Optimizing CreateSpace: Price Theory for Indie Authors (Part 1) Is there an ideal page count for author royalties?

Last week, I looked at the various trim sizes offered by CreateSpace to see if there is a way to maximize royalties for a given word count. (Spoiler alert: you should pretty much always go with 9″ x 6″.) This week, I’m going to dig deep into the inner workings of CreateSpace’s royalty structure to see if there is a page count where independent author royalties spike.

Optimizing CreateSpace: Price Theory for Indie Authors

 

If such a sweet spot exists, it would contradict my findings from last week that a bigger trim size is always better, and indie authors everywhere would be able to calibrate their books and hit that target page count by picking the right trim size for their total word count. As I showed last week, CreateSpace pays the same royalty for a book with a given page count regardless of trim size, making page count the sole determiner of author royalties.

A sweet spot could look like one of two things. Either it could be a starting point at which each the marginal page cost starts to decrease (i.e. if every page up to page 150 has a marginal cost of 3 cents but every page after that cost progressively less) OR it could be a quick dip in marginal page cost followed by a return to the initial cost (i.e. if the first 150 pages cost 3 cents each, the next 150 cost 2 cents each, and then every page after that cost 3 cents each).

Each scenario would require different optimization strategies, so I won’t even both talking about that until we have some actual results.

Finding a CreateSpace Page Count Sweet Spot: Method

Using the CreateSpace royalty estimator tool, I collected estimated royalty data for a book using a 6″ x 9″ trim size and a selling price of $12.99. The trim size doesn’t actually matter as CreateSpace pays the same royalty for a book regardless of trim size. (I’ll discuss why CreateSpace’s royalties and self-copy costs are so consistent a little later.)

I began with a page count of 108. Why 108? Below 108 pages, royalties stay the same no matter what. You’ll earn the same royalty for a 50-page book as you will for a 108-page book. There appears to be an invisible line at 108 pages below which production costs become more important than materials costs.

In other words, even though a 50-page book uses half as much paper as a 100-page book, the costs of running the machines that print and bind these books must be essentially the same for both books, resulting in no discount for the lessened materials costs. Either that or CreateSpace doesn’t want to get into the business of printing pamphlets and booklets, so they’ve made it economically inefficient to print anything under 100 pages. For the record, the smallest book CreateSpace will print is 24 pages.

Getting back to it, starting at 108, I increased the page count by 2 up through 300 pages and recorded the marginal price at each increment, giving me 97 data points. Why every 2 pages instead of 1? Adding 1 page adds the same materials cost to the production as adding 2 pages, so there is no difference between a book with 109 and 110 pages. They both use 55 sheets of paper and result in the same author royalty.

*For those who wonder about the validity of using the CreateSpace royalty estimator tool, I’ve found that, while there is a disclaimer below the estimator that the numbers it produces may not be entirely accurate, they are always within a few pennies of the actual, making the data sufficiently accurate for my purposes. The only other way to test this would be to publish books of each and every page length and then record actual royalty data when a copy sold…which wouldn’t be very efficient use of anyone’s time.

Finding a CreateSpace Page Count SweetSpot: Results

You can view the complete data set of my survey by downloading this MS Excel file: CreateSpacePriceData1.xlsx. Here’s what it all looks like as a graph:

Don’t be deceived at first glance: The minimum and maximum values of the graphed line are only separated by a few tenths of a penny. That initial jump, though it looks severe,  amounts to about a quarter of a cent. (Click for full size.)

Looking at the hard data in the spreadsheet, every additional sheet of paper added to a book costs either 2 or 3 cents. As the page count increases, the proportion of 3 cent jumps also increases, meaning that the average marginal cost-per-page will continue to increase slowly until you reach the maximum page count for a CreateSpace book (828 pages).

At 300 pages, the average marginal cost-per-page has reached a high watermark of 2.396 cents-per-page, though “high” is relative. The average at 200 pages is only 5 thousandths lower at 2.391 cents-per-page. By the time you hit the maximum of 828 pages, I doubt you’d be much higher than 2.4 cents-per-page.

If someone has the patience to sit and plug in every even-numbered page value up to 828 into the royalty estimator and plug it into the Excel sheet, let me know what you find. I burned out at 300, but by then the data seemed consistent enough to call it a day.

Wait, why is the price going up?

Most of us are trained to think that prices fall as volume increases. It’s why so many of us (at least those of us with kids) shop at warehouse stores and buy things in bulk. Five pounds of Nutella is a lot cheaper on a per-ounce basis than half a pound. Chocolate addictions aside, though, why doesn’t this same principal apply to CreateSpace? Shouldn’t a 500-page book be cheaper to make per-page than a 200-page book?

