Level Best Books—Where’s the Profit?
Yesterday afternoon I finished reading the last story on my list of those submitted for consideration for the seventh crime fiction anthology by Level Best Books. Quarry, the title my co-editors and I have chosen, looks like it’s going to be our best collection ever. Kate Flora, Ruth McCarty and I are finishing up our notes, and will meet some time in June to discuss our choices. This is the fun part, but there is more.
All of us have met someone who wants to publish a journal or book, but few know exactly what that means. For the many writers who look high and low for a paying venue and wonder why they’re disappearing, here are some figures to ponder. I supplied these, or figures like them (costs change every year, unfortunately) a while back, but here is a fresh look at what it costs us, the three editors who constitute Level Best Books, to produce an anthology each year.
We pay nothing for layout and design (we already have that), and our costs are those we can’t avoid. Printing for 1,200 copies of a book 8.5 by 5.5 with perfect binding, 273 pp. and xii pp., and four-color cover is $4,704 (in 2008 dollars). In addition, we pay each author $25 per story; with 20 stories, that’s $500. We pay $100 for the cover photograph. The website costs about $210 a year, postage for mailing mss is $489 (photocopying 2 copies of approximately 70 stories is donated), and mailing proofs is about $30. We usually place ads in the Edgar program book and Crime Bake book, for $475. These out of pocket costs add up to $6,508.
That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? If we just sell all the books at $15 per book, we’ll bring in $18,000, for a net of $11,492. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
Each author is entitled to one free book, and we send out review copies. Okay, so now we have only 1,150 books to sell. The authors are also entitled to buy copies at half price, $7.50. We usually sell at least 300 copies to the writers, for $2,250. We now have 850 books left to sell.
Libraries get one third off, and sometimes buy up to 400 at this price, for $4,000. That sounds pretty good. We send out our flyers, set up panels, and take orders. We now have 400 books to sell. We turn to the bookstores.
Bookstores like to carry local titles, especially if one of the authors lives in the area. We scour our New England towns for independent bookstores and do our best to persuade them to take a few copies. Some are receptive, some are slow to warm up to the anthology, and some are downright hostile. But we get the books out there, thanks mostly to Kate and Ruth. Bookstores can buy books at 40% off, or $9, or at 50%, or $7.50, and no returns. If they want to be able to return the books, sometimes one of us has to go pick them up. The No returns policy is a good idea. So, let’s say we sell 300 books at $7.50 with no returns, for $2,250.
We now have 150 books left to sell to individuals, at $15 each, on which we will pay sales tax to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
If we set aside the books we plan to sell to individuals at full price, we will take in $8,500. We haven’t even purchased stamps for promotional mailings, paper for the many times the mss is printed and reviewed before being mailed out, and gas for driving around to bookstores to deliver books. We have not paid for design and layout, and we do not have an office or dedicated phone line. And we certainly have not paid any salaries to the editors. We have not calculated damaged books, stolen books, and lost books either mailed or left somewhere for pickup.
In addition, every story is read at least once by each editor; some are read twice during discussions over whether or not it really works well enough. Each story is then edited, and the page proofs are reviewed by all three editors as well as the authors. We deliver books to panels at libraries, to bookstores, to special events like conferences. We pay for our own gas, tolls, and aspirin. None of this is charged to Level Best Books, which is the only reason we have any money left.
Our profit so far would appear to be about $2,000, but there are three of us to share this. Despite all this, when I look up from this off-white keyboard and across at the bookshelves on the other side of the room, I feel a little burst of warmth and pride at the sight of the anthologies all lined up. It’s a wonderful feeling to hold the finished book in your hand, to have another reader ask you to sign a copy, to see the books neatly stacked on a table, ready for sale.
Back in the eighties, when I first began working in the Boston area, an editor said to me, “It takes a lot of people to make a good book.” He was right. We have a good printer, good writers, good artists for the cover, and three editors who bring different tastes and skills. It all seems to work, and the tiny profit we make seems to be all we need to keep going for one more year.