The traditional publishing option, just by the numbers

An author trying for a traditional publishing deal is rolling the dice. What are the odds? [Photo: mkw87 (Creative Commons)]
An author trying for a traditional publishing deal is rolling the dice. What are the odds? [Photo: mkw87 (Creative Commons)]

What kind of money can you make from a book you've written? Is traditional publishing or self-publishing the better way to go? The numbers in Hugh Howey's reports on how self-/indie published authors are faring in comparison to traditionally published authors are intriguing, but very narrow. I view them with a healthy degree of skepticism. The numbers we see shared by traditionally published authors, and the various trade organizations and publications, I also view at arm's length. Anecdotal info, like that shared by Robin LaFevers, is interesting, but not definitive. Frankly, all of the surveys and studies are at best limited, with incomplete data being the main limiting factor.

Yet I don't treat the question as a political issue, as so many folks do. We are seeing an industry in disruption. All assumptions are up for questioning. The available data are incomplete and mostly outdated. I just want to be able to see things clearly.

So let's just start with some of the things we know, or think we know, and look at the numbers for traditional publishing.

Sales forecasting

In business, the practice of sales forecasting is an essential component of management. At its most basic level, the math is quite simple:

( gross size of the deal – costs to execute ) * odds of getting the deal = weighted value of the prospective deal

In traditional publishing, there are some long odds to consider.

Odds of getting an agent.Carly Watters says that the odds she will accept your manuscript is 1/2000, or 0.05%. Them's pretty long odds.

Odds of making a book deal. I have no idea what this number might be, so I'll just say 50%.

This means that the odds of being published in the traditional publisher path is 1/2000 * 1/2 ... or a one in four thousand chance.

If you look at the median book deal for a first-time author as being around $15,000 (and that may be optimistic), the weighted value, given the odds, is not much: 15,000/4,000 or $3.75. Enough to buy a small latte. And it may take you two or three years to see that entire amount. Is that a good investment of your time?

But let's say those percentages are way too pessimistic. Let's say your chance of getting an agent is 1% instead of 0.05%. That puts your combined odds at 0.5%, times $15,000, which gives you a weighted advance of $75. Is that now worth 2-3 years of your time?

And this does not account for the "costs to execute", including the 15% for the agent and the fees you pay your lawyer to read the contract (unless you're fool enough to sign major contracts without legal counsel). (I'll leave out taxes, because however you make money in publishing, you'll owe taxes.)

If you were to go the independent, or self-, publishing route, the sales forecasting gets a bit murkier. We simply don't know what the average or median income is for self-published authors. The data available are incomplete. However, going this route you do have more control over the components that have proven over and over to help with book sales: book design, title, blurb/synopsis, pricing. Do you think you can sell more than 75 bucks worth of books? If you're talking purely financial numbers, that's the general question.


Of course, the Big Five publishers provide more than advances. They have established distribution channels to bookstores. They (presumably) have top-notch editors to help you make your book the best it can be. And they have that aura of legitimacy that so many authors crave. I'll get into the pros and cons in another post. For now, I'll just say that the choice in how to pursue publication of a book is hardly ever a purely financial one.

But if you're looking at writing books as a career, money certainly is a factor. The simple fact is that the sooner you can quite your day job and spend the bulk of your workdays and work energy on your writing, the quicker your writing will improve—not to mention the sooner you're able to spend more time pursuing your love of writing.

Also, before anybody waggles a finger, I realize that the math of this sales forecast is very simplistic, and is very difficult to apply to single-case projections. The point of this post is to look at the concept behind it—that to get a clearer sense of  your options as a writer who has just completed a manuscript, you cannot simply compare income of self-published author vs. traditionally published author, straight across. If this topic interests you, Google is your friend, but I can say that one place you might start is in Kate Lawrence's rundown of estimating using Monte Carlo analysis.

More on the pros and cons, as I see it, in a future post.