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:
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.
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.
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.
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.