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Is Bigger Really Better?: Embracing the New Retail Reality

April 26, 2012

There once was a time, not so long ago, when book buyers had bigger budgets and publishers and distributors could reasonably count on being given a not-so-insignificant amount of shelf space in what was a very large and spread out network of competing bookstore chains.  If a particular book was not well-received by the buyer at one chain, you had options for moving big numbers in a small amount of time through the decision of another buyer with another big retailer.  By the same token, if the buyer at one chain absolutely loved the book, that information could be leveraged in a major way with the buyer at another chain.  Strategies like this could often lead to even bigger buys and sometimes a spot in the highly coveted co-op space in the store. 

 

We recognize the important role that indie stores, nontraditional outlets, and online retailers like Amazon are continuing to play in our industry but we are not going to address those accounts here. This is about giant bookstore chains in the brick and mortar world.  And in that part of our book-selling world, things have changed.  Smaller is the order of the day and that begs the question, is bigger really better?

 

Back in the day of bigger buys and big-time bookstore distribution, prepublication efforts were rightfully targeted heavily at the retail buyers.  After all, those individual buyers held a ton of power in regard to the potential for sales success of any book.  Now that the number of chains has dwindled, that power is even further concentrated and potent.  Or is it?   

 

If you think your only shot for success is to get massive amounts of product placed on bookstore shelves, then a retail buyer’s power is more potent than anything else you’ll be up against.  If, however, you consider the new retail reality and learn where you should be focusing your efforts—on you—it won’t really matter what that buyer does or doesn’t do with your book.

 

The reality of this retail landscape is that you cannot put the emphasis on bookstores because, frankly, their numbers are dwindling, their budgets are shrinking, and their buys are getting smaller and smaller.  Besides, simply the act of placing books on their shelves alone is not the answer.  Never was.  (More on that here.)

 

It is always easy to get excited about a really big buy from a really big retailer, and there are still many reasons to get excited about it.  It shows that your book impacted the buyer so strongly that they are willing to spend lots of budget on it and they ultimately believe in their qualified opinion that your book has what it takes to sell.  So, what’s the down side?

 

The flip side of the big-time buy in scenario can be a big-time return scenario down the line.  Don’t forget that this part of our industry is essentially consignment so any book that doesn’t sell fast enough is subject to being returned for a full refund, and sometimes comes back damaged to boot.  When you put a ton of inventory out there, there is a high risk of returns and if you are solely focusing your efforts on impressing the retail buyer instead of your reader, you may be setting yourself up for this outcome.

 

 These days, we have fewer buyers to impress and they have less money to spend.  The unavoidable outcome, therefore, is smaller buys.  Less exciting at first glance, but could this really be in our collective best interest?

 

Smaller buys mean lower risk for everyone involved.  Let the bookstores start small, sell what they buy, and order more.  It’s a long-term strategy that will help you immensely in building something much bigger than one book that gets its 30-90 day run on a bookstore shelf. 

 

What is this bigger thing an author should be pursuing, then, if not sales of his or her book?  We’ve always known that creating demand among your audience was paramount to all other pursuits in order to sell books, but the socialization of the web and the ease with which your competitors can get content out there for sale right next to yours has changed the game.  It’s no longer just about your book.  It’s about you. 

 

You have to focus your efforts on your audience, your reach, your visibility, your brand, your expertise, and your content in all its various forms.  You have to focus on you and sales of the book and your other services will follow.  You have to build a platform and make that, not a spine out position on a shelf, your primary target.

 

So, what is an author platform and why do you need one?  Learn about that in our three-part series on platform development

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Shelf Space vs. Sell Through

April 11, 2012

When you first become a published author there is much to learn about the ins and outs of this sometimes difficult to understand industry.  There are some aspects that seem just plain backwards, particularly for those entering the industry from a business background.  One of the hardest elements to come to grips with is the concept that a sale is not really a sale until it goes through two or three transactions.  This makes calculating expected revenue difficult, to say the least.  Add to that the returns factor (discussed here) and you are left with some confusing data to sort through.

