Brownie Cameras, Tin Lizzies and Self Publishing

I've been reading a bunch of stuff about the "costs" of self-publishing, and, if I didn't know better, I would be discouraged. I see numbers bandied around from $500 a book to over $5000 for a "quality" product. As I read through these writings, I realize that these authors might be good craftsmen, but they lack some basic business sense.

Let's look outside of literature for our inspiration for a moment. Ford did not
Photo by beckstei
make the first automobile. There were other auto manufacturers around the world. His innovation was the Model A, sometimes called the "Tin Lizzy." It was a car built on an assembly line using cost-cutting measures in such a way as to make it affordable to the average working family. He didn't start with the Lincoln Continental. In fact, if he tried that, he probably would have gone out of business like many of the other "high end" car manufacturers did.

Another good example is the Kodak Brownie camera. It was cheap, it used low-cost materials, and it was uncomplicated. It was point-and-shoot simplicity, and it made photography accessible to everyone. Not only did Kodak sell a ton of these "inferior" cameras, they also sold billions of feet of film.

So, what does this have to do with self-publishing? As I read these authors, it looks like what they are saying is: "Until you can build a Cadillac, don't build anything."

The problem with all of this is a very basic principle of business.

Profit = Price - Cost

Now, with ebook publishing there is virtual no cost in terms of materials. In that sense, the royalty paid by Amazon, Barnes Noble or Smashwords is pure profit. However, every penny you spend on the "essentials" touted by the "experts" (most of whom are associated with businesses providing one or more of these services) such as hiring a developmental editor, content editor, proofreader, cover designer publicity expert, manuscript formatting specialists, graphics designers, etc. reduces your profit substantially.

Okay, I've only been at this in a major way for about eight months, but I went from 15 sales a month to an average of 400. I'm at close to 3000 sales at this point. The most I spent on any one of these books was about $50 for a picture from iStockphoto for cover art and $20 or so for Facebook advertising. Many I did without spending a single dime.

Now, are my books perfectly edited? No. (But then I'm reading a book now from a mainline publisher, and I find a few errors in each chapter. It may shine a bit better than mine, but I paid $14.00 for it. My readers pay $3.99 and less.) Let's go back to the cars and cameras. A Brownie isn't as shiny as an expensive camera. The pictures it takes are inferior but they are affordable and sell way more units than the expensive cameras. The Cadillac has more features and fancier upholstery, but it also costs several thousand more than the Model A Ford.

Here's a simple fact of life. The more money you put into a book, the more you will have to charge for it. The more you charge for a book, the less likely a new reader is to take a chance on your book. Are you really that well known that people will pay $4-5 dollars per unit more for your books than mine in order to have a slightly more dramatic cover design or a couple of fewer comma splices?

I'm not saying you should present a shoddy product, but you can produce a basic product at a price that makes you a profit and reduces the reader's risk.

So, how do you do this? Well, do a lot of things yourself. Cover design, for instance, is pretty easy. Go to a commercial stockphoto site plug in your keywords, find a single picture that conveys the main idea of your novel, and then add your title to it using a photo editor. has a good online editor that can do this. If you prefer working offline, you can download GIMP, which is basically a free clone of Photoshop.

Kindle now has a cover creator. You can use their designs with your photos or use their graphics.

If you got a decent grade in high school English, you can probably check your own work for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. You can start with the grammar check tools found in MS-Word. It doesn't catch them all, but it catches many of them making your life easier. (BTW, I left out two commas intentionally in the above portion of this article. Did you notice? Did it make you stop reading this article or make you want to never read any of my work again? Unless every line contains an error, most of your readers won't notice the occasional missed comma or grammatical whoops. And if they do, you can go in and correct it.)

Use beta readers and critique groups for feedback on the story, writing style, etc.

Offer to trade services with other writers. Offer to read their work and edit it, if they will read yours.

No, you won't have the Cadillac or Nikon of ebook publishing, but you will have something that you can sell at an attractive price, build a fan base, show a bit of profit, which you can later use for that Cadillac you have on the drawing board.

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss some basic issues as self-editing, cover design and manuscript formatting. 


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