S3, E70: Cautionary Tales


In today’s episode I examined a few articles discussing particularly authors’ costs of self-publishing their books, in particularly focusing on a few that had exorbitantly high costs and at least one egregious case of someone getting taken advantage of.

News & Notes:

  • Aisuru’s sale is not going well, not at all, but we’ll talk about that next week…
  • I finally finished the work I needed to do Monday, so no more late nights for a while! Yay!! And I get to take all of next week off to rest and recover for the next phase. Our boss is super happy with the results, so it was worth the effort.
  • Deviations revision is finally underway, though still a bit slowly. Made more notes and updated the first scene, adding about 400 more words and changing one bit to be a “show” instead of tell; also had to change another part because I learned burying dead pets in the backyard just isn’t done – and that mobile cremation is a thing….

Main Topic:

Recently I ran into a blog post talking about one self-published author’s costs of releasing her non-fiction memoir. This post is apparently part of a series from Blue Ink Review on “The Real Costs of Self-Publishing“, which thus far has six posts in it.

Three of these posts had what seemed like fairly normal type prices for self-publishing a book, running anywhere from as little as a few hundred dollars, to around the $3-4k range.

A fourth, Polly Letofsky, does provide an unusual example of spending a ton on ordering copies being favorable – specifically because she is a successful inspiration speaker who had an established based ready to eat up those copies (she spent around $23,000 on her book, but most of that was ordering copies to sell; she’s sold 15,000 of them at $20 a pop). Only $6400 or so was spent on the actual book itself, which is a bit high but not entirely unreasonable.

The other two, though, I felt needed examining. Let me preface by saying I’m not discussing these to shame the authors or in any way put them down – they both seem happy enough with their choices and that’s what matters most. I’m examining these two though for the others out there who may be new to the indie world or still considering it, so they don’t get scared off by the high amounts listed for these two particular authors or make, what I’d consider, missteps that could have saved them a ton of money and made them profitable that much faster. (I debated leaving off their names, but since the posts are public that seemed pointless…)

Suzanne Handler’s Breakdown of Costs

Suzanne Handler self published a true story on her family entitled “The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing that Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family”. It has hundreds of reviews, and is high-ranking in two counseling & psychology categories. Her September 2013 interview said that since releasing it in December of 2012, she’d sold 9,000 copies, primarily in eBook form. The eBook goes for $3.99. So at most, she made about $25,000 in that time span – and that’s presuming she got the 70% royalty rate on all of those copies and they all sold for $3.99. The interview does not discuss marketing she may have done, though she does say that 99 cents is too low and one shouldn’t devalue their books, so she may not have done any.

Suzanne’s biggest cost, and what I would say was the biggest overspending, is $12,000 on a “creative director” – an advertising agency who helped with cover design, layout, sizing stuff, promo materials, and her website. He also handled putting the book on Amazon and dealt with Ingram/Lighting Source for her…at a rate of $75/hr. Now, I get that Suzanne noted she wasn’t “technically savvy”, but much of that could have been learned easily and at no cost – putting your book on Amazon is so easy you can almost do it in your sleep!

Now I can see if hey, you can’t be bothered to even learn WordPress having someone set up your site, and paying for cover design and layout, but again, I think she could have halved that budget easily by learning the smaller stuff herself and hiring out more specifically. In particular since she notes she also paid a publicist another $6,000 for two months of work to get her on local AM radio stations, a podcast, and maybe a TV appearance (as of the post, that was still “pending”). Most of the publicity seems smaller level stuff that again could be done on your own.

If my earlier presumption that all the books sold for $3.00, then she did “break even”, in terms of earning back the $21,000 she’s spent on that book.

Again, I’m not knocking her choices, per se, rather whether they were the wisest of business decisions. If she’d even just halved those two costs, instead of maybe having $4,000 in profits now, she’d have over $12,000! I know which one I’d prefer.

