The Glamorous Life? (Notes from the Indie Trenches) Part Two

August 11th, 2010 · 6 Comments
by Gina Frangello

In yesterday’s post, Gina Frangello talked life as an indie author. Or, more specifically, life as an indie author who is also an indie publisher. She toured, she was paid (sort of), she got great press. She learned lessons.

What happened next. As she says:

I became curious. The indie publishing world is notoriously tight-lipped about money—no one, it seems, wants to quite admit how bad off things are, for fear it might make their own projects look less viable and their company less secure, causing all the rats to jump ship. What writer will want to work with a press hanging on by a thread . . . will the media take such a publisher seriously, etc.? But of course the unspoken truth is that nearly all independent presses exist in some semblance of this impoverished state, to a greater or lesser degree. I began to nose around, though in a transparent way. I emailed some of my favorite indie editors and writers, with whom I have existing relationships, and told them I wanted to write a piece about indie publishing and money, and asked them a few questions. I even told them they could answer anonymously if they wished, and that no one would be quoted by name without express permission.

A couple of publishers did not answer me at all. In fairness, this may not be because they didn’t want to divulge information; it could be because they are busy working 70 hours per week at unpaid jobs, which necessitates they work 30 hours at some paying job, and as a result they have not slept since the 1990s . . .

Of those who answered, several stipulated that they wished to remain anonymous. One said, “Don’t use my name—quote the important publishers,” which probably epitomizes the self-deprecation that is ubiquitous in our indie community . . . I, for one, would have cited this press as one of the top 10 indies in the country! Of those editors willing to go on record, Richard Nash was the most forthcoming—not surprising since Richard is widely known to be a helpful gent. . . but perhaps also because I’d asked about his work at Soft Skull, a publisher with which he is no longer affiliated, and Soft Skull itself has been acquired by Counterpoint and so no longer operates under the model Richard was citing. Thus, anything he divulged about their operations was “passé” and thereby safe . . .

Still, some other brave and generous souls also weighed in, and quickly, clear trends emerged. I’ll share them here:

