When Tim started Ghostwoods Books, he was mostly thinking that digital publishing might allow publishers to share profits equally with writers. We tried that for a while before realizing that books were very hard to sell unless you had a strategy for attracting readers.
We continued publishing while also doing editing and writing as a means of earning a living. Both of us have extensive training and skills in these areas — and reasons why working from home is crucial right now. But we kept publishing, because we felt we could contribute something to other writers as well as to readers. We have these mad skills, after all. And it turns out our skills are not very common. There are a lot of people doing freelance editing work, but they’re mostly copy-editors, untrained and unpublished, without professional book industry experience. Many of them are as likely to make a book worse as they are to make it better. There are plenty of great editors too, of course, but we’ve searched hard to find under-employed professional-level editors who we can refer people to. So far, our results have not been not promising. (If you know an excellent editor who is not just a copy-editor, please let us know. We’re still looking for places to refer people.)
It takes a lot of time and hard work to polish a manuscript to the levels of excellence required for publication. The question then became whether our half of the sales receipts could make the books pay for themselves.
Yes, We Can? No, We Can’t.
At first, the answer seemed to be yes. We managed to edit and publish several books. We didn’t make much money from them, but we also didn’t lose much. We gave the writers half of what we made. We paid something to our cover designer on a per book basis. We tried not to pay for advertising. And… guess what? It just about worked. But the unsatisfying part was that we sold relatively few copies of each book. (In the early days, I was a graduate student in London with some money coming in from student loans. Tim had a stipend and was getting a fair amount of work writing puzzle books.) Sales varied greatly by book, with most coming in somewhere between 100 and 1000 copies and a few outliers selling as much as 2000 to 3000. In an effort to sell more books, we started using some money for advertising of some kind. For example, we put books on book blog tours with a reputable company.
The results? It increased sales, but not enough to cover the cost of the blog tour. This has been the case with nearly every kind of advertising we tried. The exception was sponsoring podcasts, which as far as we can tell, had absolutely no impact on sales and was insanely expensive.
As I graduated from school and Tim’s stipend came to an end, leaving him to rely solely on his puzzle book work, the ‘spare’ money we had to put into our books disappeared. We did two Kickstarters which provided temporary funding, but we used most of the first to pay expenses for the actual book creation and most of the second to pay for the stories in an anthology. It turns out that £10,000 doesn’t go as far as you’d hope, no matter how careful you are with it.
There’s No Quitting in Book Publishing
Okay, that’s not really true. Small presses close all the time. So do medium presses. But we’re not ready to quit. What we do need to do is come up with a better plan for making the press carry its own weight. Since our work outside the press is to do for other people what we do for our press, we are essentially putting a huge amount of our time, gratis, into editing, designing, laying out, proofing, marketing and publishing books for free. If we did that work for anyone else, we’d get paid fairly well for it. Between us, we have maybe 80 billable hours a week — there is a little less than the same again in necessary admin and similar tasks we have to do that we can’t bill for. So we can’t easily use 300 hours to get a book ready if we make nothing for it.
Recently we decided to look at farming out some of our work on the basis that it might be less expensive to hire someone to do some of the work than it would be to use our own time for it. I got estimates for doing layout, one of the more mundane tasks that we figured would be easy enough to pay money for. The estimates we got came in around $6.95 a page, or about $1800 for just the layout.
Forward, with Feeling
We’re now looking at other options, including limiting our new projects (once we’ve published the books we’ve already promised to publish) to unique book projects that bigger publishers would never be able or willing to do. These might include building extra features into the books. We’re working on this now as an idea. What if novels weren’t just long stories, but had some other aspects to surprise or delight you? Surely there are things that we can do in modernity that couldn’t be done in the past? What are they? Can we do them?
Watch this space to find out.