money by printing thousands of copies of one book to get the per-unit cost down. The lower your per-unit cost, the higher your margins.

The upfront costs of offset printing are high and labor intensive, so you can’t print just one copy.

Print-on-demand printing allowed authors to print a single copy at a time on a different kind of printer. Think of it as an expensive version of your laser printer at home. Your laser printer prints one sheet of paper and then another. Each sheet can be different than the one before it. It can print an entire book, and then the next book off the same machine can be a totally different book from another author. If you need a visual, check out this video of how print-on-demand books are made.

The advantage of on-demand printing is that you can print a single copy. If you find a typo, you can quickly change it in the digital file, and the next book printed will have the corrected version. No one has to redo the metal plates and do a second print run.

The downside of print-on-demand is that the cost will always be higher per unit. You don’t have the expensive upfront costs, but most authors can’t spend $200,000 to buy an offset print run of 100,000 copies of their book. Those books will have to be shipped and stored, and suddenly, you’ve spent a quarter of a million dollars. That’s a lot of money upfront to pay for a book that may not sell that many units.

Print-on-demand has allowed independent authors to etch out a middle-class income. You don’t get rich because the margins aren’t great, but you can make money selling one unit at a time.

Bookvault is taking the next step in the evolution of printing. They’re taking what has been done with softbacks and extending it to hardbacks.

Amazon can print hardbacks, but the printing still feels like a softback with a full-color cover. Bookvault, however, has made it possible to print a cloth hardback with gold embossing through its print-on-demand technology.

Until now, an offset printer was the only way to get a cloth hardback with gold lettering and a dust jacket. Being able to connect the on-demand printing of high-quality and specialty hardbacks with selling directly is a game changer for authors.

Alex: That’s all been driven by our owner, Andy Cork, when he set up the business 30 years ago. We’ve always been a bit outside of the traditional way of printers in terms of doing what others wouldn’t. That’s why we offer six different bindings, different types of paper, and different sizes.

The six binding options bookvault printing has for authors.

Specialty Sizes

Alex: We literally allow you to print any size you determine, from A6 to 297 millimeters squared, which is huge.

Thomas: Bookvault handles all hose sizes, but I’d encourage authors to stick to the standard sizes. Your book will look better on the shelf with the other books. It simplifies all the logistics, from the size of the shipping box to other preset factors. Unless you have a good reason for an unusual size, stick with one of the normal sizes.

Alex: Without a doubt, yes.

Thomas: Speaking of unusual sizes, can you do a 30-page children’s book with color on the inside?

Alex: Yes. We have slightly different papers than other providers currently on the market because we recently invested nearly £2 million in a new printer and finishing unit. Imagine two shipping containers side by side, where one prints the top of the sheet and the other prints the bottom of the sheet. Then, it goes through a big finishing unit, which chops it up into individual pages. That printer allows us to use coated stocks. Traditionally, a coated stock would require toner and a slower sheet-fed printer.

With this new unit, we can use a big roll, which means we can print 120 meters per minute in some cases. So, we can churn out books quite quickly, and that obviously helps drive down the cost.

I think the minimum page count on our 150 paper is 28, so we can do low-page-count kids’ books. It also allows us to print on the inside of the cover, so when you open the first page, it’s not white; it’s printed on the inside as well.

How does Bookvault help you sell directly from your website?

Thomas: Bookvault has an API which allows you to connect your website.

If you’re using Pay Hip, WooCommerce, or Shopify, a reader can place the order on your website. Your website will tell Bookvault, and Bookvault will print and ship the book. It’s relatively straightforward.

But some authors don’t want to set up ecommerce on their website. They just want to sell on Amazon. However, they often run a Kickstarter campaign for each of their books. Can those authors give you a CSV list of the names and addresses of everyone who gets a book as a reward for backing the campaign, and then you print and ship the books to their backers?

Alex: Yes. You can email our support team the spreadsheet from Kickstarter and tell us which pledge reward gets what product, and we can print and ship it.

We’re in the final stages of testing our process, and you’ll soon be able to do it all on the website. Eventually, you’ll be able to log onto our website, upload your spreadsheet, and place the orders.

If it must be done by support, it takes a couple of days to process. Then, we’ll send you a link to pay for them all. With the website plugin we’re building, it will take only 20 minutes to validate the orders and enter your credit card details. That will be a massive step forward.

