The (Literal) Cost of Publishing

Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

One thing writers are cautioned not to talk about is money. As religion and politics used to be (and likely still are by some), it has long been considered gouache to talk about salary or expenses. The traditional industry even has code phrases so they can talk about the size of deal without revealing actual numbers. This was a breakdown from 2016, so numbers may have changed a bit:

  • Nice deal = $1 to $49,000
  • Very nice deal = $50K to $99K
  • Good deal = $100K to $250
  • Significant deal = $250K to $499K
  • Major deal = $500K and up

But I think this reticence to talk about money should change. In a world where it is getting more and more expensive to publish and market a book (especially for self-publishers) and fewer authors are able to make a full-time living with their writing, we need to know what others are spending (and making) so that we know what is reasonable and what is not. Even traditionally published authors have to pay for all or at least some of their marketing, depending on what their house decides to do for them.

I’ll give you an example from my own life as to why not talking about money can be harmful. I TOTALLY overpaid for layout for my first four books. I used a company (that shall remain nameless) recommended by a friend. I paid $1,000/book for the layout, not knowing this wasn’t a normal price until another friend said she only paid $100/book for her layout with a different company. This is what happens when you don’t know what you don’t know. (And my friend who recommended the first layout company likely didn’t know she was overpaying, either.)

Real Numbers
So what is reasonable? Based on my research and experience (your mileage may vary):

  • Professional Editing – $500-$1,000+ (Depends on length of book, depth of editing and who you use)
  • Proofreading – $3-$4/page (per Writer’s Market)
  • Cover Design – $100-$500 (some people have the skills to do their own; I do not. You can reduce the cost with some designers if you provide the stock photography.)
  • Formatting – $200-$1,000+ (You can also learn to do this yourself; I don’t personally want to.)
  • IBSN – $125 for one or if you buy in bulk $295/10 (US only – in many other countries they are free)
  • Copyright/Library of Congress – $35, plus postage book to mail the book.
  • Proofs/author copies – Depends on length of book ($3-$6).
  • Marketing – You can totally control this and this is where I messed up. I spent WAY too much.

As of January 1, I’ve been a published author for four years. In that time I’ve sold tens of thousands of books (I stopped counting at some point because it’s all manual), hit the USA Today bestseller list and have won more than 40 awards. But you know what? I’m also massively in debt because of it – to the point of looking into debt consolidation. And unfortunately, I don’t think I’m alone. (Granted, I also know self-published authors who made seven-figures last year, so experiences can and do vary widely.)

But the stigma behind not being an immediate financial success is why I’m talking about it. You are not a failure if this has happened to you – my friend Jordan, who taught a class on cash flow at the Novelist’s Inc. conference last year, taught me that. You just didn’t manage your money as well as you should have. And you can get yourself out of the hole.

Damage Control
My first step was to purposefully not publish anything last year. That might seem counter-intuitive because the more books you have out there, the greater the chances you will make money, but it also costs a fair amount if done professionally. This year will likely be the same. (Although I am trying to get a few traditional deals, so that is part of it too.)

Step two was to eliminate unnecessary expenses. It’s amazing how many services I had automatically charging my credit cards every month. I’m keeping my stock photos though. I think those are a valuable recurring expense, at least for me.

Step three was to slow down conference travel. (The only one I’m going to this year is comped.) It is great for networking, learning and sometimes for selling books, but it adds up REALLY fast.

Step four is to focus on writing, but not just books: articles that pay, ghostwriting, speaking, etc. There’s more than one way to pay off debt.

Other lessons I have learned the hard way:

