I’m sure you’ve heard of or seen Westbow books if you’ve ever been through a Christian bookstore. They’re a part of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan—so they’ve got some serious backing. They are the “co-publishing” wing of the bigger house and they guarantee that everyone who publishes through them will have their manuscript evaluated by their parent houses.
Over the last couple of years and last couple books I’ve had a few conversations with them. I went into a scheduled phone call with them with some numbers already determined. Like most indie writers, you’d probably look at their “publishing packages” and think—I’d probably have to save up but could maybe swing the lowest costing option—still over $1,000.
Being the creative guru I am and knowing what it actually costs to bring an indie book to print, I ran the numbers. I’d planned on a 160 page paperback in a 6×9 format and price it at 9.99. I can have that made via Createspace at no setup cost and my copies will cost 2.77, leaving a profit margin of 7.22 per book—I did it for both comparison purposes and to find out where my break-even price is. In my mind, co-publishing means that they would want to do something to make a part of the profits, right? Wrong. That’s not how they work. They sell you a package and then you still do all the long-term work such as marketing—unless you pay them more money to do added services… sounds an awful lot like Xulon to me. Or, gasp, Publish America?
Since most of the services they list in their publishing packages have little or no actual cost (for real? A cost to insert images into your book? Haven’t they heard of drag and drop?) for someone with a little talent or willingness to put in some effort, the lowest package amounts to those 5 “free” paperback copies actually costing you $220 apiece. Also, they won’t do anything in ebook unless you upgrade your package and pay them another $900 and upgrade into the next package (or put the book on Amazon or B&N).
Of course, there’s the usual spiel: “we only plan to make money off our sales percent,” (which is way too high and you only get a 25% author discount… if this were true you would get the books at close to cost.) This is untrue. I pointed that out when the Westbow sales agent tried to get me to bite on the lowest package after learning I couldn’t be talked into a more expensive one. She had tried to steer me to a higher one by mentioning I would not have U.S. Copyright registration provided as a service. “Um,” I replied, “you always have the copyright to anything you publish or self publish… this is not my first rodeo.” Of course she also tried the typical sales script, “One of the things we allow for is for you to retain complete copyright of your book.” I’m sure she hated talking to me since I responded with facts like, “the whole publishing industry is built on selling rights for an author’s work—why would I pay money to a publisher for them to be able to make money off selling my hard work? I’m here to actually sell, my ultimate goal is to sell the rights. Keeping them is the opposite of what I want! Give me money and you can have the rights—that’s how this works!”
I would have less issues with a company that charged (even forced the charges as part of a package) if they were truly geared towards making authors successful, but with the price margins set up the way they are, companies are CERTAINLY trying to take advantage of enthusiastic indies and use them as free marketing employees. This isn’t just Westbow. It’s everyone. And it’s got to stop if you want to honestly say “we are about making money off of your book sales instead of off fees to authors.” One of the reasons there are so many indie authors that get burned out after the first book is that they flame out in a colossal heap of ruin… but the publisher still turns a profit because they made at least a thousand bucks even if the author could never sell a copy. There needs to be some kind of intermediate company out there to work with co-published indies which spends the bulk of their resources doing targeted sales of their books to brick and mortars as well as distribution and targeted individual sales via creative advertising methods. A publisher that is truly about the writers—it would succeed, but they couldn’t print everyone and instantly capitalize on the unpolished dreams of the writers as it seems all “copublishers” do. I wasn’t asked very many questions about my book; nobody qualified it to see if it should really be printed (and if it is, is there a market and how much refining work needs to go into the text to make it “not suck.” And let’s face it, most first time authors looking at self-publishing are still a few drafts away from “ready.” But don’t worry, at the $2,000 mark you also get an editorial assessment—but according to disgruntled Westbow authors you might be better off having a class of sixth graders group edit your manuscript as an English class project—they might even work for Cheetos and soda.) The reason they pull all these shenanigans: their folks get commissions for their sales packages (I verified later from an internet search, but as a commissioned salesman in years past I spotted the all the signs and pressure sales tactics a mile away.)
