Publishing: Show me the money?

Want to see your book published? Let’s talk about the money.

Seven Dirty Words by Charlotte HowardAn author has many options for publishing, and there’s no single “right” answer for everyone. What it comes down to, however, is to either self-publish or try for an agent/contract – not that you need an agent to obtain a contract, especially in the realm of a small press. But let’s start with the money.

“A vanity press will charge a writer at least $2000 to publish a book, and that’s on the low end.”

I frequently see a lot of Kickstarter project links from writers who are planning to publish a book and are hoping to raise money to do so, and I wonder where they come up with their figures. (For myself, I’d like to have a successful Kickstarter project that would give me a nice chunk of change so I could actually write, instead of worrying about the day job.)

The concern I have stems not from needing cash to publish, because a writer does need a few dollars or so; but I worry that these people are going with a vanity press – now, that’s expensive!

A vanity press will charge a writer at least $2000 to publish a book, and that’s on the low end. We’re talking paperback, fiction, around 300 pages. For this price, most will give you a webpage, put your book in their stores, list it on Amazon with expanded distribution, copyright the work, send you a few free copies, and claim to provide publicity and marketing.

That last is usually the catch.

Well, that and they often include in their contracts that a writer must purchase a certain number of copies. They do give the author a discount, but of course, no royalties are paid on those purchases; the discount, too, is often a measly 30%, maybe 40%.

What does it cost an author to publish that “average” paperback himself?

US copyright is $35 for an electronic upload. Cost to print runs around $5 per copy – and don’t forget shipping costs. Of course, you should always have your manuscript edited; that runs from say, $500 on up – we’ll use an average of $1000.

Cover design could be $100, which is on the low end – or you could do it yourself, if you’re handy like that. An ISBN number costs $125. Then there’s formatting, which you could certainly do yourself as well, but it can be frustrating to use the templates and get it just right.

“Third, you often MUST purchase more than 50 copies”

So, let’s say you’re going to self-publish, and you’re ordering 50 copies. That will cost around $1500, which includes everything else. Now, before you tell me that the vanity press is charging “just” another $500 and you won’t have to do a thing, let’s stop and take a look at the whole picture.

First, a vanity press will make you a decent website; but unless your books are selling like hotcakes, they won’t maintain and update it. You won’t have access to do that either. Second, their editors and cover designers are typically in-house, so those two things don’t cost them nearly as much. Third, you often MUST purchase more than 50 copies – although frequently that’s included in your “package” so you don’t really notice it. Oh, and they buy their ISBNs in bulk, which brings their cost down to $25 each.

That promo you paid for? See above paragraph. Unless your book sells really well, they’ll drop the ball there, too. They already have their money, right? Or, well, YOUR money!

“So that bookstore will give you 60% of the retail price”

One last caution: if you’re purchasing copies from this vanity press at a 30% discount and you want to put your book in an actual bookstore, you’re probably going to have to go with a consignment program. Why? Because vanity presses publish anything, and booksellers simply don’t have time to vet every book that comes across the counter. So that bookstore will give you 60% of the retail price, whenever a book sells.

Let’s do the math: your book sells for $14.95. A bookstore pays you $8.97 for each copy sold. You have already purchased this book for a 30% discount from the vanity press, which means you paid $10.47. So you’re losing $1.50 per book.

And you’re doing all your own promo and marketing. And you’re already out $2000.

If you self-publish, and the cost to do that is around $1500, and a bookseller gives you 60% of each book sold, you’re making the full $8.97 per copy, minus the production/shipping costs of around $6.00 each. You’re now earning $2.97 per copy!

“as an unknown, first-time author, there will likely be no advance”

When it comes to traditional publishing, there are two options: Big Six, or small press.

Even the Big Six – or Five, as it became recently – don’t pay advances like they used to do. Assuming you get an agent, which is certainly possible, and the agent manages to sell your book to a Big Sixer, as an unknown, first-time author, there will likely be no advance. Well, maybe a tiny one.

An advance is just that – and it’s paid back to them with royalties BEFORE you are paid any royalties. The average royalty is around 12% for print books. Your earnings are $1.79 per book, and out of that you must pay your agent his percentage.