Thomas: This is where I put on my old man voice and say, “Back when I was a kid, it took me two days!” When I published my book through CreateSpace back in the day, I got a massive box of books from CreateSpace. We set up an assembly line at my parents’ house, and my friends and family and I packaged and labeled the books.

I had to pay shipping twice, once to be shipped to me and a second time to ship to my readers.

If Bookvault can do all that, it will save authors lots of time and money. The one downside of this approach is that you can’t deliver a signed copy this way. To give signed copies, Bookvault will have to mail you the copies, and then you have to mail them out yourself after you’ve signed them.

And so, if you’re putting together a Kickstarter, keep this in mind that there’s a real cost in time and shipping when you offer a signed copy.

This is staggeringly easy.

How does Bookvault’s pricing compare to other printers?

In my experience, the sweet spot of profit margins for a print-on-demand book is 200- 250 pages. Is that still the case? Or is that the case for you?

Alex: Our printing works a little bit differently than Amazon KDP, but it’s very similar to Ingram. It’s all simplified. You get one unit price in our quoting calculator, and we charge per bind. We charge for a paperback or hardback binding, and then we charge a flat rate per page.

We offer something called split color. So, if you’ve got two color pages and 100 mono pages, we’ll only charge you for those two color pages and the rest are mono. So different from how others do it. Generally, 200-300 pages is the sweet spot, but we can bind over 1,000 pages on one of our papers. I wouldn’t recommend a lot of pages because it’s not a nice book to read, but people do it.

Thomas: I love that. If I’m writing a fantasy book and want a color map but don’t want to pay for color printing on the whole book, I can just pay for two pages of color printing.

Alex: Yes. People do color chapter headings as well, which are really nice.

Some authors sell the traditional book on Amazon and sell their nice hardback specialty edition from the Kickstarter directly from their websites. You can increase the price and it gives people a reason to buy directly from you because they get that bonus feature.

Thomas: Everybody wants to have color for that handful of pages, but when you choose color in the price calculator at other printers, it doubles the price of your book. But with Bookvault, we’re looking at a few extra cents per copy.

Alex: It literally is a matter of two pence or three cents per page. If you had just a couple of color pages, you wouldn’t even notice the price difference.

Thomas: Wow. Can I have Bookvault supply into the Amazon ecosystem where somebody places an order on Amazon and Bookvault prints and ships the book?

Alex: Yes. We do handle distribution. But I always like to put a caveat out there and be honest that we’re not to the scale that Ingram is. They distribute all over the world. We’ve been very much UK focused, but we are expanding quite rapidly this year.

We list on the major Amazon marketplaces (UK, US, and most of Europe) as a third-party seller. This is different from KDP. With KDP, the book would be on prime, and the customer wouldn’t have to pay shipping, but they would have to pay shipping through us. We have a slightly longer lead time, but it does enable you to sell your book with a few color pages on Amazon.

We also allow you to choose the retail percentage you want to give, and we remit royalties at the end of the month.

Does Bookvault distribute into the Amazon warehouses so Amazon can ship books?

Thomas: Do you distribute into the Amazon warehouses so books can be shipped by Amazon?

Alex: We do that with certain customers. They work directly with us, and we fulfill Amazon Advantage orders. It’s certainly something we do regularly if arrangements are made.

Thomas: It’s smarter to go with KDP for their Amazon sales because it’s so easy.

It’s important to note that all these nice features are more complicated than just uploading your book to KDP. KDP is so simple and it’s already there on Amazon.

Hybrid publishers will charge you thousands of dollars to do what you could do yourself in 30 minutes.

Bookvault is more work, but it really shines in the following areas:

  • allowing direct sales through your website
  • fulfilling Kickstarter orders
  • specifications for children’s books

KDP and IngramSpark both fall on their faces for children’s books. I haven’t seen a book from KDP or Ingram that can withstand regular usage by children.

Can I order author copies from Bookvault?

Alex: Many authors also use our printing for author copies.

If you’re going to an event or fulfilling a Kickstarter from your own table, we handle all the author copies. Generally, with pricing in the US and the UK, we sit on par or just below Ingram. In terms of order processing, Amazon requires you to place a separate order for each of your books. Our system allows you to build a cart and order 100 copies of one title and 100 of a second title. We’ll total the cost and ship them together.

