Friday, April 1, 2011

Midlist Authors – Traditional or Self Publishing – a Comparison

I participate regularly in two very different forums where writers (or writer wannabes) discuss various aspects of publishing. I’m going to speak of these groups in generalities (of course there are people on each that have different opinions but I’m talking about the “average” poster there.

  • Absolute Write Water Cooler – this group seems to be populated with people that are very dedicated to the legacy publishing model. They generally feel that self-publishing is very difficult, sell only a few books, and only a very few outliers can make this work for them. They’ve set their goals by querying agents and their goal is to be picked up by a traditional publisher. The majority of the people on this forum who are published are usually signed by a small indie press as opposed to a big-six firm.

  • Kindle Board’s Writer’s Café – this group is populated with people who are “going it on their own”. They have a wide range of backgrounds including never published through anything but self, some have a foot in both worlds as they offer a mix of books some produced by traditional publishers and some they are selling on their own. Then there is another group who used to publish traditionally and have decided that for them self-published is a better choice (usually due to control, better money, and faster time to market).
When I post at the Water Cooler I hear over and over that comments (regarding successes in self-publishing) are “not typical” and that most self-published authors are delusional and will never sell more than a few books or make more than a few dollars. They mention that hundreds of thousands of authors publish books so the chances of making it big this way is nearly impossible. My counter to this is that the hundreds of thousands of authors that submit queries are in exactly the same boat. They won’t make any money and they won’t find a readership either. Let me be very clear about this post. I’m not talking about the “typical writer”. I’m sorry to say, just based on sheer numbers, the “typical writer” is someone who will never really make it regardless of which way they go. Nor am I talking about outliers such as Stephanie Meyer or Amanda Hocking. What I’m focusing on this post is someone who has the “right stuff” for a good “middle of the road” writing career, in other words they write well enough that they could land publishing deal with one of the imprints of a big-six publisher. Those who are familiar with me, and my husband’s writing, know that he was picked up by Orbit Books (fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group USA - #2 or #3 (depending on the list you look at) publisher in the world). Michael received a much higher than normal contract (six-figures for 3-books with an accelerated release schedule – 3 books published back to back starting 8 months out (typically the first book goes to press in 15 – 18 months with subsequent books released 1 year after the preceding)). His deal would be classified as a “high midlist” so I won’t use him as an example in this case as I think he would be classified as an outlier. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that every writer has at least the following goal…to make enough money writing that they can quit their day job and support themselves through their writing. What I’m going to do in this post is to concentrated someone who has talent, skills, persistence, and what is the most likely way for them to make a living wage. For this classification of writer there are a few things that I think will be common regardless of which route they take.

  • In general, the author will have to a pretty substantial amount of self-promotion. The amount of assistance authors at this level get from the publishing company is not very much. Generally they will create and distribute ARC’s (Advanced Reading Copies) for reviewers, work with sales teams to get the books in stores, but they really won’t be “marketing” to readers. While this is more than the self-published author gets, any “brand recognition” of the author by the reading public will be built by the author himself not the publisher.

  • In general, one book will not be enough. For people in the midlist they really need multiple titles both from a standpoint of additional revenue, and for helping to generate additional sales as each title is released. I’m most familiar with the fantasy/science fiction genre where series are common though there are also series with thrillers, police procedurals, and romance. While there are some that can make a living wage with one book – I contend for the narrowly defined parameters I put forth above multiple books are going to be required.

  • In general, most people will not be an overnight success. To get your skills to the level required for the definition I’m proposing will take multiple initial books (that aren’t ready) and years of working on your craft. Think of it is an apprentice program where a wood worker doesn’t make a perfect violin the first time. I’ve seen some reports that say that it takes about 1,000,000 written words (about 10 novels) before you develop the proper skills to write a good book that is worth publication. We’ll be referring a bit to a survey done by Jim Hines (247 responses by authors who have “professional deals” (defined by the SFWA of an advance of $2,000 or more)). In this data he notes an average of 11.6 years as the average amount of time they have been writing before getting their first book deal. In addition, he saw that the average number of books written before being signed is three or four.
Now let’s look at some things specific to each path.

