I’m an author now; when can I quit my day job?

Myth: Now that I’m a published author, I’m going to be rich.

Truth: Don’t quit your day job.

Bowker (the folks in charge of managing and selling ISBNs) estimates that over 316,000 books were traditionally published in 2010 (numbers are still coming in from publishers), and another 2,776,000 books were non-traditionally published (this includes reprints, public domain books, and books published through sleazy ripoff online vanity publishers). That’s over three million books published in one year.

You can easily figure that most of the online vanity published books weren’t sold in bookstores, which means they were mostly sold online and in person by the author (often at speaking events). Generally speaking, most of those books sell fewer than 100 copies, some no more than 10. (Yes, there are exceptions, mostly with known authors who have an excellent speaking platform and great marketing skills.)

Among traditionally published books, including books published by small presses, non-profit presses, and university presses, the first print run is typically between 1500-5000 books (10,000-15,000 for large publishers), depending on the topic (fiction or nonfiction, genre, subject matter), author name recognition, market demands, current events, and so forth. It’s not unusual for a small press to do a smaller print run, even as low as 500, to test the market reaction before doing a larger print run.

The vast majority of books never make it to a second printing, and many many books are “remaindered”—sold for pennies on the dollar and winding up in the bargain section. It would be safe to say that less than 5%, and possibly as little as 1% (I’m researching the numbers) sell more than their initial print run.

The general consensus among publishers is that less than 1% of books sell more than 5,000 copies.

The costs to the publisher include more than printing. They also include editing, interior design, font licensing, cover design, artwork licensing, advertising and other marketing costs, print setup fees, shipping fees, and warehousing costs. Not to mention overhead: postage, software, hardware, taxes, professional fees, web hosting and site maintenance, utilities, rent, legal fees, etc.

None of this includes the price of labor. A cover design can take a minimum of 10-15 hours of work by a designer who knows what they’re doing. Editing can take 50-100 hours, depending on the length and type of book. Interior design can take upwards of 25 hours or more, depending on how high the designer’s standards are and the type of book (a novel will take less; a coffee table book will take more).

Once a book is sold, the publisher does not get the retail, or cover price. Booksellers demand an industry-standard of 40% off the retail price. Most booksellers order from wholesalers. Wholesalers require a 10-15% cut of the retail price. Most wholesalers only accept books from distributors, who take another 10-15% of the retail price of the book.

Generally speaking, a publisher sees 30-35% of the retail price on every sale. From that amount, deduct production costs (editing, design, licensing, printing, shipping, storage, and related labor). But we’re still not at profit yet. Out of the dwindling amount the publisher sees on each sale, authors earn royalties. Then subtract marketing and overhead.

More and more publishers (now a majority of the industry) pay authors on net sales, not on a percentage of the retail price. For the most part, only the largest publishers can pay royalties based on retail price. The larger publishers pay an advance against royalties (usually a few thousand dollars—or what the publisher expects the author’s royalties would be based on expected sales for the first year).

Most authors do not earn out their advances. That means, the book doesn’t sell enough copies to justify the amount that the publisher paid the author. Publishers rely on the few books that do sell well to offset the money lost on production and royalties for the books that don’t.

Some publishers deduct marketing costs from royalties (we don’t at this time). Estimates are that small publishers spend 30-50 hours on marketing alone for a new title. Even if a majority of that marketing is online, it’s still labor.

Publishers are not getting rich—or at least the small publishers aren’t. Even Akashic Books, whose runaway hit Go the F**k to Sleep took them from an average 5,000 book print run to 275,000 copies says that “Independent publishers can actually be hurt by such successes, because they do not have the infrastructure to support the demand.

What does all this mean for you as an author?

  • Don’t count on an advance, and consider yourself very lucky if you do get one.
  • Be the marketing change you wish to see in your book—the more books you sell, the more you earn in royalties
  • Understand that your publisher is not getting rich off your work (the only people really making a killing in publishing are UPS and FedEx)
  • Don’t quit your day job (or make your day job marketing your book and writing the next one!)

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