Home » Joe Konrath, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing » Zombie Publishing Meme #4: Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free.

Zombie Publishing Meme #4: Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free.

10 September 2015

From Joe Konrath:

Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free

This meme takes a couple different forms. Sometimes it expresses itself as a comparison of the worst possible example of self-publishing to the best possible example of legacy publishing. Other times, the comparison is between the typical reality of self-publishing and the rare ideal of legacy publishing. Either way, the framework is misleading.

The meme is customarily introduced by someone claiming she explored self-publishing and was shocked to find it involved such high costs–$4000 just for editing, for example. The writer paid anyway, then was disappointed to discover that her ebook, which she was selling for $14.99, sold poorly and seems unlikely ever to recoup its costs.

. . . .

The writer then compares this unfortunate state of affairs to the possible ease of mailing out a few query letters, landing a six-figure deal with a Big Five publisher, and having all publishing services delivered smoothly and expertly.

In fact, many authors self-publish for nothing (both in ebook and pbook). They do it themselves, or barter for services (I’ll proofread yours if you proofread mine.) There are also many affordable freelance editors, artists, proofers, and designers.

. . . .

But regardless of what a self-published author chooses to spend on publishing services, it’s critical to understand that the author keeps her rights and the majority of revenues (typically 70% in digital). In other words, the costs of self-publishing–whether the self-published author prefers to spend a few dollars or a few thousand–are generally upfront; the payout is over the long term.
By contrast, the upfront costs of the legacy route tend to be relatively modest (if you don’t include time spent mailing out query letters and manuscripts, and waiting, perhaps permanently, to hear from an agent or editor). If you do land a legacy contract, you can expect some sort of advance (probably a few thousand dollars) and a promise that you’ll receive all relevant publishing services. In exchange, you’ll have to give up approximately 85% of revenues and you’ll almost certainly be surrendering your rights forever. The costs of legacy-publishing are therefore long-term; the payout, in the form of whatever advance you are offered, is upfront.
If a writer is lucky enough to get a gigantic advance–which Joe guesses only happens in less than 0.1% of legacy contracts–royalties don’t matter because they won’t ever be earned out. The advance is the only money the writer will likely ever see. But any advance less than life-changing money functions as an ridiculously high interest loan.

If you were a genre author offered a $100k advance earning 17.5% royalties off of the digital list price, and your ebook is priced at $4.99, you earn $0.88 per ebook sold. You need to sell 113,600 ebooks to earn out your advance. And when you do, you’re stuck with 88 cents per sale, FOREVER.

The same ebook, self-published, earns the author $3.49 per copy sold. If they sell 28,653 copies, they made the $100,000. Every copy they sell after that, they make 4x more money than they do on a legacy ebook.

Which seems like a better deal for authors?

Not only is the loan high interest, it’s also forever, because the author will never get those rights back.

Link to the rest at Joe Konrath and thanks to Stephen for the tip.

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Joe Konrath, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

11 Comments to “Zombie Publishing Meme #4: Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free.”

  1. What is worse is when trad-pub buys the rights to the story for peanuts — promising good royalties — but prices it where no sane person will buy it, thus no royalties at all (and no rights …)

  2. On top of that, legacy publishing can be expensive because most publishers expect you to spend a sizeable chunk of that measly advance on advertising, book signings, conference appearances, etc. I know a traditionally published author who is under a lot of pressure to attend an expensive, out-of-state conference (“the fans would love to see you!”), but they’re sure not volunteering to pay the $2000-3000 it would cost her to attend.

  3. When I did a Complete Idiot’s Guide, I spent almost the entire advance doing what Alpha/Penguin should have covered. I hired 3 illustrators. I bought all the supplies. I bought a camera and did the photography. I paid an editor. I think I was left with $2000. I still haven’t earned out and “owe” them $16,000 which is essentially the advance minus the money that went to my agent.

    Plus the book was 18 months late being published and they did not get it in the chain stores as they promised me.

    All in all, a great deal to aspire to. Not.

  4. I suppose it can work like that. I spent about as much on my indie titles as I made on my simultaneous trade-pubbed titles. My “breakout book” never broke out due to zero promo and zero print book placement in stores, so I’m about evenly divided on traditional versus indie. So far neither has paid back what I’ve put into it.

    Do I plan to quit? Not on your life. I get too much pleasure from writing my little romance novels.

  5. In contrast to Barbara’s trad pub experience, I put out seven short books under my pen name throughout the last three months that cost me nearly nothing out of pocket. I make the covers on PhotoShop ($10/mo.) from photos taken in my front yard. I format in Scrivener (one-time purchase of $60 on sale). I edit my dang self. The series in total has brought in $5,000.

    Pure profit.

    • Congrats PF, Im with you. A trad deal is only as good as the clauses. Pay for NOTHING. DEMAND line accounting. Get guarantee of x dollars promo in writing. Pin deadline for pub, if not met, scram. Editor assigned, in writing.

      And of course, keep all one’s own deadlines promised so one doesnt get tangled in non-performance bs.

      Quite a few ebks self pub’d now. Pure profit. Ive made my own covers, even for trad, for years. $0. My own pro photos and those of other pros in family. Format Scrivener [given as xmas gift]. Edit myself. Write copy. Prepare all for POD, kindle, mobi/sony/nook/kobo, etc. Do own audio: at2100 mic, so inexp and good, audacity [free and simple] editing a breeze, upload done.

      Very good money. Keep going Patrice. More. More.

  6. Nothing I’ve read in the last four-plus years has shown me any reason at all to be interested in a traditional publishing deal.

    I’m not as far along as I wanted to be at this point due to some pretty bad life rolls, but I’m ahead on earnings, I don’t owe a publisher a cent, and I retain all rights to my work.

    Seems like a total win for me, and I’m happy to keep right on doing the same until I’m gone and cremated, which isn’t going to happen because I intend to live forever.

  7. One might also look at the length of time a traditional book is on the shelves of the bookstores. Not very long.

    After that, the published book is in the same game as the self-published book. Both are available as eBooks on Amazon. Both show up in the same search results. Both have the same kind of page. After a book is off the bookstore shelves, what distinguishes the traditional book from the self-published?

    • Not much.
      None, really, if the Indie does POD.

      Unless you’re sure you’re the next King or Roberts, odds are there will be no visibility difference even during the launch window.

    • @ Terrence

      “what distinguishes the traditional book from the self-published?”

      Uh, royalties to the author and life+70?

  8. Very good meme to thrash – nice!

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