On the Finances of Self-Publishing

Almost exactly two years ago today, I finished the first draft of Red Soil Through Our Fingers. As I talk to friends and family about my novel, I’ve encountered a recurring set of misconceptions around the finances of self-publishing a novel, especially an ebook. I admit I knew nothing about how book publishing worked before embarking on this adventure and having to learn about e-publishing the long way, so I am hardly surprised that few people seem to be aware of the costs.

I’ve also run into a few aspiring writers who seem to think self-publishing an ebook means they simply get to make their total sales number times their chosen list price. Spoiler: That’s really, really far from the truth.

So here’s me being transparent about my journey as a new and (hopefully?) rising science fiction author.

Some background: Prior to publishing Red Soil Through Our Fingers in January 15, 2016, I had published two short stories in professional paid markets. Red Soil was my first novel of any kind, and my first self-publication. The novel is ebook only — there is no print version — and I sell it through two major networks: Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, and the Smashwords network (which includes most every other ebook retailer you’ve ever heard of besides Amazon, such as Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc). The novel was priced at $0.99 as a pre-order through December and the first half of January, then released on January 15th at a list price of $2.99.

Also, it should go without saying that self-publishing involves a staggering number of diverse factors. I don’t claim that my experience is universal in any sense, nor that I’ve made the most optimal decisions. I’m on a learning curve myself, and I only hope that revealing some of the backstage data can provide some useful insight.

Sales

The great news is that 72 people have actually purchased my book to date. Thank you! I appreciate that you took a chance on a new author. If you bought Red Soil Through Our Fingers in the last few months, you are among the first readers ever to support my writing. Whatever that ends up being worth to you, I’m grateful you were able to share in my creative product.

12346589_982958841763352_7543731240419688299_nIn addition, I gave away 155 custom USB drives to beta readers and to fans at the two major science fiction conventions here in New England, Arisia and Boskone. I wanted to be able to hand out the book itself, something more concrete than a business card (which still requires the recipient to go out and buy the book). I also included a interview, a video introduction to the issues, and copies of my two published short stories to make it a commemorative “special edition” token. (People loved the concept, by the way).

So that’s a total of 227 copies of Red Soil Through Our Fingers knowingly distributed over six months. Not bad at all!

In terms of revenue, you might think my book income so far might be 72 sales x $2.99 list price = $215.28. However…34 of the 39 sales through the Smashwords network were free or discounted by 50% through a promo code. Of the 33 Amazon sales, 16 were pre-ordered at the promotional price of $0.99, the rest were purchased at list price.

And let’s not forget fees. Sales directly through Smashwords return 85% of the list price, which is awesome. But most of my sales through the Smashwords platform have actually been through other retailers like the Apple and Barnes & Noble. In these cases, Smashwords takes a much smaller cut, but the retailer also takes their own cut, as much as 35%. Amazon takes 30%, unless I choose to opt-in to KDP Select, which has huge moral and practical costs which I decline to accept.

Oh, and there a transaction fee for processing each sale…

In the aggregate, about 38% of gross revenue was taken as fees for my sales through the Smashwords network as a whole, and about 39% for Amazon. That leaves $40.27 from Amazon, and $21.44 from all other retailers combined, for a total net sales income of $61.71.

(Incidentally, Amazon is currently 46% of total sales and 65% of net revenue… cold hard facts that explain why the evil giant can throw its weight around the publishing industry.)

Accounting for all the free copies I gave away, that’s an average income of twenty-five cents per knowingly distributed copy.

Again, I’m very happy that so many people are getting copies of my book… that’s more than most aspiring writers ever get to see. But if you’re one of those aspiring writers thinking that self-publishing is a quick way to make a few bucks… well. It took two and a half years to write and publish the novel. You do the math if you want to know the hourly rate.

Costs

So what did it cost me to get here? Self-publishing an ebook seems like it would be free to the uninitiated, but the costs can be much higher than one might think (and certainly higher than I expected).

First of all, your book needs an editor. I’m grateful to my network of fellow writers and readers who helped me collaboratively edit successive drafts of my first novel. Otherwise, that service could have cost me several hundred to over a thousand dollars for a novel-length manuscript. I was spared this time… I may not be able to get away with that in the future.

Secondly, a good book needs a good cover. The Smashwords Guides have remarkable data on the difference that a good cover makes in selling a book. But even without looking at the data, you already know… we all judge books by their covers all the time. In fact, when competing for reader eyeballs on a giant Amazon listing of potential books that is literally millions of titles long, a good cover is actually the only hook you have. I paid my cover artist $200 for an original design, a price I believe was fair and well-worth the amazing final result.

