I’ve been seeing this a lot lately, so often that it’s scaring me. It’s a question, or a variation on it, and new writers are asking it over and over again: how much should I pay to get published?
The short answer: YOU NEVER PAY TO BE PUBLISHED. ZERO. NADDA. NOT A DAMN RED CENT.
The long answer is, well, long, and involves some important terms.
If you are going the traditional publication route, here are the things you need to know:
- Getting an agent is difficult but useful. Agents are “governed” by a professional board of ethics thingy that forbids agents from asking for reading fees or editing fees. Agents get paid when you get paid and the amount is in the contract you sign with them (generally a percentage of any advances and/or royalties you earn on manuscripts they represent for you). If an agent asks for a reading fee, or sends you to a “professional reading company” or “screening company” that charges a reading fee, it is a SCAM.
- You can pitch directly to SOME publishers, but it limits the number of legit publishers you can reach out to. Many only accept submissions through agents.
- A traditional publisher foots the bill for cover art, editing, proofing, and layout. IT WILL NOT EVER COST YOU MONEY TO WORK WITH A LEGIT TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER. They will pay you royalties on EVERY book sold. They make their money back, and make a profit, on the rest of the cover price (the part they don’t pay you).
- If you get a publisher that is well-established, you may get an advance. This means “An advance on future royalties” and they don’t have to pay you anything else until your book earns back that advance and starts turning a profit again.
If you are publishing independently (self-publishing), here is what you need to know:
- The act of publishing the book, as a paperback or e-book, costs ZERO DOLLARS.
- You may need to hire one or more various PUBLICATION SERVICE PROVIDERS to help you get the manuscript ready for publication. This can include editors, proofreaders, cover artists, interior artists, and interior formatters. Whatever you are not comfortable doing yourself, you need to pay for. A service provider provides a service, for a fee, and that is it. If a service provider is requesting rights to your book or royalties IT IS A SCAM. You pay someone ONCE, either you pay upfront for a service OR you pay part of the cost of the book.
- SPECIAL NOTE: When I did my picture books I worked with a friend who did my illustrations. We have an agreement to split all royalties 50/50 because I could not afford to pay him upfront. This was mutually agreed upon.
- You need a SALES PLATFORM. Most commonly, people use Amazon, via KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) for both e-book and paperback. It costs NOTHING to upload your manuscript and cover and you earn money for each book sold. Amazon also makes money on each book sold. They hold no rights to your book. Other platforms include Lulu.com, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Kobo Writing Life, and IngramSpark.
- SPECIAL NOTE: Ingram Spark charges a 1-time set up fee of $50 per title BUT they offer much wider distribution options on their paperbacks AND a return policy. I have many friends who use this service and are more than happy with the quality.
- SPECIAL NOTE: Many sales platforms and distributors and printers offer various publication services as listed above. If they are optional, it is more likely to be a legit company. IF IT IS A MANDATORY COST TO HAVE YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED WITH THEM IT IS A SCAM.
- If you are doing paperbacks, you need a printer. You can find small printers local to you (in Manitoba we have Friesen’s Printing). A printer’s only job is to take a digital file of your book and make it a paperback. Some are Print-on-Demand (POD), which means there is no minimum order size. KDP is POD, so when a reader orders your paperback on Amazon, KDP prints one copy and ships it. This is a little more expensive per copy, but you have no unsold stock sitting in a warehouse somewhere. Some printers do have a minimum print run (anywhere from 50-500 so be careful, it took me 4 years to sell 400 copies of my debut novel) and the bulk print run could save you as much as 30-50 cents per copy but you now have to store all those books. Printers may charge a 1-time set up fee, in addition to per-book costs. They do not get rights to your book, or royalties on books sold (unless, like Amazon, they are an automated POD system that is handling your sales as well).
- If you want books in retail stores, you need a distributor. These are the people who handle the orders from the store, and handle the returns for you. They get a cut of the cover price for every book they move on your behalf, and may also charge a warehousing fee for books in storage. I would skip this step unless you have high sales (1000 books a year or more) or are running a small press of your own.
The best rule of thumb to keep in mind is this: money should always flow to the author. My second rule is this: You either pay a person coming, or going, not both. That means, you either pay for a service upfront, or you pay royalties/cut of the book price but not both.
If you are unsure of a contract or company ASK. There are dozens of writers’ groups online and there should be a local writers’ guild or union close to you that you can join. Do a search for the company but add “reviews” after their name to see what other people are saying about them.
If you have any questions about this article, or if you feel I’ve missed something, contact me. Just over 4 years ago I stepped off the deep end into the indie publishing world. We don’t have time to make all the mistakes ourselves, we have to learn from each other.