The Cost of Writing and Producing a Book
It’s time for a bit of honesty and hard truth in the writing and publishing world. One of the things I hear when I talk to new authors is the simple lament: “writing a book is harder than I thought.” Then we start talking about the real cost of self-publishing, and publishing in general, and all the work that goes into it.
Suddenly this individual, who just wanted to write their story and sell a few books, is overwhelmed. I’ll let you in on a secret. No matter how many times you do this (I’m somewhere over two dozen novels of my own, several short stories just this year, and have helped countless authors through this process) you will feel like there’s more to do than you can handle. There is so much to do, and so little time.
It’s one of the reasons Unbound Publishing came about at all. One of my primary aims was to help writers feel less overwhelmed by taking a little of the pain out of the process.
That “pain removal” comes at a cost, and that’s another thing I hear often. “Why is this so expensive?” So let me explain, with a transparency that few publishers will give you, the reality of the business, and some more about our two paths to publication and why we have them.
Time and Skills vs. Money
Just like nearly everything else, publishing is about time and skills vs. money. The first book I edited and even the first book I published was not as good as what I can do now. It isn’t that I lacked skill, but I lacked experience, and tools have evolved and improved over the years.
I’ve also worked to hone my skills and get more efficient, as have most editors, writers, and publishers. Just like in sports there is no substitute for time on the field, in publishing there is no substitute for simply doing the work. The same is true of cover design, book formatting, writing marketing copy, and more.
So can you do them yourself? In some cases, the answer is yes. In others, the answer is a resounding “No.” The real question is whether you have or can develop the skills for doing something and if you have the time to do them. Many authors early in their careers are working day jobs, writing in their spare time, and that time can quickly disappear in marketing tasks, trying to create book covers and all the other tasks that go with writing.
Instead of spending time trying to do all that, you can pay someone to do them for you. They probably work faster and more efficiently than you can, and they are likely more skilled as well. And that is what you are paying for. Their time and skills. So if you spend eight hours trying to create a book cover, and it was a mediocre one, what else could you have done with that eight hours? How much money would you have made, or how much writing could you have gotten done?
Also, think of the person you are paying. What do you make per hour? If it takes someone even five hours to make your book cover, you need to pay them reasonably for those five hours. If they are a skilled editor, how much do they deserve for forty hours spent on your manuscript? However, perhaps the most important aspect is the benefit to your mental health. Even paying others to do part of the work you will sometimes feel overcome with things to do, and I suggest you check out Colleen Story’s great book,Overwhelmed Writer Rescue: Boost Productivity, Improve Time Management, and Replenish the Creator Within.
You get the idea. Writing a book is hard enough and you want to get paid for your time. Add in all the other tasks that go with it, and you have a lot of expenses. But let’s look at costs specific to the publishing industry.
Editing Costs and What they Mean
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be diving deeper into each of these topics, but let’s start with the basics. Provided your manuscript is near perfect when you hand it in to a publisher or even to a freelance editor, it will at a minimum need a solid proofreading pass for grammar and punctuation.
Most editors charge by the word, and even if they are charging fractions of a penny per word to edit your manuscript, it is still costly. If they charge half a cent per word and you have a 40,000-word manuscript, that is still a couple of hundred bucks.
But let’s face it. Your manuscript is probably not perfect, so it needs deeper edits than that. If the editor even spends eight hours on your manuscript for a $200 payday, they earned $25 an hour. If they are an independent contractor, they also pay their own taxes, so that is really the equivalent of around $15 an hour, or what an unskilled worker makes in many cases. On top of that, since the average memoir or non-fiction book is closer to 60,000 words—well, you can do the math.
Of course, the deeper the edits your manuscript needs, the more it will cost you per word because the more time it will take. If you are working with a publisher or agent who does not charge you upfront for those costs, that is a part of their cost for creating your book. To keep it simple, someone is paying the editor for their work, whether that is you or the publisher.
The same that is true for editing is the same as covers, but there are other costs as well. For example, if you have a cover that is put together with stock photography of some sort, that photography must be licensed for use on your cover, and someone has to pay for that, either you or the cover designer.
And think about any graphic designer you know. How much to they make an hour? How many hours do you think it takes to create a great cover? Add to that if you need something that is hand-drawn or painted rather than created using stock photography. How much does an artist get for a great painting?
So when you look at the price of a cover, realize there is a lot of art that goes into it combined with time, skill, and often photo licensing as well. It’s not as simple as slapping a photo and some words on a blank cover. And when covers are bad, they can be really bad.
