SPS- 427: Direct Selling FTW with Alex Smith from Bookvault

A fast emerging aspect of indie marketing is direct selling. Bookvault have risen quickly to the top of many authors go-to suppliers for print-on-demand, especially for those special editions that can be extremely good for your bottom line.
This week’s show features a chat with Bookvault’s Alex Smith.

Show Notes

Show notes:

  • SPS Live giveaway, if you can’t afford the ticket price, we are going to gift 10 tickets, send an email to [email protected] and state your case
  • Bookvault and what they can offer
  • Special edition new features
  • Direct selling app, ecommerce platforms and shipping
  • US services
  • Using platforms to your advantage

Resources mentioned in this episode:


PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page


Speaker 1 (00:03):
Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch (00:19):
Yes, hello and welcome. It is James and here is the Self-Publishing Show, your Friday dose of indie publishing from sunny uk. This week we are talking direct marketing and one of the major movers, I think in the industry for direct marketing over the last couple of years is a company not too far away from where I am, Bookvault here in the UK based in Peterborough. And they have as an organisation, they've got a lot of publishing history or printing history, I should say, behind them, but they're pivoted as they say in business to really serve the indie market. And that has worked at exactly the right time as direct marketing becomes a very viable proposition for lots of indies. So we're going to be talking to Bookvault to Alex in just a few moments before then. I just want to talk about the live show we have coming up in just over a month's time, a month and five days I think it is, from where I'm sitting here.
So about a month, exactly, probably when this email, when this podcast goes out. So we have a fantastic schedule this year. Can't wait to be sitting on stage with El l James and Lucy score. We have Steve Higgs, we've got Craig Martel, we've got people from the audio book industry including from a CX and startups who are going to be pitching on their take on what's happening in the audio book market. We're going to have Ricardo Fiat and Dan Wood on stage. We're going to have Mike Horigan from written word Media talking about promos. And all of these people, if you're there, will be happy to talk to you as well. So you get a chance to meet the people behind some of these services and some of these famous authors get a chance to meet them. And glad hand them, I don't really know what Glad Hand means, but we do say it, don't we?
Now I know the price went up this year went up by 20% and we have no choice over that. It was a ruling about VAT, which is sales tax here in the uk, which really annoying because 20% is really high. I noticed sales tax in the States, it's usually about 7%, something like that, but it's 20% in the uk, quite common in the EU as well. And that did put it out of reach, I think for some people. So what we're going to do is we are going to make some tickets available for people who otherwise couldn't afford to pay for a ticket. So basically if you are perhaps just starting out, you haven't got any booking income yet, you can't really justify spending 240 quid now for two days, including the party, we are going to gift you a ticket. So the only way I can think to do it is if you just send an email to support at self-publishing
Just state your case for why you think you deserve a ticket and we will give away 10 tickets to those people so it won't be a first come served. It'll be for genuine needs and genuine causes. So please don't ask for it if you think you can afford it, but if you can't, and it will be the difference between you being there and learning and moving your career on and not, we want you to be there. So it's as simple as that. So we've got 10 tickets we can give away on that, just email us, Catherine and I will go through the email. So [email protected] and we will get those out to you as soon as possible. If you can afford a ticket and I promise to buy you a drink, if you ask me nicely on the first evening at our party, you can go to
So grab your ticket. These will be the last giveaways I think. So grab your ticket and join us in June in a month's time in London South Bank, which is a wonderful venue. It's a lovely place, a lovely part of London, particularly if you like street food with a lot of it down there and including some sort of German take on it. I noticed last time I was there, some fantastic ice cream and some decent coffee. Of course, we need to be near lots of coffee. You can't have a room full of authors and not have coffee. It'll be a riot. And that's it. Yes. So that will be our show in a month's time. A little bit more about the schedule, if there's any changes as soon as we get close to it, we are going to feature a couple of previews of the sessions ahead.
So I'm going to talk to Susie Quinn soon about the secrets of Finding your Audience. It always has an excellent talk, really motivational and really directly pointed at what we write and how we choose what we write and whether we write to market, whether we write something that's going to sell. And Susie's really cracked that code. So we will hear from her on the show. We're going to hear from her in the podcast as well soon. But today it is Alex from Bookvault. So we're going to be talking about direct marketing. Alex will be at the show as well. You can definitely go and say hello to him and Curtis. They are good fun. I think they might even be bringing a third amigo along to London, but they'll tell you the low down on how to get your book on Bookvault. It's a very competitive service for print on demand, but perhaps even more importantly in this direct marketing era, they can do a lot of special editions and make your book look fabulous and you can suddenly find yourself charging 25 quid for a book because your fans will buy those special editions from you and they're fun to produce as well.
