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Sep 8, 2010

How Much Money Should You Spend to Self-Publish?

The comments in the Gizmodo article by FastPencil are quite lively. I'd like to respond to a few of the points brought up:

Banana Fish Today wrote:

Fastpencil is a scam. This is not real publishing. This is a combo vanity publisher/editing service. A real publisher approves only the best writing, then handles the publishing at no cost to the author. Fastpencil here charges $200 to put your book on Amazon. And the link at the bottom of this post is their full pricing page. Cover design starts at $400. Illustrations are $140-$240 apiece. Line editing costs $.029 a word. A novel is generally 80,000 to 140,000 words. So the top-end would run about $4000. And that's just to fix typos; if you'd like advice on your ideas, just triple that number. They also claim to offer marketing, but they give out quotes for that. I get the feeling the price is pretty steep.

Real publishers do all this for free. A publisher's business model is "sell books to readers." They filter the best writing from the slush and spend tons of money on editing, marketing, and distribution in the hopes they'll sell thousands of copies of the book. But Fastpencil's business model is "sell services to authors." They don't give a shit how bad your book is, they're not trying to sell it to people, they're trying to sell shit to you. The author, not the reader, is their customer.

...Publishers are a necessary filter. They spend millions of dollars to ensure the few books they do select can turn a profit. And vanity services aren't a way out of the slush pile and into the hands of readers either. The pile just moves from an intern's desk to Amazon's long tail. .... A handful might end up as success stories. The rest just end up with a book and no one to read it.

I disagree. FastPencil, like Amazon CreateSpace, is not a "scam." These services do not, like PublishAmerica, pretend to be traditional publishers. It is perfectly clear, to anyone with a brain, that they are selling services to the author and it is the author's job to sell to the reader. I feel sorry for naive writers taken in by vanity presses like PublishAmerica, which do prey on writers like carnivorous unicorns on sweet young virgins. But I don't feel sorry for anyone using CreateSpace or FastPencil, and I very glad these services exist now. These services do for books what a service like animoto or xtranormal does for videos. You pay them to help assemble the product.

It's also important to remember that traditional publishers do not provide their services to authors for "free." Hello, welcome to capitalism 101, look up the chapter "Free Lunch, Lack Of."

Facilitated self-publishing, whether POD or ebooks, is simply a different business model. The whole issue about gate-keepers is actually a red herring. Both models throw up hurdles to the aspiring author and neither guarantees success with readers. Here are the differences:

Facilitated self-publishing:

* Author is entrepreneur
* Author purchases service from other providers (editors, artists, publicists, distributors etc.) for a flat fee
* Author must invest capital up front

Traditional publishing:

* Author is a business partner with other service providers (the publishers)
* Author shares royalties from sales with partner/s
* Author does not need up front capital but shares profit dividends (royalties) with partner/s

The main difference is who pays whom when. Nothin' is free, however. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice. And there's no question of doing away with gatekeepers. Money is always the gatekeeper. Writing is exactly like another other business. It requires time+work. Which =money. So you either need enough time to both write your book, print it and sell it door to door; or you, the writer, in order to spend most of your time writing, need to hire someone else to do the boring stuff.

In fact, most publishing ventures involve some mix of these options (up front vs dividends). Publishers usually pay artists a flat fee and editors a salary, while agents get a percentage of the royalties. Authors receive only 10-15% from the sales of their product because they pay the rest to their business partners. And just so you know, this is not a scam or a cheat or the exploitation of artists. The services the author is paying for really do eat up that much of the profits.

As far as I have been able to determine, high end service prices look like this (jump in if you know more):

Cover Art - $4000
Editing for 80,000 word novel - $4,000
Printing - not sure
Distribution - I have no effing clue
Publicity - Sky is the Limit, but see the list on my previous post for an idea; for a fancy book trailer, add another $4000; and you can also get a nice website for, oh, let's just say, $4000. I like that number.

So, self-publishers, at a minimum, $16,000 would be a good figure to invest in your book. And those of you who are trying to interest an agent or traditional publisher in your book, add a minimum of $4000 for your own advance, and realize you are trying to sell you book to someone for $20,000, so they can resell it for more. Someone has to believe your book is worth that much. No wonder it is hard to break into publishing.

I don't know about you, but I am reluctant to take out a business loan for $16,000.

Of course, you can fall back on doing it yourself or finding someone to do it who is not in the top-quality/high price range.

But suppose you had the money. Would that still not be equivalent to going to a traditional publisher?

Phwoar says:

Being able to select your own editors is dangerous. They're there to mould your work into something that's worth reading, that will sell and that will appeal, which is an inherently painful experience for an author. Whether they can take that criticism or not depends on their success, but judging by a large proportion of self-published authors I've met who have skins that are millimetres thick, I don't suspect there are.

