Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Getting published: Traditional vs. self-publishing

It's never been easier to get published, but it's never been harder to make money at it. Since I've had four books published traditionally, it's not uncommon for aspiring authors to ask me how to do it. In fact, I even teach a 3-hour class as a guest instructor at community colleges a couple of times a year. But first, let's define the two options.

What's traditional publishing?

That means that a publishing company pays you to publish your book. You usually get an advance on royalties before the book is published, and then after the book is on the market, you will get a percentage of the sale price (10% of wholesale is common) after you have earned out your advance. Here's an example:

$20 book ($10 wholesale)
$1 per book royalty (10% of wholesale)
If your advance was $5,000, you'd have to sell 5,000 books to earn out your advance. After 5,000 books are sold, you would then start to receive a royalty check twice a year.

The publishing company assumes 100% of the risk. They edit, pay for printing and marketing and everything else. If you want to sell some of the books yourself, you can buy them at wholesale, which is a great idea because you'll make a lot more money on them than the books sold through bookstores and other retail outlets.

What's self publishing?

That means you pay for everything and you control everything, and you also get to keep everything you earn. You basically become the publishing company. There are a lot of businesses who cater to self publishers, and there are a lot of options.
  1. You can pay for everything a la carte (editing, cover design, interior book design, printing, marketing, etc). You buy the books to sell yourself. 
  2. You can purchase a package deal that usually includes all of those things, as well as a small number of books. Additional books are available for you to purchase and sell. These companies are often called book packagers, and they may have a website where they will sell your books, although don't expect to sell many through them. You can also buy the books to sell yourself.
  3. You can do "print on demand," which means you can get your book published for free or for very little. With many of these companies there is no set-up fee because you're usually just uploading your files to their website. You still have book production costs, meaning you really should pay a professional book editor. (Sorry, but your neighbor who is a high school English teacher is not a book editor.) Unless you're a graphic designer, you should probably also pay pros to do those jobs, or risk having a rather unprofessional looking book. Print-on-demand copies of books are not printed until someone buys one, which is why you have very low or no up-front costs. You can buy books to keep in stock for selling at in-person events.
Since you're the publisher, it's up to you to pick the sale price of the book. If the book costs $3 to print, and you price the book at $10, you'll receive $7 for each one that you sell. If you priced it at $15, you'll get $12 for each one. Keep in mind that as the price goes up, the number sold will go down.

Which type of publishing should I use?

I highly recommend the book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur if you're serious about self publishing. It says that a traditional publisher would have to sell seven times as many books as you in order for you to make the same amount of money as you would if you self published. In the traditional publishing example abose, you'd earn $5,000 after 5,000 books are sold, but if you self-published you'd make that much by selling 714 books at $10 each (cost $3 each). Although the number will change based upon the price of the book and the price of production, when looking at the numbers above, it's obvious that you could make a lot more money per book when self publishing. Selling 714 books is not that easy though. Most self-published books sell less than 100 copies.

The hardest part of publishing is marketing, distribution, and sales. Publishers work with distributors who have connections with bookstores, libraries, and other retail stores. It is highly unlikely that your self-published book would ever end up in any library other than those in your area. My books are in thousands of libraries across the country because they were traditionally published.

On the flip side, publishers do very little marketing any longer. This is why authors have to have a platform before most publishing houses will sign a contract. A platform means that you have a blog, an active community on at least one social media platform, and a vibrant email list. It doesn't make sense to send authors on expensive book tours unless they already have a following of a few hundred thousand fans online. Most authors have a niche, and their audience is not watching morning television shows or going to bookstores regularly. It makes more financial sense for authors to attend conferences and other events where they will meet lots of people who are interested in what they write.

The main reason that most people self publish, however, is because traditional publishers can't afford to publish every author who approaches them. They reject more than 95% of the book proposals that are sent to them. If you want to be published with one of the Big Five, you have to have an agent -- and agents reject more than 95% of authors who query them.