  • In general, the self-published author will see only a small percentage of their income from print books. The vast majority will be sold through ebooks. Presently the ebook market is the fastest growing market for books but still amounts for a minority share of total books purchased. Reported figurers vary from 8% to 20%. If your dream is to see your books on the books store shelf self-publishing will ONLY be for you as a means for leveraging your self-publishing work to a traditional deal (as Michael did).

  • In general, the self-published author will have to “do more” – just as being self-employed means you have to be the chief cook and bottle washer so it is in self-publishing. Now many of the services you need (cover design, formatting, editing) can be hired out and since I want to keep this apples to apples I’m going to put a pretty “debit” the self-publishing author for paying for these services even though they could attempt them on their own and get them for free. For people who want to budget this in their calculations I would account for $350 - $1500 per book if you do hire others to do this for you.

  • In general, the traditionally published author will get an advance but it is woefully small (especially for new authors). I’ve done a ton of research on this and it really hasn’t changed much over the years but generally ranges from $5,000 - $10,000. Thomas Buckell did a survey similar to Jim Hines and his had respondents. You can read the details at the link but his data also confirmed this number.

  • In theory, the advance is the “first payment” and an author will make additional money once they ‘earn out’. However, industry standards are that only 20% of authors earn out their advances so in many cases the advance is the ONLY money they will see.

  • Time to market can be a considerable factor between the two options. Typically when published through a traditional publisher a book can take 15 – 18 months to be released and they generally stagger offering from an author at 12 month intervals. For those who write a great deal this can be problematic.
Okay, now that the ground work is laid let’s look at the various financial implications. The following numbers are pretty much industry standard so good to utilize. Traditional Publishing Numbers:

  • Hardback: 10% of first 5,000; 12.5% of next 5,000; 15% all copies over 10,000

  • Trade Paperback 7.5% of retail price

  • Mass Market Paperbacks 8% on first 150,000 copies, 10% all above

  • Electronic Books 25%
*NOTE: In general, to land a traditional deal that we are mentioning here requires an agent so 15% of the above information needs to be taken off the top to pay for their fees. Self Publishing Numbers:

  • 70% of list price for books priced $2.99 - $9.99

  • 35% of list price for books priced lower than $2.99 or higher than $9.99

  • 40% Amazon cut for selling print book

  • 20% Channel cut for selling print books through CreateSpace

  • Printing Cost (POD) = $0.85 + .012 * pages for Create Space

  • Setup Fees: (assuming print ready book) Create Space: $39 (pro plan) + $6-$8 for proof, $127 ($75 for setup, $30 for proof, $12 for annual fee) if using Lightning Source
Okay now it’s time to introduce our two contestants. I picked my traditional published person first: Jim Hines – mainly because he is one of the few traditionally published authors who is willing to expose his income figures (most play this VERY close to the vest). NOTE: When I picked Jim I did not realize that he has started to dip his toes into self-publishing waters, this is a recent development for him and should not have significant impact on this analysis – but I will “take a closer look going forward” at how his self-published work does verses is traditional offering.

I then picked David Dalglish, a self-published author that is similar to Jim in both genre and number of books. David started out by self-publishing and to my knowledge has no traditional publishing deals in his past.

Jim Hines by the Numbers

  • 2007 Income: $16,000 ($7,000 Foreign Sales) $2,500 Expenses, Net: $13,500

  • 2008 Income: $54,000 ($44,000 Foreign Sales) $3,00 Expenses, Net $51,000

  • 2009 Income: $28,940 ($20,200 Foreign Sales) $1,750 Expenses, Net $27,190

  • 2010 Income: $25,718 ($15,876 Foreign Sales) $2,000 Expenses, Net $23,718
So when I saw Jim’s numbers two things struck me hard.

