The eBook Path to Riches: Possibly Steeper Than Assumed

A comment in my “The State of a Genre Title” post reads:

Wow, if you would’ve published that book yourself, you would’ve made over $300K from the ebook alone.

Actually, probably I would not have. And here’s why.

The poster of the comment is, I assume, taking his number from the idea that I would earn a 70% royalty from my self-published eBook version of Redshirts. In the timeframe noted in the entry, I sold 35,667 eBook versions at $11.99. And quick math shows that 70% of that gross is $299,353. Which is just under rather than just over $300k, but close enough. But:

1. Assuming that one is distributing through Amazon (the largest retailer of eBooks worldwide at the moment), one gets the 70% royalty rate from the company only if one agrees to certain things, like an exclusivity window for Amazon and an agreement to price the eBook within in specific price band, the top price of which is $9.99 (edit: see comment here, correcting me). So already the maximum gross for that number of sales drops, from $299k to just under $250,000. Still not bad, but also not $300,000. At the 70% royalty, Amazon also charges a download fee against royalties, to the tune of 15 cents per megabyte download. Redshirts is 449kb (just under half a MB), so that’s $2,407 shaved right off the top. That’s 1% of my gross, but, hey, $2,400 pays a lot of bills. There are other details that can also drive down gross here, but you get the idea.

2. If I don’t agree to Amazon’s demands for the 70% royalty tier, then I drop to the 35% royalty tier. The good news here is that (on Amazon, anyway) I can now price the book above $9.99, so let’s bring that back sale price back up to $11.99. At that rate, a 35% royalty nets me $149,676. Again, totally not chicken feed, and well done me. But it’s also less than half the $300,000 I was told I would get, and that’s not trivial in the slightest.

3. All of this assumes, of course, that I could, on my own, shift 35,667 eBooks in the timeframe discussed. I would like to think I could, because we’d all like to think that. But it’s worth noting that some non-trivial fraction of those sales happened in part because of large chunk of marketing and advertising provided me by my publishers (Tor and Audible for the audiobook), and that some chunk of those sales happened because of the incidental benefits accrued by being traditionally published. Hitting the New York Times hardcover bestseller list (which happened without the eBook sales at all, by definition) led to profiles and interviews with the Times and NPR and other mainstream outlets. Those wouldn’t have happened with eBook only. I had Redshirts advertised everywhere from Locus to The New Yorker — again, not something I could have accomplished on my own.

Yes, I am a well-known writer with a large footprint online, and that doesn’t hurt. But simply being well-known does not automatically equate to massive book sales. It’s pretty obvious I think well of myself, but ego aside I am skeptical that I would have sold 35k worth of books at an $11.99 price point on my own.

4. This leads to the obvious question of whether I would sell more if I chose to sell at a lower price point; say, oh, $4.99. The answer here is of course it’s possible, although it’s not guaranteed. But to reach the vaunted $300k gross at that price point, I would need to sell roughly 87,500 copies, if I was using the 70% royalty, and obviously about twice that for the 35% royalty. That’s a lot of books to sell with only myself for marketing muscle. And obviously, the lower I price the book, the less I gross per sale and the more I have to sell to get to the goal. And, again, clearly, if I didn’t sell a larger number of books, my takehome would be commensurately lower.

5. Yes, but, what about [insert favorite eBook success story here], who made tons of money without all that, and so on, etc? This is where I remind people of the fact that exceptional cases are not a great place to argue from. I know that directly since I’ve been lucky enough to be an exceptional case, and I cringe every time someone points to me and says, more or less, “There’s my argument.” Exceptional cases are, by definition, rare and not representative.

6. And beyond all of that, if I published on my own I would have to do all the work aside from writing, or (because I’m lazy and in some areas not competent) hire people to do it for me, so what I publish looks professional and not like a crap. That’s money I’d need to put out up front on the hope of getting those hundreds of thousands of dollars in ebook sales. I’m okay with someone paying me to do all the work.

So could I have made $300,000 if I had self-published Redshirts as an eBook? Well, it’s possible I could have. But it seems to me very unlikely. And regardless if I had made that money, it would have required much more time and effort from me than I would have wanted to exchange. And at the end of the day, the way I did publish is going to do just fine for me. So I am comfortable with the publishing choices I made, and am very happy and genuinely grateful I have the opportunity to make those choices at all.

110 thoughts on “The eBook Path to Riches: Possibly Steeper Than Assumed

  1. I think it’s safer to say that at this point of your author career, you would have made somewhere between 60 and 100k, on your own. Which isn’t half bad. But the fact is, entrepreneurship may not be to your liking. At the end of the day it comes down to our definition of quality of life.

  2. Bottom line is that the E-book distribution companies (Amazon in your example) is screwing the authors by not giving a higher percentage of royalties. You should get 75% across the board, and at minimum 70%. I think 75% is a little low because they have little hard costs other than bandwidth and the guy listing the book, and even that is just a link to your existing paper copy.

    Whether that is greed or paper-protectionism is anyone’s guess.

    Is your iBook royalties any better? Apple has no vested interest in paper, but their iTunes music distribution is around 50%. But it IS in their vested interest in getting iPads to be people’s libraries for books over a kindle. But then Apple is fond of making money. :)

  3. Best way to find out, John? Try it once with a book in the works. See what happens. You know what I’m talking about. And for the record most other places only take a 10% cut of profits, not 30%. Amazon blows, but that’s just my opinion. The Mordor of the book world, bleeding us through our own love of the written word.

    Anyway, see what happens. Once. You’ve taken that leap before (with OMW) and that turned out pretty good. Time to take it to the next level. Just to see. Besides, you lurv writing!

  4. As far as I know, Amazon does not require exclusivity for the 70% royalty tier. The KDP program (the one requiring the exclusivity window) lets you be put in the lending program and give the book away for free.

    The 70% royalty tier is applicable to all books published through Amazon which are priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Books under $2.99 and over $9.99 are given the royalty of 35%.

  5. Always enjoy these looks inside the finance of publishing.

    Seems like having a publisher leaves an author more time to, you know, write. Which I think most of us prefer.

  6. Your comments on the exclusivity agreement with Amazon are not entirely accurate.

    You can get 70% royalties in most places where the royalty is available just for pricing it within their preferred price window. You must be part of KDP select to get 70% royalties for sales in India and Japan (I believe), but otherwise you can sell immediately through Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, on your own site, and so on and still get that 70%.

    However, Amazon is starting to roll out regions where you only get 70% if you join KDP Select (which requires absolute exclusivity–you can only sell on Amazon if you enroll in KDP select), and that may be a sign of things to come. Full disclosure: I am not a fan of KDP Select.

    (Also, at $4.99 you would still be getting a 70% royalty. You have to drop below $2.99 to get to the 35% royalty point. It wasn’t clear if you were using the $4.99 example to illustrate a 35% royalty situation or if you just switched over to it later in the #4 paragraph.)

  7. I find it refreshing how authors like you (or Jim C. Hines) talk about the business model. Guess your view to the things is pretty realistic. Wish there were more like you, Jim and others.

    One piece i consider critical. There is no perfect way, things are changing and you need to experiment fo find the right way for each author.

    I had some discussions with (well settled) authors here in Germany. They were complaining that things worked fine (at least for them) in the past and that that state had to be defended against the intrusion of digital media. All this was covered with a lot smokescreen about the decline of art and culture.

    Hmmm… I know which way to throw my money. BTW: Thanks for “The Human Division” ;-).

  8. Doesn’t mean that the published route is any better indeed there are pitfalls to published and self published. I don’t believe you make this especially clear and it’s not just about money at the end of the day. I’d also like to point out that Amazon offering 70% is more than fair. You won’t get that deal from a publisher.

