Writers ask a lot of questions on the journey to publication. “Will I ever get an agent? Should I?” “Am I finished revising?” “Who is my audience for this book and how will I reach them?” “Will I ever get published?” “How do I seek publication or find an agent?” “What’s the standard novel length? Am I over or under?” And on and on. But one question is seemingly never asked, and it’s important to know the answer before you seek traditional publication: Can you afford to be published?
No one asks this question because I suspect they don’t know that they should. I know I didn’t, mainly because I didn’t understand the expenses involved with publication. In my excitement over the book deal, I didn’t ask whether or not I could really afford it. And the sad answer was and is, “No.” At least not on the scale necessary to achieve anything remotely approaching commercial success.
Note that I’m not talking about vanity publishing, where you pay to have your work packaged and published by a “publisher.” Nor am I talking about self-publishing. Although self-publishing is expensive, I think most people know going in that without the support of a publisher, all of the costs are on the author. Most self-publishing guides and blogs discuss the costs of printing, editing, cover art, marketing, etc. extensively, so anyone who’s researched self-publishing knows the deal.
No, what I’m talking about are the costs of traditional publication. Most new authors assume that traditional publication is “free” in the sense that the publisher picks up all the costs. While they do pick up the costs of printing, editing, cover design, distribution, etc., there are a ton of expenses that they don’t cover (or which they may only cover a small portion). What will you have to pay for? Here’s a few items.
- A website and domain. You’ll need to buy a domain name and figure out a way to create and host a website. While there are free hosting options out there, the most professional approach is to pay for hosting and your own domain name. You’ll also need to create a website. It’s not that difficult to learn WordPress and DIY this, but some people can’t handle even that and need to pay a designer. Even if you don’t pay a designer, you may need to pay for a theme or some specialized plug-ins to handle certain types of functionality (security, backups, spam protection, etc.)
- Newsletter service. If you want to offer a newsletter or administer an automated mailing list, expect to pay for a service to handle this for you. There are a few free options, but many are limited or non-compliant with recent privacy legislation.
- Swag/giveaway materials. Giveaways help build a fan base and contribute to brand recognition. While you may give away your books (see below), you’ll probably want to give away smaller items like bookmarks, pins, stickers, business cards, or other things that make sense for your book. Custom printing isn’t cheap, even if you use sites like Zazzle or Vistaprint.
- Advertising. Advertising comes in many forms. Promoted posts on social media sites, banner ads that appear on blogs or trade sites, print ads, ads/featured promotion on sites like BookBub, and sponsoring items on sites like Amazon are just a few types of advertising. The costs vary widely, but if you want your book to be noticed, you’re likely going to have to pay for at least some advertising. Your publisher may pick up the tab for a few things, but unless they expect a bestseller, most of the costs will be on you.
- Author copies. Some publishers will give you author copies to use for giveaways, submission to reviewers, to sell at events, etc. Some won’t, or they’ll only give you a handful. When you need more, you’ll have to pay up. While you’ll likely get bulk pricing, an order of print books is expensive.
- Postage. If you do giveaways of any sort, prepare to pay to ship items. (To limit costs, specify during the giveaway that you’ll only ship within your own country/postal zone. And even so, shipping is obnoxious.)
- Materials for events. If you host events at bookstores or festivals, you’ll likely want a banner or tablecloth that promotes your books/brand. There may be other things you’ll need like display racks, swag (see above), copies of your backlist for sale, etc. Yeah, you can just go plonk down at an empty table, but that doesn’t look very professional.
- Author photo. Unless you’ve got a photographer friend, you’ll probably need to pay for a professional headshot to use in your marketing materials, on the book jacket, and on your social media profiles. Some publishers pay for this, but many small presses do not.
- Travel/event registrations. If you want to sell/promote your book at festivals, comic-cons, or conventions, or do book signings outside your local area, expect to have to fork out for your own travel and registrations. The notion of a book tour paid for by a publisher is dead for all but the biggest releases. If you want to travel, you’re going to have to pay. (Even online book tours can cost you if you use one of the firms that handles the logistics for you.)
