I’ve avoided posting self-publishing tips on this site because I don’t want to get bogged down with a bunch of technical posts, and there are already lots of blogs out there that cover the subject. But self-publishing from Canada has its own quirks, and I had to look all over the place to figure some of this stuff out. I thought it might be helpful to put all this info in one place. 😉
So this one goes out to any fellow Canucks out there who are thinking about going indie.
For the most part, distributing your book from Canada is the same as it would be from the US. Here’s my current distribution setup:
Amazon KDP: Used to add Kindle version to all iterations of Amazon that carry Kindle products.
Smashwords: Used to add ebook version to all other major online retailers (Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc.)
Amazon Createspace: Used to add paperback version to Amazon.com and Amazon Europe.
Blurb: Used to add paperback version to non-Amazon sites. (Barnes & Noble, Indigo, etc. I’m currently testing this distribution method.)
Now, there are some differences from publishing in the US. For example, many indie writers like to use the Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press platform to publish with them directly, instead of going through Smashwords, but you can only have an account with B&N if you live in the US.
Kobo has also developed their own self-publishing platform, which is open to writers from pretty much everywhere. I haven’t bothered with this option because:
- I’m already formatting and uploading my book files 3 different ways as-is.
- My existing titles are already on Kobo via Smashwords anyway.
- My Kobo sales are consistently lower than any other channel, so if I dealt with them directly, it could take a long time to reach the minimum royalty payout. With Smashwords, all my non-Amazon royalties are rolled together, including the trickle I get from Kobo.
Of course, if you live in Canada, you probably want your physical book to be available on Canadian websites as well. Createspace offers an Expanded Distribution option that will list your paperback on Amazon.ca, as well as third-party US sites like Barnes & Noble. But be warned: the royalty share for this option is really low, so take that into account when setting your list price. It takes several weeks for your titles to propagate beyond the realm of Amazon.com, so be patient. (Although some authors claim Expanded Distribution has gotten their book listed on the Chapters/Indigo website, I have yet to see this happen for any of my books.)
I’m currently experimenting with Blurb’s Worldwide distribution model, which offers multiple royalty options. (The deeper the wholesale discount you offer, the wider your chances of distribution.) My hope is that this will allow me to break into the Indigo website, as well as the in-store kiosks as an ordering option.
Overall, my strategy has been to make my books as widely available as possible. Many authors have hopped on the KDP Select train and experienced success, but despite the popularity of Kindle ebooks, they are still only part of the overall ebook market. The KDP Select exclusivity contract means cutting yourself off from other potential lines of income, which is really only in Amazon’s best interest. There was a time several years ago where Amazon was my main source of income, but it was quickly surpassed by Barnes & Noble. Now, my highest-selling channel is Apple, reaching readers in countries I never would have imagined might be interested in purchasing my English-based titles. None of these non-Amazon sales would have been possible if I had joined KDP Select.
I like to think of it as an investment. It makes far more sense to diversify your portfolio instead of putting all your eggs in one basket. That way if one channel underperforms one month, the others can compensate. And while Amazon is a powerhouse now, anything could happen. It doesn’t make sense for me to tie up all my hard work in one place, with a company I don’t control, and will ultimately do what is within its own best interest.
Getting into Canadian bookstores:
Let’s face it. The Chapters/Indigo/Coles conglomerate is the biggest game in town. Unless you have taken the steps beyond self-publishing to establish a small press, you will have to approach them as you would any independent bookstore for a consignment deal: one store at a time. Trust me, I have worked for this company for 15 years (at stores and Home Office). If you simply send a copy of your self-published book to Indigo’s Home Office in the hopes Heather Reisman will read it, you will most likely be disappointed.
This isn’t anything against Heather or the company. It’s just that you will be competing with a crazy amount of book samples from traditional publishers, who already have huge catalogues and a strong working relationship with Indigo. Also, the print book business isn’t getting any bigger. Dedicated shelf space for books is slowly being taken over by gift or toy product. With limited space at a premium, it’s even more difficult for a self-published author to worm their way in.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but you will probably be limited to a consignment deal. This means you have to form a relationship and contract with each store, and take responsibility for providing inventory and picking up returns. Your book will be assigned a generic ISBN (“Consignment Title X”), and will not be listed in the store kiosks. This means you must rely on events and a strong relationship with store management and employees to get your book into the hands of customers, since it will not be searchable.
How to build a successful consignment relationship:
I’ve seen many consignment authors come through the stores with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, a long line of clueless/high-maintenance authors have given consignment authors in general a bad rep. The few exceptions are the ones who tend to perform the best. This is who you want to be. Let’s cover the don’ts first.
