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The Cost of Self-Publishing, Part 6
When the expenses are all logged and revenue is tallied, how does the self-published author decide whether or not the outcome was worth the cost?
In previous installments of this series, I tallied up the seven different categories of expenses I incurred publishing my 2015 memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. This week we stack these up against our revenue to find out whether or not we’re still swimming in red ink.
A year or so after moving into a new apartment in uptown Manhattan, I received a large, heavy box in the mail. Opening it, I found it full of books and magazines. Specifically, these were my books and magazines, at least in the sense that my writings appeared between their covers.
Something else these items all shared were inscriptions from me to my ex-wife. She had been present through the majority of my professional writing career, and I had always given her her own copies of everything I published. Now the divorce was final and she was returning all that history to me.
I leafed through a few of the items, cringing at the inscriptions. Then I picked up a hardcover copy of The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, the memoir I had started writing way back in 1999 and which finally saw print in 2015. The book fell open to a calling card she had inserted between two pages.
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I recognized the small card immediately. One of my ex-wife’s friends (who no longer speaks to me) had given her a box of fifty as a gag birthday gift a few years earlier. Printed in fancy raised black letters on creamy white card stock, I read:
Ah, so that was the message of the box.
I had other copies of everything inside, so I took it to the basement and dumped it in the recycling bin.
…And You Will Know Us by the Long Tail of Marketing
I’ve expended a lot of words trying to account for all the money I spent self-publishing my memoir. But money only tells part of the story. There’s also the time it took, which could have been put toward other projects, other pursuits. There’s all the effort, which leaves you drained and makes you less present for the other facets of your life. And there’s the cost in terms of human relationships, when the people in your life take a back seat to the work.
And the process itself never comes to a clear end, at least not for me. There has never come a moment when I’ve stopped trying to publicize The Accidental Terrorist. As long as I’m breathing, there probably never will.
My trip to the Bay Area was hardly the end of my promotional efforts for 2016. I did a talk on the publishing process at Google’s Manhattan offices. I did a joint reading with my friend Nancy Hightower at a store that completely failed to stock my book in advance. I repurposed my “Caffeinated Confessions” monologue for storytelling shows like Taboo Tales NYC. And everywhere I went, I brought copies of my memoir and passed out business cards.
I also started hosting my own literary reading series at Q.E.D., a comedy club and event space in Queens. Every month I’d invite five writers to read from their work before a small live audience, though occasionally I’d put myself on the program as more than just emcee. I recall one memorable show, probably in 2017, where I read an essay about Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith. The piece detailed a horrific surgical procedure he had undergone without anesthetic as a small boy. My voice broke with emotion as I read, tears running down my face, and I had a hard time making it all the way to the end.
After the show, my then-still-wife said, “I’ve never seen you lose control like that during a reading before. What was going on?”
“I don’t know,” I said, raw and embarrassed from the episode. Between work and all my side hustles, I was no doubt exhausted, and the plight of a child in peril had pierced me in a vulnerable spot. “The subject matter just got to me.”
“I wasn’t familiar with that piece. When did you write it?”
“It’s chapter from my memoir,” I said, perhaps more bitterly than I intended—or perhaps exactly as bitterly as I intended. “You don’t know it because you never read the final draft of the book.”
By the end of that year, I had moved out of the house and into my own apartment.
Come Sale Away
But what you really want to hear about is sales. Yeah, sure, personal life in upheaval, whatever. How is the damn book doing?
In an earlier installment I tallied up my direct sales, including not just the 181 personalized signed copies I sold before the book’s official release but also about 60 copies I sold at various live events. (The exact figure is probably a bit higher than that, but I didn’t always keep the most careful records.) What we’ll talk about now is retail sales, a number that includes all print and electronic editions sold through third-party vendors.
As you would expect, The Accidental Terrorist performed best during the first two months of its release, with 299 retail units sold in November 2015 and 231 in December 2015. In January 2016 the total dropped to 63 and has continued its slow slide ever since. Sales still fluctuate from month to month, with the occasional bump up. Over the past year (July 2021 through June 2022), the book has sold 80 retail units, which translates to a monthly average of fewer than seven.
How much revenue does that translate to? I break that down into two different categories, each of which behaves a little differently: print compensation for my physical sales and ebook royalties for my electronic sales.
The Print Compensation Tally
Traditionally published writers earn a royalty on each book sold, which usually amounts to between 5% and 15% of the cover price. That is money the publisher passes along on a regular basis (one hopes) as sales revenue comes in.
In my case, since I am the publisher, I’m not really earning a royalty. Instead what I make on each book is the difference between the printing cost and the wholesale price. For the hardcover edition of The Accidental Terrorist, that’s currently $3.16 (or 13.2% of the $23.95 retail price). For the trade paperback it’s $2.92 (19.5% of $14.95).
You might think that sounds pretty good, and it does—at least when a book goes into a store and actually sells. Unfortunately, this doesn’t factor in what happens the book doesn’t sell.
I wrote an in-depth examination of this problem late last year, so I won’t go into great detail about it here. Suffice it to say that when bookstores return unsold copies to the distributor, they get all their money back, which leaves the publisher on the hook for the full cost of printing and shipping. That adds up to a per-unit loss far greater than the per-unit gain on each sale.
