When Big Book Publishers Win

by | Jun 15, 2011

The number of authors I get to meet is truly amazing, and every one of you are fascinating.

Today I talked to an author who had published several books quite successfully with one of the biggest business book publishers in the country.

The author wasn’t entirely happy about this. He wasn’t getting very good response from some of the people assigned to his books, and after splitting royalties with his co-authors after signing a standard contract for 15% of the net, he was making about a dollar a book on a $46.95 hardcover.

But the books had done well, and the author was wondering about self-publishing. He kept hearing about the author keeping 75 or 80%, and he was interested.

It’s no wonder. Self-publishing, indie publishing and e-books are the topics almost everyone wants to talk about. I met this author at the local publishing group I belong to, and where the indie spirit runs deep.

But on the Other Hand . . .

I looked at the books. They were with a perfect publisher for their market in management books, and had sold well. The publisher had:

  • A sales force to sell the new book
  • Willingness to invest perhaps $100,000 or more getting the book to market
  • An established distribution network to the retailers who could best sell the book
  • Long-term relationships with all the actors in the distribution chain
  • Access to specialized media for promotion

Even if this publisher only sent out a press release and nothing more, leaving all the marketing to the author, he would still be ahead. As a self-publisher, he wouldn’t have a chance of equalling the kind of sales his publisher can achieve.

My conclusion was that the book was a poor choice for self-publishing. I told the author he should concentrate instead on:

  • Writing a more popular treatment of his subject, which he could easily self-publish, and
  • Use the books from the large publisher as leverage in finding other ways to monetize his high-quality content.

So self-publishing isn’t the answer for everyone. The book distribution network, with its many layers and long-time players, its bizzare practices and consignment mentality, is still the preeminent way to sell many books.

Those of us who can self-publish, and who can profit from the 80% “royalty” we pay ourselves, should count ourselves as quite fortunate.

Photo by Bosc d’Anjou

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Diana Jackson

    Having a support network is vital Don, in my experience. Just to meet once a week and share from each other’s experiences, enjoy successes and discuss reasons for difficulties with people who know what you are talking about is a life line. As is a group of like minded supporters on Twitter … I call them my Tweshials! I write historical fiction, books I cannot churn out in a few months and I have come to the same conclusion as Joel. I need to write other types of fiction to keep the momentum going, while I research for my next in the series. Selling books in the fast lane seems to be the order of the day, without cutting back on quality. It’s keeping an eye on the market too! Good luck Diana

  2. Judith Briles

    You had a good point. There are instances when you have to establish yourself first before you can set out into the world and do everything yourself. That way, you can become more successful. It sometimes requires us to converge with other people, especially those already had established a name in their own niche, to create a name or experience you will need later on.

    • Don Horne

      I bought your book, “Show Me About Publishing” and learned from it. I used Joel’s book the most for my presentation on self publishing because I have had it longer, but I did hold your’s up and say it was one of the best for the business of publishing.

      I accomplished what I wanted to do in my presentation. We now have a local author group in Red Oak, Texas. Several groups are already represented in Dallas and Fort Worth, but it was neat to have people want their own group here. The Red Oak Public Library even offered a free meeting place.
      In your and Joel’s experience, do you feel that support is almost a necessity for new authors?

  3. Suz

    It’s not that difficult. Just write the ebooks people want to read. Well, if you’re good at writing.

    • Don Horne

      You are right. Just write the books that sell. I knew that. I no longer will write books that don’t sell.

  4. Laurel L. Russwurm

    If you are willing to put the necessary oomph into it, *anything* can be successfully self published thanks to the Internet.

    This is not to say it isn’t a horrific amount of work, but the Internet offers the perfect way to build a niche market. Sure, write & publish your dinosaur book, but in conjunction with your dinosaur website/blog.

    And as Don Horne points out… authors do as much work on the marketing treadmill as they have to do on their own. Again, it is not easy, but it is certainly doable.

    • Don Horne

      Ms. Laurel, it IS doable. The only question one asks is what is one’s definition of success? One book? Two books? Multiple books? Recognition? Wealth? It is certainly a success, at least minimally, to hold that first book in your hand like a new baby. Like having more than one child, each one is loved special. I don’t live to write, writing IS life! Have a great day!

