Why Your Epic Isn’t Being Published

Why Your Epic Isn’t Being Published

Let me start by saying I don’t hate long books. I read most of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series (stopped at Dragon in Winter) as well as Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series. I’m here for epic fantasy. Truly. However, when it comes to the book publishing industry, there are a lot of reasons why your epic fantasy isn’t being published. And, contrary to popular opinion, it has absolutely nothing to do with dwindling attention spans or readers not wanting it.

Also, fair warning, this article has a lot of math. If the math is off somewhere, please tell me. I am, in fact, dyscalculic, so sometimes I reverse things when looking at them or typing them into a calculator.

The cold, hard truth is that your epic novel isn’t being picked up for two intertwined reasons. The first is that nobody knows you. If they don’t know you, they don’t know how well you’re going to market and how well your book will sell. Most first books don’t do very well, and very few of the well-known writers of epic wordcount fiction started their careers with huge works. The second is the cost of production. The second point is going to dominate the bulk of this article.

The cold, hard truth is that your epic novel isn’t being picked up for two intertwined reasons. The first is that nobody knows you. (…) The second is the cost of production.

E. Prybylski

Many editors, like myself, charge by the word. I’m not marketing here, just giving you data. Whether it’s a publishing house or a personal edit, an “average” length novel (65,000 words) doing average difficulty line edit will cost about $2,600 using the minimum EFA rates. I charge a little less, personally, but for the purpose of this illustration, I’m using the EFA’s metrics. That’s for your average 65k book. A decent metric of the going rate for line editing (which focuses on sentence composition, passive voice, etc.) is about $0.04 – $0.049 per word (per EFA rates). Most publishers do 3+ rounds of editing with an editor (I know mine does). Typically a book at a publishing house will receive developmental, line, and copy editing, however. All of which have different price points.

If you pitch a novel to a publisher that’s, say, 200k words long, you’re looking at the publisher having to invest a minimum of $8000 for line editing. With three passes of the three different types of editing, that’s $8,000 for line, $4,000 for copy editing, and $6,000 for developmental using the low end EFA’s rates.

Then there’s typesetting. Assuming both print and e-book, you’re looking at around $4,000, then for the ebook it’s going to be a little less, you hope, but still around $1,000 (I did NOT use the EFA’s metric for this one; they charge more for ebook than print which makes no sense to me at all). Then there’s cover design which is several hundred more dollars (minimum for a composite image is around $250ish). Then there’s the ISBN, marketing materials, printing fees (some printers charge to upload; Ingramspark is $25/upload, $35 with print and ebook) and so on.

With these fees all added up together, a publisher would have to invest the following:

  • $6,000 Dev. Edit
  • $8,000 Line Edit
  • $4,000 Copy Edit
  • $4,000 Print Typesetting
  • $1,000 eBook Typesetting
  • $250 Cover
  • $50 ISBN
  • $25 IngramSpark upload

The total adds up to: $23,325

Printing costs for something that size from Ingram Spark, which does POD printing, is $11.51 per book. Since the market will only support your book being priced at around $14.99 to make the math easy. You MIGHT get away with $15.99, but not much higher. Offset print runs will let you drop printing prices by a lot, but then you have to print 1,000 or more books at a time, and good luck storing those. Let alone selling them.

This image shows a screenshot from Ingram's price calculator. It displays that unit selling price per book of this size is $11.51. Handling fee is $1.99. Shipping for one book is $4.05. The total to print and ship a single book of this size is $17.55.
Screenshot from Ingram’s price calculator.

Bookstores, assuming you want to work with them, require a 40% discount off the cover price. That means in order to sell to bookstores, you have to make less than your printing costs to sell there if you want to sell at a market value. So bookstores? Right out. You’d have to sell copies to them for $5.99, and since it costs $11.51 just to print that monstrosity, you’re going nowhere with bookstores.

Since the average author sells (being optimistic) 200-300 books their first year, we are looking at over six-hundred years before we break even.

E. Prybylski

The shipping costs on a book like that are easily going to be about $6/book, which is expensive to say the least. Boxes will be cheaper, but since they’re so big, fewer books will fit per box, increasing shipping charges by a lot. Also, Amazon takes a 15% bite out of any book sales off its site plus a flat $1.85 from each sale.

You will likely be getting 15% royalties (net, not list) on your book for print copies. 40% – 50% on ebooks is average. But right now I’m focused on print copies.

So, all this math in mind. Assuming the book is selling for $15.99 on Amazon, the numbers look like this:

  • List Price: $15.99
  • Printing Cost: $11.51
  • Amazon Charge: $4.29
  • Total Profit Per Book: $0.19
  • Author profit: $0.02
  • Publisher Profit: $0.17

At that rate, it is going to take 140,000-ish sales for the publisher to make back what they’ve invested in you. Since the average author sells (being optimistic) 200-300 their first year, we are looking at about over six hundred years before we break even. So you can see why we aren’t interested.

Also, most well-marketed indie books sell, on average, about 2,000 copies in their lifetimes, so you’re never going to get to that 140,000 mark because chances of you breaking 1,000 are entirely dependent on your success at marketing. And most authors I’ve worked with have no idea how to do that.