Thirdly, there’s marketing once the book is out. Those fancy USB drives? Very cool, but 200 of them at around $3.70 each is almost $750. My hope had been that an investment in interesting, unique handouts would get a lot of people to read and review the book, thus eventually leading to more sales in the long run. As I’ll get to in the next section, that gamble hasn’t paid off… yet. (Though I definitely think they made great thank you gifts to beta readers, and friends and family loved them… but I may not order so many next time.)

Along with the other miscellany I’ve bothered to keep track of, the total cost of publishing and marketing my first ebook novel so far is over $1000.

Reviews

The basic investment of marketing by giving away free copies is the hope that a) readers will be satisfied with the product they received for free, and b) they will then pass on their satisfaction by word of mouth and online reviews, thus eventually yielding many more sales than the initial cost.

So far, it seems that outcome (a) has been met. (Thankfully… seeing as that’s actually more important to me… see Concluding Thoughts below.) Red Soil Through Our Fingers has an average 4.3 /5.0 rating on Amazon, an average 4.0/5.0 rating on GoodReads, and a straight up five stars in the Apple iBook Store. Thank you! I truly appreciate those of you who took the time to write thoughtful reviews, including those with less-than-stellar ratings. Honest reviews help readers decide to take a chance on an unknown author like myself, convey an authentic reaction to the story, and help spread the word about the book.

However… I should note that these ratings come from a total of only fourteen reviews. That means that, despite an average rating that is very positive, only 6% of distributed copies so far have actually resulted in a review.

Now, there could be many reasons for that low percentage, including:

  • Maybe a lot of people who received a copy of the book simply haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. (Likely… I buy books in the moment because they look interesting, but often keep them for months and sometimes years before getting around to actually reading them. Sometimes I even forget about them altogether. I get it.)
  • People have read the book, but forgot, or haven’t gotten around, or perhaps never intend to write a review. (I buy tons of things all the time and just archive the stupid Amazon Marketplace emails asking for reviews the instant I see them. Who wants to take the time right? Well, here I am on the other side, asking you to please write a review.)
  • Reviews for anything tend to be written by people who either loved or hated the reviewed thing in question. Maybe my book is kind of “meh” for most people and they don’t feel motivated to write a review either way. (If this is you, please write a review! Even two and three star reviews help build exposure if honestly and thoughtfully written.)
  • Maybe reviews are just like that. After all, the Divergent series sold 6.8 million copies in 2013 alone, and the three books combined have 53,843 reviews on Amazon, which is only 0.8% of sales. (There’s problems with using those figures, I know, but just looking at a rough cut.)

Whatever the case, the numbers are what they are. It would be nice to see more reviews of the book, but that said, I’m very happy that what reviews I have received are overwhelmingly positive.

Concluding Thoughts

From a purely financial perspective, to-date I’m still in the hole $964.61 on self publishing my first novel.

Now, let me state here that I’m not actually trying to make money on my writing. I have a day-job that pays the bills and no intention of either A) trying to write full-time at any point in the near future, or B) giving up writing because it doesn’t make any money. I write as a hobby… because I love making up stories, exploring the intersection of ideas and people, and sharing those discussions with other people, hopefully toward the end goal of making the world a better place.

Though all that said, it certainly would be nice to recoup the cost of producing the thing in the first place, and thus enable the hobby to continue more sustainably. (I estimate that breaking even would need another 850 list-price sales.)

(If you want to help that goal, it’s pretty simple. Buy the book, encourage others to buy the book, and leave reviews everywhere so that people you don’t even know can be persuaded to take a chance on… well, buying the book.)

Obviously, I plan to keep talking about Red Soil and seeing where it goes, even while I work on the next novel (as yet untitled, but look for details on the blog and on Facebook as the ideas take shape!). It was a great personal accomplishment for me, a huge confidence boost to my writing, and of course a serious learning experience. At the end of the day, I’m very glad I did it, and I’m very grateful to all those who helped me reach this milestone.

Here’s to the next writing adventure…

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Summer Writing Plans

The school year is finally over.

I hadn’t written a word of real prose in months. Though I’ve had time to write in the literal sense, it feels as though I can never find time to write. Maybe that’s an excuse. But sometimes I think that teaching strongly forces a mindset antithetical to writing. On average, I work ten to twelve hours per day during the school year. Most of these hours I need to be in a mental space that demands constant attention to a thousand competing concrete tasks. Even in the evenings and on the weekends, I struggle to get back into a mindset of out-of-the-box thinking, imagining the fantastic, and unstructured creativity.

But now that changes! Over the last few days I’ve been trying to emerge from writer hibernation, get my bearings, and choose a project for the summer.

Red Soil Through Our Fingers, released last January, is doing better than I hoped for a first novel. I’m far from breaking even on it financially, but profit certainly isn’t the only metric for a book. I was able to get through the whole writing, revision, and publication process successfully, and get my work out there. About two hundred copies are out in the world by my count, and the few reviews that have come in so far are almost all positive.

