TL;DR — More on Pathways to Publication

If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym TL;DR, it stands for Too Long; Didn’t Read. The other day I posted a relatively short and general thing about why all pathways to publication are worth examining for each work you hope to bring to the public.

Today, I am pulling my business-owner hat and getting down to the nitty-gritty of something most of us don’t like to think about and something that almost no authors talk about: numbers. And because there will be a lot of numbers and analysis, you may find this too long to read. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended if you skip it and watch this dog and pony show instead:

All things being equal…but they usually aren’t.
In my little corner of the world, it’s been nearly impossible to avoid Hugh Howey’s “author earnings report.” No, I won’t link to it for one because I think the conclusions he draws are completely unsupported by the data (as shown more than adequately here, here, and here), but more importantly because I don’t believe that even if the conclusions he drew were correct, they would matter. I knew those conclusions going into my career, and I still didn’t make the choices he insists a person should make: to whit, that self-pub is the only sensible way to go (followed closely by publishing with an Amazon imprint).

Now it is plainly obvious that if you sell 2000+ copies of a book that would be a “midlist ” book (see earlier post for definition of that term), sold at the same price a publisher would sell it for, and you pay no outside help (see more on that later), you will make more money self-pubbing than you would taking a traditional contract. For debut authors, that’s a big if, and getting bigger every day since it becomes harder and harder to get yourself noticed.

However, I want to be clear. I am not saying that everyone should go the traditional route, either. I want everyone to have all the information necessary to make informed decisions. After all, this is your career.

The harsh truth is that many people have their paths chosen for them. They can’t get a traditional contract–not because their writing is bad but because it doesn’t, for example, look commercial enough to the acquiring editor. Or because the publishing house has already filled all their slots when the manuscript arrives. Or they cannot self-publish because they simply don’t have the organizational chops to manage all the stuff that goes into self-pub so they go traditional so they don’t have to think about anything except writing.

And it’s not as if those are the only two options. Maybe the author goes with “partnership publishing,” which studies on “traditional vs self-publishing” don’t consider since they look at self-pubbed in one group and “someone else pubbed them” in the other. Unless you know the contract terms, you don’t know that, for example, a fairly sizable small press isn’t a “partnership press,” where everything’s split between author and press, nor how that split goes. (I know some who split 50/50, others where author gets 70%, and I am sure there are others.) I abhor the artificial division between “Big 5” and “self-pub” as if those were the only ways to go. There are more ways than EVER to publish, and the amount an author makes per book from each will be different.

And, frankly, no one actually knows what people make self-publishing, either. When I self-pub, I will still be paying someone to do some of the stuff I cannot deal with on an ongoing basis. It’s a decision I made and it’s a decision both of us are comfortable with. But yes, she will get some of my profit and when you look at my book you will not know that someone else is taking part of my profit. You would assume “look at how much she’s making” based on my sales, and you’d be wrong.

But since right here we are talking about the argumentative extremes, let’s get to those numbers.

Here’s how it shakes out for Twisted (rounded to nearest 5  cents) on Amazon. (This book is e-only, which is good, because all this becomes far, far murkier when you start talking print production and distribution.)

Penguin sells the book for $5, of which they get $3.50.
Of that 3.50, I get 80 cents.
Of that 80 cents, I give my agent 10 cents.
So, yeah, I am only making 70 cents per book sold, whereas if I had self-pubbed at the same price and wasn’t paying anyone for anything ongoing I’d be making the full $3.50 (If I’d sold to Penguin without an agent, I’d be making 80 cents. And I’d be a lot crazier. And have made some stupid contract mistakes.)

That’s if and only if I felt I could charge $5 in the current genre market for a self-published book. Which I don’t believe would work for a debut. For that I would probably charge the going price of $3. That means the maximum I could make per book would be $2.10. Still, it’s a lot more than that 80 cents, right?

Well, maybe. If I sell a lot of books. But with a traditional publisher there’s no outlay that you have to consider before publishing. No developmental editor, copy editor, cover designer, formatter for e and/or print. If you are doing any of these things yourself–and I don’t recommend it–you’re not writing, so think of your time and what it’s costing you in man-hours and realize you are paying one way or the other.