    Bottom line do your research before opting for either route

  9. I’d love to see the emergence of a new sort of writers’ guild, where writers form their own ebook pub support groups. Sort of like ABA but with lots more in terms of getting books published into the eworld. With paper a non-issue the task turns to an IT tech one, which opens the door to lots of possibilities. Of course, this may be the doom of the bookstore except as something as a niche/craftsman market (people buy the books as much for the bookmaker as the writer), but one can’t deny where the wind is already going.

  10. Barry Eisler, an established thriller writer but not on the same tier in that genre as JS is in SF, tried self-publishing an ebook after several solid traditionally published books. He ended up compromising a lot from the initial “going to do it all on my own” plan, and then published in hard copy. I’m not sure what the final result was; my sense is that what he does with the next book will indicate how successful it was as an experiment, although unless he posts about it (which he might; he’s written some great stuff about the business of being a novelist) we won’t know if it was a purely economic decision or a “the extra hassle just isn’t worth it” decision.

  11. Good post. I think people tend to under-estimate the value of time. If you have to spend a ton of time editing, promoting, and otherwise doing stuff that your publisher would do for you, then that’s time you can’t spend writing books and doing other life and family stuff.

    Even if you hypothetically could have made more money doing it yourself, the opportunity cost in terms of doing so might have been far steeper than the dollar amount. Or to put it a third way, “time ain’t free!”

  12. I have the disadvantages of (1) being VERY published, by title or URL count (over 4,400 publications, presentations and broadcasts) yet NOT being adequately monetized as a “well-known writer with a large footprint online; (2) being a Mathematical Economist who has ghost-written two MBA dissertations for Fortune 100 executives, given Postdoctoral Finance lectures at university, and (3) been in Management and Executive Management of internet companies.

    So it drives me nuts when people, thinking that they are being helpful, tell me I could rich by simply putting my 14 Facebook-serialized novels out as e-books myself, with no Major Market Publisher intermediating.

    Your explanation here is clear, valid, and saves me having to explain the same idea, without the counter-claim: “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”

  13. Bottom line, one has to write a great book at least once, be lucky to get noticed by a publisher who is willing to publish it, be lucky to get readers who can appreciate its greatness, be lucky to have mainstream media get bored with reporting on stray dogs and crooked politicians so they do a feature article or two, and then be willing to don wigs and pose in one’s underwear for a good cause.

    If I’m hearing it correctly, I do all that, and I can make a living from my writing . . . seems easy enough.

    Wait . . .what was that about writing a great book?

  14. Daniel, the only thing Amazon is actually doing when they publish an ebook is take the collected words of an author’s craft and paste it on their website. Oh, and take the money too. You are basically giving them 30% just because people go to their site all the time. Lots of people. So, they’re saying 30% cut for visibility. You can’t really even say distribution, because what are they actually doing to distribute it? Putting it on their site and waiting for people to click on it. Big deal. 30% is too much.

  15. QSpark, Christopher B. Wright:

    Thanks for the corrections; I’ve made note of them in the entry. Also, I believe you may still opt for a 35% royalty at Amazon at the $4.99 price point if you wanted to (or if you didn’t want to, but forgot to switch to the higher royalty).

  16. “. . . one gets the 70% royalty rate from the company . . .”

    I don’t think that authors do themselves a favor (but in fact damage their interests) by accepting the language (spin) “royalty” from Amazon. It’s a fee for a service(s), i.e., their charge for selling your product, nothing more. That fee is tiered to create the landscape they have in mind for the future.

    I have a bias against Amazon and do as little business with them as possible, but do believe that selling ebooks on Amazon is whole lot better deal for them than authors, and that that is a situation likely to skew ever more unfavorably for authors.

  17. JVP: “being a Mathematical Economist who has ghost-written two MBA dissertations for Fortune 100 executives” — isn’t that… cheating??

  18. Thank you for the great post. While a career in self publishing is now a viable option for some writers (and I’m hoping to become one of them), it definitely requires more work in the form of additional roles than being traditionally published. I can see a great benefit in going the traditional route, but there’s a great article at forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2013/01/21/considering-self-publishing-dont-bother-unless-you-follow-guy-kawasakis-advice/) discussing “artisanal publishing” as Guy Kawasaki calls it.

  19. Again oversimplified view “all amazon are doing is taking the payment and putting our book on their site” lets examine that statement shall we. They will pay at least 2.5% for a card payment and that’s per payment. You pay for access to the millions that buy from them. That’s called marketing! They deliver your product as well (ie delivery cost) so no they aren’t just pasting onto their site. Again as I said look at the facts before you decide

  20. Hi John! I haven’t used you as an example of how easy it is to dominate the publishing world (picturing you with a Godzilla body stomping on little city buildings) but I have used “There’s my argument.” for things like shaming fan girls and general kitten setting offenses. Sorry, you put words good together betterer than me.

  21. Well, they are providing the storage space and bandwidth to download that novel, gleonguerro, though it looks like Amazon does charge separately for that. And paying the fees to various credit card companies for making credit card purchases possible, though perhaps they get a discount for that being Amazon.

    Amazon may also shift their profit margins so they make more from eBooks and less from Kindles, to encourage people to buy cheaper Kindles (which means they buy more eBooks, so the price of a Kindle (averaged over some time) probably does play into Scalzi’s Amazon eBook sales).

  22. interesting read. Of course it begs the question, how much money did you make from eBook sales given your current model? Let me quickly say that I do not expect any such information to be given, it is after all none of our business. But it does make one wonder, as a comparison of what some say could have been.

  23. Quoting @Daniel: “…it’s not just about money at the end of the day.”

    Actually, when you’re a full time writer who depends on pay for his work to eat, one of your major concerns is going to be pay at the end of the day. Sure, you can argue that with self publishing you have more control over how its distributed and price point, but all that control comes with more things to do (all of this Scalzi points out). And if more control and more work comes with a highly statistical pay cut (and a very rare pay raise), you really have to consider is all of it worth gambling on your future well being when you have a publisher who will to promote you, edit your work, hire a cover artist, and will pay you up front with a decent royalty rate.

  24. Ok, now I’m picturing our host, with Godzilla body, balancing on lots of pedestals. If only I didn’t draw as well as I write (i.e. not at all), this would be an epic picture.

  25. Amazon is a business, that has very thin margins, of corse they are going to extract as much as they can from the author. I bet they have a team dedicated to finding the maximal agreements that authors will still accept. The only thing that was really just a “wtf?” was the 15 cents per megabyte downloads. THAT is what the 35% fee should be for (along with all the other things they do provide)… that they add that on feels a lot like a 20 cent fee for each text message from the telcos.

    I bought redshirts on iTunes… how does the fee structure of the iBookstore compare?

  26. Amazon does a lot more than just provide a place for people to click to buy the ebook to justify their 30% fee.

    They handle first-line support issues. (“My download is corrupt.”) These kind of one-off support issues must be dealt with in a timely fashion if customers are to be kept happy, which means interruptions to the self-published author’s time. If the issue turns out to be something with the actual ebook itself, then they kick it back to you, but that’s diagnostic time you didn’t have to spend.

    They provide the framework for reviews, combined with their vast ecosystem of users. Since word of mouth is still the biggest vehicle to sell books, those reviews from satisfied customers are often the final edge that tips the undecided buyer over into a purchase.

    They provide (as others have said) additional mechanisms for exposure and marketing, again through that vast ecosystem of users. “People who bought X also bought Y”, search results, top seller lists — all of these features provide ways to expose the ebook to people who may not have known about it or been considering it.

    The 30% cut isn’t wildly unreasonable. Amazon has their flaws, but the royalty structure doesn’t seem to be one of them.

  27. It isn’t all about the money and no one (Illmonkeys) should presume to know what I do for a living. I work within this industry and know a little about what I write about. I know what the overheads are and this is something a lot of you clearly don’t. Imagine a reader complaining about paying for your work because all you’ve done is chucked a load of words on a page.

