Self-publishing vs Traditional Publishing: A Career Decision

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The hardest part of being a writer is finding the time to do a good job of it. Writing is much more than putting words down. It’s editing, it’s revising, it’s adding the details that make a story vivid, it’s removing the details that clutter a story. And it's thinking.

Every storyteller wants to be a full-time storyteller, whether they’re in it for the love of stories or for the money. Those of us who are in it for the love of storytelling face the reality that if money doesn’t flow from it, writing will never get to be more than a hobby. For most of us, writing is our second, part-time job. What we want to do is reverse that so that it’s our full-time job and the other job becomes our second, part-time job, at least as an intermediate step toward becoming self-sustaining writers.

You’ve written your book. You’ve followed all of the advice that any new writer gets - both self- and traditional publish wannabes - and had it edited, beta-read and generally polished to within an inch of perfection. As well as years of your time, you’ve spent at least $1,000 with edits and revisions. So how do you get to that next level, being a full-time story-teller?

What works best for Stephen King might not work best for first-time authors.

Well, there are two paths, two schools of thought - roughly categorized as traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Recently, literary agent Janet Reid was asked why well-established writers don’t self-publish if to do so means making more money per book sold. She had an interesting answer, but possibly not the best answer if applied to new authors.  Janet starts from the top-selling author perspective (as did the questioner, so that’s fair) and throws around numbers like $10 million, then shows that it’s not cost effective for such a writer to self-publish.

I’m not sure I agree with her math (I think she over-emphasizes opportunity cost and downplays rate of return), but will bow to her expertise there, so let’s accept that as given for the superstar authors like Stephen King.

But what about the little guy, the first-time author? What works best here?

Do you know how much a first-time author makes from a full-length book (90,000-120,000 words) published through a traditional publisher? The answer isn’t as much as you’d expect. Most first-time authors get ‘advances’ of around US$5,000. For each copy of the book that sells, the author gets between ten and fifteen percent of the cover price (with first-timers getting the lower end of that scale). Think about that - you spent $15 on a book. The author gets $1.50, slightly more if it’s not their first book.

Now, this isn’t on top of the original $5,000. No, the publisher keeps tabs, deducting the $1.50 from the $5,000 advance until the total crosses zero (this is called ‘paying out the advance,’ something that most books don’t do). Then, and only then, does the author get any money from each additional book sold (after selling the first 3,334 approximately).

You spend $15 on a book, the author gets $1.50

Wait, wait, I forgot the author’s agent’s cut. A typical agent gets 15% of the author’s take, so the advance is reduced from $5,000 to $4,250 once the author finally gets it. The agent would also get 22.5 cents on $1.50 after the advance paid out, taking the author’s per book haul down to $1.275 per book sold from then on.

Can you live on that? Is that enough for you to be able to transition your full-time job down to part-time?

No. Of course not.

Please note that publishers aren’t going to publish more than one of your books a year - more likely one every two years at the beginning. They want time to judge how well your books sell and if they should continue working with you (The submission cycle: from author submission of completed manuscript to the book actually in stores is 8-10 months, cumulative sales figures [returns] is another six months. Then the process for book two begins, if your publisher still loves you) So $4,250 is all you’ll see for at least one year, maybe ever.

Many traditionally published first-time authors make $4,250 in total from their book.

You can help your publisher (you will be expected to help) by marketing your book - publicity appearances on websites, podcasts, TV and radio if you’re luck, travel to conventions (either try to get on panels or have a booth for book signings), etc - all out of your own pocket. How far is that $4,250 going now?

What does the publisher give in return for their 85-90% take on the cover price? Printing, distribution, hopefully a good edit and a cover that you may or may not like, but you’ll have no say over (also, publishers can change the name of your book against your will). If your publisher’s sales reps love your book, they may push it hard on bookstores, but a first book probably won’t get much attention from either the publisher’s reps or the stores.

Let’s compare to self-publishing.

A good cover is going to cost you upwards of $500, including typography and layout/design. There are stock covers that you can buy for much less, but you may not be the only one using that cover. You want a unique cover. Ebooks only need to be created once, and there are many websites that will help you format a word.doc into an epub or mobi file (Scrivener, which is an indispensible $45 authoring suite, will also do this for you).

First off, you won’t be in physical bookstores, even if you have a physical book made through CreateSpace or Smashwords. So your market is smaller, but not by much. Amazon will be your main base, with other places, like SmashWords and Apple's iBooks, adding a bit of coverage.

Amazon, by far the largest bookstore in any country and in the world, allows you to sell your self-published works in return for a percentage of the sale. As long as your book’s price stays above 99 cents, you retain 70% of the cover price.

So your hypothetical $15 traditionally published first novel is self-published on Amazon instead, at a cover price of $5.99 ($7.99, $5.99, $3.99 and $2.99 are all common prices). Seventy percent of $5.99 is $4.19 - that’s what you take home from each book sold. Not $1.27. If you were able to sell that same 3,334 books, you would bring home $13,979.46 instead of $4,250.

Selling the same 3,334 copies through Amazon self-publishing would earn the author $10,000 more

Now that’s a big if. Many self-published books sell less than one hundred copies (so do many traditionally published books, however the trad author keeps their $4,250 advance.) To get to those sale numbers, you’ll need to make publicity appearances on websites, podcasts … everything you’d need to do if you’re traditionally published.

You’ll also need the things you control (quality of writing, cover) and intangibles that you don’t - people finding, liking, and giving positive reviews to your book. But that’s also the same for traditional publishing.

It’s not a lot more work on your part, but the take home is almost $10,000 higher for the same sales.

Also, Amazon doesn’t care how often you publish (but you should care - quality is key, and quality takes time). Some authors publish four or six books a year (I couldn’t do that, again, the quality issue comes into play for me).

So if a self-published author can achieve the same level of sales as a first-time traditionally published author, but can publish two books a year, said author should be making around $28,000 a year. Is that enough to switch your careers around, make writing full-time and your other job part-time? Maybe, that depends on how you've structured your life.

But, if you can do that, then perhaps you can redefine your life so that your part-time job is marketing your books, and your full-time job is writing them. You still have two jobs, but only one combined paycheque. This may be idealistic (some may say naive), but it’s something to aim for, or at least think about.