Monthly Archives: January 2012

How Much Does an Ebook Cost a Traditional Publisher?

I was talking to my husband about publishing over dinner the other night, trying to explain to him why I’m not going to be pursuing a traditional publisher any time soon and what it would take for me to do so. He listened to my description of the rights grabs and the eternal shelf-life of digital and the low royalty rates, and said, “Well, when a business is failing from being outcompeted, sometimes it trims the fat and fixes the problem and sometimes it just grabs everything it can before it goes under.”  Obviously big publishing is doing the latter.

I told him that what I would require to even consider a publisher is a 50% split on cover price for digital, and that even then the publisher would have to work to convince me they are worth 50% of my book forever.  If they really focus on “distribution and promotion” as he called it, then maybe. 

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to think about what the actual cost to a publisher would be to put an ebook together, therefore how many copies they would need to sell in order for the book to become profitable.

The lowness of the number shocked me.

I may be way off base here (and I’d love it if someone with publishing-house experience weighed in), but I think i’m being pretty realistic–and possibly even over-generous–with my numbers. *

A few key assumptions:

  • There is no editorial tinkering involved–the editor acquired the manuscript as-is with just a few polishing and tightening edits.
  • The author is a careful writer who has good grammar, a readable prose style, and didn’t leave a ton of typos.
  • The book is 80-90K, so it will take an editor about four hours to read if they just read it.
  • I am working with a no advance, 50% of cover price split for digital royalties.
  • The entire cost of production is being put on the ebook, because the print book has become the ancillary format.

I know from my own editing work that I need about three passes after the initial read-through to make a substantive macro- and line-edit. We’ll double the amount of time to allow for marking up and making notes. So…4 hours for base read + 3 passes x 4 reading hours x 2 double the reading time for editing = 28 hours of editing before it gets sent back to me.

The next round of edits only needs 2 passes, so 2 x 4 x 2 = 16 hours.

Then a round with the copyeditor, 2 x 4 x 2 = 16 hours.

Then a round with a proofreader, 2 x 4 x 2 = 16 hours.

Then it goes to the formatter. For a novel-length ebook that will take about four hours (basing this on my experience of two hours for a novella, but only some of that time would be increased by a longer work) = 4 hours.

The copywriter spends an hour coming up with the back matter = 1 hour.

Upload to various sales channels = 1 hour.

That is 82 staff hours. We’ll assume they get $20 per hour on average (obviously the big editor gets more, but I bet the copyeditor, proofreader, and formatter all get less, so it averages out). I am using $40 as my multiplier to account for business taxes.  The total cost in staff time needed to get my manuscript converted to an ebook and uploaded is therefore 82 x $40 = $3280.

The only other fixed expense is the cover art, which can probably be gotten for $300, but we’ll say they are really concerned and pay more. We’ll make it an even $1000 to add in the five minutes it takes somone to slap on the title and author. 

Total bill is $4280.

Let’s round it up to an even $5000 for easy math and to throw some money toward their office space and equipement for those 82 hours they were working on my book, as well as a few hours of a publicist’s time to send the book to review sites and tweet about it once a day for a couple weeks. 

We’ll assume the publisher uses the mmpb price of $7.99 as their cover price.

Retailers take 30% of that, leaving $5.59 per copy coming back to the publisher. If they pay me 50% of net royalty on every copy sold ($2.79), then we need to sell 1790 for the publisher to break even. If I get 50% of cover ($3.99) then they need to sell 3125 to break even.

If a publisher doesn’t think they can sell more than 3100 copies of my book, they’re not going to buy it. Period. 

That’s why I would not take a deal for less than 50% of digital cover–not net, but cover. The publisher’s monetary investment is not that significant for an ebook (and it would not be extended by a whole lot more to add a print book, essentially just the time it would take someone to format it as a book, which I’ve done via LuLu and would take no more than one day, and probably significantly less for someone who did nothing else all day every day and had a dedicated book layout program versus hinking Word around to get a properly formatted .pdf.  The cost of printing, warehousing, and shipping the books would come out of the publisher/author take per copy. But notice that I am letting the full cost of editorial and artistic acquisition fall onto the accounting for the ebook, with the print being the afterthought.)

Let me repeat that.  Their investment is not that significant. If they didn’t think they could sell 4000 copies and make a nice tidy profit on my book, they wouldn’t waste their time acquiring it. 

And guess what? $2.79 a copy for 1790 copies lands me $4994, and $3.99 of nets me $12,468–or about the range of advance I could expect with a traditional deal as they currently stand ($5000-$15,000). So let me think about this. I could take an advance that comes out of the sales it takes the publisher to break even, and then get something like 25% or 8% (depending on the accounting shenanigans) for the rest of my life on my book…or keep getting 50% of cover price (or 35% if I have to settle for net, AKA half of the 70% of cover left after retail). 

I think I’ll take my formula if I felt a need to go traditional instead of self-publishign. It seems less exploitive, and much more venture capitalistic. They’re fronting production costs and promotion costs, as well as levying their distribution channels and access to legitimizing venues (print book stores, Named Review Sites, etc.), and that probably would be enough of a boost to get me those sales numbers right away instead of four years and eight ebooks from now. That might be worth it to me.

