Think Like a Publisher 2013: Chapter Two: Expected Costs

Here we go again. It’s been over two years since I wrote the first version of Think Like a Publisher. And a year since I updated it into a 2012 edition. Stunning how time goes by.

Since I wrote those first chapters for the first volume, Scott William Carter and I have taught three workshops by the same name, plus an advanced workshop helping indie writers make more money from their books. And in the fall of 2012 Allyson Longuiera and I taught a Print on Demand workshop to help writers get their books into print and learn how to sell them. We are doing the full POD workshop again in May and doing Covers and Interior workshops online now.

And during those workshops and from comments and from hundreds of sources I have learned a ton more information. The indie publishing world has gotten by the early years of the “gold rush” thinking and has now settled into a new normal that should last for years if not decades. 2013 is the first year of that new normal.

Plus the publishing company I helped start (WMG Publishing) now has a full-time employee and three part-time employees and has published about 300 different book titles. And Kris and I have started a new distribution program called Ella Distributing Inc. that will launch in early 2013. (I will announce it here.) That company already has a full time employee and one part timer and will be growing quickly over the spring of 2013.

And the overall publishing business is now stabilizing with traditional publishers holding their own and indie publishing doing great.

As traditional publishers grab for more rights and become even more difficult to work with, more and more writers are moving to indie publishing. As they make the jump, they ask basic questions on how to do it, how to be treated with respect as a publisher, and even how to do simple things like setting up a publishing business.

An indie publisher is still a publisher, the same as any traditional publisher.

Think Like a Publisher 2013 is an updated version of the book from about a year ago, including some of what has changed and what I have learned over the last year or more. I’m sure in another two years I’ll do a fourth edition. 

Every few days I will post a chapter for free here with a link under the tab above. The 2012 edition is still available in book and electronic form. After I get done with these posts and reformatting the book, this edition will appear replacing the old one. But that will take a month or so.

Comments on each chapter are welcome and help us all learn, but keep the comments focused on the topic of the chapter, please.

I hope these chapters help you get a jump on learning how to be a publisher. And on finding an audience for your writing.

Chapter Two:

Expected Costs 

The first chapter was “The Early Decisions” which included picking a business name, setting up checking accounts, and so on. There were no real costs at all in those early steps unless your state had a small fee for registering a business name. Checking accounts are free, so are PayPal accounts, and so on.

So, the question on this second basic business-planning chapter is: “What are your expected costs?”

For those of you with a basic understanding of business, you can now see the structure of how I am setting up these chapters. Before starting into a business, there are certain things that need to be figured. Set-up costs, projected production and business costs, and projected income.  You have no real data on the costs or the income, at least not accurate data, but anyone with a lick of sense who is starting a business will sit down and try to figure these factors out to some degree.

It would seem that expected costs should be tough to figure. But actually, in this business, they are not. At least for most levels. It just will take a little homework is all.

So, let me first divide this discussion into three major areas.

Cost in Money.

Cost in Time.

Set Costs.

All three areas are critical to figuring overall expected costs of producing a product.

In the first two categories I’ll divide the discussion down into three major ways of running your company: 1) Do All Work Yourself. 2) Do Some Work Yourself, and 3) Hire all work done.

And, of course, the categories cross over. If you find your time more valuable than your money, then hiring things done will be more of an option. And so on.

Cost in Money 

1) Do It All Yourself: For Electronic Publishing

No costs. None, zero, zip. No actual costs that I can see at all if you want to do everything yourself, and I do mean everything. You lay out the book in some free program, lay out the cover in some free program, find free art at public domain sites or free photos or take your own electronic photos with a camera given to you as a gift at Christmas on a computer given to you for your birthday.

There is no cost at all to upload a file to Kindle, B&N, Kobo, iBookstore, and Smashwords (which then gets your story out to Sony and others). Use the free ISBN feature on Smashwords and Kobo and use the free tracking numbers (which are like ISBNs) for Kindle and B&N.

So, do all the work yourself and there are no real expense costs per project.