 

If you’re working with a distributor, your distributor is going to sell your book to wholesalers and to retailers.  Wholesalers play a very big role in all of this and it’s not uncommon for the majority of your books to first be sold to the myriad of wholesalers out there, big and small.  (Learn about the difference between a wholesaler and a distributor here).Your distributor will report this is a sale to you and you will be paid for that sale (minus returns and reserves against future returns) but in the more explicit sense of the word, it’s not quite a sale yet. At this point, your book has been stocked in a wholesaler’s warehouse with the hopes that their customers (retailers and libraries) will purchase it from them. 

 

Now the retailers and library customers of the wholesaler begin placing their orders for your book through the wholesalers.  The wholesaler considers each order of your book a sale and will be paid for the books by their retail or library customer for those purchases.  If the purchaser is a library, the cycle is done and you can safely call that sale an actual sale since the book is unlikely to be returned.  If the purchaser is a retailer, however, it’s not quite a sale yet.  Your book is one step closer to really being sold, but at this point, your book has now been given shelf space in a retailer’s warehouse and stores with the hopes that their customers, actual book-purchasing and reading consumers, will purchase it from them.

 

When an actual consumer picks up your book from a shelf and buys it, it is finally sold.  Your distributor will differentiate between the sales to the wholesalers and retailers and the actual consumer sales as “sold in” versus “sold through”.  The sold-through number is what you are both going to want to monitor, especially as it relates to the sold-in number.  A large discrepancy can spell trouble around the bend in regard to returns.  Consumer sell through is reported weekly by Nielsen BookScan and can be obtained through your distributor’s account or through your Amazon Author Central Account.

 

Until a consumer actually buys your book, it is subject to being returned by the retailer or the wholesaler, so keep in mind that the act of being placed on shelves is certainly not a guarantee of sales.   You have two or three more “sales” to make before your book is actually sold through.  Focus on creating demand so those books stay sold.

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What to Consider When Pricing Your Print Book

March 15, 2012

We all know how hard it is to assign a value to something that took years of work and your heart and soul to create.  To the author, the content is often priceless.   If you want to sell books, though, the retail price you set should be carefully considered and chosen with caution.

 

Traditional publishers will typically arrive at their price point by taking into consideration the costs associated with producing, distributing, and marketing the book.  It’s tempting to take the same approach when self-publishing but self-published authors don’t normally have the same economies of scale that make this method work. 

 

For instance, a traditional house will be looking at print costs based on a print run in the hundreds of thousands or at least in the tens of thousands, while most self-published authors are looking at much smaller initial print runs.  This affects the cost per book and hence would drive your suggested list price way up and out of the market norm. 

 

Instead of following the example of a traditional house, what method should a self-published author use in selecting a price point?  Below are some factors that any author should consider when making this important decision.

 

  • Comparable Title Research:  The first and arguably most important strategy to employ in setting your price point is comp title research.  Find books that are like yours in terms of subject matter, audience, page count, and format.  Make sure you have books that are recently released.   You want to price your book in line with these titles that consumers will be comparing your book with when shopping.
  • Retailer Price Sensitivity:  Retail buyers are pitched hundreds and hundreds of books week after week.  In today’s tough economic climate, you can bet they are price sensitive!  They are not willing to pay even a dollar more for your book when they can get what they think is the same thing for less from another publisher.  It is not unusual for a retailer to come back to a publisher and ask for a lower price in order to buy the book.  You may as well set yourself up for success from the beginning.
  • Niche Content:  Do you have a book that fits a very specific need to a very targeted audience?  If this is the case with your book, you may not be overly concerned with retail shelf placement and instead be focused on directly reaching your audience.  There is a case to be made for a higher than typically recommend price point with books that truly match this description.  But be careful!  All content should be differentiated, but few books fall into this very niche category.  Think “Underwater Basket Weaving for Single Dads that Live in Virginia” kind of niche.
  • Once it sells, your price is set for good:  As soon as your book is selling, it’s unadvisable to attempt changing the retail price for many reasons (unless you assign a new ISBN with the new price).  You’ve already sold copies into the trade at a particular price.  If you change now, any returns you get will come in at the different price and if your new price is higher, you’re losing on each return.  If it’s lower, get ready for a squabble with the retailer or wholesaler that is returning the books.  (Don’t think you’ll see returns? Sorry, Charlie.) Secondly, with notoriously slow payment schedules on book sales, you won’t be getting paid for book sales for quite a while.  Having multiple price points thrown into the mix can cause a real accounting nightmare.  Finally, it is really hard to get a change like this to stick within all the systems once your book is set up for sale.  You will be dealing with an ongoing maintenance issue that will show up again and again.   The exception to this is the release of a new edition with a new ISBN.  That new edition can have a different price without any of the messy consequences discussed above.

