Self-publishing. It’s the thing everybody’s talking about these days, usually in the context of all the riches you’re going to get once you go it alone. What they don’t tell you is that the average traditionally published book in the United States sells fewer than 500 copies, meaning self-published books — with their complete absence of advertising and distribution — will sell even less. Factor that into your retirement planning.
Anyway, let’s say you’re still going to go ahead and do it. You could conceivably DIY the entire process, from editing to cover design, but unless you happen to be a professional-grade expert in all the necessary fields, your stuff is going to look and read terribly. That means you have to pay for stuff. Up front. With no help from a publisher.
Let’s start with the most basic thing: an editor. Now I can hear you saying already that you don’t need an editor because you have spell-check and grammar-check and your significant other has a good nose for typos, but a good editor doesn’t just do line edits. A good editor goes over a book looking at strengths and weaknesses, offering insight into how to bolster the former and minimize the latter. A good editor knows story. A good editor also costs money. They don’t do this sort of thing out of the kindness of their hearts.
For the purposes of this blog entry I’m going to use the figures put forth by JA Konrath, probably the loudest cheerleader for self-publishing that the book industry has. He claims to make tens of thousands of dollars a month, and whatever the case, he seems to have more success than most, so he’s worth paying attention to.
On the topic of an editor, Konrath puts out the figure of $500. With that $500 you’ll get those line-edits, plus professional insight into your storytelling. All by itself that doesn’t seem so bad. I mean, $500 is a lot if you’re doing things like paying a mortgage, feeding a family and trying to whittle down a hefty student loan, but it’s possible to float that expense if you cut back somewhere over the course of a couple of months.
So you have your edits done. Now the book must be formatted to conform to the file types e-readers use, foremost among them Kindle’s KF8 and AZW, as well as that used by pretty much every other e-reader in existence, EPUB. Some folks think this is as simple as using a Word file and converting it using the various free apps that are out there, but the ones in the know are aware that a crappily-formatted book looks like just that: crap. People enjoy the look and feel of a well-formatted book, and if you want that for yourself, you have to pay.
Konrath recommends 52 Novels, who have apparently done all or most of his ebooks. Their pricing is quite reasonable and for books of the length I write, the cost runs about $150, plus another $60 if you want to sell your book via Smashwords, another ebook outlet. Again, all by itself that’s not much of a hardship, but remember that you’ve already paid $500 for editing, so your cost just jumped to a minimum of $650. 52 Novels also has a “premium package” that includes Kindle, EPUB, PDF and Smashwords formats all in one for the eye-popping price of $650. I’ve chosen the lower figure, but be aware that things can get expensive in a hurry.
Finally there’s the cover. If you think hacking together something in Photoshop will do, then go right ahead, but people have a nose for lousy DIY covers and will likely think twice before giving you their money should you decide to go that route. Even if the cover is a tiny thumbnail on Amazon, it has to be a good one or you’re going to look like an amateur. Maybe you are an amateur, but you can at least look like a professional if you try.
Once again we go to Konrath. For covers he recommends the services of Extended Imagery, who’ve done a bunch of his covers. You can click through to see samples and they are quite good, so this is another case where I would take Konrath’s advice. Cost to you: $250-$500 (usually) for most cover designs. Let’s once again add the lowest amount to the total we have so far and that gives us… $900.
Be advised that the low end of Extended Imagery’s price scale means you won’t get the nicest covers he has to offer. Text and a background is pretty much all you get for that price. If you want something that really looks like a pro cover, be prepared to pay $400, which bumps your total price tag up over $1,000.
And there you have it: $900 at the very least. Let’s assume you sell at $2.99, which pays approximately $2.00/copy in royalties. At that price point you must sell at least 450+ copies just to break even, let alone before you can start earning that mad money. Remember the statistic I mentioned at the start of this entry? Most books sell fewer than 500 copies in their entire lifetime. You are basically gambling with your money that you’ll beat the odds.
Now bear in mind that this expense does not include all the time you’ll have to spend promoting your book with emails and blog entries and possibly even paid advertising somewhere like Facebook. You had best be prepared to give away lots of review copies, too.
Am I saying it’s not worth it? No, that’s not what I’m saying. Even with a traditional publishing deal, there’s always the chance that a book is going to sink like a stone. At the very least you’re banking on a return for all the hours you spent slaving over your manuscript, and if that doesn’t happen… well, it doesn’t feel good. I’ve been lucky that The Dead Women of Juárez sold (and continues to sell) well, but it could easily have gone the other way. But the point is that every book that’s written with skill and edited well has some small chance of breaking big, at which point the investment of your time, effort and cash will be paid off.
The advantage to a traditional publishing deal is that you get a hunk of money up front and you get to keep that money regardless of the success or failure of the book. Granted, if the book doesn’t sell, you’re unlikely to get another hunk of money again, but let’s try and stay positive. You will earn less off a traditionally published hit than you would off a self-published hit. That’s just simple math based on the royalty agreements you get with both. Still, would you rather have guaranteed money or the promise of money if you can move enough units? Think about this at the same time you consider that more than 400,000 books come out every year.
Eventually, probably later this year, I’m going to put my money into one of those self-publishing ventures and find out just what it’s all about, but I’ll do it knowing the odds are stacked against me. Chances are better than good that I’ll never earn back what I spend, but there’s always that exceedingly slender, lottery-level chance that something I put out will break big. If that happens then it may change my whole outlook vis-à-vis self-publishing. If it doesn’t, as is likely, I won’t be giving up my traditional publishing career.