But which path should you take to fame and riches? Let’s start with another fun flow diagram, then I’ll get into the nitty-gritty details. I think I’ve practically compiled a small book here, so, enjoy!
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CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
- Both traditional publishing and self-publishing are valid options, though neither is always right for different people and different books.
- Some people go from traditional publishing to self-publishing, or the other direction. Some do both traditional and self-publishing at the same time.
First, this is not a contest. Neither traditional publishing (TradPub) nor self-publishing are the best option 100% of the time. You can publish your brilliant novel and have it fail horribly, or publish 50 flavors of crap and succeed wildly, or vice versa, in either method.
Some self-publishing advocates can get defensive or even aggressive when the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing are discussed. So let me just say up front that self-publishing is a perfectly valid and viable option.
I will however say that traditional publishing undeniably still offers some advantages for genre novelists starting out in their careers, IF traditional publishing is the right choice for you otherwise.
I’ll also say that some people simply don’t have the time, organizational knack, or promotional skills to succeed at self-publishing. On the other hand, some people don’t deal well with traditional publishing aspects such as working with an editor, waiting on others, or not being in full control.
Some authors have moved to self-publishing after building an audience of readers through traditional publishing that will follow them; or after the inevitable spiral of declining sales makes it difficult to get new contracts with traditional publishers.
Some authors have moved in the opposite direction. Many vocal and successful self-publishing advocates have eventually moved (sometimes quietly) to traditional publishing deals, some with Amazon as their actual publisher rather than self-publishing through Amazon.
Finally, many successful authors are moving toward a mixed strategy approach that includes BOTH traditional publishing and self-publishing. Some authors even further diversify into other creative arts, or forms of writing such as game writing or comics. It doesn’t have to be one, or the other. But often this is a more long-term strategy, after you’ve released those first novels.
AT A GLANCE COMPARISON
So if you are looking to publish your first novels in particular, what are the pros and cons?
- Self-publishing is basically starting your own small business (assuming you want to sell a lot of copies). You get most of the profit, but to make any profit you need a long-term business plan with scheduled releases of new products, be prepared to lose money in the short term, and to work very, very hard at building and promoting your brand. Or to have invented crack.
- Traditional publishing is basically working for a corporation. You just do your part, and it is a guaranteed paycheck. They pay you less than you could (potentially) make if you owned the business, and they take a long time to do anything, but they take all the risks and the costs of doing business, and take care of actually building and selling the product to an established market. To guarantee your product is successful, you still have to put in some hours to personally promote it however.
DIGGING INTO TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
How Do Traditional Publishers Pay Me?
- Traditional publishers give you an advance (a chunk of money up front).
- You also get royalties (a percentage of each sale), but you have to earn back your advance first.
If you go with traditional publishing, you will get a chunk of money up front called an advance. This is an advance on sales — basically, the publisher is gambling that you will sell at least a few thousand books and earn back for them the amount of money they invested in you up front.
Your contract will also say what percent of each sale you will receive in the form of royalties. This percent will differ depending on the format. For example, you may earn 10% of each Hardback sale, 9% of each Trade Paperback sale (the larger paperback books), 7% of each Mass Market paperback sale (the smaller, cheaper paperbacks), and 25% of each eBook sale. Actual percentages differ based on many factors, including publisher, genre, your experience and status as an author, etcetera.
Now, let’s say they gave you a $5000 advance on your book. And you get 10% of each hardback sale (with each book selling for $25, that equals $2.50 per book). If you sell 1000 hardbacks, that means you “earned” $2,500. That is less than the $5000 advance that they gave you. This means two things: first, you don’t receive any royalties for those books because you are still “earning against your advance.”
Second, they do NOT make you pay them back the other $2,500. You will continue to hopefully sell copies in other formats, over time. And even if you don’t, you never have to pay back an advance. But if you do not sell through your advance, that will count against you, and publishers will be less likely to take a risk on you in the future.
