Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why Authors Sign With Commercial Publishers

We've been hearing a lot of narratives over the last few years about self-published bestsellers, but it remains true that almost everyone who has the option to publish with a commercial publisher chooses to do so.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner had a post a while back about why authors still want deals with trade publishers.  I'm going to point out a few other things that come with traditional publishing that are unavailable to self-published authors, and which translate into real benefits:

1. (Perceived) Legitimacy

A lot of authors say they want to publish commercially because they want "validation" from a trade publisher.  This may sound like a vanity concern, but reviewers and readers also perceive a validity inherent to trade-published books that is not automatically assumed of self-publishers.

All writers think they're talented, and that their books are good.  Most of them are wrong.  Readers want to see some endorsement of a book's quality other than the author's high opinion of himself. When a publishing house puts a book out, there's an expectation that it will at least meet a certain standard of competence.

There's nobody standing behind a self-published book except the author.  For new self-published authors, it can be very difficult to get anyone else to look at the book, even if it's actually good.  Many readers -- perhaps most -- won't read self-published books at all.  Many online reader forums, including Amazon's customer discussions, have made rules excluding authors from participating in forum threads because readers don't want to interact with self-published authors or have their discussions spammed with self-promotion.

In 2011, Bowker counted 211,000 new ISBN numbers for self-published books.  That's a huge number of people competing for readers' attention.  Even bloggers and reader-reviewer communities who are dedicated to spreading the word about self-published books can't possibly sift all that slush.

The solution to this problem has been for self-published authors to give away a ton of e-books.  The hope is that, by giving away 5000 downloads, maybe a couple of hundred people will actually read the book and five or ten will review it on Amazon or on their blogs, or recommend it to friends.  But with so many authors giving away books, even the audience for free e-books is swamped.

All the things that might have helped a book stand out eighteen months ago, like buying professionally designed covers, running large-scale giveaways, and pursuing pricing strategies to manage Amazon's internal recommendation system are becoming standard practice across a much larger chunk of the market, so it's getting harder for self-published authors to gain traction.

A survey of self-published authors by Taleist found that the median self-published author earns $500 per year.  In fact, that number is probably high; the survey uses self-reported data, so unsuccessful authors may have lied about their sales or may have been less likely to respond to the survey.  And since Taleist found self-published romance authors make twice as much as other self-published authors, if you're writing in any other genre, your results will probably be even worse.

If the median self-published author pays a freelance editor for copy-editing and hires a freelance jacket designer, the cost of these services will likely exceed the royalties from the author's book.

2.  Trade Reviews

There are four major trade publications that review books ahead of their release: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.  Each of these magazines reviews about 7500 trade-published books a year, so if your novel is published by a big publisher, there's a good chance you'll be reviewed by a trade.  If your novel is published in hardcover by a Big-6 house, you're likely to be reviewed by all of them.

For traditionally published books, these reviews are free if your publisher sends galleys for the trades to review.  But the booksellers and librarians who subscribe to the trades don't stock self-published books and aren't interested in reading about them.  The freelance critics who review galleys for the trades don't especially want to read self-published books.  The only people who want to see self-published books reviewed in trades are the authors, and that means self-published authors have to pay the trades to review their books.

If your book is self-published, you can pay a fee for a listing in Publishers' Weekly's quarterly supplement about self-pubbed titles.  They also select some titles for review, but buying a listing does not guarantee a review.  Kirkus charges a significant fee to review self-published books, and they post these reviews in a segregated part of the Kirkus website.  Kirkus calls prides itself on employing "the world's toughest book critics;" so even if you pay them, they may not say nice things about you.  If you don't like your review, Kirkus won't post it, but they'll keep your money.  Booklist and Library Journal do not review self-published books.

A positive review from a trade gives you a good pull-quote to use for promotional purposes, and earns you notice from booksellers in librarians.  Fewer than 10% of the books reviewed by any given trade will earn a starred review.  DON'T EVER GET OLD was starred by all four trades, which is very rare, and really jump-started my sales.

3. Libraries

Libraries are a major revenue stream for the publishing industry and for trade-published authors, and they're almost entirely inaccessible for self-published authors.

There are 9200 public library systems in the US and nearly 17,000 library facilities.  They buy a lot of books.  Many hardcover releases from Big-6 publishers sell thousands of copies into libraries.  To put this in perspective: if you sell about 20 self-published e-books a day, you'll maintain a Kindle store rank of around 5,000, which is very good.  That moves about 600 copies a month, so it takes you 5 months at that rank to sell 3000 copies.  If only 1 out of every 5 library branches buys just a single copy of a traditionally published author's book, he's matched your 5 months of Amazon self-published success before he sells his first retail hardcover or e-book.

