Wanna Write a Book? The Realities

Posted on 10/08/10 No Comments

 Twelve books into my writing career (10 traditionally published, one self-published, one ebook), I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned a bit about the publishing industry.  My experience, however, is not with New York Times bestsellers … or anything remotely close.  Rather, my experience has been with small and mid-sized niche publishers, which – if you are thinking about having a book published – is an excellent option to consider.

But first you must drill one thing into your head, again and again and again: You will not make much money.

In fact, you probably won’t even get paid minimum wage for you efforts.

Heck, you might end up losing money on the project!

If you look at industry statistics, you’ll be amazed at the odds that are stacked against you.  Just read Steven Piersanti’s post, “The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing.”  Keep in mind when you read it that he is the president of a publishing company.  Fill the bucket with cold water now, because it’s heading your way!

According to Piersanti, the average nonfiction book in the United States sells less than 250 copies per year.  On top of that, if you are successful in getting your book published through a traditional publisher, you have a 1 in 100 chance of getting your book into a brick-and-mortar bookstore (1 in 1000 anyone?)!

A few years ago some staggering statistics were published by Bookscan, and they’ve been oft-quoted.  As jaw-dropping as these stats may seem, keep in mind that book sales have declined since these figures were published, yet the number of books being published has greatly increased.

So, based on this outdated data, we know that:

80% of published books sell less than 99 copies
96% of published books sell less than 1,000 copies
98% of published books sell less than 5,000 copies

So you spend hundreds of hours writing your book, yet the odds are that you will sell less than 99 copies.  And hey, if your book sells over 1000 copies, it is time to cheer: you are in the top 4% of all books sold in the country!

My work is non-fiction, so I’m less familiar with the process to get a novel published.  That stated, here’s a shocking statistic for all you aspiring novelists:

3 in 10,000

That is apparently your odds of getting a novel published if you have not previously been published.  Wow!  Glad I write nonfiction.

The publishing industry is much like the music and film industries … a small percentage succeed, and succeed big, covering the losses incurred by the majority of books or albums or movies.  To whit: the top 30 bestselling books account for somewhere around 15% of all book sales in a given year. 

Some more industry stats:

Books published in 2009: 1,052,803
Books sold in 2009: 282 million

If you back out the 15% for which the top 30 account, that means that everyone else is fighting over about 240 million books, so if you do the math you can easily see how the “average” book sells less than 250 copies.  Of course, these figures for books sold include both traditionally-published and self-published (e.g., Author House).  In reality, most self-published books sell less than 100 copies – or as many copies as the author is willing to purchase to give to family and friends!  And if you want to get technical, there are somewhere around 3,000,000 books in print in the U.S. right now, all fighting for that 240 million books annually sold. 

Here’s a little perspective: according to Hubspot’s January 2010 State of the Twittersphere report, the average Twitter user has 300 followers.  Your 40,000 or 80,000 or 100,000-word book will be read by an audience of 250 people, yet your 140-character Tweets will be read by 300 people. 

Then there is the whole issue of royalties.  Paperback royalties can range between 5% and 10% of the publisher’s net sales (not the retail sale price), while hardcover royalties can range from 10% to 15%.  But there are variations outside the norm as well as sliding scales.  For instance, most of my publishing contracts have given me a standard royalty rate (e.g., 15% for a hardcover), plus a second royalty rate that kicks in once the publisher has to discount beyond 45% of retail price in order to get a distributor or big online store or big chain store to carry it.  When that happens, my royalty is halved, so I only get 7.5% of publisher’s net.

It can be very confusing, but here is a really simple example.

You write a book and a publisher agrees to publish it!  (Congratulations, you’ve beaten the odds.)  There is an 80% chance that your book will sell less than 99 copies, so let’s just say it sells 100 copies to keep things easy.  The cost of the book is $20 (more likely: $19.99, but we’re doing math here!), and the publisher’s discount to the retailer is 44% (phew, your royalty wasn’t cut in half).  Because the book is paperback, you get 10% in royalties.  Here’s your earnings:

$20 retail cost x 44% discount = $11.20 publisher’s net earnings per book
$11.20 x 100 books sold = $1,120 total net earnings
$1,120 x 10% author’s royalty = $112 in income

Of course, your book took 500 hours to write (average for nonfiction, compared with over 700 hours for fiction) so:

$112 income / 500 hours = $0.22. 

There you have it.  You earned 22 cents per hour to research and write your book.

Don’t quit your day job!

The publisher is often seen as the bully when it comes to looking at author income.  Maybe it is because I come from a business perspective, but I’m often shocked that the publishers can afford to stay in business.  If we look at the example of a $20 book sold to a retailer or through a wholesaler at a 44% discount (keeping in mind, the discounts are often larger), the publisher is looking at a net earnings of only $11.20 per book.  And what does the publisher have to pay for? 

Review book proposals
Contract with authors
Edit manuscripts
Obtain rights and permissions
Layout books
Design covers
Print books (paper + printing + binding)
Transport books from printer to warehousing
Store books
Distribute books to wholesalers/retailers
Ship returns back to warehouse (yes, the publisher pays for returns)
Prepare marketing and public relations materials
Promote, market, and sell
Administrative costs

Wow, that is a lot!  And with an average traditionally-published book selling as few as 250 copies, that is a pretty significant investment for each and every book.  One statistic I came across gives it some perspective: If you pay $25 for a book, and back out all the costs and the author’s royalty, the publisher will realize $1 in profit.

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