However, most of us buy our own computers, some of us have bought software we use to format books, and so on. There are all kinds of accounting tricks depending on how you set up your business (see Chapter One) to get some of that early expense money back when you start making money. Talk to an accountant for help with business taxes if you do not understand taxes. But for this discussion, let’s just assume you had the computer and the software before you formed this business and can use that equipment at no real cost to the business.

So, bottom line, there are basically no direct costs if you do all the work yourself and put everything up electronic publishing. (I am not counting overhead at the moment, so accountants, stop shouting. I’m trying to be real basic here.)

2) Do Some Work Yourself: For Electronic Publishing

A few large warnings in this area that we have talked about in the New World of Publishing series. If you are going to hire help, do it the way you would hire day labor. Simply put, if you want to have a hedge on your property trimmed, but you don’t feel you have the time or the knowledge or the equipment, so you hire a gardener and pay him or her for the job. A one-time fee. That’s day labor.

Never give anyone a percentage of your property for a single task. Your copyright is a property (basically), so giving someone a percentage to do a simple job such as doing a cover would be like giving that gardener part ownership in your home for trimming a hedge one afternoon. When put that way, it sounds too stupid for any writer to do, right? Well, the stupidity of writers never ceases to amaze me when it comes to business, which is why I am saying this bluntly right here.

If you pay for a task to be done, pay a set price. Period. There are lots of new start-up businesses that offer a menu of tasks for set prices.

But let me also say this clearly right now. If you are worried about money, spend the time to learn how to do this yourself and have no real costs. This is not rocket science.

But that said, now that I have been clear, there are some tasks you might not have the equipment to do. For example, I have a bunch of old books and short stories that at some point I will want to republish electronically and/or in POD form. But I do not have a good scanner and software to scan the book. I can clean it up afterward to a degree, but I will pay someone to do the scanning for me on a one-time fee per story or novel. (And don’t offer. Thanks, but I already know whom I will hire.)

So sit down, do the research (the homework I mentioned before), find the people, the businesses who can do what you need for a single fee, then compare prices, shop around, and mark the price down.

3) Hire All Work Done: For Electronic Publishing

In this area you have a lot of work to do to find someone or some other business to do all the work for you. (Giving a percentage of your property is again just silly. It may sound good, but it is too stupid for words.)

But if you do plan on hiring everything, do your homework, find the costs out, and then get the costs totaled and written down for all size projects you might do. You will need that number for the profit-and-loss statement you will be doing later on.

Print On Demand (Trade Paper)

1) Do Everything Yourself: Print on Demand (POD) Publishing

When we get into POD publishing, we start running into some costs and projected project costs. First off, just the POD publishers have some basic per project costs. CreateSpace is by far the cheapest to start and learn. CreateSpace is pretty much a flat fee of $25.00 plus cost of proof and shipping the proof. WMG Publishing usually gets a book done and approved for under $60.00 per book. LightningSource has “mistake fees” that can mount up. And their per-book charge is higher. So do your research on the two to determine what you need and then decide.

As far as software and computers, you can do it yourself on any number of programs as readers have made clear in the comments sections of The New World of Publishing. WMG Publishing has gone ahead and invested in a top-line Mac computers, InDesign, and Photoshop for everyone. In fact, we have six of them on desks now around the building. Not cheap, but considering we are launching a full publishing company, a needed expense.

Again, talk to an accountant (which will cost as well) for how to figure in the capital expenditures of buying computers and such. But for per-project figuring of a POD book, the costs can range between $60.00 at CreateSpace to hundreds at LightningSource.  Estimate and research before you start to know which way you would like to go.

2) Hiring Some Help and 3) Hiring it Done Completely: POD Publishing. Do your homework. Get estimates. Then make sure you have those figures handy for figuring out a profit and loss calculation later on.

Cost in Time

1) Do It All Yourself: Cost of Time For Electronic Publishing

Wow, is this going to be tough for you to figure. Unless you already have book design skills and some cover skills, the learning curve will be painful and frustrating at times. Again, this is not rocket science, but there is a learning curve, and learning not only takes time, but feels uncomfortable.

The early books and stories will take the longest amount of time. And you will make a lot of mistakes. But the book can always be changed later. That’s one of the values of electronic publishing.

