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The Cost of Self-Publishing, Part 1
Putting out my own book cost me plenty, both financially and personally. Was it worth it? Let's look at the numbers.
In 2015, I published my long-awaited memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. And when I say “published,” I mean just that. I was the author, publisher, typesetter, designer, marketer and sales rep for my own book. If it was something I could do myself, or teach myself to do, I did it.
I don’t recommend this strategy for most writers. It cost me a lot, both financially and personally. It was time-consuming and discouraging. Would I ever do it again? I doubt it.
Do I regret it?
Before I answer that, I’d like to lay out as thoroughly as possible how much money was spent to make it all happen. In an earlier essay, I drilled down into the revenue the book has brought in, but what I’ll do over the next few weeks is try to lay out my outlay in the following expense buckets: Editorial, Production, Fulfillment, Marketing, Publicity, Travel and Legal.
But before that, I’d like to explain what pushed me into such a rash undertaking in the first place.
Confessions of a Reluctant Publisher
In mid-2014, my literary agent sat me down for a difficult conversation.
“This is not advice I would normally give one of my clients,” he said, “but I think it’s time for you to seriously consider self-publishing this book.”
It was not what I wanted to hear. The book in question was The Accidental Terrorist, the story of my 1987 arrest and trial on terror-related charges while a Mormon missionary in Canada, which I’d been actively writing and rewriting and trying to sell for fifteen years. The occasion was the latest rejection of the manuscript, this time by an editor friend at an ultra-small press in Connecticut who had promised to do a quick read and have an answer back to us within a month. What we got after seven months of waiting and prodding was a terse, two-line kiss-off.
“There aren’t any major imprints left that haven’t seen it,” my agent said. “We could keep trying small presses indefinitely, but it’s a crap shoot in a world I don’t know all that well. I know this book is a labor of love for you, but at this point it’s getting in the way of your fiction. I think you need to hire an editor, whip it into shape once and for all, get it out there, and put it behind you.”
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This was hard to hear, but I appreciated his candor — and I understood his frustration all too well. He was not the first, second or even third agent to tackle this project for me, but the sixth. My original agent, way back in 1999, was so excited by my pitch that she started sending out the partial manuscript before I’d even completed a first draft. She garnered an impressive roster of interested editors at major houses, but by the time anyone was at the point of presenting the finished manuscript in marketing meetings, two passenger planes had slammed into the World Trade Center. In the words of one editor, any memoir called The Accidental Terrorist, let alone one that revolved around a hijacking charge, had become “deeply unbuyable.”
Many years, several drafts, and a popular podcast later, the book stubbornly continued to resist publication. In the meantime I’d been building my reputation as a short story writer, racking up multiple award nominations in the speculative fiction field. Still, at every convention and writers conference I attended, people would ask me when that missionary memoir was coming out.
“Don’t worry, someone will snap that up,” they would tell me when I shrugged my shoulders in discomfiture. “It’s got bestseller written all over it. It can’t miss.”
But it could miss, and it did, for fifteen long years. My other work was suffering. My agent was right. It was time to put the book out myself and move on.
I knew it was going to cost me. I had no idea how much.
Sparing No Expense
This book was important to me. I had no intention of spending myself into a coma, but at the same time I wanted to do right by it. I could not be content dumping the file to e-book format and slapping it up for sale on Amazon, nor could I countenance paying a vanity press thousands for a crateful of books to resell from the trunk of my car.
Right or wrong, at the end of the process I wanted a book I could feel proud to hold in my hands, the best version I could possibly produce. If someone picked it up in a store, I wanted neither the object itself nor the text within to offer the slightest whiff of vanity publication.
I couldn’t make that happen without investing some coin.
My first thought was to raise the funds on Kickstarter, but my then-wife, a marketing strategy executive, talked me out of it for reasons that, from this remove, don’t seem to hold much water. No, she said, we would finance the publication ourselves, and not get stuck losing money on endless levels of rewards shipped to who knows how many supporters at who knows what cost. I still don’t know if she was right or wrong—or if she was, consciously or not, trying to hamstring the project after so many years of frustration.
So how much did all this cost? The expenses for this project don’t all break down cleanly between categories, but let’s start with one of the easiest to tally up: Editorial.
The Editorial Bucket
This was my largest expense bucket but also the most crucial, since without a top-notch manuscript none of the rest would matter much.
When my agent and I compared notes on what editor we most wanted for the project, it turned out we both had the same name in mind: Juliet Ulman.
I knew Juliet socially and had always wanted to work with her. She had edited novels for several of my friends, both during her eleven years at Bantam and as an editor-for-hire—a book ronin, if you will. My friends raved about her abilities at the macro and micro levels, and I had read at least one of the manuscripts she worked on both before and after she applied her magic to it. (That was my friend Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl, which Time named one of the 10 best novels of 2009.) I was sold.
Fortunately for me, Juliet was both available and amenable to working together. She did two editorial passes on the manuscript, with about three months between for me to implement (or not) her suggestions from the first pass. And those suggestions from the first pass were anything but trivial!
Nearly every page of the manuscript was marked up in some way, frequently with long notes explaining the suggested changes or urging me to rethink some narrative choice. But that was nothing compared to the challenge Juliet set me in her first editorial summary.
The preliminary phase of my revision, as she saw it, would be to pare the narrative down to its essentials, removing any quotidian chaff that did not function to advance the larger story. Once that was done, I’d have a choice to make—a very consequential choice:
You can then move from there into an intensely focused narrative that condenses all of the struggle and tension of that period into a shorter, less sprawling, little punch of a book. OR you can use that stripped-down spine to build out into a memoir with a broader scope and a more in-depth exploration of both your journey and the journey and history of the Mormon church. . . . Essentially, you pull out and take it from strictly your story of your mission to a story illustrating the story of missions and the young men and women who go on them. You Jon Krakauer it.
Of course I chose to Krakauer it. Though Juliet did not know it, that option was closer to what I had tried to do in the earliest drafts of the book than the worked-over and attenuated manuscript I had sent her. I pulled out my history books, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.
I’ll never forget how choked up I felt on on June 30, 2015, when, at the end of her second pass, I received Juliet’s next editorial memo. This is how she closed it:
This book went exactly where I wanted it to go, and it’s so much stronger, not just because of the added historical context, but because of the additional work you put into trimming fat and pulling all of your threads tight. This is the book we were aiming at, its bones and body solid, and all you’re doing now with these final edits is stepping back to look it over last time and polish it until the shine is satisfactory to you. I hope you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished with this text, because you certainly should be.
I was. I still am.
More Editorial Help
As indispensable as it was, this editorial guidance wasn’t enough by itself to achieve the full professional gloss that was my goal. I also needed a copy editor—someone to go over the text with a fine-tooth comb, correcting typos and grammatical errors, checking facts, and ensuring internal consistency.
My choice for this job was my good friend Paul Witcover, an excellent writer in his own right, but also an editor with decades of experience in all aspects of the publishing world. I hired Paul not just to copy-edit my manuscript but also to write jacket copy for the book itself—you know, the text on the flaps or back cover that’s meant to entice you to open the book in the first place.
Paul, of course, did an excellent and professional job. If the book reads smoothly, I have both him and Juliet to thank.
The Editorial Tally
Juliet and Paul each gave me a slight break—the “friend rate”—on their fees, with numbers based on the manuscript’s word count. Here’s what their excellent work set me back:
First editorial pass (Juliet): -$2,550.00
Second editorial pass (Juliet): -$2,565.00
Copy editing (Paul): -$1,250.00
Jacket copy (Paul): -$200.00
Editorial subtotal: -$6,565.00
A bargain! But still, that’s just the first of our expense buckets. (Making a physical book and doing it right is not cheap.) Next week, we’ll take a stroll through the production process and try to figure out how much that cost. ∅
My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, is available from all the usual sources online, though I would encourage you to order it either from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.