Perfect for those crowdfunding raises as well. So, okay, here is Alex and I'll be back for quick chats at the end of the interview.
Speaker 1 (05:26):
This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch (05:32):
Alex Smith, welcome back to the Self-Publishing Show you've been on before.
Alex Smith (05:36):
Yes, yeah, a couple of months ago, so it's good to be back.
James Blatch (05:38):
It is good to have you on. And I know you're going to be joining us next month in sunny London for the conference, but you better tell people about your organisation and what it does.
Alex Smith (05:50):
Yeah, so we're Bookvault. So we're a print on demand manufacturer similar to the likes of Ingram and KDP. So effectively you upload your files. We store them in our virtual library and we print and ship them as and when they're needed. So that's even from our UK facility, which is kind of just a hundred miles north of London in Peterborough. And we've also got a partner facility in Ohio in the US as well, which we print local orders in the US from as well. So we handle everything from kind of your author own orders. We do direct sales, so if you've got your own website, we sit in the middle there and print and ship them directly to the customer when you make a sale. And we also do a little bit of distribution too as well. But I think the big thing we're kind of really focusing on at the moment as well is special editions. So we've seen a massive rise in Kickstarter and all those special fancy editions where you can sell one book for the profit, you would sell 10 traditional books. So we're really focusing on that at the moment as a business too.
James Blatch (06:43):
Yeah, and you ship as well, you mentioned there, but it's an important thing to note. This is not going to Clays or somewhere and then suddenly you've got the problem with warehousing, but it's the ability to do something above and beyond what you get offered at KDP and places like that, particularly with a special edition. So what sort of things are you seeing rattling off your enormous printers?
Alex Smith (07:09):
We are seeing a lot of, as I say more as people would generally sell traditional paperbacks, and that's not declined, but we are seeing more and more people selling those special editions to superfans. So we've introduced various things. So we've got foiling on both a hardcover, paperbacks, spiral, all those different things. So you can have that in a holographic gold or silver. We've got end papers as well. So traditionally when you open a hardback with print on demand, it would normally be a white sheet of paper on the first page. We now print on that so you can put whatever designs you want on there as well as ribbons and head and tail bands as well. We're seeing basically everyone adding all the shiny things and selling it for as high as they can, which is really good. But what I'm most excited for as well is we are launching sprayed edges. So we've got a new piece of kit arriving from Germany. Hopefully it gets through the border with customs and stuff, so that's taken a bit longer than we'd like. But in July we'll have a new piece of kit that will literally enable us to put a book block through and print on the side of it as well. So you can upload whatever designs you want, which I think is going to be a big hit.
James Blatch (08:09):
So I could have an RAF round all pattern on the actual book itself
Alex Smith (08:15):
On a single copy basis as well. So as you mentioned, what we generally do with people is they'll do a Kickstarter or sell on their direct store and then as the order come in, we just ship that directly to the customer. We don't hold inventory and you don't have to put an upfront cost there.
James Blatch (08:29):
Yeah, that's great. You must see some quite imaginative designs going through.
Alex Smith (08:35):
Yeah, we were a bit worried to be fair, we've only launched this to the general public around four weeks ago and we were a bit worried that people would struggle to visualise it and get some creative, but we've been as stu by it, there's some really, really, even from day one people, they already had it ready to go and as soon as we made it live, they were uploading it. Al mentioned they're refreshing the page every 10 minutes to wait for it to go live. So it is been really, really cool. I've been helping out with production, kind of getting this going and seeing all the really cool books come off the end of the production line. It's really exciting.
James Blatch (09:05):
Yeah. Now I know that your print company actually goes back several decades. It's quite an established, but you in particular, I think you kind of led the charge within the company to focus on independent authors, which has been brilliant and that sort of coincides with this real uptick in direct selling. You must be seeing that on the inside.
Alex Smith (09:25):
Yeah, I think we hit it at a really good time. So as a company we've been going for 30 years as you mentioned, worked with larger publishers like Bloomsbury and Taylor and Francis and things like that. We, as you say, took the decision during Covid to realign our market. So we still work with traditional publishers, but we wanted to offer what we offered publishers to everyone. So that's why we launched, but Vault towards the indie market as well. And yeah, as you say, we kind of hit direct sales quite quickly. We'd been doing it for a few publishing customers, but we quite quickly launched an app which is publicly available and build it pretty feature rich. So with our direct selling app, you don't need to input shipping rates, we automatically upload those to the stores. So we've seen before when people were trying to sell their books, they were keying in literally every book, the cost for each country, and it was an absolute nightmare.