    Exactly- not fair! If you find and are lucky enough to have a publishing deal that fits great but self published has produced an opportunity for countless others to move into this area. For them it’s not about price or choice

  28. Another Liz : (1) It would not be allowed under Caltech’s Honor Code, but this was not Caltech. I consider it a gray area ethically. (2) The Fortune 100 executives could NOT use the degrees to get a job for which they were not qualified, as they already had the job, and just wanted egoboo with which to lord it over other Fortune 100 executives. (3) I was biased by wanting to know what an MBA from a major Business School taught, without paying for it, having taken 17 years to repay my undergrad and grad school student loans. (4) If I didn’t ghost write those MBA dissertations, someone else would have, given the iron law of supply & demand. (5) I don’t put these degrees on on CV, nor mention them in job interviews. (6) To be sure, when I board an airliner, I want to know that the pilot passed the flight tests, and not someone who looked like the pilot. When I go under the surgeon’s scalpel, I want to know that she or he actually graduated Med School on their own merit. (7) You do know that many books, hardcover, paperback, and e-books, are ghostwritten? (8) I also ghost wrote a Doctoral Dissertation in Clinical Psychology. I wonder how often this Dissertation semi-scam goes on…

  29. It should be noted that you don’t need to sell an ebook through Amazon or any other ebook marketplace. You can have your readers directly download it from your site, in which case you get 100% of profits and the costs are basically negligible. I do this myself with great success.

    With a self-published model, selling on your own site, costs are for 1) your time writing, 2) an editor, 3) a designer, and 4) a shopping cart service. It can also be written and published within 2 weeks (for a short ebook — something I’ve done several times), rather than a year or whatever the traditional publishing timeline is. Marketing might not reach major publications, but online marketing through writing posts like these, usually does pretty well if you already have a good reputation.

    Just some food for thought.

  30. There is also the point that time spent working on promoting your self-published book is time not spent on writing new books, which presumably net you more than spending time promoting yourself instead of paying for a publishing house to do it on your behalf.

    Also the crossover impact that might have on hitting NYT bestseller and thus all the other benefits associated with that, advertising etc. Its not simple and personally I’d choose to stick with the way that’s currently working rather than risking jepordising reputation with bookselling professionals and having to do more work.

  31. In an effort to justify your point, you ignored options.

    Namely, if you had agreed to sell the book at $9.99 instead of $11.99, and thus gotten 30% from Amazon, you would have needed to sell about 43,000 copies. You had 36k copies sold at $11.99. (Rounding up for the numbers there.)

    Would that have done it? Most economics graphs would say you would have sold more at the lower price point, and that is a 20% price difference. But that doesn’t mean you would have sold 7k more.

    (Just to make it clear: I bought it at $11.99; I might have bought it slightly more quickly at $9.99, but I can’t be sure of that. And, of course, then you wouldn’t’ve had Tor’s awesome marketing push, nor their editors, and so forth. I’m just pointing out that you started out talking about $11.99 vs $9.99, and then decided to do the math at a much lower price point.)

  32. Sean Eric Fagan:

    “In an effort to justify your point, you ignored options.”

    Heh. More accurately, I did not model every single option available because I don’t want to spend the whole day writing one article.

  33. @Daniel: I don’t think I presumed anything about your occupation. Really, in my post I should have written: “…one of your major concerns _should_ be pay at the end of the day…” instead of “…is going to be…”. Why? Because being a starving artist is severely overrated, although many people seem to enjoy it.

    If you’re an established author, with a fairly established fan base, who has the money to feed himself in case of a failed experiment: go for it! If you have another job, and you’re just putting your work out to be self-published as an opportunity in hopes of being able to make a switch, then by all means: go for it! But if you’re hoping to be a self-published full time writer with no other income….. the odds of success are awful low. Yes, these examples exist. No, you should not depend on the income to survive.

  34. Sean Eric Fagan:

    “In an effort to justify your point, you ignored options.”

    For that matter, he also ignored some of the benefits of going through a publisher instead of selling independently such as the security of working with a large publishing house that knows what it takes to sell books. Plus, it’s not like he has to justify his reasoning, it’s just nice that he gives us a window into a world most of us are unfamiliar with.

  35. I am darkly amused at the people who say all Amazon does is set up servers and host files for eBooks. That’s like saying that all Facebook does is let people post pictures and text. Amazon’s search function, reviews, and proven market all add value, and it’s in no way unreasonable for them to expect to be compensated for that added value. No, they aren’t shipping paper to the customer — but paying for convenience (in this case, the convenience of getting your electronic book immediately and not toting a paper book around) is not unknown in our economy.

    As I said in another discussion on another site, “The fair value for any item is the overlap between what the buyer is willing to pay and the seller is willing to accept.” People who think Amazon’s eBook prices should be lower, or royalties higher, are welcome not to do business with them, but that doesn’t make their policies universally unfair. At the end of the day, Amazon has no reason to change their policies as long as they’re making sufficient money under the status quo.

  36. Situations are different enough, not just from writer to writer or decade to decade, but from book to book and month to month, that nowadays my only advice to writers on questions like this is “Do all your homework, make sure it’s absolutely current, take your very best guess, and brace yourself to be bitten on the ass by something you didn’t think of.” I’m very dubious about any “you could have been rich” scenarios (and notice how rarely we figure out ways for the successful to have ended up poor, which theoretically ought to be just as informative, so, John, congratulations on not having decided to engrave it all in stone tablets and set them out in a public park with a begging bowl, because if you’d done that you wouldn’t have made any money at all. Your example shows that we should all not do that).

  37. ” Exceptional cases are, by definition, rare and not representative.”

    Can we call you “Black Swan” Scalzi?

  38. Daniel, the only thing Amazon is actually doing when they publish an ebook is take the collected words of an author’s craft and paste it on their website.

    That’s ALL???

    Heh. Heh heh. HEH HEH HEH. BWAH HAH HAH AH HAHA HAHHHHHH!

  39. I seem to recall you saying that royalty checks from “real” (paper) books were delayed (months? years?) to allow for returns. Are royalty checks for e-book sales any faster?

  40. The reach and other issues you talk about is why major publishing houses will always have a place in things. Outside of super rare exceptions, any smart author should use the traditional publishing route for at least some of their works if they can get a deal. Everything? That depends. But getting that reach on some of your works can make up for lost money in other ways, and even make more for authors who go both routes through people finding their books in bookstores than buying the eBooks of the self-pubbed stuff.

    So much is changing so fast…

  41. @Jonathan Vos Post

    Out of curiosity, what ranges does ghostwriting a dissertation tend to pay?

    Have to say, the clinical psychology dissertation thing creeps me out much moreso than the MBA. Is it just translating things to English or did you actually do the research too?

  42. They provide the framework for reviews, combined with their vast ecosystem of users. Since word of mouth is still the biggest vehicle to sell books, those reviews from satisfied customers are often the final edge that tips the undecided buyer over into a purchase.

    Amazon’s search function, reviews, and proven market all add value, and it’s in no way unreasonable for them to expect to be compensated for that added value.

    The value added of Amazon’s reviews is, imho, vastly overrated. To the point now that I consider them completely worthless. I’ve encountered numerous examples of self-published books written by what are apparently illiterate high school students sporting 4 and 5 star reviews, and almost equal numbers of fine books from tradition publishers with marked down reviews because of the e-book pricing brigade who don’t seem to get that a book’s /price/ should not be part of the book’s /review/.

    I’m also driven to distraction by Amazon’s insistence on showing Kindle books into my searches of books. When I want to look at Kindle books, I search in the Kindle area. They don’t show hardcover books at me when I do that, so why do they shove Kindle books at me when I’m trying to search non-kindle books?

