A friend of mine emailed and asked:
If you don’t mind me asking, how much did it cost you to publish your book (or your dad’s)? You seem to be doing all of the important things that subsidy presses do and probably at considerable savings.
I’m still refining my publishing process, and I don’t intend to publish many books by other authors (which is more expensive than publishing my own books, because you have to coordinate between two people, rather than just between the two sides of my own brain). But here’s what I’ve found out so far:
I didn’t keep track of how much it cost (in hours spent) to edit and lay out my dad’s book. It wasn’t cheap, and I also found that adding changes after layout took a long time, because I had no good process for integrating those changes. So if I were to go through that again, I would first define a process for submitting changes to a manuscript that has already been laid out.
In general, I could easily see it costing $200 or more to hire someone to lay out a book, assuming it was already in electronic format and fairly well organized. No, I didn’t have to pay for someone to do that, because I had the technical wherewithal to do it myself. But the opportunity cost was that I could not do other things with my own time while I was hacking with Dad’s layout.
This is usually not an issue for me, however, because when I write my own books, I write them already laid out, so there’s almost zero layout cost. (Or rather, it would cost me more just to describe what I wanted to a third party than just to do it myself.)
The cover design for Dad’s book Can You See God in This Picture? my brother Josh put together. We used images from my dad’s archives. I gave Josh guidelines to use in designing the cover, based on my marketing knowledge, because a book’s front cover is its own advertisement. But we did zero market testing on Dad’s cover. For The Conscience of Abe’s Turn, I used a process that can be applied to any title. I used stock photos from iStockphoto, and I ad-tested the cover image and wording, even before designing the cover.The winning ad
For the front cover wording, I ran text ads on the Google content network (those “Ads by Google” you see everywhere). I tried different keywords and phrasings to try to determine which ones resonated with my target market. This became “Living in a Police State” on the front cover and “Every government needs a conscience to keep it honest” on the back. While these ads were not expensive, I did spend close to $300 on them.
To choose the image, I started with “XSmall” size images for each candidate cover image, at $1 for each different image. I used these to create image ads, which I ran on my own websites. Each ad had the same wording on it, but a different picture. Then I drove traffic to those web pages and measured the click-through rate of each image ad. (I could have spent a lot of money on these ads if I had run them on other sites as well, much more than I had on the text ads, and that might have been money well spent, but I didn’t have the cash to invest at the time.) Two images tied for the greatest click-through. I chose one to be the cover image for The Conscience of Abe’s Turn, and bought a Medium ($5) or Large ($10) size image with which to create the cover design.
Now, while most subsidy publishers will design a cover, they’re probably not doing any ad testing. Probably not even any focus-group testing. If you can’t afford real market testing, however, I’d at least mock up the cover of a book and show it to my friends before committing to the design. (In fact, I’m planning to post a little YouTube video to try to drum up opinions on the cover for an upcoming small book. Not anywhere near as good as ad testing, of course, but it’s probably better than flying blind.)
Laying out the cover for Abe’s Turn is something I would in future contract out in a heartbeat, if I had the money to invest, because it’s a pretty complex cover. Simpler covers are pretty easy to put together, if you have and know how to use the software. (I believe Josh used Adobe Illustrator. I used the Gimp.) I created a mock-up of a cover for an upcoming book People Stories, and did it very quickly, because it was just a stock image, front-cover text, back-cover image, back-cover text, and white ISBN block (where the ISBN eventually goes), and maybe some spine text. For the Abe’s Turn cover, start with the fact that the original stock photo was not big enough for the cover, so I had to extend the dark bars in 3 directions through graphic manipulations. Then you go from there. Way more complex. Way more expensive. You could spend $100 to $1000 and up on a cover design, once you know what elements should be on it.
I started a publishing company, not a big one, just big enough for me. That means buying a block of ISBN’s. A block of 10 ISBN’s costs $275–grossly overpriced, yeah, but that’s what you get with a government-enforced monopoly. (I understand you can get a single ISBN for $125, but it hardly seems worth it if you plan on publishing multiple books. And if you only plan on publishing one book, you’re probably better of with a subsidized publisher or using Lulu’s distribution service.) And when you “apply” for an ISBN, you have to know what you’re doing, or else you’ll fall prey to all the useless offers Bowker makes, like trying to sell you barcode images that you can get for free elsewhere.
I used Lulu to print up advanced copies. Lulu is much more expensive than dealing with the printer directly, but their system is completely automated and fast, and you can make changes for free. So it’s good to try things out with, but a 208-page 6×9″ trade paperback costs $8.69 + shipping & handling (which ain’t cheap). (Compare the Lightning Source price below.) I included this “Advanced Copy” step both with Abe’s Turn and with CYSGiTP, but I plan to skip it with my next title, because it doesn’t seem to add anything once I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.
I use Lightning Source for printing, which is a very popular choice for small publishers. Lightning Source doesn’t do business with authors; they do business with publishers. So in order to open an account with them, you need to provide your ISBN prefix (because only publishers have ISBNs, by definition), and then they have an application that seems designed more to make sure you know what you’re talking about than to specify what you want them to do for you.
For each title that I print at Lightning Source, it costs $75 to set up, plus $30 to buy a proof (if I want one, which I so far always have), plus $12 a year to have it listed in industry catalogs. (The industry catalogs are how it gets onto Amazon.com and how bookstores can order it, if they want.) It also costs money to revise the title once you set it up, so that’s why it’s good to have used Lulu ahead of time, to make sure the book is going to turn out right. But once the title is set up, I can get copies (trade paperback) for $0.90 + $0.0015 per page + shipping & handling, and wholesalers get them for even less. So for a 208-page book, like my dad’s, each copy costs me $4.67 apiece (including shipping) if I order a full case.
So I could get the actual cost down to about $150, if I needed to. That’s probably a tenth what many subsidized presses charge. And then I could get copies for a little over the actual printing cost. But this is all true only because I have such a wide range of experience in writing, layout, graphics, and business and because I did my homework before diving in. That makes me an expert, but that expertise did not come easily. And now that I’m set up, I’m hoping to outsource much more in the future, everything I don’t need to oversee personally, as my publishing empire grows.
P.S. If you do want to start your own self-publishing company, a must-read book is Aaron Shepard’s Aiming at Amazon. (But you might want to wait for the 2008/2009 edition.) His advice on setting up as a publisher is all pretty sound, even the part about getting on Amazon. What I would add to it is that you should never depend on one sales channel, even Amazon, unless that one sales channel is you yourself (or rather, your own company), and that you should probably be your biggest sales channel anyhow.