Publishing: self, trad, and the gross

One reads a lot about the different percentages that writers receive through self-publishing vs. traditional print publishing: for instance, this piece in Forbes about Mark Coker and Smashwords. I prefer to break down the numbers in a different way, by looking at grosses rather than percentages. With your gracious permission:

If I, as an unknown writer, do somehow sell a book to a traditional publisher, I’ll probably receive a $5,000 advance, take it or leave it, with no significant prospect of its ever earning out. So how much do readers have to fork over at retail to earn me that money?

In MMPB from a traditional publisher, I’m getting 8 percent if I’m lucky (assuming that sales and returns are reported honestly); lower rates from some houses. That means that readers have to spend $62,500 for me to earn that $5,000; which equates to 7,822 copies of a $7.99 paperback.

With a self-published ebook, I’m getting 60 percent on sales through an aggregator; more than that on direct sales through Amazon, but a bit of that will be lost to their bandwidth charge, so we’ll simplify the math and assume 60 percent across the board. I’ll need $8,333.33 in retail sales to earn my $5,000 nut. If I’m charging $3.99 for that book, I need to sell 2,089 copies.

I make the same amount of money from a quarter of the number of readers, and charging half the price. It’s a lot easier to find buyers for 2,000 widgets at $3.99 than for 8,000 widgets at $7.99. Of course books are not widgets; but different cheap editions of the same book are essentially fungible.

Looked at another way: if the reading public spends a million dollars on traditional print books, it provides a living wage for approximately two full-time writers. If it spends a million dollars on self-published ebooks, it provides the same wage for 15 writers. Gee, I wonder which is better for the writer.


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