Those of you who have followed me here and on my other media outlets for some time will recall how adamant I’ve been about traditional publishing. Until the end of 2013 I was absolutely convinced I would be querying agents and publishers for an indefinite period of time, collecting rejection slips like they were going out of style.
Not anymore. My thoughts on the subject have completely changed, and I’d like to tell you why.
I’ve long held that you should never allow another person to define success for you. What it means to be a successful writer, to me, has changed dramatically over the last two years. I’ve been writing for decades, but I didn’t “come out” with my writing until 2012, and I did so with a lot of fear and trembling.
Fear I wouldn’t be good enough.
Fear I wouldn’t be accepted because I had no publications under my belt.
Fear my stories would never be read.
But at the core of all of this was acceptance. All my life, for one reason or another, I sought activities that placed me in the spotlight (community theater, singing in a barbershop quartet, high school choir, playing guitar in a country band). Many thought this was because I was a showoff or an attention seeker. But they didn’t see what was going on inside.
Yours Truly in ’86/’87
I was trying to feel accepted, even if only for the moment in time when the music would stop and the applause would reverberate.
I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I wasn’t the most popular kid growing up. Queue the violins, I know. But it wasn’t the “fade into the background” kind of unpopular. It was the “school is a combat zone” kind of unpopular. Until I was thirteen I was terrified of going to school in the morning. That all changed when I got involved in the martial arts, but the damage had been done. My self-image had already been determined. My worth . . . my success . . . was now based on how other people perceived me, and would remain so for quite some time.
Flash forward twenty years.
As I put myself “out there” with my writing, an amazing thing happened: people accepted me with open arms. Not only did an entire community of writers accept me without hesitation, but they openly encouraged me. I could feel them cheering for my success!
Then I realized something: My need for industry approval (i.e. a publishing deal with a major publisher) was no different than the need for peer acceptance that had defined most of my life. So I tried a thought experiment. I asked myself “how would you define success if industry acceptance was taken out of the equation?” This was my answer:
I would gauge success by the degree to which I failed or succeeded on my own terms.
That, in and of itself, was enough to sway me toward self-publishing. But I didn’t stop there. I started researching more quantifiable reasons.
Book Stores Have Clocks . . . And They Tick.
The large brick and mortar book sellers can’t afford to keep your book on the shelves forever (and that’s if they buy it from the publisher at all, which isn’t guaranteed just because you have a publishing contract). It takes up space that could be reserved for a best seller.
You have, in most cases, 30 days to prove your book will sell well. At the end of that first month, the book seller packages up all of the books he/she can’t sell and sends them back to the publisher for a full refund. That’s it. You’re done.
The problem is that no one knows how to sell books. You heard me right. The only thing we know for certain is that word-of-mouth sells books far better than a display at a book store. But word-of-mouth takes time. And time is something a major book chain can’t afford to give you.
Self-publishing removes the clock from the equation. It costs you nothing to leave your book on the virtual book shelf. Over time people will read and review your book. They’ll mention it to friends, who will in turn buy it and recommend it to their friends. You are now in control of your own destiny, because writing a good story . . . a story that will generate word-of-mouth . . . is under your control.
Traditional Publishing ≠ Money
We’re artists. We shouldn’t be doing this for the money. I’ve heard the arguments, and I get it. While I place my art and creativity above any price, I’m not allergic to money either. After all, enough of the green stuff would mean I could potentially support myself off my writing. That’s a dream of most writers, isn’t it? Who among us wouldn’t want to spend the lion’s share of their time writing?
If you do manage to land a publishing contract, and your book is printed in hardback (the highest price of the lot), you’re going to see about 12.5% royalties from each sale. Now, take into consideration that your agent is going to get 15% of that and you’re now looking at slightly less than 11%. Don’t get me wrong, the numbers are justified. I’m not suggesting anyone is being over or under paid here. Publishing is a business, and business has costs and overhead that can’t be avoided.
You’ll see a little more from a trade published e-book (approximately 17.5% royalties).
But here’s the thing many writers don’t consider when they’re looking at these numbers: Only 20% of all books published ever earn out their advance.
Let that sink in for a moment.
As a new writer your advance will hover somewhere around $5k, and definitely under $10k. (Sure, there’s a chance your manuscript will be SO amazing that it will spark a bidding war. There’s also a chance my next lottery ticket will allow me to call in “rich” the next day.) You only have a 1 in 5 chance of publishing a book that earns enough in sales to justify paying you royalties. That means the most you’ll ever see off your work is probably going to be whatever advance you got. And don’t forget to give your agent his/her 15% of that advance, by the way.
