The Measure of Success

Many are familiar with Emerson’s definition of success:  To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; . . . to leave the world a bit better. . . . But in the conversation about which method of publishing is best in any particular situation, the ability to measure success is open for debate.

I recently had someone tell me she’d like to see a comparison between the money earned by the typical traditionally published book, the typical small press published book, and the typical self-published book.

I don’t have an answer backed by hard data, but based on years of conversations with, and presentations by published authors, here’s my best guess.

First, I think the fairest comparison should use the advance figure of a first sale to a NY publisher.  I’ve heard multi-published authors say the only income you can count on is the advance.  Royalties (5% to 7% of the cover price for mass market) aren’t paid by traditional publishers until the book has earned out its advance after all, and then are paid only every six months minus the reserve against returns (and your agent’s commission).  And since most books don’t earn out, you can only count on your advance, which for a first book can vary between $2000 and $7500.  Let’s take the middle ground and say $5000.  This book will have been professionally edited and a fairly decent cover will have been designed for it.  It will receive a measure of promotion, and distribution to bookstores across the country as well as availability on Amazon and other online distributors.

A first release from a small press will probably not receive an advance, or if it does it will be a small one:  a couple hundred at most.  Income to the author will come from royalties which are usually higher than that paid by the Big Six.  I’m a little fuzzier on the numbers here.  I’m not sure, but I believe many small presses pay in the neighborhood of 10% to 15% of net.  But since there’s no (or little) advance to earn out, the author usually starts making money fairly quickly.  Most small presses pay monthly or quarterly.  They don’t have a lot of money to spend on promotion, but they do send out review copies and often take out adds in trade magazines like Romantic Times and Locus.

The amount earned by self-published books is tricky to estimate.  How much the author does herself, and how much she pays for affect her bottom line.  The current accepted figure is that the average indie pubbed book sells between 100 and 150 copies.  I wish there were a way to get separate data for non-fiction vs. fiction, and the level of promotion the author executed.  As it stands now, the figures lump everything together: family memoirs and church cookbooks along with the books published by serious entrepeneurs.  An average royalty on a 150 page book sold for $14.95 (based on an average of the royalties paid by the 24 self-publishing firms listed in Stacie Vander Pol’s Top Self Publishing Firms) would be $2.88.  That’s about 19% of the list price.  BUT DON’T COUNT ON THIS. Each publisher is very different in how it calculates royalties.  In this small sample royalties varied from $.75 to $6.15 per book.

Using the average royalty of $2.88, if you beat the odds and sell 1000 books, you’ll have made $2880 (about the same as a low advance from NY), but out of that you’ll have to pay for everything you intend to pay for, and pay for it up front:  editing, formatting, cover (or whatever the subsidy publisher charges).  That can vary from zero up front (CreateSpace) to $22,000 (Creation House).  You’ll also have to pay for review copies and other promotion.

Electronic publishing is a little cheaper.  The production costs are lower (obviously -no paper), but you should still pay for professional editing and a well designed cover.  Royalties are higher (in the 30% range, I think) but the market is smaller, with fewer books sold.  One person told me 300 copies is an average sell through for fiction, but I have no idea how accurate that is.

So where does that leave us, success-wise?

If you define success as earning a living, none of the above will do it — not for years.  Traditional publishing will probably get you closest, if you can make the sale, but even traditionally published authors shouldn’t quit their day jobs until they have several books out.  Most never do earn enough to quit their day jobs.

If you’re looking at this as a business, you’d better be in it for the long haul.  I learned in college that most small businesses fail because they’re under capitalized (they don’t start with enough money to keep going until the business gets going) and their owners fail to understand their market. How does that apply to writing?  Don’t expect to make a lot of money at first, whichever path you take.  It’s going to take time to build up your clientelle (your readers) especially if you self-publish. If you do self-pub, your market exposure will have to be fought for, but if you have a quality product, you can begin gathering an audience more quickly than a traditionally published author will.  Still, once that traditionally published author’s book comes out, it will likely pass the self-pubbed book quickly in sales.

There are many other ways to measure success than counting how much money you make.  (Numbers of books sold, the satisfaction of putting together the whole package, etc.) I’m addressing money here because it seems to come up a lot when people discuss the relative merits of the various forms of publishing.  And you have to take it into account, even if you’re only publishing your grandmother’s recipes.


Filed under writing

4 responses to “The Measure of Success

  1. $5000 is not a middle ground advance — that’s a lowball figure, even in genre SF&F (one of the lowest-paying markets). In a recent post by agent Kristin Nelson, based on her own clients, she puts the typical advance for a first novel as:

    Romance novels: 5-15k
    SF&F: 5-25k
    YA or MG: 10-30k
    Literary fiction: 10-30k
    Women’s fic: 10-30k

    Also, 5-7% is a lowball royalty rate — 7-10% is the usual range.

    I can’t speak to the numbers for outside big-six publishing, but it sounds a little like you’re comparing worst-case big-six versus best-case in the other categories.


  2. I’m in the process of doing the research I should have done before writing this post, so I’ll be sharing that with you shortly. So far I’ve learned that through 3/25/2004 (a long time ago in this rapidly changing industry) Xlibris (not the best of the self-publishing firms out there) had published 10,269 titles. Of those, 3.4% sold more than 500 copies. This was from Dan Poynter’s Parapublishing website.

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