The Cost of Print

I’m fond of drawing comparisons between the internet and the Gutenberg Bible, so bear with me.

Gutenberg Bible, page 1

Gutenberg Bible, page 1

Imagine the labor and cost involved in hand-producing a manuscript before the Gutenberg press. Monks in cloisters across Europe. Clerics in the libraries of Persia, the Middle East and North Africa. Transcribing and illustrating texts from matins to vespers, from prayer call to prayer call. Entire lives employed in the the hand-production of books for the wealthy, the churches, universities and the literate few.

Then came Gutenberg (1455) and books could be produced in volume, technologically, less expensively and – ultimately – for the masses.

If the Gutenberg press, removed the cost of hand-production from book publication, enabling more people to read and to write, the internet – particularly the ebook – has eliminated the cost of paper, ink, inventory, shipping and retail overhead. Still, isn’t it lovely to hold a book, not a Nook, when you read? And if, like pre-Gutenberg libraries or the burgers of Germany, if we want to read physical books, we have to pay for the cost of print.

Here’s where publish vs. self-publish becomes so interesting. If you’re lucky enough to have a publisher, they’ll likely cover the cost of printing a few hundred or a few thousand copies of the book to see how it does. Produced in volume, the unit cost will be relatively low – let’s say $3-5, depending on specs like color/B&W, page length, trim size, paper vs. hardcover, etc.

When a book is self-published, it is printed on demand through a company like Dog Ear Publishing. They take the order online through my website, Amazon, Barnes &, etc. They print and ship the order. And – voila! – the book arrives. It’s a smooth system, but books are expensive to print one at a time. For example, it costs $10.56 to print a copy of In Mr. Handsome’s Garden. The barebones math goes something like this:

  • If I had a publisher, they might print 1000 copies my book at a unit cost of $5. We might price it at $16.99 – a going rate for a kids’ book – and that would leave $11.99 in profit for the retailer, the author, the illustrator and others to share.
  • However, I’ll probably put my book online with a retail price of $19.99. Gulp – that’s high, I know. But after paying $10.56 to produce a print-on-demand copy of the book, there’s only $9.34 left to pay for shipping and to share with the retailer (who gets 40% of the $9.34), Catherine and the IRS.

The self-published are priced-handicapped, at least in terms of print. Hmmmm. Maybe my next project is an ebook. Mr. Handsome does look handsome online!

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