How To Create Beautiful Print Books And Sell Direct With Alex Smith From Bookvault

How can you create more beautiful print books — and make more money with your products by selling direct? Alex Smith explains how BookVault can help with various options as well as helpful resources.

In the intro, audiobooks and AI [Frankfurt Bookmesse]; Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Virtual Worlds by Joanna Penn; Google's woke AI Gemini [The Verge]; AI solving humanity's hardest problems [NY Times]; Demis Hassabis on Hard Fork [NY Times]; Finding my voice in the AI wars [Talena Winters].

Plus, Author Blueprint (2024) is now in print (or get the ebook here); Spear of Destiny prelaunch page.

Today's show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna

Alex Smith is the technical lead of Bookvault.app, the independent printer that I use for the books I sell direct on Shopify, as well as for my Kickstarters.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Services that Bookvault offers authors in order to make beautiful books and make more money selling direct
  • Common issues to avoid when uploading files
  • Special edition books—ribbons, sprayed edges, foiling options, and more
  • Options for photo books or art books
  • Working with Bookvault to create and fulfill a Kickstarter campaign
  • How to get more help if you need it
  • How the payment and fulfillment process works
  • Connecting Bookvault to your direct online store

Find out more about Alex Smith and Bookvault at Bookvault.app, which fulfils the print editions of my books at CreativePennBooks.com, and JFPennBooks.com.

Transcript of Interview with Alex Smith

Joanna: Alex Smith is the technical lead of Bookvault.app, the independent printer that I use for the books I sell direct on Shopify, as well as for my Kickstarters. So welcome to the show, Alex.

Alex: Thank you so much for having us on.

Joanna: I'm excited to talk to you. So first up, just—

Tell people a bit more about Bookvault.

And also how its parent company has been around much longer than people might think, given you kind of came out of nowhere a couple of years ago.

Alex: Yes, so Bookvault is part of a large company called Print On Demand Worldwide. So we've been going for just shy of 29 years now. So, longer than me.

Joanna: That's really funny. Wait, how old are you?

Alex: I'm 24, nearly 25.

Joanna: That's a great line. Okay, just so people know, you don't own the company, right? You're the technical lead, and you help all of us authors with all our stuff. Sorry, carry on about Print on Demand Worldwide.

Alex: Yes, so we have our own production facility in the UK based in Peterborough, so 70 miles north of London. From there, we've done short run printing for that length of period.

It was about 2009 that we launched Bookvault, and that was to serve our traditional publishers that we'd been working with, mainly in the academic sector.

So they had a need to print single books on demand and in kind of a simple ordering process. So Bookvault was always kind of fenced off for them. It was an invite-only kind of system.

When COVID struck, pretty much as everyone did, we sat back and evaluated our business. It gave us a real good time to kind of see where we're going. So we took those two years to completely redevelop the system, moving it more to kind of a self-sign-up approach and target the indie author market as well.

So we relaunched it around late 2021. That's when we popped up on the scene. I think we then met you at London Book Fair in '22, and that's where we've been going since.

Joanna: Yes, and as we speak, you're at another conference, and you're at a lot of the conferences. So hopefully, some of the people listening might have met you or Curtis or one of the team. Just in case people don't know—

What does Bookvault offer authors right now? What are the main services that authors are using?

Alex: So our big focus is to deliver high-quality books to help our authors earn more.

So we've got a wide variety of print options. So we currently offer six stocks. So that ranges everything from the kind of similar stuff that you get from KDP and Ingram with those traditional trade papers.

Equally, we offer some more kinds of different papers. So a really nice, coated paper for children's books and things like that. So that's something we really focus on.

Equally, we've got six different bindings as well. So that allows you to get your traditional paperback or printed case bound.

JF Penn signing Pilgrimage hardbacks at the Bookvault printing factory, Peterborough, UK with alex and curtis from the bookvault team

We also offer linen wrap with foiling and a jacket. We offer spiral and wire bound, so they're kind of lay-flat books. As well as saddle stitch as well, so that's where you've got a staple in the middle, and that kind of pamphlet thing.

So in terms of sizings as well, we don't have specific sizing. So you can upload a book of any size from A6 all the way to 297×297 millimeters. So it's a really big range, and that's in all those different bindings as well.

Equally, a big thing for us as well is we offer split color. So if you've got a 100-page book and only one-color page, we'll only charge you for that one color page. That is a really big thing for us.

One thing to note as well with Bookvault is that we do have an upload fee. That does stop the mass uploads. So when we initially relaunched it, it was a bit of naivety from us, we had someone in a weekend upload 20,000 books, all with different kittens on.

