When I talk to prospective authors about their publishing plans very few know what they’re up against trying to get a traditional publisher to fund their project. That’s how you should think of it — funding the project.

Before an aspiring author settles into a daydream of how to spend all that advance money and how lavish her book launch party will be, she needs a dose of reality on the  economics of publishing from the publisher’s perspective.

A Fantasy Scenario

A publisher takes care of several things, pre-press activities, printing and distribution. Promoting the book is almost always the author’s responsibility.

Printing Press by Digitalholgi on Flickr

Pre-press costs

Let’s engage in fantasy and say the book is so well written it only needs copy editing before it’s ready to be designed and sent off to the printer — that’s a quantum leap but we’ll take it.

A quick search through self-publishing price charts gives you a sense of cost to get the book to the printer, including covers, page setup, copy editing ISBN number, bar code, etc.  Let’s pretend $4000 is a reasonable estimate to get the book ready to go to the printer.

Printing costs

The cost to print each book is a volume game. Createspace has a handy calculator that shows your cost at about $2200 for a run of 1000 softcover copies of your 100-page book.  Sure, you can get printing at better prices, but this is close enough for Fantasy Land.

So far, without your publisher paying you anything for the time and effort to write the book (much less the cost to pay someone to write it for you), you’re looking at $6200 to produce 1000 books including pre-press and printing.

Distribution costs

Distribution is a hefty expense.  The distributor will charge $500 to establish an account for your book, plus a monthly fee and storage charge for warehousing your book. Then, they’ll take a chunk out of the retail price of each book to handle shipping, selling it to retailers, collecting money, etc.

When you add distribution charges, you’ve got an $8000 project for sure WITHOUT paying anything to promote it. Can you move 1000 books to your network without a promotions budget?

An easier way to make a living

Selling 1000 books means your publisher will have to price the book at $20 to make $12,000 gross. Because this is a fantasy, let’s say you took no advance to write the book and negotiated 30% royalty on sales. Congratulations, you and your publisher just scored $6000 each.

Let’s be honest, there’s an easier way to make a living.

You say you want an advance to write your book?  Even just a trifle? Let’s do the math with a $10,000 advance and the same 1000 book run.  Do you know 1000 people who are going to pay $30 for your book?  Hold on before you answer. Mark Twain’s 760-page autobiography was priced at $34.95 retail.  Oh well, since we’re in fantasy land let’s say you sell all 1000 copies at $30.  Your lucky publisher can hope to make $12,000 and you’re not going to make any royalties on top of the advance.

Yep, there are lots of easier ways to make a living for both you AND the publisher.

Are you writing a book to make a profit or to meet some other goal(s)?

Skinny profits mean the publisher’s’ most important concern is the author’s ability to SELL the book. The business professionals I work with can usually sell 1000 books to their built-in audience, more if they can sell them at speaking engagements, but even small publishers will need to sell more than 1000 books to make it worth their while.

Of course profiting on the sale of your books isn’t the only reason to write them. This post will help you think through your goals.

Bottom line for aspiring business authors:  self-publishing is probably going to be more profitable, provided you can FUND THE PROJECT. If you need help with funding, you could always sell “shares” in the book or sell advertising or licensing rights. There are several creative ways to fund it without involving a publisher.