Google+ The economics of book publishing | Thorntree Press

by Franklin Veaux, Thorntree Press co-publisher

When Eve and I set out to start a new publishing company, we came to the project armed with a great deal of enthusiasm and a desire to create a place where people could talk frankly about non-traditional relationships. That is the most important part of our mission. We didn’t start a publishing company to become rich: if getting rich is your goal, it’s far wiser to play the lottery than to toss your hat into the ring of book publishing.

Traditional publishing is dominated by enormous publishing houses that pay authors astonishingly little for their creative effort. Most writers, unless they’re Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, see very little from their writing. We wanted to try some novel ideas to change that equation…and to change the economics of book publishing generally.

One of the things we’ve done at Thorntree Press is used crowdfunding to finance books. The traditional publishers pay for book production, but then expect the author to pay back those costs from his or her royalties. Since most books never become bestsellers, this means most authors never see any royalties at all. Indeed, the publishers themselves—especially small publishers—only turn a profit on a small percentage of their books. These few stars (along with government arts funding, if you’re in Canada) pay for the rest of the books.

By separating the costs of production from the author’s royalties and financing the books through crowdfunding, Thorntree Press pre-sells books (which confirms that there’s a market for the book) and get the author’s fans involved in the process (which democratizes publishing, taking it out of the hands of a few corporations and putting it directly in the hands of the people who most benefit: the readers). This approach has worked well for us, since it’s let us produce high-quality books without having a huge amount of startup capital. We also hope it will work well for our authors, who will not see the money from sales of their books vanish into the gaping maw of production.

But we’ve also discovered something interesting: many people don’t really understand the costs of book production, so some people are suspicious about our crowdfunding goals. We want to bring transparency to the normally secretive and Byzantine world of publishing, which means we want to talk about how a book is produced.

The cost of book production

I’ve often heard folks complain about the price of e-books. I used to do this myself, in fact, back before I had experience in publishing. You don’t need to print a physical book or ship around electrons, so why should an e-book be expensive? Why not charge, say, a buck for an e-book, since once it’s done, it’s basically just a question of downloading a file? And come to think of it, why should a book cost a lot of money to produce at all? You just type it into a word processor and send it off for production, right?

It turns out the answer is “no.” In fact, the cost of printing a book is a very small part of the cost of a book. Books are, in fact, quite astonishingly expensive to produce, and a lot of that expense happens long before ink ever hits paper!

The up-front costs

Authors are people, and people need to eat. When Eve and I wrote More Than Two, it swallowed our lives for months. Writing a book is incredibly time-consuming; just think about how long it took you to write essays back in school when you’d rather be out enjoying the sunshine, and multiply that by, oh, ten thousand or so. We tried to write the first draft of More Than Two by working on it an hour a day or so, when we were both finished with our other work and had a bit of time after dinner, and the math showed us that at that rate, we might have a rough manuscript done in about six and a half years, give or take.

We knew that to make it happen, we would have to dedicate our attention to it full time. That meant being able to eat. That meant we needed to build living expenses into the equation. Neither of us ended up making money from the crowdfunding—in fact, as it turns out, we underestimated our expenses, and had to borrow money (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars) to complete More Than Two.


This is where things start to get really hairy. Production expenses for a professional-looking book get freakishly expensive freakishly fast.

Editing, for instance, is a highly specialized skill that takes a lot of experience to do well, and a lot of time. Editors need to eat too, and every book needs editing. (If you’re thinking about self-publishing a book, you need an editor. I’m serious. You do. Yes, you. You need an editor. A writer can not edit her own book. Trust me on this.)

More Than Two went through multiple rounds of substantive editing. The book was trimmed, parts were added, other parts were deleted, passages were clarified, the entire thing was torn into tiny bits and then re-assembled. We were fortunate that an editor who really believed in what we were doing donated time at no cost.

Substantive editing on a book the size of More Than Two, or Emily Bingham’s upcoming book, Diary of a Rope Fiend, easily runs into a month or two of full-time work. A professional editor will easily charge $6,000 to $8,000 for such work, which is still not a lot of money for an experienced professional.

And a substantive edit doesn’t include copyediting—something that’s usually done by another person, who also needs to eat. (Self-publishers: you also need a copy editor. Again, take my word on this.) Copyediting is easier: it “only” takes three or four weeks of full-time work to copyedit a book the size of More Than Two.

Then there’s layout and design. Laying out a book is another very specialized skill, and few people have experience doing it—and those people are in high demand. But it’s also really important. Most readers can tell, when they open a book, whether it was designed by an amateur or a professional, even if they’re not sure why they can tell. It’s important to have a designer if you want your book in bookstores and libraries; a book that looks clumsy will not get picked even if it’s so amazing that gold and diamonds drip, figuratively speaking, from every arc and curve of the author’s art.

There’s an entire industry that has grown up around the book publishing profession. Copyright registration fees, cataloguing fees, ISBNs, book distributor fees…each of these is fairly small by itself, but after a while it starts to feel like being nibbled to death by minnows.

And all that happens not only before ink hits paper, but before the author or publisher sees any money at all! (To give you an idea of how head-swimmingly fast all of this money gets sucked away, More Than Two has sold almost 12,000 copies, and Eve and I have taken home, between us, a total of about $2,500, not counting the $10,000 advance we paid ourselves from the crowdfunding to take time write the book. Break out the champagne!)

It’s a ruthless business, for sure.

When we start a new project for Thorntree Press, we sit down with a spreadsheet and we add up all these various expenses. Then we double them, because when you’re doing crowdfunding, half of every dollar you get goes out to backer rewards. (After we crowdfunded More Than Two, a friend of mine asked me “what are you going to do with all that money?” and I said “what money?”)

Then we take that number and add another another nine percent to it, because that’s the cut the crowdfunding platform takes as their “platform fee.”

By the time all this is done, the number looks so high that a lot of folks get nosebleeds just thinking about it, and they ask,”Why do you need all that money? My cousin wrote a book and put it up on Amazon, and it only cost him $100!”

Which might be true. But what are the odds that book is going to be available in bookstores or libraries? How many copies will it sell? What does the international distribution look like? (There’s a headache and a half, and no mistake.)

In the world of publishing, doing something is easy, but doing it well, as it turns out, is hard. I would not recommend this industry as a way to make dosh fast; on a per-hour basis, I made far more money working at McDonald’s back in my school days than I make now as either a writer or a publisher.

Publishing is an ugly, financially brutal industry that no sane person would want to toil in had he any other choice. I don’t write because I want to write. I write because on some level, I’m compelled to write. Eve and I did not start Thorntree Press because we wanted to become rich. We started it because each of us recognized in each other that same compulsion, and wanted to create a way for others who share that compulsion to do so.


The crowdfunding campaign for Diary of a Rope Fiend ends on Tuesday! Check it out to find out more—and support indie publishing!