 

Taking these tips in mind will help set you up for price point selection success.  It is an important decision that can have lasting impact on the performance of your book so choose carefully and set yourself up to compete successfully!

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Returns, Returns, Returns

March 8, 2012

Ask anyone that has been in publishing for more than ninety days what they like least about the industry and you will undoubtedly get the answer, “returns!”  Returns are high on the list of frustrating and hard-to-accept aspects of the book business. 

 

When I first began working in publishing years ago, I was told early on about returns during my training with our own Tanya Hall.  I remember kind of chuckling when she told me that all sales could be returned for any reason at any time.   Having never heard of such a practice in my prior retail, B2B, and direct to consumer experience, I thought surely she must be joking.  Well, she wasn’t, but the hundreds of authors I have worked with over the years have certainly felt like the joke’s on them when it comes to returns.  

 

They are bad for everyone involved for many different reasons, but there are ways to minimize them and sometimes it helps just to more fully understand why they happen at all.  We’ll go over all three points here. 

 

Books are returned for a variety of reasons, the most common being:

 

  • Insufficient demand to justify current stock levels either at the wholesale or retail level
  • Overstock following a promotion that required a large quantity of inventory
  • Damage of product upon receipt

 

Damages are relatively small in comparison to overstock returns so the main catalyst for returns is simply demand.  Wholesalers will give your book ninety days max to start moving or an overstock return will be triggered.  It’s all about inventory turnover and if your title isn’t turning over fast enough, they send it back for a full refund.  With bookstores, your timeline could be as little as thirty days. 

 

Returns are bad for everyone involved, even the retailer.

 

  • Author:  Return rates impact future sales of your current or future books with retailers, cost you money in the form of damages and shipping expense, and can be hard to cope with from a morale standpoint.
  • Distributor:   Return rates impact the distributor’s ability to sell future titles in the same category to retailers, are a reflection overall in retail buyer’s minds of the viability of a distributor’s overall title list, and cost internal time in processing, reconciling, and accounting.
  • Retailer: Return rates reflect directly on a category buyer’s performance and can ultimately make them very cautious about taking a chance on a new author. Plus, they cost them money and time with processing and shipping.

 

There are some ways to minimize your returns risk, including:

  • Take a conservative and slow approach to distribution rather than pushing too much inventory out there too quickly without adequate demand.
  • Pass on risky placements like airport co-ops unless they will bring you a benefit beyond book sales, such as credibility or exposure for your business.
  • Focus your efforts on creating demand with consumers so demand meets supply.

 

After reading all of this, one might ask the obvious.  Why do we put up with this practice at all?   Well, the short answer is that we put up with it because booksellers demand it.  Harper Studio tried it with much resistance, except from Borders.  Both are now out of business. If we were to move to a non-returnable norm, the majority of the industry  (booksellers and publishers together) would pretty much have to make the shift at once. Of course, if books are sold non-returnable, the added risk to the retailer means an even smaller likelihood that anything but slam-dunk bestsellers will make it to their shelves.

 

Do you think we’d be better off with non-returnable sales as the norm? Let us know in the comments below!

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List Building 101: How to Make Your Newsletter List Grow

January 27, 2012

You know that having a newsletter is an important component of your platform and that the list you send your newsletter to is invaluable to you.  (If you don’t, check out our article on newsletters here.)  What may not be so clear is how you can continue to grow that list over time.  Below are some strategies to help you do just that.

 

Provide really valuable content in an engaging way

 

Above all other strategies, valuable content creation is king.  If you are giving your readers useful, relevant, timely information that they can really use, your newsletter will be valuable and it will be shared with others.  Word of mouth and forwards are your greatest ally in trying to achieve a bigger newsletter list. 

