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Topic of the Night: Some Costs of Short Fiction Publishing

Some Costs of Short Fiction

In the old days, meaning ten years ago, we counted the price of selling short fiction in the cost of envelopes and postage. Not a small cost, actually. And printer ink and paper.

Now submissions are electronic with no costs other than the ability to deal with rejection and the wait for an editor to read your work. Actually, in this new world, the wait is the worst part since things are done so quickly these days.

So what are the indie publishing costs of what I described yesterday in trying to make a living with your short fiction?

Office Costs

Most of the costs of your office are what are called “set costs.” Those are costs that you experience regularly, such as a percentage of your mortgage payment for your writing office, a percentage of your power bill, your internet cost, your web site costs, and so on.

You also have some office expenses, such as when you buy a new computer or printer or paper or ink or a new desk or office chair. Those are expenses.

So set costs and expenses. How much are they? That will vary from person to person, situation to situation. But if you are going to be making a living with your short fiction, you need to treat everything like a business.

And early on, if you are smart and good with costs and expenses, you should never have to pay taxes on your writing money. In the business online workshop, Kris and I talk about when to change business structure and such to not pay so much in taxes.

Production Costs

This was the area I got three questions about today. And this area I can add in some pretty clear costs here.

Copyediting costs: These will vary, but for a short story of about 5,000 words you should be able to get a good copyedit on your manuscript for about $100.00.

Art Costs: At most of the online art sites, you should be able to buy a license to some cover art for anywhere from $15.00 to $30.00. If you are putting more than one piece of art on a cover, this total will go up.

Adobe Creative Suite: You will need this for InDesign and Photoshop at least. Worth the $50 per month, so turn it into a set cost for your office.

ISBN: You do not need an ISBN for your short stories in electronic, but you would want one on the paper version.  For a short story, buy the $10.00 ISBN from CreateSpace so you can put your own publisher name on it.

So moving the set cost of Adobe Creative Suite back to office costs, then per story you will be spending about $125 to $150 to get your story into print. The big part of that is the copyediting.

But one thing to remember. These costs are one-time costs. Your story can earn for years and years and years. Key to remember.

And I am not counting your time to write the story or to produce the story. Normally I would, but wanted to keep this simple this time.

Also, when you put the story into the collection, it does not have to be copyedited again. So for collections, your cost would only be from $25 to $40 per collection. As per last night’s discussion, you will make about $4.00 per sale of a collection, so you have your entire production costs back in ten sales.

Another Way of Thinking About Costs

Take your total costs for producing a short story. Include a percentage of your office costs.  Say you have about $300 in office set costs per month and you do 15 short stories in a month, you have per story a cost of about $20 set costs, plus the $150 for the production costs, giving you an investment in a story of $170.

Yes, I did say investment. You have created an income property.

So don’t think about how soon you can get the production costs back. Instead think of the $170 as if you put it into a long-term investment account.

So those of you who have 401K and savings and other investments, you know a 10% annual return on your money is pretty darned good.

So what do you need to get the $170 investment earning 10% annually?

$17.00 in income per year from the story. Or about 9 sales of the story in an entire year (at $2.00 per sale) will get you above a 10% return on the investment.

9 sales. In a year. From all the different places to sell.

Yeah, I know, applying real business and investment thinking to publishing hurts sometimes.

Hoped that answered some of the production cost questions. I think of the costs as production costs right up to the point when the story is done and the cover and such is done. Then, I switch my thinking to investment. I have invested the money I spent to produce that story in my future.

Many of you with day jobs do this with your retirement accounts. Why not think of your writing in the same fashion? Takes a ton of pressure off the sales.

And puts low sales of a story a month into real perspective.

A Side Story

Last year I had a nonfiction book earn me a 2,700% annual return on my investment. Blog posts turned into a book and the book was in a successful bundle as well as having good sales through all the sites.

Now I expect that same book to still have a fantastic rate of annual return on investment this year. Maybe over 100%.  And who knows, it might maintain that kind of massive return on original investment for years.

Investors in stock or bonds would kill for those rates of return.

We create property, folks. I like to think of each story as a house in a subdivision that I lease out. That nonfiction book was an expensive piece of property I bought real cheap. (grin)

Have fun.


  • Kevin McLaughlin

    Some thoughts on trimming costs:

    Adobe Digital Suite is $50 a month, or $600 a year. You can trim this back to $120 by just getting the Photoshop subscription and skipping InDesign. Don’t get me wrong – InDesign is awesome, but I do all my books in Word or Libre Office, and you can’t tell the difference. Caveat: I grew up with parents who were professional typographers. I have been setting type since the 1970s (working for them as a kid). I used to do magazine layout with Pagemaker (the predecessor to InDesign) back in the 80s, which had less tools for layout than Word or Libre Office have today. But you CAN do it this way, and since short story print sales are going to be few, investing an extra $480 a year into print production is probably a cost you can avoid. (I have a very basic template for Libre Office I can give to anyone who asks; Dean, if you’d like to make it available I can send you a copy.)

