How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing 266 Comments
What do the economics of publishing look like… really? (Photo: thinkpanama)
(Special thanks to my agent, Steve Hanselman, and my anonymous sources within the world’s biggest publishing houses)
Print is dead!
This has become a popular headline, and a great way to get quoted, as Nicholas Negroponte has shown. Iconic author Seth Godin, after 12 bestsellers, just announced that he will no longer pursue traditional publishing, and the writing seems to be on the wall: the e-book is the future, plain and simple.
But what are the real concrete numbers? How are established authors actually making money, and what should new authors do? Go straight to e-book?
In this post, I’ll look at real-world numbers to discuss some hard truths of publishing, explain economics and pay-offs, and provide a few suggestions for aspiring authors.
To start, some contrasting numbers…
- The 4-Hour Workweek was the #1 business book when Kindle first shipped after November 2007, and is currently around #116 in the Kindle store.
- In my last royalty statement, December 2009, digital book sales (all formats, including Kindle) totaled…. ready?… a mere 1.6% of total units sold.
My own book has been on the bestseller lists for more than three years, and I’ve tracked most multi-month bestsellers for all of those 36+ months using Nielsen Bookscan (among other tools) which covers about 75% of all retail book sales since 2001, including Amazon but excluding discount clubs such as Sam’s Club. Titlez has also been useful for looking at detailed trending on Amazon.
This all gives me a good pool of data, and I feel like I have a good grasp of what authors are selling and… realistically earning directly from books. If you’d like to get a basic idea, just subscribe to Publishers Lunch to see what authors are getting paid as advances. Enjoy.
We’ll come back to the Kindle numbers, but first, here’s a sketch of book economics, incentives and options:
- For a hardcover book, authors typically receive a 10-15% royalty on cover price. This means that for a $20 cover price, the author will receive $2-3. If you have a $50,000 advance, a $20 cover price, and a 10% royalty, you therefore need to sell 25,000 copies (“earn out” the advance) before you receive your first dollar beyond the advance. This is the basic rule, but several quietly aggressive outfits — both Barnes and Noble’s in-house imprint (Sterling, acquired in 2003) and Amazon’s in-house print arms, AmazonEncore and AmazonCrossing — could prove to offer more attractive terms. Then there are the fascinating rogues like Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie.
- For a trade paperback book, authors typically receive around half the royalty of a hard cover. If you are making 15% on your hardcover, you might get 7.5% when it goes to paperback. Guess what? This means you now need to sell twice as many books to break even. I think going to paperback is a bad idea for almost all authors, unless you want to double your work for the same income. Do you really need the people who won’t buy a $20 book hardcover that’s already discounted to $12-14 dollars through Amazon or Barnes and Noble? I don’t think so, yet most authors follow the hardcover-to-paperback progression without question.
- Electronic books, including Kindle, do not count towards the most famous bestseller lists, such as The New York Times bestseller list. I suspect this will change within the next two years, but for now: print is what will make you famous in the mainstream.
- If you choose to self-publish but stick with print format and retail distribution, you might double your royalty earnings. This is based on conversations with friends who own their own boutique publishing houses, all of which have distribution in large chains like Barnes and Noble. It’s fun to imagine that you could print a book with a $20 cover price and pocket $15, but that isn’t how the math works out. Once you factor in retailer discounts and distributor percentages, you might end up netting 30% of cover price vs. 15%, if you’re lucky and have a print run of 20,000+ units (Can you afford the upfront cost, especially if retailers are paying net-30, net-60, or beyond?). Keep in mind you also need to manage things as a publisher, which could make your dollars-per-hour earnings less than with a traditional publisher. There are a few promising companies, like Author Solutions, trying to solve this problem for authors.
- If you choose to go digital only as an e-book, this is where profit rules and amazing numbers can be achieved. How amazing? I know one man who nets between $5,000,000 and $10,000,000 per year with a single e-book and affiliate cross-selling to his customer lists. I’m not kidding. The downside is that you need to be a world-class marketer and understand affiliate and CPA advertising better than anyone else in your niche (since there is little barrier to entry, and therefore plenty of competition). Prepare to be an uber-competent CEO or fail if you choose this option.
The Kindle Phenomenon — How Press Releases Are Misread
Amazon is incredible and I expect nothing but more innovation from them. Putting aside their coming bloodbath with Apple, though…
What of this announcement that Kindle sales have now passed hardcover sales on Amazon? I believe this to be true, but there are a few things I suggest we keep in mind:
1) Kindle books selling well does not mean that print books are selling poorly. In fact, it appears quite the opposite. From the Wall Street Journal coverage of the announcement:
Still, the hardback comparison figure doesn’t necessarily mean the end is near for paper books. Amazon said its hardback book unit sales also continued to increase.