So that completely ground the system to a halt and realized we had to do something. I mean, I like kittens, but not that many kittens. So we had to put that upload fee in place.

We do work with organizations, such as the Alliance of Independent Authors, and every Alliance of Independent Authors member gets unlimited free title uploads each month. So it's not there as a barrier, it's just there to make sure that we've got genuine people wanting to make genuine money for selling their books.

Joanna: We know how important that is. I actually think some of these other places are going to put in some kind of nominal fee because it is kind of getting a bit crazy.

Let's come back to a few of the books. So amusingly, because of the sizing, this is what's so funny. You remember it, right, we met at London Book Fair, and I said, “Can I upload my five by eight files, the ones that I'd already got for KDP?”

Lulu, the kind of other main one that people were using for things like Kickstarter and all of that, they didn't offer a five by eight. So that was the moment I was like, “Great. I can just upload the same file.”

So I wanted to point that out to people is the files that you might have done for KDP, you can upload to Bookvault. The upload is pretty easy, but just tell people—

What are some common issues that you see in the files that people send?

Alex: Yes, certainly I think using a template or getting your sizing right is the most important one.

We have a few set sizes that people generally use there, as well as a custom one. There’s a size called “standard,” and quite a lot of people seem to tick that one no matter what size their file is and think that they're going to produce a standard book with whatever you upload.

So it's really important to make sure your sizing is exactly correct. We do have online validation. So as soon as you upload a file, it'll automatically go through and ticket, and then it'll be straight away ready to order. So it's kind of worth doing that.

Then once you have uploaded, make sure to download the files and do a virtual proof and check that they look okay as well.

I think you probably agree, the most important thing we see what people don't do is order a proof when you've uploaded it. So you can just order a single copy to yourself.

We've had people upload a title and then do a Kickstarter run of 500 books, and as soon as it comes off the end of the line, it gets warped because it doesn't look right. It's always a pretty nerve-wracking experience.

Joanna: Yes, I mean that it's just crazy. A couple of things there, one is—and amusingly, I said five by eight there, which is in inches if people don't know—and I think you've now added a toggle, haven't you, so that it's centimeters and inches.

Alex: Yes, millimeters and inches. We've had people trying to upload a book that was five millimeters by eight millimeters. So they ran into a few issues there.

Joanna: That's so funny.

Alex: Being a UK company, even myself, trying to get my head around inches and millimeters, I need a little pocket calculator to quickly do it. But yes, you can toggle between it.

Joanna: Also, so people know, because I did this the other day, you can upload an interior file and then download a template for the cover, can't you?

Alex: Yes. So that's something we've worked on, and we're looking to enhance it even further.

Even before you've made a title, you can go onto our quoting tool, put the sizes in and specifications, and then you can download both an interior template and a cover template. As well as if you want to upload a jacket as well, you can download a jacket template.

Joanna: So then the other thing is, I think many of us want to do more and more higher quality print books. You mentioned six stocks and special paper, you mentioned six bindings and lots of different types of things.

I know in terms of the covers, you can have different colored covers and materials. Like I did a ribbon, and there's all this different foil, and it's almost like there are so many options now.

What is the process for an author who might be thinking about doing higher quality print books?

How do they know what to even think about asking for or trying out?

Alex: So something we really pride ourselves on is customer service. So that's something we've noticed as we've grown, we're expanding with customer service because we really want to make sure that we can offer a really high level of service to everyone.

So I think we've got two new people starting this week. So we're growing quite, quite big there. So one thing I would always suggest is on our contact page, you can book a call with someone. So you can book a call with one of our print experts to kind of talk through your options.

They can show you on a video of what you might be looking at as well. So that's free of charge. Quite a lot of our customer service people come from the print floor, so they will have a very detailed knowledge of how it all works.

Joanna: That's good. I mean, I take lots of pictures of books, like at London Book Fair, where I'll see you in a couple of weeks’ time. It's like, okay, I really like that, I don't know what it's called, but if I show that picture to you, you'll know what it's called.

Alex: Yes. We have been stumped a couple of times because the obscurity, especially some books coming out of China, there's things we've never seen. Generally, there's at least someone in the office that knows what it is.

Joanna: Yes, exactly. So a couple of things that people might have heard of that may be coming. I mean, like you did ribbons for me.

Can anyone order ribbons now?

Alex: That's ready to go. So it'll be launching very imminently, probably in the next couple of weeks. It's something that we want to make sure, again, that we've got the level of customer service that we need for when they launch. We feel there's going to be a few questions.

So we've got quite a big event block at the moment, but as soon as that's kind of finished the end of March time, they'll be coming out live on the portal for anyone to order.

