Self-publishing experiments

As announced in my series about (not) finding a publisher, I started experimenting with different self-publishing platforms. In part 6 of this series, I already commented on createmybooks.com and Blurb.

Let me start by summarizing what I wrote about my first two experiments.

CreateMyBooks (paperback / hardcover)

In 2019, I paid 12.14 euro for one 140-page softcover copy of my collection of short stories "Oceaanwees" (in Dutch). This price didn't include the 4.67 euro shipping cost and the 1.01 euro tax. I also had to pay for an ISBN-number separately. This makes CreateMyBooks a quite expensive service; other print-on-demand services issue an ISBN number for free and charge at most 5 euro for a book with a similar page count.

CreateMyBooks allows you to put your book in an online shop, ShopMyBooks.com, but that shop adds an extra fee on top of the production cost, which makes that people who buy a single copy pay even more than the total of 17.82 euro I paid for my first copy.

You can use an online tool to create a cover, but it's hard to use and crashes often. Once you've created a book and a cover, it's impossible to replace the content of that book, e.g. if you have fixed some typos.

Cover Oceaanwees

The support team at CreateMyBooks did a good job, but the price and the counter-intuitive way to create a book cover, made me discard CreateMyBooks as a platform for the publication of my books. I will probably create a revised vision of "Oceaanwees" in 2021 using another service.

Blurb (paperback / hardcover)

In March 2020, I experimented with Blurb for the publication of "Nijlpaard voor Kerstmis" (written in Dutch). I paid only 4.27 euro for a 168-page softcover copy. Unfortunately, Blurb's shipping cost for one copy is brutal; 10.99 euro for a single book (this cost may vary depending on where you live). Add the 0.92 euro tax, and the price is still lower than the price of a book ordered created on CreateMyBooks: 16.18 euro. Moreover, the total cost per book drops significantly if you buy more copies.

The final version of "Nijlpaard voor Kerstmis" counts 180 pages. I bought 100 copies for 445.20 euro, shipping cost and taxes included. That's 4.45 euro per book.

Cover Nijlpaard voor Kerstmis

The support team at Blurb was great. They helped me convert my personal account into a business account, after which I decided to create a second book "Gebeten" that I published in a hard cover version only. Eventually, I had 200 copies printed (4 batches of 50 copies). There were some problems with a damaged book and a book where the cover was printed incorrectly, but after contacting support providing pictures describing the problem, I received copies replacing the two books that didn't meet quality standards. As far as I remember, my questions were always answered within a day.

Cover Gebeten

Although I was very happy with the service, price and quality offered by Blurb, I experienced one major disadvantage: the logistics of distributing the books to my audience wasn't trivial.

In the case of "Nijlpaard voor Kerstmis", I decided to print copies of the book, and donate them to two charity organizations. These organizations take care of selling the book, and they can keep all the money they make.

For "Gebeten", I decided to sell the book myself. I took care of taking orders, making invoices, checking payments, packaging books, and bringing them to the postal office. I realize that I could have outsourced this, but as the book was in Dutch, the market was limited to Flanders and The Netherlands.

Blurb offers the option to sell your books through its own online shop, as well as the option to offer your books on Amazon. Both options are mutually exclusive: you have to choose one, and that immediately excludes the other. I was planning a book in English for which I wanted a world-wide distribution, and I feared that having to choose only one out of these two options would limit my chances at success.

Lulu.com (paperback)

I decided to try lulu.com next. This service was recommended to me by Nigel Lee (former CEO at lulu.com) and Joseph Jacks (organizer of the Open Core Summit).

I made a selection of 28 short stories, written in the context of Sweek, Furious Fiction, and Reedsy contests. I bundled them in a book entitled "Bad Hair". I created a PDF for the interior and a PDF for the cover:

Bad Hair - Cover

I then went through the process of publishing a paperback using the lulu.com print-on-demand service. I could have asked for a free ISBN-number, but I didn't since I was only interested in a test copy. The experience creating and ordering the book was quite similar to what I had already done using Blurb, except that creating a hard cover version of the book wasn't available in my region.