I’ve attempted the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers a few times, but it has been difficult to gain traction on it. To be honest, I feel overly constrained by the pre-existing narrative and characters, as well as the very Hard-SF tack of the first novel. I’ve been itching to do something a little more imaginative, with new characters to explore. So I’m tabling Red Soil for now.

I broke ground this week on a new novel, which takes place in a fictional star cluster somewhere in our galaxy. The book is as-yet untitled, of course, but I can say that I want to explore how conflicts between strong, wealthy nations can steamroll over the less-powerful caught in between. I’m also directly facing an element I avoided in Red Soil: religion and its interplay with science and society. I’ll post updates later in the process when I have something concrete to share.

 

 

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Boskone 53 Recap

What a wonderful weekend it was at Boskone! I had the pleasure of serving on five panels, one solo reading, and the Boskone Book Release Party. Below are the weekend’s highlights from my point of view.

My first panel was entitled Earth: We’re Stuck Here!. Moderator James Patrick Kelley led us in a lively discussion that took the contrarian view of spaceflight, with each member of the panel staking out different ground on the sliding scale of spaceflight optimist to pessimist. My own position was (and is) that human spaceflight enthusiasts are often too optimistic or hand-wavy about very real, serious challenges to human expansion beyond Earth’s orbit. My two areas of focus were Biology (encompassing not just radiation, but long term exposure to zero or low-G, birth, development, aging, and death in space, food, ecosystems, etc), and logistics (supply chain, manufacturing, replicability, reliability, etc). However, while I think these challenges will make human spaceflight much more difficult, costly, and time-consuming than many spaceflight enthusiasts think, I do still believe they are surmountable challenges. I remain pragmatically optimistic about the issues.

And, apparently, I had the quote of the evening.

My next panel was Key Moments in Space Travel. I enjoyed how this panel strove to go beyond the obvious moments of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. As momentous as these moments were, they are also generally well known. We talked about the early X-15 program, our first forays into space, in which the pilots received their astronaut wings after the fact. I brought up Salyut 1, the first space station of any kind, marking humanity’s first attempt to establish a semi-permanent presence in space. Fellow panelists talked about Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, and we reflected on the difficulties of spaceflight and the lessons learned from tragedy.  Finally, we looked ahead to what might shape our near future in spaceflight, with countries such as China and India setting out near term goals for their taikonauts and vyomanauts, respectively, as well as private space enterprise.

The panel 100 Years of Relativity kicked off a whirlwind Saturday afternoon of science and spaceflight. We discussed the history of Einstein’s infamous theory of warping spacetime as an explanation for our perception of gravity. We highlighted key observations in history that validated Einstein’s new view of the universe, such as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the bending of light rays as they pass near massive objects, gravitational redshift, frame dragging of spacetime around rotating massive objects, time dilation in a gravitational field, gravitational lensing, the existence of black holes, and (quite recently) LIGO’s direct observation of gravitational waves. We also touched on the social impact of General Relativity (Interstellar anyone?) and bit on how theories adapt and change over time.

Next up for me was The Year in Physics and Astronomy, where we discussed exciting new discoveries in two fields that have long had a symbiotic relationship with science fiction. We talked about Kepler 452b, one of the most promising candidates for an Earthlike planet outside of our solar system. Quantum effects observed in photosynthesis, flying a probe through a geyser on Enceladus, the New Horizons and Dawn missions, gravitational waves, pentaquarks, and baby universes being born inside quantum vacuum black holes rounded out a very diverse list of topics.

As Saturday afternoon passed into evening, I gave my first solo reading from my novel Red Soil Through Our Fingers. I proceeded directly to the Boskone 53 Book Party, where I got to meet many readers and fellow authors, several of whom picked up USB editions of the novel. So far, over two hundred copies of Red Soil Through Our Fingers have gone out into the world since the release last month. As people get around to reading and reviewing, I’m anxiously looking forward to seeing what readers think.

My final panel was Phun with Physics. We had a great crowd, doubly so considering that it was a Sunday afternoon panel! We highlighted some of the lesser-known quirky points in the history of Physics, such as early attempts to measure the speed of light, the Magedeberg spheres being used to demonstrate the power of vacuum, weighing and measuring the circumference of the Earth, debunking common misconceptions about Galileo and Archimedes, and looking at the important contributions of non-Western scientists who are often left out of the traditional Physics canon.

I’m delighted to report a major writer milestone: Boskone 53 marked the first time a fan I did not already know has asked for my autograph. It was right after one of my panels, and “Mark” approached the table with a print copy of We See a Different Frontier. He asked if I could sign the title page to my short story Remembering Turinam, which appeared in the anthology two years ago. I was so flabbergasted that I’m not exactly sure what I said or even if I can remember what my first real fan looks like. So Mark, if you’re out there reading this, please drop me a line! Thanks for your support and hopefully what I wrote was coherent.