No, and here’s why. CreateSpace uses digital printers to construct their books. These printers are, on a fundamental level, not much different than the inkjet printer sitting on your desk. You load in a stack of paper, tell it to print something, and away it goes. Is it cheaper for you, sitting at your desk using your own inkjet printer, on a per-page basis, to print 500 pages vs. 100 pages?

No. That 500-page ream of paper had a fixed cost when you bought it, so each page costs you 1/500 of the total. Every drop of ink that comes out of your printer costs the same amount, too, because you paid a fixed price for your ink cartridge. If you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty of it, your printer uses more-or-less the same amount of electricity to print every page as well. The 500th page costs exactly the same as the 100th page, unless, I suppose, your electricity costs are variable.

The only way printing in large quantities vs. small quantities could get cheaper for you is if you started buying paper in bulk, tens of thousands of pages at a time. Even then, though, your cost for printing 500 pages would only be lower relative to when you printed 500 pages after buying only 500 pages. Every grouping of 500 pages within your 10,000 would still cost the same amount. The last 500 pages wouldn’t be cheaper than the first 500. CreateSpace buys paper by the truck-load, so they’ve probably already reached their basement price for paper No single book project is going to change their paper costs.

So what does change as a book gets bigger that causes the cost-per-page to increase? I don’t know exactly, but my guess is that it comes down to the cost and effort of binding.

A 500-page book will have a much wider spine than a 200-page book, requiring more paper and more glue to cover it, increasing costs. Likewise, a 500-page book will take much more time and energy to bind together than a 200-page book, and you can bet that CreateSpace is going to pass the cost of that added time and energy on to the author.

Still, we’re talking about a few tenths of a penny. It would take a lot for that to add up to anything substantial. Don’t lose sleep over any of this. If anything, these numbers should increase your confidence that CreateSpace is offering indie authors a fair partnership.

One additional note for the curious: The cost to print a 300-page book in the 6″ x 9″ trim size is the same as a 300-page book in the 5″ x 8″ trim size because CreateSpace, more than likely, is feeding regular old 8.5″ x 11″ paper into their printers, just like the rest of us. They print each of your pages in the center of the larger sheet and then cut it down to size before binding. Thus, the material cost for the paper is the same regardless of trim size.

How do I know this? It’s an assumption based on the fact that the largest trim size offered by CreateSpace is 8.5″ x 11″ with every other trim size fitting within that rectangle. The real question is why CreateSpace doesn’t offer a discount for printing in the 8.5″ x 11″ trim size, which saves them the cost of trimming the pages.

CreateSpace Price Theory for Indie Authors: Wrap-Up

Just like last week, anyone who read this post hoping to find a magical page count where author royalties spike is probably disappointed at this point. However, I’d argue that CreateSpace’s consistent pricing model is definitely a reason to celebrate, even if it is a bit boring. There’s no guesswork involved, no need to worry that you might come up short on royalties by building your book incorrectly and missing some golden ratio by a few pages. Regardless of the length of your book, your royalties are fair.

The ideal CreateSpace book is subjective, but if you want to maximize royalties, you should always, always, ALWAYS go with a larger trim size. I still contend that 6″ x 9″ is the largest size that makes sense from the standpoint of reader comfort, but I could be wrong.

If, however, a 6″ x 9″ book seems too large, the good news is that a smaller trim size will result in reduced royalties in a very predictable way. Each extra physical page (two pages of text) will drop your royalty by somewhere around 2.4 cents.

For 100 extra pages, you are talking about a drop in royalties of $2.40. If that loss is worth it for a thicker, more impressive-looking book or for a specific aesthetic, then go for it. You can probably even get away with charging a bit more for a 5″ x 8″ book with 100 extra pages to offset that drop in royalties, though as I’ll show next week, adding $1.00 to your selling price will only ever net you an additional $0.60 in royalties, meaning you’d actually have to raise your price by $4.00 to net the same royalty for the 5″ x 8″ book, a dicey prospect.

I have yet to see a scenario where a trim size smaller than 6″ x 9″ makes objective, economic sense. Then again, I’ve never held a CreateSpace book in a smaller trim size in my hands. I have some things in the works to rectify that I’ll hopefully be able to share soon.

Next week, I’ll continue in my quest to build the ideal CreateSpace book by testing whether an increase in selling price has a predictable effect on author royalties.

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