- …be a prima donna. Every store receives multiple inquiries from consignment authors every day, and only has a limited amount of ISBNs to dedicate to these titles, depending on store size and volume. Just because you have a book doesn’t mean you are owed a spot on the shelf. Demanding your own fixed table or endcap in the store once your book is accepted is out too. These spaces are already paid for by traditional publishers for their titles as part of a binding co-op agreement.
- …harass the store manager who handles the consignment program (or any other store employees for that matter) in an effort to get your book into the store. Again, there are limited slots available, and decisions are made at the manager’s discretion. Don’t make it easier to be dismissed for another author.
- …ship your books to the store. The consignment process is a manual one. If you just send over a box of your books, they will likely end up in the store’s receiving area, where all the traditionally-published books go to be processed. Since you will not have an Indigo purchase order or handling unit, this will only confuse the receiver. Your box could end up in a quarantine pile indefinitely.
- …expect any hand-holding. Consignment is a very small part of the company business. The store staff is there to serve customers and keep the store running, not act as your personal staff. You are ultimately responsible for your own titles and their sales. Yes, the store staff can help you and answer questions, but there is a lot more to selling consignment than just dropping off a few copies of your book and just hoping for a cheque in the mail. Do you homework and take responsibility. (More on that below.)
Steps for success:
- Make sure you have a professional-looking book to sell. You want your book to look as much like a traditionally-published title as possible. (This is actually just a general rule, and isn’t specific to consignment.)
- Order 5-10 copies of your book. Some of these will be given as sample copies to the stores you approach, with a few left over for initial inventory if your title is accepted into the consignment program.
- Call the store(s) in your area and ask to speak with the manager who handles consignment. (It’s best to limit yourself to a geographical area where you can easily handle transporting inventory to the store on an ongoing basis.) If the manager you need is not in, try to find out when they will be in next and get their name and contact email.
- Send a brief email stating your interest in becoming a consignment author at their store, along with the basic details of your book. (Title, genre, cover, product description.) Be polite and professional.
- If the manager you need is in, or you call back when they are working, introduce yourself as an aspiring consignment author and mention your email if you have sent one. Ask when would be a good time to visit the store and drop off a sample copy of your book.
- Visit the store with a few copies of your book. Visit with the consignment manager and try to make a good impression while finding out whether there are any open slots available. If there are no openings at the moment, ask whether they believe any openings might be coming up in the near future. Either way, offer them a sample copy of your book and ask to be kept under consideration. You can also offer more sample copies to be left in the staff lunchroom.
- Once you are offered a contract, decide the price point for your book. On the consignment program, the author royalties are 55%, which means you will earn a little more than half of the list price you give the store. Determine the cost of printing and shipping your book to yourself (including the US exchange rate and any border crossing fees, if necessary), and try to come up with something that puts you in the black while remaining reasonable for the customer, who will likely be looking at your book as an impulse buy. Look at the pricing of other titles in your genre in the same format (hard cover, trade paperback, etc.) and use that as a general guideline. If you have more than one title in a series, you might be able to convince the manager to let you sell all your titles under the same ISBN and price point. (This isn’t ideal for individual title sales tracking, but opens the door to sell multiple titles to each customer.)
- Order more copies of your book to sell, and organize an author event with the store. (Basically, you need to agree with the store on a date and time. The rest is up to you. Saturdays are usually the busiest, which means more potential customers.) Suggest a blurb and image about your event that can be placed in store signage (8.5×11), and write up something that can be used as a brief announcement over the store PA system on the day of the event. (These can be sent via email.) If you are a children’s author, you can arrange a storytime event, where you read your book to any kids who have shown up. (11:00am is usually a good time for this. It’s the unofficial regular storytime for most large format stores.) If you plan to bring anything out of the ordinary to the event (live animal, electronics, etc.), communicate that as well. This will help the manager prepare for things like making sure your table is near an electrical outlet.
- Invest in promotional materials like bookmarks to give away at the event through someone like Vistaprint. (These should have your website info listed on them.) Depending on your budget, you can also get a free-standing banner, stickers, magnets, etc. to help you interact with customers and make the table where you will be selling your book stand out.
- Put the word out to friends and family about the event, and consider running an ad in the local paper or a promotional post on your Facebook page. Blog and tweet about it. It’s easier to gain attention if you already have a crowd around your table, and it helps to have people you know in your corner for the big day.
