Selling Books Online by Mail Order

Direct sales are often the plum of the self publishing business. I've been selling books online since 1995, my first book didn't even have an ISBN number. If you can get serious visitors to your website, you can sell books. You don't need a super sophisticated website to sell online, my first order form wasn't even a form - just a page with the price and my mailing address for checks or money orders. While it turned out to be a little too crude (I got some overseas checks I never cashed because of the bank fees and took a beating on shipping and handling), the lesson I took away was that selling books online was possible, even in the early days of the commercial Internet.

During our offset press days, we shipped thousands of books to U.S. and Canadian customers, using Media Mail in the U.S. and airmail for Canada. At first we only took checks (though some people ignored us and sent cash), later we added credit card processing, but it didn't really have much impact on sales for those titles. The customers who found our books online tended to be pretty sold on them by the time they ordered, and were willing to jump through (minor) hoops to get them.

When I started selling self published books online through this site, I gave a 20% discount and charged $2.25 for Media Mail shipping and handling. The $2.25 covered the postage ($1.42 at our weight) a padded mailer (around $0.20 each when bought by the 100 count), with a few cents left over for the "handling" portion. Mail order sales accounted for approximately 20% of our gross the first year, with the other 80% going through Amazon or special order through bookstores fulfilled by Ingram distribution.

It that rapidly became apparent that many mail order customers were spoiled by relatively fast delivery times from online retailers, and shipping books from Massachusetts to the West Coast or the South West by Media Mail brought regular complaints. Some customers started complaining if the book didn't show up within a week, others waited two weeks, and by three weeks most got a little worried. We always stated "usually 4 to 14 business days for delivery" which is basically 1 to 3 weeks, but people just expect better and you get tired of e-mails accusing you of being a crook. In the end, I think I issued two refunds that year (our policy is never to reship to the same address), which was much cheaper than paying for delivery confirmation for all books, but the overhead of dealing with the angry e-mails got to me.

When we shifted to using PayPal to print all of our labels, I started putting delivery confirmation on all of the books be sold online, which brought the total shipping cost right up to the amount we charged for S&H. The problem was that most customers thought that the delivery confirmation number was the same as a tracking number, and expected to be able to track their book in transit. Since the post office frequently doesn't bother scanning the labels until the package is delivered (thus, "delivery confirmation") this led to even more correspondence. I was actually tempted to stop selling books online and channel all of our orders through Amazon and Ingram, which has the built in advantage of improving stocking at those warehouses, and raising the profile of the books on Amazon as they sell more, but I went for the intermediate route.

Last year, I released all of our titles as e-books, which is a natural fit for online selling, and some percentage of customers who would have bought through mail order now buy e-books, especially those outside the U.S. who face longer shipping times and higher postal costs. At the same time, I did away with the 20% discount for mail order sales, which means customers can actually buy our books cheaper by ordering them through the local store (and not paying for shipping and handling) or by ordering enough books from Amazon to get free shipping. At the same time, I started shipping all of our books by first class mail with delivery confirmation, which means the $2.25 we charge for shipping and handling doesn't actually cover our cost, but with no discount on the books, we can afford it. The result is we are selling far fewer books online this year, mail order revenue is down around 80%, but we are selling more books overall, as customers click through to Amazon or order through their local bookstore. More importantly, I haven't had a single complaint about shipping time this year, as opposed to last year when sometimes I was in multiple correspondences about mail order delivery time at the same time!

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