PG Note: He published this post prior to the one just following it chronologically. The UK study was talking about what are known in the US as vanity presses.
Vanity presses are shady operators who say they will “publish” an author’s book if he/she/they pay the vanity press a fixed upfront fee, which may sometimes be increased by additional “services” that cost more money.
In return, the typical vanity publisher will print up a few hundred books, list them for sale online, wholesale and retail, send out a canned press release, and provide the author with a number of copies of the book.
Typically, the vanity publisher only orders a short run of books because they know very few copies will sell. When the book doesn’t sell, the vanity press typically contacts the author to ask if the author wants to have the unsold books destroyed or shipped to the author.
It’s not unusual for people connected with traditional publishing to conflate vanity publishing and self-publishing, but, if the self-publishing author wants to make money, she/he/they need to spend some time learning how to do it reasonably well. All the information necessary to understand and execute the process is available online.
Although PG thinks some serious competitors to Amazon would help indie authors as well as encouraging Amazon to up its game a bit, at the moment, Amazon is, effectively, the place the indie author must be successful and the company provides financial incentives for an author to sell exclusively through them.
From Jane Friedman:
The publishing industry has been arguing for a long time about traditional vs. hybrid vs. self-publishing and which of these avenues are legitimate, and which are not, but a recent UK study that decries hybrid publishing as unethical has ruffled a lot of feathers.
Here’s the basic problem, in my view: these arguments ultimately conflate “ethical publishing” with positive ROI on a per-book basis. I’d like to take a closer look at that foundational premise, its inherent cracks, and offer a different paradigm.
Regardless of who pays for it, this is the cost to produce a book
My operating assumption is that you want to create a quality book—a book that will be on par with the quality of every other book on the shelf next to it. Regardless of who is fronting the investment (the publisher, in the case of a traditional publishing, or an author, in the case of hybrid or self-publishing), it can easily cost upward of $20,000 to create the thing.
Yes, there is variance based on the book’s contents (if you need a fact-check or an index or photo permissions clearance, for example), word count, or printing specifications. There is also a great deal of variance in terms of the pricing you can find these services for—but generally speaking, you’re going to get what you pay for. Good designers and editors have fairly standard rates, so I’m using those here to illustrate what I call the actual cost of producing a high-quality book. If you cross-check these numbers with a traditional publisher, you’ll find they expect to outlay about the same amount when such responsibilities are handled by freelancers.
Three-pass editing (Developmental, Copyediting, Proofreading): $7,500
Cover and custom interior design: $3,000
Finding great editors and designers is an important task—one that many self-publishers have no interest, ability, or time to do. Partnering with a reputable hybrid publisher or a publishing services firm who continually vet their creative partners removes the onus of team curation from the author.
Project management and back cover copywriting: $5,000
Self-publishers can and often do take on their own project management. It takes around 120 hours of professional project management to produce a book, more for the inexperienced. A lot of authors decide this is not how they would like to spend their time and hire out project management accordingly.
Offset print run (let’s assume a relatively small run of 3,500 copies, for example): $8,750
Total creative investment: ~$24,250
These costs do not include marketing and publicity. A full-scale publicity campaign, for example, starts around $10,000. The vast majority of traditionally published authors receive limited marketing and publicity support from their publisher, so regardless of publishing route, the bulk of a book’s marketing and promotion responsibility falls squarely on the author.
The earning potential from a single book
Publishers, as well as many individuals deciding on a hybrid publisher or on self-publishing, are concerned with turning a profit on the project. So, let’s look at how many copies a book needs to sell to earn out the creative investment alone on a paperback with a list price of $18.95.
- From $18.95, we subtract the wholesale discount. If the book is being sold into bookstores, 40-55% is standard.
- Then we subtract the distributor’s cut (18-20%).
- The hybrid publisher and author split the net revenue (let’s call that $9.23 in this case) along the lines of their specific deal, and these vary widely. Sometimes hybrids take 15%, others take 50% of net revenues. We’ll use 30% for this example, making author earnings ~$6.46/book.
What this means is that, if all your books are sold through the brick-and-mortar channel, you would need to sell around 3,700 copies to break even on your up-front creative and printing investment. (Direct, non-retail-distribution-dependent sales channels earn more per copy.)
This sketch should shed some light on why traditional publishers are increasingly looking to acquire books that will sell more than 5,000 copies. It also suggests why publishers stress the importance of author platform: the author’s direct relationship with readers reduces the need to pile on marketing spend to reach sales goals.
Traditional publishers face ever-increasing printing costs and relatively stagnant retail prices (the market simply will not bear a $30 paperback novel, or even a $20 one). So they have little choice but to recover their margin with bulk rates for larger print runs. In other words, the sales projection threshold for a traditional publishing deal continues to move up, yoking publication to commercialization.
Is producing a book worth doing if it in and of itself is not a profitable project?
There is not a single right answer to this. For some people it is, and for some people it isn’t. A book does not always need to be an ROI-positive event to be worthwhile. Many thought leaders and entrepreneurs write book-production costs off as a marketing expense, since they recognize the legitimizing value of a byline to their authority. A book can function as a lead-gen tool to drive conversion to contract sales; a book can act as a compelling business card that helps net new clients or speaking engagements; a book can drive an individual’s community engagement and retention. Many authors prefer to work in a hybrid or fully assisted self-publishing model because those avenues offer them more control over their work and rights, greater speed to market, and increased potential for return on their intellectual property.
I echo Jane Friedman in saying that “Most writers, regardless of how they publish, are motivated not by money, but some other reason. Prestige, Infamy. Status. Visibility. A million other things.”
This insight applies not only to nonfiction writers, but to novelists, children’s book authors, and memoirists as well, for many of whom producing a high-quality book is a lifelong dream. The value writers get from publishing their book often has little to do with the royalties it generates. As Jane describes in great detail in the aforementioned article, “The writer who makes a living from book sales alone is the exception and not the rule in traditional publishing . . . what most frustrates me, year after year, is why we believe or assume that authors have ever earned a reasonable full-time living from publisher advances or book sales.”
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman
PG was very interested in the costs estimates in the OP. He assumes that these are the costs that major traditional publishers accrue when they publish a book.
He also suspects that many of these costs are associated with getting printed books into physical bookstores – persuading the bookstore buyers to purchase a bunch of printed books (with the ability to return unsold books to the publisher for full credit) by touting all the money spent on publicity, taking book review editors to expensive Manhattan restaurants, etc., etc.
PG thinks that serious self-publishing authors are happy to get status, visibility, etc., but their primary objective is to make money from their writing via book sales through online bookstores, Amazon being the big dog.
Because indie authors sell their books online, they focus most of their efforts at gaining visibility for their books online via social media, websites, email lists, etc.
For PG, the last quote from Jane Friedman in the OP is the killer:
What most frustrates me, year after year, is why we believe or assume that authors have ever earned a reasonable full-time living from publisher advances or book sales.
So, are we to assume that everybody else in the traditional book business — publishers, employees of publishers, editors, agents, publicists, book distributors and wholesalers, traditional bookstores, Amazon — has a reasonable expectation of being able to earn “a reasonable full-time living,” while authors must have side jobs, wealthy spouses, inherited wealth, etc., in order to survive?
The author belongs at the bottom of the publishing heap?
The author is a peon and agents, editors, publisher gofers, book stores, etc., are the aristos?