I think it’s safe to say that most authors are not accountants. So it follows that most authors don’t spend a lot of time considering the economics of self-publishing. I know before I began working in this industry, I only ever thought about publishing as a step in the bigger process of being a writer.
Which, if you’re lucky enough to publish with a full service, traditional publisher, is probably true. Other professionals do the publishing while you focus on just being an author.
Most of us don’t have that luxury. And when you self-publish the cost to publish is a huge consideration.
The Cost To Publish A Book
As I’ve discussed in the past, the cost to publish a book varies widely. You can save money by skipping some of the editing process. For example, you might forego developmental editing in favor of workshopping the manuscript with your fellow writers. Or you might know someone with graphic design skills so you don’t have to pay for a book cover designer.
Because it’s almost impossible to say exactly how much it will cost you to publish, there’s not a lot of value in weighing that factor by itself. You could export a PDF and publish right now on Lulu for free. Or you could pay top dollar for professional editing and design work along with promoting your book through paid advertising and rack up a bill of thousands of dollars.
For years, independent publishing companies (including Lulu) relied on Author Earning Reports to get data about how readers were shopping. But in recent years, the folks behind Author Earnings moved their data gathering operation into an earning gated service that is catering to big publishers.
It’s sad to see an important source of data concealed from the general public.
But it doesn’t mean there are no options. Bowker, the US ISBN agency, publishes data about ISBNs applied to published books and ebooks. This information only tells part of the story; on Lulu, a fair portion of book sales come from books without an ISBN.
What the Bowker report does is give us a baseline of data to work from and highlights a few of important pieces of information. Notably:
- ISBNs for self-published books have increased by 263% from 2013 to 2018
- The growth rate of self-published print books going into 2018 was 45%
- Just three print-on-demand publishers account for 92% of self-published printing
Selling Books Online
When we talk about the economics of self-publishing, it’s more than just the cost to publish. We also have to consider the earning power of your book. Which, just like measuring cost, is difficult to do because so many factors are at play.
But from the onset, whether you sell on Amazon with Kindle direct publishing or you use the Lulu Bookstore, you’ll be earning more per sale than a traditionally published author. Look at this comparison from our Infographic:
Selling 3000 copies might be ambitious, but it is doable. And if you have multiple books, your backlist will help boost sales overtime. In fact, the biggest benefit of traditional publishing for most authors will be the income if you don’t sell books.
And just because you get a deal to publish with a traditional publisher, there’s no guarantee of sales. That publisher might not even do much at all to market your book. So you could end up in the same position a self-published author does; a full-time book marketer.
But 3000 books are a high estimate. Without definitive information, we have to work from commentators. Chris McMullen, an experienced self-publisher, said he estimates most indie authors sell 100 books total. Of course, that average will be impacted by a lot of creators who publish without intending to sell any copies and a very few, very successful authors who sell a lot of books.
Finding The Sweet Spot For Author Revenue
If the average indie author isn’t selling very many books, how do you—an above average author—make selling books a profitable endeavor?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say again that too many factors impact your success to offer any specific advice. But there are best practices you can follow and they all start with defining your goals.
Once you know what you want to achieve, you’ll be able to determine what it takes to get there.
A part of this is knowing how to spend your money. Do you hire a professional editor or invest in a cover designer? Another part is knowing where to sell. It’s not enough to put your books on Amazon and forget about them.
But what impacts your books even more is the price. Which makes sense if we’re talking about the economics of self-publishing, right?
Basically, there’s a ‘sweet spot’ for your price where a reader won’t feel like they’re over paying, your costs are covered, and you still can earn income. For print books, it’s usually around 300% of cost. So if your book is $5 to print, you’ll price it around $14.99 for retail.
A Picture Worth 1000 Words (And Dollars)
Setting a reasonable price that meets reader’s expectations is important. But few readers will buy a book just because the price is fair. It’s the cover that hooks readers.
In fact, the only other thing that a major impact on a buyer’s decision is the description (or blurb); and this text conveniently lives on the cover!
Which means you have to be conscious about your cover. It doesn’t matter how good your book is; if the cover is not enticing, no one will even consider buying it. Cover design success hinges on knowing your intended audience and being willing to build your cover around that audience.
It’s worth stressing too that investment in your cover design is the most likely to payoff expense you can incur. In fact, there’s a potent argument to be made that investing in your cover is the most important thing you can spend money on when self-publishing.
The Economics Of Self-Publishing: Balance
Just like balancing a checkbook (does anyone even use paper checks anymore?), you will look to create a balance in your publishing endeavors. Your goals will inform how much you’re willing to invest, which will inform your sales and marketing expectations.
For some—and I include myself in this—it’s difficult to separate the art and joy of writing from the economics of self-publishing. But for authors and creators who are looking to turn their writing into a profitable venture, the balance of publishing is a must.