The Self-Publishing Business: Print Costs vs Royalties

I recently got a review on Amazon for A Demon in the Desert that basically said, “It’s fun but in need of editing and the paperback cost too much for how short the book is.” That’s a fair point. A Demon in the Desert sits at somewhere over 53,000 words. And at this point, it’s no secret that it needed editing but I don’t want to take the time to rewrite it (because I would have to rewrite at least half of the book) and I don’t have the money to have it properly edited either. That book is done. I’m okay with that, I’m okay with the reviewer’s feelings on the book. But…I’ve seen the price comment elsewhere, too, and it’s something that I’ve learned more about since putting out Demon Haunted as well.

I want to discuss this because there are certain notions I’ve seen from other readers in various places (reddit and facebook in particular) that I feel could use some addressing. As such, I’ve asked some friends if they’d be willing to share their own numbers on the matter. So on top of me, I’ll have several other authors to help illustrate the point as well. To keep things simple, I’m going to be primarily dealing with the US market, so all costs and royalties will be listed in US dollars. First thing we need to do though is talk about formatting.


This seems obvious. There’s hardback, paperback, and digital, right? Well, kind of. You see, for actual print books, there’s several kinds of formats. The obvious is hardback. Hard cover, different kind of binding, usually higher quality paper, and a dust jacket or a specially designed cover with art on it (the Barnes & Noble leatherbacks, for instance). For traditional publishers, most major releases get a hardback release first. It generally feels fancier. It is also, obviously, more expensive. When I bought Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen, it was the hardback and it ran me around $25. You’ve probably experienced the same with other books. Hardbacks seem to lack an industry standard trim size (that is, the dimensions of the book). Wake of Vultures is listed as 5.9in by 8.5in. Other hardbacks might be 6×9 or maybe even standard letter size, 8.5×11

Now, paperbacks have the most variants for format. What most folks think of when you say paperback is mass market paperback (or A-format in the UK). The trim size for this is 4.2/4.3in by 7in. Small, easily transportable, sort of a pocket-sized book. They’re printed on lower quality paper. If you go into a used bookstore and look at the old paperbacks, they’re discolored, right? Sometimes the pages are brittle, and after a few decades on a shelf, mass market books will break down. Mass market paperbacks are able to be pulped and recycled. Conceivably, a 1970s copy of Fellowship of the Ring could be recycled and made into a new copy in 2017. Neat.

Next up we have trade paperback (basically b-format in the UK). Trades are bigger, starting at 5×8 and going up to 8.5×11. A lot of trade paperbacks come in 6×9. With traditional publishing, the trade version tends to be the same size as the hardback. The paper is higher quality, probably the same as the hardback as well and comes in cream or white. Trades are handy for large print editions of books.

Then there’s trade paperback comic books, which are printed on glossy pages. The pulp print practices of yesteryear fell out of style a long while ago now. If you’re buying an reprint collection volume of a comic, you’re looking at a $20 price tag at the least because printing full color is more expensive, period.


“Okay, Ashe, that was informative, but what does it mean exactly?”

The majority of us use Createspace for our paperbacks. That’s what I use. Some folks go through IngramSpark. Ingram allows for hardback editions but either way, mass market editions are unavailable. If you self-publish, you’re putting out a trade paperback. I’m sure someone’s done it, but self-pubbing a hardback is a losing affair. For a 6×9 case laminate hardcover with a glossy cover and 400 pages, it would cost $30 for an author to make $1.62 (according to Ingram’s compensation calculator). The cost of the book, just to print it, is almost $12. It doesn’t work for readers or authors. So then, we can’t print cheaper mass market paperbacks and hardcovers are prohibitive in production cost. You’re left with trade paperbacks. So let’s look at some numbers.

My books have a trim size 5×8. A Demon in the Desert clocks in at 222 pages with the previously mentioned 53,000 words. It costs $3.51 to print per copy. That is purely production cost. That’s the cost if I were to buy a copy. The minimum list price (the mandated lowest price you can list your book for and cover distribution costs and print costs) is $8.78. At that price, I would receive $1.75 per book through, $3.51 through Createspace Direct, and I would get nothing through Expanded Distribution (allows you to find my paperbacks at other online retailers). I list for $9.99. I get $2.48 through, $4.48 through Createspace Direct, and a whopping $0.48 through Expanded Distribution.

