Notes From A Singaporean Self-Publisher

Much digital ink has been spilled over the topic of ebooks and self-publishing. Today’s TODAY carried an article on e-publishing. It is an interesting report on the state of e-publishing on Singapore. The writer discussed the usual aspects: attitudes of writers towards ebooks, how publishers approach ebooks, distribution of ebooks in Singapore.

Except for one thing.

E-publishing enables writers (like me) to self-publish.

And that is a shame. The biggest benefit of the ebook revolution is not the ability for publishing houses to publish digital books across various media. It’s the ability for independent writers to cut out publishing houses and literary agents, and sell books directly to the consumer over the Internet.

This brings many benefits to the independent writer, and I’ve written at length about a few of them. I’m going to highlight just one , the one that matters most to Singaporeans. (And, okay, quite a few international readers.)

Ebook pricing.

Take a look at ilovebooks.com and skoob.com, two of Singapore’s ebook stores. Look at the prices. The prices you see are almost the same price as a physical paperback or hardback book. Those prices are, frankly, almost absurd. It is far cheaper to produce an ebook than a print book. Print books require material costs — ink, paper, binding — for production, followed by warehousing and distributing costs. And that is before you factor in marketing, editing, and other costs. Ebooks are just so many electrons; the main costs of an ebook are the cover, editing, formatting, and maybe advertising.

In TODAY‘s article, publisher Philip Thatham argues that “It’s a fallacy to think e-books are cheap to produce. New costs are introduced for metadata management systems and e-book conversion.”

To this end, I challenge Thatham to reveal the full costs of producing an ebook versus a print book. I handle my metadata management using Microsoft Word and calibre. The former comes with my computer, the latter is free software. Ebook conversion isn’t a problem for me, because I write and format my books specifically for ebooks (and, as a bonus, they can be translated easily to print). I publish here, on Amazon, and on Smashwords, and there are no conversion costs.

My metadata management and ebook conversions costs are zero.

Zero.

My ebook costs, to date, are $429. That’s how much I paid for three covers. I’m blessed with friends who make superb line editors and decent copy editors, and I spend weeks on proofreading — my editing costs are zero. At least until I can afford professional editors. I got the first cover done for free after searching for a deal on the Internet. Because I write my books according to style guides, I don’t have to hire anybody to do formatting (yet). And since I’m dealing with electronic products, I don’t have to pay for the costs of physical books. I can push out fairly high-quality ebooks at obscenely low costs, even by the standards of the self-publishing world. And I’m passing on these savings to my readers.

Thatham was really talking about costs to the publisher. The publishing house needs to hire more staff and develop new infrastructure to handle ebooks. Especially if they have existing staff and infrastructure costs to handle an existing print catalogue. To print publishers, adopting ebooks means greater costs.

And the publishers pass on the costs to the reader.

And if the publishers approach online distributors to sell ebooks, those distributors would want a cut too.

That’s why the books on skoob and ilovebooks have prices that rival print books. Much of that money is going to the distributor and to the publisher. When dealing with a publisher who prefers to sell print books than ebooks, the print books will be deliberately priced lower than ebooks — or ebooks priced higher than print books. These factors artificially inflate ebook prices to the figures we see on those stores.

Plus, as bestselling writer J A Konrath points out, writers are necessary. Publishers aren’t.

I price my ebooks at much lower prices because I can afford to. I don’t have as much costs to cover as a big publishing house. Since I publish my stories, I have full control over pricing, too. In addition, I make 70% royalty from Amazon.com and Smashwords (less 30% to the Internal Revenue Service), and 100% when readers purchase ebooks from my ebook store. My customers win because they get quality books at low prices, and I win because I make a take a much bigger cut of royalties.

TODAY ‘s article covered several writers whose books are sold as ebooks. I’m very curious about the royalties the authors receive. Do they come close to the percentages I make? I’m betting not.

Right now, my ebook pricing is fairly simple:

Short stories (up to 15K words) — USD $2.99

Novelettes (15K to 35K words) — USD $3.99

Novellas (35K to 50K words) — USD $4.99

Novels (50k words and above) — USD $5.99

Will ebook publishers match these prices?

Not in Singapore. Not anytime soon.

26 thoughts on “Notes From A Singaporean Self-Publisher

  1. I just published an ebook on Amazon. Unfortunately, Amazon is not offering the book in Singapore. They say it’s for legal reasons, which I don’t understand. Anyway, what is the alternative? Can I sell on ilovebooks.com or skoob.com? Are there any others? Which one would be suitable for a technical book since my book is on digital technology. I live in India. Thanks a lot. Useful article, by the way.

