The Author-Publisher And The Almighty Dollar

If you don’t know the name Brenna Aubrey, you will soon.

Brenna turned down a $120,000 three-book deal with one of the Big Five and instead chose to self-publish her newest, the ironically-named At Any Price. She has reportedly made ~$19,000 in the first month of release, which — well, I don’t know that she’ll earn out at the top of the contract offered, but I know that’s the kind of money that likely has her quietly trembling with a kind of caffeinated, eye-popping excitement.

It’s an exciting time, and one that shows that authors have options they didn’t have ten years ago.

(And further, this might serve as something of a message to publishers — like it or not, I suspect we’re going to see more stories like this over time unless publishers inject a little flexibility into their contracts. Some have already gone to this, to be clear, but others seem bent on keeping things locked down long past necessity. They may pay for that inflexibility in the long run.)

The narrative here, however, will again be how you can make more money as an author-publisher than you can through traditional publishing — it certainly feels that way, doesn’t it?

Here’s my (anecdotal) mileage:

My self-published writing books do pretty well for me. The last one was published about a year-and-a-half ago, and they’re still generating strong steady income. Moreso than my Writer’s Digest release (The Kick-Ass Writer), at least at the front end — sure, that book appears to be selling well, but I won’t see any royalties off that book immediately. Not like I would or could off of self-publishing (which are immediate and robust)

So, right there, that would seem to earn the conclusion, yeah?

Not so fast.

Consider, if you will, my novel, Bait Dog, the second Atlanta Burns story and first Atlanta Burns novel, which I Kickstarted as a two-book deal for $6,857, or roughly $3,400 per book. Bait Dog released and now, in total, has conjured about six grand worth of sales. Which is good money! I’m not complaining — you’re looking at about ten cents per word, which is life-sustaining income if you can keep up the pace and have the time to devote toward publishing your own work.

Now, at the same time, that’s inferior to the money I’ve made with advances from traditional releases. A book like Blackbirds has gone on to sell in various other countries (France, Turkey, Poland, Germany) and has had, erm, other licensing success that I can’t talk about here yet — *shakes fist* — which puts it in very comfortable financial territory for a book most publishers seemed to love but believed they could not sell. (Publishers can be risk averse.)

I was able to leverage the reasonable success and excitement over a book like Bait Dog to a more traditional deal, too — Skyscape Children’s bought the book and will release Shotgun Gravy and Bait Dog as a single volume (with new content and robust edits) called, simply, Atlanta Burns. That and they’ll produce the follow-up, too.

So, again, does self-publishing pay more than traditional publishing?

Are you financially better off becoming an author-publisher?

*shakes the Magic 8-Ball*

ANSWER UNCLEAR, ASK AGAIN LATER.

Translation: who the fuck knows? Maybe, maybe not.

What about doing both? The so-called “hybrid” approach?

If you believe the numbers put out by Writer’s Digest, hybrid authors — meaning, authors who publish multiple ways to some extent or another — tend to be the ones making the most money. Phil Sexton talks about the results of that survey (sourced from Publisher’s Weekly):

“Hybrid authors are more aggressive and successful,” Sexton said, quoting from the survey results, “and they are more sophisticated and strategic about publishing.” Not surprisingly, hybrid authors were overwhelmingly more involved with social media — not to mention being better paid. They also report an average income from writing of $38,540, while traditionally published authors report $27,758 and the solely self-published report $7,630. Hybrid authors expect to get higher advances than traditionally published authors and expect to get a higher royalty. While 92% of traditionally published authors say they want their next book published that way, 71% of hybrid authors say they are interested in publishing their next book with a conventional house. And finally, asked why they self-published, 41.3% of hybrid authors say “creative control,” and 33% say “ease of the publishing process.” Money (28.9%) and distribution (25.6%) place third and fourth in the responses.

(Confession: I’m in the February 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest talking about the value of a hybridized publishing approach. I have snake oil to sell and as always you should take a long sniff of the potion I’m swirling in front of your nose to see if it’s really for you.)

Hybrid authors get to leverage the relationship of one form of publishing against another — they get to enjoy the advantages of both which in turn mitigates the disadvantages on each side. They also get sports cars and an orangutan butler and the best high-grade designer pharmaceuticals.

What? That’s just me? Whatever.

So, back to it. What pays better?

Self-publishing definitely pays faster than traditional. You will earn money immediately. The question is — how much? Could be from, ohhhh, two bucks to two million. The range is nigh-infinite — whereupon with traditional, you tend to start at five grand at the low-end.

The Brenna Aubrey situation is an interesting one because at one level, it’s a strong thumbs-up for acting as your own publisher. And yet, it’s also a strong case for at least trying the traditional path first — she was willing to take the time to put a book out on submission and was therefore able to get a deal on the table and actually see the numbers they were offering (plus clauses and timeline) before turning it down. And hey, turning down a six-figure book-deal is a good way to generate press and energy for your own self-published release; I don’t say that cynically, I mean, very seriously, it’s a savvy move. A powerful way to distinguish herself amongst the glut of self-published releases (and that glut is woefully real).

All this is a conversation that focused very strongly on money, of course.

And here’s the Shyamalan Twist, because I think that muddles your decision as An Author With A Finished Book. Not to say money isn’t a consideration — publishing is very much a business decision, and undertaking that decision with money in mind is not only smart, but to ignore the financials might actually be considered positively lunkheaded.

I’m just saying — other considerations are afoot, here.

If you’re going to self-publish, do it because:

You like the freedom.

You like the control.

You think you can do this better and faster than traditional publishing.

You want to be a publisher as much as you want to be an author.

You have the time to dedicate to it.

You dig risks.

See, even in financial decisions, personal preference matters. If you were to put together an investment portfolio, one person might tell you that you’re young, so this is a good time for higher-risk, higher-return investment. Another might say to play it safe because slow and steady wins the race. particularly in an economy that just got rocked by a face-punch recession. A third might say, put a little risk here, a little safety there, and get a more diverse portfolio together for a good mix. It’s all about your comfort level.

Publishing’s that way, too.

Both forms of publishing — and the various derivations of each — offer a host of pluses and minuses that go well-beyond the two-dimensional thinking of how This Way is better than That Way and My Publishing can beat up Your Publishing.

Consult your gods, check your gut, and do what feels right.