    ISBN: You do want one on every print book (as Dean said, don’t bother for ebooks). But if you are truly producing 50+ books a year, buy a pack of 100. It’s $595, but then you’re paying less than six bucks per story for the ISBN, which saves you $200 a year if you’re producing just 50 stories a year. If you’re doing 15 shorts in a month, like Dean mentions? Buy the pack of 1000 ISBNs for $1000. You’re publishing 180 a year – or $1800 for the Createspace ISBNs, and you’d end up buying two packs of 100 at $595 anyway. Buy the 1000 pack.

    Art Costs: BigStockPhoto.com costs just $49 for 25 image credits. You want high-res images, so each download will cost you 2-4 credits. That’s still at least 5-6 images for fifty bucks. Or you can do what I do, and cruise the site for a long while, looking for LOTS of cool images and adding them to your saved list, then sign up for a month of 5 images a day. This is $79 (less if you grab a sale, and they often have sales of 25% off), and those images can be any size. So if you are diligent and remember to download every day, you get 150 high-resolution images for as little as sixty dollars.

    Editing: This can be controversial, but I sometimes do my own editing. I used to do this professionally, so my copy edits are about as good as any I’ve paid for (about as accurate), despite the myth that you “can’t see your own errors”. You can. You just need to learn how. This IS a learning curve though, so I don’t know if it’s worth the time cost involved. To learn this skill you need to edit your own work (for grammar, spelling, punctuation, typos, repeated words, poor word choices, and so on), then ALSO have the work edited by a pro so you see what you missed. Every time you do this you will get better. Do it for a year of writing a story a week, and you probably won’t need a copy editor anymore. That said – it still takes time to copy edit. You have to ask if you wouldn’t be better off spending that time writing another story instead… I certainly try to shift this weight off my shoulders, and am doing so more and more. If I spend five hours editing a novella instead of writing I have lost as much as 10,000 words of production. That’s penny wise and pound foolish.

    Other costs?

    Email List: Mailchimp starts off free, but to get the most out of it you need to pay $10 a month. That gives you autoresponders (the ability to have timed emails sent out to each new subscriber in sequence once they join) and better tracking. As you add more people to your list the monthly cost climbs.I’m paying $37 a month right now between two email list providers and will probably be paying more like $50 a month by the end of the summer. Since I am publishing 1-2 novels a month, I make that back and more – it’s a sound investment. The more often you publish, the more valuable your mailing list will be.

    Marketing: There are many sorts of marketing you can do. The best is usually Bookbub – which you can use for short story collections, but not shorts (150 page minimum). The second best is your next book, so if you’re producing 4-15 new titles a month you have this covered. 😉 Next best – for this style of fast writing – is building an email list. You can accomplish this by joining co-op giveaways with other writers in the same genre. Check Kboards, or join some other writing communities, and find them. You can join a promo for $10 or so. If you’ve joined a good one it will net you 1000-3000 new subscribers. If you can’t find one, run one. Buy a Kindle Fire or Oasis, get some other writers to share the cost, buy the KingSumo plugin for your WordPress site, and run a giveaway for a Kindle loaded with a bunch of books by yourself and other authors in your genre. $10 a month like this will offer HUGE long term returns, especially for productive writers.

    If I think of anything else, I’ll mention it… 😉

    • Teri Babcock

      I also have cost savings suggestions, that are different that Kevin’s 🙂

      Get Photoshop Elements (one time purchase of $100 Cdn, $70 US) instead of the PS subscription which, unless you plan to do pro-photographer level manipulating, is all you need for making covers. Get the InDesign month to month, remembering that you can turn it on and off, and you won’t need to pay for a full year if you were to do your books in batches — say, 4 times a year. Yes, Scribus is free, but it is less intuitive to use than InDesign, for which there is also far, far more support and training available on how to use the program. See Lynda.com. They are outstanding, and it is really easy to turn your subscription on and off.

      Images: there are big discounts if you buy a lot of images within a 30-day period. Big, big, discounts. If you are organized, and know what you want for your covers, you can get more images than you could hope to use on 180 stories, for $300 or so. Dreamstime has packages.

      With all the money you save, you can take the Covers and Short Story workshops 🙂

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    Hmmm. Thought of another bit. You need to remember to pay the author, while you are figuring out expenses. Even if the author is you. 😉

    So if you are aiming for say $50 an hour – and spend five hours total on a short story between writing, edits, cover, and uploads (pretty fast – it could take twice that), then your sunk cost for time is $250. Which brings the $170 up to $420. Which means you need to sell $42 worth per year to make that 10% ROI. That’s 21 copies at $2.99, across all vendors, or a bit under two a month. It’s still DOABLE.

    But it’s important to remember the cost of your time as well.

  • Harvey

    Guess I’ll toss in my two cents too. For covers I use Serif PagePlus. Find it at Serif.com. They even have a free version you can test drive. It’s an excellent program that costs around $100. It’s intuitive, so not a lot of training needed.

    I also buy all my covers via Bigstock or Canstock, usually on a 30-day subscription. I’ve gotten photos (large or extra-large @ 300 dpi) for as little as 33 cents. But I write and publish a LOT of short stories, plus the novels and novellas so having stock on hand is a good thing.

