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What books? How many? How bossy? How greedy?

Earlier this week, I did a members’ webinar on Trad Publishing vs Self-Publishing, and how to choose your route. I can’t recap the whole of that – very enjoyable – session here, but let me run you through four key questions which we spent time considering. They are:

What books?

Some books work well with self-pub, others not so much.

Genre fiction does particularly well with self-pub. If you look at a category like romance, it’ll be dominated by e-book sales, not print, and by indie-authors, not trad. The self-pub/trad split is probably something like 85:15.

The same is broadly true for loads of other genres: paranormal and dystopian fiction, lots of science fiction, lots of fantasy, and so on. The crime category is more mixed (partly because there are some huge brands from the pre-ebook era who still sell loads.) As you move upmarket, the balance shifts towards trad publishing. With proper literary fiction, you’ll struggle to find any real self-pub authors at all.

At the same time, don’t place too much weight on genre. My books sit at the most literary end of crime fiction, and they’ve done absolutely fine that way. In the end, if your books connect strongly with readers, you’ll do OK.

In terms of non-fiction, indie authors can do fine with the kind of books where the title could be a Google or Amazon search term. So, for example, my Jericho-published “How To Write A Novel” does fine, because it’s linked to an obvious and popular search term.

Conversely, if you have written a dazzling memoir about (let’s say) your mountaineering adventures in the Ruwenzori, it’s hard to think of any way that your book would naturally appear on Amazon. Yes, if you had a chain of six such books, you could start to build a readership and work that way – but a single quirky book is near-impossible to sell successfully on Amazon. Authors like that should head firmly towards a traditional route.

How many?

The next question is simply: how many books do you intend to write? And at what pace can you write them?

There’s an outfit called 20booksto50K (check it out on Facebook) whose core idea is that if you can write and publish 20 books, you can earn a $50,000 a year income from them. Increase the number of books beyond that point, and you can earn more than that. In other words, you can plausibly target a proper fulltime income from your work, should you simply commit enough.

Now I don’t really love the “just churn em out” model myself. When I was self-publishing most intensely, I wrote just one book a year and did fine with that.

But … the point remains. Most successful self-pub authors are successful because they are good AND prolific. It’s essentially impossible to make real money from a single book. Write a trilogy, and you have something. Write a longer series or two trilogies and you have a shop with enough products to start putting cash in your pocket. You are unlikely to make meaningful cash until you have 3-5 books for sale. (And again: the quality of the books really matters. The better and more distinctive your work, the fewer you need to build an income.)

So again, if you are definitely a one-book-only author, or a one-book-every-two-or-three-years author, then you should head to Trad world. Planet Indie is not for you.

For similar reasons, by the way, I’d strongly advise any indie fiction author to write in series. A series just works much better than a group of standalones.

How bossy?

Another question to consider is how bossy you are.

The gist of any commercial book deal is simple: you sell your book for an advance plus royalties. So it’s not your book any more. It’s the publisher’s.

The publisher will end up having the final say, and perhaps the only meaningful one, on book cover. And title. And blurb. And marketing. And pricing. And formats. And timing. And promos. And, really, everything. Yes, they’ll be polite and try (mostly) to include you. But politeness has its limits. It’s not your book.

It’s easy, as an unpublished writer to think, “Yes, but don’t I want these experts making all those decisions for me?” … to which I can only gently suggest that you don’t find many experienced authors thinking the same thing. Those expert publishers have a lot of things on their mind and they don’t always make the right calls. They will also, never, ever care as much as you.

By contrast, the indie author can make any decisions they want, whenever they want. Got a book cover you like? Use it. Decided it’s not as effective as you thought? Change it. Want to put the price up? Then do it: it takes 2 minutes. Want to change the blurb? Do it.

Some authors just don’t want the hassle of all those extra decisions. Other are peeved when they see salaried employees making decisions more lazily than they’d do themselves. The type of person you are should definitely guide your path to publication.

How greedy?

On the whole, self-pub authors make more money than traditionally published ones. That sounds odd, not least because nearly all the authors you’ve ever heard of are traditionally published.

But, if you want an oversimple rule of thumb, trad authors get more acclaim. Indie authors make more money.

The root of disparity is not hard to trace. Let’s say a trad author is selling their ebook at $9.99 (or, to make the maths simple, $10.)

Amazon’s share is $3, or 30%.

Of the remaining $7.00, the publisher will keep 75%, or $5.25, leaving $1.75 for the author.

