What Kind Of Publishing Should Authors Choose?

As a small publisher – and as someone who has done self-publishing in the past – I sometimes get asked why people should choose one path of publishing over another.

The answer is: Whatever SPECIFIC choice provides more value for you as an author.

And that’s going to be different for every author and publisher.

So let me spin you out an example. You have two small publishers – Alliteration Ink (my examples about me are 100% accurate) and OtherGuy Publishing (these details are real, but obfuscated).

  • Here’s where they are the same:
  • Both publishers have a minimal marketing budget – maybe an ad at a convention program book, maybe bookmarks, that sort of thing.
  • Both publishers allow authors a great deal of creative control when it comes to how the book looks, its cover, that sort of thing.
  • Neither publisher has enough reach or distribution deals to get physical books on the shelves in brick and mortar stores.
  • Both provide print and digital layout.

Here’s where they’re different:

  • Alliteration Ink hires editors per project, and does not have a full-time house editor. OtherGuy Publishers does.
  • Alliteration Ink pays for cover art. OtherGuy Publishers does not.
  • Alliteration Ink provides copies to authors at cost. OtherGuy Publishers provides them at 45% off the cover prices.
  • OtherGuy Publishers provides a royalty rate of 20% – 45%, depending on format. Alliteration Ink provides a royalty rate of 50%-65%, depending on the project.

I’m sure you can find a lot of other publishers – big and small – and compare these deals to theirs. A few years back, I met a small publisher who provides a much smaller royalty rate than I – but also routinely advertises in large publications.1 Making comparisons between small publishers – especially when they’re largely similar – can be useful.

Because when you’re comparing two publishers like we have above, you can easily compare services and royalty rates. But when you’re talking about multiple publishers, it gets to be too many variables at once.

So I suggest starting with a baseline of what it would cost to do it by yourself.1

Luckily, there are plenty of tools for doing exactly that.

So let’s say you have a 300 page book, about 75,000 words, with 6”x9” trim.


Go to the above link, click on the "buying copies" tab, and you can easily see what each copy of that book would cost you ($4.45). Good eBook layout is still somewhere around $2-$3 per thousand words as a base price ($225).  Let’s say that print layout costs you the same – $225.  Covers can cost anywhere from $75-$300 or more. Let’s guesstimate $200 here.  Editing prices likewise vary – but it’s something that you can shop for. For example, one quoted price from here would get us a price over $1500, another about $300.  Let’s go with somewhere between those two and call it $900.

$225 + $225 + $200 + $900 = $1550

Add in also both the time and cost of advertising – though I’ve separated that out, since many times authors have to do this sort of thing regardless. Depends on the publisher.  But we’re trying to keep it simple here, so we’ll stop with these costs.

With a $15 retail price and about $10 profit per print book, you’d have to sell around 160 books in person to break even.

Yes, in person.

The amount you get from a sale on Amazon or other bookstores for your print book is a lot less.  Go to the "Royalties" tab and plug in those same numbers.  Instead of $10 profit per book, you’re looking at $4.55 for each copy sold at Amazon (341 copies to break even), $7 for ones sold from the estore3, and only $1.55 for "expanded distribution", e.g. everywhere that isn’t Amazon.com (1000 copies to break even).

So take a cold, hard look at what kind of sales you can expect.  (Kameron Hurley did a great post on this, pointing out:

The average book sells 3000 copies in its lifetime (Publishers Weekly, 2006).
Yes. It’s not missing a zero.
Take a breath and read that again.
But wait, there’s more!
The average traditionally published book which sells 3,000 in its entire lifetime in print only sells about 250-300 copies its first year.
But I’m going indie! you say. My odds are better!
No, grasshopper. Your odds are worse.
The average digital only author-published book sells 250 copies in its lifetime.

Yeah.  And that’s also part of the equation – the risk if a book doesn’t pay out is on the publisher, not you.

And while this isn’t comprehensive (not at all), from this basic idea, you can start to figure out what your publisher is (or would be) making from your book.

And you can start asking yourself if they’re doing enough to earn that money.

1 While it’s hard to predict with great certainty who will get more of your books out there, there’s some things that you can look to in order to see whether or not they’ve got reach.
2 Or rather, what it would cost for you to hire someone to do all this for you.
3 There is no reason to use the estore. Just set up a store on your own website.