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.)
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.
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.