The agent then scoops between 15 and 20% of that, leaving under $1.50 for the author. And, of course, because $9.99 is a lot for an ebook, the author is likely to sell a lot fewer too.

By contrast, the arithmetic for the indie author is simple. You sell your book at a penny under $5.00. Amazon keeps $1.50. You keep $3.50 per book. That’s more than double what the trad author makes – and you sell more books.


And yes: trad authors sell plenty of paperbacks. And yes: they sell via bookstores. And yes: this, that and the other.

The fact is, however, once you view all this in the round, there are more indie authors at any income level you care to name than there are trad ones. There are more indies earning over a million bucks a year than there are trad ones. There are more indies earning above quarter of a million. More indies earning over $100,000. And so on down.

If you’re serious about money – and you’re willing to take on the entrepreneurial burden of selling as well as writing – then self-pub ought to look more tempting.

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Comments (5)
    • It's not the easy route though. Writing (and reading) mean so much to me, and I would love my books to be seen by a wider audience, but...reaching that audience is tricky. There's a secret somewhere, a tweak or tweaks that boost the number of readers that are presented with our books as a possibility for them to read. I've taken courses on Facebook advertising and Amazon advertising. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. There's a lot of effort involved when I should be writing. I don't want to twist anyone's arm or be an annoying salesperson, but, hmmm, it's not a quick fix. However... I love it. I've sold books, quite a few, and the thought that a reader loves them enough to buy the whole series makes me happy. Swings and roundabouts.As in life!

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      • I've not quite finished my novella yet- only another billion edits to go- but I've already decided that I'm going down the self publishing route. There's plenty of advice for me to look at on JW so I'll be reet.

        I'm currently reading Talking to the Dead and a tiny detail struck me as genius. I've been a builder for over 25 years. Builders refer to walls as skins. (Single skin, double skin etc) I've never given it a second thought. However, last night, I read about Fiona being hit by Penry and becoming afraid in her own home. She thought about the outer wall as "a skin of bricks" and in that context the word meant little protection rather than a solid layer. I'll never see it in the same light again. Nice one! ... but I need to up my game...

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        • My bet is that you sell a lot more, trad or self pub, if you have an exceptional story.  I had some feedback recently on my commercial-lit work in progress.  "Too much action and plot and not enough story." Fair enough. I'm up for edits and rewrites.  But I'm sticking a bid in for a blog on story.  

          You see, everywhere I look, and I read and hear, that story is a likeable protagonist who wants something badly, but can't get it because of an obstacle, and tries hard, with mixed results and set-backs until with or without allies, succeeds in getting what they want. 

          Now I've seen that written several different ways, some with bells on, but there must be more to it than that.  Since I'm certain a compelling story - literally a page turner, is what most of us aim for - then can we have a Friday blog on the power and the nature of 'story'? 

          (Some of you will say - well, you should know...but do I?  So easy to lose sight of the basics sometimes.)

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          • I agree you need a compelling story. Anybody can have a great story idea, but if you can convey it in an engaging format, with layered characters and the right pacing then it doesn't matter how great your idea is. What makes a story compelling is in the execution.

            Personally I don't believe that you need a likeable protagonist, for me they have to be interesting which is completely different from likeable. There are plenty of successful and bestselling novels with unlikeable main protagonist.

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          • "You see, everywhere I look, and I read and hear, that story is a likeable protagonist who wants something badly, but can't get it because of an obstacle, and tries hard, with mixed results and set-backs until with or without allies, succeeds in getting what they want."

            Tell me if I'm wrong -- if Harry does a blog post (great idea btw) he can tell me if I'm wrong -- but isn't this the plot? The story is the background stuff that the book is really about. In the James Bond novels, each story is about the damage that could be wreaked by one bad man, empowered by technology, unless one good man can stop him. The recent films may be different -- I don't know. Animal Farm isn't really about animals running a farm. A romance novel isn't really about how character A thinks character B doesn't like them, let alone love them. It's about how we all want love but things keep getting in the way. And it may make a wider point about how society wants to force us in prescribed directions. I recently read a police procedural/murder story that was really about arranged marriage and the culture clashes that can invoke. Two very different genres but similar story points.

            As L says, it's about the execution. What sort of story/genre is this and what general points do you as the author want to make? 

            And no, the main protagonist doesn't have to be likeable. And yes, it can be really difficult to get one's head around all this when all you want to do is write.

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