    • The Kindle, and therefore the Kindle Store, is not available in Singapore, so it won’t be sold in Singapore. That’s all there is to it.

      You can try selling on skoob, but don’t expect much. ilovebooks.com has ceased operations. Singapore-based ebook sellers by and large are selling to an incredibly tiny market, and I don’t think their business models are sustainable in the long term without international distribution.

      I prefer selling on Smashwords, with distribution to Apple, B&N and elsewhere. Also consider selling through your personal website and promoting the book using blogs, social media, testimonials, and so on.

    • Only if you sell through KDP Select or some other Kindle-exclusive channel. Uploading it on the normal Kindle store doesn’t lock you out.

    • That’s the subject of a whole new post altogether.

      But the short answer is, yes. If you have a novel and know how to use Amazon’s marketing tools effectively. There’s plenty of blogs out there discussing CreateSpace.

    • You’re welcome. To apply for an EIN, just call the IRS, and if necessary set an appointment to get the paperwork out of the way. Alternatively, you could see if the local US embassy allows you to make an application.

      You don’t HAVE to apply for an EIN if you don’t want to, but that leaves 30% of your royalties in limbo until you do.

  2. Hello again, I called the IRS and got the EIN. Thing is, when I try to fill the W8Ben, there’s a section (Q10 in Part II), I am not sure how to fill. It asks about article number of treaty between Sing and US and % of withholding. I called the IRA here and they say the treaty is limited and doesn;t cover epublishing etc. Please let me know if you know anything about this. Thanks.
    Here’s the section in Part II: The beneficial owner is claiming the provisions of Article— of the treaty identified on line 9a above to claim a —–% rate of withholding on (specify type of income): . Explain the reasons the beneficial owner meets the terms of the treaty article:

    • I don’t think it’s applicable. There isn’t a tax treaty between Singapore and the US, therefore no special conditions and withholding rates apply. You don’t have to fill in that blank.

  3. Hi Benjamin,
    Does that mean for Singapore writers we do have to give up 30% tax on our royalties. I submitted the W8ben, but because singapore does not have a tax treaty with US, it appears we need to be tax as foreigners. (acc to Amazon reply.)

    • Call (not email, call) the IRS and ask them for an Employer Identification Number to waive the 30% withholding rate. Don’t submit a W-8BEN form — or if you have, submit a replacement one with your new EIN soonest.

  4. Hi, I already have a EIN number, I submitted my form to Amazon a few months ago, but it never reflected in my KDP acc. Recently when i logged in , they made you go through this form , which for some reason does not allow non US citizens to key in their EIN number because my address is not in the US.

  5. hi benjamin, thanks for the good read. would you happen to know how royalties from books sold are treated by IRAS?

  6. Help your help here.
    If I sell my books thru Kindle , Amazon takes 30% of my sales revenue .
    Is there another 30% tax to be collected , make a total of 60% and I am left with 40%?

    • I don’t rightly know, since I haven’t collected a paycheck from them yet. From what I can tell, though, the IRS takes another 30% of that 70% you get from Amazon. So you get some 43% royalties in total.

  7. Hi Benjamin,

    That’s a great post. I so agree that ebooks should be much cheaper than physical books.

    But on the subject of self-publishing, it looks like there’s no way for Singapore authors to escape the 30% US tax on royalties? No wonder so few are on Amazon.

    • That’s right.

      On the other hand, that’s still a lot more royalties than one can expect from a local OR foreign publisher, and with a far wider distribution channel than if one went the local route. It’s not ideal, but it’s a better deal.

  8. Hi Benjamin

    Have you collected your paycheck from Amazon yet? Are Singaporeans subjected to the 30% withholding rates, even if we have an EIN? I’ve yet to apply for my EIN, just wondering if there’s any point in doing so.

    Any idea about the royalties we earn through Amazon in other countries, such as amazon.co.uk?

    Thanks
    Jamie

    • Nope. Haven’t made enough money through Amazon for that yet.

      As far as I can tell, Singaporeans are subjected to the 30% withholding rates. Same applies for other Amazon franchises, since Amazon in the US handles everything. As for royalty rates specific to the Amazon marketplace, do check your royalty settings. Usually it’s 70% if a story is priced above USD$2.99, but in some expanding markets you only get 35% unless you go through Kindle Select.

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