And you still have to promote your book. Having a traditional publisher will, however, open more doors simply by virtue of their names and connections. That’s definitely a consideration.

So, what about the Small Press choice?

Small presses, such as Rocking Horse Publishing, usually offer a higher percentage for royalties. At RHP, we normally do a 15% royalty rate — but, like other small presses, we don’t give advances. Most (but not all) small presses sell books to authors at a 50% discount. Some offer lower percentages, and an author might even lose money as they could with a vanity press.

At Rocking Horse, we ask that an author maintain a decent website, blog at least once a week, and Tweet and use other social media to 1) create interest and 2) to sell books.

But we don’t leave it all up the author: we promote and market, and use our contacts to create interest and excitement about our books. And we actively pursue bookstores and other types of venues to get our authors in the public eye, arrange interviews, and issue press releases.

“if your books don’t sell, it’s OUR problem”

If a vanity press actually does any of this, many booksellers take one look and ignore it — because booksellers are all-too-familiar with the drawbacks of vanity presses. And a Big Six publisher simply won’t invest much time or effort in a new author – they have to focus their energies on the Pattersons and Grishams.

Besides that, Rocking Horse and other small presses, like Big Sixers, don’t charge a single penny to the author. We assume all the financial risk – if your books don’t sell, it’s OUR problem. That’s why, unlike a vanity press, we are selective.

Unlike a Big Six publisher, we will spend time and effort on you. Do we have a nice office in Manhattan with a big staff? No. (We wish!) We typically keep designers and editors on retainer – we use freelancers, which is how many of us began in the industry.

There are a lot of options for authors considering publishing a book.

Just be sure to choose wisely. Every option isn’t for every author, and some may, for whatever reason, choose differently than the next. Read any potential contract carefully, know exactly what is expected of you, and make sure you get what you pay for if you choose that route.

Robin TidwellRobin Tidwell is the author of REDUCED and REUSED, and lives in the St. Louis, Missouri area with her husband, Dennis, and their youngest son. She owns the small press publishing house, Rocking Horse Publishing, as well as a real bricks-and-mortar business, All on the Same Page Bookstore.
questionDo you have a publishing-industry question for Robin? Don’t be shy. Ask right here in the Comments section.

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  1. Jim Bessey says

    Thanks for this thoughtful review of options writers have for taking the big leap, Robin.

    Love your websites and the way you manage your books and authors. Huge congrats on the latest numbers for “Seven Dirty Words” — Top 25% USA and Top 3% UK. Amazing!

  2. Thanks, Jim, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak my mind, lol! Sales are growing – it’s very exciting!

    • Jim Bessey says

      You’re welcome, Robin.

      Can you tell us a bit about why you chose Charlotte Howard’s “Seven Dirty Words” (see main article image) as Rocking Horse Publishing’s debut release for 2013? What grabbed you about this novel? And, while you’re at it, just what sort of adventure does this book present? I’m very curious!

      • Well, Charlotte and I chatted a bit about SDW and publishing in general for some time before she submitted it to us. She was a little hesitant about taking the plunge, but I read the ms and really enjoyed it. She has quite a way of telling a story and keeping the reader engaged and interested – but you’ll have to ask her about the conversion of “Britishisms” and um, “Charlotteisms!”

        I think, too, in the back of my mind it presented a unique challenge – an overseas market, the UK. Although, if that had made it to the front of my mind I believe I would have waited a bit! Certainly not because of the ms, but because of the logistics of UK promoting and marketing. Of course, the next book scheduled is from a Canadian author!

        Seven Dirty Words: our protagonist, Paige, is a lovely young woman who has faced and survived certain trauma. There are hints, but nothing is given away until the time is right. (Charlotte has a great sense of timing and pace throughout this book.) Paige meets a “tall, dark, and smoldering” man, quite a bit older, and suddenly her carefully crafted world begins to fall apart. She’s not sure what to do, she’s confused about her feelings – then she meets another man. He’s safe, charming, sweet; and of course, handsome and rich too! So there’s her dilemma: slippers or stilettos?

  3. Alistair Marquise says

    Hi Robin,
    What about publishing an e-book on, say, Amazon? In that case, does quality often get buried under all of the other stuff? If someone is trying to get noticed by a publisher, would this be a good way to go?

    Thank you for your time.


