Why Choose Traditional Publishing Over Self-Publishing

The Two Choices, by M.T. White

If you have the talent, something to say, and are persistent enough but don’t have a large brand, traditional publishing (which includes indie publishers) is almost always the way to go. Just do a Google search for almost any traditionally published fiction title and you’ll see hundreds or even thousands of ‘Good Reads’ reviews, indicating thousands of sales. You cannot get that kind of volume self-publishing unless you are either very lucky, have a large personal brand, or are extremely good at networking. Yeah, traditional publishers take a big cut but they can also bring in big volume. Stephen King would not be worth as much as he is had he done it alone. The odds of success at publishing increase dramatically if you have a high-IQ (yeah, IQ is important for success at writing, no way around this), are persistent enough and put in the necessary work, and if you write how-to books instead of fiction (STEM books, despite the difficulty of the subject matter, sell a surprisingly many copies and command a much higher price than fiction. This is because traditionally published physics and math textbooks are quite expensive ($50-150), so if you can sell you own textbook for half the price and undercut the major competitors, you can still make a lot of money per sale.)

To get an idea of how substantial traditionally published books sales are, here is a list of the bestsellers 2015, with the number of copies sold for each book:

Top 15 best-selling books of 2015 revealed – how many of these blockbusters have you read?

#1-3 sold a combined 2.08 million copies.

M.T. White writes:

Notice, you’re not writing your book to appeal to readers. You’re writing your book to appeal to agents and acquisition’s editors. Naturally, they are looking for product that will sell, but to them it is just product—to you it will be a book written full of compromise…maybe. No matter what, you have to appeal to THEM first before your book hits shelves. And THEY might have very different tastes than you. They live in a different city (probably New York), while you might live in rural Texas. They might have polite sensibilities, while you have vulgar ones. You might find someone who is in alignment with you but as I stated above, there is a 99.9% you won’t. You have to appeal to THEM before your book even makes it to the press.

Not sure how much of this is true. Although with traditional publishers you relinquish some creative control, imho, publishers care more about selling books than political correctness, and I imagine well-written books tend to sell better than poorly-written ones. If the author is already famous (such as by being a celebrity), quality may be secondary. Consider Milo Yiannopoulos’ book, Dangerous, which is obviously not politically correct but is still being published by a major publisher, Simon & Schuster (specifically, Threshold Editions, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster). Major publishers will take chances if they can get good sales volume. For example, Ann Coulter’s latest book Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome! is punished by Sentinel, a subsidiary of Penguin that specializes in conservative books.

But the reality for self-publishers is pretty bleak when you crunch the data. The median number of sales for the typical self-published books is zero, literally indicating no copies sold. This means if the author paid for editing, formatting, and cover design, he or she lost money. The mean is higher, due to the couple hundred or so outliers that sell thousands of copies, inflating the overall average. Or to put it another way, if Bill Gates enters a bar that has 50 patrons, the mean wealth for each patron is $1 billion, but the median wealth is still around zero.

Only 40 Amazon self-publishers have sold a million e-book copies the past five-years:

40 self-published authors “make money”, all the others, and they number in the hundreds of thousands, don’t. This interesting statistic, recently revealed in a New York Times article, applies to the Kindle Store, but since Amazon is in fact the largest digital publishing platform in the world, it is a safe bet that self-published authors are not doing any better elsewhere.

“Making money” here means selling more than one million e-book copies in the last five years. Yes, 40 authors have managed that, and have even gone on to establishing their own publishing house, like Meredith Wild. Her story is fully reported in the New York Times, here, and well worth pondering over.

The number of books on the Kindle marketplace meanwhile has exploded:

The digital market is indeed scary, primarily because of its dimension: over 4 million titles today in the Kindle Store, compared with 600,000 six years ago (again, the data is from the same article). This means “book discovery” has become the number one problem. How can your book stand out in such a vast crowd?

The somewhat depressing reality is, as discussed in Pencil Pushers and the Miracle of Capitalism, the creative arts, which includes writing, doesn’t pay well relative to the rarity of talent and IQ required to succeed at it. Same for much of entertainment, such as acting and singing. The top athletes, musicians, and actors ‘only’ make about $100 million (yeah pity them lol) but the top businessmen make hundreds of millions or even billions. Only one musician has ever made a billion dollars, Sir. Paul McCartney, I think.

But back to writing, a ‘success’ at publishing, both traditional or self-published, is to make $30,000 a year pre-tax. A six-figure contract is considered a ‘big success’. For example, if you sell 3,000 books on Amazon for $15/each and keep $10 per sale, you’ll earn $30,000/year, which puts you in the top 1% of all authors (traditional, indie, and self-published).

According to a research report, by my guesstimate, only 100 Kindle publishers make over $50k year:

Unfortunately, despite an exhaustive Google search I was unable to determine the total number of Kindle publishers, so these numbers are hard to statistically quantify.

Indie publishing also has similar barriers and quality control as big-5, but sales volume is predictably lower. Indie publishing caters to a near-infinite number of genres, from math books, youth fiction, and history.

But such success likely also requires top 1% of IQ and talent. But according to the US Census Bureau, the median annual personal income for all workers over age 15 is $30,240, and a mean personal income of $44,510–which only requires top 50% of talent and IQ to attain, versus top 1% talent. You have to have been the smartest in you class (straight A’s on all the writing assignments and a near-perfect verbal score on the SAT) to have a shot at making $30-50k a year with fiction writing. If not IQ, then top 1% of work ethic and determination. Or top 1% of social networking. No matter how you look at it, in the arts, you need to be exceptional to make an unexceptional income. Selling books is hard. Like painting, you can’t do it for the money, but rather out of a love for the process, and any windfalls should be treated as surprises. Milo’s $250,000 advance is a such a big deal because for authors that’s a large amount of money, which is the same annual salary as a mid-level nobody from a medium-sized firm. Milo has top .001% recognition (a Google search for his name reveals over 4.3 million results, making him one of the most visible people alive) to make a salary obtainable by 2% of the general population.

Some say you have to build a brand to self-publish, but what does that entail? Writing blog post or a book typically involves a typical formula: plot, characters, theme, protagonists, antagonists, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. How does one even begin to self-promote? It’s so vague and the brevity of such advice belies the great difficulty of applying it. Going the traditionally punished route seems easier, because then you can focus most of your energy on writing the best possible book you can, rather than promotion and building a brand, which is the job of the publisher. The major problem is that there are to many self-published books, and major inflencers are inundated with paid review requests, meaning that the typical book will get very little exposure and the turnaround time will be very long. The odds anyone, myself included, can build a personal brand big enough to sell at least 100 books is close to nil, even if you work hard at it.

But overall, compared to self-publishing, traditional publishing offers a higher average and median payout (both terms of the advance and, if it sells enough copies, the royalties), but also there is more time and work involved. If you get traditionally published (which includes smaller indie firms), even if the book doesn’t sell more than a few thousand copies, it opens up a lot opportunities and recognition that makes the slog worthwhile, that self-publishing typically does not provide. You’ll start getting a trickle of ‘Good Reads’ reviews…people will start ‘Googling’ your name, and after maybe three or so books, you’ll develop a decent-sized following, which increases the odds of subsequent books being a success, as well as larger advances. Self-publishing: less time and work (although still a lot), smaller average payout (most books sell less than a dozen copies) and less recognition.

Related: The Stark Realities of Self-Publishing