If, eventually, you do sell enough books that you “earned out” or “sold through” your advance (i.e. if your advance was $5000 then you’ve sold enough books that you would have been paid $5000 in royalties), then for each book sold after that point you will actually be paid royalties. So if you sold 2,000 hardbacks and “earned” $5,000 (the amount of your advance), then when you sell book number 2,001, you will be due a total of $2.50 in royalties from your publisher.
I Want a Six Figure Advance!
- Large advances are rare, and have both obvious advantages, and less obvious challenges.
A large advance is nice for the obvious reason of having lots of money, of course. It can also help generate buzz and higher expectations for your book, in part because your publisher is more likely to promote your book heavily if they’ve invested a lot in it up front. The downside of a large advance is that you now have the pressure of high expectations, you’ve become a potential target of the Schadenfreude and Envy crowd, and if you don’t sell through your advance it may hurt your future publishing options.
On the other hand, if you get a small advance up front, it obviously doesn’t help as much with the immediate bills and may feel as though your work is not valued highly. Yet if you sell a lot of books then you can still make big money in royalties, it just trickles in over a longer period of time.
Bottom line, a small advance may be disappointing up front, but it doesn’t change how much you get paid in the end if you sell a lot of books, and it takes the pressure off of having to sell through a large advance to keep your publisher happy.
So it may be better to get a $5,000 advance and sell $20,000 royalties-worth of books than to get the $100,000 advance and sell $5,000 worth (and struggle to recover professionally and psychologically), at least if you are in this for the long game.
But of course, best of all would be to get a $100,000 advance, and sell a million dollars worth of books. This is, however, still a difficult thing to do unless you are a beloved author, or your book hits the zeitgeist big in some way, or you put in the occasional ball gag apparently.
You’ve Gotta Fight for your Rights to Party
You can also negotiate to sell additional rights separately. For example, a publisher will often buy world English rights, but you could then sell your book again to someone who will publish it in a different language for a separate advance. And if you retain rights for audio, you could sell the book to an audio publisher separately, or self-publish an audio version, etcetera.
It’s like your publisher bought the Lego Batcave, but the batmobile and Joker action figure are sold separately.
How Many Books Do I Have to Sell to be “Successful” Traditional Style?
If you go with traditional publishing, I’ve heard an average of 5,000 books sold is kind of a minimum number to be considered a success (give or take a thousand).
Basically, it depends on how many the publisher has to sell to make back the money they’ve invested in your advance (see below), and in the production, distribution and promotion of your book.
For some, this sounds like a huge number, particularly if you’ve ever tried to sell one of your books before, because you are acutely aware of the challenges.
For some, this sounds like a small number. After all, there are millions of readers out there, and popular books sell millions of copies, right? But really, books don’t sell in huge numbers. Each reader has their own unique motivations, tastes and moods that come into play when they decide to buy a book, and there are a lot of books (not to mention other media) competing for each reader’s time and money.
Readers also tend to go with safe and comfortable choices, first choosing authors they’ve already read and liked if that choice is available, so new authors have a real uphill battle to sell their book to readers.
How Do Used Books and Libraries Affect Me?
Libraries are the best alternative to buying a new book. If someone wants a free book, even an eBook, they can order it at the library. The library will hopefully have bought copies of the book, and if not then a large number of requests for the book may prompt the library to do so. Book sales to libraries still support the author.
Used bookstores are obviously an established and respectable way to buy or trade books, particularly for those with limited budgets. They support the economy, the love of reading, and a lovely used-book smell. They do NOT, however, really return anything to the author in terms of sales numbers or money (at best, readers may get hooked on your series and buy new books as soon as they come out). If you want to support a fiction author, it is better to wait and buy the book on sale or in a cheaper edition new.
What about File Sharing?
File sharing is controversial, but file sharing of eBooks specifically is just F*d up. While there has been back and forth on whether file sharing actually helps musicians, the same is not true for authors.