It will be fun to see more precise Kindle sales when they are shown as a separate line item in Nielsen Bookscan, which should happen in the next year.
2) The top-five Kindle selling authors of all-time, over 500,000 copies each, are all fiction writers (including Stieg Larsson, Stephanie Meyer, and others). In the top-50 Kindle bestsellers right now, I counted just three (3!) non-fiction books. If you’re a non-fiction author, I’d think carefully before jumping the gun to all digital. Remember that comment about print being dead? What if we ask a high-level exec at one of the “Big Six” (explained later) about how print sales are declining?
Hardcover trend is mixed and dependent on hot books. If you are wondering about ebooks, commercial fiction is where you’re seeing the erosion. Paperbacks are ok. Mass markets are taking a hit.
What are “mass market” books? The NY Times describes them thus:
Mass-market books are designed to fit into the racks set near the checkout counter at supermarkets, drugstores, hospital gift shops and airport newsstands. They are priced affordably so they can be bought on impulse. There are other production differences in binding and paper quality (historically, paperbacks were printed on “pulp” and could fit in the consumer’s pocket). The format is often used for genre fiction, science fiction, romance, thrillers and mysteries.
Is it a coincidence that print impulse purchases are also the biggest sellers on Kindle? I don’t think so.
3) I believe (conjecture, yes) that the figure we are missing is Books-Per-Person. If you have a Kindle, as I do, how many books did you buy in the first week or two? How many unread books do you have on your Kindle? Unlike with print books, you don’t have to look at a stack of unread material like undone homework. Ergo, you purchase more digital books than you would ever purchase in print. If Amazon is selling 180 Kindle books for every 100 print books, I wouldn’t be surprised if 10-20 people are responsible for the former, whereas 80-100 people are responsible for the latter. This reflects that Kindle owners are buying more books per capita, not that paper purchasers are buying fewer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There has to be some cannibalization of sales, and much of print will die eventually, but it will take a long time. Print is far from dead… and far from unprofitable. Despite the industry-encouraged myth that print has no margins, a hardcover book sold for $20, assuming no graphics or color, can often be produced for less than $2 a copy. With the proper economies of scale (unavailable to most individuals), the publishing biz can be quite a little cash cow.
Let’s cover some basics of traditional publishing next.
What “Traditional” Publishing Looks Like
Traditional publishing looks something like the following for non-fiction authors. For fiction authors, you need to write the entire manuscript first. Here are the five steps:
Step 1. Get an agent (best done through a referral from one of their authors).
Step 2. Put together a book proposal, which is like a business plan. It will contain marketing plans, your existing “platform” (who you can sell to or reach without publisher help), an executive summary of the book concept, and 1-3 sample chapters, among other things.
Step 3. Pitch to specific editors at different publishers through the agent and schedule meetings.
Step 4. Sell the book. The editor will probably have signing authority up to a certain advance amount, but higher ups will need to sign off on larger advances. If you don’t have a great platform for selling books without publisher help, don’t expect anything more than $50,000, and that’s being optimistic. The $50,000 will not be paid all at once, but in several installments, something like this: 1/4 upon signing the deal, 1/4 upon publisher acceptance of manuscript, 1/4 upon publication, and 1/4 upon paperback publication (assuming you start with hardcover).
Step 5. Write the book. Keep in mind, you’re not getting paid the advance all upfront, and writing a good book will probably take at least a year if you’re hoping to have good word-of-mouth and some longevity. I’ve been working on my new book for more than three years. I’ve spent this time because I want it to sell like mad for no fewer than five years after publication, preferably more than a decade if I update it on an annual or semi-annual basis.
For more detail and recommended books, which I used as guides, read “How to Sell a Book to the World’s Largest Publisher,” which explains exactly what I did.
Below are the “Big Six” publishers — most of the bestsellers you see come out of one of their divisions (called “imprints”). In no particular order:
All of these publishers have iBook agreements with Apple except for one… Random House. Why? Is Random House just unable to see the obvious future? Nah, I don’t think that’s true. There are plenty of smart people working at Random House, and that includes their legal department.
The paragraph that follows is all hypothetical:
What might happen if the iBooks agreements of the other Big Five all have suspiciously similar terms? If there were a federal investigation, might that lead to charges of collusion among the publishers and have terrible financial consequences for an already fragile industry? It certainly would. By distancing themselves and coming in late to the game, Random House — again, hypothetically — would be playing a very smart hand, indeed.
