At Reading with a chance of Tacos, one thing we love is helping aspiring creators of children’s books get published. In my role, I’ve interviewed writers who believe they have a picture book to share with the world and publishers who believe in these aspiring writers. However, when it comes to assessing a manuscript for publication, it often comes down to one important question. How much does a picture book cost to make?
Through interviewing publishers, distributors, printers and bookstores, the cost to a medium sized publishing house to produce a picture book for the trade market in Australia is between $15000 – $18000 depending on print runs and cover types.
We’ll break down the details shortly. But, you can see that if a publisher is producing say 20 picture books per year, then their outlay is $300,000 + per year. Factor in that a picture book can take around 8-12 months to produce before it’s even able to earn anything back, and already you’ve got an idea why publishers want some sort of guarantee of first getting their money back and then turning a profit. Can you guarantee they’ll get their $15000+ back?
What would they know?
Another thing I’ve come to realise is that there’s not an aspiring author, upon having their manuscript rejected by a publisher, who hasn’t said to themselves, “What would they know?”
It can be tough being rejected, heck you’ve just written a great story. Why won’t they publish it?
Well, one thing a publisher knows only too well, is how much a picture book costs to make. And, when writers truly understand this, I mean really understand this, and appreciate that most publishing houses don’t have bags of cash lying around, they might understand why that budding masterpiece has not yet been published.
Publishers want nothing more than to publish great work, but they are not a charity. They are a business that, if books and reading are to flourish, need to produce books that are tailored to their philosophies and markets. Markets that they have researched to know what is likely to sell and what will lose them money. They are not able to take chances on stories or authors who do not fit in with the type of books they need to publish. They just can’t afford to!
More importantly as writers, if you can truly grasp what we’re about to go through, you’ll stand a much better chance of getting your awesome work out into the world. I really hope you do; it’s why I’m writing this article. In fact, let’s take it a step further, jump ahead, and imagine for a moment that you’ve sent off a winning manuscript.
Follow that manuscript!
Let’s follow that manuscript. It’s your amazing work. And it’s just appeared in the hands of the Submission’s Editor. She reads it. Wow. She absolutely loves it. And, why wouldn’t she? You’ve done your homework and know the type of story this publisher wants to produce. You’ve followed the submission guidelines and presented your manuscript in an easy to read, professional format. “This story has real merit,” she says to herself. “And the writing shows some real skill.” So, what happens from here?
A few days / weeks / months later, this wonderful manuscript is presented to an acquisitions meeting among the house staff, where it’s assessed for its marketing appeal, its sales potential and various other house factors. Arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ go back and forward until, congratulations it’s accepted for publication. You’re offered a contract, which you read and sign. Your part is done for now, other than to jump onto social media and tell the entire world how talented you are, before hopefully sitting to write your next masterpiece.
Actually, that’s not entirely the case. Your job isn’t anywhere near done yet. There will be discussions with your editor on text, design, illustration, and your original vision. There will be proofs to go over, and in many cases, changes and redrafts to do. Still, do pat yourself on the back because to make it this far is a real achievement.
Let’s Make a Picture Book. What’s involved?
How much does it cost to make a picture book? Well, so far we’ve locked in the author, now the publisher has to pay for illustrating, editing, designing, publicity, marketing, printing, shipping, sales, distribution, and a finance department to oversee budgets, expenses, income, royalties, taxes, lending rights payments, etc. There’s a lot involved to make a picture book work. Some of the costs and processes are listed below.
Author and Illustrator advance
As the author, you’re given an advance, which the average in Australia for a first-time author is currently somewhere between $500-5000.
Of course, a picture book is going to need an illustrator. Illustrators are generally offered one of two deals. A one-off payment for their work. Or, an advance (generally higher than the authors due to the amount of work needed) with a share of the royalties.
This is where your manuscript becomes a book, but it doesn’t happen alone. While your name will appear prominently on the book’s cover, and you’ll be included in much of the discussion process, it takes a team to produce a picture book.
There’s ongoing editing and proofreading at various stages, from initial readthroughs to final drafting, including illustration proofs in black and white.
Book cover, typography, layout, printing margins.
Sales and Marketing:
Various program meetings, sales briefings, marketing and publicity discussions, pre-sales data figures, liaising with distribution and sales, configuring time frames for catalogues and event opportunities.
Most publishing houses have a publicist who will help your book get coverage. They’ll contact social media and mainstream media influencers, as well as organise reviews and interviews, book signings and author talks in local bookstores, libraries and schools.