- On the day of the event, show up early with your books and promotional materials. Get in touch with a manager to find out where to set up camp. (Ideally, this will be somewhere close to the front of the store where traffic is highest, or in the children’s section if you are a children’s author.) Make sure you get ISBN stickers from the manager for your books and use them to cover the bar code printed on the back. Only books with your Indigo consignment ISBN will be counted as sales. If any of your books get scanned at the cash desk by the barcode that is printed on the cover of your book, it will cause an error. If the cashier is unaware that the book is from your event, it will likely be sold as a dummy SKU, which isn’t traceable back to you.
- Greet customers passing by your table and invite them to stop by in a friendly, non-aggressive way. (“Hi there. I’m a local author. Can I tell you about my book?”) Give them a brief overview of what your book is about and maybe tell them a little about yourself if they seem interested. (It helps to practice this in advance with friends or family before the big day to get comfortable.) Offer one of your bookmarks even if the customer doesn’t pick up a copy of your book. It at least puts your name and website in their hands. It’s better to stand and circulate the area around your table than to sit behind it and wait for people to come to you. The most successful consignment authors are dynamic and approachable. If someone expresses interest, offer to sign a copy of your book for them after they have purchased it. (If you personalize the book with the customer’s name, it won’t be returnable.) Make sure they get one of your bookmarks as well. If they like your book, you want them to be able to find you online. Thank them and encourage them to let you know how they enjoy it.
- Stay at the store as long as you feel is appropriate. I have seen authors stick around for half the day, trying to reach as many customers as possible. If you need to go to the bathroom, you can ask a staff member to keep an eye on your table to let people know you will be back shortly. If you are committing to a long day, ask the manager whether you might be able to use the staff lunchroom to store and heat up a meal.
- Make connections among the staff members with small talk. If you feel comfortable, offer them a free sample copy of your book, or ask whether they have had a chance to read any of the copies you dropped off for the staff earlier. Having a staff member back your book can be extremely helpful because once your event is over, you book will be hidden on the home shelf as “Consignment Title X” in the system. Yes, someone could stumble across it, but no one will know to look for it there, unless a staff member knows about it and helps them. If a staff member is enthusiastic about your book, you can ask them if they might be willing to make it a Staff Pick. This is a huge foot in the door because the store’s Staff Picks are prominently displayed either on a table at the front of the store, or in the front alcove, which are both high traffic areas. This is like getting a paid co-op display for free.
- When your event is over, decide how many copies of your book you will leave behind on the store shelf. (Unless you’ve won a Staff Pick spot, 5 copies is probably enough.) Keep track of this number for inventory purposes and pack up the rest. (Some authors don’t leave any copies behind and only sell during events. This is completely up to you.) Sign the copies you are leaving behind and ask whether they can be stickered as “Signed by the Author”. Make sure all copies have your consignment ISBN sticker in place. (You can tuck one of your bookmarks in each copy as well.) Check out with the manager.
- Once you find out how many copies you sold, you can create a basic PDF invoice detailing the list price, copies sold, and 55% royalty for the amount you are owed. (The consignment manager should be able to email you an invoice template.) Make sure you include a unique invoice number, your name, consignment ISBN, and contact information on the invoice, including mailing address. Email it to the manager handling consignment. If you do not send an invoice, you will not get paid. This invoice is sent to Indigo Home Office to be processed. Eventually, you should receive a cheque in the mail. (In a perfect world, payment terms are Net 30, but in my experience, it can be more like Net 60+.) If several weeks go by without anything showing up, get in touch with the consignment manager to make sure your invoice was sent, and that your contact information is correct. Save the receipt attached to your cheque once you receive it, and make sure you remember to claim the amount paid by Indigo on your annual income tax.
- If you are leaving copies of your book in the store, check back every month or so via email to find out how many copies have sold. Make sure you include your title and consignment ISBN in the request. Send additional invoices as needed on whatever schedule you decide.
- Set up another event, if you like. If you have been easy to deal with, the store will be happy to have you back. Good sales for you means money for them as well. Some authors come back every few months, and others might do a few days in one week before coming back a month later. It’s all about how much time and effort you are willing to put in. Just bear in mind that some times will be off limits, such as the Christmas season, when the store staff is far too busy to support an author event.