If you download a song or two from a musician and like them, there’s a very small chance you’ll buy their album and listen to those songs over and over, but also you are more likely to pay to hear them live, or buy their merchandise, etcetera. And some musicians see it as a way to share their music, or collaborate, or a platform for their teaching.
If you download and read an eBook, you are likely done, and move on to the next stolen book. While a song does take time and effort to create, a single book can take more than a year to create. Authors don’t make their money from live performances of their book, they make it by selling the book itself. And if the author has low sales, there may not be a next book, even if you were willing to buy it.
File sharing isn’t going anywhere. But online markets and fair streaming options have matured, and libraries now support electronic media. So at this point, if you’re still file sharing eBooks illegally, you’re just going out of your way to screw over the people who created the content you’re downloading. Please get a library card. It isn’t that hard. Or buy your books and music rather than the occasional bit of junk food, etcetera.
What’s a “Big 5” vs Small /Indie Press vs Vanity /Subsidy Press?
The “Big 5” are the major publishing houses in New York (Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin-Random House, and Simon & Schuster) and their various imprints. For example, Tor/Forge books is a Macmillan publisher. They usually offer the largest advances, have the widest distribution, and biggest name recognition. Because of their size, they also may offer the longest publishing timeline and lowest level of control over design, etcetera.
Small presses and Independent presses (that aren’t self-publishing creations or collectives) offer most of the same services and potential advantages as one of the “Big 5” publishers, but usually offer lower advances, and may have limited distribution of physical books (getting into fewer bookstores, able to provide smaller numbers of copies, etcetera), and a smaller promotion budget, etcetera. Angry Robot is one example of a bigger “small press” that is doing it right, I think. Fairwood Press and Evil Girlfriend Media have done very well by their authors from all I’ve seen. Aqueduct, and Hydra House are a couple others I’ve bought books from. Research and be cautious of newer or very small presses, as they have a higher risk of going under before, or shortly after, publishing your book.
Vanity and Subsidy Presses are basically just fancy printers that you pay to print your book in bulk (rather than Print on Demand). They may offer additional design, distribution or promotion services as well, but generally speaking you are just buying physical copies of your own book from them in bulk. You then have to do the work of distributing and selling those books, or pay them to do so.
Print on Demand is an option from sites like Createspace (or sometimes used by small presses to minimize costs) where a single paperback copy is printed and shipped for each order placed, only if and when someone places that order.
The Traditional Publishing Process
The traditional publishing process is measured in years. So what happens during all that time?
1. You write an amazing book.
2. You get feedback on your book. Submit to workshops, join critique groups, get feedback from other writers, editors, and articulate readers.
3. You come up with a title that represents your book, will grab reader interest, and isn’t already taken.
4. Optionally, you query/submit to agents until you secure an agent. This is strongly recommended for many reasons, which I will go into in more detail in my next post.
If you get an agent, they may work with you to make some changes to the manuscript.
NOTE: Personally, I met both my editor and my agent by attending writing workshops and conventions, and after I’d published some short stories and attended Clarion West. Making a personal connection and having some professional writing credentials never hurts to bring your manuscript to their attention, though in the end, they will still reject a manuscript from their favorite person in the world if it isn’t a story they love.
5. Your agent submits your manuscript to the specific editors they believe will like it; or Agentless You submits a manuscript query directly to an editor (that you know has edited books similar to yours) per their site guidelines.
6. An editor receives your agented manuscript and eventually reads it. Or they receive your query and may eventually ask you to send them the full manuscript. This can take 4-6 months (or more) for them to: A) get to the manuscript among all their other duties and manuscripts; B) read the manuscript and decide if they like it or not; and C) come up with an offer if they do like your novel.
If the editor doesn’t like your novel, they will either not respond, or reject it. Do not ask why, just submit to the next editor on the list (or preferably your agent will).
