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Publishing | Reality Check


This is the state of affairs in the US.

If you are lucky enough to get an advance, it is only that, an advance. If your book fails to sell in the numbers your publisher projected you are required to pay the money back.

Every time someone returns a book it hurts your sales and this counts against your royalties. Books have to stay sold for you to earn money.

Used books do not provide you with any royalties whatsoever.

Publishers can decide to stop printing your book at any time. This has happened to people as famous as Ira Levin (This Perfect Day). It’s not personal, its all about the numbers. The good news is the copyright returns to you. At that point you can explore options of what to do with your out-of-print book.

The average royalties for a new writer start at 6%, or in other words, 0.06 times the price of the book. If your book was on sale, you get 0.06 times the sale price. So for instance, In the US trade paperbacks tend to run from $14.95 to $18.95. If we pick a very typical number of $16.95 and assume it’s not on sale, you earned $1.02 (Rounded up).

But your agents need to earn a living too, and if you go this route you need an agent. I’ve read rates ranging from 10-20% of what you earn. If we assume a rate of 15% now you have earned. $0.86 (Not rounded up).

You may at this point be fuming. What do you mean I only earn $0.86 of a $16.95 book? Well first of all the publisher probably offered the book with a 40% discount otherwise the bookstore would earn no profit and thus would refuse to buy the book.

The publisher needs to make money too, but first it has to pay editors, cover designers, lawyers, P.R., marketing and quite a few other specialized positions. This is in addition to the physical materials required, paper, ink, presses etc.

Now you may be grumbling about big publishing houses with a vast number of authors represented. They surely make a tremendous profit at the expense of the poor labouring writer.

Except more artists means they need more employees. Trust me, no one gets into the book business for the money.

Sorry, it sucks. But there it is. However, phenomenons happen, and sometimes they don’t take any talent whatsoever. (I’m not going to name names) If you’re good, and skilled, and popular, you may defeat the odds.

Who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky. Maybe you’ll get 10%.


Whether or not a typical independent author averages 100-200 sold books is debated hotly and frankly I’m not going to join the fray. The author behind Writers Beware has done her research and gives a breakdown that I could easily see being right several years ago, and may still be correct.

If you want a larger audience you need to work hard, you need to be creative, and you need to be good.

I repeat, to be good you need at least an editor and a copy editor. These are not optional.

Which is where the sticky side of the business really begins. Payment.

Some on-demand publishers are called Vanity Presses because they charge extensive fees just so you can have the privilege of seeing your book in print. These guys are the ones that give the whole business a bad name.

But if you need an editor, copy editor, artist and maybe a web designer there is a possibility you will need to cough up some cash. Unless you have contacts that are willing to make unusual deals. (Or in rare cases, work for free) You will need to hunt through a jungle of bundled offers and independent professionals who may or may not be worth the time it took to find them. (Take another look at that Writers Beware link)

If your stymied on the concept of how to promote your work you may need to hire a publicity agent of some kind or other. If you have enough money you might consider Facebook ads. Or there are there are reviews and contests offered in more traditional venues - along with a few sketchy deals that ask you to pay up first.

For now you can forget the New York Times best sellers list. You could be matching a leader in sales, but I doubt you'll hit that list. However these days phenomenons happen and they get their own article. Maybe not in the afore mentioned paper, but there are other news sources out there and some pick up all kinds of hot topics including new, sensational self published books.

That said, to get that far takes time, money and stress. If you take this path you need courage and a machete, it’s an uphill battle to gain any form of recognition.

Perhaps now the rejection drawer is looking a little prettier. Publishing is an ugly business. Making a sensible decision takes research and self reflection. You need to decide for yourself which path appeals to you most -or at least seems to suck less.

Last updated May 8th, 2017

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