As you learn, the time spent on each project will be less and less. Honest, it will. But how do you figure your time? That’s a calculation you will need to figure out.

As I have said before, I like Mike Resnick’s saying. “If you aren’t earning $500 per day, you are not having a good day.”  Since I work over ten hours per day, I just divide the $500 by 10 and get $50.00 per hour. That’s the number I use in my calculations and on any profit and loss calculation. It works for me. And I can tell you that some of those early stories I put up for WMG PublishingInc. will never earn out my wage because I was in major learning curve mode. Expect that.

However, I have another way of looking at this:

Your early projects are just school.

You don’t expect to get a direct return on an hourly basis from going to class or college to learn a skill. Think of the early books as learning classes and don’t charge your time against them. WMG Publishing had a meeting and decided that we all needed to develop skills, so we only did short stories for the first six months, just practicing, as if we were in school. Now the novels and other real projects are up and thanks to Allyson, they look a ton better. And we are making some money on those practice projects as well, but wow do some of them need to be switched out. We’ve been working on doing just that, but we don’t see the light at the end of that tunnel until late spring of 2013. From there on out, everything we do will be new.

There are workshops you can take at local universities on how to do this, or online. This is something that can be learned.

2) Hiring Partial Help and 3) Hiring it all Done: Cost of Time for POD Publishing.

This is where you as a publisher need to balance your available money with your available time. My suggestion to you is hold off on POD if you don’t have the money to hire help until you have the electronic sales earning money for you. And also, by then, you’ll be more comfortable with book production and can do it yourself.

But if you have enough money, again do your homework. Expect help on POD layout and covers to cost more because it takes longer. Get quotes per job and shop around. And then try to figure out how much time it will take you for each project, even with someone else doing some or all of the work. Each project will be different.

Set Costs

Set costs are expenses set by your work situation. Your computer connection fee, your electric bill, your office rent, and so on.

Best way to figure these costs if you are set up at home is set up a room or area in your home only for publishing. Then figure what percentage square foot of your house your office is. (Example: 1,200 square foot home. 200 square feet of dedicated office space. So 1/6th of all your home expenses are office expenses.)

Do not ignore these set costs. They mount up and should be calculated.

At first, these costs will be tough to figure in a per-project basis. But you need to try. For example how many projects can you get up per month? If your set costs are say $300 per month and you can manage 3 projects per month, than you need to put $100.00 in set costs against each project.

Given time you’ll catch the hang of all this. It doesn’t have to be to the penny, but do count set costs to act like a real publisher. And if you do, you’ll save money in taxes and such.

My Suggestions About Expenses

Back in 1987, Kris and I started Pulphouse Publishing Inc. because it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I was in a hurry, so instead of making sure I had the money first, I went out and borrowed enough money to get the business off the ground. And from that moment forward Pulphouse seemed to always have higher expenses than it had income.

Let me simply say: NEVER AGAIN!

So my suggestions from the school of hard knocks are:

1… Do it yourself.

If you can’t do it yourself, wait and keep learning until you can do it yourself. (I think this is the most important suggestion I will ever give you.)

2… Don’t spend one extra buck you don’t need to spend.

All successful business people are cheap. They spend only for needed expenses or learning.

3… Don’t put money pressures or expectations on the business and the sales of any project.

Sleeping is a lot more fun and you won’t sleep if you are constantly worrying about what you are doing wrong or trying to sell as many copies as some other writer.

4… Do Not borrow money to start this up.

Too much pressure. Let the money build slowly in the business account and only spend what you have available and then only after careful thought. WMG Publishing Inc. now has lots of help in the office. But we waited, even though we needed a ton of help, to hire anyone until we had a full year’s expenses in the bank. I did everything and we did it all from home.

5… Remember, if you do this yourself completely, this is a production business that has no real project costs beyond set costs.

Sure, as a writer, you have time and writing costs and office costs and such, and all that needs to be figured in. But you have no real production costs per book sold through your online stores. And you can make up to 70% of retail. Let the money build. There is no other business I know like this one.

6… Do Not get in a hurry.