  • It is not a good idea to finance your self-publishing on credit cards. I thought I had way more self-control than I did and now I’m up to my eyeballs. Plus, interest really sneaks up on you. (Granted, about half of that was personal debt I had before I started publishing.)
  • Don’t overspend on swag. When I was new, swag (postcards, bookmarks, pens, etc.) was the big thing. You were told you HAD to have it for conventions. It doesn’t hurt to have one thing, or even one thing per book, that people can take away with them, but you don’t need to load yourself down or purchase large quantities. Four years later and I still have boxes of swag I likely will never use.
  • Don’t bother paying to be featured in library or bookstore catalogs, in magazines, or at trade shows. There is one indie author group that pushes a lot of these and from my experience, the ROi is minimal.
  • Same goes for purchasing ads in magazines. I only did that once, and it was more out of vanity than anything, but it’s not worth it.
  • Be very careful about which contests you enter and how much you pay for them. I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard (I do my research), but I see author friends all the time talking about ones I’m pretty sure just took their money and called them a finalist/winner but gave them nothing in return other than bragging rights.
  • Budget your spending, especially on ads. I totally didn’t do this and look where I ended up. This will become more and more important in the future, as experts are predicting that Facebook ads will become a must. (If I can find the article I saw that in, I will link to it, but it is eluding me at the moment.)
  • Be careful when creating audio books. Yes, audio is hot, but audio books are about a $2,000-$3,000 investment, depending on what your narrator charges and how long your book is. Are you going to make that money back? I have on some of my books, but not on others. You just don’t know. (And PLEASE don’t narrate your own unless you are a trained actor or broadcaster. There really is an art to a good audio book and a bad/average narrator can ruin it.)
  • Excuses you don’t want to use on yourself – believe me, I’ve done all of these:
    • It’s tax-deductible (maybe, but the end value of that depends on how much you make and spend, plus tax code in any given year – it’s still an expense.)
    • Oh it’s only this once/this one thing (sure it is).
    • It will pay off in the end (will it really?).
    • I want to prove I can do it as an indie author (lamest excuse ever).

Now, I don’t want this to scare anyone or to keep you from trying new things. Publishing (especially self-publishing), is all about taking chances and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. You just really need to look at what you are investing and what you are going to get back, as well as what the bills are in the other parts of your life and what your other income is. This may sound obvious, but it is REALLY easy to get caught up in the new, shiny and sexy when you publish, especially when you are new and trying really hard to stand out from the crowd.

The age-old advice of saving up for your anticipated expenses is very wise in this situation. Sometimes traditionally published authors are advised to invest a portion (or all) of their advances into their marketing. If you save first (which I did not do), you are kind of doing the same thing and avoiding hundreds of dollars a month in interest payments. Publish your heart out, just be smart about it.

I’d love to hear from a traditionally published author about what they’ve done and spent on their marketing because that is a side of things I am totally blind to. 

Silence Hurts

As a rule, I stay out of the comments. You know, the chunks of opinion that follow most on-line articles, left by concerned and thoughtful citizens.

Or by trolls.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

Over the last month, I’ve generalized that “no comments” standard to the active forums on the RWA website. (RWA = Romance Writers of America, one of the largest writer’s organizations in the country.)

See, exactly one month ago today, on 12/23/19, RWA censured & suspended author Courtney Milan, charging her with ethics violations and suspending her membership for a year. They also banned her from ever again holding a leadership position in the organization.

Now, some backstory…

Courtney has a long history with RWA. She’s a past board member, and at the time the ethics complaints against her were filed, she was the head of the ethics committee. She also received an award at last year’s national conference for the work she’d done promoting diversity in the organization.

She also has a huge social media following, and if the RWA board thought they could drop their little bombshell and sneak away for the holidays without anyone noticing, they were…um…wrong.

To say the shit hit the fan might be one of the biggest understatements of all time.

The board said that Courtney had violated RWAs standards by calling out a 20 year old book as a “fucking racist mess”. They said her critique caused the other author to lose a book contract, which simplifies things a great deal and is also simply wrong.

For a hit-by-hit look at how this last month has gone down, Claire Ryan has put together a timeline that is absolutely worth the read. For a nuanced look at why this has all happened, Kelly Faircloth’s article at Jezebel is a good source.

The underlying issue is racism, something RWA has been wrestling with for the last several years. (In April of 2018 I blogged about the #ritasowhite kerfufle involving the RITA Awards, RWA’s version of the Oscars. At the time, no black authors had ever won a RITA.) The RWA Board that took over in September ’19 was the most diverse in the organization’s history, which a lot of us took as a good sign. Progress made. Go us.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Which brings me back to the forums. They’re a mechanism for discussion, a private place where RWA members can exchange views. Things can get pretty heated, and whether intentional or not, a number of my RWA colleagues have let their racist flags fly.

It’s a testament to my own privilege that I was able to say, “nope, not looking” when I started to hear how awful some of the comments were.

