Self-Publishing: An exercise in Math



One of the first things an aspiring writer learns is that writing must come from passion and not from a desire to become rich and famous. That is an indisputable axiom, and one I wholeheartedly agree with. So, let’s set aside the rich and famous part – such notoriety goes to a tiny group of authors, anyway: Stephen King, JK Rowling, James Patterson, and perhaps a few dozen others. Instead, let’s focus on the financial realities that come with the decision to self-publish.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to assume (rather boldly, I might add) that the writer has undertaken all the “must-do” steps of writing, re-drafting, editing, drafting some more, hiring a developmental editor, redrafting, hiring a line editor, corrections, and finally a proof-reader. Then of course, there is the cover art, the copyright, the ISBNs, the cost to prepare mobi, epub, and print ready files, and a publicist.

Okay, so now you’re ready to publish. Today, it’s pretty easy to do – that’s the good news. The bad news is that most of what you might earn is going to disappear into the profit margins of others in the process. If you’re willing only to upload your work in the form of eBooks to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes and leave it at that, your take home royalties will be palatable (possibly as much as 65% or 70% of the eBook price). However, that also means leaving money on the table. There is a very significant population of readers who still want to hold a book in their hands – you cannot ignore these readers, which means you must provide a way for them to get a physical copy of your book. This is where the choices you make become difficult.

Here are your options: Offset printing of your book, Amazon’s Createspace, and Ingramspark.

The choice to offset print means spending multiple thousands of dollars to have two or three thousand copies of your book printed. By way of example: my novel was 366 pages long, with a 5.5 x 8.5 trim size, trade paperback, and a glossy cover. The cost to print 2000 copies priced at $5,803 or $2.90 per book. This option is only cheaper when considering a larger volume of books. The inherent risk here is that if you fail to sell a major percentage of these printed copies, you will be out the money and will contend with finding a place to shelve them. Here is another truth: most debut writers will come nowhere near selling that many copies.

That leaves the choice to have your book produced via POD: Print on Demand.

Let’s start with Amazon. You already have your book listed with them for Kindle users. Their company, Createspace will take print ready files, produce your book by POD, and ship it out to a reader. They’re very efficient at doing this. Now, here’s the math. In my case, my novel was a young adult urban fantasy. A close audit of all new books in this genre dictated that the selling price of the book could not exceed $10.99.  A reader orders the book on Amazon, their commission is 40% or in this case $4.40. Createspace will charge $5.21 to POD your book. That leaves the self-published author $1.38. That’s 12.6% and not a bad thing.

An author can get a store like Barnes & Noble to list your book so that a shopper can have it ordered on or at the store where a bookseller will find it on their Bookmaster, in-store computer system. Typically, Barnes & Noble wants a 55% cut of your book. In my same scenario, that meant their commission was $6.04 per copy. Ingramspark, the company which produces the POD copies for Ingram Book Company (the company Barnes & Noble uses to order books for their customers) charges $6.30 per copy (Note: that’s 21% higher than Createspace. When I asked about this, I was told that it’s a business-to-business service and therefore they charge whatever they want). This means that for every copy you sell, you lose $1.35. The only way I was able to make it work when uploading my book to Ingramspark was to choose the “less advantageous” (for them, not for me) alternative of having Barnes & Noble take only 40% discount (meaning at the stores, customers have to pre-pay for the book) and allow for the book to be fully returnable. This altered the math such that each sale now produces a royalty of $0.29 per copy. Considering all the cost and years of hard work, this is distasteful. Please note the distinction of having a book marked “returnable”. You might have to place a deposit with Ingramspark to cover the cost of the returns and, also, Barnes and Noble will not typically stock POD books unless they are.

Now let’s wade into murkier waters and contemplate what many writers consider the ultimate for their book – to have it on the shelves of a bricks and mortar store like Barnes & Noble. An author can submit their book to Barnes & Noble’s Small Press Department for consideration of having it stocked in their distribution network. If they accept your book for shelving, you have to think hard about the inherent risks. As I mentioned earlier, to fulfill that order you will either have to have an offset printer produce the copies for delivery to the BN distribution centers or have Ingramspark produce them. I confirmed with Ingramspark that they would not allow for a volume-pricing discount if the order flows down from BN to Ingram Book Company to Ingramspark, they would charge you the same per copy price as if you were only ordering one book. Ingramspark will only offer a volume-pricing discount if you order the copies yourself and arrange for them to ship it to the BN distribution centers. The reduced price (which is still more expensive than an offset printer at that volume, in my case $3.50 vs $2.90) will allow you to sell the copies profitably at the BN desired discount of 55%, but it doesn’t end there. Barnes and Noble also wants the ability to return unsold copies of your book, which means you might inherit back a very substantial number of books and be out the printing cost. Books have, at most, a three-month shelf life at a Barnes and Noble store and often less if it isn’t selling. Shelves are routinely rotated for new titles. Also, consider that if you don’t have a very proactive promotion campaign drawing attention to your book, the likelihood of someone browsing at a BN store picking up and actually buying a copy of your book is a long shot.

When all is said and done, a writer must anticipate an investment of $15,000 to $20,000 if you want to go beyond simple epub and to present your book in a professional way. Writing is art; self-publishing is business.