And before I forget, whatever the amount of your advance, you’re not going to see all of it at once. That $5k advance may come to you in three payments spread out over 18 months.
Let’s contrast this with self-publishing. A $2.99 sale on Amazon will pay you a 70% royalty amounting to $2.09. That $25 hard cover from a traditional publisher, on the other hand, will pay you a net $2.66 royalty (after agent’s cut), and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have had your book earn out its advance.
The numbers for mass market paperback and other editions are even more dismal. Check out David Gaughran’s book (linked above) for the details. There’s far more covered in his book than I could ever hope to tackle here.
Will you make more from a traditional publisher? The hard cover number seems to indicate that. The answer is “it depends”. If you’re sitting on an absolute blockbuster, then chances are, right now, you’ll make more from traditional publishing. If, on the other hand, you think your book is more likely destined for mid-list, I believe self-publishing may be more lucrative.
[UPDATE 03/08/2014] This assumption is no longer correct! I strongly urge you to read Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report when you have more time. What we once thought was true about the self-publishing financial landscape has proven false. The financial reasons to traditionally publish are growing fewer and fewer. As it turns out, even if your book is a potential blockbuster, self-publishing will earn you as much and often more than traditional publishing.
What Will the Publisher Bring to the Table?
If you’re a “no name” writer who hasn’t sold a bunch of books, the answer to that question is “very little”.
Get visions of book signing tours in exotic locations out of your head right now. That doesn’t happen unless you’re willing to take off work and pay for it yourself. (And don’t forget you’ll have to do all of the event organizing yourself).
Get visions of dozens of copies of your book sitting in a large display in the center aisle at Barnes & Noble out of your head. Those spots are reserved for names people recognize, and names the book seller can usually guarantee will sell very well.
So, if you have to do all the work anyway, and you have to pay for your own events (including travel and lodging) are you still ok with taking a fraction of the royalty you’d see from self-publishing? Only you can answer that, because as I said above, money is not the only consideration.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
As always, there are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you’re going down the traditional publishing road, you’d better settle in for the long haul. When you begin the query process, it may take you upwards of a year or more to find an agent that’s a good fit. When you find that agent, it could take him/her upwards of a year or more to find a buyer for your manuscript.
At that point, one of two things will happen:
1. Your agent may decide he/she can’t sell your book due to “market conditions” or some other business reason. Maybe your manuscript doesn’t quite fit into the acceptable pigeon holes and no one knows how to market it. Maybe the print market is saturated with your kind of story. Who knows? The end result is the same. You’ll get a phone call saying “thanks for the memories”, and you will have wasted 2-3 years where your story could have been finding its audience.
2. You sell your manuscript. Yay! At this point it gets slated for publication, which could be as much as 18 months or more from the date of sale. You’ll get a third, or so, of whatever advance was agreed upon. Maybe half. Then, eventually, the book finds its way to book stores (if book shop owners agree to purchase it from the publisher’s catalog). From here, in 80% of cases, that’s it. You’re done. Write something else and start submitting again. If you’re in the uncommon 20% that earn out their advance, you’ll start seeing some royalties.
Coming Full Circle
No matter what the dollars and cents say, don’t let the dollars and cents dictate your course unless that is how you define success. Start asking yourself some difficult questions. Get to the bottom of why you’re even doing this.
When I think about being in control of the process, from the writing, to the cover design, to the publication and marketing process, I’m filled with excitement! Not only excitement that comes from the adventure of starting a new business, but excitement for writing even more!
On the other hand, when I think about getting a publishing deal, it doesn’t light me on fire like the other idea does. It falls flat. If I was approached by a traditional publisher, they’d have a lot of convincing to do. Could they succeed in swaying me? Of course. But they know what they’re up against, and they have their work cut out for them.
Above all other considerations, I implore you to weigh the pros and cons and follow your heart. You already know what you want to do, deep inside. You just need to convince yourself.
[UPDATE 05/10/2014] I published Necromancer Awakening on April 9th, just over a month prior to this update, and I’m happy to announce that my suspicions were accurate. It has taken a while for the story to find its audience, and now Necromancer is on 5 different Amazon bestseller lists! Had I begun the query process, I suspect I would be writing blog posts showing you examples of rejection letters. Take a look at an article I wrote that details the lessons I learned after selling more than 1000 copies of Necromancer Awakening.
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.