And what if your book doesn’t hit it big on Amazon? What if, like the vast majority of self-pub authors, those Howey fully admits his data doesn’t consider, you book sells poorly. What if it sells better than the vast majority of self-pub, but still not really well? At the end of your first year, you’ve sold 1000 copies. (This would mean you are around the 50k “kindle bestsellers” mark at all times–that’s where selling 1-3 books a day will put you.)

There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of ebooks that don’t sell that well. About a year and a half ago, for example, a friend and I put up a novella to see what self-pub was all about because we didn’t know anything about the field and we wanted to learn. We didn’t push hard, we didn’t spend money, and it’s published under a pen name so it doesn’t benefit from either of our other creds, but we did get it read and reviewed. It’s now sitting at approximately 1.05 million. Not thousand. Million. I say this only because I want you to understand the sheer number of books you are up against.

So, back to our example. Considering the number of books out there, you’re doing fabulously. Selling 1000 copies at $3 (you can’t lower the price to do promotions in this example, because the book has to be at least $2.99 for Amazon to give you 70% royalty instead of the 35% rate), you’ve made $2100 minus expenses. I’ve only made…well…my book hasn’t earned out yet, so what I have in the bank is the $1500 advance my publisher gave me. More than likely, depending on your expenses, at the end of the first year, with one book, we’ve made the same amount of money.

Now, a little aside about “earning out.” Remember my publisher? Well, they got the $2.70 for each book that didn’t come to me. So they’ve made $2700, minus my advance, which leaves $1200. They are buying in bulk for ISBNs and stock photography, paying better prices for cover art than I can because their artists are in house, getting their editing done at a better rate than I pay out of pocket. I am betting that at the end of that 1000 books sold, they feel the book has broken even. The next thousand or so I have to sell to “earn out” my advance keeps their lights on, etc. In other words, I don’t have to “earn out” for them to keep me around.

So, yeah, all things being equal–price is the same and we sell the same number of copies, with that number being a pretty good number, you’re going to start making a whole lot more money than I am because you’re going to recoup all your startup fees.

And here’s where it all goes sideways.

All things are not equal. Ever.

You are not the same person I am. Neither of us is the same person as Carolyn Jewel, who says of Howey’s study:

The point is that if you define author as “someone who has at least one book on sale” AND it is true that the author writes well enough that a traditional publisher would pay them to write for their house,…the conclusion is that such an author has compelling reasons to choose self-publishing over traditional publishing.

I think Carolyn makes some excellent points in her analysis, and I know and like her as a person. And I agree that people should look at self-publishing. I am self-pubbing a book. But I disagree that the money you make per book is the only, or even the best, thing to consider when choosing a publication path for your first book. This is vital–your decisions can change, and should, depending where you are in your career. Which is another thing none of those studies actually take into account.

So, back to the extremes that are always argued, Big Five, vs Self-Pub doing it all yourself.

I knew when I saw the contract I was offered that I would have to sell approximately five times as many copies than I would have if I had published it myself. I didn’t need Hugh Howey’s “report” to show me that. I’d have been a freaking IDIOT not to know that.

But I spend a lot of my “day job” time thinking about return on investment (ROI) and I know there are very, very, very few things you can do that will predictably give you a positive ROI. I may not make back all the money I give up publishing with Penguin by virtue of the things they can do for me that I cannot do for myself, but I will make back some of it. And no one–not me, not my editor, not my agent, not Hugh Howey or anyone–knows just how much.

I am a debut author. At the moment, no one knows me. And I am betting that if I don’t sell five times as many books with Penguin as I would by myself, I sell at least twice as many.

I also know that I don’t want to spend most of my time worrying about things like finding cover designers who can work when I need them, finding appropriate editors, working my schedule, my editors’ schedules, and my designer’s schedule around when I want to release my books for maximum exposure, fiddling with prices, mucking about with the different platforms, reformatting my books when a new one comes out so that there can be new links in the back… And I totally would do all that. People who know me well know how mired down I could become in all of that. Heck, just look at this post!

