Monthly Archives: June 2011

Yog’s Law

For those who have been following my blog for the past two weeks you know that I recently received a submission for a novel that I really like. However, because of the current word count I don’t believe I can publish the book at a profit. My first blog on this topic talked about what it costs to print a book of this size using digital printing, while the second blog talked about the cost and risk associated with doing an offset print run for the same book. In this blog I would like to talk about something that the author wrote in an early email to me:

I would not be averse to considering making an “investment” in your company to get this book published if you ever do anything like that.

The short answer is that we don’t do anything like that, and the reason why is Yog’s Law.

Yog’s Law was coined by author James Macdonald (the same person who brought us Atlanta Nights) in response to a question from an aspiring author regarding how much one should expect to pay to get their book published. Yog’s Law is

Money should flow toward the author.

It’s that simple: unless you’re self-publishing, it should not cost you anything to publish your book. Period. You should not be asked to help pay the production cost for your book or to buy a set number of copies as a condition of publication. You should never be asked to pay a fee to have an agent or editor read your manuscript. The costs of editing and cover design should be paid by the publisher. Most importantly, a publisher should be willing to answer questions about their business model and the compensation you will receive before you sign a contract.

If a manuscript cannot be published at a profit then no amount of investment an author is willing to make will change that. Most publishers will be honest with an author about that. Most vanity presses will not. For Divertir Publishing, this blog really serves two purposes. The first is to share my experiences starting a publishing company so that others can learn from what I’ve done (the good, the bad, and the less than sane). The second is to create a convenient place for authors to obtain information about our philosophies on publishing.

In case you’re curious, we are currently working with the author of this manuscript both to look at the current word count and to see what options exist for publishing her manuscript. None of these options will involve the author making an investment in our company, because money should flow towards the author. Period.

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The Myth about Offset Printing…

We use two criteria for determining whether we will offer a publication contract for a manuscript. The first is the quality of the manuscript: is it a well written manuscript that will entertain our readers or contains information that should be shared? For a publisher this must always be the first criteria. The second is whether we can produce the book at a profit. This should not come as a big surprise to anyone; publishing is a business, and businesses that are not profitable tend to go out of business.

In my last blog on word count, I show that using print-on-demand (POD) to publish a 450 page book (which costs $6.75 per copy to print using POD) will probably not be profitable for a genre where the average paperback book price is $15. The obvious question at this point is why not use offset printing? Most people will tell you that printing costs tend to be twice as much using POD and that most publishers use offset printing so that books can be sold in bookstores. But is offset printing really the best way to print books? Consider the following facts:

  • An offset print run of 1,500 copies for a 450 page book costs $5,160, or $3.44 per book (about half the price of POD printing). One would need to print 5,000 copies using offset printing to get the price down to $2.05 per book.
  • The average book in the US sells 500 copies (Publisher’s Weekly, July 17, 2006) and only 1 in 10 books are successful.
  • The discount given to bookstores is 40% of list. Net sales (the amount of money the publisher receives) is 60% of list

Assuming that the book in question has a list price of $15 (which seems to be the average for mystery & thriller paperbacks), your net sales per book are $9.00. Thus, if you sell the average number of books (500) your net sales are $4,500, or $660 less than the cost of the offset print run. If you also use a distributor (most charge up to 15% of list in addition to the retailer discount), your net can be as much as as $1,785 less than the cost of printing. Most important, if you only sell 500 books your actual printing cost per book sold (total cost of the offset print run divided by number of books sold) is $10.32 per book, which is $3.57 more per book than using POD. Thus, the possibility exists that you will actually pay more per book sold using offset printing than you would have using POD if the book does not sell well.

If you include author royalties, editing and cover design (estimated at 25% of net in my last blog), you would need to sell 765 copies of this book (or 51% of the books printed) to break even if you do an offset print run of 1,500 copies. Is it possible to sell this many books? Of course it is – people wouldn’t get into publishing if it wasn’t. But the point of this article is that, given the low success rate for books, you are just as likely to lose the investment you’ve made on that offset print run.

Someone recently asked me what the break even for our short story collections was. For Damn Faeries, our break even was 91 copies sold using POD. This includes in the fixed costs the one-time payments made to the authors for use of the stories. My break even for Damn Faeries would have been 369 copies, or over 4 times the number of books sold, using an offset print run of 1,500 copies. Quite frankly, the reason we feel comfortable doing short story collections (which are never big sellers) is that we are able to minimize the risk associated with printing costs and returns using POD.

