Updated: Nov 22, 2022
And why a book worth publishing requires a real investment
These days it’s quite easy to publish a book with minimal startup costs. New technologies and platforms bring this creative option into the realm of possibility for nearly everyone and this has many wonderful upsides that you probably already know or can imagine.
But I want to tell you about a different time, not all that long ago, when these options weren’t available and we indie publishers only published books that we thought, rather, knew, would sell at least 3,000 print copies, ideally in the first year. Speaking very broadly, that’s the amount that would cover our initial productions costs, generically in the $10,000 range, and start covering our labor and overhead and inch us towards profit.
It was tough, but it instituted a sort of discipline. That is, no putting out books for the fun of it or cause we liked them a lot. We only bothered to publish the books we firmly believed met these criteria and then some. It was a minimal threshold and a reality check: Don’t put time, effort, resources into books that others won’t buy.
In light of what’s possible today, it’s still worth considering the investment of resources you might make in a book from two angles.
Production values. In other words, what it costs to produce a book that meets industry standards and consumer expectations. It walks, talks, and smells like a duck. A book. It does service to the writing and content in a way the enhances the reading experience. I like to think, for example, that any book that makes its way into the world deserves a professional edit and an attractive cover. Many also require as much pro interior design/layout as you can afford. These things cost real money and, in my mind, should be worth the investment because you have already determined there’s a big enough audience for the work to more than justify those expenses — or, that you will be putting in as much work as needed to create that audience.
Time and opportunity costs. This acknowledges a calculation that any book project merits the time and opportunity costs involved. Once you’ve sunk the time and money into producing the book (writing through editing, layout, proofreading, indexing, and design), you will need at least the same amount of resources (or a multiple) to market and sell it. Regardless of what contemporary options make easy for any author-publisher, I still come to the conclusion that all of this is worth it, speaking only from a business standpoint, if you plan to sell thousands of copies. Hundreds won’t cut it.
But I know that those numbers and that sort of investment is daunting and risky. It was for an established and reasonably successful indie publisher back then. And it still is. For independent authors and for publishers. To quote my friend Mary, “If I have convinced most of you not to go this route, I will have done my job here.”
The reckonings outlined so far are how I came to explore creative options for financing book projects. What I discovered provided needed up-front cash, minimized or even eliminated risk, and gained additional exposure and sometimes built-in ongoing sales for the books as extra boosts. Every book is its own best advertisement, so the more copies of a book out there — and in more places, in more readers’ hands — the better for spurring additional sales.
The four models I outline below have all been tested on nonfiction books and, in general, are probably best suited for them, though I’d urge the most creative and motivated to find the successful routes in these templates for fiction titles. They’ve all been successful in in multiple projects, and as you’ll see, they can be combined in various hybrids.
In the heyday of the small press I ran, we’d vet five hundred proposals and pitches each year and release only six to eight titles. The books that received the creative financing treatment, therefore, had already met our selection criteria. We knew they had and audience and “deserved to exist”; we were at the point of figuring out ways to fund them that didn’t require our business line of credit or credit cards.
Partnerships for advance volume sales
The easiest and most straightforward model — when a natural connection existed — was arranging a bulk advance sale or sales in an amount that covered or nearly covered initial production and printing costs (in the $8,000 to $11,000 range). Two such deals, for example, where when we published books on 1) one of Chicago’s top tourist attractions, architecture tours from the river, with Wendella boats, and 2) on the story behind and stories of the Billy Goat Tavern, a Windy City landmark immortalized in a historic John Belushi Saturday Night Live cheezeborger, cheezeborger sketch. Here are the components of those deals:
Knowing your book’s retail/cover price and the ideal amount you want to raise to cover costs.
Knowing and conveying to your target customer standard industry discounts for standard purchase quantities. Typical publisher discounts then ranged from 40%+ off for direct sales to bookstores to the more common 50% for direct sales to general retailers to 55%–60% discounts for book wholesalers and gift shop distributors. These discounts prevailed for orders of 6 to 100+ copies.
Offering your target customer/s much better discounts for much bigger orders. Create a graduated offer that gives 65%, 70%, 75%, and even 80% discounts off the retail price for buying hundreds or thousands of copies in advance. Do your math carefully on these exact proposals to make it worthwhile for you and for your customer.
Tell and sell your customer on these quantities. Show your customer that and how they’ll be able to re-sell these books and enjoy the larger profit margin. Demonstrate the many promotional uses of these inexpensive purchases (a book they bought for a few bucks makes good swag).
Structure the payment plan. Divide the advance sale total into three equal payments. We usually did 1/3 upon signing the agreement, 1/3 upon the book going to press, and 1/3 upon delivery of the order.
Put it all in writing. You don’t need a lawyer (use your own judgment on this), but you need the details in writing with signatures.
This model works well for those with large networks and a book with wide appeal. Check out these three titles that my company successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter as potential templates for your own project: A Beat Cop’s Guide to Chicago Eats, Just Add Water: Making the City of Chicago, and Shop Like a Chef: A Food Lover’s Guide to St. Louis Neighborhoods. Here are elements that worked for us in this model:
Only put in the effort of a Kickstarter campaign if you’re near certain you can meet your fundraising goal in the allotted time.
Follow all the project optimization advice on Kickstarter.
