The Economics of Self-publishing

Mohan Guruswamy is Chairman and founder of Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, India. He has over three decades of experience in government, industry and academia. He can be contacted at mohanguru[at]

Mohan Guruswamy

Mohan Guruswamy

Lets understand the economics of self publishing. The print run of a book is usually one thousand, yes 1000. It costs about Rs.350,000 to publish the book. Promotion etc is extra. You need to give away about 100 copies gratis to reviewers and others. Add another 100,000 and you end up with a cost of Rs.450,000 with 900 books to sell. If the book is priced Rs.600, and every copy is sold, the sales return is Rs.540,000. The trade discount can be between 30-40%. Credit has to be extended. Then there are bad debts. Factoring this you get another Rs.250-300,000. So what do you get? Most books are business losses. The cost of writing and research is not factored. There are huge travel costs entailed. A book is an act of vanity. It seldom makes money for the writer/publisher.

A regular publisher, by bundling his books gets economies of scale. He also gets lower printing and paper costs. A book makes money when some institution picks up a few hundred copies. The government library system -universities etc – is a big buyer. Any government system sale entails costs, quite similar to the costs allegedly being exposed. Even so, a top publisher tells me, only one in ten books is a winner that makes money for the publisher. Any author who is capable of a salary of Rs.50,000 -Rs.1 lakh a month, and needs atleast six months to write a book, loses money. The only way to write and make decent money from it is to write for overseas publishers and publications. These are the only times I have made some money.

Sometimes you have the MEA or the military training establishment who place bulk orders. And sometimes there are corporates with a strong social purpose, like Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. Of the half a dozen books written by me, only two made money, because they had substantial overseas print runs. One book, “Chasing the Dragon: Will India Catch-up with China?” whose translation was published in China is in its second edition. The Indian print run fetched me a royalty of about Rs.40000. Zorawar Daulet Singh and myself spent over six months laboring on it. We got nothing for our effort. But quite a lot of acclaim.

So lets not kid ourselves. A self published book usually needs god fathering, unless the writer is well heeled. Since all the MPs in the next Parliament are earmarked to get a copy each, a corporate godfather seems to be around.

Since the margins are always slim, publishers dont publish books that might entail huge legal costs. And a good publisher has norms of attribution and disclosure that restrict conjecture, suppositions and speculation to a minimum. But do books make money. Yes they do. Sanjay Baru’s book will, it will go into a few print runs. Writers like Ramachandra Guha, Arundhati Roy and even Arun Shourie are well established and trusted brands. But they are far and few in between.

So the notion of a self-published book being an act of courage is usually delusional. Its as much a product of the chicanery that it seeks to expose. Factoring time, effort and physical costs at the barest minimum, a book is a Rs. One Million enterprise with little possibility of recovery. Thats what godfathers are for. Thats why the Uncle Tony’s and Uncle Vanya’s get to copy edit and vett the book before its published.