If the editor decides they want your novel, they must get the okay from the publishing house for which they work to make you an offer. Basically, your editor has to sell the book to their own publishing team, and make the case why your book should take up one of the publishing house’s limited number of slots — they can only publish so many books a year, so why should they go with yours instead of someone else’s? Is it likely to sell? Does it round out their catalog in some way? Does it fit into the balance of new (i.e. risky) versus established (i.e. less risky) vs Big Name authors?
Assuming the publisher agrees, the editor will make you an offer. Sometimes, this offer will be conditional on you making certain changes to the manuscript, which you will have to agree to if you accept the offer.
7. You (or preferably your agent) may negotiate with the editor to improve the terms of the offer. In some cases, your agent may be able to parlay the offer into offers from multiple publishers, and start a bidding war between the publishers, but this is not always the best strategy, nor guaranteed to happen.
8. You accept the negotiated offer via “handshake” (e.g. agree to terms in an email), and start making the editor’s suggested changes.
9. You get the official contract from the publisher, review it (hopefully after your agent has reviewed and updated it to your benefit) and sign it. If you do not have an agent, you can optionally pay a media rights lawyer to review the contract before signing it (or, if really paranoid, you can do so even with an agent).
10. After you revise your novel based on editor feedback/request, you deliver the manuscript to the editor.
11. The editor reviews the changes and accepts the official submission manuscript (or asks you to make further changes). Depending on your contract, you may receive part of your advance upon delivery and acceptance (D&A).
12. The editor passes the manuscript on for basic copy edits. A style sheet may be created which outlines the grammar and spelling rules used in your novel, correct spelling of unusual words and proper nouns, etcetera both as a guide to other editors, and for your verification.
13. Your editor returns the copy-edited manuscript and style sheet to you for your review. This may be several months after you accepted the offer at this point. They usually give you a couple weeks at most to return your changes. There may also be some questions from the editors or suggested changes they want you to approve or specifically respond to.
14. You approve or reject the changes, and make any additional changes of your own. You add the acknowledgments and dedication if you haven’t previously. You return the edited manuscript to your editor.
15. The publisher may share the cover art with you around this point. You typically do not have any say in the cover art (unless you are a big name author). You may at most complain about the art if it is really bad or not at all representative of your book, and the publisher may, at their discretion, have the image updated. The cover art is often a result of discussion and feedback from the editor, the publisher’s marketing team, and the artist, and in theory they probably have a better idea of what kind of image and layout will sell your book than you do.
16. The editor approves the manuscript changes, and the publisher produces Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). These are “uncorrected” rough copies of your book, usually in Trade Paperback format, that have the basic cover art if available at that point (usually with marketing and contact info on the back rather than the final cover text), and the novel with any editing done thus far.
17. The publisher provides ARCs to reviewers and bloggers in order to get honest advance reviews on your book. This is important to hopefully start some positive word-of-mouth excitement and advanced sales.
18. You will receive several copies of the ARCs, and may also distribute them out to people who will provide reviews.
19. You and/or your publisher will also send out ARCs or electronic galleys of your book to established authors, celebrities or relevant experts who have kindly agreed to read it and possibly provide “blurbs” — the quotes you see on the book jackets.
20. If the people you requested blurbs from actually find the time to read your book AND IF they enjoy it, they may provide you with a blurb. If they fail to provide a blurb, do not judge them or question them on it, especially other authors. Remember how hard it is to find the time you need to do your own reading and writing, and imagine if you received a ton of requests for favors on top of that requiring you to read entire novels.
21. You will receive prints of your finalized book jacket/ full cover, including the cover art and back cover with text.
22. The publisher puts the finishing touches on your manuscript with final copy-editing and formatting.
23. The publisher may assign you a publicity contact at any point in the process, who can begin working with you to set up interviews, blog features, and any readings or book signings for after your book launches. You should also be working on your own to identify places where you wish to appear, both online and in person.
