Small Publisher Economics Beyond the Manuscript

Whether you are self publishing or publishing manuscripts you've acquired from other authors, the economics of being a small publisher are essentially the same. The main investment for the small publisher is not the time or money involved in writing or acquiring manuscripts for publication, it's the time or money invested in production, marketing and overhead, with book marketing taking the lion's share. As a small publisher, you can't compete with the major trades in attracting name authors, even if you have deep pockets, because name authors have no reason to gamble on having a book published by an unknown.

On the bright side, unknown authors will accept low advances, and you'll get plenty of solicitations to publish a manuscript for no advance, though it probably makes more sense from a legal and ethical standpoint to pay a thousand or two thousand dollars. I recently wrote a post about how self publishers have to function as their own acquisitions editor, and the same logic applies to acquiring manuscripts for any small publisher. If investing a couple thousand dollars in a manuscript sounds like a lot to you, think about the hundreds of hours you'd spend writing a manuscript if you were self publishing, and the value of your own time.

Starting with a marketable manuscript, there are manuscript editing, proofreading, and illustrating costs. I use a freelance editor for my self published books, pay $25 an hour, and end up with an editing cost between $600 and $1200 on fairly short books. For proofreading, I hire college students for $10 an hour, and encourage them to read as slowly as possible. Professional line drawn illustrations go for anywhere from $25 to $100 each, depending on the complexity, quantity, and whether they are entirely original or renderings of your own ideas or sketches. If the book is photo illustrated, forget POD and get the photos from the author. What this adds up to is that you'll spend at least as much enhancing the manuscript as acquiring it. Even if you do all of the above by yourself (except for the proofreading, which would be silly), you have to figure on the value of your time.

Next, you have to turn the manuscript into a book, which these days, means an electronic file from which a book can be printed. Professional book designers tend to be pretty expensive, in part because they won't do a hack job to meet your budget. A cheap layout job might go for $500; it's not unusual to pay as much as $2,000 for a decent size book. You can find all the software you need as freeware or shareware on the web, or you can spend around $1,000 for a publishing suite from Adobe. The amount a small publisher invests in book design is usually proportional to the amount that will be spent on printing. In other words, a print on demand book with inherent quality limitations and no inventory demands a small investment, while an offset run of a few thousand hardcovers for the low five figures requires you get the electronic file perfect before you print.

The same logic applies to cover design. The quality of print on demand covers is not up to the quality of offset printed covers, so it doesn't make sense to go overboard on the fine elements of color matching and high resolution designs. You can get "original" POD cover designs (i.e., template based) for as little as $99, or you can pay double or quadruple that for a designer with a little more originality and professional experience. If you're doing an offset book, paperback designs start in the same range as POD books but run up to $1,000, and dust jack designs for hardcovers can cost appreciably more. Of course, you can design your own book covers, which I do for my POD nonfiction, but even my crudest efforts end up taking appreciable time to design, and that's time that comes out of the main job of being a small publisher - marketing.

Whether you use Lightning Source for print on demand as I do, or whether you take delivery of books and do a combine direct fulfillment with a distributor, actually filling orders isn't a major job for the small publisher, though you may wish it was. The economics of book printing and distribution by either POD or offset are addressed in my Lightning Source case study. If you use POD, the upfront investment is usually between $100 and $200 for setup. If you do an offset run, you can spend anywhere from $500 for a short run of 100 books to $50,000 for a garage full. In either case, you better be prepared to invest at least as much in marketing as in all of the expenses listed above.

Finally we get to the real job of a small publisher, marketing the books you publish. I don't have a hard and fast rule for nonfiction titles, but I'd estimate I invest around 1,000 hours per title in marketing. In my case, that time is nearly all spent on Internet marketing, in developing content for my website that draws links, optimizing the content for search engines and answering reader questions. At any reasonable valuation for my time, that investment swamps everything else, including the time I spent writing the books. If you aren't willing to spend that kind of time, you'll have to spend money on somebody else to do it, or rely on book advertising, which is both expensive and risky for small publisher titles.

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