Focus on selling books in advance. We structured our rewards as advance sales, giving donors something in real-world value that matched the amount they gave (no feel-good fluff built in). We sold signed copies to individuals, books in threes (keep one, give two as gifts!), and books in quantities and at discounts typical for bookstores and gift shops to stock their shelves. For our one children’s book, we allowed donors to buy classroom sets at a discount for their neighborhood public school. For one pricey donation amount, we paired books with a couple of tickets to a book release party with food and drink on a boat.
Include all the costs. In determining the amount of money you want to raise and how you set the rewards, make sure you include the Kickstarter and credit card processing fees as well as the costs of shipping books out (mailers, labels, and postage).
Sponsorships are any arrangement that raises money for your book publishing project through a set fee that buys the sponsor advertising space of some sort in your book. One successful sponsorship we crafted was with the Chicago Trolley Company for our book Historic Bars of Chicago. For an established amount of money we included a tasteful full-page ad of theirs in the back of our book that encouraged trolley rental for the reader’s very own tour of historic Chi-Town bars and we gave the company a set amount of books to give away for their own promotional purposes. Key things for this model:
What do you give a sponsor for their financial commitment? Whatever you agree on. It may be a logo, a banner, a coupon, an ad (1/4 page, 1/2 page, full page), advertorial space. As we did, you can combine advertising and a certain number of free books for the sponsorship.
There should be some natural connection between book and sponsor. A natural connection is part of what’s in it for the sponsor, but it will also be more understood and palatable for the reader.
Keep the sponsorship content as separate from the book’s content as much possible. Consumers understand publishing is a tight business, but just as newspapers and magazines have traditionally and ideally drawn a strong line between their editorial and advertising departments, try to maintain that distinction in the book: A logo and brief line on the back cover. Text on an inside cover. Coupons and ads in the back after the index.
Consider more than one sponsor. If it makes sense, have more than one sponsor buy in with ads of different sizes in the back or coupons from multiple places. This works well with all types of guidebooks, regional content, skills manuals, books for hobbyists, etc.
Put it in writing — and consider reprints. Naturally, put all the details in writing, and don’t forget about reprints. If the book reprints, what will the cost be to remain a sponsor? Spell out the exact costs for the exact size of possible reprints (e.g., an extra $200 for every 1,000 copies reprinted).
Right now I’m putting things into place for my first project that combines all three of these: Kickstarter + volume sales + sponsorship for a full-color, glossy art book containing a Seattle photographer’s stunning pictures of that city’s neon signs. One classification of Kickstarter rewards will offer different sponsorship levels for stores and companies that include a set number of books for re-sale or promotional purposes, as well as an 1/8, 1/4, or 1/2 page ad for their regional organization printed on the book’s final page. [Follow-up note: This project was not funded through Kickstarter and we made other arrangements.]
This means applying for grants or otherwise working with philanthropies and/or nonprofits to finance your project. Because of the nature of foundations and nonprofits and a range of restrictions, this one is less of a model and more an area in which to negotiate mutually beneficial options. Things I’ve learned to keep in mind:
Typically only nonprofits can apply for grants, but in the pandemic era there are many more grant options open for new, innovative, fast-growing, small, hard-hit, women-owned, and/or minority-owned businesses. Put yourself on lists, such as with economic development organizations, to become aware of these.
One approach in this space involves partnering with a nonprofit organization or foundation in one or more of the abovementioned ways on a title that aligns with their mission or one of their goals. We’ve done this with the Chicago Maritime Society in publishing an anthology of works on local maritime history written by its members. The Regina V. Polk Foundation financed the production of a book on Polk's life (I Am a Teamster) in exchange for thousands of copies to give out at their annual conferences for emerging women leaders in labor.
If you are a nonprofit publisher or an organization/school/historical society (also nonprofits) that wants to publish a book, this is a funding model you can more readily pursue.
Many philanthropies have education-based missions. This is an opening for books.
There are more bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. Two projects we pursued unsuccessfully involved having a philanthropy pay for a large volume of books we, a for-profit business, published in order for them to give books to fill a need in a neighborhood or school system. This required tricky behind-the-scenes three-party negotiations that couldn’t quite breach the bureaucracy of large institutions.
Random discovery that may be useful: For the project above we learned that many professional athletes have foundations, but foundations with perhaps only one staff member and a penchant for funding one major project a year to keep things simple. If you have a long enough lead time for your project and a list of local athletes’ foundations that like to fund educational and/or community projects (many do), go ahead and pitch your book idea. Have a foundation fund 2,000 books to distribute to state libraries; 5,000 or 10,000 copies to give away at public health fairs; or, as we were trying to do — 53,000 copies of a needed 3rd-grade social studies book for every kid in the Chicago Public Schools system. That project would have solved a decades-long school textbook need in a particular subject, stamped someone’s name/foundation on a valuable book, and earned us a reasonable profit, all for a $200,000 donation.
Remember that any book project is a massive investment of time and resources, so consider focusing only on projects that could sell thousands and not merely hundreds or dozens of copies. A project that’s “worth it,” can justify the expenses of the professional editorial and design help that meet industry and consumer expectations.
There are proven creative financing models that can help cover a book project’s startup costs. Using them gives you needed up-front cash, minimizes or eliminates risk, starts you on the path to profits much sooner, and may also come with increased exposure and built-in ongoing sales.
Every additional copy of a book out in the world and circulating is another free advertisement for the book that can spur new sales.
Proven models include advance volume sales, Kickstarter/crowdfunding, sponsorships, philanthropic support, and hybrids of two or three of them.
Drop me a line if you’d like further details on any of the numbers behind these.