- Graphics. While your publisher will design your cover, you may want other graphics like animated book covers, memes, or promotional graphics to post on Instagram, etc. If you have the tools and know what you’re doing, you can do this for free. Otherwise, you may have to shell out for some software, stock photos, and/or design help. Again, a publisher may pay for some of this, but many will not.
- Professional help. Your publisher may give you the use of a publicist, but that person may not work for long (just at launch), and will likely have many other people to deal with. If you want more help than that, you might want to shell out for your own publicist or marketing help. You may also want to hire a web/graphic designer (see above) if you can’t DIY. As a self-employed writer, you may need someone to sort through your taxes. Whatever you can’t DIY or learn on your own, you’ll need to pay for. This varies by writer, book, and your own personal skillset, but pros in any field can be costly.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. You can spend even more! Neither is everything on it mandatory. You can publish without any of this, although I wouldn’t expect much in the way of sales, and I wouldn’t expect a publisher to be impressed enough with your effort to offer you a second book deal. And while there are cheaper ways to handle some of this, you’ll have to do a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether or not it’s worth it. You do get what you pay for, as they say.
Okay, fine, you say. But with traditional publication I’ll get an advance and use that to cover all these costs. Not so fast. Unless you are very, very fortunate to land a five or six figure advance (don’t bet on this), you’re probably looking at an advance of a few thousand dollars. And if you publish with a small press, the advance may be in the hundreds, or non-existent. That’s not going to cover a ton of expenses.
But what about royalties, you say? Won’t the income from my books cover the ongoing costs? Perhaps. But perhaps not. It depends on how well the book sells and the royalty structure offered by your publisher. Your income can also be eaten away by the cut your agent takes (if you have one), taxes, and returns of print books. You can also see your income take a hit if your publisher reduces the price of your books or puts some of your books on perma-free promotions. (Some publishers will ask you if this is okay, but many won’t give you the option.) And if you’re in the US and don’t have a job that provides it, you’ll need to pay for health insurance. Unless you’re selling a ton of books, most of your writing income is going to pay for other things.
This is why they tell you not to quit your day job once you get published. You’re going to need a decent income to keep your publishing dreams afloat. Even with a decent income, the additional expenses can put you in a precarious place if you were barely making it before.
Even if you’re prepared for the extra costs, you must determine your risk tolerance. How far are you willing to go before you pull the plug? The truth is that most books make very little money. The more books you write, the more you can potentially earn, but that’s not always true. Ideally, the more money you put into something, the more you will earn back. As exposure grows, so too should your sales, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes, things never take off the way you hope and publication just becomes a money pit. What you have to define upfront is how much you can safely spend before you stop.
(Yes, it can be a bit like gambling. “Just one more book. Just one more set of ads. If I can get a different agent… I know this time it’ll be different.” And it may be. But it may not be. It may be just more money out the door with no return. And it can absolutely become addictive. Chasing a dream beyond what is financially prudent has led many a person into financial ruin.)
How far are you willing to dip into your savings? Are you willing to take on some debt to finance your dream? How much? Will spending on writing impact other goals like retirement, buying a home, travel, etc.? Are you okay with that? It’s no different than any other form of spending. There are tradeoffs to be made and it’s best if you’re aware of that from the start and know how far you can go.
Everyone’s answers to these questions will be different. It all depends on how much money you have to start with, how much you can safely spend, and how much you can DIY some of these things. The point is that traditional publishing is far from the “free” that many people imagine it to be. Years ago that might have been true, but in the current age, an author is responsible for most of the expenses that occur once the book is printed and designed.
And a lot of authors aren’t prepared. I don’t tell you this to depress you or to talk you out of publishing. Just realize that there are costs involved and prepare yourself. I wish I had understood this better when I started out, so consider this my PSA for new authors.
(Image by Foto-Rabe)