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There’s this service for self-publishing authors called BookBaby, sibling of the long-established CD Baby service for indie musicians, that I’ve been thinking about using. They handle putting your book in all the ebook stores for you, and will also optionally help you format and design your book. Most other companies that offer similar services (SmashWords for example) charge you nothing up front, but take a percentage of your profits forever. BookBaby charges in a more up-front manner.

Note that I said “in a more up-front manner.” I chose that vague language very specifically. It’s not a one-time flat fee. The marketing on their website makes it sound like it’s a one-time flat fee, ranging from $99 to $249, depending on your level of premiumness. There’s even a chart with three flat-looking fees along the top, defining the columns. They never actually say that it’s a one-time upfront fee. The reason they never actually say that it’s a one-time upfront fee is that it isn’t. There’s all kinds of little extra fees here and there for things like getting an ISBN number, converting an image file and embedding it in your ebook, or even having more than 30 chapter headings in your table of contents. There’s also an ongoing $19/year fee per book to keep it “in print.” All of which is still more upfront than the ongoing sales percentage tax that places like SmashWords charge. And most of which sounds reasonably fair. ISBNs don’t come free to anybody. Converting an image file, arguably, takes a bit of human intervention. The surcharge on extra chapters seems arbitrary to me. But what do I know? And this is a minor quibble.

I haven’t yet distributed an ebook through any of these services, but I do have an opinion about their revenue models, based on other content businesses I’ve looked at or participated in over the years:

— if you are going to do a lot of business, you are probably better off paying somebody a fee (or a set of fees) upfront for specific services, and keeping 100% of your earnings after sales start rolling in.

— the only reason to use a company who takes an ongoing percentage of sales is if you don’t plan to do a lot of business. There’s just no sense in spending cash up front for your own vanity.

Let’s say that a vendor takes 10% of your earnings (note: this is not the actual amount that SmashWords takes — I am just using that number to make the math easier). Let’s say that your profits from each book sold amount to $10 before the vendor takes its cut (again, easy math). Let’s say that you sell 5 copies, for a total of $50 in revenue. You will pay your vendor $5 for the services provided. That’s not terrible. It’s less than lunch. It’s also a lot less than most companies would charge you upfront for distribution and formatting services. You win.

Let’s say that you sold 1,000,000 copies, though, for a total of $10,000,000 in revenue. You will pay your vendor one million dollars for services rendered. That’s pretty expensive for these particular services. You lose, in a big, big way.

Are you realistically going to sell a million copies? No. I’m just trying to show you where the edge cases are. Generally, the more you sell, the worse a percentage-only deal looks. You can’t know how much you’re going to sell before you start selling. Yes, you think you know, but you’re an egotistical author, and/or you’re an insecure author — either way, you’re probably wrong about your potential sales. So if the deal is good or bad only when viewed through the lens of your actual sales, and you won’t have any actual sales until you make the deal, how do you know what to do?

My impulse is to always go with the upfront deal, rather than the percentage deal — if I can afford the upfront deal, and if the company is offering good services. The penalty for making the wrong decision is too harsh if you’re accidentally successful.

I can afford the upfront deal BookBaby is offering — even their richest deal is less than $300. They’re not expensive at all. I just don’t know if they’re offering good services. It’s hard to know beforehand, without hearing from unbiased sources. These people will be aggregating and handling my money, among other things. It’s important to know who they are and how they work. Here are some places I’ve found on the web where people are talking about the services — some are happy, some are not, as you might expect. I don’t know how reasonable or reliable these people are, though, because I don’t know them. I just know that they said stuff.

Why and How I Just Used BookBaby for Digital Publishing

Author Adventures: BookBaby

Self-Pub Spotlight: BookBaby

Of course, I could do all of this stuff myself. Most authors could. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to, though.

What do you think? Do you have any experience with BookBaby? Or with some other vendor? Or should I eliminate these middlepeople altogether and do everything myself?