Sure, I know this sometimes still feels like a gold rush, but those days are past. This is the new normal and nothing much is going to change over the next few years besides minor details. Books do not spoil and readers do not vanish. You have the time to learn.

7… Think of the early projects as a form of school or class.

They are practice. Figure a profit and loss for them as well as practice, but don’t sweat that they might not make a profit until 2015 or 2020. Call them practice. Remember that copyright is for your life plus 70 years, and books don’t spoil.

8… Keep learning everything you can about publishing and business.

I’m afraid this does not mean listening to the other beginners on the Kindle Boards. It means talking to real business people who are running successful real-world business. Talk to them, ask them questions, ask them about bookkeeping and how they keep track of set costs and so on. Find people, not just publishing people, who run a successful business in your area and pick their brains. You will be stunned at how much you will learn.

One Final Reminder:

Keep having fun. If this isn’t fun, if writing isn’t fun, what is the point? Every time I get a new book in the mail, it’s a thrill. This is fun.

So have fun.


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover Photo by Edward Fielding/


This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’ve talked about the Magic Bakery a few times in various posts, but just think of this column as a pie and I am allowing samples of the pie here. Understanding the Magic Bakery is critical to making good money as a publisher. So I will talk about it in these chapters coming up as well.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Tip Jar: Go To Paypal



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21 Responses to Think Like a Publisher 2013: Chapter Two: Expected Costs

  1. Jan S. says:

    “1… Do it yourself.

    If you can’t do it yourself, wait and keep learning until you can do it yourself. (I think this is the most important suggestion I will ever give you.)”


    When I started formatting my stories for ebooks, the above statement in “Think Like a Publisher” kept me going through the learning process and its various frustrations. I was convinced for some reason that I wouldn’t be able to learn how to do this – but I did. My first two short stories are now up at Amazon, B&N and Kobo, and I’m about to put them up at Smashwords as well.

    If I can do it… anyone can. Truly. Just keep at it and you’ll get there too. 😉

  2. I know you’ve mentioned that ISBNs really aren’t important any more in the past, but if you aren’t using your own ISBN, aren’t you essentially ceding your role as publisher to the retailer you’re getting the free ISBN from? Also, I thought ISBNs were used to track sales in the market as a whole. If you have a title with a different ISBN per store aren’t you chopping those numbers up?

    (I am asking based only what I’ve read online and freely admit ignorance on the subject.)

    It may be that the cost of ISBNs simply don’t justify the advantages above. And I’ve noticed that outfits like Lulu and Smashwords like to pull dirty tricks like requiring you to put “Lulu Edition” or “Smashwords Edition” in whatever version you upload to them, which basically forces you to use a new ISBN anyway (though to be honest, that makes me less likely to use their ISBNs anyway, because I am an angry, spiteful man).

    Also if you want to register your copyright it’s $35 a pop (if you do it online. It’s more expensive if you do it by mail).

    And finally if you print POD books through CreateSpace and you want the extended distribution channels it’s $25 a title.

    Are these things not worth the money? I’d think registering the copyright would have its uses, especially in these days of random DMCA takedown notices. And the extended distribution channels seems to fall in line with your advice about not using KDP Select, i.e., make it available to the widest audience you possibly can.

    • Ahem. Apparently I went from “Cost in Money” straight to “Cost in Time” and compeltely missed the part where you talk about POD books in your post. Embarassing. Apologies. I’m still curious about the copyright thing though.

    • dwsmith says:

      Christopher, you have many ISBNs per title. That’s normal. I get royalty statements that are tracking thirty different ISBN for the same book title. It is required that every time you change form, you change the ISBN. Stupid, but alas, true.

      So that is no big deal.

      Registering a copyright is completely different from using an ISBN on a form. Completely different. Don’t confuse the two in the slightest.

      Never hurts to register a copyright for a book or a story, but it is not needed for protection. However, if you have registered it, you get a ton more advantages if someone takes your work after it is registered. Is it worth the money?

      I register collections and novels, so does Kris. That pretty much has all our stuff in a place of advantage. But we also deal a great deal with Hollywood, the great thieves of copyright on the planet.

      • I wasn’t intending to conflate the two, I was just using both as examples of extra cost.

