In March 2008 I self-published Walking with Zeke, an anthology of blog posts and a few other pieces of writing about my late dog.
It has since sold just under 300 copies, if you don’t count the ones I bought. I get a pretty good-sized percentage of those copies that people buy directly through Lulu (the printer): $7.27 out of the $17.99 cover price, which is likely a bit higher than it could be. If someone buys it through Amazon or some other retailer, I get $2.49. At a sales rank of 2,527, it’s a relative success by Lulu standards. Here’s a chart showing sales patterns over the last three years:
Those short little spikes along the bottom of the chart represent days when someone out there in the world bought one copy. There have been 44 days since March 8 2008 on which I sold more than one copy, 25 days on which I sold more than two. On three distinct days since the book launched has the daily sales total reached ten or more copies. Those three days were March 8, 9, and 10, 2008.
I will admit that I missed a few opportunities to make the book more of a success. One such was publishing the thing immediately prior to getting a divorce, moving out of the Bay Area, and being essentially offline for the following eight months. There were places I could have flogged the book, dog-related magazines and trade shows and such, whose readers/members/visitors would likely have found the thing worth buying, but I didn’t do that because I couldn’t, being instead out in the desert and generally without resources.
Another missed opportunity was the whole thing about telegraphing the fact that the hero of the book dies at the end. I know of a lot of people who won’t read the book because they know it ends unhappily. I could have followed the lead of certain more popular dog books and kept the ending under my hat, I suppose.
And lastly, I am certain I’ve missed opportunities to promote the book to my network of friends and acquaintances and readers. This is something between a character flaw and an absence of skill set. I did attempt to take advantage of social media to push the book, and it’s gotten some wonderfully kind reviews, but whether it’s my own lack of persistence or just the way the biscuit crumbles, it hasn’t amounted to much.
I’ve recently considered pulling the book offline, because it saddens me to check my sales stats and see that no one’s bought the thing in a month. A couple of friends have tried to dissuade me from doing so, since it’s not costing me anything to keep it available. They have temporarily swayed me. There are moments when my gratitude for each individual sale outstrips my regret that the thing isn’t selling better, for instance when I got my most recent quarterly royalty check a couple of weeks ago, and even though it was under $50 it was enough to keep my bank account from zeroing out. I’ve gotten in the habit of whispering thanks to Zeke every time I toss a royalty check into the great yawning maw of my accumulating debt, and that does provide a sense of perspective.
I mention all this because I have another book sitting here, of which I sold a few copies as the “e-book” (really a pdf) The Irascible Gardener. I’m wondering whether to self-publish it or shop it around, and so I started to run the actual numbers I have from Walking With Zeke sales, amortizing it against time spent and expenses expended.
Since publishing Walking With Zeke in March 2008 I have received a total of $1688.15 in royalty checks, more than half that total in the first year. When I published the thing Lulu was charging $100 for an ISBN, which allows sales via book distribution channels. I also had to buy a couple of copies for proofing before the release of the book, at eight bucks each. So we’ll subtract that and round the result for easier figuring. Call it a net of $1550.
The book consists of 107 “chapters,” each of them a former blog post. Some of the chapters are a sentence or two long, others took me the better part of a day to write. Let’s assume an hour as an average amount of labor per post, then round down: 100 hours.
I spent a full week editing the posts for grammar, typos, relevance, selecting which posts would remain and which were too ephemeral. 40 more hours. 140 subtotal.
I spent another two weeks designing, typesetting, making the Table of Contents, formatting the pages according to the printers’ instructions, and then doing the same for the cover with artwork thoughtfully provided as a donation by Carl Buell. Another 80 hours: 220 so far.
As a rough estimate, I’ve spent another (paltry!) 80 hours a year since publication talking the book up, giving out copies to people I think might spread it around, setting up Facebook and Twitter venues (essentially unused for the last year) and doing similar kinds of talking up the book. That’s another 240 hours for a total of 460.
$1,550 for 460 hours worth of work comes out to $3.37 an hour. That’s not including the week I spent teaching myself the proprietary formatting for Kindle so that I could sell virtual copies on Amazon (subsequent income less than 20 bucks) or the additional time I spent trying to do the same thing for the Apple iBook store, with no income thus far.
You might argue that perhaps I also shouldn’t include the time spent writing, as I only decided to put out a book after it was already written. So divide $1,660 by 360 instead of 460: you get $4.31 an hour.
If I had spent that same amount of time ringing up sales at a McDonalds in Temecula, I’d have $1,300 more to my name, plus benefits.
All this, mind you, is in the context of rather notable public support for the book. I had 100,000 people come by the blog in the month of Zeke’s death. I have had nothing but kind words and support from regulars here, people have taken the time to talk up the book to their friends, and only one or two semi-anonymous emailers ever complained about me asking people to buy the book, and only about five people responded unpleasantly when I said I couldn’t afford to send them a box of the books for free.
The math has me thinking second thoughts about self-publishing the garden book. I know that most publishing houses now expect the writer to do much of the book’s promotion, and though large houses are an exception very few of those large houses are likely to have any interest in a California-specific gardening essay book. But I can’t afford the money I’d make by publishing it myself.