24. You will receive copies of your actual book. You will laugh and cry and dance and ponder what is best in life.
25. You will try to pre-sell your book.
26. The publisher releases your book, and distributes it to all major booksellers both online and brick-and-mortar stores.
27. You throw a book launch party, and go to the nearest major bookstore to see your book on the shelf next to authors you’ve read and loved for years. You smile like a fool and maybe tear up a bit.
28. The publisher may purchase ad space in some relevant publications, and/or include your book in online promotions or contests on such sites as Goodreads.
29. You will promote the book to the best of your ability, availability and affordability. What percent of the travel expenses of a “book tour” the publisher is willing to pay for, if any, will vary depending on the publisher, the scope of your tour, and probably your perceived salability and likeliness that the investment will pay off in increased sales. Get as many people as you can to post reviews as soon as possible.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN YOUR WRITER CAVE:
Note that, particularly after your first book is published, you should be writing your next book during this entire process of editing and releasing your previous book.
In fact, you may find yourself promoting book 1 released this year, while editing book 2 for next year’s publication, and writing book 3 due at the end of the year — you know, on top of whatever other small demands you have on your time.
WHAT IF I TRY THE TRADITIONAL ROUTE AND EVERYONE REJECTS ME?
This is, unfortunately, quite possible.
Especially if it is the first (or one of the first 3-5) novels you’ve written, the harsh truth may be that the novel just isn’t great or unique.
Or it may just be that the publishers have all already bought their fill of this type of book for a while, or that they simply do not appreciate your genius, or a thousand other random factors.
Your options are basically:
- Put that book away. Write your next novel and try to sell that. Rinse and repeat until something sells. You will improve as a writer with each novel.
Once you do sell a novel (or three), you can always go back to your old unpublished novels as a more experienced writer with fresh eyes and see if you can update that old novel to sell, either to your publisher, or as a self-published novel (with the boost of your reputation and readership as a published novelist to help sales).
We are the worst judges of our own work, but the distance of time and experience often shows us the flaws and shortcomings in our earlier writing.
- Self-publish it now. It may find an audience, or it may not, but only you can decide if it is worth the risks and costs versus the potential benefits.
Be aware that while self-publishing something that sells well can potentially make you more attractive to traditional publishers for your next novel, it is rare they buy something that has already been self-published online. And if you self-publish novels that have low sales (and perhaps are not so great), that may hurt your ability to get a traditional publishing contract.
DIGGING INTO SELF-PUBLISHING
Self-publishing does not have the stigma it once held. With a lot of hard work, the right story, a solid strategy and a good bit of luck, you can sell a respectable amount of books.
And again, self-publishing can be one part of a larger strategy, either as a stepping stone toward traditional publishing, or a supplement to traditional publishing, or even to enhance your visibility for reasons that have nothing to do with being a successful author (e.g. to promote your expertise in some area to secure speaking gigs).
Self-publishing is often considered a great choice for non-fiction or niche books; and/or those who have a large established group of people ready to buy your books; and/or if you are able to publish multiple books and produce new material on a frequent and predictable basis, and promote them.
Some Food for Thought Before We Proceed
I highly recommend reading Amanda Hocking‘s posts on how she became a successful author. Touted for a long time as the poster child for self-publishing success, she explains how her success was due to a hell of a lot of hard work, a good deal of luck and timing, how and why she moved to Traditional Publishing when the opportunity arose, and how she feels it has all changed over time.
Tobias Buckell also has a lot of great posts about self-publishing on his blog, including one that explains why perception of self-publishing success is often wrong, based on skewed numbers and a small handful of successful authors who dominate the microphone.
Which brings us to those very promising statistics for self-publishing. For example, Hugh Howey is a self-publishing success story and vocal advocate of self-publishing (who moved to traditional publishing with Random House for his new series, and made a deal with publisher Simon & Schuster to take over distribution of his successful Wool series). He shares self-publishing news on the Author Earnings site, including this from January, 2015 on how self-published authors are selling pretty well on Amazon and making a good share of the profits AS A GROUP:
- 33% of all paid ebook unit sales on Amazon.com are indie self-published ebooks.