Getting an ISBN:
In the US, you (or your distributor) usually has to purchase an ISBN, but in Canada, ISBNs are free. While many distributors will offer a free ISBN as part of their publishing services, the distributor will then be listed or flagged as the imprint/publisher of record for your work. Many indie writers are OK with this (especially in the US, where the other option is to pay for an ISBN yourself), and distributors are quick to point out that your work is still your own. My thought is that the self-publishing world as we know it today is still a relatively new and expanding industry. It’s difficult to see at this point what the long-term legal/rights implications are of this arrangement. Since Canadians can get ISBNs for free anyway, I would rather eliminate any potential confusion and keep everything strictly in my own name. Here’s how I do it:
First, you will need to register as a publisher. You can do this either under your own name, or a company name, if you have one. After your initial setup is complete, you will be assigned a publisher prefix that will be inserted into all your ISBNs to identify you as the publisher. You can sign up, request ISBNs and manage them here.
These ISBNs can be used when you add your book to Amazon, Smashwords, etc. Remember: The print version of your book must have a different ISBN from the ebook version.
Bowker manages all ISBNs in the US, and their catalogue is used as a reference for many book retailer platforms, including Amazon’s Createspace. For a long time, I got away without dealing with Bowker at all, since my ISBNs are Canadian, but I eventually started having some weird metatdata issues with my Createspace paperbacks, which had my imprint name suddenly listed as ‘Jacob Smith’ on some of my existing titles for some bizarre reason. Initially, I tried fixing this via Createspace customer service, but the source of the problem was actually Bowker, where this weird glitch was originating. I have also found recently that Createspace no longer accepts my Canadian ISBNs during the paperback publishing process until I have set them up via Bowker. So if you want to use Createspace to publish your paperbacks with your own ISBNs, you will have to set up an account with Bowker as well.
Getting an account with Bowker as a Canadian was a bit of a roundabout process, since I didn’t want to actually purchase any ISBNs from them, just fix the ones I already had. I originally went through BowkerLink to have an account set up, which resulted in some back and forth email over the course of several days (including an Excel spreadsheet of all my ISBNs from Library & Archives Canada) before getting a login setup for Bowker Identifier Services. I would try starting with Bowker Identifier Services to set up an account if you don’t have any information that needs to be corrected. Once you are registered there, you can add any new ISBNs from Library & Archives Canada that have your registered publisher prefix, and update your metadata for existing titles (aside from your Imprint Name). Once updated, it takes a day or so for this info to be approved by the system and feed back to places like Amazon’s Createspace.
For more details on the nuts and bolts of ISBNs, check out this Wikipedia article.
Registering a copyright for your book:
Whether or not you decide to register a copyright is totally up to you. Many writers have debated this point online, and I’m sure you can find lots of related blog posts if you decide to look, so I’m not going to get into that debate.
But if you do decide to register a copyright, you can do it here. Each title you register will cost $50, and you can register either before or after you publish.
Ordering copies of your paperback:
These books are shipped from the US and you will be charged in US dollars, which can be a real pain, depending on the exchange rate. When you order multiple copies of your book in a single shipment, the postal services will often slap a surprise brokerage fee onto your shipping cost, charging you when they arrive at your door. This can really add up (especially on top of the higher Priority shipping option), and prevent your order from being delivered if you’re not around to pay the charges. In my experience, this seems to happen if I order 10+ copies.
The other downside of ordering 10+ copies is that usually the order will end up shipping by DHL instead of UPS, unless you’ve shelled out for Priority Shipping. (This is not a hard and fast rule, but it has always been my experience.) DHL is way slower than UPS, and I’ve had shipments where the tracking information from DHL did not exist at all and took weeks to arrive.
Meanwhile, we also have tax fees (GST) that can be applied in addition to brokerage fees. This is usually related to cost of goods shipped. As long as the value of the order is less than $20 Canadian (approx.), no additional fees *should* be applied.
Basically, if I order from Createspace, I try to keep it to 5 copies or fewer. This means it’s likely to be shipped by UPS (which is trackable, and only takes about 3 days in my experience, once the shipment has been picked up from the warehouse), and it should avoid brokerage and tax fees as well. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t get around the exchange rate, and is not always cost-effective if you need a lot of units. Which brings us to…
Blurb is my new best friend. They ship from within Canada and charge me in Canadian dollars. They also offer volume discounts (10+ copies = 10% off, 20+ copies = 20% off, etc.), as well as the occasional promo code to save even more without a minimum order quantity. I don’t have to worry about surprise brokerage or tax fees either. The print quality is on par with Createspace, with orders being fulfilled by Ingram. Honestly, I’m kicking myself for not trying Blurb sooner.
Getting a US tax ID (ITIN):
Just for the record: I am not a tax lawyer or expert. I’m only sharing information based on my own experience.
