The reason is that it depends in part upon the genre that you’re publishing in, in part upon your personality (Are you the kind of go-getter with the skill sets needed to handle an Indie career?), and it depends in part upon the volatility of the publishing markets.
The fact is, both the Indie and the Traditional markets are in decline.
Twenty years ago, a writer would go out, write a great book, hunt for an agent, and build his or her career. In most genres, the majority of income came from paperback sales, followed by hardcover sales and then book club sales.
But with the popularization of e-books, the markets have been disrupted.
The problem with e-books
For nearly all authors, e-book sales are falling. Most authors say that in the past couple of years, their sales have fallen by 80-90 percent. Some authors I know who were selling tens of thousands of copies a year just three years ago are now pulling their books and trying to figure out how to get ahead.
This is something that we’ve all seen coming. Eight years ago, there were only a few thousand e-books online, but the number is growing fast, with titles being added at an estimated rate of one-million per year. Right now, there are over five million e-books on Amazon, and of those, about one in six is up for free.
Think of it this way. Imagine that you are a fish in a pond, and you have a few thousand fish in there with you. It’s easy to find a meal, right? Five million other fish join you, and a million more are swimming in each year. Suddenly your meals get hard to find, and a lot of fish starve.
One problem is that people keep putting their books up for free. Roughly one in six e-books are free right now. So why should someone buy my book when there are a million others up for free? That’s the question that the customers must ask themselves, and increasingly the answer is, “I ain’t buying.” Or even if they do buy, they’re faced with so many great books, they just don’t choose mine.
It has been said that the worst place for an author to sell books is in a bookstore. Why? Because when you have 50,000 other authors selling their books in that very same bookstore, buyers can often be swayed by your competition.
Well, at Amazon, you’ve got millions of competitors online, and it makes it increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.
There are ways to do it, but a lot of the old tricks that we used five years ago don’t work today.
The Problem with Traditional Publishing
As e-book sales continue to thrive, traditional publishing has become far less profitable. Publishers aren’t willing to take as many risks as they were ten years ago.
Advances on novels have fallen. Two years ago, there was a saying going around among authors: “$50,000 is the new $100,000 advance.” Well, now I suspect that $20,000 is the new $100,000 advance.
What’s more, as the traditional publishers find it harder to make a profit, they are squeezing the authors. Ten years ago, as an author I got to keep my audiobook rights, my movie rights, my e-book and game rights, and my foreign rights. Now, it is standard for the publisher to demand e-book and audio rights at the very least, and more and more of them will be making grabs at all of the subsidiary rights.
This is important. If an author could make 70% profit on his e-book sales, and then the publisher demands those rights, under today’s contracts, the publisher would pay just 15% of that 70%. In other words, on a $5 book, an Indie author could get paid $3.50, but a traditionally published author would get just .52 cents—and that is if the publisher is paying honest royalties.
What this means is that over the life of your book, the publishers are offering less and less money up-front, with poorer returns on the back end.
At the same time, our old mass-market paperback sales are down dramatically. An author I know recently came out with an excellent hardback novel. It got rave reviews and was sold to several book clubs. But like most hardbacks, it was on the shelves for just three or four months.
The publisher of course has the e-book rights, but while the hardcover is out, it can’t sell the e-book at a reasonable price. They feel that they must keep the e-book prices high so that they don’t “cannibalize sales” on the hardback, so they are asking for $17 per e-book. At that price, the e-book is roughly triple what most customers would pay for an Indie book, and as a result, the sales in e-book are weak.
To make matters worse, the publisher has decided that the mass-market paperback sales are so bad now, they won’t bother to put it in paperback. This is a new trend, because they’ve seen that those e-books, if they are put at a price similar to the paperback, will indeed cannibalize the sales on the paperback. So why bother?
Instead, the publishers are forced to throw those titles out into the market as e-books, so that the author is suddenly competing with five million other e-books, just another minnow in the vast school.
Now, there is some real value to going with the traditional publisher. My publisher, Tom Doherty, has said that the best advertisement for a book is to get a great placement in a bookstore. He’s right. Put the books up where customers can see them, cover facing out, and you will sell a lot of books. People will discover you.
But it’s very hard to get discovered in e-books, and it is getting harder every day.
Are there ways to make up for those lost sales? Can you sell the books as audiobooks for example? Yes, sort of. But have you noticed that audiobook prices have dropped in half in the last year, and that the number of titles is exploding as authors self-publish their own audiobooks? We’re heading for problems there, too.
So many authors feel confused. Do you try to sell your books as Indies and risk getting zero notice and zero sales, or do you go with traditional publishers who are increasingly demanding a bigger and bigger piece of your pie?
To those who are used to the old way of doing things, the situation looks very desperate.
And yet some authors are still making huge amounts of money.
Most of them are using one of two strategies. If they’re going traditional, they’re working hard to become “lead” authors, the ones that publishers promote the most. This means that they are struggling to master their craft, and write powerful stories at a rapid pace.
If they’re going Indie, they’re struggling to put out work even faster, always seeking new ways to promote their work, trying to subsidize their writing with appeals to crowdfunding.
Both of those approaches can be exhausting and can leave you feeling like a rat, racing on an exercise wheel, going around and around but never getting anywhere.
So what’s the best way to do it? The answers might surprise you.
Both ways can work, and both may fail miserably. In both approaches, sales can be great, but you have to know what you’re doing. You need to know which path to take, how to publish your books, and how to avoid mistakes. I wish that I could give all of the answers in this article, but unfortunately it would take months to go through it.
So, I’ve set up a new seminar where we will address these issues and many others. On Saturday, June 30th, we will be meeting in Provo, Utah to learn how to“Quick Start Your Writing Career.” Most authors take an average of fourteen years from the time that they begin writing to the time they become best-sellers. So I’m going to teach some lessons on how to speed up that process. Here are some topics I’ll teach.
- Breaking into the Best-seller Lists—How to do it as an Indie or as a Traditional Author
- Defining Yourself As an Author—Creating Your Brand
- Reaching Creative States—Turning Writing from a Chore into a Joyful Habit
- Plotting Your Career—How do you properly release a novel so that it becomes a bestseller? When do you do it? Where do you sell books? How do you plan for the long term?
- Going Indie vs. Traditional Publishing vs. Hybrid—What makes sense, given my genre?
- Multimedia—Your Most Indispensable Asset. How do you build your customer list, start a blog, capture readers on Facebook, Twitter, and so on.
- How to Reach a Vast Audience—If you’re writing your books and then trying to figure out how to reach a vast audience, you’re doing it all wrong. In this lesson, I’ll teach you how to engineer your books to sell.
- Dealing with Agents, Editors, and Movie Producers—What can you really expect when negotiating contracts? What are the gotchas that you have to watch out for? And what kinds of things can you demand that will send your income into the stratosphere?
You can learn more or register for the seminar here.
Writers of the Future Contest Deadline
This Saturday is the last day to submit your story into the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest. Get those stories sent in! Quarter winners get $500, $700, or $1,000. Learn more about entering here.
Preorder Writers of the Future Vol. 34
Once you’ve decided what story to submit, preorder this year’s Writers of the Future anthology, and read each award-winning short story. There is a great selection of stories this year.