Basically I came away with the understanding that the only reason to use Westbow (provided you can do some of the very basic things like hire your own editor, utilize the createspace cover designer, or pretty much anything I’ve taught people to do through my blog,) is get a cursory look at your manuscript by a slush-pile sifter at Zondervan/Thomas Nelson and (if you pay for a package $2,000 or more) have access to be purchased via shoppers at Christian Book Distrubutors/CBD (see an earlier post about my frustrations over the impossibility of getting in there.) For just a few hundred bucks, though, you could go to a Christian writers conference, get some skills and contacts, and also have the same ability to pitch your work to reps from a bigger house (only it might be more convincing in person,) and I told the nice lady at Westbow as much. I think she thought her sale was a slam dunk—she had salesmanship talents, but I had facts and predetermined numbers from my experience as an indie.
Westbow might be a decent alternative if you have a large platform and have already got a strong enough sales records/expectations because of a traveling ministry circuit to allow for a $3,200 or more package just so you can be carried on Christian Bookstore shelves (your copies will be otherwise be just as unreturnable as any Createspace titles.) And if you want any sort of media campaign to have publicists work on your behalf to get the title into those stores without doing all the legwork yourself then be prepared to swallow an $18,000 price tag.
Here’s the rub… if you’re going to need to do all of the legwork yourself anyhow you would be better off financially if you went the indie route (even spring an extra chunk of change to invent the name of your own imprint publisher so that it doesn’t come up as Createspace—it’s a $100 add on) and independently hired a publicist… it would cost about $6,000 on top of getting your book ready and comparable promotional materials. A savvy indie author (or someone who just followed my blog religiously,) could realistically get their book out with paperback copies and promotional materials in hand AND have returnability via Ingram distribution for only a few hundred dollars—something that Westbow would charge more than $2,000 to do… you could even hire that personal publicist and come out at a third of Westbow’s service charges.
In the end they wanted me to buy in at a minimum of $3,150 so that they could sell a ten dollar book for $15 and charge me 11.25 per copy despite actual production costs closer to $3 (meaning they make $2 for every dollar I make AFTER PRODUCTION COSTS—and that’s if I inflate the production costs to about $4.) At least at this price point the stores have returnability so I could theoretically get my books on shelves… if I can personally contact a bunch of stores and get them on shelves through my own efforts… that makes the break-even point for me a minimum of 840 book sales. Up to the break-even point Westbow will make $15,749 gross profit before you earn your first real penny in the black—but that’s only if you work your rear-end off to market and sell the product that you already poured your heart, soul, and more money by way of editors, time, etc. into.)
If I up my price to $15 and sell the book on my own through Ingram at the max discount (it’s around 60%) I’ll still make about $3 per book and I can sell it on Amazon as well for ten bucks and make $3.25 per sale. If I was smart and follow this blog I did it for no cost and have already broken even—I could still do that promo and legwork and if I sell 840 books I’ve made over $2,500.
(you can check out package costs here:
and the Createspace creation calculator here:
For a certain type of writer this might be a great option for a publisher (and I’m honestly considering using them for my devotional book in the off chance I can’t secure regular publishing for it.) However, one thing was certain: when she told me “our goal is to make money off of your book sales and NOT from the author,” that is certainly a falsehood. Christian-book-publishing might be as secular as any other cut-throat business, regardless of the product’s contents.
Until the copublishing/price-sharing/self-publishing houses figure out that authors aren’t stupid people they will continue running schemes and scams on us. Unfortunately, most starry-eyed first-timers are just happy to talk to a publisher (of any variety) and so they get suckered into agreements. Hopefully this post has been of help to you (I know it’s long) and please share it and become a regular follower of my adventures in writing.