Money blinds. It's as simple as that. Aspiring authors ask about the money issue all the time, in varying forms, (How much does it cost to publish? How much will I get paid in royalties?, etc.) but they can't see beyond that issue to think about the thing that will truly decide the money question. And here it is:
What Do You Want From Your Book?
That is the real question! Once you are clear about what you want out of the publishing process, you can decide what route would be the most satisfying--and profitable--for you. When it comes right down it it, you can spend as much or as little as you want on your book. But how much are you willing to spend to get what you want?
When you aren't clear, you can make poor decisions that won't line up with your goals. For instance, many authors have a goal of making a lot of money, but they won't consider self publishing. The fact is that unless you can immediately sell on the level of an Oprah's Book Club selection or a James Patterson or a Dan Brown, it's going to take a very long time before your royalties add up to much. When you self publish you take on risk, but you stand to gain much more because you get to keep all the profits (unless your agreement with the publishing company you use is a royalties-based one).
Another strong reason to self publish: you can use your first book to build your platform for a bigger deal with a traditional publishing house in the future. Again, you can choose the self publishing deal that's right for you. A print on demand company such as Xlibris charges just $500 for a basic package where you can get your book produced and copies made as they are ordered--so no inventory. Of course, when you pay more, you get more: better design, distribution services, maybe even some marketing help.
The Traditional Road
If your dreams of authorship include larger audiences and the literary status that comes of being published by one of the many arms of Random House, Warner or Simon & Schuster, that's fine--just know that this route isn't exactly free either. No, you don't have to pay a traditional publishing house and yes, they do everything for you (design, distribution, some advertising and marketing), but these days a writer is expected to spend a little too on promoting the book. Many writers are even putting the amount they've set aside in their book proposals. If you're serious about marketing your book, you'll need to set aside at least $10,000. That amount can go as high as $30,000 depending on the amount of travel and other advertising you intend to use.
Smart Money, Dumb Money
Once you understand what you want out of your book, you'll not only know how much you're willing to spend, you'll also know better how to spend it. You can spend it smart or you can spend it dumb. Many writers spend it unwisely because they don't know what they want. If you're spending money on educating yourself about publishing, improving your writing skills, hiring a good editor or book consultant, and marketing that will help you reach your specific, targeted reader, that's all smart money. You will get more out of those dollars than if you had never spent it at all. You are investing in your writing career.
But if you spend money because someone told you this is "the only way you'll ever get this book published" (and you haven't researched any other ways), or buy advertising simply because it's where other books are advertised, or go to writer's conferences with no clear plan of what you want out of them, or pay agents "reader fees", or pay editors whose work you don't know or whose references you haven't checked, that's dumb money. You'll put those dollars out there and see little or no return.
So I guess the bad news is publishing isn't free. The good news is you have a choice as to how much you spend and where you spend it. Be an educated consumer as well as an educated--and talented--writer. You'll find that to have a book published in the way you want it published is still in the end--priceless.
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