Once everything has been signed off by the author and publisher, there’s the printing, binding, shipping and warehousing. And, once you have your finished book, there’s distribution to libraries, schools and bookstores around the country and hopefully overseas.
Most picture books are 32 pages. Some are 24 or 40 pages in length (printed in blocks of 8) and full colour. This is generally the biggest cost. Average first print runs in Australia are around 2000-3000. Add to that shipping costs that run into the thousands and often take weeks and months to arrive. Then, the publisher has to store the books somewhere and have a team on board to sell and distribute them to bookstores around the country, which if it’s a smaller publishing house, will be done in combination with a distribution company.
The details for How much does a picture book cost to make? are based on my research of small to medium sized Australian publishers. Costs and processes may differ for larger publishing houses with greater volume.
Self-publishing costs might also be a little cheaper if you’re doing a lot of the production, marketing, sales and distribution yourself.
Now, getting the money back
Of course, while you’ve made a rough list of the thousands of people that will no doubt be queuing up to buy your book, and the many millions of dollars everyone will make, your publishers have a more thorough understanding of its sales potential. They use pre-sales data, along with a knowledge of what bookstores and schools will take first off.
A rough estimate of sales
The recommended retail price (rrp) for picture books in Australia is currently $15 for paperback to $25 for hardback. If publishers are selling to bookstores through a distributor, they’re going to see a lot less. It goes something like this:
Bookshop buys it from distributor for 60% less rrp. Distributor takes a further 15% for their troubles and gives publisher what’s left. The publisher must factor a split of 10% royalties to author and illustrator. Of course, sales must cover the advance before publisher will pay royalties. And, by the time everyone has had a piece of the pie, there’s not much left over.
In rough estimate, this equates to the publisher receiving around $6 for a hardcover. Which means they need to sell around 2000 – 3000 copies to break even. The average sales for a picture book in Australia are around 2000 – 3000 copies (your first print run). And, that’s selling over a period of years. Unless you’re selling into second and third print runs, there’s not much in the way of profit for a small to medium publisher.
It’s not just a matter of writing a good story. You must do your homework
Can you guarantee a publisher you’ll get $15000 + worth of sales back on your book?
What marketing have you got planned? Who’s your demographic? Who will buy your book?
As a writer, you really need to do your homework. Most don’t. Most new writers bury themselves into their story, think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and send it off to any old publisher and expect to make millions. It just doesn’t work that way!
A publisher wants to know what homework you’ve done. Have you considered where your book will fit into the marketplace? Will it stand out from other books? What’s the real appeal of your book? Does it have a reason for being? What is that reason? Is that reason strong enough to keep sales going over months or years? Bottom line for the publisher is this: Will I get my money back?
If you want to be accepted into the world of professional writing by having published work, then you need to first act like a professional, know what’s expected of you and aim to hit the mark. Until you do this you won’t be published. Writing is really hard work. It takes most published authors years to get a start in this business, and more years after that to build on professional relationships by showing themselves to be capable and trusted professionals.
How much does a picture book cost to make?
Only when you can answer these questions is your book anywhere near finished. Only when you’ve done your homework on a particular publisher should you think of sending it off. And, only when you’ve let your masterpiece settle, had it reviewed by someone you trust and who knows the industry should you ever hit send on that masterpiece. And, once you have done so, remember, it’s not a certainty. Be patient, be professional, give it a good 48 minutes and then call the publishers demanding they publish your masterpiece. Howl down the phone, “What’s wrong with you people?! Don’t you know anything?! Aaaaaaaaaagh!!”
Okay, up until this point, this article has been from the viewpoint of the publishers. But, don’t think I haven’t considered the author’s pain and the authors investment in all this. By far the hardest thing about being an aspiring author is the waiting. It’s a killer. Those who have been there will often tell you to go on to your next project. Write something new. This is great advice, but so so difficult to do. So, if you feel the waiting is too much and you need something to ease your anxiety. First of all, welcome to the club. It’s a massive club with every famous author’s name you could imagine. And secondly, I have a post titled, How to get your writing rejected. It’s a tongue in cheek look at rejection just to cheer you up. You can check it out here.
But seriously, hang in there, understand that this is a tough and competitive business and publisher rejections aren’t personal. But you must always consider the publisher. It’s their money on the line.
Just one more thing
One more thing I would just like to say is don’t lose your fun and imagination in the process. Picture books are mostly fun, mostly for kids and mostly about enjoying the imagination of a good story. Readers can sense whether the author is enjoying the work. Don’t get so uptight about being professional that you lose that amazing enthusiasm and passion that you first had for your story. Be you!