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Choosing a publishing path: Traditional vs. Indie #amwriting

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, as is the rest of the world.

According to the December 2020 Statshot of participating publishers, the Association of American Publishers, published February 25, 2021, total revenues across all categories for December 2020 were down 8.5% compared to December 2019, coming in at $1.1 billion.

In terms of physical paper format revenues during the month of December, in the Trade (Consumer Books) category, Hardback revenues were up 14.2%, coming in at $312.5 million; Paperbacks were up 2.4%, with $248.1 million in revenue; Mass Market was down 1.6% to $25.9 million; and Board Books were up 6.2%, with $16.7 million in revenue.

eBook revenues were up 18.4% for the month as compared to December of 2019 for a total of $89.7 million.  The Downloaded Audio format jumped 30.0% for December, coming in at $66.0 million in revenue. Physical Audio declined 6.7% coming in at $1.9 million. [1]

In this publishing world, what share of the market is claimed by Indie book sales? For Indie books, those published without ISBNs, the Amazon market share accounts for roughly 83% of US purchases.

What do these numbers mean when trying to decide whether to self-publish or attempt to go the traditional route?

In recent months, the traditional publishing industry has undergone a shrinkage. Where they once were the Big Five, they are now the Big Four: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.

Literative.Com says: Authors who publish with them may still not have boatloads of money (depending on how many books they publish in a year), but they certainly have prestige. [2]

The fact is authors, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough in royalties to support their families. This is because publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors. They spend their money on the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.

So, why should an author consider going traditional? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher?

The fact is, the traditional publishing industry offers many legitimate perks to those who get their foot in the door.

  1. Once you are signed with a reputable publisher, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time, you can forge a good working relationship with this editor. If you go Indie, you must hire a copy editor, which is not cheap. (And should not be.)
  2. While they may not treat a new author the way they do Stephen King, traditional publishers will dedicate a small budget to marketing your work for its launch. It will be more money than you might be able to pony up as an Indie.
  3. Once you have proven yourself, traditional publishers can get your work into markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery stores.

That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part. Their confidence will have to be earned. You must expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work is received at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

  1. Once you have proven yourself, you will have a wider distribution, make far more sales. With those sales, your work will meet the criteria to be considered for industry honors and awards, which will help sell your books.
  2. There is an air of respectability, the cachet of being able to claim you’re traditionally published.

These are valid reasons for attempting to sell your work to the traditional publishing industry.

However, if you seek a legacy book contract, you must go through a gauntlet of gatekeepers. You must pass the assessments of literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs.

These people all must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own the majority of American publishing companies.

This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter. It’s not the quality of your work; it’s the publisher’s perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their shareholders.

As an Indie, you may not become a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell. In most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, especially for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon.

For the traditionally published author, if a publisher prices their eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out (and remember, Amazon is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond):

  • Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
  • The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
  • The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
  • The author then must pay their agent a 15% commission—or 26 cents.
  • The author nets just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale.

This is assuming the publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties. In my personal experience, while most small presses are honest, some small presses fail to pay royalties and can have an author’s work tied up in legal limbo for years. Investigate small presses before you sign with them. This is where knowing your legal rights and having a lawyer read your contract before you sign is a good idea.

If you self-publish your eBook at $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.

If you self-publish, you’ll get paid quickly. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. Advancements are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.

Conversely, most eBook distributors like Kindle Direct Publishing and Draft2Digital report your sales virtually in real-time. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the time sales began.

Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly, you retain all rights to your work. Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author.

Most of us are not lawyers. The complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating.

You must hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your own work forever.

Quote from the Authors Guild post of July 28, 2015:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades. [3]

Regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not, you must do the work and absorb the initial costs of getting your name out there. You must find bookstores willing to host you for a signing, and you must get yourself to conventions and conferences.

You must still work your day job to feed your family either way.

Both paths are valid, and both have positive reasons for choosing that direction, as well as negatives.

How you go forward in publishing your first book is a serious decision. Choosing your publishing path deserves deep consideration of all the many pros and cons.


CREDITS & ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] AAP December 2020 Statshot Report © 2021Association of American Publishers https://publishers.org/news/aap-december-2020-statshot-report-publishing-industry-down-8-5-for-month-up-0-1-for-calendar-2020/  (Accessed March 16,2021)

[2] Literative.com Popular Books Published by the Big Four, by Jennifer Mendez © https://literative.com/writers-resources/popular-books-published-big-four/#:~:text=HarperCollins,%20Simon%20&%20Schuster,%20Hachette%20and%20Penguin%20Random,in%20a%20year),%20but%20they%20certainly%20have%20prestige. (Accessed March 16, 2021)

[3] A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, The Authors Guild, © 2021 https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/a-publishing-contract-should-not-be-forever/, (Accessed March 16, 2021)

Image: Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

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