I knew in advance that the price of a book ordered through lulu.com was somewhat higher than the price I got at Blurb, but by doing the test, I discovered that the price difference was compensated by a much lower the shipping cost:

If you only buy a single book, lulu.com offers the better price of both services.

Unfortunately, my experiment also revealed a problem that disqualifies lulu.com as the print-on-demand service for my upcoming book. When I used Blurb, I was able to register my company as the buyer of the books. Creating such a professional account for a Belgian company isn't possible with lulu.com.

Let me quote from the section "European VAT" in the FAQ: Lulu's products are intended to be sold as supplies to private consumers. At this time, our invoice system cannot receive and store business clients' VAT information, therefore all sales include VAT.

Since I am looking for a service that I can use professionally, I want the whole tax situation to be as straightforward and clear as possible. Getting and issuing invoices for books bought by and sold on behalf of my company could turn out being an administrative hurdle if I decided to go for lulu.com.

While evaluating lulu.com, I also stumbled upon reviews that scared me. There was this scam alert by Mateja Klaric about lulu.com not paying the royalties it owed authors. Further investigation nuanced this claim. On Reedsy.com, I read that "Lulu doesn't “steal” royalties from authors, as some reviews claim. However, they do intentionally obscure their pricing model."

Many people are also complaining about the bad support. I have the impression that this is a recent phenomenon; some people have nothing but praise for the service. With the single book I ordered (but haven't received yet), I can't comment on which reviews are accurate and which aren't. I didn't use support at lulu.com.

I think the conclusion of the Reedsy review is correct: lulu.com is probably great if you want to publish a paperback for personal use, but not your best option if you're trying to make money with your books in the context of a professional business that is based in Europe. Because of this review and because of what I read in lulu.com's FAQ-entry, I didn't even try creating an ebook using the service. Instead, I decided to try Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, which offers both the option to create a paperback and an ebook version of your book.

Kindle Direct Publishing (paperback)

Amazon's KDP was recommended to me by Yves Hanoulle and it was also very present on the lulu.com review on selfpublishing.com.

For my KDP experiment, I decided to use a different title for my bundle of 28 short stories. I renamed "Bad Hair" to "Reflection Infection". I reused the PDF with the content for the interior that I had created for lulu.com, but I created a new PDF for the cover:

Cover Reflection Infection

Again, creating the book for publication as a paperback was quite simple, but just like with lulu.com in my region, it wasn't possible to create a hardcover version of the book. This time, I opted to get a free ISBN-number. I didn't order a proof version without ISBN-number, but it's certainly something I'm going to do once I publish a more important book than this bundle of short stories.

I went ahead and published the paper book on amazon.com (and amazon market places in other countries). I also checked the box "Expanded distribution" which makes that other book stores (e.g. Barnes & Noble) can decide to offer the book too. There's no guarantee that they will. In the next couple of months, I'll do a Google search for the keywords "Reflection Infection" in combination with "Bruno Lowagie" to see which book stores picked up the title.

I was pleasantly surprised that I couldn't release the book for sale without going through an automated interview about the tax situation of my company. I was able to enter the VAT-number of my company, and once the interview was finalized, I could download a properly filled out W-8BEN form (I've done business in the U.S. before, I'm not a stranger to this form). This is important for my accounting. Thanks to previous experience getting revenue from the U.S., I knew that my company was eligible for an exemption based on the double tax treaty between Belgium and the U.S. My company passes the "ownership and base erosion test" which means there's 0% withholding tax on revenue generated in the U.S.

