Before I bring up some options for pricing your book (and I’ll tell you right now that I still don’t know which is the best option of the three I plan to present), I want to discuss how to figure out what you invested in your book.

I found myself horribly stuck when I first sat down to write this section, because it’s emotionally fraught.  Before ebooks were widespread, we learned that if you had value as a writer, you were published.  A large publisher meant that you had more value as a writer; a smaller publisher meant that you had less value but still some.  Self-publishing was called vanity publishing: you had no value as a writer and were so stupid that you paid people to publish you, ha ha, joke’s on you.

I’m not saying those attitudes were true, just that they were common, by the way.  I have some self-published books that I truly treasure.

So here we are in the middle of a publishing revolution.  Self-publishers are starting to publish from all skill levels, even people who publish successfully with big publishers (are those people worthy or unworthy writers?!?).  How to define your worth as a writer has been modified in ways that we won’t really be able to understand for years, probably.  Is worth now defined by how many books you sell?  What if you’re giving away books for free, how does that count?  Is it the money that I make?  Is it how many positive reviews I get?  Is it how many people actually read my book versus how many downloaded it?  Fan mail?  Blog followers?  What?

How do I judge myself?  How do I know I’m not just crazy in thinking I can write?

But the idea that getting published by a big publisher as an absolute measure of worth was alway built on sand.  People get published by big publishing houses because they will make money for the publisher, end of story.  But not everyone wants to judge their success by how much money they make someone else…especially if it means they have to take a low advance just to get in the door.  And what happens when you do get published and your book tanks?  Are you a success or a failure?  Are you more or less of a success than someone published by a small press that sells more than they anticipated, even if it’s fewer copies than you sold?  When do you get to feel like a success?  When you’re a bestseller?  What if being a bestseller still doesn’t mean you’ll ever pay out your advance, and you book disappears in six months?

What is my book worth?  What am I worth?

Speaking as a person recovering from low self-esteem, I say it’s a valid question, and I admit there are no easy answers.  However, you will probably find that external success is never enough unless you define what, for you, constitutes success.  And then separate your feelings about “how much this book is worth on a self-esteem level” from estimating how much you invested in your book.  If you can.  If any of us can.

So.  I talked about this before, but I’m going to lay it out again, with a couple of differences.

Here’s my suggested method for calculating how much you invested in your book:

1.  Divide the wordcount of your book by your average number of words per hour writing (inclusive of task-specific research); for example, an 85,000-word book/1000 words per hour = 85 hours.

Note: Admittedly, I spend additional time reading books for research, but it’s generally stuff that I was reading anyway.  But the 1000 words an hour does include stopping to find reference photos, look up facts, and track down passages in my research books.  It may be smarter to include all the time you spend resarching (and even brainstorming) and add it to the number of hours later.  I’m still up in the air about that.  Also, if you have cash research expenses (like books or mileage), group those and set them aside from your hours.

2.  Divide the wordcount of your book by your average number of words per hour editing/polishing; for example, an 85,000-word book/2500 words per hour = 34 hours.

Note: In general, I don’t include rewrites or additional editing time.  When I do rewrites, it’s because I have a learning curve to master or an outright error to fix.  I realize that most people working day jobs get paid for learning on the job and fixing their errors; it still makes me uncomfortable to include it in my calculations.  Again, it may be smarter to include all the time you spend editing, revising, rewriting, and polishing to your editing hours.

3.  Calculate your book production expenses.

You will probably end up with two totals here: currency and hours.  If you paid for something in trade, either calculate the approximate cash value or the number of hours it took to return the favor and add it to the appropriate category of money or hours.

Make sure to include, at minimum:

  • Cover art
  • Cover design
  • Formatting/interior design
  • Promotion expenses

This means you have to calculate time, too.  Including the time spent on Facebook promoting your book, blog tours, interviews–anything specific to your book.  Maybe, in figuring out how much to charge for your book (more on that later), you don’t want to include promotions in your calculations.  But you should at least be able to guesstimate how much time it’s costing you to do promotions.

You may also want to figure out your more general cost of doing business (the same way you would for doing taxes, I think) and prorate it per work or even per word or hour (so longer or more labor-intensive books are assigned more of the cost).  I’m not there yet, but then I haven’t done this year’s taxes yet, either, and I am not rushing out to get my taxes done just to give you a guesstimate for this post.

4.  Total your hours and multiply them by your hourly wages.

This does not calculate how much your book is worth.  It calculates, roughly, how much it costs you to write a book.

If you are writing a book and you’re a freelancer, you’re not hustling for more work.  If you’re writing a book and you have kids, you’re not spending time with your kids.  If you’re writing a book, that’s time you spent not going to college and getting a degree.  And so on.

Writing isn’t just a hobby; if you make it a priority, it incurs costs to the rest of your life.  You are investing your time in your work, even if you’d be doing it anyway.  If nothing else, every book you write is a big stack of books that you could have removed from your To Be Read pile.  Every Tweet costs you about a page read, really.

So, on a hypothetical 85,000-word book:

  • 85 hours writing.
  • 34 hours editing.
  • 3 hours formatting.
  • 3 hours cover design.
  • 10 hours promotion.
  • Total: 135 hours.
  • Before I started freelancing, I made about $20/hour.
  • Conversion to dollars:   $2700.
  • Cash expenses: $10 cover art (I use stock photos).
  • Total: $2710.

Back when I was still working a day job, that book would have cost me $2710 to produce.  Now, because I’m freelancing and have to pay my own taxes and whatnot, it takes a lot more.

I can’t claim this is a purely apples-to-apples discussion on how much a book is worth, only a method for you to determine how much you invested in any given book.  You could have been working a second job.  You could have been working overtime.  You could have been advancing your career or saving your marriage.  Writing is an expensive hobby.

I say it’s worthwhile, but then I’m a writer.

Next Friday-ish: Three Theories on Ebook Pricing (finally!)

(Psst – I have a new book up, Alien Blue. It’ll come out on non-Amazon formats May 20.)