My mother always told me it was impolite to talk about money. For the most part I think she was right, especially when it comes to using money to compare yourself to other people. Find out someone makes a lot more than you and feel inadequate, find out they make a lot less and feel awkward. In short, no good ever comes of it.
But when it comes to the real cost of self-publishing, I think it’s useful to make an exception to my mother’s rule. There is a lot written about self-publishing but not so much about what it really costs and what it takes to turn a profit. And I can understand why we self-publishers are coy. Aside from the general taboo when it comes to talking about money, I am slightly embarrassed to admit I am investing thousands of dollars in my book project (Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage). After all, in the traditional publishing paradigm I am supposed to be getting paid to publish my book. Being upfront about how much I am shelling out of my own pocket at this point in the process seems to validate my worst fears about my book: that it is a pure vanity project.
Of course I don’t really feel that way about my book, otherwise I would have never gotten this far down the road in my hybrid publishing adventure with She Writes Press. And while I could write a whole other piece on how I eventually rationalized my decision to self-publish, for now I am going to focus on what I have spent and why I ultimately think that funding your own project is healthy.
Let’s start with the numbers. It was an important exercise to write these down and tot it all up early on, not just for the practical reason of determining if I could afford self-publication, but also because it made some things very concrete. First, it illuminated the minimum cost of the risk a traditional publishing house takes with a new author. It also enabled me to have a very real, and often uncomfortable, benchmark against which to assess the potential of my manuscript every step of the way. It's one thing to think your manuscript is good enough to be published. It's an entirely different thing to put your money where your mouth is. Here is how my costs breakdown:
She Writes Submission Fee: $25
Copy Editor: $675
Illustrator (4 images): $900
She Writes Publication Fees: $3,500
Web site hosting (1 year) and design: $190
Total estimated costs: $5,690
The She Writes publication fees include cover design, proof reading, production, distribution, some minimal marketing, and copious hand-holding. It is also useful to note that publicist fees vary widely. I got two proposals, one of which was significantly higher—$5,000 for a plan covering web and print. Perhaps more important is what is not included above. I will likely spend additional funds on marketing and, most significantly, not one cent above is allocated to the many hours I spent actually writing the book!
So what does this all mean when it comes to breaking even on my book? Because I am not planning on doing a short print run but rather relying on print-on-demand, for which the margins are worse, I will need to sell roughly between 1,900 and 3,500 books. The variance depends on the ratio of e-books to paperbacks sold since the margins for e-books are better. If I had a distribution channel to sell my own books direct to consumers, e.g., speaking engagements, the numbers would be significantly better: about 500-600 books, again depending again on whether or not I had done a short print run or used print-on-demand. Alas I am not in this situation and will have to hit several thousand in sales to break even, which is my goal. It may not sound like a lot, but the odds are against me.
Consider this from BJ Gallagher on Huff Post Books: “The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).”
Just transcribing the above causes me a sharp intake of breath. It also reminds me of some years ago when I told my grandfather, who had suffered enormous hardship during the Great Depression, that I was going to run the LA Marathon. Most people I told responded with encouragement, but my grandfather was genuinely dumbfounded as to why I would voluntarily subject myself to such duress.
“Why would you go and do a thing like that?” he asked.
My answer to him then was much the same as it is now when it comes to why I would put myself up against such terrible odds in the book publishing game: Because I can. And I mean this both literally and figuratively. I am lucky enough that right now I can afford to take this financial gamble; at worst I will have a tax write-off. But I am also doing it because I really think I can—by which I mean more than just afford it. And, just like a marathon, how will I ever know if I can do it if I don’t try?
Note: Americashire comes out in April, and I plan to subsequently update on my progress here.