As a publisher, the choice is yours. You can assume the additional risk associated with offset print runs and make more money per book (assuming you reach break even) or you can make less profit per book but also assume less risk using POD. Caveat Emptor.

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A Word on Word Count…

I received a query three months ago that will be the topic of my next three blogs. This is not because it was a bad query. In fact, we requested the manuscript and in my opinion the novel has great potential. It’s not because the author was unprofessional, which we unfortunately see far too often. It’s because the query serves as an example of three different topics that I want to talk about. The first topic is word count.

The proposed novel was an action thriller where the bad guys come up with an ingenious way to attack the US. The good guys respond by coming up with an even more ingenious way to thwart them. The plot was very clever, and while there were many ‘dead spots’ overall there was plenty of conflict and suspense. So why did I send a rejection letter? Simple. The original manuscript was 150,000 words.

In my letter to the author I pointed out that our upper limit for considering a manuscript is somewhere around 100,000 words and that I would be more than willing to review the manuscript again after the author took my comments about the length and a few other issues into consideration. I must admit I was actually excited when I saw we had received an updated submission. Unfortunately, the revised manuscript was 135,000 words. It arrived with a very nice letter from the author saying that this was as much as she could cut without doing damage to the story. As much as I like the manuscript I’m just not seeing how we can move ahead with publication.

Go to any blog which gives advice to authors and you will see the same thing: while it varies a bit by genre, the optimum word count for a novel is around 80,000 words with an upper limit of 100,000 words. “Query Shark” Janet Reid recently responded to a query that 200,000 words was “twice as long as you want something like this.” So why is word count so important, especially for a debut novel?

As the number of words goes up so does the cost associated with publishing a manuscript. For a debut novel where the author has no track record, the cost associated with publishing the manuscript and the popularity of the genre are really the only information a publisher has to go on (other than the quality of the work) when making a decision concerning publication.

Let’s use the above query as an example. Go to Amazon and do a search for the bestselling trade paperbacks for “Mystery & Thrillers” and you’ll see most of them are priced at just below $15.00 (this excludes mass market paperbacks, which are always priced lower than trade paperbacks) . Books of this type are generally priced in this range because this seems to be what people are willing to pay. At 135,000 words, the best I would be able to do when typesetting the book is to get it down to about 450 pages, which means my printing costs at a minimum will be $6.75 per book. Knowing that the average retailer discount is 40% of list and that I pay 25% of net on average for author royalties, editing, and cover art I can compute the profit I can expect from each book sold:

List Price $15.00
Retailer discount (40%) -$6.00
Printing costs -$6.75
Royalties, editing, and cover design -$2.25
Profit $0.00

In short, we would make no money from publishing this book. In fact, given the size of the manuscript, the additional editing costs might result in the book losing money for every copy sold. There are other issues regarding the readability of a manuscript of this length that are addressed in the blogs I mention above that I won’t rehash here. But the above example demonstrates why most publishers will likely pass on a debut manuscript of this length.

So what is an author to do? In my opinion you have three options. The first is to self-publish your work. It is important to note that you will have the same issues regarding profit margins that I outlined in the table above if you try to publish the book as a paperback. Thus, unless you have a large amount of money to invest in a large offset print run this would most likely limit you to publishing as an eBook. The second option is to reexamine the manuscript to determine if it really needs to be the length it currently is.

If after an honest examination of the manuscript you determine there is no way it can be shortened and you decide that self-publishing is not for you, then no matter how great the manuscript is, it is probably not a good candidate for a debut novel. Your third option is to put the manuscript aside for now and begin working on your next novel. I know this is hard advice for most authors to hear, but it really is the best advice. If your goal is to become a published author, sending queries for a manuscript that will be rejected by most publishers and agents based solely on the length without even being read is probably not the best strategy. Sending the same manuscript to a publisher that you already have a relationship with will most likely at least get it reviewed.

I know one comment that will be made is that I can significantly reduce my printing costs (and thus increase the profits) if I just went to moderately sized offset print runs. While this is true, it would also introduce a significant new risk that I will discuss in my next blog. Regardless, there is a reason most publishers have word count guidelines. Following them is the best way for a debut author to avoid a form rejection.

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