Self-Publishing: Running the Numbers

CostsAccording to Jerry Waxler, author of the Memory Writers Network blog, “I have been attending writing conferences for years, where the advice from established writers has always been to look at self-publishing as a last resort. That advice is now officially ended.”

Interest in self-publishing has never been higher, and it’s entirely doable today. In fact, it’s entirely possible to use a Print-On-Demand (POD) do-it-yourself service like Amazon’s Createspace subsidiary to produce a single volume without investing a single penny in anything other than the cost of printing and shipping.

This no-investment option is perfect for people who are only interested in producing a handful of books for family and friends. It becomes more complicated and challenging when you have a story you want to have noticed (and bought!) by the general public. To gain the attention and respect of the general public takes more time, effort, and – let’s face it – investment of time and/or cash. Below is an overview of publishing elements you absolutely must attend to if you want to have a professional-quality manuscript that will receive the notice you strive for:

It’s absolutely necessary to have more than one mind and two eyes involved. At the very least you'll need four to six astute "beta readers." At the very most you'll need a professional editor. I use beta readers to check the professional editor's work!

Layout and Design
I've seen some ugly, sloppy books from indie (independent) presses. I mark them down in reviews, and won’t buy from that company or author again. Layout isn't rocket science, but especially if you do it with Word, it takes a huge amount of patience and ability to attend to detail. If you use graphics, you add another dimension of complexity. Precise placement on book-size pages, with controlled wrapping – it’s enough to drive even an experienced user screaming into the night.

You may not even know about details like page and chapter headers, publication data page, Table of Contents (do you need this?) line spacing ... all things that differentiate a professionally produced volume. If you want a commercially viable book, you may need help attending to these details.

Covers are critical! People see the cover. Even if they don’t judge you book by it, they will form a first impression, whether on Amazon, the shelves of bookstores, or in the library. If you create your own cover, bone up on what needs to be where, and use focus groups of friends to refine it.

If you want your book to be noticed, you'll have to send out lots of review copies. To whom? You’ll want too a blog tour. Which blogs? Promotion is a never-ending challenge with more facets than a diamond. You may want to use a publicist.

All of these services add up. For a 200 page book (around 50,000 words), depending on the level of need, editing will run an average of $3000, maybe more. Layout and design may be another $500 or more. Add another $200 for the cover. With shipping from the printer to you and then to to the reader, 40 review copies will run around $9 each, for a total of $360. So ... you have an investment of around $3000.

You’ll also want to spend about $120 to buy your own ISBN. You can get one for free, but using your own lets become an independent publisher with a name of your choosing. If you use the free one, the Print-On-Demand service will be listed as the publisher. 

A website is another requirement. That will cost another $80 or so per year for a hosted web domain. You'll probably want to pay someone at least $300 to design your site.

Bottom Line

Review copies
Web hosting (annual)


Now assume you set the price of that book at $17. The cost to print on a per-copy basis will be around $8, plus shipping to you, so we'll modestly assume your actual net on a per copy basis will be about $7. To recoup your investment, you'll need to sell 623 copies! That's fairly modest, and if you've invested all that income and get decent reviews, it’s an achievable goal. Income from additional sales can go to buy a new computer and fund your celebration party. Book sales probably won’t fund your retirement!

You can control costs by doing a larger print run, but then you also have to store 1000 books (they come 48 to a box, and the boxes are about the size of a small microwave. Figure out where you'll put 22 of those boxes) and cartons of shipping envelopes. You’ll need to mail books out as they are ordered, plus ship supplies to Amazon and ... you'll probably want to invest in fulfillment services which will eat up most of your savings, maybe more. 

That's the reality of self-publishing. If you master layout skills, or barter your layout services for Susie's editorial eye, you trade time, and conserve cash. Which is more important? Which do you have the most of?

These are all factors to consider as you determine whether you really want to publish your own book, and the value of packages of support services if you do.

Write now: spend some time journaling about your hopes and dreams for your book. Run some numbers and think things over. Balance the option of a simpler book for a narrower audience versus making that big splash. Follow your dreams, but don’t walk into total fog.  


Linda said...


Linda Joy Myers said...

Yep, those are the numbers, but even they are low compared to what it can cost, especially for professional editing. That can cost as much as $5000 per 250 page book, but then, it will be perfect, or as nearly so as you can make it. If you invest most of your money in a professionally designed book, you might even catch the eye of an agent or publisher, so it's worth the investment, if you can manage it. Thanks Sharon for telling it like it is!
Linda Joy

Sharon Lippincott said...

Linda Joy, thanks for broadening the spectrum. I based the editing figures on the Story Circle Network price structure, and understand there are many higher options.

Another bottom line: you don't have to take out a second mortgage on your house. There are options at many levels. If you know what's involved, you may decide that a small project for friends and family as good as you can get it on your own will be perfectly fine.

Wayne Groner said...

Excellent job, Sharon. Those are great figures to share with students in my monthly memoir-writing classes and in speeches. How about in a later post covering the differences between self-publish and print-on-demand, and the reality that the phrase publish-on-demand is a misnomer.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Hmm. The difference between self-publish and print-on-demand. Subtle, but I do see it, along with publish-on-demand. A whole new language is evolving with the new technology.

These figures give me a better perspective on royalty payments from traditional publishers! It really does take a significant investment to churn out a viable product.

Nancy LaTurner said...

I agree with Wayne's suggestion to examine the differences between self-publishing, print-on-demand, and the newest technology that has sprouted (that some of us haven't even heard of yet). It would be such a great help to have a map to find our way through this confusing territory!