Publishing a 3rd-party book–Why not just self-publish?

Would self-publishing actually be a better way to go? Suppose that the book is going to list for $29.95, a typical retail price for a 500 page software technical book these days. The normal wholesale discount is always at least 40% off of the cover price, so a book that lists for $29.95 will usually wholesale for about $18. But the big chains and wholesalers buy books in hundreds, sometimes thousands, and they don’t get just a 40% discount. When you buy a few thousand copies of a book, you can usually negotiate a 60% or 65% discount off of the cover price, so that same $29.95 book may only cost a wholesaler $12 or even $10.50. On a very large book order (15,000 copies and up), the discount may be as much as 70 or 75%, which would knock the cost for each book down to as low as $7.50.

To determine if self-publishing is really the best way to go, you need to see how much of the book’s price is profit margin as opposed to actual cost of goods. The raw cost for printing a typical book¾slapping the ink on the paper and wrapping a cover around it¾is around $4-$5. Added to this are the publisher’s costs for editing, proofing, desktop publishing, cover design, advertising, and so on, as well as additional costs if there’s a DVD included in the book, which will add maybe $1-$2 a book. And finally, there’s the publisher’s profit margin, at least another $1 a book. The fixed costs of doing a book will vary some from these numbers, but you can assume that you’re unlikely to get the publisher down below $7 or $8 per copy unless the book was very inexpensive to print or the pre-purchase order is extremely large.

Somewhere in here, somebody’s got to write the book, too. The author of the book needs to get money for their work. Exactly how much is open to negotiation, but you want to figure that the book is likely to take months to write… and that’ll cost money. If it’s you putting the book together on your own, you need to look at this to figure out where the money will be coming in for you.

The book will need editing and layout, too. If you’re thinking of a small-to-medium order (say, less than 5,000 copies), you may well save a dollar a copy by printing the book yourself, but it’s very likely that the amount represented by the publisher’s profit margin will be completely eaten up by production costs. If you’re not familiar with the production process, production costs can easily run to $5000-8000. Remember, the publishers are able to negotiate economies of scale that you, a one-time publisher, aren’t.

There’s something else you should consider. The publisher is also providing advertising and distribution. You’re going to get a number of copies of the book for yourself, but you also want the publisher to distribute as many copies on the shelves as you can so you get the maximum marketing whack out of having the book done. Doing the book with a little 2-person publisher is hardly going to give you the distribution you’re looking for; you might as well publish the book yourself. So unless you have a need for just a few thousand copies of a book, or you’re dealing with a very specialized topic that has specialized distribution requirements, you’ll probably want to use a large publisher that already has an extensive array of books in their catalog and a solid reputation for quality, such as Osborne/McGraw-Hill or Addison-Wesley.

So, in short, yes, you can always say “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! My dad’s got an old barn we can use!” but you may discover that there are a lot of hidden costs and tasks that an established publisher will take care of. The initially higher costs described in the next few posts on this subject also represent a fairly turnkey approach to the process: You just negotiate a deal and you’re good to go.

18 Responses to “Publishing a 3rd-party book–Why not just self-publish?”

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