Poet Charles Bernstein on the economics of small press literary publishing, using Sun & Moon Press as an example:
The printing bill runs from $2600 to $4000 as you go from 1000 to 2000 copies. [Douglas] Messerli estimates the cost of editing a 100-page poetry book at $300: this covers all the work between the press receiving a manuscript and sending it to a designer (including any copyediting and proofreading that may be necessary as well as preparation of front and back matter and cover copy). Typesetting is already a rarity for presses like Sun & Moon, with authors expected to provide computer disks wherever possible. Formatting these disks (converting them into type following specifications of the book designer) can cost anywhere from $300 to $1000, one of those variable labor costs of small press operations. The book designer will charge about $500. The cover will cost an additional $100 for photographic reproduction or permission fees or both. Publicity costs must also be accounted for, even if, as at Sun & Moon, no advertising is involved. Messerli estimates publicity costs at $1500, which covers the cost of something like 100 free copies distributed to reviewers, postage and packing, mailings and catalog pages, etc. The total cash outlay here, then, for 2000 copies is around $6800. (For the sake of this discussion, overhead costs—rent, salaries, office equipment, phone bills, etc.—are not included; such costs typically are estimated at about 30 percent more than the cost of production.
If all goes well, Sun & Moon will sell out of its print run in two years. Let’s say Sun & Moon prints 2000 copies of the book and charges $10 retail; let’s also say all of the books were sold. That makes a gross of $20,000. Subtract from this a 50 percent wholesale discount (that is, most bookstores will pay $5 for the book) and that leaves $10,000. Subtract from this the 24 percent that Sun & Moon’s distributor takes (and remember that most small presses are too small to secure a distributor with a professional sales force). That leaves $7600. Now last, but not to be totally forgotten, especially since I am a Sun & Moon author, the poet’s royalty; typically no advance would be paid and the author would receive 10 percent of this last figure or $760. That leaves [a] $6840 return to the publisher on a cash cost of about $7000. As James Sherry noted years ago in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: a piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value. If you print a poem on it, this value is lost. Here we have a vivid example of what Georges Bataille has called general economy, an economy of loss rather than accumulation. Poetry is a negative—or let’s just say poetic—economy.
There is also an interesting interview with Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius talking about the success of one of his press’s newest books, Light Boxes, a novel by Shane Jones (a true small press success story: first, Spike Jonze bought the movie rights to the book, and then Penguin picked it up for re-publication). What is success for a small press anyway?