- In mid-year 2014, indie-published authors as a cohort began taking home the lion’s share (40%) of all ebook author earnings generated on Amazon.com while authors published by all of the Big Five publishers combined slipped into second place at 35%.
But Wait, There’s More:
- Loosely, about 1 million books are published every year, of which roughly 2/3 are self-published. So you will have to work hard to make yourself visible and stand out from the crowd. While this is true whichever way you publish, if you self-publish you will not have the reputation, marketing, or distribution of a traditional publisher to help raise your visibility.
- To that point, there are (roughly speaking) twice as many self-published authors as TradPub authors. So the 40% of eBook profits going to self-published authors was likely spread across a much larger number of people than the 35% of profits spread across the much smaller number of TradPub authors, with a majority of those profits going to a small handful at the top.
So while those numbers — specific to eBooks sold on Amazon — do demonstrate that there is money to be made in self-publishing on Amazon, and self-published eBooks have a healthy market-share of the sales (especially in areas like urban fantasy, romance, and mystery), it does not easily translate into “self-published authors make as much or more money as TradPub authors”, especially when you factor in all the other ways and formats in which TradPub authors are also selling books.
Again, I state this not to say self-publishing is a bad or inferior choice, but to help set realistic expectations around the self-publishing numbers so you can go into it with open eyes and a solid plan.
How Does Self-Publishing Pay Me?
Basically, you will earn a percentage of every dollar consumers pay for your book.
The percentage you earn in self-publishing is a much larger percent than in traditional publishing, perhaps 70% of each eBook (versus %25 in traditional publishing). The actual percentage varies with publisher, the price range you set for your book, and whatever special way they’ve decided to pay you this week (Amazon has changed contract terms and means of calculating money owed several times).
Keep in mind that 70% of 100 books sold at $2.99 isn’t as good as 25% of 1000 books sold at $9.99. Tradpub eBooks are generally priced higher, and sell competitive numbers with self-publishing; and again, in Traditional Publishing, those Amazon eBook sales are just one part of your total sales. But for the small number of books that sell really well, you can make a lot of money. To that point:
- Over half of self-published authors make less than $500 in sales (and in fact, most of those make far less than $500), with about 75% of the reported revenue going to less than 10% of the authors (skewing the results so that they can report an “average” income of $10,000 for self-published authors)*. So of those who made more than $500, the vast majority were probably far closer to the $501 end of the scale than the $100,000 end of the scale.
And again, that $500 (or less) profit is potentially after you’ve invested a couple thousand dollars into editing and decent cover art, not to mention time spent on writing and revising and promoting the novel.
So again, do not go into it expecting to get rich quick, or paying for everything on your credit card with the expectation you will be able to pay it all back when the money rolls in. Be realistic, invest wisely, and have a long-term strategy.
Also, remember “self-publishing” numbers tend to look at all self-published books together as one big lump. I think your odds are better than average if you’re publishing scifi/fantasy (particularly paranormal romance), romance, or mystery/thrillers.
Bottom line, publish your book for the love of it, or as part of a longer term strategy, and if it is one of the lucky few that breaks out to make you a bunch of money, well, that will be a nice bonus.
*This is according to a Taleist survey that was widely discussed in 2012 but does not appear to be available any longer. You can Google “Taelist survey” for more info.
How Many Books do I Have to Sell if Self-Published?
In self-publishing, this depends entirely on your goals, your investment, your percentage rate, your book price, etc.
For example, let’s say you invest $5,000 in decent editing, cover design, formatting, and a bit of promotion, and price your book at $3.99 with a 70% payment share (i.e. you get about $2.79 per book sold). You’d have to sell roughly 1,800 books to make back your investment.
The Self-Publishing Process
This is largely a Do It Yourself process. The smart self-publisher will treat self-publishing as a full time business, in which writing and uploading a good book for sale is just one tiny part, and hiring experts to help with some steps is a wise investment. Just make sure to research any experts before hiring them.
