It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Self-publishing for fun and profit


Some people have made a lot of money very quickly through self-publishing; some people have won big prizes on national lotteries. I’m not sure which has the better odds, but I suspect there’s little difference in it. You can, of course, increase your chances of doing the former – write something derivative that plugs into an existing fanbase, and self-promote to such an extent you’re indistinguishable from spam. If, on the other hand, you self-publish because you have a vision and you want to get it out there, but no one else is interested in publishing it for you… Well, in that case, don’t give up the day-job just yet…

I’ve made no secret of my reasons for self-publishing the Apollo Quartet. I didn’t want to compromise on my vision for Adrift on the Sea of Rains – a vision that has been happily vindicated, since the novella has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award; and I wanted to launch the book at the same time as Rocket Science, and no existing small press, had they chosen to publish it, could have done so in time.

I also chose to publish the book as both paper and ebook. I could, of course, have just released it on Kindle, as so many self-published authors do. But instead I paid a printer – MPG Biddles – to do me hardback and paperback copies.

I have learnt much about writing and publishing over the past ten months…

1 the elephant in the room
It’s actually a huge South American river, not a pachyderm, but it certainly dominates book-selling. And it treats us small fry very badly. If I hadn’t signed up for Amazon Advantage, my books would be shown as unavailable on the Amazon website (I’ve only signed up for the paperbacks, so the hardbacks are indeed shown as “currently unavailable”). Signing up for Amazon Advantage, I have to accept the 60% discount Amazon takes. So every sale I make through Amazon is at a loss. If they ordered 100 copies tomorrow, I’d have to refuse the order. I can’t afford to fulfil it. As it is, the orders Amazon has placed for single copies in dribs and drabs over the months are costing me more as I have to pay postage for each copy I send them.

Incidentally, I’d be happy to cut all my ties to Amazon, but I see no alternatives. I use the Amazon affiliates scheme on this blog, and I had planned to drop it. So I investigated a few alternatives. The Book Depository one is simple enough to use, but they’re owned by Amazon anyway. The Waterstone’s one is a joke. It’s run by a third party, you have to apply for approval first, and I couldn’t find out how to link to individual titles on the Waterstone’s site. They should sort that out – they’d get a lot more business.

2 it doesn’t have to be ebook all the way
Publishing on Kindle is trivial. You format the document, knock up a cover, and then upload it to Amazon through the Kindle Direct Publishing website. Easy. Publishing paper books is harder, but not that much more so. And it does cost money, which publishing on Kindle doesn’t – but even then, it’s not that much. For The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, I formatted the document as PDF, and had the cover-art done the same way. I got an estimate from MPG Biddles, then placed the order, uploaded my PDF files to their website… and weeks later boxes of books were delivered to my house. It cost me £202 for one hundred 80pp paperbacks.

Of course, selling paper books is more difficult than ebooks. You have to hold stock of a physical item, and ship it to customers when they order copies. For Kindle ebooks, Amazon does all the work for you. You just watch the sales mount up (or not). And selling around the world is trivially easy. Except Amazon US pays you in US$, which is a problem.

3 what’s the bottom line?
Amazon offers 35% and 70% royalty rates on books published on Kindle. You chose the price at which you sell the book. It’s best, of course, to look at the price of comparable ebooks. Too high and no one will buy it, too low and people will think it’s not worth reading. The ebook market is still in flux at the moment, with huge numbers of low-priced self-published books, and ebooks from major imprints priced roughly the same as hardback copies. So there are as many pricing models as there are publishers. I chose to price my ebook editions at about two-thirds of the paperback price – £2.99. That seems to be working quite well.

For self-published paper books, there is no royalty. There is only sale price minus unit cost. I priced Adrift on the Sea of Rains at £3.99, because I felt that was a fair price for a 80pp paperback novella. Unfortunately, I was thinking like a buyer not a seller. It was too low, and I’d have to sell the entire print-run of 100 to cover my costs. So for The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself I increased the price to £4.99. Which means…

Cost per unit: £2.02
Cover price: £4.99
Profit per unit sold: £2.97

For copies sold over the internet, I include p&p in the £4.99, so that’s –
£4.99 – (£2.02 + £1.10*) = £1.87 per sale

For copies sold by hand, I only charge £4.00, so that’s –
£4.00 – £2.02 = £1.98 per sale

(* I don’t include the cost of envelopes as I re-use as much as I can; but if I did, it would be an additional 20p)

If I sold copies only over the internet, I’d have to sell 52 copies to break-even; if I sold only by hand, it would be 51 copies. The true figure is probably slightly higher as I sell using both methods, and there’s those copies I sell through Amazon Advantage. Nor do I factor in the cost of the copies I give away for review.

Of course, this is only the manufacturing cost. There are a host of unpaid contributions which create the final product – not just myself as writer, designer, promoter, publisher and book-seller; but also the cover artist and the editor. At present, I’ve been lucky enough to receive all that for free (though I plan to pay once Whippleshield Books is more established). There are also peripheral costs which have to be included – ISBNs, the ecommerce website – so it’s going to be a while yet before Whippleshield Books climbs out of the red.

However, those £2.99 Kindle ebooks are more or less pure profit (less Amazon’s cut, the VAT they charge but do not pay, delivery cost, etc.). The money from Kindle sales helps finance the paper versions of the books. I’ve also sold more copies on Kindle than I have paperbacks or hardbacks. In fact, it’s been interesting watching sales uptick when Adrift on the Sea of Rains gets mentioned online. There was small jump in sales when SF Signal reviewed it. And a considerably larger one when the book was mentioned on the Guardian’s book blog“one of the most outstanding self-published books of the year”. More copies were bought on Kindle as a result of that mention than in the preceding nine months.

Having said all that, there is one advantage to publishing a book as a paperback or hardback rather than just on Kindle: you get taken seriously. If I’d gone for the low-cost option – ie, ebook only – I very much doubt I’d have sold as many copies, seen the books reviewed so many times, or even had one shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The future of publishing may lie in self-publishing – I hate the term “indie author”, incidentally – but, with the exception of a handful of outliers, the rewards are proportional to the effort, and money, you put into it…

3 thoughts on “Self-publishing for fun and profit

  1. I don’t hate the term “indie”, perhaps because I consider it a more applicable description of what I do than “self-publisher”.

    If I wrote fan fiction or poems about my dog and paid to print my efforts for my friends and family, I’d be a “self-publisher”.

    However, I’m a professional author with professional qualifications, I chose to publish my own work because of the deplorable state of the book industry AND because I want to have complete control over every aspect of the creation, publication and dissemination of my prose. Like you, I spend an enormous amount of time editing and polishing my writing to make sure it achieves the highest possible standards. I’ve used the expertise I’ve gained in the past 25+ years to choose and design covers that are evocative and gorgeous, toiling hard on the jacket copy, font size, EVERYTHING.

    Self-publishers don’t do that. They just want to see their name on a book, never mind that the writing is inept, juvenile and the book itself looks like something created by a friend who paints houses for a living (badly).

    I wear my indie identity with pride and am scornful of those who use new technologies like print on demand to exercise their egos or in the (almost always vain) hope of attracting a commercial publisher who will make them rich and famous beyond their wildest dreams. As an independent artist I may not make stacks of money, but I have the creative and aesthetic freedom that allows me to release material to readers my way and on my terms.

    I despise “self-publishers”.

    Love live independent authors and publishers.

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