Thursday, June 27, 2013

Just How Much Does It Cost to Publish a Book Anyway?

One of the growing clich├ęs in independent publishing is that getting a book to market is cheap and easy. The reality can often be quite different, although it is certainly cheaper to go out on your own than it was five or ten years ago. The problem is I haven't seen many stories that define exactly what "cheap" means. Many of the comments on my last essay (See How to Find an Editor Without Going Insane) revolved around the cost of my editor. Since there might be a shortage of independent publishing economics out there, it makes sense for me to expand my costs beyond editing to the entire publishing process for my upcoming book Smooth Operator.

Disclaimer: Prices may vary. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Prices do not include tag, title or taxes. Check with your local dealer for details.

The Elements of Book Publishing
When I was in house counsel for an anime and manga company, the price we paid to sell comics and video (what real business people refer to as the cost of goods sold) were divided into five parts; acquisitions, production, advertising, sales and finance. I decided to break my costs down the same way.

Acquisition in this context means the creation of the manuscript. I set this cost at $0, even though there is a significant number of man hours put into the process (See Building the Better Novel series of posts). In addition there is an associated opportunity cost for lost wages that I could have made doing something else. I'm not smart enough to figure what that cost is, so I set it at zero to keep things simple.

Production has four costs:
  • Editing: $1,200 from Create Space (See How to Find an Editor). Other editors charged per word or per page for a 75,000 word manuscript and most of the prices were in this range.
  • Cover Design: $10 I do my cover design in house for the most part (because it's cheaper and kind of fun to do), but I get royalty free images from and $10 covers the licensing cost of a decent sized image.
  • Formatting: $40 from a program I called Jutoh that can create e-books in most major formats. Because I plan to use this program for all my books, I could amortize the cost across all titles, but for the sake of this exercise, I'll count the entire cost here.
  • Printing: $250 Create Space offers printing on demand, but there is an initial set up fee for this service (Note: if you only release an e-book, this cost is zero. I'm only adding it in because vanity compels me to put my books on my shelf.)
Production Subtotal: $1,490

Advertising has two costs: 
  • Online Advertising: $50. This will be split between Google and FB ads for a week after the launch of my book to specific demographic groups that are interested in my genre (See the Secret Struggle for the Magic It)
  • Press Release: $60 through on the day the book launches. Again this will be a targeted release that will improve the SEO of the book as well as notify the relevant journalists and bloggers.
Advertising Subtotal: $110

Sales: $0 When people say independent publishing is cheap, this is what they mean. I'm planning to use Kindle Direct Press for at least one cycle, but even if you use Smashwords, Kobo or Nook, there are no upfront costs for registration, distribution, shipping, storage, returns, or all the other little costs that publishers normally deal with. Of course, online book outlets take a significant percentage the revenue from each sale, but everybody has to eat somehow.

Finance: $0 I have a separate account for my publishing company and there are fees associated with maintaining that, but I don't factor that in here because I'd be paying those fees either way and this is complicated enough already.

Total Cost to publish Smooth Operator: $1,600

Of course, each of these costs could be boiled down to almost zero or expanded to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the writer. The key is to find a cost that fits within your budget and helps you create the best book possible.

Profit, Loss and Breakeven
Once I know how much my book costs, I can figure out how many books I need to sell for it to be financially successful. A book breaks even when the number of books sold equals the cost of making the book. When I was at Marvel, they had a complicated spreadsheet (called a P&L or Profit and Loss statement) that laid this out in great detail. My method is similar, but not as fancy because again, my brain capacity is limited.

The formula is simple: Breakeven number of books = Revenue per book/ $1,600

If my book sells for $2.99 and my share of each Amazon sale is 70%, I make about $2 per book. If that's true, then I need to sell 800 books to breakeven. Every book sold after that is pure profit that I can horde in my basement and swim around in like Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales. It also follows that the more I can reduce my costs the fewer books I need to sell to break even. A higher per book price also reduces that number, but you don't want to set the price so high that readers won't take a chance on you.

