Since the time of Johannes Gutenberg, publishers have held the key to the kingdom. As an author, you or your agent must polish your proposal or manuscript (or both) until it gleams in order to get noticed. You’ll be asked to simultaneously differentiate your book and point to similar titles that have met with success.
Publishing is a tough and risky business. Typically, a book’s publisher takes on most of the financial risk—the book’s editorial development, cover and interior design, printing, shipping, marketing, publicity, and warehousing—and hopes it finds its market and sells. If a bricks-and-mortar bookseller purchases 500 copies of the book wholesale and only sells 200 copies, the bookseller can return the other 300 copies and get every penny paid for them back from the publisher. At any time.
Thus, the decision to acquire a book isn’t made lightly. A publisher must be convinced, either by the author or agent, that the book has a message or valuable content that readers are willing to pay for. Each year, more than 300,000 new books are published in print by trade publishers. (Virtually all of them are also available as eBooks.) Publishers must be confident that the books they acquire will be able to stand out in such an enormous competitive field and find a market.
Let’s say you manage to do just that, and your book is acquired by a trade book publisher. It will be edited, packaged, and marketed by that publisher, and you may well not agree with many of the decisions that are made. Its title will likely be changed. You might get an advance on your royalties, or you might not. And those royalties will probably be somewhere between 8 and 15 percent of the publisher’s net sales, which means based on roughly half the cover price. (In some genres, like romance, you might be looking at more like 5 percent.) Those royalty payments will only come two to four times a year, or not at all if you don’t earn enough royalties to make back an advance.
Some authors write books that sell millions of copies. Even 5 percent of half the cover price of millions of books is a lot of money.
But let’s be honest. The vast majority of books acquired by publishers do not. The average nonfiction book published by a trade publisher sells around 2,000 copies over its publication lifecycle. You can do the math: Let’s say your book has a cover price of $19.95. Its wholesale price would be about $10. If you’re fortunate enough to get a top royalty of 15 percent, that means you’d get $1.50 per book sold. If only 2,000 copies of your book are sold, that’s $3,000—over the entire publication lifecycle.
Self-publishing has shattered this paradigm. If you’re dipping your toe in the self-publishing market—perhaps after getting shut down by trade publishers or being appalled by the financial realities of a publisher’s offer—you need to know about all the risks and all the potential benefits.
To start your journey, check out my follow-up posts, The Challenges of Self-Publishing: Why So Many Indie Authors End Up on Amazon or iBooks and Self-Publishing an eBook: To Amazon or Not to Amazon?
Perrin Davis is a veteran professional book editor and the founder of Three Muses Creative, a self-publishing consultancy. Three Muses offers cradle-to-Kindle (or iPad!) self-publishing services, including all levels of editorial development, consulting, and direct-sales author website creation.