        I know you need separate ISBNs for formats (i.e., a trade paperback has one and a hardback has one and a second edition hardback has another one and an ebook has one) but you don’t actually need a separate ISBN for the ebook sold at Amazon vs. the ebook sold at Kobo vs. the ebook sold at B&N, do you? If it doesn’t mean anything, why do the individual retailers make it so easy for you to use their free versions? What do they get out of it?

        … hm, I hope that doesn’t sound accusatory or paranoid. The ISBN is absolutely mystifying to me. When I first looked into self publishing the advice I read was “you don’t NEED to get one, but if you’re serious about self-pubbing I recommend you do so.” So I did, and I can’t tell that it ever made any difference. But I budgeted for it, so it didn’t really cause me any undue hardship, either, until I tried to deal with Smashwords and Lulu and found that they’d set up their programs to make it painfully inefficient and ultimately expensive to use your own ISBN. And I don’t know why.

        • dwsmith says:

          Christopher, ISBNs are one of the strangest things in publishing, run by a monopoly in this country. Each online retailer has discovered it’s simpler to set up their own tracking systems that use the old book tracking system of ISBNs. So they did. It makes no difference at all.

  3. John Walters says:

    If Kindle or CreateSpace or Smashwords are willing to give me a free ISBN or other tracking number, in my financial situation I’m just going to say thank you and move on. So what if Smashwords wants the book to say “Smashwords Edition”? That’s exactly what it is, and it’s a small price to pay for the help they offer in distributing my book.

    As far as registering Copyright is concerned, Kris mentions over and over the importance of reading “The Copyright Handbook”, so I got a copy and just finished reading it from cover to cover – time well spent for any writer, let me tell you. One thing that is emphasized in the book is that you don’t have to register to have your work copyrighted, but if you do register “in a timely manner” and your work gets infringed upon, you can get more options of a much better settlement in court. I wouldn’t register each individual story, but when I compile them into collections I register them, and also every full-length book.

    Thanks for republishing this, Dean. It’s a good review.

  4. Tim Cooper says:

    “If you are going to hire help, do it the way you would hire day labor.”

    You might want to find a different way to say this, because everyone who has ever lived in California is now imagining a crowd of editors and designers standing around outside Home Depot.

    • dwsmith says:

      Tim, nope I said that right and when thinking about hiring an editor, that’s exactly the image you should hold tight on. And no “grin” with that. I’m serious. If you hold the image of day labor when hiring an editor or person to do a cover, you will keep yourself out of a ton of trouble in the long run.

  5. RD Meyer says:

    I can’t tell you how much I respect you for this kind of post. Too many writers want to put all that “nasty business stuff” off on someone else and just focus on writing…and lots will fail because of it. Thanks for helping to keep people grounded.

  6. Victoria says:

    I really needed to hear #6. Thanks for that one, especially.

  7. J.A. Marlow says:

    I know most here already know this, but for the newbies I did want to clarify one thing in the comments, as they appear to connect two things that aren’t really connected. (Sorry, I also correct those that say “KDP” when they actually mean “KDP Select.” They are not the same, and to a newbie, it’s beyond confusing).

    The issue of ISBN numbers and the Smashwords insistence of having “Smashwords Edition” inside the ebook are two totally different things. They are not connected.

    ISBN: A tracking and searching method for ebooks, basically. Only, no one tracks them across the industry with ebooks, and the big retailers do not report sales except to the individual publisher or author who uploaded. There goes the reason to use ISBN to ‘consolidate numbers.’ Numbers for what? Maybe for your side? It’s certainly not for a service like Bookscan or any type of industry-wide ‘best seller’ list that you hope will make you look good.

    Use free ones, buy your own, that’s your choice. I’m seriously considering not buying more when the time comes. I’ll wait to see what the industry looks like at the time. For ebooks, they don’t seem to matter on the publisher side or the retailer side. Otherwise, Retailers would absolutely insist on it, and that’s not happening. Instead, they are altering their methods of upload to take out that requirement, with Apple now the latest.