Thomas: As an author, I can go on your website and order 100 copies of my book to be shipped to the hotel where I’m speaking. The books are my special edition, with color chapter headings and a full-color map, which is only available if you buy it from me.

Since I’m there speaking at the event, I can sign the books in front of people. Now, my customers are not thinking, “I could get this for $2 less on Amazon.” Instead, they’re thinking, “This is totally worth the premium price!”

Plus, I get to keep almost all the money because I’m getting the retailer’s share, and the shipping on a per-unit basis is pretty low.

So that’s another great use of print on demand. It’s nice to have those author copies. Every author needs at least 20-30 copies on hand at home.

What’s the lead time on Bookvault’s printing?

Thomas: If I find out I’m speaking at this big event in a month, could you get me books in a month, or do you need more lead time?

Alex: In the US, we’re printing in three to five days at the moment. We had a bit of a rough patch over Christmas last year. We were really knocked back by demand. When we opened our US facility, we were expecting it to gradually grow, but a mass number of orders suddenly hit us. We’ve learned from that.

We’re launching our second US facility soon. We plan to eventually have a physical entity in the US instead of using partners.

We do offer rush and priority services as well. You can choose same day printing and shipping for a paperback. Hardback will take two to three days. There is a bit of an uplifting cost, but it’s there for emergency situations. We literally drop everything to print them and get them out the door for you.

Thomas: That’s a common practice with printers. When possible, try to avoid those rush fees. You’ll save the printer the hassle, and you’ll save yourself money.

But sometimes, you don’t know what’s coming. Occasionally, an author’s book is featured by a celebrity or BookToker, and the demand goes through the roof.

Sometimes, you just need the copies right away, and it’s nice to be able to place an order for that.

That rush is one reason I waited so long to interview you. I knew you underestimated the American demand for a service like this.

Alex: We worked with Baker and Taylor initially in the US. When we were getting a lot of demand, they also received a massive order from their other customer, Amazon. It was a difficult time, but certainly one we’ve learned from.

We rerouted stuff to the UK to print and then sent it as a priority. We’ve put a lot more contingencies in place now. It’s certainly something we won’t let happen again.

Thomas: To help accommodate your customers, you now have more than one vendor in the US. If one is busy, the other is less likely to be busy for the same reasons. Obviously, if there’s a pandemic or something that hits everybody, there’s nothing you can do. But most of the time, having a second vendor really helps.

Alex: We found it really tricky, especially in the US. Print seems to be a little bit behind what it is in the UK, especially when we talk about these special editions.

For example, in the UK, we can do a printed hardback with a jacket. A US POD provider can’t believe we’re doing it. That’s made it tricky to find a second partner. We want them to be able to do what we do and provide the same level of quality we provide.

We pride ourselves on the quality of the books we print. So, we want to make sure they look good. KDP is fantastic, but we want to provide a book with a thicker cover board so it’s less flimsy. We want nicer paper and better color quality.

Thomas: We have been behind you in printing since the Revolutionary War. But we’re both still behind China. China had a 400-year head start on papermaking and print technology, and they’re still out ahead.

For instance, Bibles have incredibly thin paper. It’s staggeringly thin, but you can still read it. Almost all Bibles are printed in China because China has the technology for making that quality of paper at scale. Not only is the paper incredibly thin, but the book is also only $8.

What’s the process for printing through Bookvault?

Thomas: Let’s say I’ve just received the final edits on my manuscript in a Word document. Do I generate a PDF in Vellum and send it to you? What do I do next?

Alex: You would want a print-ready PDF. We accept the same sort of files that you would upload to Ingram and KDP. Our papers pretty much match KDP and Ingram.

I’d recommend not having a defined spine. If you’ve got a defined spine where the front and back covers are yellow, but the spine is green, be aware that it may not print as you want. There is always a level of movement that the book can have when it’s being printed, so the colors may not line up with the defined boundaries on your spine. I would not recommend using a design like that.

Thomas: Each book requires two PDFs; one for the interior of the book, which we would make inside of Vellum or Atticus, and another for the outside of the book, and that’s what you’re talking about in terms of spine width.

You, as an author, should not be making the cover. If you’re making the cover yourself, you have made some bad life decisions. Work with a professional designer who will make the cover and deliver a print-ready PDF for the cover.

What happens after I upload my interior and exterior PDFs to the Bookvault portal?

