Blood, Sweat, and Books: Lessons in Self-Publishing
My fingers hover precariously over the keyboard as I sit contemplating how I want to start this article, or if I even should start this article. Then I decide it’s go time, and I want to preface this whole thing by saying I am not easily offended. I’m not quick to outrage, I don’t assume the worst in people, I don’t piece my life together in such a way to ensure self-righteous indignation. That all seems exhausting to me, and life is truly too short.
However, nonetheless, furthermore… and all those other transition words that make you immediately think I’m about to contradict my previous statement… I recently experienced something akin to irritation, and with a reader no less. This was an altogether strange turn of events, and here’s how it went down.
It was a fairly straightforward post in a Facebook group. An administrator had started a thread about what readers were comfortable paying for self-published books. For full disclosure, I have been self-publishing on Amazon KDP since 2013, and, though I didn’t necessarily agree with the administrator even making the distinction about self-published books versus titles from traditional publishers, I thought the thread could be a bit of a pulse check to see what my potential readers were thinking.
The post was popular, and garnered over sixty comments. Midway through the banter, I spotted a comment in which an individual stated something akin to self-published authors don’t have publishers to pay; so, they should pass that savings on to the reader and sell their books cheaper. Now, to be fair, there were other comments that spoke more to the value of a book being driven by quality and whatnot, but that one comment about cheaper just sat wrong with me.
First, there is a publisher to pay – me; hence, self-published. Second, as the publisher I am responsible for the upfront, out of pocket expenses associate with bringing a book to market.
To avoid any confusion, I am going to list what those costs generally are, and what they were for my last book, Hidden Elements. Before that, though, I want to say I’m not laying all this math on you (not my favorite subject by the way) to expound on the trials and tribulations of the self-published author. I am sharing this because as a consumer I like to know where the money I spend goes, and I’m hoping you’re curious too.
In addition, the next few minutes we spend together may give you some insight into the divergence between my publisher role and my author role.
Editing Services: $827.68
This is on the less expensive side, but that’s because I have a wife with a B.A. in English, and she beta reads my books before they go to the editor. As a result, the editing package is less comprehensive and less expensive. If I didn’t have such an incredible wife, my editing cost would range between $1,000 – $1,600 depending on the manuscript’s word count.
I should add that even though my wife doesn’t invoice me – because that would be awkward – her time is valuable and shouldn’t be overlooked. If she billed me her usual hourly rate, the beta reading would run me an additional $300.
Another quick note on the editing piece, as I think the quality of the product I put out as a publisher is one of the key factors in its success. To be clear, I’m not talking about the way a story may speak to you – that’s entirely subjective, and a topic for another day. I am speaking about the quality of the book’s structure, i.e. grammar, margins, spacing, sentence structure, typos, headers, etc. In this, I fear I have some bad news for you… a “perfect” book is a rare thing.
That last part isn’t an excuse. Again, I feel strongly about putting a quality product out into the world. It’s my attempt to put into context what a perfectly structured book looks like, and how, regardless of whether I publish the book or Random House publishes the book, errors are likely. I don’t want to get into the various reactive and preventive controls inherent to a quality assurance process, and how there is no such thing as 100% “safe”, but I will say perfection is the space in which pragmatism goes to die.
Cover Design: $447.00
This amount includes both the ebook file and the paperback file. My graphic designer charges by the hour, and since Hidden Elements is part of a series, she didn’t have to start from scratch with the design. That saved me a few bucks.
Marketing: $2,000.00 +
This is the big one, and it never truly ends. Second only to the quality of the book, marketing is by far the most important piece for ensuring a book’s initial and ongoing success. There are literally millions of books on Amazon, and thousands added daily; so, if an author – self-published or otherwise – has any hope of being found, they can’t skimp on the marketing budget.
I ran multiple campaigns for Hidden Elements’ launch. These included Amazon display and sponsored ads, Goodreads ads, numerous blog site ads, Google AdWords, Twitter ads, and Facebook ads. Each ad or campaign requires additional graphics based on that site’s guidelines; so, I pay my graphic designer for image files as well.
Social Media Presence: $500.00 +
This expense, like the marketing, is ongoing. It includes website hosting costs, domain name ownership costs, and a myriad of other odds-and-ends associated with ensuring people know who I am and what sort of books I write.
Those are some of the expenses I manage when publishing a book. I didn’t include the cost of maintaining my office, i.e. software licensing, research, hardware, office supplies, excessive amounts of coffee and tea to keep me upright, etc.
About now I’m sure you’re thinking yeah, but it’s not like you do it for free. You’re damn right. When one of my books sells, I get paid. I get paid on a net sixty from Amazon. So, when a book sells in December, I get paid at the end of February.
You may wonder what I get paid. Well, I won’t bore you with the various royalty structures or how they differ depending on the market the book sells in, i.e. the United States vs. Britain. I won’t bog you down with the details of how royalty structures vary depending on how much a publisher charges for a book. I will tell you that when you pay $4.99 for Hidden Elements, I receive on average between $1.99 and $2.23 per book. (We won’t even talk about the silliness that is Amazon Unlimited’s payout structure.)
I imagine the picture is starting to come into focus for you. Even at the upper end of the royalty payout, I don’t start to break even on the initial outlay for Hidden Elements until approximately 1,650 copies are sold, and then I’m still out-of-pocket for at least sixty days, and that’s assuming anyone even wants to buy the book.
I could charge more, but would maybe sell less because marketing research (I pay for that, too) shows genre readers tend to buy books in bulk, hold onto them while they read through their backlog (another reason I don’t play well with Amazon Unlimited), and their sweet spot for spending is between $3.99 and $6.99 per ebook.
All of this may have you asking why self-publish? I self-publish for the same reason most folks go into business for themselves: I control the content, I decide what I’m writing about, I decide if I’m even writing, and, though you may not know it from the past few minutes we’ve spent together, I rather enjoy the business piece of it.
So, to that commenter from earlier, or anyone else who incorrectly thinks there’s no publisher involved in self-publishing, I hope this little ditty sheds some light on the process for you. Also, on behalf of myself, other self-published authors, and even those small imprints that put out a handful of books a year, we are the mom-and-pops of the publishing world. We are the book industries equivalent of small business. I hope you will support us. Cheers!
Heather McVea writes lesbian paranormal and urban fantasy fiction with a sprinkling of romance and suspense for good measure. She was raised in a small town south of San Antonio, Texas. Prior to escaping to the big city, she raised Hampshire pigs, rode motorcycles at entirely too young an age, and once snow boarded behind a Ford pickup truck. She relishes a strong gin and tonic, or a well-made old-fashioned (but never at the same time). Heather and her wife have four furbabies, and divide their time between Texas and Maryland.
Heather has recently released Hidden Elements, book two in the Elements urban fantasy series.
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