  43. Seriously, I think “because I don’t want to” should be a sufficient reason in itself not to self-publish. If it’s enough of a reason to do it, it should be enough of a reason not to. I will also accept “it’s a pain the ass,” and “you are not the boss of me.”

    John’s reasons are pretty fair supporting arguments to “because I don’t want to” and “it’s a pain the ass.” “You are not the boss of me” is pretty thoroughly steeped all through the foundations of this site. So we’re looking at a trifecta here.

  44. There is the way to combine trad publishing by doing hardcopy and paperback with them but maintain ebook rights. New cover art, ebook formatter, a final edit read before publishing to the major online sellers, and pricing decisions (ebooks for less than paperbacks a win for both authors and readers INHO).. Only a few people have such deals and they started as self-publishing (Bella Andre & Hugh Howey… And someone else I’m forgetting).

    You of course should be making the best decision for yourself regarding your career. There are no guarantees in publishing. There are more options and I believe more power for authors in regards to ebook rights (royalties from trad publishers or self-publishing). But I’m an outsider looking in and would not presume to advise someone on their career… Unless they’ve hired me. :D

  45. Like Cindy Lou Who, I recognize that it’s common for people to talk about the “70% royalty” and “35% royalty” Amazon pays them (since that’s how Amazon itself describes the relationship, but I wish we’d stop. I think it’s more accurate to call them a 30% or 65% sales commission. Royalties are paid by publishers; vendors take commissions

    While a 30% commission seems reasonable enough, there’s no excuse for taking 65% of my money.

  46. Wow, JVP’s post reads like a list of examples of ways that people justify unethical behavior. (It’s not as unethical as it could have been, someone else would have done it if I didn’t, people do it all the time, etc.)

  47. As your “self made man” post of several weeks ago highlighted, we all depend upon help from others and it is OK that they be paid/thanked for their part in making a successful product.

  48. I’m not in the publishing industry – but do have some knowlege about what the costs are for running/maintaining a website/datcenter/ecommerce engine like Amazon. Amazon’s 30% take/fee for ebook sales is likely the smallest % they could take and still be profitable. So in addition to the ‘real costs’, Amazon has to be competetive with other potential outlets that authors may choose, Amazon’s model is to undercut other outets (B&N, Apple, Kobo) whenever possible. To ‘run’ Amazon requires a datacenter (several) tens of millions of dollars in equiptment (servers/storage/switching, etc.) Millions of dollars every month in power and cooling costs. Millions of dollars in software licensing to RUN the site ( the Microsoft SQL database software alone can cost $10,000/year per server (that is factoring in a LARGE discount that Amazon gets for the volume of licensing they utilize) – do you have any idea how many servers Amazon needs to have to support the amount of commerce/search they do?) – take a look at thier balance sheet (annual report from 2011) Amazon did a crazy amount of sales over $48billion! the “cost” of the stuff they sold was $37Billion – they spent $3B in technology and another couple billion in marketing/ administrative costs/ fullfillment costs etc. At the end of the day thier overall profit was $934Million or – about 2% (before taxes). I know that we can argue that ebook sales are more profitable than moving physical product – but if they are “keeping” 30% and cover all of the operating expenses, I suspect the profit margin at the end of the day is 1/2 of that at best (maybe even into single digits). Every business is in business to make money – how much profit is “fair”? Going out to eat – food/drink typically has 66-70% markup and the customer customarily tips another 15% on top of that

  49. I’m going back and forth on self-publishing the novel I’m working on, but I’m leaning toward it, not necessarily as an end in itself but for many of the reasons John Scalzi gave himself when he put OMW on his website — most prominently, I’m too lazy/daunted/etc. to go out searching for an agent and/or a publisher.

    I figure I’ll put the novel out, see if anyone likes it and maybe hope that some kind agent or publisher takes note.

    Or, alternately, hope that it sells a million copies or so and the whole publisher/agent thing becomes moot until next time.

    Or, more likely, it sinks immediately into obscurity and I thank my lucky stars for my day job.

  50. Plus, we should not discount the value of supporting traditional publishing streams. There’s nothing much like cracking open a stiff new unadulterated dead tree edition and sitting down to a raging fire in an open fireplace and a hot cuppa joe. In another context, I so much miss my 4 inch thick Sunday newspaper.

  51. I feel moved to make two comments, from two different points of view:

    1. From the consumer’s point of view, Amazon does a lot more than just vend the digital bits for the eBooks I buy. They are also a trusted place to keep my credit card info and a single account to manage. Do not underestimate that. I recently paid $3.99 for an eBook I could have gotten directly from the publisher for $0.99 because I did not want to set up yet another account. I buy A LOT of things from Amazon- my last order had: diapers, jewelry, tupperware, and an emergency radio/solar/manual cell phone charger. I have one account and can check one place when we’re reconciling our finances. I know a lot of people hate Amazon’s model, but frankly, it is one of the simplifying and time-saving things that makes my current life work (I am half of a two-career couple with two kids). And yeah, I’ll spend extra money to save time and reduce the number of things I have to keep track of. Believe me, my time is worth more than the money I’d have saved by shopping around for those various items in my order.

    I also have a Kindle, and I love it. I love reading short works on it in particular (see the earlier aside about being half of a two-career couple w/two kids- short pieces work best for me right now). How do I find the next thing to read? Nine times out of ten, I search on my Kindle. I search for Kindle Singles and I search “short story”. (Note to authors: I’d LOVE more stand alone short Sci Fi stories and novellas, individually sold, on the Kindle. I have read all the ones I can find.)

    Because I buy so much from Amazon, we’ve signed up for Prime. I get some free video and access to the lending library, which I’m just starting to use. I think it will help me try out new authors, much like I used to use my regular library, back when I had time to go browse there. Library visits now are all about the kids.

    So for me? Being on Amazon is the price of entry into my world. On average, I buy one full length book and several shorts there every month. I do not buy books anywhere else. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.

    2. Awhile back, I decided to turn a story I tell my daughter into a children’s book. I found a publisher to do that, and it is coming out in March. I am using a newish publisher, but one that has put out other books that I like, and who is “legit.” I never once considered self-publishing it. Why? Well, beyond the obvious win of not having to search for an illustrator on my own, the publisher is doing all the formatting for the various eBook stores (as tied as I am to Amazon, I’m sure there are others who are equally tied to the other stores), and figuring out a marketing plan, and looking into options for selling it in physical stores, etc., etc. I have no desire to do those things, and I don’t really have the time to do those things, so I am happy to let my publisher take a substantial cut of the sales to do those things for me. Would I make more money if I’d gone solo? Maybe, but probably not. But honestly, chances are I’d never even have gotten the book to market on my own.

    I liked this model so much that I then decided to gather up and expand some posts I’ve written on productivity and publish a short eBook. The same publisher is bringing that out, probably in April. No need to find an illustrator this time- but I looked at all the other things the publisher brought to the table and decided that this was the smarter way for me to go. Now, if I were less fully employed and/or didn’t have kids to spend most of my non-work time on, maybe I’d have gone a different way. But as it is, it was this way or no way.

  52. @ Jonathan Vos Post

    (6) To be sure, when I board an airliner, I want to know that the pilot passed the flight tests, and not someone who looked like the pilot. When I go under the surgeon’s scalpel, I want to know that she or he actually graduated Med School on their own merit.

    (8) I also ghost wrote a Doctoral Dissertation in Clinical Psychology. I wonder how often this Dissertation semi-scam goes on…

    Isn’t this a contradiction? I don’t know much of anything about Clinical Psychology, but doesn’t this mean there’s someone out there whose job it is to treat people in distress, someone who got that job in part on the strength of a dissertation they didn’t write?

    I don’t care so much about the rich, fraudulent business executives for whom you ghost-wrote MBA dissertations (I’m not in favor, in part because of the respect I have for academic integrity, but such a practice lives down to my expectations for the business-elite subculture) – but Clinical Psychology? Really?

