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Confessions of an Author: What Happens in Traditional Publishing and What It Means for Indie Authors


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Hungry for that Sweet Life: Myths about Being an Author & Selling Books



Despite the Revolution in Indie book publishing over the last few years, especially with the advent of Print-on-Demand (POD) paper-book availability and with instantly accessible e-books, many self-published and Indie authors are still operating under ubiquitous myths about selling books – to their own dissatisfaction and disillusionment. There is, however, good news for all authors, but first they must become familiar with the business of selling books and be realistic about their expectations.

Myth #1
Traditional Publishers Pay for All Publicity and Promotion,
and Always Send Authors on Reading Tours

Unfortunately, it is simply not true that traditional publishers pay for the publicity of all the books they purchase. In fact, approximately 98% of all traditionally published authors must do all their own marketing, promotion, and publicity. If the authors are wealthy enough to employ their own publicists — such as Joyce Carol Oates, who earned, at last check, almost $200,000 annual salary as a professor — then those publicists do the work of promoting and marketing the authors’ works. It is only when an author is a proven bestseller that the publisher itself puts any money into promotion.

When my first novel was published by HarperCollins 20+ years ago, I was informed that I wasn’t “important enough to warrant any publicity money” — this despite having gotten good reviews from such prestigious publications as Publishers Weekly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review – and I was asked if I could pay for my own book tour. On my Professor’s salary, it took me almost a year to save enough to do 10 stops, taking cheap flights, staying at Holiday Inns, and supplying my own food. Not very glamorous, I can assure you. Did it sell books? HarperCollins never reported any sales, so I never earned any additional royalties, in spite of selling and signing books at the stores I toured.

When my second novel was accepted, I was once again asked to pay for my own reading tour. In traditional publishing,  critical acclaim and prizes do not equal being “important enough to have the publisher pay for a book tour.” My experience is typical for most traditionally published authors who are not already bestsellers.

Now, however, even for NY-published authors, bookstores rarely sponsor readings, and any readings they do schedule are (1) in large cities, (2) only for bestselling authors, (3) must be arranged by the publisher’s publicist in conjunction with each bookstore’s Special Events Coordinator, and (4) must be approved by Barnes & Noble’s Corporate Headquarters. Independent bookstores have largely been put out of business by Chain and Online bookstores, though there may be a few remaining which will sponsor readings, especially for local authors.

In brief, even traditionally published authors always had to do their own publicity and promotion. Bookstore readings have basically gone the way of the dinosaurs. Traditionally published authors usually have their own websites, blogs, Twitter and/or Facebook accounts to promote their own books, to connect with readers, and to keep their names in the public eye, so to speak.

Fact: Connecting with readers, regularly and consistently – not just by shoving commercials down their throats – is the best way to promote and sell books. Making connections with readers, however brief,  has always worked well: that’s what bookstore readings and participation at writing conferences were all about. Now, through effective use of established social media, blogs, and author websites with contact information, all authors have a better chance of promoting and selling their books than they had in the past.

Myth #2
Authors Earn the Full Cover Price of Each Book Sold
so Authors Get Rich Quick

This is one of the reasons most readers believe that all authors are rich, but many new authors themselves, unfamiliar with how the market operates, are angry when they do not become rich within a few months of their book’s publication, or are shocked to discover that they do not earn the entire cover price of a book when it is sold.

Typically, by contract, a traditionally published author will earn 3-10% of the cover (or list) price of each book sold. (Out of that 3-10%, the author then has to pay his agent 15-20% of all monies earned, as well as pay Federal, State, Local, and Social Security Self-Employment Tax [approximately 18%] on his book income.)

Bookstores, who actually sell the books, acquire them at discounts of 35-55% of the cover price, depending on the number of titles/authors sold: the difference between the wholesale and cover prices is what the bookstore “earns” for selling the book to the public.

The distributor, such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor, who is in charge of getting the books from the printer to the bookstore, usually earns at least 15% of the cover price. (Some smaller, regional distributors charge a higher percentage: to make up for smaller volume.)