  1. Just how little he made in US ($11 K first year, $10K second year, $8.7K third year, $9.8K fourth year). And this is with multiple books from a major US publisher

  2. How much more he made from foreign sales $87K over 4 years 220% more than his US sales
To be honest I don’t know if Jim has “earned out” his advances but let’s pretend that he has so we can see how much he makes for each book he has out there:

  • Ebooks Publisher: $7.99 yielding ($1.18 per book), $6.99 ($1.04 per book)

  • Ebooks Self: $2.99 yielding ($2.09 per book)

  • Print Books: $7.99 yielding ($0.54 per book)
David Dalglish by the Numbers

  • Ebooks Self: $3.99 yielding ($2.79), $2.99 ($2.09 per book), $1.99 ($0.70), $0.99 ($0.35)

  • Print Books: (WOB: $9.99 yielding ($0.54 per book), COB: $12.99 ($2.86), DOP: $13.99 ($3.10), SOR: $14.50 ($3.51), DOC: $14.99 ($3.51)
David has been at this for a shorter period than Jim, so I don’t have year over year numbers as he does. But I can pull a few “sample month’s income. David is a regular on Kindle boards and once a month we have a post where people post their sales. Yes, these are self reported numbers but I can tell you that I have had books both below and above his in rankings during the same periods and that numbers he reports are verified by the numbers I myself have seen. Let’s look at some of them:

  • August 2010: Weight: 370; Cost: 200, Death: 173, Omni: 47, Dance: 45 (570 x 0.35 + 218 X 2.09 + 47 X 2.79 = $786)

  • October 2010: Weight: 478; Cost: 378; Death: 252; Shadows: 333; Omni: 105; Dance: 459; Guard: 132 (810 X 0.35 + 1222 X 2.09 + 105 X 2.79 = $3,130

  • November 2010: David played with price a bit and had a $1.99 offering his numbers are as follows: Weight: 425 (@ 0.99), Cost: 252 (@ 1.99), Death: 181 (@ 2.99), Shadows: 357 (@ 2.99), Omni: 225 (@ 3.99), Dance: 716 (@2.99), Guardian: 130 (@ 0.99), Ash: 80 (@ 0.99) = $3,647

  • December 2010: Weight: 746, Cost: 348, Death: 282, Shadows: 466, Omni: 606, Dance: 1725, Guard: 162, Ash: 300 (1556 X 0.35 + 2473 X 2.09 + 606 X 2.79 = $7,404)

  • February 2011: Weight: 761; Cost: 412; Death: 364; Omni: 656; Shadows: 672; Sliver: 1113; Dance: 2150; Guardian: 220; Ash: 1334 (2727 x .35 + 4299 X 2.99 + 656 X 2.79 = $11,770

  • March 2011: Numbers are not in but David did give me some data as of 3/29/2011. He expects more than 8,000 sales and $12,000 in revenue Taking into consideration just these six-months David earned $38,737. He now earns over $10,000 a month in sales and with his next book coming out I see no reason for that not to continue. His earnings went from a modest $800 a month to $12,000 a month in a VERY short period of time.

Conclusions Both authors have six substantial books out and a number of ancillary works. I’ll be watching the numbers (Amazon Rakings) on both of their new releases that are due to hit pretty close to one another and I’ll compare/contrast those as time goes on. Jim’s six books has taken him 4 ½ years and he still is not earning a living wage. His income is impacted substantially by his foreign sales (which are much easier for a traditional published author to get than a self-published) and without that his income would be dismal to say the least. David’s six books took 1 year to get to market and while his income initially appeared to be modest within 10 months he has grown to a substantial six-figure income that certainly would classify as a “living wage”. David is quickly gaining ground on Jim’s income and if the current trends for both of these authors continue there will be a significant gap with David outperforming Jim by a substantial margin.

04/05/2011 Edits: A few points I'd like to make - first I had a typo relating to a survey above it is Tobias not Thomas - I apologize for getting your name wrong.

