Friday 30 May 2014

The PINK SOFA meets Nat Russo

Nat Russo is one of the many American writers/bloggers I've met via Twitter. Nat blogs about the ''How To's '' in a very succinct and practical way, which is why he is followed by so many people. What I like about him, apart from the free useful advice, is his willingness to help new writers to master the intricacies of the internet. He is very generous with his support and encouragement. And amazingly, if I ever send him a tweet, busy as he is, he always picks up and responds. OK, Nat the floor is yours... ooh and there are donuts and Americanos on the coffee table for later.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

Those of you who have followed me for some time on my various media outlets will recall how adamant I've been about traditional publishing. Until the end of 2013 I was absolutely convinced I would be querying agents and publishers for an indefinite period of time, collecting rejection slips like they were going out of style.

Not anymore. My thoughts on the subject have completely changed, and I'd like to tell you why.

Defining Success
I've long held that you should never allow another person to define success for you. What it means to be a successful writer, to me, has changed dramatically over the last two years. I've been writing for decades, but I didn't "come out" with my writing until 2012, and I did so with a lot of fear and trembling.

Fear I wouldn't be good enough.
Fear I wouldn't be accepted because I had no publications under my belt.
Fear my stories would never be read.

But at the core of all of this was acceptance. All my life, for one reason or another, I sought activities that placed me in the spotlight (community theater, singing in a barbershop quartet, high school choir, playing guitar in a country band). Many thought this was because I was a showoff or an attention seeker. But they didn't see what was going on inside. 

I was trying to feel accepted, even if only for the moment in time when the music would stop and the applause would reverberate.

I won't bore you with all of the details, but I wasn't the most popular kid growing up. Queue the violins, I know. But it wasn't the "fade into the background" kind of unpopular. It was the "school is a combat zone" kind of unpopular. Until I was thirteen I was terrified of going to school in the morning. That all changed when I got involved in the martial arts, but the damage had been done. My self-image had already been determined. My worth . . . my success . . . was now based on how other people perceived me, and would remain so for quite some time.

Flash forward twenty years.

As I put myself "out there" with my writing, an amazing thing happened: people accepted me with open arms. Not only did an entire community of writers accept me without hesitation, but they openly encouraged me. I could feel them cheering for my success!

Then I realized something: My need for industry approval (i.e. a publishing deal with a major publisher) was no different than the need for peer acceptance that had defined most of my life. So I tried a thought experiment. I asked myself "how would you define success if industry acceptance was taken out of the equation?" This was my answer:

I would gauge success by the degree to which I failed or succeeded on my own terms.

That, in and of itself, was enough to sway me toward self-publishing. But I didn't stop there. I started researching more quantifiable reasons.

Book Stores Have Clocks . . . And They Tick.
The large brick and mortar book sellers can't afford to keep your book on the shelves forever (and that's if they buy it from the publisher at all, which isn't guaranteed just because you have a publishing contract). It takes up space that could be reserved for a best seller.

You have, in most cases, 30 days to prove your book will sell well. At the end of that first month, the book seller packages up all of the books he/she can't sell and sends them back to the publisher for a full refund. That's it. You're done.

The problem is that no one knows how to sell books. You heard me right. The only thing we know for certain is that word-of-mouth sells books far better than a display at a book store. But world-of-mouth takes time. And time is something a major book chain can't afford to give you.

Self-publishing removes the clock from the equation. It costs you nothing to leave your book on the virtual book shelf. Over time people will read and review your book. They'll mention it to friends, who will in turn buy it and recommend it to their friends. You are now in control of your own destiny, because writing a good story . . . a story that will generate word-of-mouth . . . is under your control.

Traditional Publishing ≠ Money
We're artists. We shouldn't be doing this for the money. I've heard the arguments, and I get it. While I place my art and creativity above any price, I'm not allergic to money either. After all, enough of the green stuff would mean I could potentially support myself off my writing. That's a dream of most writers, isn't it? Who among us wouldn't want to spend the lion's share of their time writing?

So let's talk money for a moment. [Note: I'll be taking numbers from David Gaughran's wonderful book on publishing, titled Let's Get Digital: How to Self-Publish And Why You Should. If you're struggling with this decision, I strongly recommend you read this.]