1. Write an amazing book.
2. Get feedback on your book. Submit to workshops, join critique groups, get feedback from other writers, editors, and articulate readers.
3. Come up with a title that represents your book, will grab reader interest, and isn’t already taken.
4. Hire a professional editor to edit your book.
Actually, there are two types of editors (generally speaking):
- Developmental editor — gives you general feedback on what works and doesn’t work about the story, focusing on plot and character arcs etcetera. For a 100,000 word manuscript you might spend something like $2,000-$4,000 on a decent editor (actual amount will vary wildly depending on the size of your novel and the rates of the editor). You will probably get what you pay for.
This is where putting your manuscript through workshops and critique groups in step 2 can help. They are free, and can help you identify a lot of the issues with your manuscript, so that you can provide a much more polished manuscript to the editor and ask for a much more focused or limited scope of feedback.
- Copy or Line editor — correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, rules of usage, etcetera.
If you have an extremely anal retentive grammar fanatic English teaching best friend or partner, they might be able to do this for you as a favor. Otherwise, you will need to pay someone up to maybe $1000 (unless you are cool with your book going out with a ton of embarrassing spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes that, trust me, you and every single person whose read your manuscript somehow missed).
5. Choose a self-publishing option. Figure out if you are good with just eBook or want print, and who you want to reach.
For ebooks, you will likely want to publish on multiple platforms (though if you go through Amazon they may require that you only publish with them exclusively). There’s Amazon for Kindle, Apple Store for iBook, Barnes & Noble for the Nook, and/or Smashwords as a good general eBook platform.
Wattpad is also an option to share your work online if you’re just looking for folks to read it, particularly if it is fan fiction.
If you want to offer actual print books, options like Createspace for Print on Demand books is a popular choice. A book is not printed until/unless someone actually orders one.
You might also explore some hybrid print solution, such as a vanity or subsidy press where you supply some or all of the costs of preparing and printing the book, and they more of the work of preparing it. This will result in you having a small stock of books you have to sell, and in the case of subsidy presses they will publish it under their name and handle distribution.
6. Format/ design the book’s interior. Either learn good book design basics and how to use design programs, or hire someone to help layout and design your book’s interior pages (perhaps $150-$200, more if you have a long novel or complex formatting). If you have pictures, footnotes, and other things besides the basic text and chapter titles in your book, that will greatly complicate the formatting and layout.
The formatting has to be able to work for everyone. Don’t forget that people reading eBooks can change the size of the font, and may be reading it on a variety of devices with a variety of screen sizes and quality, etcetera.
Online publishers sometimes offer services to help with the formatting, auto-converting to book format from your file, though you will need to verify it and fix any issues. Generally speaking, saving to PDF before uploading for conversion may help retain any complex formatting.
But it isn’t as easy as just uploading your Word document converted to PDF. You have to design for things like:
- Header text (what goes at the top of the page on the left? On the right?). Numbering — top or bottom?
- Do you start each chapter with a huge letter? Each paragraph with an indent? What kind of spacing around margins, around text?
- What font do you use that will look professional, and good in digital?
- What do your chapter titles look like?
7. Hire someone to create your book cover artwork, and someone (possibly different) who understand graphic design and book covers to design the cover overall (with the artwork, title, your name, blurb, etcetera). A good book cover can sell the book on its own. A bad one can prevent anyone from ever reading a single word inside. And remember that the image has to look good on multiple screen types, in thumbnails, etcetera.
Depending on what you can afford (and how important it is to you as an artist to pay your fellow artist what they deserve), you could spend anywhere from $0 (free stock art and design it yourself) to $1000 or more being a fair average.
Some online publishers will have an option to choose from their stock cover designs. You can do so, though of course your book will then look like everyone else’s who used those same program options.
