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The Cost of Self-Publishing, Part 3
What associations does the word “fulfillment” conjure? To an exhausted self-publisher, it might be less about personal satisfaction than endless hours stuffing envelopes for a few extra dollars.
In the first two parts of this series, I looked at the editorial and production expenses incurred in the publishing of my 2015 memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. This week we examine the costs associated with getting the book out to its first customers.
Today I’d like to talk about fulfillment. No, I don’t mean that certain sensation that comes at the close of a job well done. What I mean is simply the process of completing a customer’s order.
And what a miraculous thing it is to have customers! Customers placing orders! O frabjous day!
You know, on second thought maybe we are talking about both kinds of fulfillment. Let’s find out.
I’ve already mentioned some of the roles I was juggling as the spring of 2015 shaded into summer—author, publisher, typesetter, graphic designer. Since juggling only stays interesting as long as the juggler can keep adding new balls into the mix, let’s toss a new one in now. Bookseller.
You may recall that my then-wife had argued against underwriting the publication of my memoir The Accidental Terrorist via Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding platform. I’m still not clear exactly why—something about such campaigns having become passé?—but in the end I would have to replicate some of their more time-saving features myself, without the easy ability to solicit large donations in the process.
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Direct sales were not part of the original plan, but some of the fans who’d been waiting years for the book started asking if they’d be able to buy signed copies. This got me thinking I might be able to offset some of my ballooning editorial and production costs with a successful presale.
So it was that in early June, first in my email newsletter (with a $5 discount) and then on my various websites, I launched my “Close the Book” campaign, an attempt to presell 500 signed copies of The Accidental Terrorist by mid-July. I wasn’t sure yet what the book’s release date would turn out to be—I was still waiting to get my second set of editorial notes from Juliet Ulman, so I didn’t know how much more revision work lay ahead of me—but I promised in my pitch that purchasers would receive the book at least a month before it became available to the general public.
I didn’t make my goal. In fact, I barely got a third of the way there, and it took until September. Still, with the help of some high-profile signal-boosting I did manage to rustle up 181 orders. Many of those were from family or friends, but just as many weren’t. Amazing that I could convince total strangers to shell out between $22.95 and $27.95 plus $2.50 shipping and handling for a book that wasn’t even finished yet!
But damn, am I grateful I didn’t do any better than that. More on that in a bit.
Reinventing the Wheel, and the Axle, and the…
One of the many advantages of Kickstarter and similar platforms is that they do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting for you. You have to design and execute your own campaign, of course, but the tools to assist you are all right there.
By not taking advantage of the, here are just a few of the tasks I needed to do for myself:
Building an online form for collecting orders and signature options, which in turn meant…
Connecting that form to PayPal for payment processing, which in turn meant…
Converting my personal PayPal account to a business account that could accommodate commercial transactions, which in turn meant not only…
Registering Sinister Regard Publishers as a DBA (“doing business as”) in the state of New York, but which also meant…
Obtaining a certificate from the Department of Taxation and Finance authorizing Sinister Regard to collect and remit sales tax on in-state purchases.
With Kickstarter I wouldn’t have had to do any of the above, saving me weeks of headaches at a time when I already had too many other tasks on my plate.
In addition, I opened a Stamps.com account so I could print my own postage, and I bought a boatload of mailing supplies—padded envelopes, bubble wrap, packing tape, shipping labels, the works.
Now all I needed was a product to ship.
The Opposite of Fulfillment
After I had received Juliet’s second set of editorial notes and incorporated them into the manuscript, but before Paul Witcover had completed his copy-edits, I printed up a couple dozen uncorrected proofs for publicity purposes. Still, it was more exciting than I can describe when, late that summer, the first copies of the corrected, sales-ready edition of the book arrived on my doorstep.
Many of those first copies were earmarked as gifts for the folks who’d offered indispensable support during the book’s long path to publication. At the top of that list was my wife’s name. I had been working on the book pretty much as long as we had known each other, and she had made many sacrifices to let me to keep working on it, and on other writing projects.
When I presented her copy to her, complete with heartfelt inscription, I was disappointed but not surprised by her response: “Thank you, but you know I’m still not going to read it.”
It was a discussion that had been going on for months. She had been supportive of this final drive to get my memoir into print, but she was tired of my “obsession” with this book and with writing about my Mormon upbringing in general.
“I’ve read every draft of this book you’ve ever produced,” she had said after I finished with the first set of Juliet’s editorial notes, and again after I finished with the second. “I can’t read another draft. I just can’t.”
“But this is far and away the best version yet,” I would respond. “It’s like a whole different book. It’s the version I’ve been aiming at for all these years. It’s—”
“This book has eaten your life. I’ve read it ten times already. It’s not going to eat more of mine.”
And then she would go back to reading The Fault in Our Stars for the fifteenth or twentieth time in a row. How can you argue with that?
Facing the Shipment Launch
Fortunately not everyone was as tired of The Accidental Terrorist, even people who had listened to the whole podcast series multiple times over. This became crystal clear as the shipments I needed for fulfilling my book orders began arriving from the printer.
At 14 books per carton, it took nearly thirteen full cartons to pile up enough inventory for all my customers. Most of my so-called free time for the entire month of September was spent signing books, swaddling them in bubble wrap, sealing them up in padded envelopes, weighing and stamping them (each parcel was about two pounds), then carting them a box at a time to the post office to deposit them in the appropriate receptacle. It was a long, long month.
Believe me, as I said earlier, I’m glad I only presold 181 books. If I’d actually reached my goal of 500, I’d still have been shipping those suckers out on Christmas.
The Fulfillment Tally
Over the subsequent months and years, I ended up making more direct sales than just these (60 more, to be precise, some online, some face-to-face). So, how much did filling all those orders cost me? It’s tough to come up with an exact number, since some of my inventory costs ended up falling under the publicity budget. But here’s a rough accounting for fulfillment:
Inventory (215 units): -$3,345.24
Mailing supplies: -$227.74
NY state sales tax: -$76.45
Fulfillment subtotal: -$4,668.99
But Wait! The Revenue Tally!
Of course, the flip side of that outrageous expenditure is that this all that spending actually brought revenue in for a change. Here are the numbers:
Presales (181 units): +$4,899.16
Event sales (42 units): +$678.00
Personal sales (8 units): +$122.26
Special sales (10 units): +$158.10
Revenue subtotal: +$5,857.52
Our Beloved First Profit
Remarkably given our experience so far, when we deduct our fulfillment costs from our revenue recouped, our ledger shows a profit of $1,188.53! We’ve actually made some money!
Of course, then we add that number to the -$9,429.75 subtotal for editorial and production, and we find that we’re still $8,241.22 in the hole. Not very encouraging, especially with so many categories left to go—for instance, next week’s look at marketing and publicity costs.
But what about that other definition of fulfillment? How do things add up there? It’s hard to put a number on it, but I can say that every enthusiastic email from a reader and every kind Amazon or Goodreads review makes the red ink look a little less bloody. ∅
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.