The hidden costs of publishing (read this BEFORE you pay anyone to publish your book!)

Tonight I made an hour long video, under the alleged topic “how much does publishing really cost” – however, the main focus of the video turned into a rant about certain publishing gurus or writing coaches who charge an extraordinary amount of money to help you write and publish your book. My own opinions are confused because, while I have tremendous respect and admiration for the WAY these publishing gurus are building rapport and community, I’m also extremely skeptical of their claims. So in this article I’d like to try and simplify what I like, and dislike, about “writing coaches” – and why you need to be careful before giving anybody your hard-earned money.

WHAT I LIKE

This year I’ve been learning advanced marketing principles, to help build my platform and sell my online courses. I have a ton of valuable knowledge and have helped tens of thousands of authors publish, but because I focus on the details, I’ve always had trouble selling. I realized recently that’s because:

  1. Most people aren’t ready to learn the details, and once I start talking they get overwhelmed
  2. People need to emotionally buy-in to my advice before they take action (and if they don’t take action, they won’t see results)

I’ve learned some really useful stuff, like:

  • starting with story first
  • getting people to like and trust me by being vulnerable
  • using metaphors rather than details
  • focusing on THEM: giving them space to talk about themselves and their books

Is this manipulative? Kind of, yeah. But if I know I can help people, and if they’re choosing to pay somebody else 10X more money for 1/10th the benefits, then I’m allowing authors to get ripped off by less scrupulous operators. I have a moral duty to reach out and help more people; but that means I need to convince them to truth and listen to me.

When I was in Kindergarten, I brought a special guest to school, a neighbor I think. But then in class, she hung out with and sat next to another girl she knew, not ME. I started crying. This is basically how I feel when authors choose to pay thousands of dollars for some program that won’t get them results. But I understand it.

Authors don’t WANT to learn all the nuances of publishing and book marketing. They just want someone to take care of everything for them.

Also, most writers haven’t even finished their book. Maybe they’ve spent years thinking about it, but can never actually finish. And I get that too – I dealt with shame and guilt for years because I wanted to write fiction, but could never actually get it done. That’s a huge pain point. If paying a ton of money for a writing coach to check in, keep you focused on motivated, give you enough confidence and optimism, and “sell you the dream” that allows you to do the work, there’s REAL value there!

For some people, it may be worth the money, just to hold their book in their hands.
For other people, it COULD allow them to launch a successful business.

But for most people, they’re paying 10X more than they need to just to have someone believe in them and tell them they’re a special snowflake.

I’ve resisted this for years: I don’t want to tell people their books will be successful. Most authors obstinately write books they’re passionate about but NOBODY else wants to read. I know from experience, 99% of success will come from market fit: how much demand there is for your product, and how much you can make your produce fit that demand with design, branding and packaging.

But here’s the thing, even though I have decades of experience and practically infallible knowledge of the publishing industry, it totally doesn’t matter if I’m not communicating the benefits in a way that writers are ready to hear and accept. It’s exactly the same thing I tell authors: You need to make your book attractive by matching what your audience wants and is looking for.

I tell authors NOT to do what they want to do, because it doesn’t work, and they should be writing books that sell instead.

I need to first meet them where they are, craft my message to resonate with their desires, get them to emotionally buy in, let them do what they want BUT THEN lead them towards more successful strategies. I’m aware at this point that I need to be using these very powerful sales strategies, and I WANT to use them, because I want people to feel empowered and energized by my content (not demoralized). So it’s kind of cool to recognize it when other people use them. But at the same time, these powerful psychological motivators can get reasonable people to spend way too much money publishing their book, and follow objectively bad advice, and still feel happy.

WHAT I HATE

This is how it works: people sign up for a free book, free coaching call, free video series or webinar or whatever.

The guru will make themselves sympathetic by revealing their hero’s journey:

“I used to be poor, overweight, unhappy, desperate, sick and anxious, depressed.” Maybe they got dumped, or had suicidal thoughts, or lost someone close to them. Sometimes they make themselves sympathetic by showing off their dog or cat or little brother. Maybe they show a picture of themselves as a kid or baby and tell an embarrassing story.

But the idea is, “Hey, I’m just like you! I figured this out, and you can too!”

Then they tell you a little bit about how to publish a book. Often, there will be an implied value that justifies high prices – this is commonly “six-figures.”
Most will admit you can’t make six-figures with a book; some will say you can’t make ANY money with a book. They’ll talk about different streams of income, or using your book to set up a services or coaching business and get more clients.

This is price-anchoring: you’ll associate their program with making six-figures, so when the buy-in price is revealed, it won’t seem like such a big deal.

Red flags to watch out for:

  1. They say it’s really hard to get into your program, but you can apply
  2. They write back and say “you’re accepted!”
  3. They charge over 10K to help you publish

 

How much does it actually cost to publish a book?

If you traditionally publish, it should cost zero: but, you also won’t earn much from royalties, it’ll take too long and you’ll waste time not learning or building your platform. It’s very difficult to earn a living

If you self-publish, you can do it for free – but you’ll need to DIY your book design (covers, interior formatting). You can hire cheap help: expert indie publishers spend an average of $500 to $1000 to publish each book. But the average cost for a new author is at least $2000. High quality copy editing and proofreading, which is probably a good idea if this is your first book, will probably cost at least $1000.

BUT – there are a bunch of hybrid, boutique or “bespoke” presses which are borderline vanity and borderline predatory. If they target you with ads; if they say they discovered you and are eager to publish you (but you just have to pay this one fee); if they have publishing packages which range from $2K to $20K, you should be careful.

