While my manuscript for Finding Faith (no longer in print) was being prepared for publication, I received an invitation to be on a writer’s workshop panel titled “From a Great Idea to a Book.” The panel members included a national best-selling author of 17 books translated into 19 languages who had won numerous awards. As the panel discussed how to turn a great idea into a book, she made a comment that revealed the state of publishing: “I am reluctant to give new writers advice because publishing has become the Wild West.”
I entered this untamed new frontier at the birth of publishing’s transformation in the early 2000. While teaching in a church, I began writing curriculum. The students liked the material and told me “You should be published”, which I dismissed as ridiculous. Eventually, circumstances removed everything from my life except the option to pursue publishing. I hired a professional editor for an honest opinion, because friends love you and want to encourage you, but they may not know what they are talking about. The editor concurred with my friends. He loved my feeble attempt at a manuscript and suggested a new publishing house called Publish America.
Publish America advertised themselves as a Traditional Publisher. But they were not traditional in the traditional definition of traditional publishing. A traditional publisher, in most cases, requires an agent. The agent negotiates your contract, getting the best deal possible. Publishers will pay an advance based on how many copies the publisher thinks they can sell. The average advance paid to a new author is 2,500. After the publisher has recouped the advance, the author receives royalties of about $1 per book. If the author had an agent, the agent will get 15% of the advance and royalties, which reduces your 2500 advance to about 2100 and your $1 royalty to .85 cents. Most new authors sell around 300 copies. If you sell 5,000, you are considered a success. Bear in mind these figures are not set in stone. There are a lot of variables at play.
When you sign with a traditional publisher, you give them your rights to the manuscript. The publisher wants to recoup the money paid, so he uses the rights you gave him to fashion your manuscript into a product they believe people will buy. They put the manuscript through three phases of editing, each phase is known by multiple names. I am using the names that I am familiar with. First phase, a contextual edit that looks at the big picture, flow of the story, etc. Second, a copy edit to correct grammar and typos. Proof reading is the final phase and sometimes done during the formatting. Then a graphic artist will design a cover. The editors choose a title and write a back cover summary designed to hook readers into buying the book. Then they will do what they can to get your book before the public, which may include sending Advance Reader Copies to book reviewers and buying advertisement. My publisher produced a 15 second TV commercial for cable networks that targeted my niche market.
Traditional publishers invest more money than the advance they pay the author because they will bear the loss if the book does not sell. The only thing the author loses is his or her rights to the manuscript until and if those rights are returned. A lot of this depends on your contract.
At one time, the only other option was self-publishing, which is the equivalent of opening a small business. You don’t need an agent, so you keep the 15% he or she would have taken. You keep your rights and have full control over the production of the manuscript. You keep all the profits, but you also pay for everything. Self-publishing is expensive. You run the risks of a substantial financial loss if the book does not sell.
A friend self-published a children’s book. She borrowed $10,000. She edited the book. Paid a graphic artist to design the pictures and cover. Paid a printer to print the book. Bought the books in bulk to keep printing cost low. Then she had to pay all of her marketing expense. But she did very well because she found access to her niche market in public and private schools. She sent order forms to the teachers, the teachers sent the forms home with the children. She came to the school, did a presentation, and delivered the pre-sold books. The last time I talked to her, she had sold 7000 books and grossed $100,000. It’s possible to do well, but it is a lot of work. Every time I talk to her, she tells me how tired she is.
About the time I entered publishing, a third option was available called Print on Demand (POD). Print on Demand technology produced the ability to print only the copies needed and ship the books to whoever needed them. Whether it is one book, ten books, or a hundred. That eliminated the need to print thousands of books to keep the cost low, and it eliminated the need to maintain large warehouses to store the books and pay salaries to people who worked in the warehouse. The reduced production cost made it easier for more people to be published.
Initially, POD had several enormous problems. First, no distribution and bookstore placement. I was at a book festival and stopped to talk to a man who was an attorney by day/aspiring writer by night. He did not understand why publishers failed to put his book in bookstores. “How do publishers decide what bookstores to put your book in?” he asked. That question told me he knew more about being an attorney than he did about publishing. Bookstores decide what they put on their shelves, not publishers. He had used POD. Chain bookstores will not purchase POD books to sell because they were not returnable. POD publishers do not have big warehouses to receive returned books.
Second, the small publishers that popped up using this new technology did not have money to pay decent editors. Consequently, they flooded the market with a lot of poorly written books, which is another reason bookstores are not interested in POD books.
Third, they did not have money to market a book like the established traditional publishers. They reasoned no one is more passionate about a book than its author, therefore the author can do a better job selling the book and shifted that expense to the author.
