Myths about Traditional Publishing

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So true

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I came across this article in one of the newsletters I subscribe to, which is well worth a read:

Six Myths About Traditional Publishing | BookBaby Blog

Steven Spatz sums up what's wrong with traditional publishing while pointing out some of the advantages of self-publishing. He's the founder of self-publishing company BookBaby, so it could be said he's got a vested interest, but there's still no denying what he says about the iniquities of traditional publishing.

Steven Spatz – The Writing Cooperative

As I've said before on the Colony, selling your soul to a publisher amounts to slavery. Who else works for 15% of the takings made from their work, but an author? As I begin another joyless round of querying, I increasingly think that I'm headed in the wrong direction and that I should redirect my energies towards self-publishing.

Publishers are paying writers a pittance, say bestselling authors

It's tough for dreamy writers to face up to, but publishing is first and foremost a business. It's not intended to be a benevolent way of sharing lovely stories to make readers happy. One of the first reality checks any wannabe author should make is to look at their book as a commercial product...view it as a can of baked beans trying to find a place on already crowded supermarket shelves of established brands of beans that consumers know and trust.

Getting real in this way is difficult, for we're preoccupied with creating the best manuscript we can, neatly edited and ready to knock the socks off readers who'll be captivated by our story-telling skills.

I take solace and inspiration from thousands of quotes about writing that I've collected over the years, but it's the advice on publishing that's captured my attention lately, as I consider how to promote and sell my five Cornish Detective novels:

"We don't sell books", a publisher said, "we sell solutions to marketing problems."

From Negotiating With The Dead by Margaret Atwood

Writing is the hardest way of making a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.

William Saroyan

I don't have fans. I have customers. I'm a writer. I give 'em what they wanna read.

Mickey Spillane (from a 1981 People magazine interview)

Publishers don't nurse you; they buy and sell you.

P.D. James

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I think you have your figures the wrong way round. The agent typically takes 15% of what you earn. This will be your advance and then whatever royalty rates your agent has negotiated. But seriously Paul. If you’ve made the decision to self publish then do it. There can be lots of reasons why your books haven’t sold to a trade publisher but if you really want them out there then make it happen !!!
 
I've come across disappointment on both sides of the fence.

One author of my acquaintance went the traditional route twice and ended up making a pittance from her endeavours. On the first occasion she attracted the attention of a well regarded agent, who sold her debut novel to a reputable publisher for a token advance. The book went to print, sold slowly and was OOP within twelve months. The next, sold through a different agent, went to a publishing imprint which was shut down by its parent company less than a year after it started up.

Another author I know wrote three books in a series and self published on Amazon. The first title enjoyed a brief period (about a week) in the Top 100 for its category before disappearing from view into the murky depths of Amazon's backlist. She didn't make very much money either.

All of these titles were worth their place on the bookshelf and deserved to be read. It was lack of marketing and poor exposure that doomed them all to commercial failure
 
I think you have your figures the wrong way round. The agent typically takes 15% of what you earn. This will be your advance and then whatever royalty rates your agent has negotiated. But seriously Paul. If you’ve made the decision to self publish then do it. There can be lots of reasons why your books haven’t sold to a trade publisher but if you really want them out there then make it happen !!!

The 15% I referred to was the payment an author receives from their publisher...minus the 15% the agent gets. I am girding my loins to return to self-publishing, largely because of greater potential earnings, and also because if a traditional publisher expects the writer clients to organise their own self-promotion, books tours and interviews, doing little themselves apart from sticking your book on their website, then I'd rather do it for my benefit than theirs.
 
I’m not sure which publisher you are talking about but by 15% are you referring to royalty rates? Most of the larger publishers pay advances and digital royalties are generally much higher than 15%

Any publisher who only puts your book on their website and does no marketing or promotion is certainly not worth bothering with. Fortunately that is not the norm.

Self publishing can be rewarding though so go for it. There’s no right or wrong way into print.
 
The 15% I referred to was the payment an author receives from their publisher...minus the 15% the agent gets.

The 15% to an agent comes off the total advance and then off any subsequent royalties (once the advance is paid out) that the publisher pays to the author.

Let's say, just to use an example to show the math, you get offered a $5,000 advance. An advance is always an advance on royalties. In other words, the book needs to make more than $5,000 in royalties before you see any additional money.

The agent gets 15% of that advance, or $750. The author gets the remaining - $4,250.

Your royalty rate is going to be more than 15% for ebooks. It might be somewhere around 8% for print, but for ebooks it should be around 25%. For digital first publishers it's more like 45%, but for the sake of this example, let's use a rate closer to what publishers who only take agented submissions would typically pay.

