Blake Butler Asks:
Can you really release a first book for $500?
If you do the layout and cover design yourself (or get someone to donate services) -- yes, absolutely.
I'm going to use the POD Lulu model because it's what I'm familiar with. Lulu is not the only POD publishers out there. I like Lulu a lot, but not everybody does. For instance, Didi Menendez was unhappy with Lulu and doesn't use them any longer.
Let's say you have an 80 page book with b&w page printing (the cover is color), 6x9, perfect bound (i.e. it has a spine)
Layout: You lay it out using a word processing program you already own. I use InDesign, which is expensive, but you could use MS Word or your favorite word processing program. As long as you're able to convert it to a PDF file, you're good. Layout is time consuming and there's a need to pay attention to detail, but it's not difficult. $0
Cover Design: Lulu has templates you can use. It's limiting, but if you're OK with plain, it'll work. Or you can design your own, or if you can't do that, find someone who can. No Tell Books relies on the kindness and inexpensive rates of several poet-designers who have sympathy for the cause. I pay them a small amount (I'll talk about that below), but maybe you have a friend who can help you in exchange for a favor, or just the kindness of his own heart. A good source for inexpensive, but quality cover design is from current or recent design grads. They're often looking to add work to their portfolios. That's how I landed the designer of The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel -- Second Floor $0
ISBN Distribution: If you want to own the ISBN and have your press' name to appear as the publisher, it's $99. (This is what NTB does). If you don't care that it's listed as "Published by Lulu" instead of "Published by Insert Your Press' Name Here" it's now FREE (I just noticed this recently while ordering Rebecca Loudon's ISBN/distribution package, it used to cost money). Either way the distributor is Ingram. Or if you don't want an ISBN at all or for it to be available for order to retailers, that's also free. $100 or $0
Print Galley and Shipping: If you get it right the first time: $10
Short Run: Even if you go the POD route, you'll want some copies to send for review and to sell at readings. If you decided that it's important for your presses' name to appear as publisher and for you to own the ISBN, then you have a budget of $315. If you decide you don't care about that (you're satisfied that people can order it in a bookstore or an online retailer), then you have a budget of $415. If your book is 80 pages, you can do a short run of 65 books for $315 (that's $4.91 per book). With a budget of $415 you can do a short run of 90 books (that's $4.58 per book).
Now when I say "short run" I don't mean that's all the books out there. The short run is for you to use for review copies and have copies to sell at readings, trade, etc. Purchases made online (via Lulu, Amazon, B&N, Powell's, etc.) or ordered from bookstores are printed on demand. So if it ends up 2000 people buy your book, 2000 copies are printed (at no cost to you -- you get a royalty, which you decide beforehand by pricing the book). If NOBODY orders your book, you're not stuck with 2000 copies molding in your basement or collecting dust in a warehouse (charging you $$). If nobody orders your book, no more copies are printed. $315 or $415
Postage and shipping: People forget about this. You'll need to pay for getting the books shipped to you and sending out review copies either Book rate or First Class postage. This could be a little more if you send out a lot of review copies, postage has really gone up recently. Estimate: $75
So there, that's how you publish a book, have it listed at online retailers, available to order in bookstores and have copies on hand to promote. For $500.
Does No Tell Books only spend $500 per full-length collection? No, I spend double that. That's because I send out over 50 review copies per title and everyone who does work on the book gets paid. They don't get paid much, but they get paid. It's important to me that everyone gets paid something.
This is my general budget for a "full-length" poetry collection:
$150 -- payment to author (they get royalties too -- but that's not upfront, that's based on sales) -- in most cases the authors ask for that payment to go towards additional author copies
$150 -- cover design
$50 -- proofreader
$100 -- ISBN, global distribution
$20-50 -- Print galleys for both me and the author. When we have to do a few rounds of galleys, this cost goes up.
$450 -- initial short print run -- 100 copies (author copies, review copies, books to sell at conferences & readings, etc.) Often the short run is a little larger because authors buy additional copies (sold at an author rate) -- this is not a cost for the press
$100 - postage
Anthologies are more because there's more pages (individual book cost is higher), the print run is bigger and there's a crap-ton of postage involved with contributor copies.
That's how I do it, but as you can see there's wiggle room to save money, especially if you aren't paying for services or do a smaller short run.