There's no amazon marketplace in Belgium, and for some reason, the paperback isn't offered on amazon.nl. I chose amazon.fr to order five author copies for 16.69 euro (11.70 euro for 5 books; 4.04 euro shipping costs; 0.95 VAT). I think that I can have the VAT dropped in the future; I made the mistake ordering the books as an individual, not as a company. In any case, a single copy costs me 3.40 euro, everything included. I'm now curious to find out the difference in print quality between "Bad Hair" and "Reflection Infection".

The lulu.com book is printed in Poland. I ordered it on December 16 and it's scheduled to arrive on December 30 (two weeks). Update December 30: on December 30, the tracker of the parcel indicates that the book is still in Poland. It won't arrive on the scheduled date, but that's normal, given that we're in the middle of the holiday season. Update January 4: the book has arrived today. I didn't get a heads-up that it was coming, but I received an automated mail informing me that my package was delivered afterwards.

When I look at amazon.fr today (December 26), I see that it can be delivered on January 7, which is less than two weeks. However, I ordered my copies on December 21 and I received a mail that the delivery will be postponed to February 1 at the latest (8 weeks). I hope this is due to the holiday season. I should try ordering another copy at a later date. Update January 18: I ordered the books 4 weeks ago, and I still haven't received any further news about the books. Update February 4: the books still haven't arrived. My order was cancelled by Amazon unilaterally, and I didn't get a satisfying answer regarding the reason why it was cancelled. I ordered the books anew on February 2, but the status of the order is still "order received" and there's no further info about the shipping date.

LeanPub (ebook)

In the past, I used LeanPub to publish books about iText. I was very happy with the service and I became quite skilled in using the markup language "Markdown" that is used to format your text.

As several potential readers of "Gebeten" were asking for an ebook version, I investigated if I could upload the manuscript to LeanPub. This was possible, but I soon realized that it would be plenty of work to format the content correctly. I tried creating my collection of short stories on LeanPub, but I wasn't happy with the PDF that was produced. I had to tweak the content to get the desired layout, but when I did, the layout of the .ePub and .mobi didn't look the way I wanted.

In the future, I will probably still use LeanPub if I'm interested in creating and distributing eBooks, but I wouldn't use the service to create printed books.

Kindle Direct Publishing (ebook)

Once I had created the paper book version of "Reflection Infection", I was offered the option of creating an ebook version for the Amazon Kindle. I uploaded the docx and looked at the result with the Kindle Previewer. If you go to amazon.com, you can now find the Kindle and Paperback version next to each other:

Reflection Infection on Amazon

The conversion from .docx to .mobi was acceptable for the bundle with the 28 short stories, but not when I tried converting the manuscript of "Gebeten" which is a more complex document. I'll explain how I managed to publish "Gebeten" on KDP in one of the next sections.

Draft2Digital (ebook)

I don't own a Kindle myself. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer reading books on paper. When I do read an eBook, I either read the PDF-version on my computer, or the ePub-version on my phone, using either Google Books or the KOBO eReader. To reach the broadest audience possible, I also uploaded my docx-file to Draft2Digital. Draft2Digital had no problem converting "Reflection Infection" to a decent ePub-file, but just like with KDP, it had problems with the manuscript of "Gebeten".

When you publish an ebook on Draft2Digital, you can choose to offer it on many different platforms. Draft2Digital recommends not to publish it on Amazon if you already released your book using KDP, so I refrained from doing so, but I selected Apple Books, Barnes & Noble (for Nook users), Kobo, Angus & Robertson, and Vivlio.

Draft2Digital also created a Universal Book Link where you can find all the links in one place:

Universal Book Link "Reflection Infection" page Draft2Digital

I notice that ebook version was already propagated to FNAC, a popular retailer in France and Belgium. That's exactly what I hoped for.

Just like with Amazon, I had to do an automated interview that resulted in a W-8BEN form. Here, I wasn't able to select that I was eligible for a tax exemption based on the "ownership and base erosion" criterion. I assume that there will be a 30% withholding tax on the revenue generated through Draft2Digital.