DON'T EVER GET OLD sold very well into libraries, likely on the strength of the starred trade reviews.  Librarians have also been very enthusiastic promoters of the book to their readers and on their blogs.

4. Foreign/Subsidiary Rights

Some self-published authors have secured foreign rights sales, but it's uncommon, and your self-published sales have to be extremely strong to generate international interest.

Translation and other rights are often very lucrative for traditionally published authors. DON'T EVER GET OLD has sold Portuguese, Japanese and French translation rights, as well as large print, audio and film rights.

5. Events/Speaking Engagements

There are literary festivals all around the country, and a number of famous and bestselling authors spend a lot of time traveling among them.  These trips offer great opportunities to attract new readers, and the costs are often partly defrayed by event organizers or publishers.

I've been invited to the Decatur Book Festival outside Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.

While some of these events do include self-published authors, the indies are often put in a separate tent or have their readings scheduled on a separate stage, and they may have to pay the festival for space to exhibit their books.


  1. I'm a self-published author, not of an e-book though, a 'real' book instead. I have easily earned well over the cost of publishing my book, so much so that I am now having the second printing of my book 'damaged children Precious Gems', which is my first collection of poetry, based on child abuse and sexual abuse and helping others through the jungle into wellness.


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  2. And that was simply an advertisement for your book, Carolyn. Tacky.

  3. I'm traditionally published and self-published and I have to correct you in that Library Journal DOES review self-published books. My self-published historical romance novel received a starred review from them. I also just recently sold the Russian rights to that book, so while it may not be a common occurrence, it does happen. Was this helped by the fact that I was traditionally published first, probably but doesn't take away from the fact that the book is still a self-published effort.

  4. It's all in how much footwork you want to put in promoting yourself, getting into independent bookstores, scoring interviews with local media, etc. They're even more likely to be successful if they are coming from the traditional publishing market, because they have built a name for themselves.

    However much I enjoy my little e-publishing business, the reason I signed with a traditional publisher for my upcoming novel was because I have no interest in the headache of preparing and distributing a print novel. I want a team behind me who can do the editing, design the covers, and help generate a marketing plan that will push my name further out there to attract more readers. I'm a writer. I'm not a publisher. I never wanted to be a publisher. The more time I can spend on my art, the more likely I will be able to attract publishers who want to work with me. In the meantime, I'll toss out some short stories on Amazon and Smashwords because it's fun and it serves as a little business card.

  5. I've been reading several of your blog posts and they are giving me a sense of deja vu. I can remember when getting that traditional publishing deal made me feel "special." And I got all those good reviews from the trade journals, but that didn't help sell my books. My books went into thousands of libraries, but that didn't help me off the mid list. I paid my own way to go to conferences and on book tours and that didn't sell more than a few dozen books. I will be very interested to see if you and the hundreds of other starry-eyed new authors of today feel the same way in 3-5 years.

    Now as a self-published author I am making a real living and I have quit my day job. I couldn't ever do that on the terms I got from my old publisher. I did recently sign a deal with Thomas and Mercer, but they are not a real traditional publisher, and I don't think I would have signed with any other publisher in today's world. I kept my backlist titles as self-pubbed books though, because that is my bread and butter.

    Today, I think commercial publishers are the new vanity press. You sign with them for ego - not because it is a wise financial decision that will help you find the time to devote to serious writing.

  6. Christine,

    I'm glad you're doing so well. Congratulations.

    Self-publishing a traditionally published out of print backlist is very different than unpublished authors self-publishing new fiction.

    Many bargain e-book hunters, especially those who read outside the romance genre, are feeling burned by self-pub, and are flocking to the cheap books that have (or have had) the blessings of traditional publishers.

    I haven't read your books, so this is not a judgment on them, but I don't believe you'd be having the success you're having now if you hadn't traditionally published first. It's becoming harder and harder for new authors to break out via self-publishing because many traditional publishers are now putting e-books on sale for below $3, and many traditionally published authors like you are self-publishing their rights-reverted backlists.

    I'd absolutely encourage any published author with a rights-reverted backlist to re-publish those books as e-books. I don't see a downside to that.

    Also, regardless of what Barry Eisler says, Thomas and Mercer and Amazon's other imprints are a lot more like traditional publishing than self-publishing. All the reasons you opted for a lower royalty with Thomas and Mercer instead of a higher self-pub royalty are the reasons authors should not self-publish.