  53. John:
    “Heh. More accurately, I did not model every single option available because I don’t want to spend the whole day writing one article.”

    I have regrettably come to learn that failing to rigorously model the range of options leads to some really appalling business mistakes. That said, the spreadsheet whizzery required to make business accurate models for the different things is nontrivial.

    To answer Sean’s point more in detail; if the allowed royalty rate goes from 70% at 9.99 to 35% above that, then there’s obviously an excluded zone in optimal solutions. If you assume 30,000 sales no matter what, pricing it at $9.99 gives you $207,900; pricing it at $10.00 gives you $105,000. You have to double sales to 60,000 units to reach the point that royalties at $10.00 exceed those at $9.99 again. You need to then apply an expected sales at cost optimization… How flexible is the market? If you raise price from $8.99 to $9.99, do you get 10% less sales, or 5% less, or 20% less? If you drop prices to $4.99, do you double sales? Add 10%? If you have a cost ramp-up as volume goes up, for books this is usually a big no-no, as sales typically go down as cost goes up…

    The big retailers are running A/B tests all the time to try and find out what that optimization curve looks like, because your assumptions going in may or may not match the actual behavior. Experimenting with it is necessary to optimize sales.

    I know about all of this stuff, having worked around retailers IT divisions and consulting at ad optimization companies and the like, but I can’t *DO* this kind of stuff, it requires specialist knowledge I know about but don’t actually know. All the big publishing companies and bookstores and Amazon etc have departments for this. A startup or individual would likely not, and would be guessing a lot, and not analyzing in enough detail to understand their results. Which means, probably getting a lot of things wrong. You may well guess well enough to be moderately successful, but there are reasons why there are departments for this type of thing at big companies…

  54. As Christopher B. Wright stated so succinctly, ‘I think “because I don’t want to” should be a sufficient reason in itself not to self-publish.’

    Exactly right. I know how to change my own brakes, and it would be a significant savings to do it myself. But I don’t want to do it myself. I know how to be an IT support desk person, and I would earn more money than I am with my current employment. But I don’t want to be an IT support desk person. I get that people are really into people self-pubbing and want to sing its praises. But if someone says “I don’t want to” that should be reason enough not to, and arguing with them about it seems just presumptuous.

  55. @ JVP

    Not to hijack the thread, but uggh. What you did was not ethically gray. It was wrong. As a mental health professional, this kind of behavior worries me because it leads to unqualified professionals providing services and hurting people.

  56. Thing is, e-Published originals are nice – if you’ve got something that might not make huge sales in print or have much of a shelf life (i.e., annual technology or automotive guides), and/or if you’re well known enough to self-market. JOE SIXPACK’S FIRST SCI-FI NOVEL is not likely to sell that many copies – though if Joe Sixpack has a popular beer-tasting blog, say, JOE SIXPACK’S FIRST ANNUAL GUIDE TO GREAT BEER might sell quite nicely.

    Thing is, authors who are already known from standard dead-tree printing (or are marketed as dead-tree writers) are the ones who are the mostly likely to be successful publishing eBooks originals.

  57. But it’s worth noting that some non-trivial fraction of those sales happened in part because of large chunk of marketing and advertising provided me by my publishers

    This really is the difference. I have an ebook on sale for $0.99 right this very second (and for the last 6 months) and it’s not sold anywhere near that rate, because unlike Tor, I can’t afford to do an any advertising and unlike our host, I’m not a New York Times Bestselling Author or the purveyor of this here fine blog, read by thousands.

    99 out of 100 people who have made money self publishing ebooks have some degree of name recognition to leverage behind that success. That’s still a hurdle that self publishing can’t jump, no matter how many seminars you attend. (It’s also why my novel-in-progress will be sent to an agent or six when it’s ready).

  58. Meh. To self-publish or submit to trade publishers is an individual choice. There’s no real way to quantify how much would be made without splitting off an alternate universe, but both paths are worth pursuing.

    Trade publishing still has some massive advantages:

    - Many people won’t buy self-published (though make exceptions for established authors).
    - It’s rare for self-published books to be in physical stores (which is where many people still buy).
    - Trade publishers definitely have a bigger marketing machine than the average individual (even ones with popular blogs). Of course, trade publishers don’t throw the full weight of that marketing machine behind every book, and authors still get to do plenty of promotional work of their own.
    - For books they’re choosing to fully support, you’ll get a lot of expertise for covers and editing.

    Of course, self-publishing has some advantages too:

    - You’re almost certain to be getting a higher ‘royalty’ (or paying less commission, whatever) for each individual book. Even if you sell the book much cheaper than the standard price set by trade publishers, you’re likely to get more money per individual book because trade offers _terrible_ royalties (and in theory you will sell more because of the cheaper price).
    - Much quicker to publish. [Trade generally has a year's lead time.]
    - If you’re one of the authors trade wouldn’t choose to spend any money on, you might end up with a better cover and better editing if you self-publish (and there’s plenty of work-for-hire companies and ex-trade editors out there you can hire, so you don’t have to “do it alone” – just pay up front). The biggest advantage to their choice that self-publishers cite is ‘control’.

    It should also be noted that self-publishing is not “ebooks only”, any more than it’s “Amazon only”. Any sensible self-publisher releases a POD version of the book at the same time, which will be available through the various online retailers. You’re less likely to get it in a bricks and mortar store (but then, few books spend long in bricks and mortar stores these days).

    They’re all just options. Given the promotional push which was given to “Redshirts”, I don’t think it can be said to be a bad decision to have trade published it. [Though I do suspect that a self-published book would have earned more in the long run.]

  59. I’ve had a pretty good experience so far with using CreateSpace/KDP for my first book, but I’m in an unusual-enough situation that I’m not sure I could recommend it to everyone.

    For one, having a background in journalism and media means I already have quite a lot of training both in writing and publication production. Things like initial editing passes, formatting the interior and cover, and writing marketing copy aren’t outside of my skillset, and I don’t mind doing them. I’m also fortunate to have pro editor and artist friends I can hire for those jobs. All of which means that the only service a traditional publisher could offer me at this point is expanded marketing and distribution services. I do think those things would be useful–being my own PR agent is a bit of a pain–but I’m not sure they’re worth the extra hassle, delay, and loss of control I’d have to face with a traditional publisher.

    Which leads me to the other reason I chose not to go that route: while my first novel is relatively accessible, it does have some elements that many publishers would want to avoid: same-sex relationships in a YA story, for instance. And there are even more of those kinds of issues in my next two stories, which I’m also prepping for publishing this way. Given how the market is tightening up these days, more and more traditional publishers are trying to stick with formulas that work for broad audiences, and YA SFF with LGBT and PoC main characters is just niche enough that I doubt many would want to take a chance on it. I’m sure there might be small presses interested in my stuff, but then I’d have to ask myself how much more benefit they could offer me, with their lower marketing profiles, than I can get on my own.

    I did weigh the costs/benefits of doing this, and while I do still like the idea of traditional publishing, it just wasn’t right for me. The hassle and delay of trying to pitch my stuff to agents and publishers is actually worse than the hassle of pitching it to audiences, and without any big plusses beyond what I can do myself and with other freelancers, there’s really no reason for me to endure that. More than anything else, what I want to do is get my stories out to people who want to read them. In this case, tradtional publishers would have just been unnecessary middle men throwing up roadblocks and delays in that path.

    But again, this is just what worked for me. People trying to publish a novel without these added factors probably are better served by going traditional. If the only skill or interest you have is writing stories, and the stories you’re writing are mass-appeal enough to be sold by large companies, then absolutely, start the agent hunt, so you can get that extra help all in one package. Trying to go it alone is likely to be an exercise in frustration and bad reviews.