  • When asked how much publishers spend on printing costs for the first run of a book, the range was $4,000 to $6,000. In my experience, the more tech-savvy a publisher is, the less they are likely to pay on printing, because they do all the design and layout themselves and “printing costs” means only that: printing the book. For other publishers, printing costs include design and layout work. Many presses contract with printers who are out of state (upper Michigan is a popular area) and have never even met their printing reps in person. Not surprisingly, printing errors are horrifyingly common among indie publishers, and run the gamut from the new indies to the venerable ones. My friend Cris Mazza had some terrifying printing errors with Soft Skull, and my own galleys with Emergency Press initially produced 200 flawed copies that had to be given away rather than sent to the media. In the case of a problem with printing, in many cases the publisher may incur additional expenses if they choose to correct the problem.
  • Print runs ran from 2,000 to 5,000. Keep in mind here that I only approached extremely reputable editors/publishers, so these numbers run a bit high by indie standards. Some indies put out a print run of 500 or 750 books; others are using POD to keep costs lower.
  • Publishers are producing anywhere between 60-200 advance reading copies to send out to the media for potential review or other coverage. Most publishers in my survey did not talk specifically about how much their galleys cost, but I know my own publisher spent $800 on my galleys, which he had to re-pay after an error mandated reprinting the whole run, and one publisher cited galley costs as being as high as 1.5K. Notably, one has to factor in a good $500 on postage alone, even when sending books media rate, if a run of 200 galleys is being sent out the door.
  • Most of the publishers I surveyed sang the praises of Consortium as a distributor, some saying they didn’t know how they would “do it” without Consortium. However, most also noted that while Consortium (or other big distributors) can assist indie presses radically in terms of getting their titles into stores, they also bring a big risk. Publishers who worked with Biblio/Atlas encountered this issue, such as the would-be publishers of my second novel, Impetus Press, when they went bankrupt in late 2008 as a result of being slammed with returns. Given the Depression-era distribution model, many chain stores—especially the Borders group—are notorious for overstocking titles in far greater quantities than they can realistically sell, and then just returning them, at no cost to themselves, to the publisher. The publisher is then doubly screwed, having paid higher printing costs to meet the demands of distribution, and then having to effectively pay “rent” for the books’ return and warehousing by the distributor from that time forward. Smaller indies often house boxes of books in their living rooms so as to avoid these fees, which can quickly eat up the entire revenue of a smaller operation.
  • When asked how many titles actually make back their up-front costs, publishers varied on their take. Nash said this was “not a metric to focus on when you’re an ongoing business. You look cash flow much more than notional P&L.” Nonprofits, of course, may have many other sources of revenue other than just sales, such as grants and donations, and an indie with a larger list may lose money on all but one title in a given year, but if that one “successful” title really earns out, it could end up covering the other books, too—the big publishers in New York used that model for years before corporatization began demanding that almost all titles published by big houses earn big or be viewed as failures. That said, some editors I surveyed admitted that books that truly recoup their up-front costs are “1 in 50,” or that, “You basically never earn back the up front.” At Other Voices Books, our experience has been that most of our books have earned back almost all of their costs, so that they are not a financial liability, but that the distance between “earning back” and actually beginning to generate real revenue is incredibly steep: only one book we have ever published (out of 7) has really achieved true money-earning status. We also lost 6K on one of our earlier books, for a complex myriad of reasons, even though the title was well-reviewed and a finalist for a reputable prize. It’s easy to see that a publisher could quickly go bankrupt if faced with two or three titles like that in a row . . .
  • This all made me curious how other authors I respect are faring economically. Like most writers, my literary friends run a gamut from those whose novels are being selected as “Target Breakout Books” and stocked by the many-thousands at megastores, to those who cannot find an agent, to those who are publishing DIY books without any conventional distribution, to those who have published more than a dozen books with reputable indies. Our financial situations, “why” we write, and how we write are wildly diverse. One friend, Allison Amend—who is also a former Other Voices Books writer and whose debut collection, Things That Pass for Love, I edited—has had a very similar journey to mine, and her second book was released a month before Slut Lullabies. Amend’s book had broken even for Other Voices/Dzanc, which is itself an achievement, but had not reached a point of her earning money on the book. She says of the money she spent touring and promoting, “I ended up about two thousand dollars in the hole after my first book. This time, it’s more like 800.” She went on to explain that novels simply “sell better,” but that she also has gotten far less shy about asking others to buy her book. “I tell my friends who aren’t lit types that they have to buy a copy, but reading it is optional,” she says. “A lot of them look relieved.” Amend adds that she’s received job offers and other opportunities that would never have come her way if her first book hadn’t come out, and that therefore, as Nash indicated, efforts may be “worth it” even if they don’t translate directly into revenue.
  • Thus far, the results of my questionnaire seemed pretty predictable. As a publisher, I was not terribly surprised. The big shocker for me came when I asked these editors how many of their sales were happening via bricks-and-mortar bookstores vs. through online avenues like Amazon. Given all we hear about the “online” books market and how bookstores are being shoved out of business by Amazon, I expected this hysteria to have hit the street with indie publishers too, and perhaps for some to begin disavowing traditional distribution at all, insisting they could sell enough copies online on their own. This, however, proved to be far more media hype than reality. Almost to the last, these editors claimed that close to 90% of their sales come from bookstores, with only 10%, or at most 20% happening online. This, of course, goes a long way towards explaining why publishers continue to “put up” with a distribution model set up to rape publishers: we need the bookstores as much as ever.
  • Finally, what about e-books? Other Voices Books just started doing them, since they’re all the rage. So trendy, in fact, that when Emergency Press failed to release an e-book of Slut Lullabies simultaneously with its paper release, I all but panicked . . . now with the recent release of my collection in e-form last month, I was geared up to be tickled by how positively this would impact my sales. Well . . . the editors I spoke with deterred such optimism, to put it mildly. Nash said that, when he left Soft Skull, e-sales were “all but negligible,” albeit he’s been gone from there a couple of years now. Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio, however, confirmed this: TDR is an uber-hip press that’s been on the cutting edge of technology, yet Obenauf states that the press makes at most a couple hundred bucks monthly on e-books. Kate Gale of the West Coast indie icon Red Hen said, when asked what kind of business e-books generate, “Not much.”
* * *

The consensus of how difficult it is for indies to stay afloat seems clear, but what also emerged is that the book publishing—and book selling—model has not changed nearly as radically as the media seems to want us to believe. At BEA 2009, I remember sitting in panel after panel where publishing professionals got their knickers in a twist about Twitter and Kindle, insisting new technologies were not just the wave of the future but already firmly upon us, and that any publisher not jumping on the boat with gusto was going to be left to dog-paddle with the sharks. By the end of BEA, I had a Twitter account and was busting my ass to figure out how to interact more fully as a publisher and author on Amazon. And yes, meanwhile ipads are selling faster than Apple can make them. But maybe these things are simply not impacting the indies the way they do the big boys in New York. After all, a customer going onto Amazon to buy a book—either an actual, physical book or an e-book on Kindle—goes to the site already knowing what s/he wants to purchase. The huge thing about online shopping is that it is still something you do when you know what you want to buy, punch in the title, and there it is, at your fingertips. Whereas indie books—not prone to get the media hype or have the name recognition of Dan Brown or J.K Rowling or . . . who’s the Mormon chick who wrote Twilight?—still may benefit most from readers who wander into a bookstore to “browse” and are taken by a cover, a blurb, a description, a title, or simply by thumbing through the book and falling in love with a stray line. It turns out that indie presses need bookstores—especially indie bookstores—as much as ever, and that e-books and online shopping are still very secondary—or less—to our success . . . yet consuming a great, great deal of our dialogue and time.

We speak of publishing as being a business “in transition,” and surely this is true. I’m not advocating that we all disavow e-books and pull our titles from Amazon, surely! There are trends afoot, and publishing is in the process of a change that will impact the rest of our careers, and how future generations define reading, and those of us who really care about this business will want to be part of that transition. Still, what my dialogue with other publishers led me to is a re-instilled belief in the basics. It also prodded me to explore what, precisely, my goal is, as both an editor and an author. If it seems clear from all sides that indie publishing just does not generate much money for anyone, and that authors generally lose money in the bargain . . . then what exactly are we all doing here? What am I—a 42-year-old mom of 3 young children—doing schlepping to Portland, scrambling for childcare and putting off that new sofa for another year? Shouldn’t we all, for god’s sake, just give up, forget these expensive book tours, and go home?

And therein lies the mystery of writing and publishing. At the end of the day, not one editor I spoke with suggested that the work was not “worth it,” and while none provided a fully-funded book tour, and most provided no money towards touring at all, every one professed that touring is “good for authors.” Because the prime goal of writers has never been to make a living, crazy as that may seem. The goal is, pure and simple, to be read—just as the goal for indie publishers is not to create a wealthy company so much as to put good books out into the world and keep a certain literary tradition alive and thriving, while also trailblazing new directions. In the oft-cited heyday of publishing, even the biggest houses understood that books existed, to a large extent, outside a traditional economic model, so that many books—often the “best” books; the editors’ favorites—were all but expected to lose money. At one time, writers of such books toiled in relative obscurity with only their editors and their own small circle of writer-friends for reassurance and communion about their work—but now, with the advent of online literary communities and blogs, writers and their readers are connecting more directly than ever before. And for all that everyone likes to make a buck, to a very real extent every reader a writer is able to reach makes touring and other forms of self-promotion singularly “worth it.” Because writers do not write to get rich, or even to be read by a million people. We write to be read by one person: by each individual person at a time.

To achieve connection, indie writers need to remain willing to go guerilla: to sleep on sofas; to take on extra paying gigs to fund our tours; to drive to and from Iowa City in one day, returning at 1 a.m. to avoid hotel costs. We need to make the process itself—the community—its own reward. And when you consider what many writers spend on MFA programs or high-profile writing conferences (neither of which necessarily leads to publication), the amount spent on promoting an actual book is a drop in the bucket, whether or not costs are recouped. So on to Iowa City, to Portland, to Seattle I forged, keeping in mind the inimitable Richard Nash’s parting advice to writers: “Reach out to concentric circles of supporters and fans from now until the day you die.”

BS here. I appreciate Gina’s time and energy and openness as she wrote this. I think we’re all tired of hand waving. I think we’re all looking for more people to tell it like it is. I suspect a dose of reality won’t dissuade those whose passions are writing and publishing. Learning from others, however, will help next generations make smart choices.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

6 responses so far ↓

  • Art edwards // Aug 11, 2010 at 8:47 am

    This speaks so much to my own writing and publishing experiences. Despite everything, it’s about being read, and about keeping hope alive for tomorrow.

    For those of us who do it, what on earth could possibly replace it?


  • Joe Cottonwood // Aug 11, 2010 at 9:41 am

    I’m 63 years old. I’ve had 9 books published going back to 1972, some with big publishers, some not, some well-received, some not. Until last year I’d never done a book tour – I’m not charismatic, plus I have an extraordinary ability to unintentionally insult people. So I stayed home and wrote. The result: You’ve never heard of me, right? As for that one book tour, last year I was invited to Italy to promote the reissue of a novel from 30 years ago. True to my style, I had a great time there and then insulted an Italian magistrate, who issued a warrant for my arrest should I ever set foot in Italy again. It’s a good thing I never book-toured the USA.

  • deb smith // Aug 11, 2010 at 10:18 am

    My small press has a very different story on ebook sales. In the past year they’ve gone from being a negligible money maker to our dominant income by far. A lot depends on using the online retailers in a savvy way to gain attention and sales. Kindle owners are eager to try new authors; two weeks on the free list there has led to some substantial sales in both our ebook and print titles. God bless all the small indies who do most of their biz in traditional stores, but for Bell Bridge that has been a major uphill climb with little encouragement. Maybe it’s because we pub pop genre fiction and may not pass the indie bookseller sniff test? At any rate, the ebook readership is proving to be our biggest and best audience, by far. As for printing costs, we’ve gone almost entirely POD. (Our POD books are returnable, but they still don’t lure many booksellers). We don’t encourage authors to do the traditional promo stuff like signings and tours (though some authors love it and do it for fun) because we don’t see the results equal to the time and money to keep treading those old waters. I do think there’s far more radical change happening in the book biz than Gina’s sources report; if you look beyond the typical lit-fic and niche book indie to what’s happening with pop fiction presses, you’ll see a very different world.

  • Lance C. // Aug 11, 2010 at 11:42 am

    I’m struck by the notion that an industry niche — indie publishing — that wants to think it’s about “trailblazing new directions” seems so stuck to the tarbaby of the Depression-era business model you decry. On-line marketing and distribution would appear from outside to be the one business model that makes any possible sense for your product.

    Back in the good old days, publishers did indeed put out some books they knew would be commercial failures. Those books might win Pulitzers or Nobels, be the toast of the critical establishment and add some luster to the imprint, but wouldn’t make money. What you forget to mention is those same publishers would produce dozens or hundreds of books that *would* make money, to subsidize the prestige products. While you’ve embraced the first part of this concept, you’ve neglected the second.

    What you’re doing now simply isn’t working, by your own admission. Your products almost invariably fail to pay for themselves. Your companies exist on handouts and the willingness of your workers (the writers) to subsidize their own marketing. You rely almost exclusively on a sales channel (indie bookstores) that shrinks every month.

    Yet you also have an asset — a small group of customers who care very deeply about your product. With all the relationship-building and couch-sleeping you talk about, I suspect you know who and where these people are. This suggests a niche audience tailor-made for direct on-line marketing and sales. You’re already in essence hand-selling to these people. Why not do it using tools that make economic sense in your situation, so you can pay your authors or buy a new sofa?

    Deb Smith’s comments show that an indie publisher can do well by embracing new methods for connecting with its audience — and by dumping the methods that don’t work anymore.

    If, however, you really enjoy flopping on the couches of strangers, paying for your own publishing work — it seems the only real difference between (to use Deb’s phrase) “lit-fic and niche book indies” and subsidy publishers is that the latter make a profit — and encountering your audience one-on-one, then no adjustment is necessary. You’ve made your choice.

    If the notion that you should be recompensed for your labor is at all attractive to you, you may want to stop listening to Richard Nash. He’s running a ministry, not a business. It may be admirable, but if you want to do right by your children, it’s not a viable path. Your publishing house can’t do your authors or readers any good if it’s bankrupt.

  • des greene // Aug 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Interesting analysis yet I think that the evaluation of the impact of ebooks is understated.
    My own experience is that in a period of just over eight months there have been 3000 downloads of my work – readers I should never have hoped for otherwise.

  • Gina Frangello // Aug 12, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Deb, I think you’re correct that more e-books are selling in the pop fiction market than in the lit fic market. A friend of mine runs a multi-media company called Emerald Bay Books and their debut book was a thriller that has done very well online, without it having conventional distribution. I’m not sure how that works in terms of how readers find out about those titles, in lieu of the usual modes of promoting books with tours in such or the titles being in stores, but this title in particular had a technology theme and it seems that tech folks simply DID find out about it–presumably online–and they bought it. Which was very cool. Do you have a sense of how readers discovered your press’ titles? Was it through traditional review coverage? If the authors are not touring, and the books are not being widely reviewed, it can be hard for the public to find out about a book.

    I’m also interested in Des’ experience. Your numbers are impressive! What’s your book called? Is it priced at the usual e-book price point? Sounds like you know a thing or two about spreading the word–again, how do you feel readers learned about the book, amid all the competition out there? You’re clearly doing something right!

    I know some writers who have started permitting their work to be downloaded for free, and that can certainly bring in a lot of readers . . . and I’m not against that, in the model that finding and connecting with readers is a very core objective . . . but of course that’s a great model for a self-published writer, not for a book press that does need to stay financially afloat. I know people experimenting with that model now, though it’s not something I included in this survey, but it is an intriguing direction for writers in the future, no question.

    Joe, I’d pay money to attend a book tour event where you insult people, ha! I’m surprised some marketing department hasn’t appropriated that concept and made it the gimmick of your tour!

    Lance, I don’t know if you know Richard Nash, but you seem to have quite a beef with him . . . “ministry” and “do right by your children”–hmm, my goodness. Loving this charged rhetoric on my comments board–I feel like Fox News!

    But you know, while it’s clear that we have immense personal differences in terms of where we assign “value,” your point that something clearly needs to change/give is well taken if we do ever want a more financially viable community among the indie/literary publishers. I would not want to see this “change” mean that lit/story/poetry writers all ultimately jump ship to crafting more commercial work (and I don’t believe that would ever happen; it’s just contrary to the inherent variance among people and why they create art), so the change would ideally emerge in the business model itself–distribution, marketing, etc.–we’re in an exciting time in this transition, and no doubt in 2 or 5 or 10 years, things will look quite different than they do today, for better or worse.