It’s also a testament to my privilege that I can say “yeah, don’t need ’em” and plan to let my membership lapse.

I’ve spent the last two years as treasurer for the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of RWA, an on-line chapter that supports writers of diverse romance in learning their craft and in having a place to network. Our membership is predominately white, and while the board wanted to give queer authors of color a safe place, I’m not sure how close we came to accomplishing that goal.

Wrestling with my own internalized racism is difficult, whether in the context of a wider organization or in my daily life. I could have followed those forum conversations and added my voice to the chorus of people who were willing to take a stand and call out those who were being shitty.

Instead, I’m writing a blog post. Again. Encouraging you all to look for books by diverse authors to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. To speak out.

I’m listening.

(Here’s a link to the WOC Romance website book list to get you started.)

Writing with Anxiety

It has taken me over twenty five hours to finally write this post. The beginning of 2020 has been quite stressful for my household, especially after we thought this month, this new year, was going to be the start of a better year. We were confident that we were going to start this year feeling good, more secure, like the ground under our feet was going to stop shifting. Turns out, we were wrong. I think everything is going to be okay, but this past week has been particularly hard for us. Lots of surprises we weren’t prepared for and we had to make some difficult adjustments to make things work. Plans had to change. Things aren’t starting off how we wanted.

So yesterday, when I sat down to write this post, things hadn’t yet resolved themselves and I was actually shaking with anxiety. My body felt like I was vibrating. I was sitting through my own personal earthquake and the ground wouldn’t settle.

Monday I’d started the day off feeling pretty secure. Those surprises hadn’t hit yet. So I was feeling pretty good about getting back to the novel I’d started during NaNo. I’d taken the holidays off and given myself time to think about the book and where it was going. I’d written to the end of the outline I’d had done and knew I couldn’t move forward until I finished the outline or, at least, gotten a few more chapters outlined. I finished reading the first 50k words and felt a lot better about how the book was shaping up, realizing it wasn’t as meandering and stretched out as I thought. Tuesdays morning I outlined two chapters.

I know two chapters doesn’t sound like a lot, but I outline in long form, by hand.

See? That takes a toll on my hands nowadays. I don’t know how I used to outline five chapters in a day without my hand killing me. But anyway. I was really happy with my new progress. I thought, hell, if I can outline two chapters a day, in five days I’ll have ten chapters ready to write!

Then new surprises exploded in our email and what we thought was going to be a calm month turned into panic and uncertainty. My stomach knotted up and I couldn’t focus on work anymore. I’d have to be okay with those two chapters while I tried to deal with new issues. My anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t really focus on anything. I couldn’t calm down. I looked calm. Oh, I can look calm like the best of them. But inside? My heart is palpating. My breath isn’t smooth. My arms feel like they’re shaking. It’s like I’m really fucking cold and can’t stop shivering. But you wouldn’t know it to look at me. I can go through the motions like a champ.

I knew things wouldn’t be settled until late morning Wednesday. And, until that happened, my anxiety brain would not calm down. Anxiety is like having nervous cat living inside you. You can try to calm it, give it warmth, sustenance, a place to curl up and relax, but any small movement, any unfamiliar noise, and you set it off and its claws are in the curtains and it is spitting and hissing without warning.

I had work to do though, work I couldn’t ignore. I had a client in the morning and I needed to get this post written. Having someone face-to-face was helpful because I had to deal with them and couldn’t dwell, waiting for news that the ground wasn’t moving anymore. But as soon as they were gone, I was left in the quiet and that cat was shaking and growling low.

Write my post. That’ll help. But no. I sat at my desk and stared, my arms still trembling and feeling like I was sitting in a freezer. Just waiting for a phone call that would tell me if things were gonna be semi okay and not just all out terrible. We were hoping the month was going to be good and now I was praying for semi okay.

I couldn’t write my post. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I actually wanted to post about NaNo and what to do now, but I couldn’t think of what I wanted to say. I looked at my outline and wanted to get the next chapter done. I couldn’t. The characters couldn’t be heard over the growling cat. I was stuck in an anxiety trap. My mind wasn’t racing like it will when I try to go to sleep. I wasn’t thinking of all the disastrous things that could and might happen—though any time something showed up in my email I assumed the worst. I wasn’t crying or balled into a corner. I was just sitting here, right where I am now, and trembling. Waiting.