Nancy Saltzmann’s Breakdown of Costs

This was the one I first ran into that made me go “WHOA!” and that led to this episode. It is also the only one of the posts to have multiple comments expressing concern/sympathy/”notes” that Ms. Saltzmann had been scammed or otherwise taken for a ride. In this case, she published her memoir “Radical Survivor” on how she got through both battling with cancer and then losing her husband and children to a plane crash. She is certainly a remarkable woman and her story is one I am sure would appeal to many people. Her book was released in December 2013, has just over 160 Amazon reviews, and has so-so rankings (best is 683 in Death & Grief in the Kindle store). Per the interview from May she has sold around 3,800 copies of her book: 2,600 paperbacks, 1,162 ebooks, and 39 audiobooks. She also has no plans to write another book.

All together, she has spent $33,050 releasing that book. Again, guestimating based on her sales figures and presumed royalty rates, at most she’s made around $41,000 and I’m likely grossly overestimating what she gets on the paperbacks. And, again, no idea how many of her ebooks, normally $6.99, were sold at a sale price.

In Nancy’s case, the two biggest costs she had were printing, to the tune of $18,000. She does however note that she realized that was a mistake, doing offset printing herself, and that all of her future books are printed through Createspace POD. I presume this also means the copies Amazon itself is selling online, which depending on when that flip happened would reduce her earnings per copy.

The second highest expense, and the one that received the most comments, was paying $10,000 for a book designer. In this regard, I would frankly agree that she was totally scammed. According to her remarks, the designer had her pay her $1,500/mth to work on the book, claiming it was a “better deal”. For a 242 page book – and that didn’t even include the ebook formatting which was another $400. Book design, if you don’t just do it yourself, is something you should only be paying out a few hundred dollars for, maybe $1,000 for something complex (which a memoir generally isn’t) not $10,000!!! And certainly not $10,000 to not have it include the eBook!

And that $10,000 price included fairly plain, not particularly well designed cover and, skimming the free sample of the book, a fairly basic layout. Nothing extravagant. While the book was released years after Ms. Saltzmann’s losses, I can’t help but wonder if the emotions writing such a book would undoubtedly bring to the surface kept her from seeing how off this was. I really wish she had named who had done it so others would know to run far far away.

I also shook my head a little on her website costs. She’s paid $500 so far, not outside of the realm of reason, except she had to pay $400 of that to have someone just stick in the info on her book and links to buy it. And then $25-100 every time she does an update. I don’t know if she just doesn’t want to deal with it or not, but it would have been more economical to have it set up with something like WordPress and a custom theme so she can do her own updates when needed. Still, as she has noted she doesn’t intend to write anymore, perhaps for her she does so few updates it’s less relevant. I’ve had clients who would do the same as they just can’t be bothered to learn (and I mean, that’s what they literally have said, not just me judging them).

I do love that she had fun with marketing and was able to use her budget wisely to get into local libraries and book clubs, made use of free download days, and getting reviews. I did wonder why it cost her $1,500 to do the audio book when she did the narration herself (oh, and noted that while doing it she found errors in the book that $10k designer and her editor had missed, after it had already gone to print)…

Over all, if that book designer hadn’t gouged her so bad and she’d known about CreateSpace back then, she could have easily cut those costs down to a more normal range of around $5,600. And she would have, gain, long ago recouped the costs she spent versus hopefully having done so now. Granted, with the subject matter, I suspect profit isn’t a high concern, but for most self-publishers it is hence I felt the need to highlight these as good warnings on what not to do.

I talk about the type of expenses you can expect in episode 19, if you want a further breakdown of the sorts of things you might buy. There are also really good cost discussions on several notable sites, including the Book Designer and Joanna Penn’s the Creative Penn.

Stories like these are why so many of us desperately try to warn about scammers, bogus or overpriced author services, and the importance of learning about this business before you jump in and get burned. I hope both of these women are as satisfied as they noted in their interviews even with their high costs, but I also hope they have both learned more now so that if they do release another book in the future, it will be from a smarter place where they aren’t wasting gobs of moneys on unneeded or overpriced services.