The financials of London Kerning
Even though I finished in the red, I made a book I love. (Updated)
Find out more about how to how to support my writing and making of things at my Patreon campaign, where I regularly post articles about the intersection of type, design, printing, language, and history for patrons.
Update: After the first printing sold out much faster than I expected, I decided to offer pre-orders towards a a second printing with a goal of 100 copies—which was reached in about 10 days. Read more about the update with additional figures at the bottom. You can also order a print copy via this link.
In the spirit of my friend and Patreon mentor (and tall-boat enthusiast) Lucy Bellwood, I thought I’d show some of the wood-pulp factory’s innards on the London Kerning book project. When you read through all the detail, you might wonder if I”m unhappy about the finances: I’m not. You can jump to the bottom for my takeaway! (And an update…)
When I decided to take a quick trip to London for an exhibition, meeting people, visiting presses, and touring collections, I initially planned to as a semi-professional vacation capping the year I spent as Designer in Residence at the School of Visual Concepts. But as I started to plan the trip and set up times to meet people and view collections, I felt I could come away with a small book. I created a rough budget and launched a Kickstarter that quickly funded. The expenses would largely be travel, printing, and shipping.
I found an affordable round-trip (non-stop!) flight and stayed with friends three of the six nights I was there, and an AirBnb and an airport hotel the other nights. (My final night I stayed at Gatwick in a hotel inside the airport: you used terminal elevators to get to rooms!) I was fairly frugal on food and and travel, but with museum admissions, a few Ubers (for tight appointments), and other transport (like the train to and from Gatwick), it averaged about $100 a day. I managed to pay for a meal with people I was visiting just once and only a couple rounds at pubs, because so much hospitality was shown to me. This added up to about $2,000.
I didn’t have an exact amount for editing at this stage, but I had a rough idea. The final cost was about $500 to have my friend Jeff Carlson, an experienced technology and photography writer and editor, make a thorough pass and later proof the final layout. I’ll get to printing costs later.
After the campaign ended and I’d returned from London, I first opted to handle post-campaign sales through Celery, which has a straightforward way to accept payment details for products that aren’t shipping yet, and then charge later. They take a very small fee, and let people use both credit cards (via Stripe) and PayPal for payment. But because it can handle pre-orders only, and doesn’t help with crowdfunding fulfillment or existing backers, I shifted to BackerKit.
BackerKit is used by a lot of campaigns where the creator has other items to sell, both physical and digital, and lets people upgrade their pledge level after the campaign is over. You can also set up a pre-order store for people who didn’t back the original campaign.
That wound up being very successful, grossing nearly $1,200 in additional sales. All of the add-on items that weren’t part of the campaign — like my Not To Put Too Fine a Point on It ebook and The Magazine hardcover anthology — had already had their expenses paid in previous campaigns. Since I’d already absorbed the cost of making those items, those sales were effectively additive. (In the interests of self-promotion: you can still buy all those items directly from my site, too.)
BackerKit charges a setup fee plus a percentage. They gave me a first-time user/small-campaign discount on the setup portion. You can opt for paying a percentage in two different ways: either 2% of your campaign gross and then 5% of all add-on/pre-order sales, or 3% of your campaign gross and no additional fees. I opted for the latter and came out about $30 ahead. BackerKit received about $200, so I count my net after their cut and the passthrough Stripe fees as roughly $930. (All these totals include money collected for shipping.)
I had a rough idea of printing costs ahead of time, and came up with a budget for the Kickstarter campaign that would just cover my trip expenses, which I’d estimated a little low at $1,500. I estimated I could sell around 500 books, and make up the expenses with post-campaign sales. The campaign double its goal, grossing $3,000, and netted $2,700, which represented about 175 print books to ship, after Kickstarter’s 5% fees, credit-card charges, and a few uncollected pledges. (That includes some higher-tier patrons who contributed far in advance of benefits, which was very kind.)
After I’d returned from London and started to rough out a writing and production plan, including picking a book size, I went to Bookmobile for a firm estimate. They’re a digital-printing company in Minneapolis about whom I’d gotten a strong reference, and the samples of printing they sent me looked awfully good. (Digital printing relies on laser — in this case — or ink-jet printed directly from digital files combined with book-grade binding equipment, often inline. A digital file is directly imaged and printed with no printing plates, unlike offset.)
The first estimate I asked for was a hardcover (case bound) book, no jacket, with a few different quantity options. Because they have price breaks for edition sizes, at 250 copies for a 76-page book, including all costs and shipping to my address, it would have been $3,000. For 500 copies, just a bit more: $3,800! (That’s $12 for a quantity of 250 versus $7.60 for 500 copies.)
$7.60 a copy still seemed pretty steep, and I had specifically not promised a hardcover book as I wasn’t sure I’d reach enough units sold to make that work. With an edition of 500, I would have had to sell another 300 copies, selling out the edition — and because of shipping costs, that would still have left me $1,000 in the hole. The difference of a few ounces can be whole dollars in both domestic and international shipping costs, and I found that it really adds up fast.
