Few topics are hotter among aspiring memoir writers than the debate about the value of going public with your story. Most of the debate centers around the issue of upsetting family and friends. That is a valid concern. Far fewer consider the financial cost, and far too many authors end up feeling discouraged and disillusioned as they bathe in red ink. Let’s take a look at the facts.
Publishing costs vary from one individual to another, and depend on a combination of your skills and your publishing strategy. For example, for The Albuquerque Years, I had the skills to do my own editing and layout and create a professional looking cover myself. Then I uploaded the files to Lulu.com and have finished books available without investing a single cent.
In contrast, I know people who have spent $2000 or more on professional editing and layout services, cover design, and press preparation. Some spent another large chunk of cash on a press run of several hundred or a thousand books and promotional aids. One friend invested over $5000 by the time all the prep, printing and publicity was done.
Is it worth it? For me it definitely was. I never planned to make money on The Albuquerque Years and didn’t add any royalty mark-up to the price. I purr like a kitten with a saucer of cream when someone orders a copy, and a gratifying number have done so.
According to a post on “Sales Statistics” in the blog How Publishing Really Works, average sales stats for most individual books, especially self-published one, are plummeting — hardly surprising, considering the glut of new titles. According to this post, in 2004, Publisher’s Weekly reported that only 83 of more than 18,000 iUniverse titles published that year sold more than 500 copies. It goes on to quote iUniverse VP Susan Driscoll’s admission in the New York Times that in 2008 most iUniverse authors sold fewer than 200 books. Author’s House titles did even worse, with an average of around 54 sales per title.
Let’s do the math. The least expensive package available on iUniverse right now requires the aspiring author to invest $599. Editing, promotion, and other services are available at additional cost. If you sell 200 books, that basic investment works out to $3 per book. It’s not easy to discover the royalty structure on iUniverse, but if you exceed $5-$6 per book, you’ll probably price it out of the market. If you add the cost of professional editing, you are unlikely to break even at the 200 book level.
If you need to pay for editing, layout and cover design help, even with a no-cost Print On Demand (POD) option like Lulu.com or Createspace.com, you’ll have to sell a huge pile of books to break even.
So, where does that leave you? If you feel compelled to write and publish a book about your life, go for it. Go for it with gusto. As you write, keep these factors in mind:
Forget any idea of making a profit. Focus instead on the pleasure of completing a project that will prove satisfying for the rest of your life. If you lose money, consider it an investment in personal education and gratification.
Write primarily for personal satisfaction. Think like a Visa ad: “Editing, $1200. Proof-reading, $300. Layout, $500. Holding your dream in your hands, Priceless!"
Be realistic in your planning. Don’t spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on editing services in the blind hope they will help you sell a book unless you can afford this as a personal indulgence or training. It may pay off occasionally, and it may help you land an agent and commercial publisher, but if you do land an agent and publisher, your per-volume royalty will average around $1 per book, and you are unlikely to get an advance.
Keep hope alive. Even knowing that the chances of having your book hit it big and sell hundreds of thousands of copies is akin to that of winning the lottery, some do. Yours could. Dream big, plan smart, and learn everything you can about marketing books.
There is a back door around these costs. Form a collaborative with other writers, local or on the web. Trade proof-reading services with trusted and discerning friends. Brush up your layout and formatting skills. (The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing has a chapter to help with this.) Join a writer’s group or take a class to improve your skills and get feedback on your plot, character development and other story elements. Use the online templates on Lulu or CreateSpace to design an attractive cover.
With these economizing measures, your writing skills will improve and you can have a book you’ll be proud of, your family will cherish, and you can promote as much or as little as you like. However you publish, please let me know you did it, so I can celebrate with you.
Write now: do some research and come up with a balance sheet on what your anticipated publishing cost would be with various alternatives. Then devise a plan for getting your story into print.