      • SM Johnson

        I’m with Don on defining success. I incubated my first book for MUCH longer than I incubated my first baby. I sent my query packets off with a kiss. Holding the first paperback was success. I’d love to quit my day job and write all the time, but writing is like breathing. It’s not something I can help.

        I am published with a small press. I work at marketing. The journey has been a dream come true, but it’s no fairytale.

        • Don Horne

          Well said. I think anyone that can carry through and publish even one book is a success. I have never seen anyone that has finished a book belittle a new author. In fact, I love the togetherness of a group of authors. Much better than war time, but the feelings for one another is much the same. Hooah! Group!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Laurel, my point here is that it wouldn’t be worth the cost or the risk to self-publish this book. Not many authors are prepared to put up that kind of money, print thousands of books that might never sell, and accept the risk. These books are very complex, contain hundreds of drawings and challenging typography, and sell to a small professional group of people. We know where those people are and how they buy, that’s not the problem. If your buyers want to walk into a professional or university bookstore to buy your book, you better be prepared to have it there, and for many books you simply can’t do that by self-publishing.

      Look, I’m about as big an advocate of indie publishing as anyone, but there are realities in business, and if you want to sell books, it pays to plan within those realities.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Christopher Hudson

    Yep, that’s the issue … go with a mainstream publisher and get a few percent of something, or self-publish and get 70% of nothing … however, for a new fiction writer today, chances are pretty good that the only way his/her manuscript will ever see the light of day is by self-publishing.

    • Don Horne

      Christopher, I agree completely. I have 4 fiction books in paperback and 4 on Kindle. I did the booksigning thing in 4 states, consignment in the local bookstore, etc. My new personal goal is to establish a strong viral presence and see if that helps. Anything which brings a self publisher notice seems to help. I did make the April cover of a monthly neighborhood magazine which did help. I gave a presentation last night on “Self Publishing – Fact Or Fantasy?” at the local library and was surprised at the turnout. Authors are having to work just as hard for the publishers as for themselves as a self publisher. My books are listed and can be special ordered at Barnes and Noble, but I have not tried to get them to stock anything. They pay a minuscule royalty 60 days after the end of the quarter. I like to eat at least once a day, and selling solo I can do that.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Christopher, the fact remains that there are many books that aren’t that well suited to self-publishing. Fiction writers have taken to self-publishing in a big way, and I’m all for that. But there are lots of different kinds of books out there.

  6. Don Horne

    I appreciate your integrity. In my presentation on self publishing last night the only author in the room with a published book was a man with a nonfiction on dinosaurs. He wanted to self publish. I told him as gently as I could to do it, but the 12 people in the world that would buy his book from him might better be found through a publisher with a niche market like his. As an author myself, not everyone is better off self publishing.

    Hesitant about telling you on a blog, it’s like writing on a bathroom wall, everyone sees it, but I held up your book and gave out 2 handouts with your name as reference on the bottom. Even in the Power Point show I gave you a much deserved credit. Thank you for writing your book.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, thanks very much Don. Don’t know if I’ll be able to shake that “bathroom wall” image, but I do appreciate it and I’m sure people got a lot from your talk.

      • Don Horne

        Now that we are not on the front page of your blog, let me brag on you. My presentation has led to forming a local author’s group and our first meeting on July 7th. A lady from the library passed around a clipboard and I did not pay much attention, but the only person in the room which did not sign up for an author’s group was my wife! I guess she hears it enough. The topic they want is epublishing. I am reading every day your wonderful blog topics and watching the interviews. Thank you for your timeliness (hope that is a real word). I still believe in the printed word, but I can see where it will become secondary to the epub. I want to build a .mobi site for the iphones. Do you have a book on that subject? I built websites for years and taught a class in HTML and some on XML. Does the iphone format automatically or do we have to build in the formatting? I will keep watching. I am taking a vacation to catch up on my writing. Hard to balance promos with writing, how do you do it?
        Best of the day to you.

        • Joel Friedlander


          Timeliness is a real word. E-books are creating incredible curiosity and interest at the moment, so anything you can do to help educate authors will be warmly received. There are some great resources available for doing your own Kindle files, if that’s what you’re looking for. Let me know.



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