The Mail I Get

Over on Debbi Mack's blog, someone asked me:

Lee, you said that you would advise new authors (unpublished) to take a contract with a small press over self-publishing. Could you expand on that? What do you think that would offer them over the chance to sell more books and attract more readers?

Very few self-published authors are selling as well on the Kindle as Joe Konrath …or even close. But let’s say you are one of the lucky few selling about 500 copies of your book a month at $2.99, earning $1000-a-month in royalties.

If the sales hold, you’ll sell 6000 copies-a-year, and earn $12,000. A typical, low-end advance for a new writer would be about $6000, give or take a thousand. A low-end mass market print run would be about 30,000 copies…a hardcover run would likely be about 5000 (and, of course, in success it could be considerably more). Your book will be in most bookstores in the country, and if it’s a mass market paperback, probably most drugstores, convenience stores, and some airports. And, of course, there will also be an e-book edition. You might even get foreign sales, large print deals, and an audio book out of it, generating more income.

I would argue that you'd be a fool not to take a mid-list paperback or a hardcover deal over self-publishing on the Kindle. Financially, you might make less (in failure or only modest success)…but the difference will be more than made up for in editing, marketing, wider readership, wider name recognition, and professional prestige (and that prestige does mean something, whether you want to admit it or not).

You can always go back to self-publishing… and when you do, you will be bring that wider readership, name recognition, and professional prestige with you. But a book deal doesn't come along every day, and that's still going to mean something for a long time yet…and I suspect it still will if bookstores disappear.

I have no doubt the big reason my out-of-print are doing as well as they are is because they are riding on the large readership of my MONK and DIAGNOSIS MURDER books.

So let's use a real world example. Boyd Morrison sold thousands of copies of THE ARK on the Kindle…and abandoned Amazon in a nanosecond for a print deal. Why? Because he knew he could reach even more people and potentially make even more money (and sell the rights to other publishers around the world, not to mention audio, film, etc). He was thinking about his long-term career. It was a wise move…because you can always go back to self-publishing… but a contract from a major publisher is a lucky break that may not come again.

But don’t take my word for it… here’s what Boyd has had to say on the topic:

“If your goal is just to write and get your books out there where readers can find them, e-publishing lets you do that in a way that doesn't cost you thousands of dollars paid to vanity presses to get a few thousand copies that will molder in your basement. Instead, you can now make some decent money selling ebooks, which will reward independent writers who produce good books that are well-packaged and cleverly promoted. […] But if you are writing books to make a living (so that you can ditch your old job), you'll certainly have to consider the financial ramifications of staying indie versus going with a publisher. In my case, I wanted to reach as many readers as possible, and though ebooks are growing at an exponential rate, most sales are still currently in stores. In two years, those numbers will be very different, but for right now that's the situation. In addition, I'd be surprised if I ever would have gotten deals for The Ark in UK, Germany, Holland, Italy, and all the other countries without a US publishing deal. Although I'm not anywhere near the league of Stieg Larsson's sales, you can get an idea of how the US market compares to the rest of the world by looking at his numbers: he has sold 4 million books in the US, but he has sold over 40 million books worldwide. That percentage is not uncommon for authors of thrillers, which are what I happen to write. Yes, with the advent of Amazon Kindle UK, I could have put my books on that store as well, but I never would be able to put my books on Amazon Kindle Deutsche because I would need a German translator. And remember that Amazon Kindle UK wasn't even a faint glimmer when I got my publishing deal last year (47 Internet years ago). So truly take a deep look at what your goals are before you decide to take either the indie route or the traditional publishing route. Either way, you'll get to do what you love, which is write. But the effort, hassle, financial rewards, prestige, and desired readership should all be factors you consider in your decision.”

For me, and other mid-list authors, it’s an entirely different decision.

I got a $2000 advance when I sold THE WALK to Five Star in 2003. It was published in hardcover in 2004 and didn't earn out. It tanked. I have since sold close to 9000 copies of THE WALK on the Kindle. I make more in one month from Kindle sales on THE WALK than I did during the two years that the book was in print in hardcover.

If a publisher came to me today and offered me a mass market paperback deal for THE WALK, I probably wouldn't take it…because I don't see a scenario where I'd end up making more money on the book than I am making now. But it's easy for me to say that… I have 1 million copies of my MONK books in print with Penguin/Putnam.

If I was a newbie author, who'd never been in print before, I would probably take the mass market deal even if it meant earning less just for the exposure and professional credibility it would give me.