Joanna Penn with gold foil edition of Writing the Shadow (Kickstarter only)

Joanna: Oh, okay. Then what about foil? Because Sacha Black right now is doing an amazing cover with rainbow foil. Like, I'm a bit jealous because I had really beautiful gold foil on Writing the Shadow, but now I'm like, rainbow foil, I didn't even know rainbow foil was a thing!

Tell us more about foil options.

Alex: So as I say, we're kind of taking it back as a company. Our owner, Andy Cork, he's always been a yes-man. So whenever the publishers come up to him asking for something, he would always say yes. It'll be one of the things where when he walks in the office, we're always worried about what he's agreed to next.

So as a company, we like to be able to do things that maybe other POD printers can't do. So we're introducing foiling. So that'll be the case that you supply an additional file with a black outline of what you want foiling.

Effectively, once we've printed the cover, the jacket, we can then put it through the foiling machine and it will print the foil on top as well. So we've got gold, silver, the holographic rainbowy silver, as well as a green, I believe. We'll kind of be expanding that along with these new changes with ribbons, as well as head and tail bands and endpapers as well.

Joanna: Oh, endpapers.

Tell me about endpapers.

Because that was on my list.

Alex: So printed endpapers, for those that don't know, is when you open the hardback of a book, usually with POD printing it will be either white or cream printed on the inside of the case. So printed endpapers are effectively similar to an interior page where we would print in color kind of another full spread image across it. So it creates a really nice high-quality finish.

Again, with Sacha Black's most recent Kickstarter, we printed some lips on the inside. So yes, you'll be able to upload an additional file on both the front and back of the hardback book, which will be a completely printed endpaper.

Joanna: Will the texture be different? Or is it just like normal paper?

Alex: It is a slightly thicker paper. It's 170 GSM. So it's kind of the same thickness as a jacket.

Joanna: Okay, cool. I should say, Sacha's are not just lips, they're vampire lips with fangs. People can have a look at that on her Kickstarter, which I'll link. It might have finished by the time this goes out, but the pictures will still be on the Kickstarter. So I think this is really, really cool.

So let's go through some of the other things that might be coming in this year that people might be interested in.

Alex: The biggest thing that I'm most excited about, and I guess it's something we haven't talked about too much.

We've just signed the contract for a new machine which will be doing sprayed edges.

I think the recent kind of delivery date we've been given is July.

So that will land in the facility in July, and we've already done the code for it. So as soon as it's kind of there, we'll be able to drop it straight onto the site. So on a single copy basis you can do sprayed edges books as well. I'm really excited about that.

Joanna: On a single copy. So that'll be print on demand?

Alex: Yes. All print on demand.

Joanna: Wow. Okay. So if people don't know—

What are sprayed edges?

Alex: So on both paperback and hardback, if you've got a book block, you normally kind of just see the white or the cream of the paper on the edge of the book itself. So you'll be able to print a fully digital image on that.

So we've seen some really cool ones where the front cover wraps all the way round to the back and again, so it's like a complete 360-degree picture. Or people have done really nice patterns and stuff like that. So yes, it's really exciting.

Joanna: So just to be clear, if people are holding a book in their hand with the spine against their palm, kind of the edges of the pages if they hold it towards them normally look white or cream, as you say. This will be that you can actually have a pattern on there or, like you say, a cover. So it means you can just put a lot more art on your book, right?

Alex: Yes. I think it's one of those where you look at Kickstarter and someone is selling their kind of traditional book there for 10 or 15 pounds, or with sprayed edges it is 60 or 70 pounds. So it just makes so much more of a premium product.

It's one of those that probably you won't traditionally do it for every book you sell. You kind of sell to those superfans, this special edition, and really on a higher markup. It is just great at the end of it.

Joanna: Well, that is cool because my next Kickstarter, Spear of Destiny, will happen in June. So that might be possible, right?

Alex: Yes, I would imagine so. That'll be really exciting.

Joanna: That will be. What I like I think about doing the, as you say, it could be print on demand, but I actually really like doing the special editions for the Kickstarters. Like Sacha's doing, too. Obviously, signing them and all that kind of thing.

So it is interesting to consider what we can do as print on demand, and then what we keep as special, I guess. Are there any things that you do that would have to be a special run?

Alex: No. So I guess our business model has always been print on demand, because at the end of the day, you would also want to see a proof. So we just like to set ourselves up as anything we can do as print on demand.