My prediction is: this kind of split is how publishing houses have to go in order to survive the digital revolution. If they can add a legitimizing value to consumers who don’t want to have to vet for quality, only content, and can get immediate access to promotion avenues a self-publisher can’t or has to be very lucky to hit, then they might remain worthwhile business partners.  But right now, an author demanding 50% of cover on digital would get laughed out the door, unless their last name is Rowling or Meyer or King or McCarthy…and possibly even then.


*For some alternative perspectives: 

I have heard from a couple people, including someone who freelances as a copyeditor for traditional publishers, that my times and rates on the editing are low. Way, way, way low. Transparency: I haven’t worked that job. I don’t know how long it takes others to copyedit and proofread; I only know how long it takes me. The rates I used were also a guess, and low according to the EFA. Thanks to those who offered their perspetives on the matter, here and via email and over at the Passive Voice Blog when Passive Guy linked to this article.

For a different breakdown of cost Kristine Kathryn Rusch has an essay which ends in a very different figure.



Filed under Digital Revolution, Publishing

OED Saves My Dignity Yet Again

Surreal was not used in print until 1937.

Which is really unfortunate, because it would be a comment par excellence* on a particular moment of serendipity in my story. However, the heroine is the one thinking the situation is bizarre (and beyond), and she obviously could not use the word “surreal” since she predates it by over a century. Thanks, OED! 

*While we’re on the subject, please take a moment to bask in the glory that is the OED’s definition of par excellence, because, truly, their choice of phrasing defines the term not only by meaning but also by example: “By virtue of special excellence or manifest superiority.”

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An Indie Writer’s Credo (#1)

You can find truths and adages in the strangest of places.  Often the words in context are unrelated to the application your mind puts them to in the context of your life–but that’s the power and joy of synthesis.  I found one the other day in an article on Reason about science fiction realities:

As Von Braun would put it, in an update to the old saw, “Late to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.”

That struck me as magnificently pertinent to a self-publishing writer. God knows I’m burning the candle at both ends right now….

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You know your muse is on a tear when…

…this is the first thing that pops into your brain in the morning:

jimmy steroids south park

I am not even joking. When my alarm woke me up in the 5 o’clock hour this morning, the first words that echoed in my mind, the words that convinced me to get up and write were, in Jimmy’s broken stutter and all, “Push it.  P-p-push it!”

I am not really sure what analogy my subconscious was trying to draw other than that I feel determined to keep pressing forward as hard as I can to get his book cleared from my head.  It worked, though. The stuttered mantra made me feel energized, hard core, unstoppable.

Push it.

P-p-p-push it.

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Confessions of a Romance Writer: I Think I Might Be a Prude

All About Romance just posted about revising their heat ratings, and the pursuant discussion on The Passive Voice blog (which was where  I saw the link to the post) got me thinking about the way I view sex in romance novels.

So let me get a few caveats out of the way first. One, despite the title above, I don’t actually consider myself a prude. I am generally broadminded and have had a lot of friends over the years who were involved in one counterculture or another. I don’t find myself shocked or offended by what people do, or need, in order to achieve sexual satisfaction, even though most of it is not something I need to do. It’s like how I feel about drugs: legalize them all. Alcohol will still do me just fine when that happens, but if you need something else, go for it.

Two, I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with the sex in my romance novels. On one hand, for my literary aesthetic I need it to be part of a larger emotional arc and serving a purpose (sex can be a bonding mechanism, and the bed can be a place where the power struggle in a relationship plays out, and sometimes sex is a catalyst for part or all of the plot). On the other hand, I do love me some hot sexy times, presented as a sexual fantasy I don’t have to spend my own imaginative resources creating, and sometimes hot sexy sex doesn’t fit as anything except a pandering add-on…and I do not always care when it sneaks into a story in that capacity.

So I never really expect to open a romance novel and be shocked or put off by what I find in it. There are times when I am, all the same. Stealth attacks where someone sends a finger up a butt without any warning (or lube!), for example, tend to pull me out of a sex scene.  Heroines who refuse to take charge of their own sexuality is another trigger for me. By that I mean women who simply “give in” or get “overwhelmed” by the hero’s seduction and just sort of go along with it without ever making a conscious choice to engage in a sexual act or do anything to make the actions her own. I’ve seen heroines even in coercion situations empower themselves, so the ones who can’t really piss me off. Admittedly I don’t read much beyond historical romance (though I went through a paranormal spell a few years ago), and at its worst historical romance tends to be rapey in its kink, so I might find quite a lot to be turned off by if I venture out of my little corner of the genre.

All that being said, I have to confess I felt thoroughly vanilla and old-fashioned and, yes, rather a prude despite my awareness of subcultures when I read AAR’s suggested revised ratings and saw that “warm” (basically 2 on a scale of 1-4 where 1 equals no sex) includes “unlimited amounts of male/female ‘straight’ sex.”

