Thursday, August 28, 2014


How do you weigh dreams against expectations?

The other day, an article on the results of a recent author survey caught my eye. The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Survey asked authors, both published and hopeful, about their expectations relating to self-publishing and to traditional publishing.

Just the facts, ma'am

Authors felt traditional publishing provided a greater level of assistance and better overall design, although self-published books were perceived as being faster to release, while offering greater creative control. The difference in terms of production was assumed to be minor.

The cost of bringing a book onto the market is clearly higher for self-published authors. Authors and aspiring authors have expressed, either due to expectation or insight, that their input in terms of promotion would need to be substantial either way. However, authors did expect greater advantages from traditional publishing in terms of print distribution and their book’s ability to reach a greater readership. 

Clearly the royalty rate per book is higher with self-publishing than with traditional publishing. This is the tradeoff for the overall costs that need to be expended on bringing a book onto the market. In terms of sales, the surveyed authors expected the total amount of ebooks sold to be the same, although print would reach higher sales if supported by a traditional publisher.

Although this question wasn’t expressly covered, I assume all authors recognized that ebooks might make up the bulk of their sales, and therefore put their book’s chance of being a bestseller as about the same for either publishing channel.

Interestingly, the survey did not separate small publishers from large publishers. To me, small publishers present a perfect middle ground between higher royalties and greater creative control. In addition, it’s easier to build a relationship with a small publisher. A word of warning, though. If you haven’t yet received a “yes” from an agent or a publisher, don’t assume a small publisher is a last resort and will accept you.

The role of agents

From what I’ve gleaned, only about 1% of submissions to agents will result in a contract.

Assuming you land one of the roughly 400 agents in the USA who are actively selling books to about 20 editors in the major NY publishing houses, what then? Say, these 400 agents offer these 20 editors a total of 2000 books (five per agent) a year, how many will any one editor actually publish per year? Probably less than 25.


What do agents do when they can’t place your book with one of the big NY publishers? They approach smaller publishers, including digital-only and digital-first publishers. And although your royalties may be higher, the agent will receive a cut, negating any advantage you may have received. Luckily, agents aren't absolutely necessary to submit your manuscripts.

Several small publishers, especially digital-first and digital-only companies, report they take on roughly 8% of authors who submit to them directly. While your chances are much increased, this is still a slim margin.

Of course the likelihood of being published if you take matters into your own hands is 100%.

So should you be getting an agent? That depends [—as if you couldn’t guess I was going to say that]. Not only are agents the only way to receive an audition with one of the NY elite, they also tend to help get your book ready for submission, in a way that’s difficult for the individual author to judge. Plus, they have contacts you can’t even dream of.

What does all this mean?

It helps to know your market before you decide on a course of action. If your book is a genre crossover, you might be hard pushed to find an agent, and if you do, the agent’s job of getting an editor to take you on is even harder.

If your book is something entirely new or an old hat (albeit with what I hope is a fresh twist), convincing an agent to represent you is not easy either. This is where small publishers or self-publishing may be the obvious first choice.

As for the rest, you can’t predict the market. Go with what feels right. If your dream is to be published with an NY publisher, you must submit to agents. If you’re into being a prolific writer, small publishers might suit you best, because while they deal with editing and cover work, you can churn out more books. If you fancy yourself a polymath and are keen to be absolute master over every aspect of releasing a book, self-publish. 

There is money in all three avenues if your book is good enough and you handle your marketing well. Incidentally, these are the two areas that will always be firmly your responsibility anyway, reducing the issue of which publishing channel to take to a matter of convenience and compromise.

Do the stats tally with your own experience or expectations? For example, do you regret the decisions you’ve taken? Which consideration is of the greatest importance to you?

Carmen Fox Author of Urban Fantasy with Kick, Punch and Sassitude


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

All true, and then there is that breakaway book. One of the characteristics of breakaway authors is their total dedication to work ethic, their love and respect for their story the care that went into it, and a desire to find the best showplace for it.

Prolific authors are in a hurry to get the story out, or those who just want to say "I'm published…" should stay with self-publishing in whatever form it takes

Carmen Fox said...


I'm a perfectionist. I write a book in a few months, then I spend a year editing until my changes become "tinkering." Then the preparation begins. Synopsis. Query.

Most of all, I dread the beta-reader stage. They usually come in a swap arrangement, and I'm stuck with books that are barely readable. I begin with correcting typos (threw instead of through...). Halfway through I leave a note advising the rest should be spellchecked and I'll concentrate on the big stuff from now on. As I enter the last third, I want to cry. I insert the odd comma, point out plot holes - insofar as I can make out a plot - and limp to the finish.

Next thing, I get an email thanking me and 'owing to my input, the manuscript is now ready to submit or worse, to self-publish.'

Liz Fountain said...

Y'all are making me feel a bit better about the time I'm taking with my current WIP. It's slow going but it seems necessary to respect the story.


Carmen Fox said...

No, Liz. Don't rush. I believe writers should write for themselves, but in the end understand that, once published, the world they created is no longer their own. But up to that point, it is yours and only yours. You are the quality inspector. If you're not convinced it's right, it's not.

You know the "I'll get away with it" syndrome? Where you know something about a scene isn't quite working, but you can't pinpoint the problem and assume no one will notice? They will. So it's best to do it right, because those scenes will always, always haunt you.

Big Mike said...

Welcome aboard Carmen. One more often forgotten advantage of a small publisher vs going solo is the abundance of support offered by the staff and associated writers with the publisher, especially if you've never gone through the complexities and isolation of going alone. Personally, I think there's a bump up in quality also. We're willing to tolerate flaws we can't see, while a publisher is not. Good to have someone in the background cracking the whip.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Carmen Fox said...

Thanks, Mike. You're spot on. The cracking-the-whip element combined with generous support turns the experience of seeing your book published into a family affair. Although so far, the whip has been pure hearsay for me. Phew.