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Self-Publishing: One More Word By John Scherber

Books, Photo by Pimtheda

Photo by Pimtheda

I have noticed more than once that when someone wishes to disparage my work they bring up the fact that it’s self-published. My usual response is to ask whether they are buying the content of the book or the publisher’s imprint when they make the purchase.

The reality is that publishing is changing in ways not everyone is comfortable with. Bookstores are shakier than ever, and the group of large New York publishers has been reduced to five. These five are increasingly nervous about taking on new writers, even to the point of recruiting ghost writers to carry on when one of their mainstay authors dies, as happened recently with Vince Flynn when he passed away in June of 2013. This is one of a number of reasons why I have said that New York no longer serves the interest of either its readers or its writers very well.

Indeed, on Amazon now 31% of its book sales are from those authors who are independently published (read self-published). This suggests that the typical reader is starting to lose this distinction more and more, which is not a good sign for New York’s continued dominance of the business.

I also know a number of New York-published authors and we often compare notes. I see a great deal of dissatisfaction among them for a variety of causes. We mainly hear about the blockbuster authors who make millions, but the principal population of NY authors are struggling to survive, just like most independent authors. Among the issues are a lack of control over cover design, pricing, and even the title. A writer can wait two years before seeing his book appear in print. He will see the publisher take 75% of his Kindle royalties. I know of one author who refuses to start his next book because his current publisher has first refusal rights on it and he despises them. Is the prestige of having a NY publisher worth all this?

Earlier this year I was at a cocktail party with a number of literary people and a New York published author who sells a lot more books than I do took me aside and asked me what the royalty payment was on the sale of a Kindle book. I was astounded that he didn’t know. It suggested how much a big publishing house might wish to keep its authors in the dark.

When I returned to writing in 2005 I got an agent within a few months and he signed me to a three-book deal. Four years later, when he hadn’t sold anything, I reluctantly moved on and learned the publishing  business myself. Although it’s been a great deal to learn, I have never been sorry.

Books, Photo By AZ

Photo By AZ

I brought out a new book on the expat lifestyle just over a month ago (August 9, 2014). It’s titled, Living in San Miguel: The Heart of the Matter. Naturally, I monitor its sales in both Kindle and print. I like to understand my competition, so I looked at a NY published book that sells better than my new one, both in print and Kindle formats. Let’s say that the author is named A. It’s published by an imprint that had looked at an earlier book of mine and declined it.

The print version of A’s book sells for $14.95. Amazon has discounted it to a little over $11.00, but you won’t see that in the bookstore. The Kindle edition of this other book sells for $1.99. Let’s look more closely at these numbers.

In the Kindle edition, because the book is not priced between $2.99 and $9.99, Amazon pays a 35% royalty. Thirty-five percent of $1.99 is $.70. Of this amount the publisher takes three-quarters, leaving $.175, and the author’s agent takes 15% of that. The author walks away with fifteen cents on each Kindle sale.

My book is priced at $7.99 on Kindle. This means that Amazon pays me a 70% royalty, less transmission fee, so I get $5.54 per copy. Since I am the publisher, I keep it all. Our author ‘A’ needs to sell 37 Kindle copies to take home what I make on one. While A’s book sells more than mine does, it does not sell remotely close to this.

In print, A’s book, priced at $14.95 in the bookstore, wholesales for 45% of that, or $6.73. A gets a 15% royalty of this, less the 15% of her take that goes to her agent, so A walks away with $.85 per print copy.

Books, Photo by Ginny

Photo by Ginny

My print book is priced at $17.95 on Amazon. The bookstore does not want the book because it’s self-published. Amazon and any other online retailer who sells my book gets at 20% discount, set by me, which is the minimum they’ll take. There is no reason to give them more. Their profit is $3.59, leaving $14.36 for me. Out of this I have to pay the printer, who charges me $4.36 to print and bind the book. I walk away with exactly $10.00 a copy for my seven months of work and the associated publication expenses. This is nearly twelve times as much as A gets per copy. Again, while A sells a few more copies than I do, no way does A sell twelve times as many.

The bottom line is this: many authors can do better self-publishing (True self-publishing, not using a subsidy press that will take a cut of your sales). The amount of promotion required is about the same, because NY only promotes their top five or six best sellers. If your work is of good quality, properly edited, with attractive cover design and thoughtful marketing you can do much better than you would if you were published in NY.

Another issue is that you will have total control of your work, and you will be fully informed as to what’s going on because you’ll be making your own decisions. While initially I hated the thought of having to learn this business once I left my agent. From here I can say that I have never regretted it. If I were starting over, I would have skipped the agent process and gone right to self-publishing, saving myself a lot of time.

If you found this post of interest you might enjoy a more lengthy treatment of these issues and many others about the practice and business of writing: A Writer’s Notebook: Everything I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I was Starting Out. There’s a sample on my website:



2 Responses

  1. While it’s true, there’s lots of good reading out here in indie land, the truth is, the market is glutted with crap–draft work is the norm so those of us who have decent books in indie land just have to deal with this reality—there is no vetting process and say what you want about traditional, they vet work & that’s why only about 150,000 books have been published each year–historically that figure held until indie publishing entered the game…

    1. Yes, Marla, Indie publishing is filled with crap. But so is NY publishing. To me, NY shakes out like this: The top 1-2% are superb books. Below, a layer of 10-15% are good workmanlike books that deserve an audience. Below that about 85% are crap. I consider the Indie output to be about 96% crap, so it is a matter of degree more than of kind. The author’s task in both fields is to differentiate himself from the hoard.

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