When you get paid by your US distributors (Smashwords, Amazon KDP/CreateSpace, etc.), they withhold 30% of your earnings (in addition to their royalty cut) as tax. To get around this, you need a tax ID from the IRS. Then you can collect 100% of your earnings, but you will still need to report them on your Canadian income tax, just like any other income you receive. There are two types of foreign tax ID: Employer Identification Number (for companies), and Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (for individuals). This is the process to secure an ITIN on your own, without a lawyer or acceptance agent, for under $50 (assuming you already have a valid Canadian passport).
What you’ll need:
- Proof of your foreign status. (A certified copy of your passport.)
- Proof that tax is being withheld. (A form letter from one of your US distributors.)
- A completed W-7 application form.
Proof of Foreign Status
The easiest way to fulfill this requirement is to get a certified copy of your Canadian passport. Your passport must be certified by the issuing office (Passport Canada) to be acceptable. A notarized copy is no good.
As of January 2018, a certified true copy of your passport costs $45. Whether you decide to go through this process by mail or in person, make sure you won’t be traveling for the next few weeks, since you won’t have your passport available while your certified copy is being made. If you drop off your passport in person, you will be given a slip in exchange for your passport, along with a pickup date. Do not lose this slip. You will need to exchange it for your passport and certified copy when they are ready for pickup. The certified copy is what you will send to the IRS, along with the other required documentation listed below.
Proof that tax is being withheld
This is a letter provided by one of your US distributors, such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords, or Createspace. You can request such a letter from any of these companies through their FAQ or Support links once you are logged into your account. You only need to send a valid letter from one of these companies to the IRS with your completed W-7 form.
W-7 Application Form
Once you have a certified copy of your passport and a letter from one of your distributors, you can fill out the IRS W-7 form. It’s fairly straightforward. Fill in all your information, including name, birth information, foreign address and tax number (your Canadian Social Insurance Number), and your passport information. You can find the official instructions here.
In the top portion outlining your reason for needing the ITIN, check “a” (“Nonresident alien required to get ITIN to claim tax treaty benefit”), and make sure you write ‘Canada’ as the treaty country and ‘Article 12 (XII)’ as the treaty article number at the bottom of the section, just above where your name goes. Don’t worry about the Acceptance Agent section of the form. Leave it empty.
The completed form must be sent with the certified copy of your passport and the letter from one of your US distributors to the IRS. They can either be sent by mail to the related IRS PO box, or by courier to a separate IRS address. (Both addresses can be found in the W-7 Application Instructions.) Once you send everything off, it will likely take several weeks before you get your ITIN in the mail. Make a digital copy and save both it and the physical copy in a safe place for future reference.
Stopping the Tax Withholding
Once you receive your ITIN in the mail from the IRS, you need to communicate it to each of your individual US distributors (Smashwords, Amazon KDP, Amazon Createspace, etc.). This is done via a completed W-8BEN form or tax online interview, depending on the distributor. You should be able to find this info in each distributor’s related Account or Support sections once you are logged into your account.
You will need to submit a new tax interview every few years to ensure all your information is still correct. You should be prompted by email for this by each of your distributors as needed.
If you have already had tax withheld from a distributor, you *should* have it reimbursed to you by the end of the calendar year, once you have completed the W-8BEN process either via online tax interview or by mail.
Receiving direct payments from the US:
Smashwords pays royalties via Paypal, but Amazon KDP and Createspace will only send you a cheque if you don’t have a bank account inside the US, UK, or Europe. (Even then, your balance must be at least $100/channel for Amazon to pay you. KDP and Createspace are separate branches of the company, with separate accounting departments.)
If you have a bank account in the US, you get paid monthly as long as your balance is $10 or more, which is a much better option. I use RBC. (Remember: The account you need is not just a US currency account, but one that is with a branch that is physically in the US.)
I opened three RBC accounts:
Canadian USD Savings Account: I use this to accept US funds via Paypal (free).
US Checking Account: I use this to to accept direct deposits from the US ($3.95US/month). It comes with a US Visa Debit card, which is also handy for making business-related payments (web hosting, image licenses, etc.) in US dollars without getting slapped with foreign conversion fees like you would with a Canadian credit card.
Canadian Savings Account: I use this to filter money in and out of the other two accounts (1 free transaction/month, no monthly fee). You might find a different Canadian currency account works better for your banking needs.
You can link all your RBC accounts online and move your money to or from the US very easily. I opened my accounts in person at a local branch, and they were very helpful for setting everything up. To open the US Checking Account, I needed two pieces of ID and a $100 deposit to transfer into the new account. (Not sure if this policy is still the same.)
Hopefully, someone out there will find this info helpful. If you have any questions, let me know!