Value Check: Self vs Traditional Publishing - Travis Senzaki

That Author Income Thing Everyone is Talking About

In case you’ve been living under a rock or, for some unfathomable reason, look to me for writing and publishing related current events (please stop!), the big news this week has been author Hugh Howey’s intriguing report on relative income for traditionally and self published authors. If you haven’t read through the report yet, please go give it a look. Also, if you write stuffy reports for a living (I’m looking at you, professors), go read it and see how a bestselling author makes a report fun and easy to read.

Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing: A Muddy Argument

I had been wavering between the self-pub and trad-pub routes for The Banner of the King, leaning more towards self, but this article might have pushed me over the edge. I’ve heard a lot of authors argue that new authors like me can still profit from going through the “quality screening” process that comes with having to pass muster with agents and publishers. They say that you don’t want to put anything less than your best work out there with your name on it because you don’t want to tarnish your brand. I can see the reasoning behind that, and I can also see a bit of conservative backlash as well.

Hang on to Tradition for Tradition’s Sake

I was in the Air Force, I get it. Our tradition is our lifeline to our past, it is our source of pride. We don’t want to let go, especially when we’re talking about a rite of passage. Those rites made us into the badasses we are, and we’re not going to let any old scumbag join our club until he jumps through all the same hoops. Huah. That’s how I felt back in the day when they made Basic Cadet Training easier 2 years after I went through it. (A joke. It became a damned joke!) And that’s how the established authors probably feel about their system now. They had to earn the approval of agents and editors to break in, and it made them stronger, better writers, so we should have to do it too.

So wait, that’s the only way to become a better writer? Bullshit.

Why am I an author now and not a Major, as I would have been if Big Blue and I hadn’t parted ways a few years back? Agency. No, not that “Agency,” or the other one. I chose this path because I want to be creative and self-sufficient. I don’t believe for one second that I can’t make myself better without depending on someone else. I know that with enough determination, I can make my dreams happen without waiting for any outside approval from someone I have no reason to trust (everyone). If I put 100% of my effort into Banner, make it as good as I possibly can, hire professionals to do my cover and editing and still blow it, and put out a piece of crap, I can accept that responsibility. (Or dodge it- it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve changed my name.)

What do Traditional Publishers Have to Offer?

If we throw out the tradition for tradition’s sake argument, we’re left with a cold, economic argument. For me, the core question of traditional and self publishing has always been a cost-benefit analysis. There are several different ways to look at this in terms of value.

Value to Me (a.k.a. Show Me the Money)

If I sell a self-published book for $3.99 on Amazon, I make 70% of the sale price, or $2.79. If a traditional publisher sells that same e-book for $3.99, then I make 25% of their 80% net, or $0.80. So, the traditional publisher would have to move 3.5 times as many copies at the same price for me to see a benefit. Do I believe that going through an agent and publisher is going to add enough in terms of editing and marketing to push 3.5 times as many copies of my book? (Hint: my answer rhymes with “go”).

Value to My Readers

But wait, the traditional publisher is going to sell at a higher price. Fine, but for me to get the same profit out of the traditionally published book that I would from the $3.99 self-published version, they would need to sell it at $13.95. Three and a half times the price! Is that agent-editor-publisher process going to nearly quadruple the value of the experience of reading my book to my readers? (Hint: my answer rhymes with “bell go.”)

Of course, option 3 is that the publisher splits the difference. If they sell my e-book for $6.98, then the price jump is only 75% for my readers and they have to push only twice as many copies for me to see an equal profit. Of course, I still have a hard time believing that they will make my book 75% more enjoyable and/or be able to sell twice the number of copies.

Value to the Publisher

Let’s take one quick look at what the publisher is making off my book in the scenarios above, assuming, for the sake of argument, that my base sales on my own would be 1000 copies over an infinite duration. In each of the scenarios above (3500 copies at $3.99, 1000 copies at $13.95, or 2000 copies at $6.98) the profit splits are about $2790 to me and $8,379 to the publisher. I’m pretty sure that does not accurately reflect the value contribution. Yes, I get that the publisher has a ton of overhead, lots of people involved in the process, etc. Frankly, that’s not my problem. Slim down or find a way to produce value worth that chunk of my money. I’m not here to bail out your failing business model- I’m already doing that for too many others through my tax dollars.

Arguments I Ignored

I know there are other factors. If I publish on my own, I have to contract my own cover art and editing. I have to take complete responsibility for the e-book formatting, the minute checks, and all that pain-in-the-ass detailed work that isn’t writing. On the flip side, I wouldn’t trust that kind of work to anyone else. I’ve seen far too many lousy e-books from big publishers. Of course, with the numbers above, 1 is too many! I have to do my own marketing (keep reading my blog and tell your friends, dammit!), but most publishers want authors to take care of that anyway. I won’t get shelf space at Borders. Oh wait, Waldenbooks. Oh, wait. . . But seriously, I won’t get it at indie book stores or Barnes & Noble- though I can at least get on Nook at the latter. That’s unfortunate. I really do want to be on shelves. But I can put that want on hold. If I can make money on the e-books first, then I can work on a print edition and distribution later.

The Numbers Say: Self Publish

And my personality does, too. But first, I have to finish writing, then edit, proof, and send to alpha and beta readers. Then there’s the tech work, the art, the maps, and the juicy details. But hey, at least I won’t have to wait (you, dear reader, won’t have to wait) for the slush and grind of the traditional publishing process. The Banner of the King is coming.

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