Can Your Publisher Do More for You than You Can Do for Yourself?

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Certain stigmas are still attached to self-publishing that lead many authors to seek traditional publishing routes, including with small and start-up presses. Such a decision can be detrimental or at least not as successful for an author as self-publishing a book and marketing it on his own. A small press that will not promote a book as well as you can promote it yourself is not worth signing a contract with, despite whatever perceived prestige being traditionally published may have.

I recently attended an author event where numerous authors were included. One of the authors made a point of commenting upon what is wrong with self-publishing and that “legitimate” writers do not self-publish but seek to improve their writing by having it reviewed by a press with an editorial board. I tried to point out a couple of the advantages of self-publishing to this author, but she had formed her opinion and would not listen to me. When I brought up the fact that many authors make more money self-publishing than being traditionally published, she replied, “If it’s about the money to you, there’s no point in our talking about it. A real writer enjoys going through the agony of working with an editor to make the book better.” I pointed out that many self-published books are edited, but there was no changing this woman’s mind.

I went home and did a little research on this author and her book. She had claimed that her book had been her publisher’s bestselling book for something like thirty weeks. Had she said she’d been on the New York Times Bestseller list for thirty weeks, or an Amazon bestseller for thirty weeks, I might have been impressed, but being your publisher’s bestselling book doesn’t mean a lot. I did find the publisher online. They’ve published twelve books. Being the best out of twelve books just didn’t seem that impressive to me.

A male author at the event agreed with this other author. I googled his book and could not find a website for him. All he had was a page at his university’s website under faculty information that mentioned he had written a book. I tried to google his publisher, also a small press, and it did not come up as even having a website.

I looked up both authors’ books on Amazon. Both were there, which was a good thing. I looked them up at Barnes & Noble. Only the female author’s book was there. I went back to Amazon and read the reviews. There were a few, some good, some bad for both books. I decided I would see whether these books were really worth reading, but neither book had a “look inside” feature for the Amazon listing. And guess what? Neither book was available in Kindle or any other ebook format.

Curious to see just how good these books were, I went to the local bookstore. The male author was from out of state so I wasn’t surprised the bookstore didn’t have his book. But the bookstore didn’t carry the female author’s book either, even though she lived nearby. When I asked the manager why the store didn’t carry her book, he informed me, “The publisher refuses to work with our company. The only way we can carry it is if the author buys her own copies from the publisher and sells it on consignment to us and she says that’s too much trouble for her to do.”

Interesting, I thought. Here was a traditionally published book, published by a small press I’d never heard of that wasn’t even willing to work with the bookstore in this author’s hometown to sell that author’s book. The press did not produce an ebook version for the author, it did not have a separate author page for the author at its website, and in the case of the other author, there was no website. In short, I was not impressed by either of the authors’ publishers or their efforts to market their books. And I especially wasn’t impressed by the female author who thought she was so ahead of the game because she had a book published by a small press. Perhaps she truly didn’t care about the money part of selling books, but I had a hard time thinking her book was selling well at all, even if it were the bestselling out of twelve titles. Who’s to say any of those other books even sold a hundred copies each? I looked up a few of them on Amazon and their sales ranks were very low—in the millions, and even her supposed “bestseller” had a sales rank around 400,000. That’s actually not such a bad number, but it’s not all that impressive either.

So what makes this author think her book is somehow superior to the self-published books? Simply because a publisher chose to publish it for her, no matter how small that publisher is or how bad at marketing. This author said it’s not about the money, and I have to come to the conclusion it’s not about book sales either for her, or she’s deluded into thinking her book sales are truly impressive. I wonder whether it’s even about good writing. I think, ultimately, it’s about the “prestige” of being traditionally published, and she was ready to rub the self-published authors’ noises in her achievement, even if her publisher is some small press hardly anyone ever heard of.

I wouldn’t have given her the satisfaction of buying her book from her at the event, but I did decide to order the book off Amazon and I read it, and I found it to be a fairly well-written book stylistically, though lacking on plot and rather depressing. It wasn’t my kind of book, but I couldn’t fault it for its writing. Still, the cover was not that well done—I would have thought it was self-published upon first sight if I had not been told otherwise, and honestly, I’ve read plenty of self-published books as good as or better than her book.