Second, from other musings in the internet this post has been taken as some declaration by me that I did not intend. I'm not saying that this PROVES self-publishing is better than traditional. I was just trying to demonstrate that self-publishing CAN produce a good income. But yes it does take a specfic skills set that is not right for everyone. My point was...that if DO have the skill set then from a purely MONETARY standpoing I think self-publishing will produce more income. There are other benefits of traditional - no I'm not anti-traditional. That may be worth taking a "lower income" to receive. I'm not tring to extrapolate these two individuals to some sort of statistical average. I'm just showing TWO examples. Yes there are going to be other authors in BOTH areas that do better and worse then the two people I've mentioned here. I'm just trying to present some in the past there has been very in regards to what type of income writers can and do make.


Kate said...

Wow, this is very interesting to read. I always suspected that a midlist indie author with a few titles behind them could net far more than a midlist legacy. This is a fascinating aspect of legacy versus indie that I wish got more press. There are a lot of great authors out there who would probably see a major life change if they took the chance on publishing for themselves.

Robert Bidinotto said...

I love this post, Robin, precisely because you didn't do what others are doing and focus on the "outliers." You chose instead to focus on two capable, roughly comparable midlist authors -- the kind whom many typical authors aspire more realistically to emulate. And their respective levels of financial success speak for themselves.

It certainly makes little sense for a newbie author to jump on what you've rightly called the "query-go-round," when he can get his finished work to market with certainty, speed, creative independence, and far greater income potential. Posts such as these drive home those lessons well, and they further inspire those of us soon to join the ranks of the self-published.

Thanks again for what you do!

Unknown said...

Good post. I learned a lot.

J. Austin said...

I echo Robert's sentiment and add that this is a quite realistic (and attainable, depending on the quality of the author's work and the quantity of the backlist or trunk novel pile.

Alot of times, it seems like with the runaway successes of only a handful of indie authors (JA Konrath, John Locke, Amanda Hocking, and Heather Killough-Walden), that it is a feast for the top indies and a famine for the rest; but the success stories of the midlist such as BV Larson and David Danglish show that there is room there for the capable non-blockbuster author to not only survive but thrive in this indie eBook world. Fantastic stuff, Robin!
Yours and Konrath's blog are permanently on my browser tabs for my morning pep talk!

Robin Sullivan said...

Thanks all for the comments - it was a good exercise to put together and I'm glad you are finding it informative.

Blake Crouch said...

Wow, Robin, great job on this study....utterly fascinating.

Robin Sullivan said...

Thanks Blake - I'm glad you enjoyed it - I really like what you are doing in the self-published space.

Sariah Wilson said...

Thanks so much for doing this. So often we have people focusing solely on the outliers (i.e., "You'll never sell as well as Konrath/Hocking/Locke (insert name here)") that it's very interesting to take a look at two midlist authors, same genre, and how different their paths are. Thanks also to the two authors for their transparency in letting us see what's going on in each industry.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Robin! I've been getting a little burned out on AW lately. I'd made the decision to self publish, some tome ago, and well, AW does not seem to be the place to go for support.

I'm editing my first novel, but I have been writing for years. If I understand you, it will take years of writing before I have anything publishable. Guess I'd better get to work!

Kendall Swan said...

Wow, Robin. Very well thought through analysis. Sometimes, when I send my 'corporate published' author friends to JAK's blog, they get a little turned off by the rhetoric.

But this post is so well thought out and without much of an agenda. Well done. I'll send my reluctant friends here first.

Kendall Swan

Rex Jameson said...

Thanks for the great info and descriptions! The more I see numbers like these, the less I want to ever think about jumping on the query-go-round! :D

Robin Sullivan said...

I just wanted to comment on something Sariah S. Wilson said - I also want to thank authors everywhere that are willing to share numbers as this is the only way to get information out there to those that are coming into the industry now. So many people are so tight lipped about this so I am indeed grateful for those that are willing to expose something very personal for the benefits of others.