There are high-end self-publishing facilitators who will do just about everything for you, even ghost-write the book, if you have the cash. Are these scams? Not if you understand you are making a business investment. The majority of new businesses fail. It's not surprising that the majority of self-published books fail as well. But is moving the slush pile to Amazon a bad thing? I really don't think so.

And here's the best part. Although there's no such thing as a free lunch, there is such a thing as a new opportunity. When things change quickly, it is an opportunity for smaller mammals to out-evolve the larger dinosaurs. Technology makes some middlemen unnecessary, and some services cheaper. The costs of books are dropping in all areas -- art, printing, distribution. Large publishing houses have a harder time than small houses, new companies and authorial entrepreneurs in taking advantage because of the inertia of size. However, the gap won't last forever. Soon, the big players will enter the arena, or, more likely, new big players (think how fast companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter have popped up out of nothing) will dominate the field. I'm thinking -- move fast, or get squashed.

About the only things that are not cheaper are writing and editing the book. I'm still waiting for the iBrain, that device that transcribes the stories directly from my mind, comes out. C'mon, get on it, tech wizards!

For this reason, when I publish my short story anthology, I am going to pay for editing, and do everything else myself, except distribution, which I will do through Amazon. I will pay them by giving them 30% of my profits on each book. Since I won't have invested $20,000 in the book, I won't expect it to make $20,000 either. It's possible that if I take my own time into account, as writer, cover artist and book trailer producer, that at the end of the day, I will make less, per hour, for my work than a factory worker in China. So in that sense, the book might be a "failure." But hey, at least it won't be a $16,000 failure; and it might even turn a small profit. I can be an entrepreneur, without risking my mortgage, and still spend most of my time doing the part of the business I love best, the writing.

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Today's discussion at the Literary Lab is relevant. Michelle invested $1200 worth of capital in her business venture, an order of magnitude less than the high-end minimum, yet she created an extremely beautiful product. Furthermore, she has almost broken even after a mere six weeks. In my opinion, this is very good and I would be happy to do as well as she has.

* * *

As always, most of this blog post consists of OMAFs [Out Of My A$$ Facts] so feel free to jump in if you have actual information.


Michelle D. Argyle said...

I do intend on reading this a bit later. Looks juicy and full of great info!

Jamie D. said...

I wouldn't spend that much to self-publish...nor did I. Not that I have anything against those who do or would - I think everyone needs to decide how much money to spend on the outset based on what they're likely to get back (ie, an informed business decision). Based on my research, and my watching what others have done, I assumed that no matter how much money I threw at my first publication, it was not going to sell well just based on the law of averages. At least not until I built up a healthy backlist. So throwing a ton of money into it would have been folly at this point (and that's been proved correct by my sales thus far).

I do think that social networking gives us the opportunity to connect with people and get top-notch services for a fraction of the cost. My cover art is done by a professional graphic design artist...but costs me next to nothing because the artist is a friend (who I insist on paying for her work). My editing is done by people with editorial experience who are just starting out, or who just do it on the side - and I don't pay nearly full price for that either, but I'm convinced the quality is professional (or so say people who have read my work). So I think it's entirely possible to get top-notch work for far less than the "going rate"...that's not why I hang out in social media circles, but it's a nice perk.

I do think a professional cover and editing are the most important things a writer should focus on when self-publishing - because in my opinion, the cover has a huge part in selling the book, and the editing (ie, ensuring the writing is good/readable/transparent) is what keeps readers coming back.

Just my opinions, of course. :-)

Jamie D. said...

Oh, and could you let me know when that iBrain is out? I could really use one of those... ;-)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

REALLY great post, Tara! A writer can invest as much or as little as they want into their self-published book - and the results will most likely reflect what they put into it. I put in WHAT I COULD AFFORD, and I could hardly afford that! BUT I've almost made it all back in 6 weeks and my husband is thrilled that I'm happy and that the book is getting attention. The fact that people are paying me money to read my work - well, that's just very awesome.

I'm very good with Jamie (up above in the comments) and we are constantly sharing our stats with each other. We're professionals and we don't let those things get in the way of friendship or our work. I respect Jamie and you and many, many other self-published authors who are going out there and doing things smart instead of spreading around negativity and complaining about self-publishing models and businesses. It's sad when everything turns away from the actual writing and why we're doing this in the first place.

Okay, rambling done. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I meant "very good friends with Jamie." I type too fast.

Tara Maya said...

Thanks, Jamie, that's helpful. And yeah, if the iBrain comes out, you'll know, because suddenly my writing will be just as awesome as I imagine it to be.

@ at Michelle. "What I can afford" is pretty much what I have in mind for my budget as well, Michelle.