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 ths thoughtful revew of optons wrters have for takng the bg leap, Robn.

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

  2. Thanks, Jm, and thanks for gvng me the opportunty to speak my mnd, lol! Sales are growng – t’s very exctng!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      You’re welcome, Robn.

      Can you tell us a bt about why you chose Charlotte Howard’s “Seven Drty Words” (see man artcle mage) as Rockng Horse Publshng’s debut release for 2013? What grabbed you about ths novel? And, whle you’re at t, just what sort of adventure does ths book present? I’m very curous!

      • Well, Charlotte and I chatted a bt about SDW and publshng n general for some tme before she submtted t to us. She was a lttle hestant about takng the plunge, but I read the ms and really enjoyed t. She has qute a way of tellng a story and keepng the reader engaged and nterested – but you’ll have to ask her about the converson of “Brtshsms” and um, “Charlottesms!”

        I thnk, too, n the back of my mnd t presented a unque challenge – an overseas market, the UK. Although, f that had made t to the front of my mnd I beleve I would have wated a bt! Certanly not because of the ms, but because of the logstcs of UK promotng and marketng. Of course, the next book scheduled s from a Canadan author!

        Seven Drty Words: our protagonst, Page, s a lovely young woman who has faced and survved certan trauma. There are hnts, but nothng s gven away untl the tme s rght. (Charlotte has a great sense of tmng and pace throughout ths book.) Page meets a “tall, dark, and smolderng” man, qute a bt older, and suddenly her carefully crafted world begns to fall apart. She’s not sure what to do, she’s confused about her feelngs – then she meets another man. He’s safe, charmng, sweet; and of course, handsome and rch too! So there’s her dlemma: slppers or stlettos?

  3. Alistair Marquise says:

    H Robn,
    What about publshng an e-book on, say, Amazon? In that case, does qualty often get bured under all of the other stuff? If someone s tryng to get notced by a publsher, would ths be a good way to go?

    Thank you for your tme.


    • E-books are great – fast, cheap, but you naled t: they can get bured. There are so many, a lot of them junk, and publshers don’t have a lot of tme to “look” for the next great novel. You’d have to have outstandng marketng to rse to the top of the heap; most top E-books are from trad publshers lke the Bg Sx/Fve or whatever.

      On the other hand, a lot of the NYT bestsellers are now SP books. Thngs are changng.

      I thnk the best way to get notced s to query small pubs drectly. Whether you do that, or SP, you’re stll gong to have bust your butt n marketng and promoton. And keep an eye out for legt contests and open submssons, lke Amazon’s ABNA and HarperVoyager’s call last fall for unagented manuscrpts. Qute a few trad pubs are dong that once a year or so.

    • Wth an e-book you have many of the front end costs as wth a prnt book. E-books have to be edted and formatted and have a cover desgn, whch requre ether tme and talent on the part of the author or a payment to a professonal.

      However, once the book s produced, there are no prntng costs and no shelf lfe–the book s out there avalable to readers 24 hours a day, and the author makes a straght percentage of the retal prce per download.

      There are lots of e-books out there, though, and more beng added every day. An e-book author has to spend a lot of tme just lettng people know the book even exsts. Gettng revews and mentons on book stes takes persstence.

      As far as usng a self-publshng success as a way of beng notced by a tradtonal publsher–why? By the tme a tradtonal publsher notces an nde, that nde s sellng well–why trade a 70% cut for an advance aganst a 15% cut?

      • Jim Bessey says:

        You’ve made some mportant ponts, Msha (and t’s nce to meet you!).

        I’d lke to emphasze your word “edted” for would-be ebook entrepreneurs. Wth the ple of cheap, even free, dgtal novels now avalable growng to stunnng proportons, t’s crtcal that yours sn’t a ramblng and poorly-proofed second draft — f you ever want to acheve success.

        I’ve lost count now of the number of low-cost ebooks I’ve had to qut because of poor formattng, rampant typo’s, mssng words, and poor punctuaton. Your own eye wll mss thngs, no matter how good you are, n your own wrtng. Your frends (beta readers) can’t be expected to read your novel wth an honest and crtcal nterest. We all need at least one good, objectve Edtor (captal E ntended). Unless you know such an edtor well enough that they owe you a favor, you’ll have to fnd and spend the money. Call t an nvestment n yourself.

        As for the conundrum you descrbe of nde success attractng a tradtonal publsher — that’s a good problem to face, I’d say. By all means run the numbers, do some forecastng, and ask your prospectve publsher ths: “What wll 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 t, then a small press publsher lke RHP mght be able to provde an outstandng partnershp — not for just one flash-n-the-pan novel, but for a long-term career as a novelst.

        Thanks so much for droppng by and sharng your perspectve, Msha. Are you a novelst? If so, please stop back and tell us about your current novel.

      • Very true, Msha, but wth any of the Bg Sx/Fve (ths s gettng awkward!) you have name recognton. If someone walks nto a bookstore wth an SP novel and someone comes n wth a Tor mprnt or somethng lke that, I guarantee you the eyes wll be on Tor.

        Gettng publshed wth a major house, or even a small press, s “somethng.” It shows that someone besdes the author and hs mom beleve the book s marketable and wll sell. And that decson comes from professonals wth experence. Not that they’re nfallble, not at all!