    • E-books are great – fast, cheap, but you nailed it: they can get buried. There are so many, a lot of them junk, and publishers don’t have a lot of time to “look” for the next great novel. You’d have to have outstanding marketing to rise to the top of the heap; most top E-books are from trad publishers like the Big Six/Five or whatever.

      On the other hand, a lot of the NYT bestsellers are now SP books. Things are changing.

      I think the best way to get noticed is to query small pubs directly. Whether you do that, or SP, you’re still going to have bust your butt in marketing and promotion. And keep an eye out for legit contests and open submissions, like Amazon’s ABNA and HarperVoyager’s call last fall for unagented manuscripts. Quite a few trad pubs are doing that once a year or so.

    • With an e-book you have many of the front end costs as with a print book. E-books have to be edited and formatted and have a cover design, which require either time and talent on the part of the author or a payment to a professional.

      However, once the book is produced, there are no printing costs and no shelf life–the book is out there available to readers 24 hours a day, and the author makes a straight percentage of the retail price per download.

      There are lots of e-books out there, though, and more being added every day. An e-book author has to spend a lot of time just letting people know the book even exists. Getting reviews and mentions on book sites takes persistence.

      As far as using a self-publishing success as a way of being noticed by a traditional publisher–why? By the time a traditional publisher notices an indie, that indie is selling well–why trade a 70% cut for an advance against a 15% cut?

      • Jim Bessey says

        You’ve made some important points, Misha (and it’s nice to meet you!).

        I’d like to emphasize your word “edited” for would-be ebook entrepreneurs. With the pile of cheap, even free, digital novels now available growing to stunning proportions, it’s critical that yours isn’t a rambling and poorly-proofed second draft — if you ever want to achieve success.

        I’ve lost count now of the number of low-cost ebooks I’ve had to quit because of poor formatting, rampant typo’s, missing words, and poor punctuation. Your own eye will miss things, no matter how good you are, in your own writing. Your friends (beta readers) can’t be expected to read your novel with an honest and critical interest. We all need at least one good, objective Editor (capital E intended). Unless you know such an editor well enough that they owe you a favor, you’ll have to find and spend the money. Call it an investment in yourself.

        As for the conundrum you describe of indie success attracting a traditional publisher — that’s a good problem to face, I’d say. By all means run the numbers, do some forecasting, and ask your prospective publisher this: “What will you do to help secure my success today, and next year, and the year after that?” If you’re good, and your early sales prove it, then a small press publisher like RHP might be able to provide an outstanding partnership — not for just one flash-in-the-pan novel, but for a long-term career as a novelist.

        Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your perspective, Misha. Are you a novelist? If so, please stop back and tell us about your current novel.

      • Very true, Misha, but with any of the Big Six/Five (this is getting awkward!) you have name recognition. If someone walks into a bookstore with an SP novel and someone comes in with a Tor imprint or something like that, I guarantee you the eyes will be on Tor.

        Getting published with a major house, or even a small press, is “something.” It shows that someone besides the author and his mom believe the book is marketable and will sell. And that decision comes from professionals with experience. Not that they’re infallible, not at all!

        It comes down to the time available and the skills that are needed – if an author has these, and the inclination to do a lot of hard work AFTER writing the book, then sure, go with SP. If not, there are other choices. And advances have almost disappeared – instead of $50K, it now runs between $2500 and $10K. Interestingly, while small publishers will give 15% on royalties, most bigger houses cut off at 12%. Then again, there’s name recognition….

        • Alistair Marquise says

          So, is the publishing of a book simply about marketing and the marketable? How much influence does the content and originality of the book have over the publisher’s decision to accept or deny it? I realize that it’s a business, but where, if at all, do the business and the art meet?

          • Content and originality are very important – for RHP, that’s the first hurdle. But we have to look at the combination of those along with marketing and sales. I met with an author a year ago, in the context of the bookstore, and he had a unique book, not another like it, totally original. And there are maybe three people in the world who might give it a second look – I’m not exaggerating.

            Some books are very formulaic, but if the story is told well they can sell a lot of copies. Sometimes there’s just one tiny twist or detail that makes the story stand out. But the bottom line is business – can we make money, can we make money for the AUTHOR? We have to sell a lot of books to make back what we spend on one.