    See my take on Dean’s excellent tips at http://hestanbrough.com/the-journal-tuesday-510/.

    • dwsmith

      Honestly, you don’t want my thoughts, Alison. They make their money charging writers, not selling books. Extreme Caution is advised!!!!

  • Denise Gaskins

    What I would like to know is how you price the paperbacks at $4.99 without losing money on expanded distribution. I can’t see a way (at CreateSpace) to go less than $5.99 and still break even.

    • dwsmith

      Oh, Denise, with trade paperbacks, you can’t get near that number. Paperback pricing depends on the size and page count, mostly page count. Most trade paperbacks are $12.99 to $15.99.

      You are thinking of mass market paperbacks and CreateSpace or any other POD printer can’t do that size economically. You have to have them printed in large quantity with a web press before that becomes viable and that has all sorts of other problems involved.

      • Denise Gaskins

        I was confused by the first short stories post: “Once the story is either returned to you or you run out of markets or a year goes past without a sale, you do the following with the story.
        — Indie publish it stand-alone electronic. Sale price is $2.99 electronic.
        — Indie publish it stand-alone paper. Paper Price is $4.99…”
        I had hoped you’d elaborate in this post, how you managed those prices.

        • dwsmith

          That’s a short story, Denise. I would never think of it going to bookstores or extended distribution. My stories in paper, with the front matter and back ad matter tend to run about thirty to forty pages. So no words on the spine either. That’s how I can do it for $4.99. It’s just a single short story. Unless the minimums at CreateSpace have changed lately, meaning the last two years, but Smith’s Monthly, which is 8 x 10 and about 160 pages and about 70,000 words an issue hasn’t gone up in price at all. So don’t think they have. I sell that for $12.99.

          But what I was talking about there was a stand-alone short story in paper. I do it not to sell many copies but to just hold something in my hand. Just a personal thing, and it makes the $2.99 electronic price seem cheaper. (grin)

          • Denise Gaskins

            Oh, so the short stories are Amazon only? (Or direct order from you, I guess.) They don’t have extended distribution? I didn’t think you did that with anything.

            At CreateSpace, the length doesn’t matter that much if you’re in the less-than-100 pages range. Anything from 24 to 108 pages costs the same to print.

          • dwsmith

            Oh, good, glad that hasn’t changed. I haven’t uploaded a book myself in a couple years. The nine employees at WMG Publishing take care of things like that now. But I did the first 300 titles myself, so figure if I have to do it again, I can pick it up quick. (grin) The reason we can afford nine employees is that I did the first 300 titles myself.

  • Ken

    I’ve actually managed to keep costs fairly low for LIP over the years. People who can do their own covers, formatting and have someone on hand that will read their stories and offer typo support (for free or a low rate) have it a little better than those that don’t.

    It’s why the whole partnership I have going on with Sophie (the other writer at LIP) works so great. I do the grunt work and she does the creative work and we are all happy. We split the money and the costs are near to nothing beyond our time.

    Some things that have helped are using templates for formatting, having very basic low cost marketing strategies that think outside the box, stock covers (we are selling erotica, so reusing cover images is kind of the norm for that market) and fairly re-usable plots and next to no office or printing costs (everything is electronic right now).

    An amusing fact is neither me nor Sophie have internet at our houses (kills productivity and social life) and use Starbucks wi-fi as our go to for publishing and communication. Heck, I didn’t even have a TV until really recently. We are simple living folks. 😉

  • Rosalind James

    Actually, that is not how you measure ROI. If you invest $100 and make $10, you have -90% ROI, not +10% ROI.

    ROI= (Gain from investment) – (Cost of investment)/(Cost of investment)

    In the example given:
    (10-100)/100 = -90/100 = -90%

    You have to earn $110 in a year on your story to have +10% ROI on your $100 investment for that year.


    Sorry, but I was an MBA before I was an author. 🙂 I see this mistake a lot. Basically you want to be earning MORE than your cost on any investment, or it is a net LOSS, not a net gain.

    You may of course make a net gain over time, but that doesn’t take into account the time value of money: money you have today is worth more than money you will have next year. (Because money you have today could be invested at, say, 5% interest per year. After which time you wouldn’t be OUT $100-10, you would be IN $100+5. Net gain.)

    Hope that makes sense.

    • dwsmith

      Rosalind, thanks for the input. We went over this when this article first came out. You are considering a form of manufacturing ROI. As the article you linked to shows, there are numbers of ways of looking at investing return. When you have a story, you never lose or sell the base property. So it becomes like a rental return investment. You buy a house for $100,000 and make a 10% return each year on the house. So every year you make $10,000 profit. You house is still sitting there. And will make another $10,000 the next year if managed correctly.

      So with stories, you calculate your cost in a story, sunk costs, basically, and that becomes your investment. And since copyright is a form of property, it works the same way as a real estate investment property.

      Kris thinks of hers as a hotel, I like to think of my writing as a large subdivision. Where I own every house and rent them (or license them actually).

      So thanks for the input. You are right for the area you are talking about, but not for investment property. In writing you never, unlike manufacturing, try to get your production costs back.