Last week a friend sent me the link to this article: The Real Costs of Self-Publishing a Book. He wanted to know my take on the issue.
The article seems to have gotten the facts right. It is possible to pay zero out-of-pocket cash to produce a book and it is possible to pay thousands.
I’m not overly bothered by the self-serving nature of the article. The author, Miral Sattar, is the founder and CEO of BiblioCrunch, a matchmaking service for authors and publishing professionals. So of course she’s going to focus on how very, very important it is for writers to pay for professional services. No fault there. I think ebook formatting is very, very important, so every article I write on this blog is focused on making ebooks. Professionals in any area of expertise are convinced their specialty is the most important part of any process. I am assuming readers can figure that out and adjust accordingly.
My problem with this article, and many like it, are that they ask the wrong question. I have learned through hard experience that asking the wrong question usually gives you the wrong answer. Even if it’s a good answer, it’ll be wrong.
So here’s the situation: You have a book to publish and you have a budget. You need to know how best to spend your budget to produce a profitable product. The “experts” are the wrong people with which to have this discussion. They can give you facts and figures. But. An editor will tell you, and mean it from the bottom of her heart, that editing is most important. An ebook formatter will tell you formatting is most important. A cover designer will tell you that without a top-notch cover your book is dead on arrival. Marketing and PR will insist that they are the ticket to success. Any of those experts could be right, but they could also be dead wrong.
To know why, you have to understand the reality. Up until the self-publishing boom, it was a rare writer who was making a living from his writing. I can’t recall who said it: “You can get rich writing fiction, but you can’t make a living.” For the longest time that was true. Even best sellers had to work “real” jobs. Even writers who commanded respectable advances weren’t making a living. They might get a $100,000 dollar advance, but that might be their only income from writing for three or four years, and when you factor in taxes and agent commissions, that figure shrinks considerably. Genre fiction writers fared slightly better. Those who were prolific and could consistently please their publisher, could publish multiple titles each year and make a living based on output. (There is a reason best selling writers who make tons of money are news–it’s because they’re rare!)
With self-publishing, more and more writers are making a living. There is a reason for that. Availability.
Here’s the thing, in order to make a living, a writer has to develop a following of readers. Out of that following, a percentage of those readers will not pay for the book. They’ll find books at the library, or borrow from friends, or find them at the used book store. Do not think for a second that the non-paying readers aren’t valuable, because they are extremely valuable. They pay for the book by talking about it. They recommend the book to friends or post a blog or write reviews. They discover favorites amongst the freebies. They will go hunting for other titles by a favorite. This is where self-publishers have the advantage. Their books are available. Traditionally published books often have limited shelf-lives. The only place readers could find back list was in used book stores or the library. Quite often back list titles disappeared altogether. It takes time to build that following. It takes time to produce enough good books to start the snowball of visibility rolling.
Do you see where I am going with this? Maybe one first book in 100,000 will make a noticeable splash, money-wise. It’s a rarity. Quite frankly, those are lottery odds. If you’re a serious self-publisher who intends to make a living from your writing, then you have probably figured out by now that blowing your wad on any individual title is a fool’s game, especially early on. I will go so far to say that depending on where you are in your career, some of the money spent will be a total waste.
Once you have a product in hand (a book is only art when you’re creating it; when you try to get people to pay for it, it’s product), you need a budget. Once you have a budget, you have to allocate those funds. What you need to do is put on your businessperson hat and figure out the best way to use your budget to get the greatest return on your dollar. In order to do that you have to ask the right question:
What do my readers value?
Successful writers, both traditionally published and self-published, are tuned in to what their readers want to read. They are also tuned in to what their readers value.
Take editing for example. If your readers value quantity more than quality, then using a large part of your budget to pay a developmental editor is probably a waste. You can save a lot of money by using beta readers, then use your editing budget for a competent line editor to find your most egregious mistakes. The perversity of publishing is this: The smaller, more exclusive, your intended audience, the more you’ll need to pay for editorial.
What about covers? Do some market research. I popped over to Amazon this morning and did a quick survey (very non-scientific). I looked at the top selling ebooks in science fiction and fantasy. Overall, the covers are VERY good. Very artistic. Most look expensive. What this tells me is that readers value “high-dollar” covers–why, I don’t know, but that’s the surface appearance. On the flip side, I looked at the top sellers in romance. The covers? Not so good. In fact, a large number in the top one hundred are pretty crappy, with the majority being mediocre. What that tells me is that–perhaps!–while romance readers are looking for covers that look like romance covers, they aren’t judging the quality of the story inside by the covers. Do better market research than I just did. While a gorgeous, beautiful cover never hurts (unless it’s not a good fit with the genre), spending more than you need to can hurt your pocketbook and put you in the red longer than is necessary.
What about ebook formatting? Again, do some market research. Download samples from the top selling ebooks that appeal to your readership. You may find that all the readers care about with the ebook is that it works. Or you may discover that bells and whistles are a hallmark. Let me let you all in on a little secret. With ebooks, do-overs are easy. Wait, you knew that? Okay, then don’t forget it. If you are willing to do some work and read instructions, you can get away with a homemade ebook format and it won’t cost you any cash. Then, as you get more books out there, and start making some money, then spend money on a pro to have the books redone. You’ll have a bigger audience to appreciate the effort.
Print format. This requires a real commitment, either in time or money. Print on demand books are getting into bookstores and libraries now. But if your book looks cheap and amateurish, it won’t be picked up. This is one area where you should not cheap out. Either schedule a good block of time to learn how to do it yourself, properly (and even with templates, there is a rather steep learning curve), or set aside enough of your budget to pay for a professional job.
Marketing and promotion. This is a tricky, tricky area and one where not even the “experts” have a real clue about the best way to spend your budget. For five bucks, you can make one investment that will pay off: Buy David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Visible. He’s done the toughest research for you about selling ebooks and building an indie career. As for everything else, in my opinion, based on observation, you’ll get a better return on your dollars by burning them on an altar to the BestSeller God than you will by spending them on advertising. UNTIL you have a decent sized body of work available for sale. Early on in your career, rather than shelling out big bucks for ads, book trailers, PR services, paid reviews, etc. write more books. Build your shelf-presence at the online retailers. Build your audience. Go where your readers are and figure out how they are discovering books to read. That said, some genres are more competitive than others and you might have to work harder or even spend some money. If you do your research, you can spend it wisely.
There you go. You now have the right question to ask: What do my readers value? Answer that, and you will know how to divvy up your production budget so you can get the most bang from your buck. With a little luck and a whole lot of hard work, I’ll be seeing you on the Writers Who Earn A Living From Their Fiction list.