How Ebooks Are Like The Movie True Romance

Just finished Barry Eisler’s great piece on digital publishing and, as always, it leaves me thinking about my own choices in publishing. While Barry (and Joe and Blake Crouch and Lee Goldberg) always make great points every time they discuss this issue, the one question that never seems to be raised is where the money comes from in the beginning. There’s lots of talk of the money that can be made on the back end, and how much money can be lost in a traditional publishing deal over the long haul. But for a first time author, with limited name recognition and limited funds, where does the money come from to set up shop properly?

And let’s be straight about this, for everything these guys mention to come to pass you have to set up shop properly. You have to have great writing, great cover design, great access, and a lot of time. In a perfect world, When I had my first novel as good as I could make it I would send it off to a freelance editor. I’m the sort of writer who needs a good content and structure editor, not just a copy editor. To get what I would get at a New York publisher would cost me about $1500. Once the book was edited, I would need to hire a good cover artist ($250-$500), and a good ebook formatter ($250-$500). I would probably have to spend toward the higher end with the formatter because I would also need formatting for POD paper books as well. So that’s roughly $2500 right off the bat that’s had to come out of my own pocket. It makes even a $1000 advance from an independent publisher seem like a great deal. 

But wait, there’s more. 

To truly take advantage of the ebook marketplace, you can’t have just one book in your online book store. You need to take up a lot of virtual shelf-space. So in this perfect scenario we’re discussing where I have unlimited funds, I’d publish each of my ten best short stories individually along with a longer collection of them all with a full forward and an introduction to each story. I’d also publish a collection of my flash fiction stories, and I’d write an publish a novella I’ve been thinking about. Each of those project will have it’s own cover and formatting cost. Even taking into account any discounts I’d be able to negotiate for multiple projects, I’d expect each of these projects to cost at minimum $250 to publish for a total of about $3000. That puts us at around $5500 just to get my virtual presence up and running in a way to make the most of the opportunity. 

But wait, there’s more.

You can’t just tweet and send Facebook blasts to advertise your book, you need to targeting marketing. Did you know that ebooks have co-op advertising just like print bookstores? All of those Daily Kindle Deals and such have costs associated with them? And it cost money to get good placement on the various ebook sites. I don’t have enough of an understanding of this area to generate a fully accurate cost for this, but let’s assume it’s like everything else in the $250 range. But of course the best advertising is having another book available. In the digital world you don’t have to wait a year or more to publish your next book. So let’s say six months later (before any real income is available from the ebooks Id’ already have available) I release another book. That’s another $3000 bringing us to a grand total of over $8000 in less than a year. And another year later, or less, I’d need to release another book. By then I’m sure I wouldn’t need the total $1500 editing package, but I’d still need something so let’s say $1500 instead of $3000. And how much do you think I would have made in the first year? Over the long haul, and probably within even a few years, I’m sure I’d be making great money going this route. Unfortunately I don’t have a spare $10,000 to do it this way.

Let’s say instead I took a print deal with an advance of $5,000. My first book and ebook will be produced at no cost to me, and in the 12-18 months it will take for the print book to hit the shelves, I could be using some of that advance to build my virtual presence publishing the short stories and novella projects. These will help advertise the print book and the print advance will have staked the funds for the beginning of my virtual bookstore. Sure I’d be giving up better royalties on the ebook of that first novel, but I’d have full control over the e-books I published. And in a realistic scenerio, I’d only publish two or three books with a print publisher before being dropped which would leave me to publish the remainder of my books on my own without the prohibitive initial investment. Plus I’d have the prestige that comes with having been published traditionally which, believe it or not, still matters to a lot of buyers.

Since book deals only come in 2-3 book increments I’d be able to assess my digital options every few years to see if publishing traditionally was still a good enough deal as stake funds or if I was making enough publishing on my own where I’d lose money signing another traditional deal. Why do I think this plan would work? Because this is exactly the path Joe Konrath, Lee Goldberg, and Barry Eisler took to ebook sucess, they just didn’t know that’s what they were doing when they started. This is also the method a lot of directors have used over the years. they sell scripts for money and give up control, but use the money to fund their own projects where they end up making the bulk of the money over their careers.