We automatically import the orders as well. So we know there was a few customers before they started using our app that were literally paying someone to key in each order into Amazon or Ingram and ship it out on their behalf. So we automatically, as soon as the order come in, pick it up and send it onto the customer. And then we also deal with stuff like the shipping as well. So when we ship the book, we provide your e-commerce platform with the tracking number and everything like that and it automatically gets cleared off your CMS system as well.
James Blatch (10:40):
You talk about the e-commerce platform, we're talking about things like Shopify I guess here.
Alex Smith (10:45):
Yeah, so yeah, Shopify, Wix and WooCommerce are kind of our, which that's running on WordPress. They're kind of our main ones. We are very excited to be working with Pay Hip as well, so they're just finalising a few things their side and we'll have a kind of feature rich integration there as well, which will be pretty much the first in the industry, which is really exciting for physical books. So
James Blatch (11:05):
Yeah, I know it's been a bit of a slog getting to this point because I remember when you first talked to me about, I think I can't mention one, it was one of those big companies and a month later you're still going backwards and forwards with small bits and pieces. But whilst it's a painful birthing process, it makes all the difference to people direct selling, having a professional shop and everything dovetailing.
Alex Smith (11:27):
And that's the thing we worked, especially on the Wix app, we worked with Stuart from Digital Authors Toolkit. He kind of helped us. Obviously he's got a big repertoire of different authors, so we worked with him to iron out any teething issues and get a professional perspective on it. And yeah, that's been fantastic and we've worked with other people in different markets as well, which has been really good.
James Blatch (11:46):
Yeah. Are you going to run out of space at some point? I mean the distribution, I know you mentioned a bit of distribution, but just the shipping itself is kind of space heavy.
Alex Smith (11:57):
Yeah, I mean we're very fortunate that we have quite a low overhead. So literally a book comes straight off the end of the trimming line, straight into a box, and then we have a collection each day. So we are currently actually only running what we technically could do, kind of a half capacity. So when we have a busy periods we can run literally 24 hours a day. The machines are built to do so and we're only really running two shifts. So yeah, we've got a lot more space for more capacity, which is really exciting. We are seeing a tremendous amount of growth. And then also plans for the future. I mean we currently working with partners in the us we're hoping to launch a partnership fairly soon in Australia as well, as well as working with other distribution partners in India, South Africa, and the Brazil is the other one that we're working with
James Blatch (12:45):
And for our friends in the US listening to this, what services or offered is it the same range of services you can offer in the uk? So
Alex Smith (12:52):
There are slightly reduced services, so any of the bespoke stuff that would still come from the uk, but what we do is work with shipping aggregators. So each day we effectively send off a massive box to the US full of loads of little boxes that we ship up. It goes across in a plane and then is dumped or not dumped, injected directly into
James Blatch (13:09):
The parachuted down. Yeah,
Alex Smith (13:10):
Exactly. Injected directly into the USPS postal system. So there's normally a one or $2 uplift and it's usually a bit of a free to four day lag in it getting into America, but once as if it's been shipped locally. But other than that, we print your kind of traditional paybacks and hardbacks on your white and cream paper locally in the us.
James Blatch (13:35):
And where's that
Alex Smith (13:36):
Plant? It's in Ohio, so Ashland, Ohio. So we're working with a pretty established printer, baker and Taylor to go from there. But we're also bringing two more partners on boards to open more specifications as well. So there's a lot of growth and I think the long-term goal would be great to kind of get ourself over there, especially for the holiday privileges as well go over and see the factory and take a couple of days off as well.
James Blatch (14:00):
Yeah, that would be great. Yeah, we'll probably find ourselves in a rodeo bar we have done in the past, probably lesser about that night the better. Let's talk about why people would choose this service. I mean obviously you get print on demand, which is alongside your Kindle edition on K DP and I use it, I think it's a great service 99.9% of the time. Obviously in print on demand, there are occasionally blips, but it works really well for me. What's the advantage of switching to someone like above vault?