Unless you’re Stephen King, G.R.R.M., J.R.R. Tolkein, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, or Tolstoy, there’s no way we can afford to do an offset print run of 1,000 or more books (which would take the printing price down to around $7.50/book based on calculators I’ve seen). For one, there’s no guarantee they’d sell. For another, that would be another $7,500 we’re investing in you before we see a penny. And furthermore, while I do have a barn, I don’t have room for 1,000 books in it. My goats would eat them.

If you’re self-publishing, you should consider the costs I mentioned above. (…) Consider how long it will take you to recoup your investment.

E. Prybylski

If you’re self-publishing, you should also consider the costs I mentioned above. While you are going to be getting around $.19 per book, consider how long it will take you to recoup your investment. Even if you only do a single round of editing, cross your fingers, and pray. Also, while you can charge more for your book, it’ll start severely limiting the number of people who will purchase it. You can play with your pricing, but on average, readers won’t want to pay much more than $17.95, and even that is pushing it for an unknown author whose book they may not enjoy.

Even if we’re just talking an ebook version, and we cut out all the printing costs and some of the typesetting costs, you’re looking at $19,325. Ebooks often sell for about $5.99ish for a book like this. So let’s do the math for that:

  • Book List Price $5.99
  • Amazon Fees: $1.80
  • Total Profit Per Book: $4.19
  • Author Profit: $1.68
  • Publisher Profit: $2.51

If we’re doing just ebooks, it would take 7,699 copies for the publisher to break even. Assuming, again, that you manage a consistent 200 copies a year, it would take them nearly forty years to break even on the costs of picking up your book. Most indie authors or new authors cannot guarantee 200 books a year. They’re lucky to sell 200 books in the lifetime of their book because so many of them don’t market because they don’t know how. Also, again, I remind you that most books don’t break 2,000 in lifetime sales for indie authors. In order for them to break with that number, even with ebooks, they’d need a profit of $9.67 per book. Which is more than you can sell most ebooks for per book. Amazon allows you to get 70% of the royalties on prices between $2.99 and $9.99. Outside of that, you get a royalty of 35%.

The long and short of this is: the math just don’t add up. New, untested author with a HUGE book to sell, no certainty of returns, and with profit margins thinner than one-ply toilet paper? Nobody’s going to touch you with a ten-foot pole. Not because marketing or readers don’t want it or dwindling attention spans–it’s because we can’t wait over six hundred years to be profitable. Heck, we can’t wait forty years to turn a profit.

Publishing books is, I’m sorry to say it, a business. And businesses must be profitable in order to stay afloat. I don’t say this to discourage or harm you in any way, but it’s a fundemental reality of publishing books. And there’s no way around it if you want to make a living as an author. While you MIGHT be that one-in-a-million author who makes it big, recognize that most publishers don’t have the capital to take that risk.

What so many authors don’t realize is that when we agree to publish your book, we are instantly investing that kind of money in you. As such, your book has to be worth a minimum of the costs it would take to produce. On average, it costs about $10,000 for an average-sized novel to go through the editing, cover design, typesetting, and so on. If you want me to invest twice that in you for no profits, you’d better run the math again. I can’t do it. No matter how good it is. At the very least, the book is getting split in half, if not thirds. And that’s if I really feel strongly that I want to invest in it.

While writing in and of itself is an art form, publishing is a business, and if the math doesn’t add up to profit, we cannot risk investing in you. It’s no different than any other industry. Dollars and cents matter, and if you want to have someone invest in you, you need a product that will sell reliably in order to get someone to throw in behind you. While indie publishers may be willing to take risks on new authors and try new things, some things we cannot afford to do. And it isn’t personal. It’s numbers.

And this subject upset me enough that I had to do math. Look what y’all did to me! I hate math!

Also, as a side note, miss me with the whole “then I’ll just do it all myself and not pay anybody!” argument. I get it. Publishing on your own is expensive, and the siren call of Amazon telling you, you can do it all yourself is strong. It isn’t worth it. At the very least, if you aren’t an expert graphic designer, you will need a minimum of one pass of editing and a good cover design. Even if you ignore all the other costs, your profit margins on a book this size will take you a very long time to break even. Otherwise, listen to the experts, cut your book into smaller works (trilogies sell really well!), and market, market, market. You will stand a far better chance of getting noticed, of getting sales, and of being financially successful.

If you don’t care about the money and just want to get your work out there in front of people because you want to share it, all the more power to you. Try using sites like Wattpad or AO3 and enjoy the communities and have fun together. I’m not going to tell you never to write them. Just recognize that they are a really hard sell as a business investment.

E. Prybylski has been in the publishing industry as an editor since 2009, starting at Divertir Publishing and eventually partnering with her close friend Richard Belanger to begin Insomnia Publishing.

Ever since childhood, E. has been an avid reader and writer of fantasy. The first chapter book she remembers reading is The Hobbit, followed swiftly by most of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. In high school, she perfected the skill of walking while reading without slamming into anyone. Mostly.

When she isn’t reading or writing, E. is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and has a B.A. in European history from SNHU. In addition to her many historical pursuits, E. is a musician of multiple instruments, a cat mom, and a loving wife to her husband, J. E. also speaks out for the disability and chronic illness communities being a sufferer of chronic migraines and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.


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