8. ISBN and Copyright. Your self-publisher solution may provide the ISBN (the unique ID for your book), add your copyright info, etcetera, but if not then you will have to buy an ISBN and take care of copyright info yourself.
If you let the publishing program add your ISBN, then they will be listed as the publisher. So if you want to be listed as the publisher, or create a “publishing company” to lend your book a little perceived validity, you’ll need to purchase your own ISBN and fill out the necessary paperwork.
9. Figure out how much to sell it for. A survey from Smashwords put the optimal price between $2.99 and $3.99, but do your own research and decide what is best for you.
Your pricing may also differ if, for example, you are publishing multiple books and want to price the first book cheap to draw in readers who will then pay full price for the remaining series, etcetera.
10. Write a good description and pick some keywords. Figure out what genres/categories best fit your book. Look up other books like your own, and see how they are categorized, see what descriptions you like and why, etcetera.
11. Plan how you are going to promote and advertise your book.
12. Begin pre-selling your book by promoting it online (and in any other way you can afford and feel comfortable with). If you are trying to launch a physical book via vanity or subsidy press, then list your book with the online retailers and book sites, and also try promoting the book to distributors and booksellers, though it is very difficult to get self-published books into bookstores.
13. Schedule readings for after your book launches. If you have a physical book, some smaller bookstores may host a reading and allow you to sell the book through them while there. Or you can set up in a cafe or used bookstore, etc.
14. Launch your book! Throw a party, in real life and/or online. Get as many people as you can to post reviews as soon as possible. If it is a physical book from a press (not Print on Demand), then you’ll need to ship it to any booksellers or distributors you made arrangements with, and of course to anyone who buys it directly from you.
15. Promote, promote, promote, without being obnoxious about it. If it is selling decently, consider paying a professional narrator to create an audiobook of it.
You might also invest in paid advertising, or hiring a professional promotional team, which could run at least a couple more thousand.
16. Expand your Brand. Seek international publishers who might want to publish your book in a foreign language.
And you can hire a professional narrator to record and master a quality audiobook version of your novel for you (e.g. through ACX, such as this one from author Cat Rambo and narrator Folly Blaine). You can either agree to a royalty share (they get paid if your audiobook sells) or pay them per finished hour of audio up front, and keep all royalties for yourself.
17. Write your next book while promoting your previous books. Return to step 1.
OKAY, SO CAN I MAKE A LIVING AT THIS WRITING THING EITHER WAY?
Bottom line is that until/ unless you have multiple books out that are all selling decent numbers (or have that one in a million runaway hit), you aren’t going to be making a lot of money as an author.
Kameron Hurley posted about her writing income early in 2015, where she lays out her earnings and why she’s not quitting her day job. Note that she’s sold multiple trilogies, and is an award winning author.
Jim C Hines has been posting annual details of his writing income for years, so you can watch his evolution. He made close to $16,000 when he started posting in 2007. Even now, as a fairly popular “mid-list” writer with a decent catalogue of books, he earned just over $50,000. Again, this is someone who is very good at promoting himself and his works and connecting with fans in a genuine way, and has had a fairly steady string of published works for years.
SHOULD I GET AN AGENT?
If you are going to attempt anything other than 100% self-publishing, then yes, you should get an agent. Period. Agents don’t get paid unless you do (any agent that charges you up front is a scam). They get 15% of what you make on your book, which is a very small amount compared to what they do for you in terms of getting you a better offer, holding onto rights to sell separately, reviewing contracts, providing feedback on your work, and selling your work.
I’ll talk more about agents in a future post.
HOW DO I PROMOTE?
Great question, and one I’ll cover in my next post, How to Be a Novelist (part 3): Promote Your Novel.
NOTE: This was written in July of 2015. The publishing industry is constantly changing. And I suck at math. So the percentages and dollar amounts noted in this are intended as a loose guideline, but are subject to change and wild variation. Feel free to comment with any corrections, additions, or personal anecdotes 🙂