Robin Sullivan said...

Fran...come to Kindle Board's Writer's Cafe - they are the BEST group of supportive people I've found anywhere on the interwebs.

Robin Sullivan said...

Lol - Thanks Kendall - but I think Joe's blog is a "must read". You just need to know where he is coming from - which is fine for him which is to maximize money. For some that is what will be right for them as well.

I'm not as black and white as Joe is and I believe there are reasons to take traditonal contracts (if the terms are right and realizing that you'll probably earn less)

Robin Sullivan said...

Rex, I think the biggest problems with the query-go-round are:

1 - Not enough spaces so the fact is good books will be passed over.

2 - Time to market - the money you can make self-publishing when the books are just sitting there doing nothing is substantial.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this information, Robin. Fascinating reading. I'm about to become one of those authors with a foot in each camp. I write an urban fantasy series for a NY publisher, and I'm in the process of self-epublishing a mystery originally published by a small press. Readers have asked for a sequel to the mystery, but I couldn't afford to write it for what I could get for an advance. I'm hoping that self-publishing an ebook edition will let me write that sequel. Anyway, I'm excited to find out.

I just wanted to say that the information I've seen here and on the Kindle boards have made me eager to experiment.

Tara Maya said...

This is a terrific analysis. The midlist is so often overlooked when people talk about career novelists, and yet that's the place most of us can realistically aspire to. For myself, I would be happy with a midlist income that simply enabled me to write full time, but it is difficult convincing those around me that this is a viable option.

What your numbers seem to show is that it is actually easier to make a living wage as an indie author than as legacy author, at least if you only count US sales.

Tara Maya
The Unfinished Song: Initiate
The Unfinished Song: Taboo

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Yeah, I would say that looks about right, and why I cringe when my friends say they just "got a book deal." I was midlist for six years. Never came close to quitting the day job. I quit six weeks ago, giving my notice exactly one year after self-pubbing my first backlist title. I am never looking back.

I can't speak for anyone else--I hope they are happy. But I love all of this indie stuff, all of it is fun. It never feels like "work" to me.

Thanks for the education, Robin.

Scott Nicholson

Katherine Tomlinson said...

Great post Robin. Taking the story from a different perspective really put it INTO perspective. Thanks for running the numbers.

A.M. Kuska said...

I'm bookmarking this. I was trying to put together a similar post, but unable to find anything on the standard publishing side of things.

Jamie Todd Rubin said...

Just a small correction, Robin. Unless I am mistaken, when you mentioned "Thomas" Buckell I think you meant Tobias Buckell.

Christine said...

I'm having trouble seeing how you can consider an author making $10K a month as mid-list.

Robin Sullivan said...

Jamie - you are absolutely correct - and I found the mistake when someone else pointed it out - I have corrected it.

Robin Sullivan said...

@Christine - because he is neither at the top or the bottom of the self-published authors I associate with. Also...I picked David back in Octboer when he was making just a fraction of this income - he, as well as many other indie authors, exploded since that time.

susan wigden said...

It is certainly about time someone wrote a post such at this one. Thank you Robin for your advice, research, and honesty. This article was long overdue and so helpful to me. Susan Wigden

Lindsay Buroker said...

Great post!

Just based on my own modest newbie earnings, I suspected this would be the case, but seeing the numbers really drives it home.

I'm mentioning your post (and Mr. Dalglish) in a blog entry today. Great inspiration! :)

Robin Sullivan said...

Thanks Lindsay and Susan. By the by...I was at a sci-fi fantasy convention a few weeks ago and spoke to a number of mainstream published authors. When I shared the numbers I've seen from both Michael and Nathan's sales they were completely stunned. Apparently Michael sold more books in one month then they've sold over the entire lengt of theirs. It's a brave new world out there.

Syd Gill said...

Great post! I'm glad some authors aren't shy about sharing -- it really helps aspiring authors figure out what route to take! I'll be including a link to your post in mine:

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