If you do manage to land a publishing contract, and your book is printed in hardback (the highest price of the lot), you're going to see about 12.5% royalties from each sale. Now, take into consideration that your agent is going to get 15% of that and you're now looking at slightly less than 11%. Don't get me wrong, the numbers are justified. I'm not suggesting anyone is being over or under paid here. Publishing is a business, and business has costs and overhead that can't be avoided.

You'll see a little more from a trade published e-book (approximately 17.5% royalties).

But here's the thing many writers don't consider when they're looking at these numbers: Only 20% of all books published ever earn out their advance. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

As a new writer your advance will hover somewhere around $5k, and definitely under $10k. (Sure, there's a chance your manuscript will be SO amazing that it will spark a bidding war. There's also a chance my next lottery ticket will allow me to call in "rich" the next day.) You only have a 1 in 5 chance of publishing a book that earns enough in sales to justify paying you royalties. That means the most you'll ever see off your work is probably going to be whatever advance you got. And don't forget to give your agent his/her 15% of that advance, by the way.

And before I forget, whatever the amount of your advance, you're not going to see all of it at once. That $5k advance may come to you in three payments spread out over 18 months.

Let's contrast this with self-publishing. A $2.99 sale on Amazon will pay you a 70% royalty amounting to $2.09. That $25 hard cover from a traditional publisher, on the other hand, will pay you a net $2.66 royalty (after agent's cut), and that's if you're lucky enough to have had your book earn out its advance.

The numbers for mass market paperback and other editions are even more dismal. Check out David Gaughran's book (linked above) for the details. There's far more covered in his book than I could ever hope to tackle here.

Will you make more from a traditional publisher? The hard cover number seems to indicate that. The answer is "it depends". If you're sitting on an absolute block buster, then chances are, right now, you'll make more from traditional publishing. If, on the other hand, you think your book is more likely destined for mid-list, I believe self-publishing may be more lucrative.

What Will the Publisher Bring to the Table?
If you're a "no name" writer who hasn't sold a bunch of books, the answer to that question is "very little".

Get visions of book signing tours in exotic locations out of your head right now. That doesn't happen unless you're willing to take off work and pay for it yourself. (And don't forget you'll have to do all of the event organizing yourself).

Get visions of dozens of copies of your book sitting in a large display in the center aisle at Barnes & Noble out of your head. Those spots are reserved for names people recognize, and names the book seller can usually guarantee will sell very well.

So, if you have to do all the work anyway, and you have to pay for your own events (including travel and lodging) are you still ok with taking a fraction of the royalty you'd see from self-publishing? Only you can answer that, because as I said above, money is not the only consideration.

Don't Hold Your Breath
As always, there are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you're going down the traditional publishing road, you'd better settle in for the long haul. When you begin the query process, it may take you upwards of a year or more to find an agent that's a good fit. When you find that agent, it could take him/her upwards of a year or more to find a buyer for your manuscript.

At that point, one of two things will happen:
1. Your agent may decide he/she can't sell your book due to "market conditions" or some other business reason. Maybe your manuscript doesn't quite fit into the acceptable pigeon holes and no one knows how to market it. Maybe the print market is saturated with your kind of story. Who knows? The end result is the same. You'll get a phone call saying "thanks for the memories", and you will have wasted 2-3 years where your story could have been finding its audience.

2. You sell your manuscript. Yay! At this point it gets slated for publication, which could be as much as 18 months or more from the date of sale. You'll get a third, or so, of whatever advance was agreed upon. Maybe half. Then, eventually, the book finds its way to book stores (if book shop owners agree to purchase it from the publisher's catalog). From here, in 80% of cases, that's it. You're done. Write something else and start submitting again. If you're in the uncommon 20% that earn out their advance, you'll start seeing some royalties.

Coming Full Circle
No matter what the dollars and cents say, don't let the dollars and cents dictate your course unless that is how you define success. Start asking yourself some difficult questions. Get to the bottom of why you're even doing this.

When I think about being in control of the process, from the writing, to the cover design, to the publication and marketing process, I'm filled with excitement! Not only excitement that comes from the adventure of starting a new business, but excitement for writing even more!