The cost of printing the book is then subtracted by the printer, and the remainder of the money is sent to the publisher. The author gets his percentage, and, theoretically, the publisher gets the remainder. Unfortunately, in actual practice, the publisher often reports no sales and keeps all monies.

The formula works like this:

Cover (List) Price of Book
– 35-55% for Bookstore
– 15% or more for Distributor
– Actual Printing Costs
= $ that goes to Publisher

who then is supposed to give the Author the contractual percentage
(usually 3-10%) of the book’s cover price.

Let’s say a book’s cover price is $19.99. The bookstores purchase it for $8.99/book (average 45% discount), keeping the difference between wholesale and cover (or in-store sale) price for getting the book into the customer’s hands, earning $10.99/book, which is only reasonable since the bookstore is doing most of the work. The distributor keeps at least $2.99 (15%) for getting the book from the printer to the bookstores. Printing charges depend on the physical size of the book and its number of pages, since most printers charge a per-page-printing-fee. But let’s say the books is 275 pages, in a 5×8″ Trade Paper size: printing costs would be approximately $5.00 per book. That leaves $3.01 that goes to the publisher, who pays the author $1.99/book (10% royalty rate), keeping the remaining $1.02 for itself.

To put it more simply, the publisher gets approximately the amount the bookstores pay for the book minus the printing cost ($8.99-5.00=3.99). Of course, since some major online booksellers get a 55% discount to sell books on their sites, the publisher gets less money per book although the author should not.

Also, bookstores can return any unsold books at any time for no reason. If the publisher does not pay a substantial fee ($2-4.00/book) to get the entire book back, then the bookstores tear the cover off the book and return only the cover, get a refund for their entire purchase price, while supposedly destroying the book itself. However, as the warnings on the copyright pages of many books indicate, booksellers often return the covers, get their purchase price back, then sell the book, keeping all monies for themselves. Thus the warning on the copyright pages of many books:

If you purchased this book without a cover, please be aware that neither the author nor the publisher received any monies for its sale. Please support authors’ rights, and do not support piracy of intellectual property.

Fact: Though an author may never get rich, may not earn substantial amounts of money until he has several titles in print, and is extremely unlikely to become wealthy off his very first book or within a few months of publication – if ever – an author at least has more control over promoting and selling his works by connecting with readers through current social media than he ever had in the past.

As long as the author realizes exactly how much money he’s going to actually earn, he can keep on doing the only thing he can control that might eventually earn him more money: keep on writing good books.

Myth #3
All Bookstores Support
Indie & Self-Published Authors

Perhaps a local, independent bookstore who is familiar with the author might order books for sale to its readers, but the bookstore would still have to order through a distributor, have the right to return any unsold books at any time, etc.

Corporate bookstores are another story completely. Let me use Barnes & Noble as an example, since Borders has gone out of business, and most of my dealings, as an author and a publisher, have been with those stores.

First of all, Barnes & Noble does not make recognize the term “Indie” Author. There are either traditionally or self-published authors. That is all. Authors who have been previously published by traditional New York Houses, had their books taken out-of-print (OP) and put their own OP books back into print through Amazon’s Create Space, for example, are considered Traditional Authors, not “Indie” Authors. Anyone else, according to Barnes & Noble Corporate Headquarters and its local bookstores, is a self-published author.

If a traditionally published author who puts his OP books back into print convinces the Special Events Coordinator at his local Barnes & Noble that he can bring in enough readers to do a successful event, and if the author has multiple titles in print, and if the author has a good relationship with his local bookstore, and if the Corporate New York Office approves, then the local branch bookstore may schedule a reading, ordering — through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, or another established distributor — perhaps 10-20 books. More likely, the bookstore would order 5-8 books. If the author had multiple titles, the bookstore could conceivably order 2-3 copies of each title.

If the previously traditionally published author sold well through Barnes & Noble bookstores while his books were still in print with the New York publishers, then the local store may keep 1-2 copies in stock. Any other books not sold the night of the reading would be returned to the distributor (then to the printer, and ultimately to the “publisher”, which in this case would be the author) within a few days. The 1-2 copies put on the shelves in the hopes of future sales may be returned at any time, even years later, for a full refund, which is subtracted from the publisher’s [OP author’s] account.