Alex Smith (14:30):
I think one thing that we really specialise in is quality and options as well. So usually with KDP it's great for traditional books, but when you want to do these special editions it's a bit more difficult to do. So even simple things like we charge per colour page as opposed to as a full colour rate. So if you've got one colour page at the beginning, we'll only charge you for that one colour. And equally as you say, the range of sizes and the direct selling as well. Obviously you can't do through KDP, but the one thing we really like to hammer home is it's not about choosing which provider, it's about choosing which provider works best or which situation. So Amazon do very well at selling on Amazon, we wouldn't see it any other way. They've got a, their business and Ingram do very well at global distribution, but then we do very well at the direct sales, which others don't. So it's all about using each platform to your advantage and building your offer business up through that.
James Blatch (15:23):
How easy is it to set all this stuff up? Do you need some sort of Stuart Grant level of technical knowledge?
Alex Smith (15:31):
It really depends how much you want to go into it. So people do use services like Stuart to get going and that's certainly a simple approach. You kind of just give him a brief and he magically goes away and does it or you can do it yourself. So we've got guides that we can help you with. It's a bit more involved. So it's kind of weighing up how much time you want to put into it. But in terms of the Bookvault side, we accept the same files that KDP and Ingram do. So it's nice and simple. You don't need to get different files. The only thing I would say is if you've got a very defined spine, it's always best to do a proof copy. There might be a slight deviation in the paper thickness, but other than that it's just a case of uploading your files and specifications and then linking them up with your store. And there's guides that say you can normally do it in about five minutes per product or even less once you get into the swing of it.
James Blatch (16:18):
Yeah, so the special editions, I guess one of the downsides of the most obvious special edition people do is an autographed book, but getting around that without physically going up to your factory and signing them all, which I guess you might allow people to do, I dunno, we
Alex Smith (16:33):
Have done in the past. Yeah, this is, I guess phase one was always the basic foiling and stuff like that of special edition we are quite quickly, which is fantastic, already outgrowing the machinery we bought, which was all very small machinery to do these foiling. So we're just in the final stages of signing the dotted line on a new foiling machine. So that will enable us to do, instead of someone feeding it in, you just put a stack of books in and it foils on it, it'll be able to do spot UV as well, which is kind of like the clear coating on top of a book as well, all on a single copy basis as well. So yeah, that's where we are with it. But with the signed editions, we're looking at doing something like tipping sheets, so where we would send you the first page of your book for you to sign, you then mail it back to us and then we then bind them in the book when the orders come through. So it's certainly something that's on our radar and I think it's one of these things that traditionally a lot of the printers have been stuck in their ways, so we're really trying to break the mould and offer new things.
James Blatch (17:34):
I mean that would be useful. It's the one thing you end up doing on your kitchen table and it takes a while. So yeah, I mean is obviously you can have the kind of, I dunno what you call as the name for when you've pre-printed a signature, which some people are happy with, but I would only ever sell if somebody knew that's what was coming.
Alex Smith (17:51):
Yeah, we do see a lot of people do that and as you say, it does look very, if you get a good quality scan it looks perfectly fine. But yeah, it's always best to make people aware of it just in case.
James Blatch (18:03):
Yeah. So foil on the, what would you call it on the leaf, on the pages,
Alex Smith (18:09):
On the front cover? Yeah, front cover or yeah,
James Blatch (18:12):
Foil on the front, cover patterns on the side. And this is the area you're talking about that people can maximise with their imagination is these one-off funded example being perhaps Joe Penn I think did recently with her release and she worked through you.
Alex Smith (18:34):
So we worked with Joanna Penn for writing the Shadows where we did a leatherette book with a dust jacket on with gold foiling and then she had a ribbon as well. And we also worked with Ruby Rowe or Sasha Black for her most recent Kickstarter as well. So yeah, we kind of work with them, especially with Kickstarters, we're building a tool in at the moment that our customer service can do it. In the interim, you just send us over a spreadsheet of the backers of your Kickstarter and tell us which products need for filling and we automatically import those and fulfil them for you. So it's a really simplified solution.
James Blatch (19:08):
Yeah, fantastic. I think Sasha must be a neighbour of yours, isn't she? Peter away?
Alex Smith (19:12):
Yeah, she's just around the corner. So it worked out very
James Blatch (19:15):
Well. I know she and Cora were up the other day causing mischief in your factory. So really the limit now is imagination and thinking, well what's going to work here? I mean I write Cold War thrillers, it'd be fun for me to put a around all here and there, but I think if you're in the romance era, particularly fantasy romantic, that really lends itself the colourized maps and all sorts of things that people will pay for
Alex Smith (19:41):
Exactly that. Yeah, we see people halfway through the story doing double page spreads of artwork or as you say, maps and stuff like that. But to be fair, there's not even just one genre that's been doing it. We've been seeing it across genres and I think it's very much of, traditionally it was always something that was never possible. You'd always have to do a minimum of say 50 copies or if it was less, it was a much higher unit cost. So it's kind of just giving people the tools to be able to do what they want.