Not having to create different accounts for every service is a huge advantage of using Draft2Digital. I think I'll keep using it to offer the book on Apple Books, Barnes&Noble, Angus & Robertson, and Vivlio. For Kobo however, a service that seems to be quite popular in Europe, I decided to set up a separate account.

Calibre (ebook creation)

KDP had some difficulties with the manuscript of "Gebeten" in Word and Draft2Digital threw a "something went wrong" error when I uploaded it, so I went looking for the best way to convert a complex Word document to an eBook. I downloaded a tool called Calibre. This tool allowed me to convert my Word document into ePub-format, and then allowed me to edit the book. I made the mistake to upgrade my book from ePub2 to ePub3 format. Although some services accept ePub2, Draft2Digital recommended me to stay with ePub2.

The content consisted of a series of HTML files, one for each "Section" in my Word document. The styles were stored in a CSS file. I noticed that I hadn't been using much discipline when creating my Word document. The CSS consisted of a plethora of properties such as block_, block_1, block_2, ... block_n reflecting only small differences. E.g. the top margin of block_1 was 6pt; whereas the top margin of block_2 was 3pt. In the future, I'll refrain from tweaking indentations and spacing manually; I'll stick to using unaltered styles.

Without knowing much about the ePub specification, I fine-tuned the CSS until I had a result that looked great in the Calibre viewer. However, when I uploaded the ePub to Draft2Digital, I received a detailed report with all the errors that I had made in the process. E.g. it's not allowed to nest a list inside a paragraph. Thanks to Draft2Digital, I was able to debug the ePub. For instance, I also converted the .html extension into .xhtml because Draft2Digital recommended this.

I published "Gebeten" on four different platforms using Draft2Digital, and I received confirmation mails from all four, but for some reason, the ebook version of "Gebeten" didn't show up on Angus & Robertson (yet), only on Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, and Vivlio.

Note: when searching my name on Angus & Robertson, I was surprised to discover that the books I published on Blurb, such as the hardcover version of "Gebeten", were listed (but not in stock).

Rakuten Kobo (ebook)

I tested the ebook-version of "Gebeten" on my computer using Adobe Digital Editions, as well as on Google Books and the KOBO eReader on my smartphone. Satisfied with the result, I created an account on Writing Life, KOBO's publishing platform for ebook authors.

Since KOBO is a Canadian company, the tax situation is much more straightforward. There's no W-8BEN needed, nor is there a withholding tax for revenue generated with your books.

I now have two books available on Kobo, one published directly using Writing Life, one published through Draft2Digital.

Bruno Lowagie on Rakuten Kobo

I did all these experiments between December 19 and December 24, and the goal was to find out which platforms I should use once I have finished the English rewrite of "Gebeten".

I don't expect to generate much sales with "Reflection Infection", but I did already sell 1 copy of the ebook version of Gebeten through amazon.nl (once I had the ePub, it was a no-brainer to create a Kindle version).


Once my English book is finished, I will use the following services:

Version Service Distribution Success?
Hardcover Blurb Distribute on Amazon very low
Paperback Amazon KDP Expanded distribution (hoping other retailers will pick it up) moderate to high
Ebook Amazon KDP Amazon Kindle moderate
Draft2Digital Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Angus & Robertson; Vivlio low
KOBO Writing Life Rakuten Kobo moderate to high

That's four accounts to manage (Blurb, KDP, Draft2Digital, and KOBO), but I think that only two will prove to be interesting. I don't think anyone will buy the hardcover version, but I'm probably going to buy some myself to offer to people as a gift. I expect most from Amazon KDP and KOBO's Writing Life. I consider selling 500 copies without doing too much marketing efforts a success. If I decide to invest in marketing, I should be able to sell 5,000 copies, but I'll wait for the first reviews of paying readers to make that decision.

I'll keep you posted on further experiments and on the progress I'm making with my upcoming book.


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