Fourth, they set high retail values on their paperback books, making the books difficult to sell.
Print on Demand produced Publish America, who called themselves a traditional publisher, but they were more of a hybrid between traditional and self-publishing. I did not need an agent. An agent would not deal with a POD publisher because they do not pay advances. That agent knows if they do not get their money from the advance, they may get nothing.
Publish America paid me a $1 advance and produced my book at no charge. In exchange for the $1 advance, they had the right to sell my book for 7 years. My manuscript went through one edit instead of the 3 or more done by traditional publishers. They did a nice job on the cover design, but the editing and formatting were sloppy.
They did two things to help market. They asked me for a list of family and friends so they could contact them to buy my book, and they put the book for sale on their website. Aside from that, I knew from their website and my contract that they would not market the book.
They released A Reason to Believe in 2002. Facebook started in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. My options for marketing a book were zero. I could not afford to buy expensive radio and magazine ads. Doing that would have been a waste of money. If someone saw the ad, he or she could not find it at a bookstore. My book was not returnable; therefore, bookstores would not put it on their shelf.
In my opinion, PA shot themselves in the foot. Even if I had the money to market, I could not have sold it in good conscience, because of the sloppy editing and formatting. If someone bought the book, they would not have a reason to buy a second one. Even if they had got the editing and formatting right, how could I compete with traditionally published paperback books selling for $8 to $15 when mine had a retail value of $24.99.
Through the years, Print on Demand evolved to make themselves more appealing. They implemented a fee based system. For anywhere from $700 – $2000 they would produce your book but not market it. The fee gave them money to pay better editors, and artist producing a book easier to sell. Then authors could pay a fee to make their books returnable. Some are offering a more reasonable retail value. They will do some Internet marketing for an additional fee, most of which an author can do on social media for free.
Today, a number of POD publishers offer free self-publishing by providing the tools authors can use to produce their books. They make money when you buy your book at wholesale to sell for profit. They also offer all the services of a traditional publishers for an extra fee.
As print on demand evolved and overcame its negative aspects, traditional publishing has become more like the hybrid publishers using elements of traditional and self-publishing. One friend published by a traditional publisher did not need an agent. She did not receive an advance. The completed book had 30 plus errors that were corrected in the second printing. They did some marketing but did not reimburse her expenses for the marketing she did. She could get books to sell at no cost and return unsold books, but she had to pay the shipping. They set a retail value close to $30 for a paperback book, which is higher than anything I have seen on POD books. Regardless of some of the negative aspects the publisher did what she could have never done on her own. This was her first book. She is not famous. On the strength of the publishers reputation, her book was picked up nationwide by Barnes and Nobles and purchased by libraries.
Another friend had a New York agent who sold her first book to a traditional publisher. The book did well financially. She eventually retired to write full time. After the agent got her foot in the door, he was little help. She sold her second book to the publisher, and the agent received 15% for doing nothing. She found another agent who sold her next four books to the same publisher with little effort because she already had a successful book. Her publisher did some marketing. She was included in a magazine advertisement with some of the publishers other authors, and they supplied printed marketing material for her to use. She spent all the advance money marketing her own books. Then her publisher decided they were not making enough money with fiction. They abolished that department and she is currently looking for a new agent and publisher.
Last example, a New York Times and international bestselling author is pleased with her agent of many years. She entered publishing when traditional publishers did everything for authors except write the books. They sponsored book signing tours in American and overseas. She especially like Japan because they treated her like a rock star. Two decades after print on demand technology became available, I asked her, “What does your publisher do to market your book?” My question was met with silence. Finally, she mumbled, “they don’t do book tours anymore, it’s too expensive. More silence. Then her face brightened, and she said, “You need a good mailing list.” That was the last thing I expected to hear from such a successful author. The following year, she spoke to a small secular writer’s group I attend and made an illuminating comment. “At some point you have to consider what the publisher is really bringing to the party.” Several months after making that comment, she released a digital POD book. Apparently, the traditional publisher is just not bringing to the party what they used to.
The advantage of traditional publishing is widespread distribution. Traditional publishers sell to bookstores. Bookstores need books to sell to their patrons. Consequently, if the publisher has a good reputation, book sells are higher, but the royalties paid are small unless the book becomes a bestseller. The POD author is limited to selling to people, and finding bookstores that accept books on consignment. The profit margins are much higher, as much as 50% on printed and 75% for digital books. Most of my traditionally published friends have made forays into POD. The successful ones have an advantage over new authors because they already have a following and name recognition. There are pros and cons to both ways of publishing. If you are a public speaker or already have a following POD would be the better path financially. If you want your book available nationwide in bookstores, make traditional publishing your goal.