Alex: We do charge an upload fee per title because when we took our realignment and opened it to everyone, in the space of a weekend, someone uploaded 20,000 books, all with different pictures of kittens on them, and tried to push them to Amazon. It completely ground all our processes to a halt.

We were trying to get all these kittens onto Amazon behind all these actual books that we’re going to sell. For that reason, we had to introduce a £19.95 upload fee or $24.95. That’s a one-off fee you pay per title you add.

However, we work with a lot of organizations including The Alliance of Independent Authors and Novelists Incorporated, and we give free title uploads, so their members don’t have to pay that fee. It’s there to stop people who don’t want to sell their books.

When you upload your two PDFs to the platform it validates right away so you don’t have to wait days for someone to validate it as you do with Ingram.  It will give you ticks to say it’s all ready, or if it’s not it’ll give you guidance on what to do and you can pass that information back to your cover designer.

As soon as that’s done, it’s ready to order. There’s no waiting around. As soon as you’ve got those ticks and it’s marked as active, you can place a single proof copy to yourself.

Thomas: Always order a single proof!

Alex: Yes. We’ve seen so many people do Kickstarters and never order a proof. They’ll order 150-200 copies, and we see it coming off the end of the press with text hanging off the edge because they’ve done it as the wrong size.

Always print a proof no matter what.

Always print a proof no matter what.

Alex smith, bookvault

After that, you can place orders when you want. You can also distribute it or link it up to your own store through our apps and plugins as well.

How does Bookvault connect to my website?

Thomas: So once the book is there, I can place a bulk order for myself. Can also connect it to my website.

You have a Zapier connection, which means that anything that connects to Zapier can place orders through your system.

Alex: We have Zapier, and we also have more bespoke integrations for the larger ecommerce platforms like Shopify and WooCommerce. We have built-in, dedicated apps for them. You can go to the plugin or app store, download our dedicated app, and have everything set up for you.

So, it sets up that link and deals with all the shipping profiles.

We have Zapier to connect other products. We’re also working with Payhip to build a dedicated app, which will be very exciting.

Thomas: Payhip is my current favorite tool for that, but as of this recording, Payhip is still going through Zapier. I recommend avoiding Zapier whenever possible. It’s glitchy and less reliable than a true, first-party integration.

Alex: We’re working with a beta tester for Payhip, which will literally bring live shipping rates and order confirmations to Payhip. I am looking forward to the day we release it because it’s a big platform used by a lot of people and much simpler than Shopify. Shopify is fantastic and great for scaling a business, but it’s also a lot of work to set up and sometimes a bit overkill for what people need.

Thomas: Joanna Penn pushes Shopify and it can potentially make sense because there are some advantages if you’re selling a lot of books. But if you’re selling less than $1,000 per month, Payhip is much better because it’s the seller of record that handles sales tax and VAT taxes for you.

It’s much easier to set up, and I don’t think there are monthly fees.

If you’re only selling, two or three books each month, you don’t want to pay $20 per month fees because that’ll eat up all your profits.

There’s no monthly fee with Bookvault; it’s just the upload fee, which you pay on a per-unit basis. There’s no monthly fee with Payhip, which means if I use Payhip on my website, I’m not paying any monthly fees. I’m just occasionally getting money from people who are buying my book.

If you’re just getting started or you have older books that aren’t moving quickly, getting set up with Payhip is better than spending a lot of money on Shopify and paying a big monthly fee.

I can’t wait for your pay hip integration. I like that you’re actively adding features. You’ll soon have the case bound cloth for the US market. And you’ll have these software tools I’ve been waiting for.

Do you have any final words of encouragement or advice?

Alex: Bookvault offers free meetings. If you want to set up direct sales or have questions that haven’t been answered in this podcast, visit our website, click the contact us button, and you can book a free meeting with one of our experts. Our team members can point you in the right direction or tell you what we can and can’t do.

Check out Bookvault.app.

Thomas:  If you use Bookvault as an author, feel free to post a link to your store or website in the comments of this post at AuthorMedia.social. Other authors may order your book just to see what the Bookvault experience is like and how fast it’s delivered.

Free Bookvault Upload for Novel Marketing Patrons!

Alex Smith has granted Patrons of the Novel Marketing podcast a free one-time setup fee, a $25 value! Become a Novel Marketing patron today, and get your one-time free upload.

Novel Marketing Patrons also receive a monthly bonus episode, many discounts on my courses, and an occasional feature at the end of the podcast.

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