This is the second installment of a multi-part series about the pros and cons of different types of publishing options (traditional, small press, and self-publishing), and the things aspiring authors can do to make their work ready for each one. These will be distillations of what I have learned on my own, as well as attending seminars through the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con 2016.
Last week, I told you about the roots of the traditional publishing industry and a little bit about setting expectations when it comes to how much money you’d really make with a traditional publisher. This week, we dive deeper into the financial realities of traditional publishing.
The biggest boon a traditional publisher can offer an author is financial support. This does not just mean buying ads, it means paying a huge team of support personnel to make your book ready to go. They pay for editors (yes, plural. They have different specialties, so the copy-editor at a big house is not the same person who advocates for your book in meetings). They hire an artist and type-setter for the cover (rarely the same person). They pay people to write your blurb, marketing materials, and press releases. They pay to have your book reviewed in major publications seen by book buyers. These people all need offices to go to, and the hubs of publishing like New York City have some of the highest real estate prices in the world. And of course, they pay to physically print and distribute your book.
When a publishing house agrees to take on a manuscript, it is a HUGE investment on their part, which is why they normally keep 90% of the profit. Or do they? According to the breakdown provided by Maxwell Alexander Drake in his Gen Con seminar, the publishing company itself actually only ends up with about a quarter of the pie to cover the salaries of their own employees and their overhead. The printers get about 12%, the distributors get a 15% cut, and the retailers take the lion’s share, 40%. Yep, the people selling your book actually make the most money off of it, NOT the publisher.
Because the publishing company makes the initial investment with no promise of big returns, it also means they make the final decisions about ALL of the things I listed above, and can decide exactly how much they want to invest in any title at any time. In theory, this should be a boon to the author because these are professionals who have been in the business of selling books for a long time. On the flipside, an author may feel like they lose control of the work that they spent years creating, and disagree with the decisions made by the “experts.” (I’ll address this more in a future post)
Not to mention, not all books get the same share of the attention (which roughly translates into dollars) from their publisher. Big houses are probably releasing ten books every month, and more than likely throwing 90% of their budget at only one or two titles at a time. This doesn’t mean they won’t promote every book they publish, but it is important to keep in mind that if you are a first-time author, you probably won’t get as much of a push for your book as an established author.
Basically, a publishing company is like those deep-pocketed investors of yore, with the discretion to put as much or as little money behind a project as they see fit. More than likely, any amount of money a publisher puts toward a title is more than an individual author could do on her own, but even if the numbers came out roughly the same, there is more than just the funding that makes traditional publishing attractive for a lot of authors.
I’ll address the second most important thing traditional publishing can offer an author next week, so come back for Part 3 of Publishing 101.