    All that said, I do kind of wish there were better marketing/distribution sources for indie authors. Small-scale, indie production in other fields has found a way to use co-ops and such to get their stuff to consumers. It’d be nice if we had more options for that, too. A sort of farmer’s market, Etsy or indie art show/music fest for writers would be awesome.

  60. I think a bigger story right now is all the furor over A Memory of Light not having an eBook out.

    Look at the ratings for it on Amazon – a full half of the reviews within the first week (and a bit less than half now) were 1 star reviews because the eBook was deliberately delayed by Team Jordan.

    It kind of paints a complementary picture to your DIY post on eBooking, Scalzi.

  61. @ Jonathan Vos Post,

    Man, I don’t care how many spins you put on it, that ain’t no “gray area” or “semi-scam” there at all. What you described is nothing but flat out cheating on the part of your clients and fraud on your own. “Ghostwriting” a commercial/for profit work is one thing, claiming another’s work as one’s own for an academic degree or requirement is quite another. Whether it bothers you at all is your own concern, but you don’t get to change the definition of what you did based on how you feel about it.

    And seriously: “If I didn’t do it, supply and demand would dictate that someone else would?” A whole LOT of illegal and/or unethical activities can fall into that category if we allow ourselves to justify our actions THAT way.

  62. Michael T said: Can we call you “Black Swan” Scalzi?

    Dunno. Is he short-legged, bad-tempered, prone to attacking people for bread, and does he spend the majority of his day head-down in muddy water?

    (Western Australian. Black swans are the bird emblem of our state. They aren’t as attractive as you’d think up close).

  63. megpie71: Prone to attacking people for bread? Did you SEE the expression on his face about the churro waffle?

    JVP: That’s not a gray area. That’s flat-out wrong and evil. I hope I never need a shrink and end up with the one you wrote a dissertation for. Lazy untrained people should never be allowed to work on someone’s brain/psyche any more than an unqualified surgeon should be allowed to work on someone’s brain/organ.

  64. A 70% royalty is ‘screwing the authors?’ On what planet? By the time your agent takes 15% and your publisher takes their cut for production, distribution, advertising, and profit, what % are you left with?

    And John, no ebook should be $12.99. Not even yours, which I love. I’ll wait for the price drop.

  65. Most other places have single digit marketshare. What’s with all the Amazon haters here? I think they’re awesome.

    Besides, John is probably under contract, and can’t go solo.

    I get the feeling I’m one of the few here who’s actually worked in publishing. It’s not a magic puppy farm where authors get rich and fulfilled. Some do. Most don’t.

  66. @Jonathan Vos Post

    RE: The Vos Post comments.
    Off topic, but no more than the other responses.

    The entirety of my profitable writing is ghostwriting and two-thirds of it is for business professionals or upper level college students that don’t have the time (or, they have the knowledge, but not the skills to present the knowledge). I didn’t aim for that market, but there is plenty of demand. Publish or perish remains a very real thing, as are expectations of heavy loads and high grades, without regard to what is realistic. It’s no different in corporate environments where fewer people are expected to produce much more work. People outsource to me.

    For me, it’s work for hire. Pay me and do what you will with it. If there are ethical issues, they aren’t mine.

    (I used to do a fair amount of work for bloggers. The nuts and bolts of the situation were about the same, but (for me) that market has crashed pretty hard and I’ve passed on the race to the bottom on prices.)

  67. John, tell the folks what you made in the traditional route, for comparison. Subsidiary rights, the whole nine yards.Otherwise we’re comparing apples to nothing. :)

  68. Rick Wiedeman:

    I’ve talked about income before but in recent years Krissy has vetoed that because she suspects it will come across as somewhat obnoxious (and I suspect she is correct about that). I’ve noted generally that I’m at or near at least one of the thresholds for “1%” depending on the year and specific metric. I’m not going to get more specific than that.

    That said, someone with experience with publishing could probably guess the ballpark of what I’ve made from Redshirts, since I note my unit sales. However, I will not publicly confirm or deny it, in part because thanks to the way royalties work, I to date haven’t gotten anything for Redshirts except my initial advance.

  69. I can only echo what others have said about JVP writing dissertations and master’s thesis for pay. As an academic my entire working life, that’s cheating plain and simple, no questions asked. If the students were found out, THEIR unearned degrees would be revoked (and any publications resulting from the degree would have to be retracted). If I was an academic employer of JVP, I’d start termination proceedings immediately. I’ve never read any of his fiction, and now I’m for DAMN SURE never going to read any of his work.
    @Chameleon: If you aid and abet someone robbing a bank aren’t you also guilty of a crime?

    Sorry for going off topic JS, but professional educators and researchers have nothing but disdain for actions like those described. I won’t comment on this putrid subject on this thread again.

  70. @Rick Wiedeman, you’re knowledgeable about publishing, yet you adamantly insist that no e-book should cost $12.99?

    Also, wow, I don’t think our hosts owes us opening his family finances. The point of the post, as far as I could tell, was to observe that there are benefits and drawbacks to self-publishing as well as traditional publishing, and that it’s silly for someone to advocate for the former on the mistaken belief that the only difference is you get to keep more of the money.

  71. On the income front, I think John is savvy enough business-wise to evaluate what he’s making on recent novels, what the likelihood of that increasing significantly if he self-published and whether the extra work and the risk is worth it. Keep in mind folks that John would need to gross a good bit more than he does now from a novel in order to pay for things like editing, cover art etc and to compensate for the risk inherent in changing publishing methods.

    Plus, not everything comes down to money. Once you’re comfortable financially a lot of what makes a work life rewarding is the people with whom you get to work and the experiences that brings. By all accounts the Tor team is a fun, professional bunch. In Scalzi’s shoes, I doubt I’d go the self-pub route either.

  72. Another great article, John. Thanks.

    Personally, I’m not interested in self-publishing (at this time). It seems to risky and doesn’t play to my strengths — all that work, all that time spent on things other than writing… no thanks.

    But occasionally, after hearing one of those exceptional stories or staring overlong into that shiny 70%, I hesitate… wonder…

    Thanks for spelling it out and helping me stay the course… which is, after all, the course I really wanted all along.

  73. Commenting on John’s observation that he “did not model every single option available because I don’t want to spend the whole day writing one article,” georgewilliamherbert observed, “I have regrettably come to learn that failing to rigorously model the range of options leads to some really appalling business mistakes. That said, the spreadsheet whizzery required to make business accurate models for the different things is nontrivial.”

    I think John was referring to not modeling the options for this blog post.

    I suspect where his actual publishing considerations are concerned, John in fact rigorously modeled every possible option, and to the extent that neither he, Krissy, nor his agent had the spreadsheet whizzery required, they would have hired someone.

  74. Canyon42, Chameleon, and Warren Terra: (1) Off-topic, except so far as the listed “author” of an e-book may not be the actual content-creator; (2) My honesty puts my ethical stance in jeopardy, granted, but the D.Psych dissertation was for the owner/operator of a clinic which I observed doing wonderful things for families, whose clinical data was handed over to me, and the majority of the dissertation (which I ghost-wrote) was literature search on the molecular biology and neurochemistry associated with the disorders. Since the recipient of the doctorate, after many rewrites at the request of a Dissertation Advisor and a Department Chair already had the job, and was reducing human misery, I entered said gray area. (3) Now that I’ve confessed/rationalized, can I put the question back to what impact ghostwritten e-books have on e-book economics?

  75. @DGLewis,

    Actually you don’t have to model every possible option to make good decisions. You just need to do enough to feel confident that you’ve not left a possible solution space blank. In Scalzi’s shoes I’d start with the result and work backwards, i.e. what increase in net income would I need to see to make it worth the extra work and the added risk?

