How to Self-Publish Your Next Book Without Getting Hosed

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In last week’s post on self-publishing, I outlined three big reasons why you should self-publish your next book.

However, not all is ideal with the self-publishing world either. Many self-publishing companies like to inflate the costs involved in getting your book into print. This pumps up their royalty fee without you even knowing it. Other self-publishers have you sign onerous contracts that make it difficult for you to leave them and work with another self-publisher or directly with a printer. Still other self-publishers have no connections with online retailers like Barnes & Noble or Amazon, leaving you scratching your head on how to place your book in real bookstores and other retail locations.

How does self-publishing work?

Let’s say you have a finished manuscript and are ready to self-publish it. You send the manuscript to a self-publisher such as BookLocker, Dog Ear Publishing, Infinity Publishing, Tate Publishing or Wasteland Press. If it’s accepted (yes, even self-publishers reserve the right to refuse to publish a book), you sign a contract that stipulates what services are provided to you and what your purchasing options and obligations are.

Services provided might include the following: editing, book cover/interior design, publicity, distribution through libraries and retailers, ebook/audio book creation. Some self-publishers even offer ghostwriting and PR packages. All of these services cost money.

Your purchasing options might include the services outlined above through an “a la carte” style selection; alternately, you might be limited to selecting a “good, better or best” all-inclusive service package. For example, at your discretion, you might want a self-publisher to work with you on the editing of your manuscript and, depending on your budget, pay anywhere from $0.001 to $0.04 per word. On the other hand, some publishers might automatically have you select some kind of editing package regardless of whether you consider your manuscript to be perfect.

Regarding your purchasing obligations, you might be contracted to purchase a batch of your finished books, and this obligation significantly increases your investment costs. You might also be obligated to have your book printed with the publisher’s chosen printer or in-house printing facilities. This places a big dilemma on you if you don’t like how your book is printed or have a dispute with its final cost.

Once your book is published, the self-publisher relies on its connections with libraries, distributors and other retailers, including online retailers, to distribute your book. Some self-publishers will list your book on their own website and even generate several marketing web pages for you. Other publishers might generate a small PR campaign for you that includes videos, a book “commercial” and maybe even some book readings at affiliated retailers.

How much money can you earn from your book?

For every book sold, the self-publisher and you will split the profit- also known as the royalty- in some way. Hopefully, the split is at least 50/50. There is also the book printing cost to consider, as well as any discount rates offered by a retailer like Amazon. In the end, your profit margin might look like this:

Retail price of your book ($14.95) – printing cost ($5.00) – discount rate ($2) = profit ($7.95)

profit x (0.50 publisher royalty) = $3.98 royalty for you, $3.98 royalty for self-publisher

A hypothetical $3.98 from a book that costs $14.95 is not very much profit for you; however, this is at least a healthy 26.5% royalty. By comparison, consider how traditional publishers often give authors only a 5-8% royalty, meaning a profit of just $0.74 – $1.20 per book sold.

However, even if a self-publisher states that it takes only 50% of the profit, there are ways that it can pad its bottom line. That padding is typically done by pumping up printing costs. As a result, it’s imperative that you know the expected price of printing a book.

How much does it cost to print a book?

If you want to make any money on your book- in other words, get it out to retailers who will stock your book at a saleable price- then you must find out what a reasonable printing cost for your book actually is. Of course, different printers could charge different printing rates, making it difficult for you to decide what is really fair. Luckily, in the world of self-publishing, most self-publishing houses use the services of a single printer called Lightning Source.

Lightning Source is a print-on-demand printer that accepts formatted and press-ready manuscripts for printing and distribution only; in other words, if you’re thinking of cutting out the middle man and just going to Lightning Source directly with your MS Word doc in hand, don’t.

How much does Lightning Source charge for printing? On the Lightning Source print and shipping calculator, you can input a typical book size, choice of paper, color, etc. and obtain an estimate of final cost. For example, when I calculated what 500 copies of a 5.5 x 8.5 in. black and white perfect bound  book of 200 pages would cost, I received the estimate of $1,265.00 (using economy shipping). That’s just $2.53 per book.

Having this information on hand when you negotiate with your self-publisher about pricing is critical. Some publishers (cough, cough, Xlibris, WinePress Publishing, cough) charge exhorbitant printing fees. When this happens, the price of the book must go up in order to make any kind of profit for the publisher and author.

Now, when was the last time you paid $19.95 for a paperback published by a new and unknown author? If you can’t price your book at a saleable rate, no retailer will touch it because that retailer already knows that no customer will buy it. You’ll be stuck trying to sell your book through your own website or perhaps through speaking engagements. At that rate, those 500 copies of your pre-ordered book could take decades to sell out. And even worse, you might never re-coup the actual publishing costs of your manuscript.

The Final Tally

Prepare to shell out at least $5,000 or more when self-publishing your book. Printing the book might cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, assuming you purchase 500 copies of your book in advance- or it could be as little as $100 if you just go the ebook route or  print-on-demand. However, the printing itself is not the biggest cost of self-publishing. Rather, it’s editing and marketing.

Your spellchecker on Microsoft Word is not your editor; neither is your Aunt Sally who happens to teach high school English. You may use the editing services of your self-publisher or a third party; however, the cardinal rule here is to buy as much editing as you can afford. If you can’t afford to have your book professionally edited, then you are better off waiting until you have the means to hire an editor.

Editing is typically what your literary agent would have performed for you had you chosen to go the traditional publishing route; successfully self-publishing your book, without blatantly advertising that this is a self-published book (that no one will want to buy), comes from employing the efforts of a professional editor or even editors.

Marketing your book is a definite requirement if you’re going to be a successful author. Marketing may mean that you start a website/blog and use Facebook and/or Twitter to grow your audience. It may also mean that you hire a PR agent and go on book tours. Regardless, marketing will take up a significant chunk of your time and money. This would be the case even if you had used a traditional publisher to publish your book.

Is self-publishing a book worth it?

Book publishing is both a personal and professional decision that is not undertaken lightly. There is a ton of work involved in just completing the manuscript, then having it ripped up- I mean edited- and finally in promoting the book via social media and other methods. But for some professionals, having a book helps promote their careers and give them legitimacy. For others, a book is a chance to leave some kind of legacy. And for still others, a book can be a means to eventual fame and fortune- not to mention a career in itself.

5 Comments

  1. Hi James, Thanks so much for your comment! It’s quite an eye-opener when you find out just where the money goes when a book is sold through a retailer like Amazon or B&N.

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  2. James Wilson says:

    I’ve known a good deal of this for ages, but you provide an extremely valuable service for novices who may not appreciate the value of research. Your estimate to total costs is especially helpful.

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  3. This entire post is a great heads up for new authors. And I agree with the previous comment – editing cannot be overstated as the final step before printing a beloved manuscript.

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  4. Thanks for a concise, easy-to-understand view of the tricky world of self-publishing. Your advice is invaluable!

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  5. “Buy as much editing as you can afford.” I think this is an extremely valuable piece of advice. For some reason people assume that if you’re a good writer, you don’t need an editor, but in reality the best writers are those that utilize the services and expertise of others to improve their work. And you are so right that “high school English teacher Sally” does not count as an editor; true editors go far beyond grammar and punctuation, asking questions like, “Is this the best way to organize this chapter?” and “Does this section need to be presented in a different context?” Having that feedback is so important.

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