I mean, certainly with these bespoke things, it won't be as you expect with Amazon and Ingram where they come in a couple of days. It will take slightly longer. I think that's something you can—if you're selling direct—you can deal with by messaging and say it's bespoke, and it's being handmade, etc. So, yes, that's kind of the route we're taking.

Joanna: Yes, we'll come back to what's different about selling direct, but just a few more things. So last summer, you made a box for a trilogy of mine.

It is actually a box for a box set. What's the update on that?

Alex: Yes, they're kind of all lined up with this launch, with ribbons, advanced foiling, and all of those things. So it's going to be a very exciting release.

Mapwalker boxed set – mockup without special design

As I say, it's something I think is going to completely change the way of our business, as well as kind of the way that authors have the ability to do stuff because there's very little options out there, especially on a single copy basis, to do these special editions.

Joanna: Okay, and so on that, the box would be different for every single person's books. It's not a standard size. So it would get built to order.

Alex: Yes, so already on Bookvault, you can create a bundle. So effectively, you select a series of books that you want to be shipped together, and then that gives you a single ISBN or SKU. Then you can download a template for that to be able to generate a book box.

So we're also working with Reedsy, we're just working with some of their designers as well. So we have some designers on hand that we can point in the direction of to create that artwork box as well. It's a bit different, I guess, to the traditional thing that you'd expect with a book.

Joanna: Yes, and this is really interesting because I do agree. I think the design has to be more than just what was on the cover, for example. So yes, there's a lot more potential design work involved, which in itself is very exciting.

I guess for people listening, the reason we're doing this is, one, because we all love books, and we really like beautiful objects. But also —

We need to set ourselves apart with beautiful print products in a world where there are millions of digital books.

I think this is a way to set ourselves apart.

Also, we can make more money per copy. We're not going to go into the finances of this, and obviously, these more special editions cost more money to print, but you can still make a good profit, as I know.

So just a few more things. So my next project after Spear of Destiny is going to be a high-quality photo coffee table book on Gothic Cathedrals.

If people want to do photo books or art books, what are the options for that?

Alex: So we offer two different print options at Bookvault. So we've got standard and premium. So our standard print is all done via an inkjet. So effectively, it's a massive roll of paper on the end of a printer that kind of goes straight through and is chopped straight into a book. That works fantastically for, I'd say, 99% of all books.

We do also offer premium printing as well. So that comes out of a toner device. So it's kind of your traditional printer of feeding in sheets and trimming them down from that.

So that's perfect, as you mentioned, for the coffee table books and those side of things. So it's really nice vibrant color on a glossy paper you would traditionally see with photo books or coffee table books.

The one thing I would mention, and it's always good to be open with this caveat, is we are still a digital printer. So you won't get those Pantone color matches that you might do with other arts printers or litho printers or things like that. We try to get the best color match for your file, but equally, there may be a slight deviation.

Joanna: Yes, okay. That's great. I've written down here, “Kickstarter help.”

You're also going to offer help with Kickstarter files soon.

Alex: Yes.

Joanna: Because you and I have had emails going backwards and forwards with spreadsheets, and you guys have been so helpful to me. But obviously, if more and more authors do this, you can't necessarily offer sort of individual help like you've given me.

Alex: As Kickstarters are growing more and more, myself, personally, yes, head banging against the wall with different data and kind of formats and stuff like that. So we've built in a bulk upload tool.

So again, this will be launching with all these ribbons. It's going to be a big launch of kind of all the bespoke options and Kickstarter help.

So effectively, you'll be able to upload your spreadsheet, that's your kind of backer spreadsheet of Kickstarter, or a template one that you've created yourself. That sends the data fields to Bookvault, and then it will automatically import all those orders for you.

So the plan is, it's very hands off. So certainly, it's going to make our life easier, but also you can upload a bulk order in a matter of, I say, minutes. It's still good to check all the data and make sure it's come across as you'd expect.

We've seen, I don't know why, just someone sent over a spreadsheet the other week that had obscure spaces, so it just made every space got replaced with a question mark or something like that. So it's always good just to validate it, and if you have any issues reach out to us. But with 99% of people that should just be a case of uploading a file and it importing all the orders.

Joanna: Oh, I'm excited about that. So wait, that will be done by my next campaign?

Alex: Yes, it will be.

Joanna: Thank goodness for that. I think this is what's exciting. One, thank you personally, because I very much value having someone who's so enthusiastic about technology. Also, you have this great can-do attitude. I guess you mentioned Andy has that too, and the team generally does. It's like, we're going to make this happen.

So often with tech companies, having also worked for some myself, it's, “No, you can't do that. You have to do what our system tells you to do. We're not going to build anything.” Whereas you'll just be like, “No, we can do that,” and build something, which I love.