Business vs. Pleasure
Now, I don't have a basement. And I won't be swimming in a pool of money from the sale of Smooth Operator. In fact, the chances that the book will breakeven are quite small. But that's OK. By definition, independent publishing is not a cash cow. If I just wanted to make money, I'd invest in the defense industry or start a meth lab. There are many other reasons to publish besides money (See The Other Benefits of Independent Publishing), but that doesn't mean the profits and losses don't matter. Understanding the financial aspects of independent publishing are just as useful as learning to build web pages or understand social media. Publishing can become a vehicle for broad types of learning, even if you can't make a swimming pool out of the profits.

As always, please let me know what you think of my random rambling.

Have fun.

Monday, June 17, 2013

How to Find an Editor Without Going Insane

"The first draft of anything is shit." 
Ernest Hemingway

Every writer, no matter how brilliant, needs an editor. Throwing books out into the world without professional review is not advisable (See Are Self Published Books Always Inferior?). When you have a traditional publishing deal, you work with the editor attached to your publishing house. They may be brilliant or horrible, but you don't bear the burden of choosing that person. 

In the evolving world of independent publishing, it is your job to find the editor. It is your responsibility to find the good instead of the horrible. Like many aspects of this world, there are few established norms on how to do it the right way. This essay describes the process I used to find an editor for my upcoming book Smooth Operator and the results of that process.

Step 1: Request for Proposals
I went through a three step process to find prospective editors:
  • First, I posted my request on my blog and placed links on Facebook, Linked In, Good Reads and Craigslist (See Nightlife Publishing is Looking for an Editor). 
  • Second, I asked writers that I looked up to which editors they could recommend
  • Finally, I sent inquiry letters to larger companies that provided editorial services as part of their business. 
Overall, these three methods produced seven proposals and seven random posts that didn't qualify as proposals.

Step 2: Selection Criteria
I used a process of elimination when it came time to make my choice. I did a Google search on each viable editor proposal and then cut the list down based on the following factors:
  • I kicked out any editor who sent an incomplete proposal or didn't provide what I asked for.
  • I removed any editor whose price was radically higher or lower than the rest of the field.
  • I rejected any editor that had questionable information or reviews in their Google search.
The process of elimination left one candidate standing; CreateSpace editorial services.

Siding with the Borg that is Amazon
You might have a philosophical or political aversion to CreateSpace. The company is owned by Amazon, and some independent authors and sellers feel that Amazon is creating monopolies within the publishing world that are as bad as (or worse than) the system put in place by traditional publishers. 

Your venom towards Amazon/ Createspace/ Audible might have increased since the company announced plans to purchase Good Reads or when the sock puppet scandal broke (See Life, Death and Sock Puppets). You might consider Amazon an evil Borg like entity bent on consuming all of independent publishing. 

All of that might be true. It might also be true that Amazon is in a position to manipulate prices, reviews and other the factors that I used to make my choice. The brand name of Amazon itself and my experiences with other aspects of the company could have influenced my decision as well. I acknowledge all those things. But I'm not running my publishing company to make a philosophical or political point. I'm trying to make the best book I can create. Based on the results, I have no regrets about the process.

Step 3: The Editorial Experience
This is what happens when you sign up with CreateSpace:
  • They take your money first; all of it. The full fee is due before the work starts. 
  • Once they separate you from your cash, they ask you to fill out a questionnaire describing your book and what you are trying to say. 
  • A few days later you upload your manuscript. 
  • A few days after that you talk to your content manager who discusses your book, the way the process works and the due date for getting the edited book back to you. You don't have direct contact with the editor, but if you have any questions you can talk to the content manager. 
  • Then you wait. Working on another project is the best way to pass this time, but you could just wait if you want.
Step 4: The Results
Three weeks and $1,200 dollars later, I got my manuscript back. It arrived earlier than the date that I was quoted, but the Borg has a long standing policy of managing expectations by delivering things ahead of schedule. You send them one document and they send back two. 

The first is an editorial letter. The letter contains the editor's overall impression of the work and a detailed opinion of your use of character, setting, genre, plot progression and many of the other elements that go into writing a book (See Building a Better Novel Part 1). The second document is the edited manuscript with the edits visible in MS Word format. From there, it is your job to accept or reject each edit and move on to the next part of your publishing process.