That is why, as always, I say I LOVE MY PUBLISHER. You know how you can tell I love them? I submitted a proposal for two more books to them just last week. I don’t feel “gypped,” or as if I am being treated like some kind of indentured servant. I believe our relationship is truly symbiotic, though I am well aware that people will say I am crazy to feel that way. Unlike people who say they got no input into their covers, that hasn’t been my experience. People say they felt as if no one cared about their work at the publishing house–that hasn’t been my experience, either. Is my relationship with them perfect? No. But my relationship with myself isn’t perfect, either, so imagine what a bitch I’ll be publishing my own work! (Get away now, while it’s safe!)

I can manage it for a book. Or two. Or three. Yes, absolutely. I will be doing it this summer and part of me cannot wait. But, as I said, even then I will be paying someone else a percentage to handle stuff like BookBub ads, reformatting, etc. But what I really want to do is write, and if I my income from writing is lower per book because someone else is doing all that other stuff, well, that’s a trade I am willing to make. Because chances are, I will also be able to write more books.

It may, on the other hand, be a trade you are not willing to make. And that is absolutely okay. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming that just because an author makes more money per book sold with one publishing path, it’s the only viable path.

Thanks for listening to my rant. Here’s another dog and pony show…well, dog and colt show, anyway…for your enjoyment:

This entry was posted in *Laura, On Publishing, On Royalties, The Technical Side, TMI by Laura K. Curtis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura K. Curtis

Laura K. Curtis has always done everything backwards. As a child, she was extremely serious, so now that she's chronologically an adult, she feels perfectly justified in acting the fool. She started teaching at age fifteen, then decided to go back to school herself at thirty. And she wrote her first book in first grade. It was released in (notebook) paperback to rave reviews and she's been trying to achieve the same level of acclaim ever since. She lives in Westchester County, NY with her husband and a pack of wild Irish Terriers, which has taught her how easily love can coexist with the desire to kill.

13 thoughts on “TL;DR — More on Pathways to Publication

  1. I think that the stage of career is HUGE and totally overlooked in most of these discussions. Beverley Kendall’s survey showed, I think, previously trad-pubbed authors were doing better than those who had only self-pubbed, even with equivalent size of backlist. Which is unsurprising to me for all kinds of reasons.

    One of Howey’s conclusions that I haven’t seen people questioning (probably because it’s near the end and there’s already so much nonsense to deal with before that) is that really bad books are better off self-published, because that way they might make a few bucks, rather than none. Which, even if true, is incredibly short-sighted. You might sell a few copies and make a few dollars, but you will have lost readers. The impact of that on an actual career is potentially huge. Making the maximum income over a whole career is not the same as maximising the income on every individual book. Self-publishers know this, hence the explosion of free books. You have to make wise choices for their impact on your whole career, not only for their impact on the sales of each book.

    So even if you maybe make a bit less with a trad pub on your debut novel, if you’ve gained loyal readers and begun to build a reputation, that’s a great choice to have made.

    • The “really bad books” thing is such an untenable idea. I mean, yes, of course…because a really bad book more than likely *can’t* be published by a Big 5 publisher. Depending on the definition of “bad,” it might get through with some of the other in-between methods he doesn’t really consider, but a bad debut book would be seriously difficult to squeeze into a traditional contract. So naturally a stinker of a book will only make you money if you self-publish. But, as you say, that doesn’t consider what that stinker will do to sales of future books.

      Of course, if you only have one story in you, and you’re not thinking about a career, none of this matters. Self-pub away. But if you are thinking about a career, you have to think strategically!

      • Exactly. I suppose the alternative for those books used to be vanity pub, and I would always advise self-pub over vanity pub. So that’s something. They won’t have lost $$$ to PublishAmerica.

  2. Laura, thanks for the depth of information. Do you use a variety of companies for BookPub ads, if you do use ads? As a debut writer, do you think ads are necessary so readers can learn of you and your work whether you’ve gone the traditional publishing route or not?