Barnes & Noble cannot and does not order books from Amazon’s Create Space directly (nor from the Ingram-owned POD-printer Lightning Source, for that matter) since it is a printer, not a distributor. A printer merely prints books: it does not ship or distribute them for sale to bookstores. Distributors such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, or regional distributors who have contracts with B&N order books from the printers and send them to the bookstores.

Barnes & Noble does not order books by self-published authors.

Not even one copy.

Not even for local authors.

If a local self-published author  has a good relationship with his Barnes & Noble bookstore, and if he convinces the Special Events Coordinator that he can bring in a good sized audience for a reading, and if Corporate New York B&N approves, then the self-published author can pay to have a reading. (That is in bold to ensure that you do not mis-read it, but for emphasis, I will repeat it: if all the above conditions are met, the self-published author can pay to have a reading at his local B&N.)

It costs anywhere between $600-$1,000 for a self-published author to have a reading at a B&N, depending on the location and size of the bookstore itself.

The author must provide all copies of books to be sold by the local Barnes & Noble at his own cost. Since the author is purchasing them directly from the printer and delivering them to the bookstore himself, the author will earn no royalties on any books sold during said reading.

The local B&N which is sponsoring the reading keeps the entire cover price of each book sold. All of it. Every single penny. Nothing goes to the author. Barnes & Noble considers this only fair for allowing the author to use its name and space to advertise his self-published book.

And if, as sometimes happens, no one comes to the author’s reading, all books are returned to the author before his departure from the store, and no portion of the fees paid for the scheduled reading are refunded.

Even if an audience does show up and purchase books, any books not sold the night of the reading are returned immediately to the author. The store will not stock them since bookstores have a “return any time” policy with publishers and it does not consider a self-published author a publisher, whether or not the author has created a name for his own “House”.

Fact: An author needs to be aware that bookstores are largely controlled by Corporate entities, who are often owned by larger corporations, whose objective is to make as much money as possible with as little effort as possible. Whether traditionally, Indie, or self-publshed, an author needs to look beyond bookstores for sales.

With e-books, any locale that offers Wi-Fi can become a place to sponsor a reading. Many Starbucks, for example, do “open mic” nights, where they allow local artists – singers, writers, poets – to perform,  free of charge, because the store will make money from food and beverage sales.

(The author should be a regular, well-known, and well-liked customer of any Starbucks he approaches with such a proposition; he should also be able to produce an established audience of family and friends whose food and beverage purchases will provide incentive for the local manager to grant permission for the reading.) With e-books and Wi-Fi, any audience member present who has a Smartphone, laptop, or e-reader can purchase an author’s e-book during or after the reading.

An author can also video-tape dramatic readings of his work — not commercials, which have been proven ineffective — create his own channel on YouTube free of charge, upload videos of his readings, then regularly promote those video-taped readings on social media to encourage readers to enjoy his readings, which may lead them to purchase his books, whether in electronic or paper format.

Of course, if you’re a bestseller, then traditional publishers will probably pay for you to go on tour and do signings. Then again, they may not: after all, you’re already a bestseller and you’ve got better things to do, like write another bestseller.

Also, bookstores will be more than happy to carry your books. Because you’re a bestseller, and they’ll be making up to 49% of the cover price of every single book they sell.

As far as the Royalties go, I’ve never heard of any author — not even a bestselling one — making more than 20% off the cover price of their books. Bestselling authors make their money on large Advances for future books, with the traditional publishers banking on the previous book’s bestselling status to justify the amount of the Advance. If the next book is not a bestseller, the future Advances drop. Traditional publishers only have memories for the most recent book’s sales, it seems.

There are many more myths about being an author and about selling books that need to be examined, but for every myth, I assure you, there are facts that can help you sell your books and realistically achieve your dreams of becoming an author, not just a writer.

The most important thing you can do as a writer is to keep writing — every day — keep reading, improve your craft, and learn to connect with others (even other writers and authors are readers) on social media — not with an endless stream of “commercials” for your own books or for the books of other authors.

In the meantime, Stay Hungry, My Friends.

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