Bookmobile very cheerfully sent me a lot of revised estimates as I closed in on an affordable paperback option. Switching to paperback dropped the cost immensely. For 401 copies (a price-break point), it would be $1,933 all in ($4.80 each); for 300, $1,600 ($5.20). The book would also weigh about 3 ounces and be about 0.15 inches with the text paper I ultimately chose. Shipping the book in the US cost $1.41; outside the U.S., about $2.50 (Canada/Mexico) to $4.50 (Europe and beyond). I also spent about 30¢ a book in packaging supplies.
Back to the book-sales math. Including the BackerKit campaign, Celery presales, and direct sales from my Web site, I sold about 280 copies of the book. Including a few to give away, I opted to print 300 instead of 401. I decided my opportunity to sell an additional 100 were limited and didn’t have enough upside, while I can sell the ebook indefinitely. I don’t have a lot of events at which I would be able to sell books, and previous experience when I had books to sell was that most people attending a talk or panel had already purchased my book.
So the final numbers are shown here spreadsheet form. The shipping total wound up being nearly $1,000. It was a bit over $2.50 for each book shipped on average, plus $150 or so for add-on items and $100 for supplies.
This puts me in the red about $1,100 for the project — not including the fact that I made no money from my labor during the week I traveled, during my writing and production, or during handling the campaigns and shipping.
I have a handful of copies left — less than a dozen! I was on the fence for a long time about increasing the order, but I felt already being in the hole as deeply as I was made it make less sense to dig deeper. I can sell the ebook forever, and if I sell the remaining print copies and about 200 ebook copies, the project will break even on expenses one day. This seems doable.
(Did I mention you can buy the ebook?)
I priced the book and shipping too low. At $10 plus $1 US and $3 international shipping, I was way too optimistic on cost of goods and miscalculated shipping. It probably should have been $12.50 plus $4 U.S. and $7 international shipping. I don’t think price sensitivity would have reduced sales tremendously, and my math shows the same sales would have made up the $1,100 shortfall. I hate that it costs so much to ship outside the U.S., but it’s just a practical fact I can’t avoid. It likely means future projects will need to be bigger to make sense, so that shipping is a smaller percentage of the overall cost.
I shouldn’t have made the ebook/print bundle the same price as the print book. I wanted to encourage people to “upgrade” to print, but I should have offered them as separate items, and just had a discount: $5 ebook, $12.50 book, $15 bundle. Again, price sensitivity wouldn’t have figured in too much, and it would have led to an actual break-even project on expenses. I’ve set pricing at $5 and $10 (thus $15 together) for direct sales from my site. (Everyone so far is purchasing either the ebook or print edition, not both.)
I’ll factor in fulfillment next time. I spent about 15 to 20 hours managing all the fulfillment details, including packing all the books up and putting postage on them. In the scheme of things, it was delightful for a very personal and bijou project like this, but anything I do in the future will need to incorporate the cost for a third-party, like Blackbox, to handle it.
I need to budget better. This wasn’t a disaster, but I should have done more work to figure out exact costs ahead of time to better price the project and ensure break-even by the delivery stage. I thought I was within about 10% to 20% of final expenses and income, but the actual expenses were about 25% higher than I anticipated and revenue was about 25% lower.
This might seem a little depressing, right? I’m finishing deeply in the hole and didn’t even sell 300 copies of a book I poured myself into?
But I’d say it turned out pretty well. While I put in an enormous amount of labor, this was a research mission: I learned so much, met so many people, produced a book as the result, and paid for at least half my trip to London so far, with the reasonable expectation that over the next year, I’ll likely make up the rest. It was an amazing, effectively once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I don’t regret it a bit.
More will come out of this. I re-launched a Patreon campaign that’s slowly increasing, and plotting ideas for future ebook-only publications that have vastly lower expenses. I have a lot of article ideas, a podcast series, and other work I expect to come from this, too.
I’m satisfied — though my future projects need to actually produce enough profit to cover my time invested.
Update: Since I posted this accounting, I quickly sold through the remainder of the print copies I had, and people were still interested in buying copies. I hadn’t contacted any bookstores or museum shops, either. While it would have been cost effective to print more copies initially, you can see from the math above it didn’t make financial sense. What to do?
I decided to consider a reprint, and use pre-orders to gauge interest, as people could place firm orders without being charged using the abovementioned Celery. Another printing of 300 copies seemed like the right size, which would require advance orders of 100 copies to cover all the printing and mailing expenses, and have 200 copies left to sell thereafter.
I thought this might be a little complicated to explain to people, although I pitched it in terms of a mini-crowdfunding campaign. Within about 9 days, I crossed 100 orders (plus one small bulk order from a museum shop), and I’m going back on press!
I repriced the book and shipping per the above analysis. The second printing has $12.50/£9/€10 cover price instead of $10. And the shipping fees are over double what I set for the Kickstarter campaign, reflecting postage and all the packaging and other costs, as well as an allowance for lost and damaged items.
Here’s the revised potential outcome of the book project now—potentially totalling a $1,400 or so payment for my labor instead of a $1,000 loss. Of course, I have to sell those 200 copies, but it’s easier to sell books that you have than books that you don’t.
I placed the order in late March and shipped all the pre-orders the first week in April. You can grab your copy from the second printing via this link!
After calculating all the printing and shipping costs and the net receipts after fees from the pre-orders, I’m now about $600 in the hole, down from $1,100, with over 150 copies left to sell. The above estimate for final net is looking right on target.
Glenn Fleishman is a journalist and designer interested in literally everything.