    • Hi Dot – not sure what you mean about variety of companies. BookBub is a place where people find books — it’s like advertising on GoodReads or on SmartBitches or on Facebook or on whatever spot you would use to advertise. I was really just using it as an example because I understand that it, unlike some other places, has some pretty specific rules about how and when and what you need to do to advertise.

      I can’t be bothered to figure all that out which is why I need someone else to do it. By the time my self-pub comes out it will be the third book I have out and coordination isn’t my strong point.

      I did buy advertising for my first book. And I’ve already bought a less-expensive ad for my second book. (To be fair, it’s the ad I would have bought for my first book, but it wasn’t available, so I got the more expensive option.) Do I know whether it’s really worked? No. I do not. ROI on advertising is VERY hard to calculate. But in the beginning of your career, IMHO, it’s important to get your name in front of as many eyes as possible.

    • Google BookBub (with a B) and you can explore what that site is–a referral source for e-books. It’s a specific site, not a company to do book publicity. If you’re looking for that, you’ll want to get referrals for an independent or freelance publicist, though that can be pretty pricey for a small title, fyi.

  3. Not a rant but a sane, thoughtful post. Thank you, there’s so much hype about this issue that it’s nice to read a well-reasoned discussion based on experience.

    • Thanks, Catherine! I think I am often ranting in my head, so I feel like I am ranting on the blog, even though my fingers translate it into something readable ;D

  4. I read THE WHOLE THING : ) And loved the dog and pony shows.

    It’s easy not to dig into the data if it supports what you already think, but having worked in experimental design and the subsequent statistical analysis at one time in my checkered past, I found myself… uncertain, even just reading the broad strokes. Deeper readings, like the ones you linked, cemented my doubts.

    I don’t like the rabid self-pubbers (All trad authors are innumerate morons!) any more than I appreciate Big 5 snobbery (All self-pub is poorly-written crap!). There are too many examples now proving both positions are quicksand, and as you point out, there are SO MANY WAYS in between, with different arrangements, revenue sharing, and prospects that we’re not tracking and that may not even exist yet. It’s still early days for all this, and that’s why I applaud and practice the strategy of considering just one writer’s career, just that work, just that audience…

    The propagandists and evangelists from all sides of the issue create lots of background noise, but I believe an author (after informing herself about the slice of the market she’s in) should concentrate on listening to her own inner voice based upon how well one decision or another can help work specifically like hers find the target of readers who can appreciate it.

    Thanks for sharing some of your numbers, too– I think it’s so helpful to the rest of us!

  5. Laura, thanks so much for this post. I have read it at least twice each day since you posted it. I think you hit on every major annoyance that has made me more of an isolationist that I already am. Yes, there is a wide variety of ways to publish material. You went to great lengths to explain the differences and even gave examples of why traditional publishing might work best in some situations and self-publishing might work best in other situations.

    The problem I am having of late is that I am not sure when, or how this became an outright war. Interestingly, the traditionally published authors are the ones playing defense.

    There was a recent war on a message board I frequent where some members were DEMANDING that self (indie) published work be treated exactly the same as traditionally published work. Of course I was confused from the start because indie used to mean: published by a small independent press. Anyway, I think you have been extremely clear and articulate in describing the responsibilities of both types of publications plus the hybrids, or partnerships. I am the one who puts my hands over my ears and sings “lalalala” when the business of writing is the topic. I thought it was because I wasn’t interested in learning but now I know that isn’t true. I’m not interested in (maybe not even capable of) doing all the work involved in self publishing. I like to write–not do that other stuff. Easy for me to say because I am signed with a traditional publisher but I was saying it all these many years. And after reading your post. I know I did what was right–FOR ME.

    What was it President Obama said about President Clinton? “He should be the Secretary for Explaining Things?”

    You, my dear, are the “Secretary for Explaining Writerly Things.”

    Thanks so much.

    • I am going on vacation for two weeks and the only reason the computer is going with me is that I have copy edits due. When I first joined the writing community I was so happy to be out of academia where it was so cutthroat — everyone fighting for a job that barely provided a living wage. When I began writing, I felt so welcomed by the community that it was a real relief. The arguments I see now are painful schisms in a community I once found so cohesive and friendly.

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