    Let’s say John made X off Redshirts. To simply arrive at the same net income he’d need to make X plus enough to cover editing, cover art and other costs. Call that additional amount Y. Then he would need to make some additional amount Z to cover his own time in managing all of this. So he’d need to make X+Y+Z just to break even. Also, there’s some possibility that he would make less than X and thus lose money and it’s not worth the hassle if he just makes X+Y+Z – that’s basically a wash. How much would he need to make to feel comfortable taking that risk? Call that amount R. So to make this work he’d need to make X+Y+Z+R. That might come out to 1.5X or 2X. All to do… what? When he’s already comfortable financially and seemingly enjoys the folks at Tor?

    People get far too caught up in “ZOMG YOU CAN MAKE MORE!!!” and fail to realize that MORE isn’t always better.

  76. Thanks for posting such insightful comments. The key for every author is to examine their own position and path and goals. And then everyone will do what best suits them. But to do that, one has to be very knowledgeable of all the possibilities and variables.

    I agree it’s naive to simply crunch numbers that don’t relate– ie hardcover sales might have easily been eBook sales. Those are two types of readers. SFF readers are much more attuned to hardcover from their favorite authors than, say, romance. I talked to Terry Brooks about this years ago and was stunned at how large hardcover sales were part of his royalties. On the opposite end, talking to bestselling romance authors, their readers consume eBooks at a voracious rate.

    I think too many people are taking “stands” as if there is one in publishing. My first novel came out in 1991 and all I can say is that it’s the best time ever to be an author. If: you do what authors have to do: write great content. Authors create content, which is called story. Readers consume content. Which can come in various ways: hardcover, trade, POD trade, mmp, eBooks, audio, sitting in a cave around a fire. Since every book and every author is a unique commodity, that’s the way the business has to be approached. I have too many people asking me for the magic bullet to sell books and other than writing a great story, there is no one answer. And there really isn’t a magic bullet.

    I’ve hit bestseller lists in science fiction, thriller, non-fiction, and am the only male author on the Romance Writers of America Honor Roll. Because of that, I’ve seen a spectrum. Also I’ve been with four of the Big Six (five?) and formed my own publishing partnership three years ago that has done very well not only re-issuing my backlist and my front list. I’ve also recently partnered with 47North on my latest “science fiction” title and that is an interesting ride. We’ve partnered with other authors, getting their story out into the world. I’m sitting at Stewart Airport in NY right now after meeting another author we’ll be partnering with this year and am very excited about it.

    Blogs like this add to the knowledge base and are very valuable.

  77. Dear @johnscalzi and @mythago — Fair enough. I didn’t expect a revelation, though I thought it would be a neat case-study for newcomers who imagine riches in book publishing. :)

    I *can* guess what the book would make, though my time in publishing is from the previous century, first in subsidiary rights for Viking-Penguin (now Random House), then in editing for Simon & Schuster. Let me say to my fellow Scalzi-and-blog-readers that book publishing a razor-thin-margin business that was doing poorly in the 80s-90s, and seems to be doing worse today. I also think they are approaching the ebook market in a club-footed, angry-dying-giant fashion. But, I’m out of that biz, so this is just another armchair opinion.

    The reason I feel that $12.99 is too high for an ebook is that the expense of distributing small text files is exponentially lower than distributing paper, so I assume the publisher could make the same profit margin at a much lower ebook price (and sell more copies). Storing even a 400k novel on a server is nothing like storing 25,000 copies of a book from your spring or fall line in a warehouse in Brooklyn, shipping to distribution centers, taking remainders, and all the employees, gasoline, and heavy-lifting that involves. But, obviously my feelings don’t set prices, publishers have more market pressure than ever, and I wasn’t a marketing expert. If enough people buy an ebook at $12.99, it’s clearly a good price. I will pay with time (waiting) rather than money, and get the book a year later, when it’s $6.99.

    My gut feeling is that ebooks should be in the $5 range to promote reading, and help all of us get off the forest-destroying publishing tradition of yesteryear. We’re the ones who invested in $100-400 ebook distribution BrainPals (whether Kindle, Nook, or other). Is it too much to want 20 books for $100? It’s debatable.

    BTW, started The B-Team last night. Loving it!

  78. Rick Wideman: I’ve read that the actual hardcover, when printed in normal print run quantities, costs the publisher something in the neighborhood of $2.That’s with warehousing, shipping, and returns. And the ebook also does cost the publisher something to put together. So at least until the book earns out, the minimum “fair price” for the ebook would seem to be no more than $2 less than the hardcover price.

    The list price for the hardcover of Redshirts was $25.

    I tried to look up the print cost information again, but couldn’t find it. There are enough publishing professionals who read this that I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.

  79. Interesting points, but it isn’t really about getting rich, is it? Self/Indie publishing is about control. You control all aspects of the work. Including pricing. And if you were self-publishing, you’d also be foolish to charge such a high price for the book. Because of the 70% royalty you can make considerably more money than you would under a traditional contract, even if you charge a more wallet-friendly price. I know because I’ve done it.

    Did I become a millionaire? No. But I am making a healthy six figure income from self-publishing alone without having to relinquish rights or control to my publisher. I have been traditionally published as well (and in fact had a book come out this month under another name) and I don’t regret that experience, but knowing that I can produce a bestseller on my own—one that allows me to pay my mortgage and live comfortably—gives me a certain measure of pride that I wouldn’t feel if I had handed the book over to a Big Six publisher.

    Of course, not everyone will make that kind of money in self-publishing. But then again very few do in traditional publishing, either. Most authors spend their lives in thankless day jobs while living the “dream” of being a traditionally published author.

  80. Robert Gregory Browne:

    “Interesting points, but it isn’t really about getting rich, is it?”

    Actually, inasmuch as the comment I was responding to was talking specifically about money, and I addressed that topic directly, in this particular case it is about the money and getting rich.

    I don’t have a problem with you mentioning the control issue, but in this particular case, it is in fact a separate issue.

    Beyond this, no one has made the argument one could not make more from self-publishing than traditional publishing. However, it is equally possible to make less than one would make going the traditional route as well. There are a number of factors that go into it.

  81. “The reason I feel that $12.99 is too high for an ebook is that the expense of distributing small text files is exponentially lower than distributing paper, ”

    This is probably true. What it ignores is that it costs major publishers very little to print, ship and store books, so even if you deleted the entire cost of printing from the price, you don’t get anywhere near 12.99 on the cost.

    By way of a for instance, my trade paperback costs about 1.50 to print and ship. That’s 150 pages, full color, graphic novel on a comparatively small print run. That’s also less than ten percent of the retail price.

    For books (and, actually, CDs and DVDs) the actual cost of the object is a tiny part of the price for major publishers, because economy of scale is a thing. What soaks up the money is the distribution chain, and that doesn’t actually go away with ebooks.

  82. The reason I feel that $12.99 is too high for an ebook is that the expense …

    The reason I feel that $12.99 is too high for an ebook is that, with the law the way it is today, I’m not buying an ebook. With many publishers what I am buying is a license to read a book rather than the book itself. I can’t resell it or lend it (generally) or donate it to the local library. I don’t feel that a license to read a book should cost the same as a book. Now, if the publisher says “Hey, you are buying the book and you can do the usual booky stuff with it”, then it’s a different matter.

    Either way I pay, but one way involves more complaining.

  83. I take exception to item #5. I was raised in America, the American way so by birth right I am exceptional. Therefore, that is the only position I should argue from.

  84. As a matter of course I do not buy self published books. As a reader my time is valuable. I do not wish to slog through all the rubbish for the few gems. I pay a premium for my books to go through publishing houses so their editors, book decides, etc, can weed out the junk.

  85. “Actually, inasmuch as the comment I was responding to was talking specifically about money, and I addressed that topic directly, in this particular case it is about the money and getting rich.”