On the other hand, when I think about getting a publishing deal, it doesn't light me on fire like the other idea does. It falls flat. If I was approached by a traditional publisher, they'd have a lot of convincing to do. Could they succeed in swaying me? Of course. But they know what they're up against, and they have their work cut out for them.

Above all other considerations, I implore you to weigh the pros and cons and follow your heart. You already know what you want to do, deep inside. You just need to convince yourself.

Twitter: @NatRusso

If you would like to read an except from Nat's latest book, Necromancer Awakening, you can do so HERE . US readers can do so HERE


  1. Thanks for that Nat. A very interesting take on a very hoary chestnut. Wonder what the rest of you think?

  2. I'm at the dithering stage myself. 6 agents/publishers have asked for a full ms read after I sent the first 3 chapters. Just when I'd decided to self-publish, writerly friends said I'm so close and to just give myself at least to the end of the year. Your article was excellent and I know you didn't mean to sound depressing but you've made me have another rethink. I'm back to being in limbo again. Help! It's all the media stuff you have to do when you self-publish and that's the bit I'm not really keen on. Happy with talks, signings, etc. But really interesting, Nat. Good luck with yours.

    1. I know that limbo you're speaking about, Denise, because I spent the better part of a year in that state.

      It's not an easy process, but I think if you dig down really deep within yourself, and discover what your personal definition of success is, the decision will get easier.

      If your dream is to be traditionally published, then no amount of royalties you receive from self-publishing will ever come close to making up for it. If, on the other hand, your dream is more artistic control and higher royalties, then no "stamp of approval" will ever come close to making up for it.

      I wish you the best! If I can ever be of help, just look me up!

  3. I've tried hard to leave you a reply but it's not going through. If this one does, thank for a most interesting blog. I'm at the dithering stage. Now more confused than ever! Would still like a trad deal, having had 2 books published, one self, the other trad. My main reason is validation that work is of the best quality which readers will enjoy. Even having it professionally edited is not the same as a publisher forking out the dosh. But I may rethink...

    1. One of the things to consider on the "validation" point: How will you feel if you can't find a publisher? Will this stop you from writing because you feel invalidated?

      I'm merely playing devil's advocate here, because, as I said, there is no right or wrong answer. In fact, some very successful writers have found "both" to be an acceptable answer. Along these lines, I can tell you with certainty that traditional/legacy publishing is no guarantor of quality.

  4. Great post - and an interesting viewpoint. I wonder, do you pay for an editor? They can be expensive to pay for, and the one vital thing (I think) that a publisher can provide.

    I want my books to be the best they can possibly be - and that's why I get editorial help. And then go down the self-pub route.

    1. Thanks, JO!

      There were so many eyes on Necromancer Awakening over the course of 3 years, that I didn't feel it was necessary to go to the extra expense. I shared it with a publisher before I made the decision to self-publish. He called me and told me it was the cleanest manuscript he'd ever seen in his career, so that confirmed my suspicions.

      For my next book, however, my time table is *much* shorter. So I probably will hire a professional editor for this go around, because there just won't be enough time to get as many eyes on the project as I had for my first book.

    2. Thank you - that's really helpful to hear how it worked for you.

  5. I have to say I agree with Nat. Sorry, CarolStar, but bearing in mind I will never be published by one of the big publishers, and the fact that I have to do so much myself for a small publisher, I would rather have total control over my books (like Nat) than still have to do most of the hard work and lose that final say. Since I've done both (self, then trad and back to self), I can honestly say I now prefer the self-publishing way. I've done better in terms of sales as a Self Published author too (not that that's ever been anything to write home about), and at least I can see what's happening when it happens. Denise, the media stuff for me is the easier part; it's the talks and signings that are really hard for me to arrange here in NL. The opportunities for English writers here are rather limited, so social media and print magazines are great for me.

    1. Thanks for sharing that perspective, Val!

      Hugh Howey recently released his "Author's Earnings Report", which is a data mining and analysis project he started a while back. The results are eye-opening. Where it was once believed "block busters" were better served by traditional publishers, the data seems to indicate that the playing field is far more even than once believed. And when you look at the "mid list" numbers, you find that self-published authors vastly out-earn their traditionally published colleagues.