Alex: I think that's obviously myself attending some of your events as well. I think the first one for me was 20Books Vegas where I was kind of taken a bit back. It was just me on a little table, and I basically lost all my material within the first hour.

So it was really fantastic speaking to authors and hearing what they want to do.

Our passion as a company is to enable people to earn more.

I think we're looking at it, seeing the traditional players kind of saying you've got to adhere to exactly what they want to do, or you don't do it at all. So yes, it's certainly something we're really pushing at as a business because we can and we want to.

Joanna: I mean, we're indie authors, and you're an indie printer. So, I mean, yes, that's the idea, which I love. I also want people listening to keep this in mind.

I feel like, and I'm sure you guys do, people have a certain way of addressing KDP help or Ingram Spark help or some of the help desk for some of the big companies.

They might assume that you have warehouses and warehouses of staff, but you don't, do you? It's a small company.

Alex: So I mean, we are growing. So that's one big thing for us is customer service. That's why we just took on two new people, and it's kind of an ever-growing thing.

We are a relatively small company. We still have room for growth and things like that. But, yes, there is always someone at the end of the phone or at the end of the email that is a nice person. So they'll help you.

Joanna: Yes, so be nice. I do like that you now have a help desk ticket system. This is something of what was on my list for you like last year or whatever. It was like you need a ticket system. So now, once you're a Bookvault customer, you can access this form, and you can raise a ticket.

I mean, obviously there are always—not always, not every single time—but I mean, I sell quite a lot of books, and a customer might email me and say, “Oh, this shipment didn't arrive,” or something. I just go in, and I raise a ticket, and one of the team will look at it.

So I think it's really good that you have that way of doing stuff. That's important as well. It makes me feel happy that you're dealing with it, and the team do that really quickly.

Alex: I think support is something we saw with our growth, we noticed a demand in. So we introduced a ticket system. We've also been kind of expanding our Help Center as well. Generally, if there's something not on the Help Center, as they're replying to an email, they'll also add it on there as well. So that's ever growing.

Also, we're working with a creator as well to create some YouTube videos on the whole process of Bookvault, kind of step through how to do each thing as well. So that's something that is ever growing for us as well.

Joanna: Okay, a couple more things. One is I am very lucky in that I can drive like three hours and can be at your factory, and that's how we've done the signing for the book. Sacha lives in Peterborough, so she pops around to there too.

Joanna Penn signing Writing the Shadow Nov 2023

What if people want signing options?

I mean, there is something called tip-ins. Is that a possibility? Or is it that people will have to ship books to themselves and then ship them on?

Alex: Yes, certainly that's something we're exploring. So we are, I guess, starting with the basic stuff with the kind of bespoke stuff, the ribbons and things like that.

Signing is something we're addressing. I think the biggest concern for us is we obviously print in the UK and the US, but the US is not our facility. So we can't just demand them to do certain things. So stuff like signed books would have to be done in the UK.

So we're just kind of looking at the customs side of things of shipping paper over there for them to sign and then shipping it back. So we don't have an estimate on it yet, but it's certainly something we're looking at. Because, again, a signed book is something you can add a lot more value to as well.

Joanna: Exactly. I mean, I love the fact that I've been an indie author for like 15 years now, and every year we have had more options for what we can do.

Every year we get closer to being able to do exactly what traditional published authors can do.

I mean, I remember back in the day, we weren't even allowed to do pre-orders on Kindle, or as a non-American author, I couldn't even publish on Kindle back in like 2008, whenever it was.

So it's so brilliant to hear some of the things you're bringing in. You know, we see pictures of Neil Gaiman who obviously is super famous, but he will sign front sheets. He doesn't sign books, he'll sign front sheets, and then they'll get sent to the printer, and then they'll get put in.

Let's face it, there's some indie authors with really big audiences who might be interested in doing that.

Alex: Yes, definitely. As you say, I think it's interesting because —

We're coming to the point now where the indies are in front of the traditional publishers.

I think that's kind of where it's heading, you know, it's a lot more adaptable.

Whereas traditional publishers just think that they can stay with their traditional ways and do what they do, indie publishers are actually pushing forward and doing more interesting and exciting things as well.

Joanna: Yes, absolutely. Or, I guess, like we mentioned, it's rare to see. Like at Christmas, I saw a couple of books with sprayed edges in Waterstones, I bought one for my niece, but they're just not normal because they're more expensive. Most books don't get that treatment. So yes, I'm excited about that.

You mentioned the US printer. So talk about that, because obviously your Peterborough plant is in the UK.

Tell people if they're in the US or want to sell to the US, how does that work?

