Self publishing: it’s cheaper than you think

When Borders filed for bankruptcy last week, I was pretty shocked. That place has been my favorite browsing bookstore for many years. But as I paused to remember the last purchase I made there, I had to go back to Christmas 2009. And therein lies the problem of course. Stores like Borders can’t compete with Amazon and other online retailers. Maintaining an actual walk-in store is simply too expensive. It’s all a matter of dollars and sense (yes, I mean the logical sense). Borders’ troubles might be linked to the upswing in e-books, but I doubt it. All of my and Julia’s efforts over the past 18 months, most of it chronicled on this blog, prove that people still prefer actual books they can hold in their hands to those that must be viewed on e-readers or computers.

So, where does that leave us, the struggling writers? Those of us who have published books the old fashioned way know it can be done if, and it’s a big if, we are willing to work basically for free. I spent three plus years writing Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon and the American Dream. All told, my co-author and I each collected around a thousand dollars in royalties. Yes, really. For three years’ work. Go figure. Hoop Lore is on a similar track. My publisher for those titles, McFarland, isn’t some little rinky-dink operation run out of the back of a trailer; they are a respected midlist house that publishes some 350 title per year. And they pay the standard 10% royalty.

Let’s crunch some real time numbers. When I decided to do a reprint of the Elvis/Nixon title in printed book form (standard softcover, 6 X 9 inches), it cost me about $600 to have 75 copies delivered to my door. Rather than collect 10% of the sale price in royalties, I am receiving the full retail price of the book, which I have set at $20. My cost for each book is about $7, leaving me with a profit of $13 per book. That means I would only have to sell a hundred books to clear $1300. To compare, my royalties for a hundred sales of Hoop Lore (via McFarland) total $350.

So okay, yes there is a certain sense of prestige if your book is put out by a real publisher. But the time has come when authors need to ask themselves if those bragging rights are worth the cost. Let’s face it, very few of us are going to write a bestseller. Or even a book that sells, say, ten thousand copies. Publishers no longer promote authors, which means when they take on a book they have already decided it can sell in excess of 50,000 copies. If you believe 50,000 people will buy your book with no promotion, then you should certainly keep trying to sell it to a conventional publisher.

Each of us believes our books are special—and they are. It’s convincing other people who don’t know and love us that’s the problem. Julia and I have decided the best way for us is to get out within our own community and plug our work. If you are thinking along similar lines, we highly recommend you check out Diggypod ( They produce very quality books at an affordable price. And the customer service is great.

Margaret Atwood Urges Writers to be Vocal

Margaret Atwood

Last weekend I talked to my dear friend, Suzanne, who has been both vice principal of a Catholic school plus a fifth grade teacher for at least the last two and a half decades.  We tend to lose touch for long periods of time, both of us being mothers and busy workers.

I am not sure she has ever completely understood my (and every other writer’s) insane compulsion to write even at the expense of a decent salary.  When I told her what I make as a college adjunct writing teacher, she said in a very throaty voice (some disgust evident), “Julia, Go get a job.”

My feelings are raw today, pained.  They have been hurting since the weekend.  So here I offer two deathbed scenarios:

1. A person who made enough money to feel like he or she was respected (and who was also able to pay bills) in society and not “used.” That person will die, let us hope, satisfied, thinking, “I did some quality work and was paid for it.”

2. The second person (note: in my case, female, omitting the details about having lived two decades on a far distant continent where females have no rights) being a writer, spent a good portion of her time writing quality work, and by God’s mercy, saw children graduate and never go without.  That person will die thinking, “I left some quality work even if I was not paid* for it.”

If person #2 obeys person #1 before the climactic deathbed scene, then person #2 (having thrown aside writing and gotten trained in waning years to do something for the sake of money) may die thinking, “I never wrote the things I wanted to write.”

This is the quandary that most dedicated writers face. As Lesley Kellas Payne, lifelong editor to committed writers has noted elsewhere, “Those who have to write.” That is, writers write because we have to. No choice!

You were waiting for Margaret Atwood, as well you should have been.  According to today’s Publisher Weekly,

At this morning’s TOC conference Margaret Atwood spoke on the the way writers are continually getting short shrift in this new digital age. “We’ve heard a lot about change. Change is not always good.”

She advised publishers not to “eliminate your primary source,” that source being authors.   “Everything . . . in the world of publishing depends on authors,” she argued.
I think her most important message to authors was, “Don’t panic. If you do and run away, they will think you’re prey. There are a lot of publishing tools. One of them is yelling; a very old one.”
* Interpret “paid” as necessary.

E-books: Are we there yet?

To hear Amazon tell it, yep, we’re there and getting closer to ridding ourselves of those awful, cumbersome creatures called printed books. As Julia notes in her post below, Amazon claims its Kindle sales topped paperback books for the first time. I don’t doubt Amazon’s figures, but I think it’s important to note that not everyone buys their books from Amazon, or, for that matter, other online sources. There are still a heck of a lot of folks who like to go to physical stores and browse through the many titles offered on the shelves. Maybe they grab a cup of coffee and a muffin while they’re at it, sit down, and chat with other customers. Maybe they discuss the latest bestseller, or some new cookbook they picked up on for next to nothing on the clearance table.

One can “browse” through Amazon’s titles in similar fashion (less the face-to-face contact), but really, are any of us ready to say it’s the same as going to an actual store and holding a book in our hands, paging through it, reading not only the first page but whatever page(s) we might like? This may just be my own personal taste, but I haven’t purchased a book I’ve read all the way through in quite some time. The linear notes on the back cover are interesting, the first few pages are well written (sometimes the first few chapters), and yet, by the middle of the story I’ve lost interest because the characters and or plot falls flat.

But, as is often the case, I digress. The purpose of my post today is to pass along what Julia and I have learned in our year-plus of blogging here on WordPress. E-books remain a tough sell. Readers email us asking if we have printed books to sell. And so, after giving the matter considerable thought, we researched some print on demand places, settled on one, and took the plunge. I started with 75 copies of a reprinted version of my Elvis/Nixon book. Julia has kindly been using it as a study course in some of her classes, thus I have sold out that first printing and ordered another. I have resisted putting the printed version up on this blog for sale, but that is changing as of today. When given the opportunity to purchase an e-book or PDF on CD as an alternative to buying the printed book, every single one of Julia’s students has gone with the printed version.

That doesn’t mean we’re giving up on e-books. We still believe it is the wave of the future. But, and it’s a BIG but . . . our own experiences out in the field, so to speak, tell us we simply aren’t there yet.

Within the next few days I will follow up on this post with a detailed discussion centering on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing your work in printed format, so stay tuned.