Lastly, I’d like to congratulate Andrew Owens, a friend and member of my writer group, on a successful first stint as a part of con programming. Andrew was a panelist on multiple panels, moderated one superbly with no advance notice, and even led a solo workshop on Spaceflight in Science Fiction and Reality. Andrew writes for Asking How and Why, a new blog that translates complex science into clear explanations for the educated lay public. He also does some reviews of science fiction and nonfiction.

That’s all until next year Boskone! Thanks for an enlightening time.

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Writing Resources

I recently published my first novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, which was a major personal accomplishment. In the aftermath, I’ve been looking back on the process, and trying to determine what practices I should carry forward and try to improve and which practices hindered my progress. In addition to thinking about my overall writing process, I’ve also been reflecting on the resources and supports that helped me start, sustain, and finish my first novel.

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About the Issues in Red Soil

SciFi Policy has posted an in-depth interview with N.A. Ratnayake about the issues in Red Soil Through Our Fingers.

Human expansion into space is happening. Where previous generations imagined the push into space driven by government programs such as NASA, we are seeing now that it is likely to be corporations or private interests staking claims out there at least as much as governments. In fact, multiple companies have already declared near-term space intentions such as orbital tourism, mining lucrative asteroids, extracting fresh water and hydrocarbons, and settling on the Moon and Mars.

There is likely more platinum and water in the asteroid belt than there is in all of planet Earth. To whom does this wealth belong? Commercial enterprise and private interests will need to play a large role in opening up space for humanity, but strong public space policy now is essential to shape and guide the coming age for society as a whole. Writers, scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been talking for decades about what our future in space will look like.  The public at large needs to enter this conversation, so that we can make sure our expansion into space results in an equitable, sustainable, and responsible distribution of the truly staggering amount of resources right here in our own solar system.

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My Boskone 53 Schedule

Join me at Boskone (February 19-21, 2016) in Boston, MA for New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s going to be a fun weekend filled with books, film, art, music, gaming, and more. For more information about Boskone, check out The Boskone Blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Visit the Boskone website to register.

I will be appearing in five panels, a reading, and a book release party. Details below!

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SciFi Policy Interviews Me on the Issues in Red Soil Through Our Fingers

SciFi Policy has posted an in-depth interview of me about the social, political, and economic issues in Red Soil Through Our Fingers. SFP is a group that seeks to review, discuss, and advocate for science fiction that helps us explore issues of political, social, and economic importance. Check out this interview for discussion of Red Soil‘s plot and characters, human spaceflight, space settlement, corporate space, Mars, and my favorite policy-relevant fiction!

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Design of The Hellas-Dao Mars Colony

The story of Red Soil Through Our Fingers takes place against the backdrop of Hellas-Dao, a Mars colony owned and operated by the Rekos-Breland Xenomaterials Corporation (RBX). Though the setting is obviously fictional, I wanted to make sure that I incorporated much of what we already know about Mars and what future Mars colonies might look like. Though I have a background in aerospace engineering, neither Mars nor Mars colonization architectures were my area of expertise. The process of researching defining the setting for the novel was a lot of fun.

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My Arisia 2016 Schedule

I’m happy to be returning to Arisia as a panelist again this winter! New England’s largest and most diverse science fiction convention will be January 15-18, 2016 at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, near the convention center. My panel schedule is below.

Hope to see you there! (Ask for a signed copy of the USB edition of Red Soil Through Our Fingers!)

Edit 1/4/16: I was recently added to one more panel in the Literature strand, as well as a reading. These updates are now included below.

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Avoiding a Corporate Conquest of Space

It will be viewed as a historic milestone: the act that first allowed merely multinational mega-corporations to become interplanetary ones: The United States congress has recently passed legislation, H.R. 2262, that guarantees the private property rights of United States citizens in space.

On the surface, private property rights in space may seem like an innocuous, or even positive development. We are on the cusp of a real space age, as private companies begin exploring Earth orbit and our solar system. As a species, we need to come to an agreement over how space assets will be managed and regulated, and private property rights in space would be a major needed component of such an agreement. In general, commercial enterprise in space is good thing for expanding humanity’s reach into the solar system.

But the actual text of this bill raises questions of equity and corporate oversight for humanity’s future in space. The bill is a clear violation of a decades-old treaty that pledges to make space the peaceful domain of all of humanity. Without additional oversight, this law could legally change the role of the United States in space from guarantor of freedom to protector of profit.

I find the issues raised by the law timely, as my upcoming novel Red Soil through Our Fingers that imagines a future Mars where corporations own vast stretches of Mars.

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