    Smashwords “Smashwords Edition”: If you upload ANY ebook to Smashwords and want into the Premium Catalog for expanded distribution, technically it must have “Smashwords Edition” or “Published by [your name] at Smashwords” somewhere in the title page. Period. It doesn’t matter what kind of book, genre, author name, publisher, or using their ISBN or not.

    Does. Not. Matter.

    If it does not have one of those two things, they are supposed to throw it back at you as rejected for the Premium Catalog.

    Quotes from the Smashwords style Guide:

    “Your ebook is published by you (the author or publisher) at Smashwords. It should say either Smashwords Edition on the copyright page, or “Published by [Authorname] at Smashwords,” (remove the quote marks), or, if you’re a multi-author publisher, Published by [the name of the publisher publishing it on Smashwords] at Smashwords. Although some Smashwords authors consider Smashwords their publisher, we consider you the publisher. Smashwords is your ebook publishing and distribution platform.”


    “HINT: AutoVetter wants to see a proper copyright statement, plus at least one of the following phrases within your title or copyright page:
    Smashwords Edition
    Published by [your name] at Smashwords”

  8. Mark says:

    Just had a funny thought. With all this talk of being a crafty writer with a mind for business and expansion…

    Would any of this be doable if you were homeless? Living in a shelter? I suppose you’d have to write at a library, find some way of getting ID to open up a direct deposit account — not sure what the bank would say about having an address behind wal-mart though (or chinese restaurant). Then you’d have to talk the public library into letting you use Gimp on their computers (where I live, most are very strict about what you can install). Or you could use a portable version on a usb stick…not sure if there is one for Gimp though.

    You’d have to edit all your own stuff as no way could you afford the $300 most editors ask for. Covers too. Since you’re homeless and short on cash, you couldn’t buy anything from istock, so public domain only.

    Yep, this is probably the best business in the world to be in, at least at this point of time in history. As a homeless person, you could write 8 hours a day if the library would let you. This is assuming you didn’t have a netbook yourself and a van down by the river to type it in (wouldn’t want to type in a blizzard up here in Canada, ha) :)

    You wouldn’t be hanging around other homeless for long.

    Maybe I’ll write up a movie script about this scenario.

  9. C Brook says:

    Hi Dean,
    Great clarity of thinking, as usual.
    Quick question about 2nd editions of a previous book. I’m working on a shorter version of my book (sort of a ‘Cliff Notes’ version). I want to keep both out there on all sales outlets. Should I put up the new one as part of a series, or not link it to the original.
    Any differences to be aware of?

    • dwsmith says:

      C. Brook, just make sure your titles are different if you want them to both be out there. That’s how everything is tracked. Title. So like I am doing with Think Like a Publisher, Think Like a Publisher: 2012, and Think Like a Publisher 2013.

  10. Tamara says:

    This is a great chapter (so is Ch.1) and I’m tempted to just buy the 2012 version on amazon and then buy this one when it comes out!

    I do have one disturbing questions though. Above, for POD, you noted CreateSpace as rather inexpensive, and while I did grab a lot of add-ons, the price was more like a several hundred. I was just wondering if there’s something I’m missing.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and I look forward to reading your books.

    • dwsmith says:


      I was talking about the do-it-yourself-completely model. Nothing but the $25.00 extended distribution. You do your own cover in a pdf file and your own interior in a pdf file. Cost is $25 total. Or for my short story paperbacks, $0.00. Since I don’t price them right for the extended distribution model.

  11. Rob says:

    Kind of tying into Kris’s most recent post. Where does copyediting/proofing come in as far as costs, since that isn’t something you can “do yourself,” so to speak? And how much can one anticipate spending on such things?

    • dwsmith says:

      Kris has all that sort of details in her post. You can work out trade arrangements to get it in exchange for time. But that is still a cost that needs to be figured in. For a decent copyedit, depending on length, can range between $250 and $500 for a novel. But in posts in the past here a bunch of copyeditors clocked in with their rates. Lucky Bat Books tends to have a menu of services to hire for a flat fee as well. But often trade with friends is a great way of going about it.

      • Rob says:

        Ok. $250-$500 sounds right to me. Some of the quotes I got from some places (for a copyedit, not content) was 2-4 times that. Sheesh!

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