Anxiety is a monster that can do many things. It can steal your energy. It can steal your happiness. It can make you angry or sad or panicked. Anxiety demands attention like a bank robber with a gun. And even if your rational brain is telling you things are going to be okay and you work things out in your head, anxiety can hold on, claws sunk so deep there’s no pulling them out until the cat is ready to retract.

But now, here I am, nearly 1000 words into this post, and no longer shaking. Things are different than what I hoped and expected in the beginning of the month, but we’re semi okay and I can suddenly move my fingers on the keys and think about this post. And my outline is waiting for me and my characters are still there, ready when I am.

I used to be a write every day kind of person, only taking one or two days off on the weekends. I was terrified of losing momentum once I started writing a book. If I took too much time off, I was scared I’d struggle to start again. And you know what? I was right. It is very, very hard to start back up. And shit like this week happens that totally derails me and I think, if only I’d been working I’d be further along than where I am and wouldn’t feel so shitty about being derailed. But it’s okay. The words will always be there when you’re ready and able to come back. It took me a long, long time to reconcile that in my head. The write like you’re afraid you’ll die before you finish served me really well these last few years, but now, things have changed and so have I. My anxiety is actually a lot worse than it used to be and I’m having to always learn how to listen to it, deal with it, and adjust for it.

If you need the break because you don’t have a choice because that cat’s claws are sunk so deep you’ll just shred yourself trying to remove them, just wait. Let the cat calm down and retract the claws. Your characters, your words, your abilities will still be there when you come back. Not everyone can work in chaos and despair, not everyone’s art flourishes in the dark, and that’s okay. Wait for the sun.

And, if you suffer from anxiety, and reading this post triggered you, let me leave with you a picture of adorable sleeping pups, using the same pillow to try to calm you back down. I highly recommend a cuddly pet if you have anxiety, btw.

It's that time of year… #NewYearsResolution

So, I’ve got a funny story for you. You know last December, when my Scribes post listed all the things I meant to accomplish in 2019? I can proudly report that…

I might not have done so well.

Or at least I’ve been telling myself I didn’t accomplish much. Getting ready for this post, though, I looked over the list from last year – you can find it here if you’re curious – and I didn’t entirely suck.

  1. I didn’t write another book for my agent to send out on submission, but I did self-publish Lost & Found (previously known as L’Ami Mysteriuex), so I get partial credit for this one.
  2. Last January I’d written ~ 1120 #PostcardsToVoters, and today I’m at ~ 1850, which means I’ve averaged ~ 15 postcards per week. My goal was 20. Close enough.
  3. I said I’d spend 15 minutes a day teaching myself French.
    HAHAHAHA.
  4. I meant to write another Trevor story. He’s the hero in The Clockwork Monk & The Christmas Prince (which is still a free download for the next week or so), and while he’ll get another story, it didn’t happen this year.
  5. Next was rewriting the Creepy Doll story. Funny thing, that. I started a rewrite, changing the time period from 1940 to 1900. Then I cut the vampire. Then I moved the location from New Orleans to Seattle. Then…uh…I cut the doll. And then I had to admit I was writing an entirely different book, but it was my NaNo project and I’m about 10k words shy of finishing the first draft.
  6. I promised to keep my senators on speed dial, and I have.
  7. I didn’t get back into Weight Watchers, but I’ve been going to a weekly spin class and taking yoga a couple times of week, so I’m going to count this as a win, too.

Looking back, there were only two resolutions I really did no work towards (and yes, Babbel, I’m looking at you). Here I thought I was going to write a 500-word mea culpa, but in reality, I did pretty good.

Go me!

Now I guess I should figure out what to do to capitalize on this success. A clever person might make another list of resolutions and since I’m nothing if not clever, here goes…

  1. I hereby resolve to use my planner.

Guess you could say I’m aiming to quit while I’m ahead. I do have a mental list of what I want to accomplish, and tbh, using a planner is a pretty big step that will allow me to translate my mental list to action. I’ll let you know how it goes!

I hope your holidays were happy, however you chose to celebrate. Thank you so much for reading along!!