Alex: So we have a partner facility based out of Ohio in Ashland through Baker and Taylor. So they've been in the printing game a long time as well. Our US expansion started last July when we started sending books over there, and it's kind of continually going.

To be completely honest, we've been taken aback by the demand. So there's been cases where things have moved a bit slower than we would like, but the great thing is we've always been able to back that up with our UK facility as well.

So whereas if something is out of capacity in the US, we've been able to ship from the UK in kind of the same time scales for our consolidated service, so that's a positive.

So they offer kind of the base specs things. So they do the split color. They also do printed paperbacks and printed hardbacks in your kind of trade paper, so your cream and your white kind of textbook paper as such.

So yes, that's all printed out of the US. The timescales are generally three to five days for a book. So, again, it's nice and quick.

Joanna: Yes, and just to circle back to bundles because we glossed over that. It really is brilliant in that when you go to create a book, you can create a book, and then you can create a bundle and link them together.

12 book bundle – order with one product on jfpennbooks.com which is a bundle deal

So on my Shopify store, people can order, say, the first three of my ARKANE thrillers in print, and it goes through as one order as a bundle, and they get a special deal. It just makes it much more easier to price at the front end.

Also, then the order goes through, and then it's three — or 12 — books. I have those going out almost every day in the US, which is pretty exciting. So yes, I do think that that bundle technology, which again, people can do it themselves. Like they don't have to ask anyone, right? They just go in and set up another bundle.

Alex: Yes, and that's what we generally do. We kind of start stuff off as a closed thing, so similar to what we've done with the bespoke options. We do it ourselves manually for a bit, just to try and iron out any kinks or work out what goes wrong.

We did that with bundles, and I know that got very tedious. So yes, we now have the option for someone just to log onto the Bookvault portal and set up bundles themselves and get it all going. So it's really, really good.

Joanna: It is. Just for people, if you are selling direct, bundling print books is fantastic. It makes the deal look better, but you can also make good money. Whereas people are like, “Oh, you can just do that on Amazon.” Well, Amazon's print prices, we make very little money from print on Amazon.

This is, again, why we're all so excited. We can actually make decent money on print and print bundles. So I have bundles of three, and I have a 12-book bundle which also sells So yes, that's exciting.


So I also wanted to ask about merchandise since you have a sister company that offers mugs and stuff like that. Many authors who have Shopify stores want to add this kind of thing.

What's happening with merchandise?

Alex: Yes, so we have as part of the Print on Demand Worldwide umbrella, we also have a company called Photobubble. So that's UK based, and that kind of focuses on the equivalent of Snapfish. So we do photo books, and as you say, mugs, tote bags, etc.

So that is something we're planning to merge into the Bookvault system as well. So you can bundle things like a coffee mug with a book and do those kinds of upsell bundles as well.

For Kickstarters, you can do those reward tiers with different things. So again, they will be all print on demand and single copy. I need to get the habit of single copy for mugs, but single mugs. So they'll all be done through the Bookvault portal, and we're probably looking towards the middle of the year for that.

Joanna: Okay, and I mean, most authors are looking at bookmarks, and posters, cards, that kind of thing.

Alex: Yes. Again, that will kind of all be through that side of things as well. So you'll be able to upload a leaflet that goes with every order, or you'll be able to send yourself a boatload of leaflets, or bookmarks, etc.

So yes, that's all exciting. I think that's, again, something that with selling direct, people use apps like Printful, which is great, but then you've got to charge a customer twice for shipping because you've got the book coming from ourselves, and then the mug coming from Printful. So combining those together will be, I hope, a game changer.

Joanna: Exactly. I mean, I did enable some of this originally. Also, I was concerned about the quality. Not that the quality was bad, it's just you really do have to check everything and test everything. I was like, look, I would much rather be able to know that my books are going out with the mug or whatever from you guys. So I turned off my other stuff, and I am waiting for the merch.

Alex: I need to stop going to all these conferences and be tanning myself on the beach!

Joanna: Do some work, Alex. You're so lazy!

Alex: I know.

Joanna: By the way, everyone listening, this is a joke. I have had many emails from Alex at like 1 am or 2 am. I mean, you've worked so hard. Weekends. You barely ever have a day off. I appreciate all your hard work. I know how hard you work, and I really do appreciate it.

Okay, so let's talk about something else, which is when authors do print on demand, usually with Amazon and with Ingram, it's either free or there's a small charge to upload, but then they get paid by that company. So if people use KDP print, Amazon will pay them for the books.

What is the difference when people are using Bookvault or any other service when they're selling direct?