        It comes down to the tme avalable and the sklls that are needed – f an author has these, and the nclnaton to do a lot of hard work AFTER wrtng the book, then sure, go wth SP. If not, there are other choces. And advances have almost dsappeared – nstead of $50K, t now runs between $2500 and $10K. Interestngly, whle small publshers wll gve 15% on royaltes, most bgger houses cut off at 12%. Then agan, there’s name recognton….

        • Alistair Marquise says:

          So, s the publshng of a book smply about marketng and the marketable? How much nfluence does the content and orgnalty of the book have over the publsher’s decson to accept or deny t? I realze that t’s a busness, but where, f at all, do the busness and the art meet?

          • Content and orgnalty are very mportant – for RHP, that’s the frst hurdle. But we have to look at the combnaton of those along wth marketng and sales. I met wth an author a year ago, n the context of the bookstore, and he had a unque book, not another lke t, totally orgnal. And there are maybe three people n the world who mght gve t a second look – I’m not exaggeratng.

            Some books are very formulac, but f the story s told well they can sell a lot of copes. Sometmes there’s just one tny twst or detal that makes the story stand out. But the bottom lne s busness – 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. Robn,
    I am bookmarkng ths page. t s such a jungle out there. Wrters need all of the gudance they can grab hold-to. You brng thoughtful and knowledge-based gudance wth ths artcle. I wll pass t on to my wrters on Twtter.
    BTW: How close are you to St. Lous Hlls, where I am?
    Thanks agan for ths gudepost.

  5. Robn, fantastc advce! Great dscusson. As you have notced, we have been havng an ongong dscusson on ethcs and ntegrty n ‘content mlls’ wth Mandy’s Pages dsplayng a whole lot of ntegrty and shnng ethcs. I thnk you are dong the same for publshng, tellng t the way t s. Thank you. Kudos to you.

  6. Mike Henderson says:

    Robn, I’m consderng a contract from a small publsher that pays everythng related to prntng, and such (whch won’t be much, snce t’s POD), but expects me to pay marketng. They don’t requre me to buy books (they’ve actually agreed to gve me ten free), and there’s no cost up front. They also expect me to fle the copyrght.

    I certanly expect to promote the book, but I was hopng that the publsher would do the marketng and pay for t. What do you thnk of that?

    You sad that you pay a commsson of 15%. How s that calculated? They orgnally suggested 60/40 n ther favor, based on “gross profts” (less the marketng costs). They now want to do 50/50 on “net profts.” My problem s that both of these terms are accountng terms, not contractual terms. It should be “gross revenue,” or “net revenue.” How do you term t? Do you defne t n your contract?


    Mke Henderson

    • We generally pay 15% on the retal prce for paperback and 50% for E-books. In order to avod accountng nghtmares, we do t straght up on the retal prce. If, for example, we sell 10 books at 40% off the retal prce to a bookseller, a standard dscount, the author stll receves hs 15% of the full prce. For E-books, there s often a download fee va the dstrbutor or ISP, and we cover that too – t’s not much, a few cents, maybe a quarter.

      Accountng and contratual terms are frequently nterchanged when dealng wth royaltes, smply because those contracts encompass both. You really just have to do the math:

      Assume a $10.00 paperback, retal prce. For every sale, you make $4 based on ther 60/40 deal; but you sad they want you to pay marketng costs – yet t ncludes “marketng costs?” Gong forward, 50% of the net, retal prce mnus prntng costs I assume, would end up beng around $2.75. You’re probably better off wth the 60/40 deal, but I’d double check the “based on “gross profts” (less the marketng costs)” f they aren’t gong to do any marketng.

      As for the copyrght, t can be a pan – gov webste! – but the cost s just $35 to do n onlne. We fle for our authors because we have the complete, fnal ms. Smple. Most publshers do ths, some don’t.

      Back to marketng: unless your name s Stephen Kng, you won’t get much help even from a Bg Sx publsher. Of course, they do have name recognton and contacts, and that helps. I’d suggest dong some research on ths publsher who offered you a contract, see what they do, and decde f you can do just as well yourself. Often, that’s the case. Some authors don’t want to do much marketng, and some are smply unable. I was offered a contract wth a small publsher for Reduced, and I turned t down. Everythng they were dong, I could do; most of ther marketng conssted of co-op stuff between all ther authors, nothng partcularly noteworthy.

      If you lke, message or emal the name of the publsher, and I can let you know any partculars.

      • Thanks for takng the tme for such a helpful reply to Mke, Robn!

        I can certanly understand hs concerns about “net after costs” accountng. Remember those early Hollywood contracts that pad the talent on a percentage of “net”? Yeah — “after we pay every magnable cost (and some you’d have never thought of), we’ll do your math on whatever’s left over” — whch was often a negatve number.

        I love the honest and open way you operate, Robn. After all, f the author succeeds, so does hs or her publsher n the long run. “Wn-wn” s a great way to run a busness, whenever possble, sn’t t? :-)

  7. Thanks, Robn. I’m workng out the knks wth them. What’s nterestng s that the model you use s how publshers always dd t. Now, snce there’s POD and ebooks, small publshers are payng a percentage of the revenue. I’m okay wth t, but I don’t want to pay for producton and/or marketng that a publsher should do. I ntend to promote t, of course, but there’s more to t than that.

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

    Good to hear, Mke. And yes, we are a tradtonal publsher, but wth a twst – we do a lot of promo and marketng for all of our authors, and we’re avalable to answer questons almost 24/7. Almost, because I have to sleep once n a whle!

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