For those of you who are devoted to your iPads (I do like mine), you can always use the Kindle app to read Random House books on them pretty screens.
So What Should Authors Do?
First off, writing books is a terrible revenue model for authors.
Precious few books sell more than 25,000 copies, so it’s unlikely you’ll make even $75,000 a year from book royalties. In rare cases, you might have a perennial bestseller, but this is less than 1% of all books sold and not a good bet to make.
There are still a few reasons you might consider writing a book and going through traditional channels:
- Speaking: Particularly in the business category, if you target your Fortune 500 audience well enough, you can stair-step your way into $20,000 per 60-minute keynote without needing a miracle. Hundreds, if not thousands, of authors earn this kind of money. The higher echelon can make $80,000 or more per speaking engagement. Needless to say, this adds up fast.
- Reputation and audience: Money is a means to something else. Not unlike wampum, income is traded for either a possession or an experience. If you use your book to build a reputation as a thought leader, and if you can establish a direct line of communication to intelligent readers (through a blog, for instance), it is possible to bypass income and get almost any experience for free or next-to-free. The middleman of currency is removed, and you also have access to things money can’t buy, whether it’s interesting people or unusual resources.
Though I have done high-level speaking and enjoy it with the right audience, I typically do fewer than a dozen engagements a year. I prefer to focus on connecting with my readers and having fun with cashless adventures.
How do you build a base of fans or supporters and build a high-traffic blog? Here are two detailed closely related case studies:
So what of self-publishing versus the more traditional route?
Reputation, at least in the mainstream and for the next few years, is difficult to build if you self-publish. In the below five-minute discussion, NY Times bestselling author Ramit Sethi and I discuss the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. getting a “real” publisher:
For established and successful authors, like Seth Godin or Jim Collins, self-publishing in print or digital is a supremely viable option. Jim Collins self-published his last print book, How the Mighty Fall, and was featured on the cover of BusinessWeek magazine to help push it up the bestseller ranks. Seth could do the same.
Why is this possible?
Because they have incredible reputations that were built, in part, on top of the traditional publishing machine. The Big Six and their close cousins are in real trouble. Some of them might adapt (which will include massive lay-offs), but most will not. In the next few short years, there will also be many interesting publishing alternatives for aspiring authors.
But, all that said, there is still real value in having the rare stamp of approval that a “traditional” publisher provides. I don’t think this will change much in the next 12 months, perhaps even 24 months.
Now, a handful of first-time, self-published authors hit the New York Times list, that’s an entirely different story…
Recommended reading – Below are the three books I’ve suggested to a dozen or so aspiring-author friends. Almost half of them later hit the New York Times bestseller list. Reading these doesn’t guarantee that outcome, of course, but it will help:
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (to help you craft the right message and themes)
Bird by Bird (to help you write the damn thing and not shoot yourself)
Author 101: Bestselling Book Publicity (to help you reach and excite big media)
Afterword: Book Format and Multimedia Books, etc.
In the comments below, I was asked the following question:
“Tim, I have a question… Before I decided to self-publish, I got a couple decent offers from traditional publishers, but they all involved 10+ months of lag time between when everything is ready to actually print and when they would actually print. I’m not nearly patient enough for that much delay. Is the world of “real published authors” really limited to people who are comfortable waiting around a year for their book to manifest?”
My answer addresses a few other common questions I get:
With the big boys, yep. That’s the lag time in production. I actually kind of like it. Allow me to explain:
It forces you to think about your material and attempt to make it perennial. Which advice will be obsolete in 12 months? Delete. Which advice would be obsolete in 24 months? That means it will only be good about 12 months after pub date. Delete.
I find that it helps refine your thinking, just as having the content in a fixed form (print) forces you to consider your writing and editing more seriously than if you could change it willy-nilly like a blog post. There are certainly benefits to the multimedia books on the horizon, but I wouldn’t call them “books”, and I think the bells and whistles of video, hyperlinks, etc. will be used to mask sloppy thinking as often, if not more often, than they will be used to create a more compelling argument or presentation. The wordsmithing and precision of the language will suffer with the crutches of embeddable video, etc. Will they make perfect sense for some books? Absolutely. Will they distract and detract from the flow of the prose, story, or argument in most cases? Absolutely.
To me, “timely” books are a bad bet for writers. If the content delivers value based on timing near recent events, other media have it beat. I think long-form books should have a longer shelf life, and therefore require harder thinking throughout the process to ensure the content has value 1 year, 5 years, even 10 years down the line.
Hope that helps!
Posted on August 23rd, 2010