Part of this author’s argument was the value of working with an editor. I always recommend authors find good editors to work with them, and plenty of self-published authors do (the ones who don’t are usually the ones who give self-publishing a bad name). That said, I’ve read plenty of traditionally published books that have mistakes in them, and not just by small presses, but very large well-known publishers as well. When a big name publisher like Oxford University Press can make a statement that it no longer feels it is necessary to correct split infinitives in its books (see, you have to wonder whether the quality of the editors at large presses is any better than many of the editors you can hire who do freelance. Oxford University Press has an academic argument for why split infinitives are a fallacy, but even so, they still sound awkward to me. Furthermore, many editors who work for large publishers do freelance editing on the side for self-published authors. I know a couple of such editors myself. So I don’t see why hiring a qualified freelance editor will make any difference.

So what is the real difference? As far as I’m concerned, if an author is self-published and produces a professional looking book with an attractive cover, has the book edited and proofread, and has enough business savvy to know how to promote the book, then he is a step ahead of the game, regardless of whether some big name or small, largely unheard of press, did not publish his book.

Basic Math—It May Not Be About the Money, But….

I know for that author, it wasn’t about the money, but when did a little extra money ever hurt? Traditional publishers pay royalties to their authors. Self-published authors receive complete profit on book sales. The standard royalty runs around 10 percent. Let’s crunch a few numbers to see how many books a traditionally published author needs to sell to equal what a self-published author needs to sell.

An author who self-publishes his book can get the book printed at $7 each with a print run of 500 copies. That’s $3,500. The book’s cover price is $20. He works with local bookstores to sell the book at 40 percent consignment, meaning he receives 60 percent of the sales price or $12 a book; that’s a profit of $5 per book for every book sold in the bookstore and $13 for every book he sells himself. Let’s say he sells half his books at bookstores and half directly to his customers. That’s 250 books x $13, and 250 books x $5. The total is $3,250 + $1,250 = $4,500 in profit after he pays the initial $3,500 to print the books. That’s equivalent to almost 129 percent in profit.

By comparison, if the same book is traditionally published and sells for the same $20, and the cost is still $7 and the publisher is providing 10 percent royalties, the author makes $2 a copy. The publisher is keeping the other $11 in profit (getting rich at the author’s expense, perhaps, especially if he’s not using any of that profit on significant marketing efforts). To reach the profit of $4,500, the author will need to sell 2,250 copies as opposed to the 500 if he had self-published.

Now I know it’s not all about the money. True authors write because they love to write, but what’s the point of selling your words for less than they are worth? If your publisher has the marketing and distribution capabilities to sell those 2,250 books and faster than you can sell your 500, then by all means go with that publisher. But if you have a feeling that the publisher’s ability to sell 4.5 times as many books as you can sell on your own is unlikely, you may be better off self-publishing your book. Sure, you want more copies sold, but do you want them sold so you can make your publisher rich while you get only a small percent of the income?

Many great small presses are out there that have been around for years, and they are keeping up with the changes in publishing and are truly business savvy when it comes to marketing. But there are other presses run by book lovers who have little business sense. They may not be in a position or have the “know how” or the stamina and enthusiasm to make truly significant marketing efforts. So make sure you know how experienced and how business savvy your publisher is before you sign that contract. Here are some questions to ask your potential publisher—and don’t forget to get the answers included in the contract:

Questions to ask the Small Press/Publisher:

  1. What is your marketing plan for my book?
  2. Will my book be listed at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other websites?
  3. What kind of distribution do you have?
  4. Will you work with my local bookstore(s) to sell my book, even if they only do consignment or want a buy back policy if the books don’t sell?
  5. How many copies will you print?
  6. What is the likelihood of the book being reprinted vs. going out of print?
  7. If the book goes out of print, when can I buy back the rights and publish it myself?
  8. Will you offer ebook versions of my book?
  9. Do you have a website where people can purchase the book?
  10. What can I do to help?
  1. Can I buy and sell copies of my own book?
  2. Do you have any budget to help me with my personal marketing efforts?
  3. Will you build a website for me or help me promote mine, link to mine?
  1. What else can you do for me that I can’t do for myself?

If you don’t have or don’t want to spend the money to self-publish your book, finding a traditional publisher may be the best route for you. If the publisher can do things for you that you can’t do yourself or can do them better, it may also be the best option, but most of these things you can do for yourself or find people you can pay to do them for you, still resulting in you making a larger profit. Nor do you want the publisher to prevent you from selling books because it doesn’t care to produce an ebook or spend time building a website to promote your book. I urge you to do your research and make the best business decision possible. It may not be all about the money, but after all the time, research, and energy you put into writing your book, you deserve to get adequate compensation for it.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on December 28, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing this article. I always look forward to reading what you have to say. Your articles really provide a great deal of perspective on writing & publishing, especially for self-published authors.

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