Thursday, December 15, 2011

Self publsihing and Traditional publishing, an Unbiased comparison

They say every writer wants to see his or her book with a Random House or Simon & Schuster logo on the spine, right? And that’s what I’ve been working towards  these last five years. 

Well, I am not one of those writers. As a matter of fact I think traditional publishers are messed up, and they can suck it, for all I care. Damn them.

Hmm, who am I kidding. Of course I want to be traditionally published, I long for the day that i would see the Bloomsbury logo on the spine of my book, long for the day I'll be doing tours round the world for my books. That’s the reason I’ve written one middle-grade novel and three YA novels, the reason I  hired an editor to edit my work, the reason I’ve created a blogger platform, and the reason I’ve submitted my manuscripts to agents. I’m getting so close. Why would I want to give up all I’ve worked so hard for when I’m so close to getting it? 

The assumption is that traditional publishing is the real deal and self-publishing is for writers who couldn’t make it any other way. But I’m not a big fan of assumptions. I like to examine things more closely and from different perspectives. So let’s take a closer look at how traditional publishing stacks up against indie publishing today. 

Traditional Publishing
Indie E-Publishing
How long does it take?
According to a survey conducted by SF writer Jim C. Hines, it takes the average writer ten years to get a first novel published.
This works according to Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the amount of time allotted to it. Three months to a year is about right.

How much does it cost?
That depends on how much you want to invest. There are the basic expenses of mailing dozens of query packages over ten years, but most successful writers also invest in conferences, which cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some writers also take MFAs, which generally cost over $10,000.
Again, it depends on how much an author wants to invest. Basic expenses include books on writing and publishing, copyright registration, an editor, and a professionally designed cover. Total expenses usually run $200-$1,000.

How big of an advance can a writer expect to get?
According to a survey conducted by SF writer Tobias S. Buckell, the median first-time author advance is about $5,000. Combine that with the above survey, and that means the average writer earns $500 a year for the first ten years of his career:

Indie Publishers don’t get an advance, and they do have to spend money to publish their books.
What about royalties?
A traditionally published author earns royalties once his or her book has earned out its advance. That doesn't sound too bad...except when one considers the majority of books by first-time authors don't earn back their advance. What's even more alarming, is that, according to research conducted by writer Kris Rusch, publishers--including some of the big six--are under-reporting ebook sales. So even if your book is selling enough to earn back your advance, you might never know it:
This depends on the writer’s abilities as a writer and as a marketer, but consider this: in ten years, an indie publisher can easily produce five ebooks, and if he sells them at $2.99 each (which would earn $2 for every copy sold), he only needs to sell 500 copies on average per book over a ten year period to make up the money he didn’t get from an advance.

What about a second book?
According to editor Alan Rinzler, 80-90% of books don’t earn out their advance, which means that’s all an author gets--and it means an author will have a doubly hard time finding a publisher for a second book:
Indie publishers usually build an audience, which means they generally make more money the more books they have out. One unsuccessful book doesn’t put an end to an indie publisher’s career. He can always try, try again--with a different book or even the same book.

What about editing?
According to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, “first-time authors are being printed rather than published—assuming they’re fortunate enough to get a publishing contract in the first place.... An acquisitions editor who signs up fifteen or twenty books a year couldn’t possibly edit them all...”
Most smart indie publishers hire editors. This costs money, but at least indies can shop around. They choose who they’re going to work with, and they have the final say. You can’t fire your editor at a traditional publishing house, but you can fire a freelance editor who works for you.

What about cover and interior design?
The publishing house chooses your cover based on their knowledge of the market and sometimes other factors (including a cheaper royalty-free cover). Authors may or may not be happy with the results, but they have no say. Brunettes have been turned into blondes. African-American protagonists have been portrayed on covers as white. Sometimes writers have had to rewrite scenes to fit cover images.
The cover is perhaps the most important thing an indie publisher can invest in. Some designers sell halfway decent covers for under $50, but most good ones go for $300 and up. It’s a good idea to start with something cheaper and then change it when you’ve made enough to justify the expense. Again, if you’re self-publishing, the choice is yours.

What about marketing?
Most publishers today expect most first-time novelists to do their own publicity. Those big advertising budgets are for writers who have already made the bestseller lists. You get a book launch, maybe a book signing or two, and a dozen or so review copies to mail out. Otherwise you’re basically on your own.

Like a traditionally published writer, this is mostly in your own hands. Your one advantage here is that you know it.
What about getting your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores? And what about Amazon?
A big publisher does have an easier time getting your book into brick-and-mortar stores, however...You might not have noticed, but brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing at an alarming rate. In addition, new books usually only stay on the shelf for a few months before they’re remaindered. After that, your book is the same boat as one that was self-published---unless your book goes out-of-print, in which case, it’s at a disadvantage. Your access to Amazon is pretty much the same, except that the publisher will probably act on your behalf. Again, it’s not in your hands.
For a small additional fee (about $50), most POD printers can make your book available to brick-and-mortar bookstores that ask for them, whenever they ask for them. It can never go out-of-print. You can sell your book through Amazon, and what goes on your book’s page (with the exception of reviews and comments) is in your hands.

What about reviews?
Big publishers usually have access to more print reviewers than indie publishers do, but that doesn’t guarantee your book will be reviewed in the New York Times. And even if it is, that doesn’t guarantee the review will be positive or that it will lead to sales. Print newspapers are fading even faster than brick-and-mortar bookstores. They still matter, but not as much as word of mouth and social media marketing.
When it comes to marketing, indie publishers usually focus on social media. A dozen glowing reviews from real people with real names on Amazon--or people saying nice things about your book on Twitter--will probably boost your book sales more than a great review from a print newspaper.

What about ebooks?
Traditional publishers usually charge $9.99 (the maximum Amazon allows in the 70% royalty range) for ebooks, because they don’t want ebooks to undercut their hardcover sales. Authors, however, usually only make about 15% of that. There is a very slim chance your publisher will invest heavily in marketing your ebook (they do that for bestsellers), so your $9.99 ebook will probably have to compete with similar indie-published books that cost a lot less than yours. In some categories, the indies are winning hands down. Recently, only one of the top ten Science-Fiction novels on Kindle was traditionally published--and it was a decades-old classic, Ender’s Game. In short, the competition is fierce, and this is one you're very unlikely to win. Amazon claims to sell more ebooks than books in any other format, so this is a major loss for the traditionally published writer who isn't a bestseller.
Indie publishers can charge less for ebooks and still make money, not only because their expenses are low and they can put out as many books as they can write in any given length of time, but because ebooks--when done right--should be their primary money maker. They can make $2 of pure profit for every ebook copy sold at $2.99. That’s 25% more than a traditionally published author whose ebook sells for $9.99. 

The original post you can find at Shevi Arnold's blog. You should go over there, she has a lot of fun stuff and tips for authors, self-published and agented.


  1. Interesting comparison. I'm indie published, and with several Amazon bestselling weeks under my belt, I'm not complaining.

  2. Thank you Mynn for visiting. I hope I get to be a bestseller too someday


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