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