Bearing that in mind, here’s a breakdown of my print sales and returns, together with the gain or loss from each:
Hardcover sales (+144 units): +$470.65
Hardcover returns (-34 units): -$638.18
Trade paperback sales (+253 units): +$681.11
Trade paperback returns (-29 units): -$330.53
Print compensation subtotal (334 units): +$183.05
As you can see, the return of just 34 hardcovers more than obliterated any profit on the 144 that did sell. The return of a mere 29 trade paperbacks put a dent of nearly 50% in my profits on 253 successful sales.
This is why, far from the expected three bucks, my actual profit in this category averages out to a little under 55¢ for every physical book sold. Ouch.
And honestly, I’m fortunate to have made any profit here at all.
The eBook Royalties Tally
The story is somewhat happier when it comes to ebook sales. The only overhead in this category is cost of producing the ebook in the first place, which for me was basically nothing. (I’m a software developer, as Publishers Weekly took pains to remind its readers, so it was fairly simple for me to write code to convert my book to the applicable electronic formats.)
None of the retail platforms I use charge any up-front fees, and the usual royalty rate on each sale is 70%, all of which goes straight into my pocket. Here is my sales breakdown by retailer:
Amazon Kindle (787 units): +$2,347.87
Apple Books (55 units): +$191.65
Barnes & Noble Nook (26 units): +$87.49
Rakuten Kobo (18 units): +$69.58
Smashwords (19 units): +$49.14
Google Play (2 units): +$9.69
eBook Royalties subtotal (907 units): +$2,755.42
That’s an average profit of about $3.04 per book, which just about matches what I would have made on print sales in an ideal world. To crib from Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.
The Final Accounting
And that’s all he wrote! We’ve covered everything now, and at long last we can stack our revenue up against our expenditures and see how it all shakes out—though if you’ve been paying attention, you know the news is not good.
Here are all the categories we’ve covered:
Direct sales revenue (241 units): +$5,857.52
Print compensation (334 units): +$183.05
eBook royalties (907 units): +$2,755.42
Final total: -$19,343.54
Ugh. Overall, I’ve lost damn near twenty thousand dollars publishing this book. To say it makes me feel sick doesn’t even come close to covering it.
On the other hand, I can take pride in the fact that The Accidental Terrorist has sold 1,482 copies. That’s already nearly 50% better than the average book racks up in a lifetime of sales, and it’s only been out for seven years. That’s a real achievement.
But on the other other hand, if I keep making the roughly $2.37 per unit I’ve been getting so far, I’ll need to sell another 8,169 copies just to break even. And if the current rate of sales holds steady, which it probably won’t, that will take roughly 102 years.
I hope I live to see it.
The Question of Regret
At the outset of this series, I asked myself whether I regret what it cost me to self-publish my memoir. It’s a complicated question, and these six chapters have been my complicated way of trying to answer it.
On the one hand, of course I regret that I’m $19,343.54 in the hole. Who wouldn’t? I make a reasonable living, but I’m not nearly so well off that a number like that doesn’t hurt.
And, as I’ve alluded all along, there can be personal costs to an obsessive project like this. It would be disingenuous of me to make the case that this book ruined my marriage, though it surely didn’t help things. I had grown increasingly depressed and withdrawn over the years. My wife seemed to become convinced that my focus on Mormon-themed writing was the cause of this, rather than a response to it. She acted supportive enough when, soon after the publication of my memoir, my novelette “After the Earthquake a Fire” appeared in the literary magazine Bloodstone Review.
But when I stubbornly kept on writing stories based on my youth in that immersive, unforgiving faith, she tried to convince me to abandon all that and go back exclusively to the science fiction that had helped earn me whatever small reputation I had as a writer. And that wasn’t all. I didn’t learn this until much later, but she also tried to recruit some of my closest friends to make the same arguments with me. She tried to get my friends to tell me to stop writing the stories that were closest to my heart.
Even so, that’s not what ultimately broke us up. Here’s the story. I was unhappy. I cheated. The end.
So yes, it would be disingenuous of me to blame the book for the end of my marriage, and for having become the villain that so many of the former friends I’ve mentioned in these chapters believe me to be.
But let me answer the question of regret a different way. Given the choice between being married and having this (or any) book out in the world, what would I do?
I would choose the book every time.
What Makes It All Worth It
Look, I’m a writer. What makes me happy, or as close to that as I ever get, is the struggle to make sense of my life on paper. When that process goes well—when a Goodreads review or a mention in a blog or just an appreciative word at a live reading makes it clear that I’ve managed to transmit a piece of my soul directly into someone else’s—there is no feeling like it in the world.
Even better is the occasional email that tells me, in essence, “Thank you for saying this. I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I can’t tell you what it means to know that I’m not.”
To know that my book is out there in the world, forever, for people to keep discovering, and that it will continue being there after I’m gone—I would have paid twice as much for that.
I still hope to make piles of money off of it, of course. That’s the beauty of publishing a book. The doors of possibility never swing completely shut, and The Accidental Terrorist would make a great HBO series. Stephen Tobolowsky would be perfectly creepy as President Tuttle, and Ray Virta would be excellent as my dad. I’m just saying.
The Self-Publisher’s Mantra
I haven’t opened my kimono for all these weeks to pretend I have any answers about the best way for you to produce and promote your own self-publishing project. There are plenty of people who are better qualified to do that than I am. (And there are hordes more who will say they are but whom you should avoid like kryptonite.) I just hope, if you do self-publish, that you’ll go in with open eyes, question the necessity of every expense, and keep your expectations low. That’s the best way to be pleasantly surprised.
And when release day rolls around, don’t forget your new mantra:
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.