I found several positives about working with CreateSpace:
  • The editor clearly has experience and comfort in my genre. Her edits went beyond just the grammatical. She displayed a good feel for the theme, tone and mood that I was going for.
  • The editorial process itself was clear and comfortable. While there were many layers to it and many people to talk to because of the corporate structure, I never felt like my book was just grist for their mill. Of course, Smooth Operator is just another project to them, but they never made me feel that way and I appreciate the customer service.
There are two downsides with using Create Space:
  • The lack of contact with the editor. I was very impressed with the woman who reviewed my book. I'd like to use her again for my next few novels, but there is no way to contact her directly (I tried to find her using social media without success). I can see why the Borg doesn't want a swarm of anxious and nervous writers harassing the editorial staff. I just hope I can request the same author again when my next book is ready this winter.
  • The cost of each editorial round. I mentioned before that CreateSpace's  $1,200 price for a 75,000 word manuscript was in line with other proposals. It is worth mentioning that I believe that price is the cost per round of edits. I don't recall if the independent editors charged per round, but I don't think they did. I only purchased one round of editing and I don't think Smooth Operator needs more than that. If it did, CreateSpace's prices would be much higher than everyone else.
If you are an independent publisher looking for an editor, CreateSpace is an option worth looking into. If you are anti-Amazon or you need direct conversations with your editor or multiple rounds of editing, they might not be for you. But I'm happy with the way the process turned out. I hope the editorial quality is reflected in the final product.

Have fun.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Building a Better Novel, Part 2: The Narrative Framework

On the road to creating my next novel I've discussed inspiration (See How Much Inspiration Do You Need?), building characters (See Creating Complex Characters) and developing the fundamental building blocks of story (See Building a Better Novel: The Foundation). Now I'd like to take a look at the next step I take before I create a plot; creating the frame for the story.

Pieces of a Dream

In the screenwriting method of writing, a story has four parts:
  • An Inciting Incident that disrupts the protagonist and propels them toward their Object of Desire (See The Foundation)
  • A Spine that follows the Protagonist's unconscious desire into progressive complications through the Levels of Conflict (See The Foundation)
  • A Crisis Climax that pits the Protagonist against the greatest Force of Antagonism (See Foundation), reveals their True Nature (See Creating Complex Characters), and either fulfills his Desire or takes whatever he has Risked (Foundation)
  • A Resolution that explains the impact of the Climax on the Protagonist and possibly the wider world around them.

In the simplest storytelling terms (when you take the Climax and Resolution as one part) a story has three parts; a beginning, a middle and an end.

Extra Credit

Of course, a story is often more complex than this basic structure. An inciting incident might need to be set up by a subplot or a prologue to achieve the greatest emotional effect. Subplots can also be added to alternate mood, contradict or enhance the central theme or further complicate the main plot. Flashbacks can be used as subplots to dramatize character or juxtapose the main plot. Multiple protagonists can pursue different and often contradictory goals. The variations are endless, but they are all based on the concept of beginning, middle and end.

Bare Bones

The basic narrative framework by itself cannot produce a great story. It is a tool that has to be combined with genre conventions (See The Secret Struggle), a supreme understanding of the characters and the world they live in through research and practice, and the creativity to take these bare bones and adorn them with description, dialogue, pacing, subtext and all the other elements that enrich a good story. But all these other tools support the basic narrative framework. Much like building a house, it makes no sense to worry about decorations like curtains and lampshades when the foundation of the house isn't stable enough to keep the whole thing from falling down.

Have fun.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Building a Better Novel, Part 1: The Foundation

One of the most interesting things to come out of the discussions that I've had about writing techniques (See Plot vs. Pants: Which Road Did You Choose?) is the realization that most writers I'm connected to online do not plot their stories. I'm in the middle of plotting my 2014 novel, so I decided to share my own creative process in a series of essays, partially so you can see how the other half writes and partially to reinforce this aspect of the craft in my own head.

