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.

Theme: To Choose or Not to Choose…

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Every writer is ultimately asked:

“What’s your book about?”

“Oh, it’s about this guy who kills a store clerk and then tries to hide from the police.” The recipient of this information will give a nod of the head and then ask:

“Yeah, but what’s your book about?” This is the point where the writer suddenly has no words. Why?

It all comes down to theme. It’s the difference between writing a book that has a lot of plot: bombs going off, people chasing other people, innumerable twists and turns, and reading a book that lasts in the mind of the reader beyond the ten minutes after the book is finished. If you look up any of the cheat sheets like SparkNotes, there is always a treatment about the theme of a book. Some are very broad, like it’s about the forces of good vs. evil. Note: most books are in some way. If one were to write the story I suggested above (I haven’t) one theme I might suggest is that the story concerns how superficial facts are often taken as gospel without looking to the root causes. The perpetrator’s guilt is assured by the public because they simply read the initial facts in the newspaper. It’s still very broad, but it now speaks to a dire societal tendency. Now the book will become an indictment on how the forces of criminal justice and public media operate. The resonance of the book will carry much farther because it’s about something other than how the character ducks the police or the vigilantes at every turn.

Some writers go in with certain themes in mind; others just get the story down on paper first. Either way works, and I’ve used both approaches. In some ways knowing your theme from the beginning is an advantage because you can bear it in mind as you write, and seize the opportunity in the moment to strengthen the ties to your theme. But, here’s the really cool part. If you just sat and wrote from page one to page three hundred with no thought as to what your story is about beyond its characters and plots, you will have subconsciously introduced theme or themes into your story. That’s why revision can be so much fun. Put the finished novel away for a month and then sit down quietly and read it from start to finish. Read it as a writer, and look for what surfaces. In one of my novels I did just that. I told the story of a boy who goes through several traumatic incidents as he tries to deal with his mother’s murder. On reflection, I realized that I had introduced themes of social injustice, racism, and bullying into it with no forethought at all. On revision (so many revisions, including rewriting the entire novel in third from first person) I underscored these issues and strengthened passages with backstory, dialogue, narrative, and plot. The story that emerged was so much better than the first draft, or even the second and third.

One piece of advice: the literary approach to writing dwells significantly on character and theme, but don’t worry about this. Just write. If you have a theme, great, if you don’t, then just get the whole thing down first. It’s my personal belief that it’s possible to achieve a balance between literary and mainstream novel writing. Dan Brown is often accused of writing plot boilers, but if you really look at his novels, he deals with some very substantial themes like the subjugation of women and overpopulation.

To borrow a familiar iconic quote: if you build it, they will come. In writing, if you write it, the theme will come.

Happy writing!

© Vectorchef | - Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

© Vectorchef | – Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo