Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
The Cost of Self-Publishing, Part 2
A professionally edited manuscript is only the first step in our self-publishing odyssey. It takes some serious coin to turn that manuscript into an actual book.
In the first part of this series, I wrote about my choice to self-publish The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, and about the costs incurred by hiring professional editors. This week we move on to examine the costs of book production.
Late in 2011, the beloved fantasy writer, artist and editor Terri Windling fell on hard times. The speculative fiction community responded the way it often does—by rallying to help pay her family’s overwhelming medical and legal bills. This effort took the form of a fundraiser called “Magick 4 Terri,” where colleagues and fans alike offered rare or one-of-a-kind items for auction.
As my contribution to the cause, and with my then-agent’s blessing, I donated three specially printed hardcover copies of The Accidental Terrorist. Though I was still trying hard to sell it to a traditional publisher, my memoir already had a small but rabid base of fans who had followed along as I serialized it in podcast form, first in 2006 and 2007, then again in 2009. Enough of them had asked me how they could get their hands on the nonexistent book that I figured this offering might bring in a few bids.
Main Wish Null is a reader-supported publication. If you enjoy this free post, consider becoming a paid subscriber, which includes access to my serial novel Root.
Bringing all my WordPerfect and Photoshop skills to bear, I printed exactly five copies of what was then the current draft of The Accidental Terrorist via Lulu.com (keeping two for myself). The front cover used a detail from a stock photo licensed from Shutterstock. The back cover used an outtake from a photo shoot I’d done with Bill Wadman for his celebrated 365 Portraits project. The result would never pass muster as a professional product, but I thought the books turned out pretty well. (And yes, all three copies did sell at auction, bringing in about $200, if I recall correctly.)
I mention this little project not to brag but because it ended up opening my eyes to how much I did not know about book production. About six months after the auction, the literary agency that represented me planned a retreat for clients at a boutique hotel in Seattle. There would be a show-and-tell session where folks could talk about their latest projects and even pass around advance copies of their forthcoming books.
I didn’t have anything coming out at the time, so, rather than show up empty-handed like a big loser, I brought one of those self-printed books and talked about the manuscript as something I hoped would sell during the coming year.
On the last day of the retreat, I was having a late lunch with my friend Jenn Reese, an excellent writer and artist who was also a client of the agency. I had the book with me in my shoulder bag, and she asked if she could look it over. “Can I offer some observations?” she said, flipping through the pages.
Jenn knew a good deal about book design, having worked in the field herself. She pointed out—kindly, it should be noted—errors I’d made in my naive enthusiasm, related to typographical elements like kerning, widows and orphans, margin width, and line spacing. “That’s a really important one,” she told me. “In a finished book, you don’t want just the single-spacing you’d get from the standard settings in your word processor. You want closer to one-point-four. That opens up the text and lets it breathe. It makes the page feel less crowded, which in turn makes the eye more comfortable as it reads.”
It was, not to put too fine a point on it, an eye-opening first lesson in book production.
My Typesetting Apprenticeship
When we talk about production, we’re referring to all the activities necessary for turning an idea or concept into a finished, saleable product you can see, hear or touch. In the publishing world, this means transmuting a source manuscript into a format that’s attractive and comfortable for reading, designing an appropriate cover, and finding a company print and bind books from it all.
In 2015, when I had made the decision to publish The Accidental Terrorist for real, I could have hired a book designer to handle the bulk of those tasks for me. Unfortunately I was already shelling out a lot of cash for editorial services, so I figured it might be more economical for me to do that part of things myself.
Thanks to Jenn, I knew I had to educate myself about design and typography. I gave myself a crash course, reading everything I could I find on the topics, both in print and online. I added terms like recto and verso to my vocabulary, learned why and how to apply the Golden Ratio to the dimensions of text on a page, absorbed the strange fact that what appears to the eye to be a ruler-straight margin is often not as straight as all that.
I understood from the start that my trusty everyday word processor would not be the right tool for typesetting a professional-looking book. Of the viable options, I settled on Adobe InDesign, a sophisticated piece of software I figured I could learn just thoroughly enough to complete the tasks I needed done. I would have bought the application outright if I could have, but it was available by subscription only, either monthly or yearly. I ended up paying about $22 a month to use it. I bought a good book on InDesign as well and set about teaching myself the features I needed.
Another thing I learned in my studies was what makes a font suitable for long blocks of text as opposed to page and chapter headings. After a lot of shopping around, I finally settled on Jenson Pro for my body text and Refrigerator Deluxe and Chaparral Pro for headers. Of course, to legally use them in my book I would need to pay for licenses. And if I wanted to embed those fonts in ebook editions or any associated websites, I would have to pay to license them again!