Let's say your print rate is 8% and your ebook rate is 25%. And let's say you hit the right audience at the right time with this book, and you sell 50,000 copies your first quarter. Royalties are usually paid quarterly. And let's also say you got the full advance, which sometimes doesn't happen. Sometimes you get a certain percentage of it at signing, another percentage at publication, etc. But for this example, let's say you already got the advance, and the agent got their cut of it - $750 in this case. You got $4,250.

Okay. So now you have these 50,000 copies sold in the first quarter. With ebooks, you're usually paid a quarter or two behind, because that's how Amazon and other retailers pay the publisher. So technically you wouldn't see any of those ebook royalties until the second quarter, but again, let's bend the norm a bit to show the example.

And don't forget that often those royalty rates are expressed in net - meaning what you get after subtracting the costs the publisher paid to the vendor site. As an example, my royalty rates for my Evernight books are 45% for books sold on their site. That's a straight 45%. They get 55% percent of each sale and I get 45%. But for third party sites - Amazon, etc., my rate is 50% of the NET. Meaning 50% of the money that's left after Evernight pays the commission to Amazon or to the other third party site. I believe Evernight gets roughly 85% of the sale of each book from these vendors, which means my royalty rate for those ebooks sold on third party sites ends up being roughly 42.5% of the total sale of each book.

Okay. Back to your book sales. For the sake of ease with numbers, we're going to assume those 8% and 25% royalty rates are gross, not net.

Let's say you sold 20,000 print books at $10 each, and 30,000 ebooks at $5 each. Your print book royalties would be 8% of 20,000 X $10 ($200,000) which is $16,000. Your ebook royalties would be 25% of 30,000 X $5 ($150,000) which is $37,500. $16,000 plus $37,500 equals $53,500. You and your agent have already earned $5000 as an advance on royalties. What's left over is $48,500. Your agent would get 15% of that, or $7,275, and you would get the rest, or $46,225.

So... for that one book so far, your agent made $8,025 ($750 plus $7,275), and you made $50,475. As you can see, your agent earned 15% of the total royalties (including the advance), and you earned 85%.

Obviously, if your royalty rates are lower (though it's unlikely they'd be much lower), you and your agent both are going to earn less money. And if the royalty rates are net, you and your agent both are going to earn less money. But the point is that the agent's commission comes off the top of your royalties. It's not one commission to the agent from the publisher, and another one from the publisher to you.

Hope this helps. :)
 
I help my clients get repeat business worth a multiple of what I charge them. I don't know exactly what that multiple is, but based on my experience in previous environments, I suspect it is somewhere between 5 and 10. But of course the client has overheads and expenses of various forms -- so the differential is not all profit for them. And if they weren't making some profit, they wouldn't be paying me. And if I had to do all the stuff my clients do to win the business in the first place, so that I kept ALL the money, I'd have no time to do the stuff I actually do that adds value, IYSWIM.

All that said, I don't know whether ~8% royalties on print books is a fair / appropriate deal for authors or not, because I simply don't know enough about the economics of the publishing industry. My suspicion is that there are multiple inefficiencies that could be weeded out, which would mean more money to go around, but even if that were done I don't know if any of that would flow to the author. I suspect that writers start from a poor negotiating position, in most cases.
 
It was a good example. And I'm sure almost every member of the Colony could tell their own version.

I'll try to say something less pithy...
It's tough for dreamy writers to face up to, but publishing is first and foremost a business. It's not intended to be a benevolent way of sharing lovely stories to make readers happy. One of the first reality checks any wannabe author should make is to look at their book as a commercial product...view it as a can of baked beans trying to find a place on already crowded supermarket shelves of established brands of beans that consumers know and trust.
It is tough, Paul, you're right. And I think it's such an enormous pity that so many writers (myself included) had to or have to face up to this fact. It's unhelpful that so many myths and romanticized notions exist about being a published author. Commercial fiction is part of the entertainment industry – industry being the operative word.

One doesn't have to view one's work through a commercial lens. But one clearly does if any kind of non-trivial income is desired. That's not so weird, is it? And I don't think you necessarily need to view it as a can of baked beans, although you might. You might also view it as a finely-crafted, hand-made dining room table, something that might even be considered an antique in years to come. Whatever works, right?

But it is a business. If you want to sell books, how could it possibly be anything else?
 
And just for the record, between taxes and health insurance, I only take home roughly 65% of my gross paycheck every two weeks. So in reality, if I had ever been lucky enough to make enough money from my royalties to live on, giving an agent 15% of those off the top, in exchange for all they could do for my career, wouldn't seem like much at all by comparison.

As @Marc Joan said, I have no clue if the current standard royalty rates are "fair" or not. I don't have enough information about where the rest of the money goes, but I imagine it goes to pay the costs of running a business and paying employees for that business.

Didn't we have this same discussion fairly recently on this site? I distinctly remember finding a link that detailed all the costs of running a publishing house...
 