James Blatch (20:07):
This must have taken some significant investment on your end. I mean I've seen these machines, I've visited the factory. These are not small. You said you are near signing the dotted line. I can imagine there's some negotiation that goes into buying one of these. It is a significant investment. Yeah,
Alex Smith (20:22):
It's a strange one because traditionally people that buy the kit we do are doing a hundred, 200, 300 books at a time. And we are generally, our machine manufacturers must hate us, but we're always breaking the mould of the machines. So the print device you saw, which is a massive kind of 10 metre long print unit and then we were booked finishing block at the end. That machine was solely built for doing longer runs and we spent a couple of developing with the manufacturer way of doing the single copy and we were the first in the world to use that machine or pretty much inkjet in whole to do single copy production. So we are pretty innovative in machinery and yeah, it does cost quite a bit, but it's one of those that the more automated and with a machine you can be the less likely there is for issues, which is what we've kind of seen in the long run in terms of quality assurance.
James Blatch (21:11):
Yeah, now you're going to be in London next month, as I say, so people can come and have a chat with you and what will you have on your stall?
Alex Smith (21:19):
So we'll have lots of samples. I think certainly with bespoke it's very much, it's always, you can never sell it in words, you've got to kind of be able to see it. So we'll have the whole range on display there, including sprayed edges as well. You'll be able to speak to the team of experts. We can kind of give you a bit of a guidance on where you could take your direct sales journey as well as we'll have a nice promotion as well for people to get started with Bookvault. So make sure to pop along and say hello.
James Blatch (21:44):
Great. Yeah, so if you're looking for inspiration, that's probably the best way of doing it. Picking up and having a look at some of the stuff in fact's. One of the great things about your place when you visit is that you can see a lot of things that people have done and go, oh yeah, that would work. That would work for me. I'm always stealing other people's ideas because it's quite hard having your own. Well Alex, I think you're a great team at Bookvault. I'm a big fan, particularly the way that you have pivoted and focused on this huge growing indie market and I'm now involved in an indie publisher, Vinci Books, and this is exactly the sort of thing that we need to be thinking about next level, what we will do differently, that same agility that you are showing. I think as publishers and bigger indie authors, we need to be showing that as well. We don't have to do things the way they did it 10 years ago.
Alex Smith (22:29):
Yeah, exactly that. And I think it's all about getting those tools to be able to do it and print on demand. Again, it's a environmentally good thing because you're not building loads of books and putting them in stock, but equally it helps you experiment and try new things and update files as well. So yeah, it's a good way to do it.
James Blatch (22:46):
Fantastic. You better tell people where they can find you.
Alex Smith (22:49):
So you can go on our website, which is Bookvault app on there you can see all about our services. You can get a quote as well before you create an account to see how much it would cost, including all the special editions. And then you'll find us on our social medias as well, which is generally in the Bookvault, which we generally run promotions and stuff as well. So it's always good to chat out.
James Blatch (23:07):
Brilliant. Alex, thank you so much for joining us. Brilliant,
Alex Smith (23:09):
Thank you.
Speaker 1 (23:10):
This is the Self-Publishing show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch (23:16):
There you go. There's Alex from Alex Smith from a Bookvault. If you're going to be at the show next month, he will be there. Go and say hello to him. And if you want your website to be looking amazing, also go and speak to and perfect for direct selling. Go and speak to Stuart Grant because he sets all that Shopify stuff up for you and to get you around the hassle and he'll be at the show as well. And remember, if you can't afford to come to the show but you want to be there, you think it'll be valuable for your writing career, we would like you there as well. So drop us an email to support at self-publishing We have 10 tickets to give away to people who otherwise would not be able to afford a ticket. So just put your case in an email to us. I can't think of another way of doing it. So it's going to be like that. Email it to support at self-publishing We will get those tickets out to you and we'll see you in London. And if you are going to buy a ticket, now's the time. We're getting close now. So it's learn self-publishing dot com slash s sps live. Right. That is it from this edition of the Self-Publishing Show. Thank you so much for being here. All that remains for me to say, is it a goodbye from me? Goodbye.
Speaker 1 (24:27):
Get show notes, the podcast archive and free resources to boost your writing career at self-publishing Join our thriving Facebook group at self-publishing Support the [email protected] slash self-publishing show. And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author. Publishing is changing. So get your words into the world and join the revolution with the Self-Publishing Show.