Alex: So direct selling is fantastic because you're in control of your own business. So effectively you are the payment gateway. All we would do is take the print.

So effectively, if you had your own direct store, the customer would pay you for the print and shipping of the book. Then you would then just pay us for the print.

So you would kind of get everything there. So it's a really highly profitable way of selling things.

We offer a range of apps for direct sale stores on Shopify, Wix, WooCommerce, Zapier, and there's a few other ones. I think TikTok Shop is in the works as well, which we're really excited for.

Joanna: Payhip as well, I think.

Alex: Yes, Payhip as well. So it's a really good way of kind of doing that as an automated way of the journey. I think it's, for me, I feel like the way forward. It's one of those things that you can't jump into it too quickly, but equally, once you do jump into it and do it bit by bit, it works really well.

Joanna: I would totally agree with you. You and I, I mean, you are very technical, I am reasonably okay with some technical stuff. How technical do people have to be in order to implement Bookvault onto their WooCommerce, or their Wix, or their Shopify?

Alex: I think it all depends on the platform you use. So Shopify, we always tend to direct people to. It's a really nice, simple platform. You can do more advanced things on it, but if you take the kind of baseline, it's really simple.

WooCommerce is kind of a bit more technically minded. There might be plugin conflicts and things like that. So it's always worth noting that.

In terms of the Bookvault app itself, we try and make things as easy as possible. So you effectively go to the systems App Store and install the Bookvault plugin. What that then does is you link up your account, and then you can also link up the titles.

So Bookvault will know that when that title is ordered on your store, it needs to fulfill this product. That works for both individual titles, but as you mentioned before, also bundles as well.

In terms of shipping, we've seen with other apps on the market, people kind of have to go in and do each shipping rate manually one by one and kind of work out. Our app sits in the middle and it will pull the most up to date pricing and serve it to the customer. The customer pays exactly what you would get charged.

That gets updated 24/7, and I think it uploads on Shopify just shy of 40,000 shipping rates. So if you had to do that manually yourself, you'd be there a very long time.

Then when the order comes through, it automatically picks up that order, sends it straight to Bookvault, and print and fulfills it directly to the customer from either the UK or US facility for you.

So the only thing you really need to do is if you're not happy to link a payment card, go in and pay for that order. Or you can add a balance or link a payment card and it'll automatically go through and process that for you.

Joanna: Yes, so just to reiterate, with this way of doing things, like you mentioned, so if someone orders a book on my Shopify store, they will pay, and if it's PayPal, I'll get the money like immediately, and if it's Shopify pay I'll get it within like 48 hours.

If the order goes through to Bookvault, and I have a balance there, and it comes off my balance. Or I could pay for it individually as it goes through, I've got a credit card on it.

You have to pay quicker, but you also get the money quicker.

So in terms of cash flow, you do have to be aware of that. Most orders it won't be a problem because you're not going to get like 30,000 orders in one day. So it's more kind of spread out.

I did want to make it clear to people because I feel like some people are surprised that you're not paying them.

Alex: Yes, and I think that it's a different way of doing it. Again, it's one of those that if you do have any questions, you can reach out to the team and they can talk you through the process. They've done it countless times. So yes, it's really good.

Equally as a company as well, we do also offer the kind of distribution model as such. We call it more of a stepping stone to direct sales. So we have our own retailer called The Great British Bookshop, and as I say, that probably sits more as our store, but it also is kind of a direct sales stepping stone.

So we will actually only charge 10% royalties minus the print cost. So you retain 90% minus the print cost there. So that's another way of earning kind of a higher margin than the likes of Amazon.

Also we pay out the royalties on the 14th of every month as well. So if you were to make a sale in March, we would then pay it out on the 14th of April or the closest working day.

Joanna: Which is quicker than Amazon and some of the others. Just on that, people tend to, including myself, we use Ingram Spark to go to their network of over 40,000 retailers.

So I use KDP print just for Amazon, then I use Ingram Spark for this wider, and then I use you guys for direct and Kickstarter. But as you mentioned, you do have distribution too.

Is there an overlap if people use Ingram and Bookvault?

Alex: No. So generally with distribution models, it always is generally who will win the buy box. So it can work with both ways. It's always best to have a primary distributor. So that would kind of be whoever you wish to choose, but then you can also list with other distributors there.

Something exciting that we're working on, it's in a very closed beta at the moment, but it is something we're hoping to launch in the next couple of months, I would say. It is more of an enhanced distribution model.

So currently, we distribute to Amazon retailers and a couple of others in the UK. We're working with Baker and Taylor to cover the US distribution. We are also working with an Indian distributor to cover the Indian market, as well as the Brazilian market, and also the South African market.