This outspoken condemnation of traditional publishing is worth a read, particularly if you believe that signing with a book publisher will be your salvation:

Stay Away From Traditional Book Publishing
(read the comments too)

Apart from the unfairness of contracts, where an author signs away the rights to their work, what most bothers me about traditional publishing is how damned slow everything is. Just look at how long the editing process takes:

How Long Does It Take To Publish A First Book?

Were I to get the services of a literary agent in early 2019, who immediately negotiated a contract with a book publisher, followed by my book hitting the shelves in time for Christmas, it could be summer 2020 before I saw a penny from sales...and I'd be relying on the honesty of the publisher or literary agency's accountants, with no way of checking their figures. Embezzlement was in the news this year, so it's a mistake to think that debut authors won't be ripped-off too:

Reverberations Continue in Donadio & Olson Embezzlement Scandal

Despite sensational stories in the media about huge advances, it's unusual for an unknown author to receive more than a few thousand...if anything at all.

I've always thought that a large book advance is a compromising blessing. Great to have the validation of a publisher backing you with money, but if your book doesn't earn out that advance, then you're seen as an unsafe risk to publish again. You've gone from being an unsigned writer full of potential to a sales failure who no one wants to touch.

Five Book Contract Terms Authors Should Know • Career Authors

Self-publishing means a lot of hard work, especially the self-promotion needed to attract attention to me and my books, but at least my fate is in my hands and I can see instant feedback through sales and comments from readers....which I can do something about, should I choose to, by uploading a modified version.

Now, where did I leave my enthusiasm? :rolleyes:

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@Amber is right @Paul Whybrow . I’m sorry that the trade publishing route hasn’t worked out for you but there are people on this forum who will be taking the agent/publisher route and will be very successful. Others will find a home with one of the indies and others will choose to take the self publishing route. All are equally valid and we should be supporting one another whichever route we opt for.
 
Self publishing is a perfectly acceptable route to getting published, but if you're going down that route you have approach your book from a business perspective, in the same way that 'traditional' publishers do.

In the market your book is a product and must be treated as such. You need to have the same commercial vision that a publisher would have, so to a degree you still have the same challenges that any brick & mortar publisher has.

The big advantage of self publishing is that it's quick and you retain total control. On the other hand you have to do everything yourself and marketing your book can be as hard, if not harder, than actually writing it, so you're just giving yourself another battle to fight.

From my perspective, between working the day job, eating, sleeping, exercise, getting some degree of socialising in and actually writing the damn thing, there's no time in there to promote the book. If I don't get a book published, I'll probably stick it up on Amazon so it's there and it'll be easier for family and friends to read, but I don't expect to sell any because I can't invest the time needed to get people to give up their own time and money to read my book.

If you do have enough spare time to invest in promotion then it's worthwhile considering as a serious option, otherwise, improve the manuscript and get a publisher to trump up their time and money, to get your potential readers to give up their's.
 
Any frustration I'm showing comes from uncertainty about what to do next...though writing and publishing are imbued with uncertainty. It's the nature of the beast that no one knows what will work until it does.

I've learnt what I did wrong in querying in the last few years, mainly trying to flog a manuscript that was way too long at double the acceptable word count of 80,000.

What troubles me about going the traditional route, is that it means handing over so much control about what becomes of my books. I might get lucky and gel with a helpful literary agent who places my book with a publisher I get on with and who knows what they're doing when it comes to promoting their clients. The opposite could happen and I'd be powerless to alter things.

Most writers chase a publishing deal because they hope to be helped with marketing. But, these days publishers have cut their marketing budgets, and they expect their clients to promote themselves in all of the ways that an indie author does...blogging, social media, book tours, organising interviews with the press, radio and local television stations. If I'm doing all of that, it makes more sense to do it for myself, rather than for a traditional/legacy publisher who can't be bothered to lift a finger to help me.

I think that with choosing which route to take, it boils down to authors wanting to be liked, to get some feedback, validation that their writing is of standard good enough to be published. Essentially, that's what happens when you have an agent and a book publisher showing commercial interest in you. Going it alone as a self-publisher requires self-belief as well as grit, which can be hard to summon up after months or years of creating your story on your own.

I'm going to try a twin-forked approach, querying some promising literary agents, as well as embarking on the self-promotion trail with a view to being an indie author.
 
The “traditional” publishing model is actually changing positively in some ways – it has to. But in other ways, it’s still working against the author’s best interests.

The good? I’m seeing/exploring new ways of generating income for writers. Not quite ready to go public on this yet, but new and creative deals are definitely being done.

The bad? Harder than ever to get a publisher (and agent) to revert rights back to the author. Say you’ve gone with a so-so deal, publisher and agent, for your first book. After a few years, you want to move away to a new publisher or new agent. Basically, you can’t. This kills any competition between agents (my side of the business). A new agency may be able to offer a writer better service… but the client will find they can’t move their contract on. Don’t like that, it’s anti-competitive.
 
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