All that said, writers now have more options than ever before…which is great. And the rise of FREE self-publishing  (meaning no cash out-of-pocket) may finally drive into extinction Authorhouse, Jones Harvest, and all the other sleazy vanity presses out there that have preyed on the desperation and naivete of aspiring writers for too long.

12 thoughts on “The Mail I Get”

  1. Good stuff, as usual–new writers should ALWAYS try for commercial publication first before even thinking about self-publishing.
    But I disagree on starting with small presses. They have higher overheads, lower profit margins, have to be pickier about what they choose, and offer smaller advances. I know several small press owners in that boat. They can’t afford to take risks.
    A larger house is just as tough to get into, and they often demand one has an agent, but they are more financially able to take a chance on a new writer than a small house.

  2. I agree with what you say, Lee, about the advent of self-publishing and how it will obliterate the bottom-feeders of the vanity publishing business. About time, I might add.
    But I have to take issue with you on something else you said.
    Debbi Mack opened the thread by referring to your comment that new authors should take a contract with a small press over self-publishing. Well, I’m one of those. A new author, that is, who has taken a small press contract.
    My advance is nowhere near $6000, and it’s coming out only in trade paperback. I’m sure you know this means there won’t be any hardcover or mass market paperback, so of course, no major chain presence and no drugstore, Wal-Mart, or airport presence.
    Foreign sales? Audiobook? Only if I go to foreign countries and to the audio book companies, because, as is the case with most small presses (so I’ve learned), I must become a one-man sales force. Each individual book sold will be a direct result of my personal efforts to sell it. I feel like a guy in an obscure stall in a flea market, hollering “get your book here” to disinterested passersby. On a rainy day, no less.
    You cite Boyd Morrison as a “real world example”. Boyd abandoned Amazon because he cut himself a very sweet print deal, and not with a small press, based on his Amazon figures. From the jump, his book was scheduled to come out in hardcover, translated for dozens of foreign countries. His contract was in fact for two books, I believe. His story is just about as fairy-tale-ish as Joe Konrath’s, hardly within reach of the typical new author, and not truly rooted in the real world.
    Not trying to rant here, just telling the story from another point of view.

  3. P.N,
    You’re right…depending on the small press.
    If I was a newbie, I would only take a small press deal over Kindle publication ifit was an established, respected, and successful house. There are far too many fly-by-night “micro-presses” out there, particularly in the print-on-demand world (I would never recommend taking a POD deal over doing it yourself on the Kindle).
    I would, for instance, advise newbie writers to take a deal from Severn House, Five Star, Crippen & Landru, or Poisoned Pen, regardless of how small the advance might be, because it will do more for them in the long run in ways you can’t measure with cash.
    But for a mid-list writer, who is already established, I think it doesn’t necessarily make sense any more to go with a small press.

  4. Some small presses are so shaky financially that royalties may never show up. Don’t count on getting any at all from a small press. Worse, most small presses now have no distribution except through Amazon and Several weeks ago I put some of my titles onto Kindle and sold ten last month for about $27 in royalties. It’s too early to draw conclusions. It’ll take a half a year for my established readers to be aware of my Kindle offerings, but I don’t expect much.

  5. “I would argue that you’d be a fool not to take a mid-list paperback or a hardcover deal over self-publishing on the Kindle.”
    Oh, if only it was a matter of choice. I would hope that no one is turning down traditional publishing deals. They are so few and far between.

  6. Small presses have their own difficulties. My book, HEADLOCK, was published by Deadly Alibi Press. Perfectly reputable and well intentioned, DAP was to ahead of the curve in using print on demand technology prior to return policies and accurate ordering procedures. When stores attempted ordering the book via computer, they were told it was on backorder. If they ordered by phone, the books were shipped immediately. The book garnered rave reviews (much to my delight) but I think my total royalty income prior to D.A.P. folding was $57.67
    I hope to have HEADLOCK up on Kindle and other ebook formats soon. Heck, anything over $57.67 will be a bonus!

  7. Thanks for the post, Lee. It’s really nice to have a professional opinion from somebody who can see and sort out all the issues.

  8. I would argue that you’d be a fool not to take a mid-list paperback or a hardcover deal over self-publishing on the Kindle.
    I’d argue the opposite.
    A $6k advance for a print deal is criminally poor when you can make $6k per year, for the next fifty years, on a self-pubbed ebook.
    When the print world collapses–and it will because publishers can’t seem to stop making dumb mistakes–good luck getting your rights back if they’re tied up in some bankruptcy ruling or merger/downsize.
    It is a very real possibility that the book sold today to a major house may not ever come out 18 months from now, as the industry continues to evolve. I’ve already seen friends who have had their books dropped, from houses other than just Dorchester.
    Think about how slim a margin book profits are. As ebooks eat up a greater market share, a death spiral will occur. Booksellers sell fewer books, publishers print fewer books, booksellers sell even fewer books, etc. If one of the major bookstore chains goes belly up, the industry implodes. And neither Borders nor Barnes and Noble are looking good these days.