    Yes, that much was obvious, but my point is also obviously the larger one that none of us get into this business to get rich. Making a living would be nice, which some of us are lucky enough to do.

    And control isn’t really a separate interest, because that control is part of the REWARD of self-publishing. Not only control of the content, but control over the rights to that content which remains solely with the author when he self-publishes, giving him the ability to sell wherever he wants, whenever he wants. Giving him the ability to experiment with pricing and not be forced to argue with his publisher about charging $14.99 for an ebook and, in effect, pricing him out of the market.

    Also, any talk about money HAS to address the issue of pricing, because that’s an all-important factor in the success or failure of a book—especially one written by a lesser known author.

    But I’d also argue that your emphasis on marketing is a bit misplaced. Only a handful of authors get the kind of publicity push that Redshirts got. Most traditionally published authors are left to the wind. So the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing in that regard is, for most of us, non-existent. I did no publicity whatsoever for Trial Junkies other than a brief giveaway period and a Facebook and Twitter push, and sold 20,000 copies in the first couple weeks, which doubled in a month. And I certainly don’t have the benefit of a well-known name.

    For the mid-list author, self-publishing may not make you rich, but it can certainly earn you a good living—something that’s nearly impossible in traditional publishing, which is criminal to my mind.

  86. I’m curious to know your opinion as to whether a first-time author should publish serially or if he needs a built-in mailing list/audience to do so successfully.

  87. Robert Gregory Browne:

    “Yes, that much was obvious, but my point is also obviously the larger one that none of us get into this business to get rich.”

    Then your point is wrong, because, well. I did get into the business with the intent to get rich if I could. I got into it for other reasons as well, mind you. But making lots of money was always one of the major goals, and while I understand that people don’t get into this business for that, or feel it’s gauche to acknowledge that it was one of the reasons they did, neither of those describe me. I like money. I like writing. I like making lots of money for writing.

    “And control isn’t really a separate interest, because that control is part of the REWARD of self-publishing.”

    Well, no. For me, the reward of self-publishing would be making lots of money from it; control would be a mechanism by which the reward of money would hopefully be achieved. Control won’t pay my mortgage or put my kid through college, and I’m busy enough writing that I don’t want to have to manage every aspect of the publishing process when someone else can do it competently and in some cases better than I can.

    So control actually is a separate interest. You are trying to conflate the two because you have a point you want to make about control, and grafting it onto the money discussion is how you can get it into the discussion. However, it is another topic, tangential at best to the money discussion. One does not have to be in control of a thing to make a whole bunch of money on it, either generally or with respect to publishing. I am a big fan of having control over a project, I will note. At the moment I am in the fortunate position of making my control needs part of the contract negotiation process, after which the publisher executes on those points, or they are in breach of contract. But that’s not a reward.

    I understand you have a soapbox here you wish to stand upon. But it’s a separate soapbox from my soapbox. Saying they’re the same soapbox doesn’t make them the same soapbox.

    “But I’d also argue that your emphasis on marketing is a bit misplaced. Only a handful of authors get the kind of publicity push that Redshirts got.”

    It’s not misplaced because I was talking about Redshirts, just as the money discussion isn’t really about something else because I was actually talking about money. Your point that Redshirts received an unusual amount of publicity is entirely correct, but that’s neither here nor there in this case since it was the specific book under discussion, and for that book, the emphasis on marketing is on point.

    “For the mid-list author, self-publishing may not make you rich, but it can certainly earn you a good living”

    Or it might not, for all sorts of reasons; “can” is not “will” or even “might in enough cases that you should at all consider leaving your day job.” Likewise I can name you some authors who are plugging along in a midlist fashion with traditional publishers and making a decent living at it; although I certainly agree it’s easy to be a midlist author and not do well, too — just as it’s certainly the case that one may independently publish and not make any real money at it.

    The fact is, whether independently or with a publisher — or even strategically doing both when you can — it’s hard to make a living as a writer. There’s no single path that is going to work exactly the same way for every writer, either.

    You appear to be doing the same thing you seem to be chiding me for, which is using your anecdotal experience to make a general assertion. However, I will note that I have been in fact careful to note that I am speaking for my own book and from my own experience, which I know to be an outlier in both cases.

    I will note, as I often do in discussions like this, that I am not Team Traditional in a fight with Team Independent; I am Team Do What’s Best For John Scalzi, and have been on that team for a while now. I’ve released books independently — through this very Web site! — and also through traditional publishing and have been happy with both methods and have had criticisms of both as well. I think a smart writer will take time to understand the advantages of both strategies and move his or her projects to the publishing path that offers the best opportunity for that particular project.

  88. “I don’t like to think in grandiose terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ I prefer to think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That allows you to cut out the philosophizing and get right down to cases.”

    -paraphrased from David Eddings

    While this is a great line, I think this is a big part of the problem in interaction between Team IndiePub and Team TradPub. Team DWBFJS takes this philosophy and applies it much more sensibly. :)

  89. @Cally That’s interesting. If true, the cost of producing four-color/spot-color covers and hardcover binding has gone down significantly since my day — which is good.

    @Robert Gregory Browne Very interesting. I’ll check out your work. Glad to hear of self-pubs who are earning a living. I dove in a month ago, for self-satisfaction and profit (“cross my palm with silver!” as Harlan Ellison said in Dreams with Sharp Teeth). It’s been a lot of fun and a little supplemental income. I was invited to co-host an online book club next month, and I’m loving the immediacy and interaction with readers.

    @AlanM Valid point. I’ve only written one book, and made it DRM free on Amazon. I love seeing how many times it’s loaned out (on my sales reports). That means someone liked it enough to share it. No way to know that in the paper world.

    @Ozzie Traditional publishers publish junk, too. It’s what makes most of their profit. My former employer, Simon & Schuster, published “A Shore Thing” by Snooki Polizzi. It bombed, of course, but still.. brand names do not ensure quality. Many formerly-published authors are going solo. It’s a different world. For example, I loved “Wool” by Hugh Howey. Self-pubbed on Amazon, movie rights bought by Ridley Scott. You don’t have to hunt; just go by the customer reviews — well, mostly… assuming it’s not John Locke or someone else who paid for positive reviews. That stuff is being sorted out, slowly.

    Frankly, the NYTimes best seller list, at least in my day, was baloney; it was based on copies printed/sold to stores, not sold to readers — that’s how you could have a #1 spot the same day a book is released. I dont know if they still do it that way today — curious if anyone else here knows.

  90. I signed a contract for my first book with an e-publisher in October 2012 and it will be out in March of this year (with print in September). I had no ambitions to publish anything until I pitched to an editor on a whim at a conference last fall. There is no way that an utter newbie like me would have gotten a contract from one of the ‘big six’ nor would I have bothered trying to learn how to self-pub for this first effort. I think e-publishers offer a good middle ground in publishing. With more experience and more books I might try a traditional submission or I might be inclined to self-pub if it seems like I have developed some name recognition. Authors have so many choices now and I think that’s good for both writers and readers.

  91. Lynn Rae: Why would there be “no way an utter newbie like [you]” would get a contract from one of the “big six”? Wasn’t every single one of their writers an “utter newbie” once? Now, if you’re saying that you don’t think your work is good enough to be published by them, that’s one thing. I’m assuming that you do think your work is worth people paying to read, though. So why not try to get published by folks who will pay you an advance up front, give you professional editing, design, and promotion for free, and assume all the monetary risks?

  92. What’s clear from this discussion is that Amazon and Apple charge an awful lot for basically conducting a Visa transaction. Ask yourself this: What percentage of the cost of a toaster at Walmart.com is represented by the cost of electronically running your Visa charge and then automatically emailing you a confirmation. Other than the data storage for the book, that is all Amazon does, and it isn’t worth 30%. And, it isn’t a royalty. They aren’t a publisher with editors and publicists. They are more like a phone company, a utility.

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