So that will start to grow our distribution platform because we've always been generally UK focused. Now we're thinking worldwide and kind of pushing out to those worldwide channels.

Joanna: I love it.

I love that indie authors are growing your business so much faster than the traditional publishers.

Alex: Yes. As I say, with traditional, it's always been like, this is our job, and we need to do it. Whereas now we've got the avenues to, as I say, go worldwide.

Joanna: Yes, and there's a lot of energy. I think that's the other thing is there is a lot of good energy. Indie authors are so pleased to be like, “Ooh, you mean I can do foil? That's amazing.”

Alex: I think that's the thing, and that's why I like going to the events so much. When you're talking to people, not only are they giving us ideas as well and kind of helping us steer in the right direction, but we're able to show what can be done.

I think when you go on a podcast and mention about foiling, it's really hard to picture that. Whereas if you see us in person, you can really see those beautiful books.

So we did a talk at the Superstars of Writing, and we have the books all up on show, and I think we have to usher people out of the room in the end because they needed it for the next talk.

Joanna: That's awesome. Also, you mentioned Reedsy earlier around designers maybe doing box sets and things like that and having a sort of referral process.

I think there's a huge gap in the author services market for people helping to build direct sales stores.

Is that something that you've mentioned to them? Because people must ask that all the time.

Alex: Yes, I think it's a difficult one because there is the need to, say, if you've not got time to kind of work with someone. But equally, I think with direct sales, it's so important to know your store and to be able to have a steer on it.

So we work with a company called Digital Authors Toolkit. Stuart there, he kind of focuses on Wix and does offer websites there. So if we do have people, we push them in that direction. He's fantastic. He's UK based, and he's great. It is something I think there is a gap for and it needs to be grown on.

Joanna: Well, I think there's a lot of exciting times ahead. Obviously, you and the team go to many of the author conferences, so people can certainly see you there or reach out to the team.

Where can people find Bookvault online?

Alex: So online, we've got our website which is bookvault.app. There you can sign up to Bookvault portal, as well as get a quote before creating an account.

We also have our social platforms as well. So we're on the kind of usual ones, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or X, I guess now, where we kind of run promotions as well as publish articles and things like that.

We're trying to grow the YouTube channel a little bit as well, so that'll provide kind of helpful videos, as I say, that we're working on how to do little things.

Then also, primarily, we're attending a lot of events as well. So we're at 20Books Seville in a couple of weeks’ time, then London Book Fair. We've got an indie author conference in Huntington as well. Inkers Con, NINC, and then Author Nation as well, which we're excited for at the end of the year.

Joanna: Oh, fantastic. Well, I will see you in Seville.

Alex: I'm looking forward to it.

Joanna: Great. Thanks so much for your time, Alex. That was great.

Alex: Thank you very much.

Joanna Penn:

View Comments (9)

  • Talking about AI Narration, I decided to try Apple's AI Narration via Draft2Digital for my first book and it read the St. abbreviation (as in St. Leger) as Street instead of Saint all through the book. Ironically, I use Siri to read my manuscript back to me as part of my proofreading process, and Siri got it right!

    • Yes, you need to proof AI narration just as much as human narration and often 'pre-edit' for audio pronunciation.

  • I love Bookvault and used them for my last Kickstarter, but I have been waiting since last year for the foiling option to appear and been told twice it will arrive in ‘a few weeks’. Sadly there’s still not sign of it happening and I can’t wait any longer to launch my campaign. Sadly it means I’m going to miss out on foiling as are my fans which is a shame.

    • Hi Hattie,
      The foiling is not available in the print on demand section yet, but I did a project back in November with foiling, Writing the Shadow, so it can be done for one-off projects.
      Did you ask them specifically about a print run rather than the POD option?

      • I think my kickstarter will be too small to qualify for a print run. My last one was only around 100 copies.

        • You should just ask :) The books are still printed on demand, so it's not like other printers, but they do a batch, and you can get foiling. They are a small friendly team, so just reach out.

  • Great show. Thanks, Joanna. It doesn't sound like BookVault is available to Australian indie authors yet. Am I correct in saying that?

    • Hi Karen, Yes, you're right. It's not in Australia. They are only a small company, so presumably might look for partners, but for now, check out Lulu and Ingram, both of which have printers in Australia, I believe.

  • OK, this is really exciting! We'll be doing our first graphic novel Kickstarter this year and I was wondering about the best options to offer our supporters a really high end edition. It's such a shame that KDP POD doesn't offer a third tier of paper stock for art books to really show them in their best light. Thanks Joanna!

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