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Traditional vs Self-publishing



The more I research traditional publishing, the less inclined I am to seek a contract with one of the big boys. Don’t get me wrong—I would love a lucrative contract with a six-figure advance and an eventual visit with Oprah. (I know Oprah doesn't have a show anymore, but you get my drift.)
 
Here are 7 things to consider about traditional publishing:

1. Traditional publishers only accept 2-3% of the hundreds of manuscripts they receive each month. (Michael Hyatt, former CEO for Thomas Nelson Publishers, said they only published, on average, 500 titles per year). Don’t bother sending Nelson your book proposal. They don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or proposals or query letters from authors they haven't already published. Nelson only responds to literary agents.

2. The numbers don’t add up for unknown authors even if a publishing contract is offered. Publishers used to pay 10% royalties on the retail price of a book. A $20.00 retail price would give the author $2.00 per sale (minus 15% for the agent—traditional publishers work almost exclusively with agented authors). Now they tend to pay 10% on the wholesale price. That puts your royalty down to $1.00 minus 15% for your agent leaving you a whopping .85 cents a book.

Even if a publisher offers you a contract directly, he will usually insist you get a literary agent to handle all the business (a very good idea).  An agent will keep track of sales, commissions and returns and makes sure you get your royalty checks on time. An agent's %15 comes out of your royalties. No royalty for you means no commission for the agent. He will be your business ally and make sure your royalties are accounted for.

3. The average sales for a first-time author lucky enough to be picked by a major publisher are 10,000 or less. (Publishers consider a book selling only 5,000 copies to be a success.) Multiply that times .85 and it equals a not-so-impressive total royalty of $4,250 and your book will likely be taken out of print in six months, leaving only sales on Amazon and other online booksellers. Furthermore, your book will only have a shelf-life of three to six months at which time unsold books will be returned for a full refund. Publishers withhold up to 20% of royalties to cover these returns. Add to that the fact that you will be expected to do most of the marketing. Publishers reserve most of their promotion/publicity capital for their seasoned authors. As I said, publishers consider sales of only 5,000 books to be a successful first effort for a new author. According to Mark Hurst, "Books that sell ten or fifteen thousand are rare, and considered strong sellers."

4. Advances for unknown, first-time authors seldom reach more than four figures. Six-figure advances to first-time (unknown) authors are rare.

5. And you no longer own the book. You can’t take your text and republish with another printer or publisher. Plus, after editing, your book may be quite different than your original manuscript. You may not even like the cover. You have little or no input in these matters with a traditional publisher. They own your book. You own the copyright on the content and that's all.

6. On the upside, you might sell a million copies and get rich.
 
7. Finally, there is a growing trend among traditional publishers to look at self-published authors whose books are selling well. Three to five thousand book sales in the first two or three years will draw attention. More and more self-published authors are being offered commercial publishing contracts. 
 
*My editor told me this past April (2013) that she knows four literary agents who have recently pursued self-published authors and sold their already self-published books to traditional publishers.

On the other hand, if you are selling enough books to get the attention of a literary agent, it might be wise to consider getting a distributor and bypass traditional publishing altogether. At that point you may make more money in the long run. Keep in mind—a distributor won't talk to you if unless you own the ISBN, making you the publisher of record.
 
By the time a traditional publisher notices your book sales, you may not even need a contract. I still believe, word-of-mouth sells more books than anything else. John Mason self-published his book, An Enemy Called Average, several years ago. He admits he knew nothing about publishing, but people loved his book, told their friends and he sold over half-a-million copies.
 
Read another eye-opening article by Laura Lond on The Pros and Cons of Self-publishing.
 
If you are not yet convinced of the meager numbers for unknown authors, read: Secrets of book publishing I wish I had known.
   
There is nothing wrong with seeking a publishing contract. Just be aware of the facts going in. People buy books because they are good. Traditional publishers offer contracts to writers because they think a book will sell. They really don't care if it is good—they only care if it will make money. Never forget that.
 
(If you still want to approach a traditional publisher, you will need a literary agent.)

 
♦ Just for fun, read  Lie to Me.

 
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Updated July 20, 2015