  9. “A $6k advance for a print deal is criminally poor when you can make $6k per year, for the next fifty years, on a self-pubbed ebook.”
    Indeed yes–that can work VERY well for pros who have sold books, have titles in the stores, and have a solid and growing reader base. I’m trying it later this year with a collection of reprint stories. I don’t expect to make much, but it will be more than letting the words sit fallow in a hard drive.
    But a shiny new, previously unpublished, totally unknown writer with NO platform is simply not going to sell–not in those numbers.
    Many of them think all you have to do is upload a book–somehow people will sense this awesome event and find the title–and wait for the money to roll in. Only it doesn’t.
    Neos need to be clear on the fact that just because a book is available and cheap that people are *not* going to automatically buy. Get a print sale if you can–build up an audience that comprises more than a few friends and family members.
    So — I’m hardly a neo. Do I self-publish something new or have my agent submit proposals to publishers?
    I’ve had this choice in front of me for quite some time and did my research.
    Self-publish with e-books: I make more money per sale, but a basic number crunch tells me my platform of loyal readers just isn’t going to cut it. I need a lot more of them!
    Sell the book to a publisher: I make far less per copy, but get a nice chunk of change to live on, certainly more than I would get with e-sales.
    My professionally edited and proofed book will be in stores bringing me *new* readers, which is what I’m after. My agent can shop the book to foreign markets. Movie deals? A highly remote happening, but books that make it into films tend to have bookstore placement.
    So oh-hell-yes, I’m going for the print publisher’s money every single time and negotiate for a higher percentage of e-sale money in the contract. If the book goes out of print, I can release it again on my own. That is Plan B.
    “If one of the major bookstore chains goes belly up, the industry implodes. And neither Borders nor Barnes and Noble are looking good these days.”
    They’re still making money, though, and they ARE changing. The big chains are not giving up without a fight; they want to make money same as the rest of us. They are offering e-book downloads, e-readers are coming down in price, and expanding into selling other things. I’m not crazy having an aisle of toys (however educational) cluttering my local B&N, but whatever keeps the doors open. I wasn’t happy when years ago my favorite store started selling music and movies; now it’s a natural part of the place.
    Print publishing and selling IS in flux, but it’s NOT going belly up in the next 2 years or so. That generation hasn’t died out *quite* yet! 😉

  10. But a shiny new, previously unpublished, totally unknown writer with NO platform is simply not going to sell–not in those numbers.
    I can name a dozen that do sell in those numbers, and I’m sure there are more, but I haven’t looked for them.
    I make far less per copy, but get a nice chunk of change to live on, certainly more than I would get with e-sales.
    The true research is releasing an ebook on your own. That takes the guesswork out of it. FYI-reprint stories don’t sell nearly as well as novels.
    Movie deals?
    Yeah, I got one from a self-pubbed ebook.
    You arguments are oft-repeated, Patricia, but I’ve done the legwork and refuted them all, many times. Bookstores continue to post losses. Ebooks continue to gobble market share. Publishers continue to make big mistakes and lose both money and authors. Newbies are making money, and so are some pros who have given this a whirl.
    Ebooks aren’t going to make anyone instantly rich or successful, but having been part of the print industry for eight years, having had six different book contracts with various houses, and having been on the receiving end of too many just plain stupid decisions to comprehend, I’ve shown that it is possible to make a six figure living from writing without NY Publishing.
    That’s not to say that everyone can do the same. But if you write good books and have a backlist you’re certainly at an advantage. And I believe selling more books to NY is akin to buying tickets on the Titanic. If they’re going to give you a ton of money, certainly you should take it. But if the advance is modest, it really is worth crunching the numbers on a ten-year plan.
    I’m selling 1000 copies a month on a few of my self pubbed novels. That’s $24k per year, per novel. I wouldn’t even consider a book deal for less than $200k, and if I did consider it, there would have to be some very specific reversion clauses, as well as changes to the boilerplate “no compete” and “first look” clauses.
    Looking at your Kindle titles, they are obscenely overpriced, and you’re losing a considerable amount of money because they aren’t properly exploiting them. Comparing my numbers on my ebook royalties from my 7 in print books, and my 6 self-pubbed novels, I’m losing over $100,000 per year because my publishers price them too high, and pay me too little. I truly wish I went out of print so I could get my rights back.


Leave a Comment