There are two aspects to formatting a book. One is the digital aspect. E-readers allow a reader to change fonts to meet their specific needs and wants, which can move photos, charts, and other items around if your book has them. Special formatting can make sure they “stay in place” but that takes skill and a good formatting program.
The same is true for print formatting. Those photo plates in the center of a book have to be especially designed and making sure text looks just right can be tricky. Getting it right takes time, skill, and the right software. A truly skilled formatter is extremely valuable.
This is another cost that either you are paying, or your publisher is, but either way, it’s part of the cost of producing a book.
Printing and Distribution Costs
Here’s where things can get a little convoluted because this cost bridges two aspects of publishing: actually printing and distributing your book and marketing. Printing costs are the actual amount it takes to physically create your book, either in hardcover, paperback, or the creation of an audiobook.
But there is also the cost of distribution, which is more than just shipping books. It’s making sure your book is in the right catalogs, that bookstores and libraries know about your book so they can choose whether or not to carry it, and the discount those retailers demand to make their own business viable.
Many self-published or even published authors feel they are doing libraries and bookstores a favor by “allowing” them to carry their books, and they approach librarians and others with this “entitled attitude.” But the opposite is true. Libraries and bookstores are doing authors a favor by carrying their books and giving them shelf space, especially if they end up on an endcap or a “front-facing” position.
With print on demand, we try to keep these costs as low as possible, rather than the expenses of doing a giant print run. But it still costs money to execute.
We’ll cover this in more detail on this blog in the future, but you can start by reading this post about dealing with Indie bookstores and libraries as an author.
Keeping Up Appearances
Once your book is out in the world, things like inventory management, revisions to your bio, book descriptions, managing ads and marketing, and offering sale prices all go into keeping your book fresh and interesting. There are also things like website updates and changes and simple maintenance.
If you self-publish, this is your job, and it will take you time and in some cases money. If you are working with a publisher, this is their job and an important one. As we’ll explore in a moment, your publisher and your agent if you have one won’t make any money unless you sell books.
Two Paths of Paying for the Hard Work of a Team
So why do we offer two paths to publication at Unbound Publishing? The reason is simple. We have to make money so we can keep helping storytellers become authors. We can’t do the things we do for free: we have mortgages, rent, and all of the expenses that go with owning and running a company, or in our case, more than one.
If we add up all of the expenses above and we pay ourselves something for the time we put in, it costs somewhere between $4,000 and $10,000 dollars to produce. In some cases, the costs can be even higher.
If you have a really rough manuscript and you need deep edits or even the help of a ghostwriter, we can do that for you, but that adds even more to the overall cost. If you self-publish or go with our author services path, or someone else’s, you need to recoup that money to have what we in the business call a positive return on investment (ROI).
As we have talked about on this blog before, publishing is a pay now or pay later game: you either pay upfront for services, and then as a result you get a higher percentage of your royalties, or an even greater amount if you choose to self-publish. Or you pay later, because your publisher, in this case us, keeps a higher percentage of the royalties you earn until we pay back our expenses.
And that is where the two paths to publication come in. If you are confident you can sell books, and you can prove it to us, you can apply to be a part of our print on demand small press path to publication. In that case, you are choosing to “pay later” in royalties.
Of you can pay for everything upfront. You still have to qualify if you want to publish with us. We’re protective of our brand and the quality it represents. But you are choosing to pay now and keep more of your royalties from future sales. If you have a budget and you like to control all aspects of the publication of your book, you can choose this method or just the author’s services you need, priced a la carte.
Either way, publishing is going to cost you something, and since you’ve already put time into your story, making money from it, at least enough to break even, only makes sense.
The Key to Your Success
What’s the key to success when it comes to writing and publishing? Well, there are actually several ingredients. The primary one is you. You have to have a good story. You have to have the desire to tell it. You have to want to share it, not just with family and friends, but with the world.
Essentially, just like when we look at a criminal act, you need means, motive, and opportunity. You need the means to create your story and get it into a package that you can sell. That often means partnering in one way or another with a company like ours. You need a motive, and a reason to share your story or your idea. Whatever that is, it will have to drive you even when things are tough, and they can be in the book industry.
The opportunity? We’ll take care of that. If you’re ready to tell your story to the world, explore what we have to offer today, and then contact us. We’d love to talk with you about the bridge from being a storyteller to becoming an author, and how we can best help you.