 

Make it easy, obvious, and everywhere

 

It should be really easy to join your newsletter list, and it’s your job to make sure that is the case.  You should have a “join” button on every page of your website, visibly situated on your blog and on your newsletter itself.  You can even include an invitation to join your list in the signature line of your email.  Make the link attractive and appealing to the eye, and have it say something catchy or meaningful in a tone consistent with your brand.  That message may get more attention than a standard “join our newsletter” link.

 

Don’t forget to ask people in person, too!  You are busy giving workshops or speaking to audiences.  Ask them to sign up for your newsletter while you have them in front of you.  Same goes for interviews.  Share your web address and tell listeners or readers that they can join your newsletter there. 

 

Incentivize new members

 

Make the invitation to join your mailing list an attractive offer to newcomers.   This is where you can make great use of your “freebies.”   To thank them for joining, give them access to an extra or two that they could not get otherwise.  This could be some sample chapters of your book, videos, a free app, white papers, an ebook of your previous book, or a sneak peak at your new, yet-to-be-released book.  Help them along by showing immediately what is in it for them if they join. 

 

Incentivize existing members

 

In the same way that you want to thank new members for joining, give your already loyal followers a thank you gift for inviting others to join.  You can make use of the same extra content you utilized to get new members or you can up the ante a bit and give existing members something unique just for them.  Maybe that would be a personalized copy of your book, a guest blog spot on your blog, or a link to his or her website in the newsletter the following week. 

 

Leverage social media

 

It’s safe to assume that there is not a one-to-one correlation between your Facebook fans or LinkedIn connections and your newsletter list.  The same is likely true for all of the social media platforms you are engaged with.  Make a habit of trying to convert those connections to subscribers.  Contests are a great way to accomplish this.  Give away something that your connections would want.  This doesn’t have to be related to you or your content directly.  It could be a free tablet or ereader device, a subscription to a service people love, or a simple versatile gift certificate.   The cost of entry is simply joining your newsletter list. 

 

It’s important to remember that you have to provide recipients a way to opt out of your newsletter, and it’s true that you may see some people utilize that option after the contest ends.  Just keep in mind your best strategy for list building, which is delivering meaningful, valuable content, and you will earn their loyalty and they will stay.

 

Keep these things in mind as you go about your way building your platform and conveying your message out into the world and watch your list grow!

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Build Your List: Newsletters as an Author Platform Building Tool

January 19, 2012

One critical component to building your author platform is to create and maintain a regular newsletter.  Speaking directly to those who are interested in what you have to say on a regular basis with relevant and compelling content will bring you some great marketing and conversion opportunities now and well into the future.   

 

First, we will discuss why you need a newsletter in the first place. Then, we’ll get into the finer details of ways it can work for you and how it can be most effectively distributed.

 

Every author is doing it.  Here’s why.

 

The primary purpose of your newsletter is simple.  It’s list building, list building, list building.   There is no more direct way to communicate with your audience than through this channel.  After all, each person has opted to be included in this list.  These are your peeps.  They want to hear from you and they welcome you into their inbox.  This list is something to be preserved, pampered, and treasured.  It’s unique and specific to you as an author and it is priceless.   Deliver them content that is useful and uniquely available to them and they will continue letting you into their inbox again and again. 

 

Leverage your list by giving them the good stuff.

 

Offer exclusives to your newsletter subscribers so they see the tangible benefit of being a member of your list.  This could be special discounts or bonus materials for your current book, sneak peeks of your new material, or contests to win things not directly related to your book at all.  Get creative and deliver value!

 

Looking for a way to drive attendees to an event or to capitalize on that great interview or review you have coming up?  Let your list know all about it in your newsletter.  You just may convert some potential readers to bona fide book buyers by doing so. 

 

You can also let your loyal list take some ownership of your yet-to-be-published works by getting them involved in the process early.  Ask them what they want to see from you next, survey them about such topics as title or character names, or let them weigh in on cover comps.  You don’t HAVE to take their advice if it’s not what is best for your book, but getting their opinion can create some buy in from their side, which is of paramount importance when it’s time to move the needle on book two, three, or four.

 

Finally, don’t forget to incentivize them to tell a friend or colleague.  After all, the goal is to grow your list.  Ask them to help you and give them a great reason to do so, such as free content or access to you directly for a book club or training session.