  4. Robin,
    I am bookmarking this page. it is such a jungle out there. Writers need all of the guidance they can grab hold-to. You bring thoughtful and knowledge-based guidance with this article. I will pass it on to my writers on Twitter.
    BTW: How close are you to St. Louis Hills, where I am?
    Thanks again for this guidepost.

  5. Robin, fantastic advice! Great discussion. As you have noticed, we have been having an ongoing discussion on ethics and integrity in ‘content mills’ with Mandy’s Pages displaying a whole lot of integrity and shining ethics. I think you are doing the same for publishing, telling it the way it is. Thank you. Kudos to you.

  6. Mike Henderson says

    Robin, I’m considering a contract from a small publisher that pays everything related to printing, and such (which won’t be much, since it’s POD), but expects me to pay marketing. They don’t require me to buy books (they’ve actually agreed to give me ten free), and there’s no cost up front. They also expect me to file the copyright.

    I certainly expect to promote the book, but I was hoping that the publisher would do the marketing and pay for it. What do you think of that?

    You said that you pay a commission of 15%. How is that calculated? They originally suggested 60/40 in their favor, based on “gross profits” (less the marketing costs). They now want to do 50/50 on “net profits.” My problem is that both of these terms are accounting terms, not contractual terms. It should be “gross revenue,” or “net revenue.” How do you term it? Do you define it in your contract?


    Mike Henderson

    • We generally pay 15% on the retail price for paperback and 50% for E-books. In order to avoid accounting nightmares, we do it straight up on the retail price. If, for example, we sell 10 books at 40% off the retail price to a bookseller, a standard discount, the author still receives his 15% of the full price. For E-books, there is often a download fee via the distributor or ISP, and we cover that too – it’s not much, a few cents, maybe a quarter.

      Accounting and contratual terms are frequently interchanged when dealing with royalties, simply because those contracts encompass both. You really just have to do the math:

      Assume a $10.00 paperback, retail price. For every sale, you make $4 based on their 60/40 deal; but you said they want you to pay marketing costs – yet it includes “marketing costs?” Going forward, 50% of the net, retail price minus printing costs I assume, would end up being around $2.75. You’re probably better off with the 60/40 deal, but I’d double check the “based on “gross profits” (less the marketing costs)” if they aren’t going to do any marketing.

      As for the copyright, it can be a pain – gov website! – but the cost is just $35 to do in online. We file for our authors because we have the complete, final ms. Simple. Most publishers do this, some don’t.

      Back to marketing: unless your name is Stephen King, you won’t get much help even from a Big Six publisher. Of course, they do have name recognition and contacts, and that helps. I’d suggest doing some research on this publisher who offered you a contract, see what they do, and decide if you can do just as well yourself. Often, that’s the case. Some authors don’t want to do much marketing, and some are simply unable. I was offered a contract with a small publisher for Reduced, and I turned it down. Everything they were doing, I could do; most of their marketing consisted of co-op stuff between all their authors, nothing particularly noteworthy.

      If you like, message or email the name of the publisher, and I can let you know any particulars.

      • Thanks for taking the time for such a helpful reply to Mike, Robin!

        I can certainly understand his concerns about “net after costs” accounting. Remember those early Hollywood contracts that paid the talent on a percentage of “net”? Yeah — “after we pay every imaginable cost (and some you’d have never thought of), we’ll do your math on whatever’s left over” — which was often a negative number.

        I love the honest and open way you operate, Robin. After all, if the author succeeds, so does his or her publisher in the long run. “Win-win” is a great way to run a business, whenever possible, isn’t it? 🙂

  7. Thanks, Robin. I’m working out the kinks with them. What’s interesting is that the model you use is how publishers always did it. Now, since there’s POD and ebooks, small publishers are paying a percentage of the revenue. I’m okay with it, but I don’t want to pay for production and/or marketing that a publisher should do. I intend to promote it, of course, but there’s more to it than that.

  8. Jim, you’re welcome, yes, and thanks!! lol

    Good to hear, Mike. And yes, we are a traditional publisher, but with a twist – we do a lot of promo and marketing for all of our authors, and we’re available to answer questions almost 24/7. Almost, because I have to sleep once in a while!

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