Um.  Say what?  I have read plenty of romances over the years where there is no anal, no bondage, no toys, no threesomes, that I would not rate as 2 of 4 on the sexual content scale. Christine Feehan comes to mind–she has books wherein every other chapter from about chapter 4 is a sex scene. Anne Stuart’s Rohan series comes to mind…that sex is not “warm” rating in my opinion. To me warm is like…one or two sex scenes that are relatively straightforward. If I were in the mood for a book that didn’t have a lot of sex and picked one up that did, because it was rated “2 for a lot of ‘boring’ sex”–the same rating my expectation of a sex scene or two, at most, got–I’d be pretty angry. That’s a deceptive rating.

I like the idea of a scale for works in a review site or even in a retail designation (if lingo could be agreed upon either formally or informally). As a reader I have been disappointed when I picked up a new novel by an author I’d enjoyed before only to discover something unlike her past work, either because of too little sex or because of way too much.  I just think a 4-point scale where 1 is “no sex” and 2 is “unlimited sex as long as it’s only PIV” (penis in…yeah…) is not quite nuanced enough. Five points would work better.

And if I never want to read–much less write–beyond a 4 on that scale (or, who knows, maybe even a 3, depending on what 3 and 4 encompass), that doesn’t make me a prude. It just makes me a woman who prefers fantasies that align more closely with my real life than with the wildest fringes of the human imagination.


Filed under Confessions, Reflections on Romance

Because Even My Non-Bluestocking Heroines Are Still Nerds

Or, My heroine just spent 700 words calculating the odds of meeting the hero again

One of the only math books that has influenced me fairly profoundly is titled Innumeracy.  The idea behind the term is the arithmetic equivalent of illiteracy.  What I remember most about the book is the calculations of odds it goes into, and when to consider them significant and when to round them down to zero.

Today’s morning pages are a direct result of that book, because my heroine actually sits there and goes through the odds that she would meet this man a second time in a completely different context.  The reason she does is because her brother is a gambler, and a successful one–because he understands odds and has a quick mind for calculating them–and he has told her about statistics and probabilities.  Not on the page, and not in a preachy way, just in the way you tell your friends or siblings about some cool theory you heard or some new fact you found fascinating.  Maybe they listen, maybe they don’t, but you have to tell someone or your head will explode with the new knowledge.

The heroine figures the odds to be 1/150,000, or as close to zero as makes no difference. 

I don’t know yet if this scene will make the final cut of the novel.  In a way it’s pointless (although I suppose it does exposit something about her, and her brother) but I kind of love it. Maybe that makes it a darling, or maybe that makes it the best kind of texturizer. Time will tell. Now is not the time to make judgments; I’m still writing. The editing passes will be soon enough to decide if the scene can stand.

Now what are the odds those 700 words make the cut…?

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Apparently 800 Words Is the Going Rate for Conversations

And other observed trends from one week of writing like mad.

Either my muse was so offended by my “It was then that I carried you”/”Bullshit, those are obviously my footprints” reference that he’s working overtime to make it up to me, or that really was the tipping point for this story, because I have been writing like crazy lately.  The obsession with this story hasn’t quite gotten to the point of interference with day job, friendships, or marriage, but probably only because my husband’s work schedule is currently opposite of mine and I can multi-task the friendships while I am at my day job or in commute.

One thing I am trying to do is keep better track of how much I write in a day, and on what (forward progress or future scenes or general notes).  By this point in the story, there aren’t really very many notes because I already know pretty much exactly what happens, so almost everything I’ve written has been either on the current scene as viewed from Prologue forward or a bare-bones sketch of a future scene.  Usually my sketches are conversations, because my characters like to talk. I’m averaging about 1200 words a day right now (including the outlier 0 from my day off), which is not a high number but better than my NYR goal of 1000 per day. Also considering it’s in about an hour and half–an hour before work and my half-hour lunch–I am pleased with the statistic.

I’ve noticed that the conversations my characters have with one another seem to be about 800 words long. I don’t know if that’s just the natural length of a conversation–the old “seven-minute lull” that is seen regularly in studies on conversation patterns–or if it’s the limit of what my subconscious can pump to the surface without any effort on my part. 

I’m also finding that it takes about twice as long to write the same number of words when I am writing on a chapter, not just transcribing a conversation. I guess that’s because I have to stop and think about blocking the character’s movements, describing the setting at least enough to ground them in a place, and offering a bit of emotional insight.  All of that might be in my mind when I “wstch” the scene, but figuring out how to pare the images down to the barest details necessary and how best to include those details in the overall scene takes a bit more time.  Thoughtful placement of details, I guess you could call it.

Currently the work is 51,500 from start to the current chapter, and my document has another 15,000 words of notes and sketches (at this point probably 2/3 of that are scene sketches).  This is the longest work I’ve written by a factor of two, not counting a couple abandoned novels that reached about 30K plus notes before getting orphaned.

The funniest part is, I really have no idea how much further I have to go in terms of words. I might only be halfway through, which is just…crazy, considering I expected this to be a 75K novel not a 100K one when I started it. By chapter count and event count I think I’m halfway, but then again sometimes events come together more quickly than I think once they get rolling. I guess I’ll just keep on writing, and one day I’ll look up in amazement and be done, and only then will I have any proper perspective on the journey.

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