Often, the simple publishing package of $2K or so *might* be reasonable, but since they’re farming out the book design, most of these hybrid publishers will give you crappy book design (which is the MOST important thing to get right!). Then they’ll hard sell you a bunch of services you don’t need, that sound good but won’t sell the book (press release, book signing, author website, getting “featured” in some website or magazine, a personal PR or marketing package, etc).

The big danger with these overpriced services, is assuming the more you pay, the more successful your book will be. It’s a psychological trick of sales that more expensive packages seem more desirable: so if you believe in and care about your book’s success, it can be tempting to go all out and just buy everything they’ve got. OFTEN these small presses know a little bit about publishing, but not much about marketing.

ALSO: Unless they are helping you actually write a book people want, you’re probably wasting your money, because all the important stuff happens in the beginning, not after the book is published.

What about coaches? For years, I’ve helped people self-publish, and try to get them to cut costs, fail fast, and learn how to write and publish books readers love. If you can learn these skills, you’ll have a much stronger position. I also help writers build authors platforms and get organic visibility. I can’t do it for them, and I wouldn’t take money to do so (even though people ask all the time). The problem is, I don’t BELIEVE in most big marketing packages because I know the book is the most important thing; and unless I can control the quality, I know even if I could get a ton of press and visibility for a book, that still wouldn’t make it a strong earner (earnings depend on demand – you can have a #1 bestselling book in a small category and still not earn much from it).

The problem is, people still WANT to pay lots of money for someone to do everything for them, so if I won’t do it, even though I tell them it’s a waste of money, they’re still going to pay someone else. And it’s not necessarily a total waste.

If spending a bunch of money to have a project manager, or personal coach, or to be involved in a supportive community makes you feel good about your writing and confident enough to keep working on your project, it can feel like money well spent. Working with first time authors who don’t know anything about writing, publishing or marketing can be exhausting. Some people enjoy it, and it can be good money, because there’s a ton of demand (95% of writers are first-time, never published authors. 4% are published by frustrated because they can’t sell. A fraction of 1% are actually making a living).

Telling people “you can make six-figures” from your book, and then charging them 10K or 20K or even 40K would feel like highway robbery to me. Knowing the industry, knowing the chances of success are slim to none, I couldn’t fake enough belief or enthusiasm for their projects when I know the market won’t support them.

Of course, I could only work with entrepreneurs, thought leaders or coaches; I absolutely could help them build a six-figure online business around their books, but I also want to help the novelists and people writing poetry or personal memoir. But since I know those books won’t actually earn a ton of money, I want to help them cut costs as much as possible; I want to help them finish and publish a book that’s profitable, which means charging them less.

The problem of course, is I also don’t want to work for free, and I don’t want to work for cheap since I could be making more money writing my own books. That’s why I’ve build tons of free resources, tools, templates, tutorials, and more – I’ve also started to build some online courses… And yet, I recognize:

  1. Authors need more support and feedback, EARLIER in the process
  2. Personal help and feedback from me, an hour of my time, is worth a hundred hours of recorded video they never watch.

 

Ideally, I’d earn so much from my books I could just work for free with a few authors a year, and I’ll probably do that eventually – but to get to that point, I need to scale my platform by charging more, so I can grow with paid advertising (rather than just charging enough to cover my time).

 

CONCLUSIONS

Writing is hard. If you want to finish the book YOU want to write, you may need to pay someone for support, encouragement and motivation, because self-motivating IS a problem. But keep in mind, if you’re publishing a book YOU think is amazing (but haven’t checked the topic or genre or done comparative title research or even looked at the other bestsellers in your genre – if you say things like “this book is TOTALLY unlike ANYTHING else out there” – if you’re writing a personal memoir or autobiography and it’s a collection of vignettes but not a STORY – you’re probably writing a book nobody wants or needs.

Investing over 10K in a personal hobby that brings you enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment: totally OK.

Investing over 10K to pay for someone to help motivate and coach you to getting it done: also OK.

Paying for the status of being a “published author” so you can do a one-time book signing or red carpet awards ceremony: fine it if makes you happy.

But if you want to make a living as a writer, then you need to treat your writing as a business, which means:

  • Cutting costs and boosting revenue
  • Learning how to do most of this stuff yourself
  • Being your own champion

How much SHOULD you pay to publish? $2K to $5K on your first book, and then 20% less with every book you publish.

Invest in KNOWLEDGE, not hand-holding. It’s difficult, and you may not want to make a living with your writing or want to learn everything – that’s fine. But you still need to be educated enough to listen to someone’s webinar without being sucked in by the psychological manipulation, and the dream of being a bestselling, six-figure author. You need to know enough about the industry to recognize the bullshit and avoid the scams.

Like I said, I’m not necessarily against the methods these gurus are using to build trust and rapport, and I’ll probably start using a lot of the same methods myself. For years, I’ve been playing small and avoiding putting myself out there, even though I know my content helps people, but if I want to grow my business I need to embrace the uncomfortable and learn to master the tactics that work. If I want to be a leader and help people take action, and I want to get people to buy what I want to make, I have to focus on what THEY want and are actively searching for.

PS. If this rubs you the wrong way, and you prefer creative ideologies about Passion and the Muse, you should read this.

PPS. Spending a lot of money on your first book is like buying all the toys for your first kid, and making the second kid you never planned to have use hand-me-downs. Your first book will probably not be your best. Don’t bet the farm on it. Don’t go in debt or use up all your savings. Also, don’t freak out if it doesn’t sell (that’s totally normal). Use it as a learning experience. Publishing a BOOK shouldn’t be your goal. Writing books readers love and developing the skills you need to be a full-time writer should be your goal. That kind of expertise comes from experience.

 

Learn more: I made an hour long video talking about this stuff!

 

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me

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