 

Now that you know you need one, how should you handle getting it out there?

 

You can opt to manage your list yourself by essentially sending out a mass email or a series of mass emails once your list gets really big. That is appealing to those who don’t want to learn a new system or outsource something they feel perfectly competent in managing themselves.  But there are benefits to utilizing a newsletter distribution service that are worth seriously considering.

 

Using a newsletter distribution service will ensure that you are meeting any legal requirements necessary, such as including a way to unsubscribe, and also makes those functions hands off for you, saving you time.  You can also access analytics such as open rates that would not be available to you if you simply sent out a mass email.  Finally, your newsletter can appear more professional in design very easily and will be formatted for either text only or image viewing so that your smart phone readers can still get your message without all the graphics if they choose. 

 

If you aren’t already on the newsletter bandwagon, it’s high time you jumped aboard.  With relative ease, you can be up and running on building your author platform with this important marketing tool in no time flat!  The benefits of doing so will surely make it worth your while.

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Freebies: Content You Should Be Creating and Leveraging

January 6, 2012

You’ve no doubt been advised at some point to use your content to market your message.  You’ve probably been told to give some away in order to get something in return, such as an email address for your newsletter.  People call this content by many names.  Extras, goodies, ancillaries, and freebies are all popular choices. 

 

Any author or expert working hard at developing his or her platform should have a stash of these extra good ancillary products at the ready.  (They aren’t just for giving away either!  See here.)  Below is a list of suggested items you can create, provide, and leverage for the betterment of your brand.

 

  1. Articles:  these can be reworked chapters of your book, research your have compiled on your area of expertise, or case studies.
  2. Ebooks:  you can use small chunks of your book to make small ebooks or convert the entire manuscript, not forgetting to convert previous works, too.
  3. Audio downloads:  again, you can have small bits of your book in audio format or the entire thing.
  4. Podcasts:  provide access to interviews or discussions with you and other relevant experts in your field.
  5. Videos:  deliver mini lessons or tips in short video segments.
  6. Infographics:  boil down a big amount of information into a one screen graphic.
  7. Workbooks: putting your theory or strategy into practice for those ready to implement what you have taught them.
  8. Apps:  create an app that shares lessons or tips that people can access anywhere, anytime.
  9. Direct access: give them direct access to you for a consultation on the phone or via chat.
  10. Members only access: have a special place to send people that requires special membership to access and give them any of the above once they get there.

 

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How Endorsements Can Raise Your Credibility and Help Grow Your Author Platform

October 25, 2011

A while back we provided some tips on how to go about securing endorsements for your book.

 

Endorsements can make a big difference when it comes to influencing behavior. If you’re a first-time author, you have a major hurdle to overcome in establishing credibility. This is a challenge you will face not only with readers, but with retail buyers—the employees who decide what stock to bring into their bookstores—as well.

 

Consumers are undoubtedly swayed by endorsements of all kinds. There are celebrities of every kind connected to products of every sort. Celebrity endorsements are a multibillion-dollar industry in our country. Though it’s impossible to track exact sales results back to specific endorsements, investors seem to think they work: stock prices are often positively impacted when a company secures a super-high-profile endorser. Companies also see an increase in sales when the right endorsement hits the airwaves. It’s true that not all endorsements have this effect, but it happens often enough for huge companies to spend huge budgets continuing the practice.

 

No one knows for sure what goes through the consumer’s mind when she sees an endorsement (except the consumer herself, of course), but the theory goes that the association of a particular product with a famous person influences the consumer to act. Maybe she thinks that the product must be the best in its category or else the celebrity wouldn’t be associated with it. Maybe she thinks that if she uses the same product the celebrity uses, she will somehow be like the celebrity. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that the endorsement influenced a purchase.

 

Relating this concept to your credibility as a first-time author is pretty straight- forward. Consumers don’t know who you are (yet), so you influence their buying behavior by being associated with someone they do know. That’s not to say that all your endorsements need to be from world-famous celebrities, though of course the bigger the name, the bigger the influence. Your endorsers do need to be recognizable and influential in terms of what they do, who they work for, or books they have written. Basically, they have to have serious credentials—credentials that will give your work credibility.