      The landscape is definitely shifting!

  6. Fascinating article. I'm still stuck on traditional publishing personally - and collecting tiny royalty cheques and rejection slips. I can't ignore though that self-publishing is becoming an impressive force in the market-place and that the advantages of being on a small press, like I am, are slender. Who knows what the future holds.

    1. The most important thing, far outweighing the "dollars and cents", is that you never give up on your dream, regardless of whether that takes you to a publisher or the KDP program.

  7. Great article, thank you both.
    Thing to remember is, it's not an either/or question. Many writers do both. If they can get a trad deal for their full length novels, then great. But their anthologies and novellas - self-pubbing as an ebook is the way to go with them. There's less of a market for trad published anthologies and novellas, as the costing doesn't add up well for the publisher. But costs are so much less or even zero for ebooks, and the market is huge.

    I think the way of the future is a mixture. Just as I didn't give up buying print books when I bought my kindle, I won't give up chasing the trad deal for my full length novels, while self-publishing other stuff.

    1. An excellent point!

      It is quite possible to do both. In fact, if you structure the deal properly, you can take away the best of both worlds.

      Back to my example of Hugh Howey. He became famous by self-publishing the Wool series. A publisher sought him out, and Howey now has a brilliant publishing deal. However...he retained his digital rights! I think this is the way to go in structuring publishing deals, and it's certainly something that would be a "must have" for me if I ever went that route.

  8. Thanks so much for hosting me, Carol!

  9. Really interesting post. I think ebooks have been great for new indi authors and being able to promote their books on twitter and facebook. Years ago none of that could have happened. I always like to do my best for indi authors as a book review blogger and I must say some of the indi books are much better than the so called blockbusters.

    1. It's true, Anne. Many of us in the indie world feel as if we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard, because we believe the reading public will be especially critical of our work.

      There's still a lot of poor quality out there, but the trend is quickly moving towards independent authors embracing a true sense of professionalism.

  10. In the next ten years publishing is set to change so drastically that we'll hardly recognise it. Those publishers and agents had better watch out. It's so easy to publish independently and sell your books independently that they could well find themselves without a job to do. Is that or is that not a satisfying thought?

    1. I think "change" is definitely the operative word. I think there's going to be a place for traditional publishing, but it's not going to be the same place they currently occupy. I think many print books are going to be relegated mostly to certain textbooks/technical manuals and collector items, which won't have quite as large of a sales base.

      One thing is for certain: I believe they need to reevaluate what they currently bring to the table for mid-list authors, because most mid-listers (and many top listers) can do better on their own in the current market.

  11. Reading about your experience in e-publishing was genuinely helpful to someone like myself, who is hoping to self publish a novel this summer. Both trad and indie publishing have benefits and disadvantages, and I agree with you that it's up to each author to decide their priorities and take the route which matches those priorities the best. Good luck with your second novel

    1. Thanks so much, Teagan! This has definitely been an eye-opening journey!

  12. Thanks Nat! I really needed this post right now. I've been struggling with my options and you make some great points. The last editor that was interested couldn't get approval from her senior editor because "they just aren't interested in paranormal right now."

    1. Michaele, I can't tell you how often I've heard those very same words across other genres. The decision to publish or not often has very little to do with whether the story is good, or the story is well-written. When you get to the "big business" side of Publishing, it always comes down to money.

    2. The thing that worries me most is marketing. Will I know what to do and how to keep up with it? I'm willing, but I don't know if I'm able. Are there support systems out there to help with marketing?

    3. There's a learning curve, Michaele. But if it's any consolation, just 2 1/2 short years ago, I knew absolutely *nothing* about marketing a book.

      The unfortunate truth is that regardless of which path we take (self-pub or legacy pub), unless we're already a huge name in publishing, we're going to have to do our own marketing. The irony of marketing in a large publishing house is that they only spend marketing dollars on authors who have already earned a lot of money for them.

      Make friends with social media. Having an author platform is every bit as important as you've heard.

      I also recommend digging up some books from an author named David Gaughran. His "Let's Get Digital" series is quite informative.

      I wrote an article on platform building you might fight interesting:

      If I can answer any questions, just let me know!


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