My production costs were adding up, and I hadn’t even gotten to the outside of the book yet.
A Picture’s Worth
Doing so many things for myself meant endless multitasking. Over the spring and summer of 2015, as I was caught up in manuscript revisions and typography school, I was also trying to come up with the right image (or images) for the cover of my memoir. I generated literally fifty different designs over a span of several months, none of which I felt quite captured the spirit of the book. (At least I owned an old copy of Adobe Photoshop, which meant I could play around without having to pony up for another pricey software subscription.)
Digging through a box of old photos, lightning finally struck. I had completely forgotten it existed, but in my hand was a picture of myself as a missionary holding a flaming sheaf of wheat at the edge of a burning field. Missionary work was often compared to a harvest, but here I was setting that metaphor on fire. It was the perfect encapsulation of my story.
It was also a photo that someone else had taken with my camera, which meant it was someone else’s work, which meant I didn’t feel right about using it without coughing up some dough. I contacted my former mission partner from that time, Tim Bishop, who was surprised when I offered him $300 for a license to that and two other images. He did not say no.
(Later I would realize that another photograph from the same series shows both of us posing in front of the fire, so there was at least one other person present and taking pictures that day. I have no memory of who it might be, but they could just as plausibly have taken the picture I’ve attributed to Bish. Oh well!)
Using my rudimentary Photoshop skills, I composited this photo with a historical illustration I licensed from Shutterstock that depicts an angel visiting Joseph Smith and two associates. That took care of my front cover, and I used another of the fire photos for the back of the hardcover, but I still needed a current head shot for the flap. That was provided by a photographer friend of mine, though it took two photo shoots before we came up with something I halfway liked. I paid not just for a license to that photo but also for my friend’s time, not to mention beers and food on both occasions. (And now, for mostly unrelated reasons, the friend no longer speaks to me. More on that down the road.)
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it came to creating my book cover all those pictures ran me more like a thousand dollars. And change!
Purchase of Proofs
Alongside all these other production tasks, I was also trying to find the right printer for my project. This meant uploading my in-progress cover and interior files to various vendors and ordering proof copies delivered so I could evaluate the quality of their products, a rather lengthy and involved process—not to mention expensive.
It wasn’t until the fifteenth proof arrived that I finally settled on a vendor—IngramSpark, a print-on-demand service of Ingram Content Group geared toward independent publishers. Their products are high-quality, yes, but they also offer the advantage of direct access to Ingram’s distribution system, which means their books can easily be sold through physical bookstores and online retailers alike. (I’ve written about the ups and downs of this particular ecosystem in a separate essay.)
Of course, as you can guess by now, access to to that system is not free. It costs money to set your book up with IngramSpark, and it costs money add a book to Ingram’s distribution catalog. You also need an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) for each title, and that costs money too. In fact, the official source for ISBNs in the United States, Bowker, charges so much for individual ISBNs that it only makes sense to purchase them either in bulk or through your publishing intermediary. (I happened to already have a block of 100 ISBNs I had purchased the year before, and I would ultimately assign eight of them to the various print and electronic editions of The Accidental Terrorist.)
The production pieces were finally all falling into place. When the copy-editing process was finally complete, I uploaded cover files and revised interior files for both the hardcover and trade paperback editions of my book, which would be released simultaneously. I say revised interior files because, of course, the final version of the text was not yet in place when I started the process of ordering and evaluating proof copies. So it cost me again when it was time to upload the revised files.
In fact, even several years later, I still pay all over again each time I upload a new version of the book’s interior that corrects typos or other errors I’ve found since releasing the previous version. I try not to do that very often, as it also means resubscribing to InDesign, but for someone as OCD as me it’s a cycle that may never end.
The Production Tally
Bearing in mind that these numbers will increase a bit as future revisions or editions come along, here is a summary of the production costs to date for my book:
Software subscriptions: -$527.72
Software training: -$27.49
Font licenses: -$371.72
Cover images: -$508.80
Author photos: -$524.15
Proof copies: -$510.87
Print file uploads: -$348.00
ISBNs (8 of 100): -$46.00
Production subtotal: -$2,864.75
Together with last week’s editorial expenses, our running total so far is -$9,429.75. Next week we’ll see if we can’t start recouping some of those costs when we sign up our first paying customers and gambol our way through the fulfillment process. Still, I have a feeling this rocket is not done rising.
Or rather, falling. ∅
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.