Demon Haunted clocks in at 334 pages and a little over 75,000 words. It costs $4.85 per copy with a minimum list price of $12.13 that would net me $2.42, $4.85, and $0.00 through the channels listed above. I list the book for $12.99, which earns me $2.94, $5.54, and $0.34 respectively. The list prices I chose seemed like the best compromise between royalties and affordability. But that’s me, let’s look at some other numbers.

Amalia Dillin was more than kind enough to provide me with a whole mess of numbers. Her Orc Saga books are not included due to the method with which she self-published them (through an agency), but the others more than make up for it. Her numbers are as follows:

Fate of the Gods Titles
Forged by Fate, 362 pages, $14.95 (E-book: 2.99), with a Createspace mandatory minimum price of $12.98.
Royalties per sale:
Amazon: $3.78
Expanded Distribution: $0.79

Fate Forgotten, 380 pages, $14.95 (E-book: 3.99), with a Createspace mandatory minimum price of $13.53.
Royalties per sale:
Amazon: $3.56
Expanded Distribution: $0.57

Beyond Fate, 418 pages, $15.95 (E-book: 4.99), with a Createspace mandatory minimum price of $14.65.
Royalties per sale:
Amazon: $3.71
Expanded Distribution: $0.52

Other Works
Postcards from Asgard, 184 pages, $8.95 (E-book: 2.99), with a Createspace mandatory minimum price of $7.63.
Royalties per sale:
Amazon: $2.32
Expanded Distribution: $0.53

Tamer of Horses, 376 pages, $14.95 (E-book: 4.99), with a Createspace mandatory minimum price of $13.40.
Royalties per sale:
Amazon: $3.61
Expanded Distribution: $0.62

Meanwhile, Darrel Drake’s debut, A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, has the following stats:
5.5″ x 8.25″ trim, 294 pages with a word count of 105,000.
Cost of print: $5.26
List Price: $14.99 with Amazon royalties of $2.98.

Rachel Sharp gave me the following numbers for her first two books:
The Big Book of Post-Collapse Fun: 5″ x 8″, 292 pages, list price: $11.99, Amazon royalty: $2.84 USD.
A Word and a Bullet: 5″ x 8″, 248 pages, list price: $11.99, Amazon royalty: $3.37.

And on a related note, when we run 99¢ ebook sales, we’re only making 35¢ per sale, which means we have to sell a lot to break even with a regular priced sale. Paperback sales tend to be harder to do and we can only do coupons through Createspace. Amazon itself only allows more control if you publish through Kindle Select, which reduces your distribution to Amazon only. Speaking personally (though I know a few who feel the same), while I make most of my sales through Amazon, I do occasionally get sales through other retailers, like Apple and Kobo.

As you can see, we work within some small margins. On top of these royalty numbers, a lot of us do our own formatting, and we definitely all do our own advertising. Realistically, we should probably be charging more because of that but publishing is an industry similar to video games, in that the expected prices tend to be lower than they probably should be. The Know posted a great video explaining this breakdown in a similar fashion.

So what exactly does this all mean for readers? Well, we’re definitely not gonna hike prices on you. Like most creators in other industries, we want you to enjoy our art. We are happy to do it but we’re hindered by the notions of “selling out” and “suffer for your art” (which tends to have implications regarding mental health, a whole other can of worms), and the idea that making money off of art is a moral failing. It’s not. If you think writing (or drawing or painting or web design or whatever) is easy, that it’s not real work, you are blatantly wrong. We are running small businesses here.

So what is the ultimate point here? Simply this: we’re doing our best to both earn a living and give you affordable entertainment. Prices aren’t picked arbitrarily and due to demands, most of us are pricing similarly to each other. Deviation of even a dollar tends to spell disaster. We understand and sympathize all too well that your time and money are precious, it’s the same with us, but just remember, we’re not trying to rip you off and we appreciate it immensely when you understand that.

I hope this was reasonably informative. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts or questions, or say something elsewhere! I’d be more than happy to talk more about this or answer questions.

Happy reading!