 

Strong endorsements work wonders with retail buyers for the same reason. Retail buyers know that those endorsements are going to sway their customers, so they take them into account when deciding whether to stock your book on their crowded shelves.

 

You can leverage endorsements in other ways that will help build your author platform as well. Below are some suggestions that will continue growing your reach and your audience.

 

  • Leverage the relationship with your endorser to reach their platform through a plug in their newsletter or as a guest contributor to their blog
  • Use your biggest endorsements as a lead-in when approaching media and bloggers about featuring your book
  • Share your endorsements with your social networking connections and ask them to share the good news with new readers
  • Connect with your endorsers through any social networks they’re on and ask  if they will share their endorsement of your book with their fans and connections
  • Ask your newsletter subscribers to respond to a survey about which endorsement is the most influential, letting them know that the winning endorsement will go on the front cover of the book (and of course, they can pass along that survey to friends and peers)

 

Always remember to give something of value to the people you are enlisting to help, whether they are the endorsers themselves or your already-loyal readers and subscribers. If you can find a way to benefit everyone involved—even if it’s in an intangible way, like connectivity to the final product—you will get less resistance and better results.

 

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Getting a Jump on Sales with Preorders

July 11, 2011

Many authors begin the hard work of generating sales for their book long before the actual release date. There are many different options for collecting these preorders, as well as many ways to make the most of them, helping you meet your goals and priorities for the project.

 

One method of collecting preorders is to set up a preorder button on the book's website. During the preorder process, customers will be prompted to fill in their basic information and make a payment through the website for the book (or books) they order. Matching Amazon pricing or offering signed copies can be an added hook to get people interested.

 

It is also common to create a dedicated landing page for preorders, which you can utilize in your marketing initiatives, that drives consumers to a central location to make their purchase. This is a popular option when you are incentivizing customers by giving them access to extra content at no charge with an order. The landing page can host this content, and once the order is placed, the customer can be given a code to access the free content.

 

But collecting preorders can also be as simple as keeping a spreadsheet with all the information that you manually collect from customers as they place orders directly through you leading up to the pub date.  

 

A different route is to simply send people directly to a retailer, such as Amazon, to place their order during a specified period of time, usually immediately following the release of the book. In this case, it's important for your publisher to know how many orders you expect to be placed at least three weeks in advance so they can ensure that adequate stock is in place in the supply chain to meet the rush of demand. (Also see our recent newsletter tip, In The Loop.)

 

Regardless of how you collect the orders, the idea is to have a complete record of all customers and their orders at the end of the preorder campaign.  

 

Once all of the preorders are collected, you have to decide what your priority is for these sales. Have you generated all of these preorders so you can generate maximum revenue from your book right away? Or is your goal to have all of these sales count towards your retail track record? (Shameless plug: With Greenleaf, you have the flexibility to meet either goal, and we can help execute the orders or connect you with experts in the field that specialize in placing those presales in a strategic and planned way for maximum impact.)

 

If the primary goal is to maximize revenue with preorders, you’ll want to sell the books directly. Revenue generated through direct sales is not shared with a distributor or retailer, allowing for larger margins. Remember to bill the appropriate shipping charges directly to your customers if you want them to cover the cost.

 

If the goal is to drive retail sales as high as they can go, run preorder sales through a retail channel that reports to BookScan (the book industry’s go-to tool for measuring retail sell-through). This will make these sales a part of the book’s auditable track record.  For bulk preorders, we work with a company called 800 CEO Read and they make this process very simple. Corporate customers (or your own company) can buy the books from 800 CEO Read, which reports sales to BookScan.

 

If you plan on generating thousands of preorders and want to use them to make a run at a bestseller list, we recommend working with an expert who specializes in handling this type of campaign.  A campaign like this requires careful coordination and planning and the ability to process thousands of individual orders in a short time span.

 

What are your goals leading up to pub date? What’s worked to help you generate preorders? Share and discuss!

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Does It Really Cost Less to Send Things USPS?

January 25, 2010

Not a week goes by when we are not asked why we don’t ship our books via media mail rather than using UPS or Fed Ex ground service.  In an economy like this, we should all be looking for ways to reduce the costs of doing business, and the US postal service is so much less expensive than those carriers

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