Note: I modeled my process on Robert McKee's screenwriting bible Story, tweaking it for my particular disposition.

Building Blocks
In the beginning, there is no plot. There is only a jumbled series of thoughts and inspiration swirling around in my head like a room full of discarded toys. Once I decide it is time to write, I lay out the broad concepts that I plan to work with:

Genre: The broad creative conventions (or combination of conventions) that will shape the story (See the Secret Struggle for the Magic It). Genre in this sense is less about market positioning and more about the elements of story design. Your choice of genre(s) will influence many other story elements. Even if you decide to break convention to take the genre in a new direction, you need to understand what conventions you are breaking.

Premise: This is Stanislavski’s "magic if" that poses the underlying question of a story. For example, the premise of Blade Runner could be described as 'What if a burned out cop was forced to hunt down a group of rouge androids?'

Conceiving the Protagonist(s): deciding who is going to be the central character of the story including characterizations, true nature and empathetic qualities that will connect them to the reader (See Creating Complex Characters)

Conscious Desire of the Protagonist: defining the Protagonist's stated goal

Unconscious Desire of the Protagonist: defining the more powerful unstated, goal that is in direct opposition to the stated goal.

The tension between conscious and unconscious goals is a powerful story driver. For instance, in Aliens the conscious goal of Ripley is to help the colonists escape the aliens and avoid them at all costs, but it is her unconscious goal is to face the aliens and her own fears. It is the unconscious goal that drives her to fight and kill the queen.

Object of Desire: the person, item or situation that will satisfy the Protagonist's conscious (or unconscious) desire. For example in almost all spy stories, obtaining the "magic it" is the main object of desire. (See the Secret Struggle for the Magic It)

Levels of Conflict: Deciding on what level the Protagonist will face resistance in attaining the Object of Desire. Conflict can come from one of three levels; internal (physical, mental or emotional), interpersonal (other people) and extra personal. The more complex the story, the more varied the levels of conflict. For example, if an Israeli boy wanted to marry a Palestinian girl, he might have to overcome his own shyness, her other suitors and the society around them that rejects such a union.

Forces of Antagonism: The quality of forces opposing the Protagonist. The stronger the forces against the Protagonist, the more she has to struggle and the stronger the story becomes. The Protagonist represents the positive value of the story. The forces against her could be contrary, negative, and in the most powerful stories doubly negative. For example, in Star Wars, Luke represents Good and is the positive quality. Han and the other mercenaries are selfish, but not evil. They are contrary to Luke, but could be with him or against him. Vader represents Evil. He is literally the dark side to Luke. But the double negative is not Luke vs. Vader. It is the internal conflict of Luke vs. Luke turning to the Dark Side himself. It is the lure of embracing evil rather than fighting it that elevates Star Wars above almost all other science fiction franchises.

Risk: what the protagonist might lose if they do not attain the object of desire. This could be very personal (loss of identity) to a loss affecting an entire planet (worldwide destruction), anything in between or a combination of several risks. A smaller risk doesn't mean a more trivial or uninteresting risk. It simply changes the focus of magnification of the story being told.

The Arguments Against Plot
There are many writers who reject plotting for philosophical reasons.
  • They claim that it is mechanical as opposed to being organic.
  • They say that it is antithetical to creativity and sucks the joy out of the creative process.
  • They protest that it is a waste of time that could better be spent diving into the story.

All of this may be true for writers who simply plug the same elements into every story, changing only the names and the locations to complete as many books as possible.

But planning and creativity are not mutually exclusive. I don't want to go to a movie where the director just put everyone in front of the camera and said 'do something cool'. I don't want to see a play where no one knows their lines or even what the story is about and I don't want to write a story if I don't know what the story is about, who is driving it, what they want, why they want it and what they are up against. The beauty of plot is that it creates enough order and structure to allow the freedom of artistic creativity to flow without running around without direction.

But these building blocks are not a plot. This is only the beginning. My next post will discuss the framework of the story, using the elements I wrote about here as a creative blueprint.

Please let me know your thoughts and impressions of this concept, especially if you don't plot in your own work.

Have fun.