Reading my posts over the past few months, you might come to the conclusion I think self-publishing and going it alone is the right -- and only -- way to go.
Leaving aside issues of ego and desire, where some authors will only feel validated and complete when they see their physical books on physical shelves in their hometowns, let's examine the business side of traditional vs self publishing, and why going traditional is still a viable option -- for some. Interestingly, it wasn't that long ago when this examination would have been between print publishers and digital-only publishers. Consider for a moment how the very definition of "traditional" has changed in a few short years.
The publishing models today are varied:
- The Big 6 with (potentially) aggressive print and digital distribution
- The mid-size publishers (think Harlequin) with equally (potentially) aggressive print and digital distribution that caters in general to a more niche audience
- Small print-first publishers that concentrate on print distribution and supplement (often heavily) with digital
- Small digital-first publishers that concentrate on digital distribution and supplement with print-on-demand for select titles
- Small digital-only publishers that operate virtually
- Publisher coalitions that assist members primarily with digital publishing, which includes many of the recent agent/publisher models
- Self-publishers with a primary concentration in digital
- Vanity publishers that pretend to be author-friendly coalitions but aren't (and we'll be leaving these folk out of the discussion)
So which way is best? For argument's sake, let's assume you have a genre book that's marketable across all models, so it has the potential to be picked up and published across the spectrum. Which way to go from a business perspective?
Traditionally published authors tend to be secretive about their advances and earn-outs (sometimes out of contractual obligation, sometimes not), so anecdotal and often anonymous data is all we have to go by. One of the most comprehensive polls I've seen is for the Romance genre, conducted and maintained for several years by Brenda Hiatt. The data cited here will be referred from those results. All the caveats of the poll results being self-selective, yadda yadda apply.
Big 6 and Mid-Size Publishers
Obviously a powerhouse company has the potential to put your book in front of many readers and rocket it to bestsellerdom. And yes, it happens. There's also the potential they midlist your debut novel, give it little to no promotion, and it fades quietly and quickly away from the public eye.
For many, a contract with one of the Big 6 or with Harlequin is still the Holy Grail. The reality, though, is that unless you have a contract that guarantees in writing your book will get lead-title treatment in terms of promotion and placement, your title could end up performing little better than it would at a smaller house.
Advances do tend to be larger from the bigger houses. How much larger depends on how lucrative they think your book will be and, if your debut book is a lead title, odds are you'll make more through a Big 6 publisher than through any other models. Plus, if you don't earn out and/or don't get picked up for a second book, you can always pursue any of the other publishing options later.
On the flip side, only a small percentage of aspiring authors get picked up by a Big 6 or mid-size publisher, and the time between when you first start submitting to agents (because most require submission through agents) to when your book hits the shelf could easily be 3 years.
Average advances for first books tend to run $10,000 - 20,000.
Average royalties continue to be pretty dismal, at 8-10% for print and 17.5% for digital.
Small Print-First Publishers
These are the true Indies of the publishing world; start-ups that compete in the same arenas as the larger guys. Scaled-down versions of the majors that often cater to more niche audiences.
Competition to get in with these publishers is often as fierce as with the Big 6, with agents again providing much of the gatekeeping. They usually offer smaller advances but more personalized promotion. Their reach isn't as great as the larger pubs, but they're often more forgiving when a single book doesn't perform to expectation.
Advances of $1000-5000 isn't much to get excited over, however. And if advances are in any way a realistic expectation of how a book will perform in the marketplace, then $5K is a pretty small return on the investment of time you have in your book.
Small Digital-First and Digital-Only Publishers
With advances of $0-1000, these publishers operate on thin per-book margins. The successful ones (and there have been a lot of start-ups and failures in the last 5 years) make money on the quantity of titles in their inventory, not necessarily by optimizing profit on any given book.
Competition doesn't feel quite as fierce with the smaller digital publishers because there are so many that have cropped up in the last couple of years. While your chances of being picked up by any one individual small publisher might be only marginally better than being picked up by a print-first publisher, your chances of being picked up by one of them at all are much higher (assuming a marketable book).
It's at this level, especially, where decisions about how best to publish your book become more complicated. More about that below.
In direct competition with the small digital-first publishers are the increasing number of not-really-quite-publisher models that have been springing up. These are generally boutique groups that cater to a small number of authors and that provide publishing support that ranges from editing, covering and formatting to possible marketing either for a flat fee acquired up front or deducted from earned royalties, or for a percentage of royalties for a set time (optimal) or in perpetuity (run away).
A number of agents are moving to this type of model; I consider Steel Magnolia Press to fall under this definition as well.
Like with digital-first publishers, the coalition model has its appeal, but only for a certain population of authors.
Which Model Is Right For You?
Keep in mind this is an editorial post and the opinions are my own.
If you're a new and unproven author determined to see your book on the shelf of your local bookstore, by all means go the agent query route and/or submit directly to the limited few major and mid-size pubs who accept unsolicited material. If, however, you're offered a contract, make sure the terms are worthy of the size of the publisher. A small advance (under $10K) and no contractual guarantee that your book will be treated as a lead title should give you pause. I fully understand that heart will often win out over head for your first book, but I'm only talking the business realities here.
If you're a savvy business person with the time and inclination to keep up with the fast-changing digital and print markets and you're willing to be aggressive with your career as a writer, I would strongly suggest that you eschew any model that doesn't offer solid, guaranteed advances coupled with a strong marketing plan agreed to in the contract. (Anecdotally, the most heart-rending pub stories I've heard are of authors who were verbally promised lead-title status when they signed their contracts only to have enthusiasm for their book wane and be launched with little to no publisher-supported promotion.)
This means if you, the savvy author, can't get a lead-title deal through a major or mid-size publisher, skip the small publishers completely and self-publish. Why? Take a look at the average advances (many offer no advances) and average earn-outs authors with small publishers make and compare against average earn-outs for self-publishing (there are several threads at the Kindleboards forum where authors candidly discuss their earnings). Do keep in mind production costs (cover, editing, formatting) have to be deducted from the self-publishers' totals before the earn-out figures can really be considered profit.
In my opinion there is little a small publisher can offer a savvy author with the time to produce and market their own book that the savvy author can't provide on their own for a higher return on their investments.
So all small publishers are predatory vermin and should be shut down, right?
Of course not. There are a lot of savvy authors who simply don't have the time to study the market to the extent needed to make the studied decisions necessary to capitalize on rapid changes in the marketplace. And there are authors who are understandably overwhelmed by all those changes and find it difficult to decide what their best course of action is. For these authors, an astute partner in the publishing business will likely earn them more than they could earn on their own. In fact, I daresay many authors who jumped without looking into self-publishing and have been met with poor to modest sales despite having a marketable book would be better served with a smart digital-first publisher or publisher coalition.
And there-in lies the proverbial rub. Which small publishers are the smart ones who can maximize the profit on your book at a fair cost of doing business with them? I'll detail some of what I think a smart publisher has to bring to the partnership table in my next post.
In general, though, smart publishers will work with their clients, they will absolutely know how to work best for their clients, and they will be ready and willing to provide real-world examples of what they've already done to make their clients successful.
Please note that Steel Magnolia Press is not currently seeking new clients and these posts are not endorsements for our imprint.