“I thought only famous people could write books,” said Carmen Amato, “and I wasn’t one of them.” Originally from upstate New York, Carmen went to college in Paris, France, earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia and then began a 30-year career working for the Central Intelligence Agency.
The sixty-one-year-old wanted to write fiction, but like many budding writers, she didn’t know if she could. But after Carmen retired from the CIA and moved to Mexico, she decided to go for it.
“I was determined to say something about the social inequality I saw all around me,” she says, so she wrote the political thriller, The Hidden Light of Mexico City. Published in 2012, it was her first of ten books self-published books.
Most authors have one of three publishing options. They can find a traditional publisher, they can self-publish or they can use a hybrid publisher.
Traditional publishing is like trying to catch a ride on a moving train. It’s tough to get on, but once you’re on board, you don’t have to pay for your seat. The publisher creates the book’s cover design, helps with an appropriate title and assigns the author an editor. In many cases, authors have to find a literary agent before a publisher will consider their work. If it’s fiction, the agent then typically shows the writer’s complete manuscript to prospective publishers. If it’s non-fiction, they usually submit an outline and a sample chapter.
But getting an agent can be tough. When looking at authors, agents ask themselves two questions: Can I find a publisher for this person’s stuff and if I do, will they sell enough for me to make money? Agents typically take 15 percent of an author’s gross royalties.
Sixty-year-old Michael Blouin earned the ReLit Award for Best Novel in Canada twice. In 2009 he won with Chase and Haven, and in 2020 he earned top honors for Skin House. “Having an agent and a publisher reduces a great deal of my workload,” he says. “It also gives me access to book designers, distributors and editors at no expense to myself.” But he admits that traditional publishing royalty rates aren’t as high as many people think. They’re often based on a percentage of the publisher’s net income.
For example, my traditionally-published book, Millionaire Teacher (2nd edition), has a listed retail price of $22.95. I earn royalties on a sliding scale, based on a percentage of what the publisher earns. For example, I earned about 18 percent on the first 5000 copies, about 20 percent on the next 5000 copies and 23 percent on copies sold above 15,000. Based on my latest 6-month royalty statement, the publisher earned $6.51 per book after paying me $2.09. You might wonder why the publisher earned more, but from that $6.51, they had to pay for printing, teams of editors, marketers, distributors and several other business-related costs.
Still, it’s strange that authors are at the bottom of the payment food chain. That’s one reason why increasing numbers of writers are self-publishing their books. The latest data I could find on self-publishing came from Bowker, the agency that issues ISBN numbers. In an October 2019 report, they said 1.68 million books were self-published in 2018. That’s a 40 percent increase from the previous year.
Fifty-nine-year old Denise Svajlenko self-published her first book after spending her career working in Human Resource Management. “The royalty payments are generally higher with self-publishing, and you own everything,” she says. Denise earns a 70 percent royalty rate on Amazon for Kindle/e-books. That compares to 25 percent royalties earned on traditionally published e-books.
Denise’s book, Evolving: My Lessons of Self Discovery, costs $2.99 for the Kindle edition. After a 4 cent “shipping cost” Denise earns $2.06 per download. “I earn 60 percent royalties on Amazon for paperback and print books,” she explains. That means, from her book’s listed price of $11.95, Denise earns $4.88 after paying shipping costs of $2.29 per book.
Sometimes, traditional publishers go broke. I’ve spoken to a few writers who can no longer access their books because their publisher owns the rights, and they simply disappeared. This is why writers like Denise Svajlenko are happy to own the rights to their self-published books.
But going it alone has a downside. Getting a self-published book in a bookstore is like catching a 110-pound salmon: not impossible, but not very likely. Bookstores typically stock titles from traditional publishers only. Another strike against self-publishing is the upfront cost.
“I pay for proofreading and covers,” explains Carmen Amato. “A typical full novel will cost [me] about $2,500. Denise Svajlenko says it cost her $1,800 to self-publish her book. “I paid the one fee to Fearless Publishing. That fee included all the business services such as copy editing, book cover design, both e-book and print book publishing design and downloads to Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon.”
Unfortunately, it’s tough for self-published authors to win literary awards. Even when they’re submitted, such books are almost never picked. “It’s virtually unheard of for a regional [self-published] book to make the NY Times best seller list,” says Josephe Toole, author of ten self-published books. “You produce books because you enjoy the process and it helps with other, revenue-generating, ventures. In many ways books are expensive, labor-intensive, business cards pointing out your other products or services.”
Josephe Toole makes excellent points, and an increasing number of experts in various fields are self-publishing books to land speaking and conference gigs. Such books enhance their reputation. But self-published books don’t always earn the same respect. Mention the words, “self-published” to anyone in academia and they might look at you as if you’ve just stepped in a dog’s turd. More down-to-Earth folks can also sometimes tell the difference between a self-published book and one produced and polished by a professional publisher. This is one reason why hybrid publishers are gaining traction now.
With a hybrid, the author works with a professional publishing team. Such books cost the writer a lot of money upfront, but when the book is completed, it’s usually of first-class quality. What’s more, the author retains the rights and earns royalty rates as if the book were self-published. In many cases, much as with a traditionally published book, the publisher can also seek out foreign translation rights. Plenty of hybrid publishers also offer world-class distribution, allowing the author’s work to appear in stores and (for a price) even airport bookstores. This is the step I’ve taken with my upcoming book, Balance. The total cost (yes, I know you’re curious) will be about $20,000.
That might sound expensive. But as Carmen Amato says, “Every choice in today’s publishing industry comes with a price. If an author wants the advantages of a traditional publishing deal, the price may be found in endless querying, editorial revisions, long time to publication, and loss of rights. If an author wants the freedom afforded by self-publishing, the price comes in the form of being cut out of awards and reviews and having to take on quality control responsibilities.”
In other words, the publication choice is as individual as the author.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas