Friday, November 11, 2011

Self-publishing or legacy publishing? Show me the hypothetical money!

I have a year’s worth of sales data to assess the results of my self-publishing efforts. I thought it would be a fun exercise to compare my actual self-publishing revenue results with a hypothetical legacy publishing contract. That is, assume that I could have gotten an agent and publisher.

Let’s take a look at my full-length novel, Dead Dwarves Don’t Dance, because I have the most data on it.

Dead Dwarves Don’t Dance Actual Self-Publishing Results

I self-published Dead Dwarves Don’t Dance in November 2010.

I have spent $1,550 on editing, cover art, and advertising.

I’ve grossed about $5,347, for net royalties of $3,797.

Dead Dwarves Don’t Dance Hypothetical Legacy Publishing Results

Let’s say that I was incredibly lucky and got an agent and publisher back in November 2010. I don’t think that’s too likely, because I was an unknown, untested author with a cyberpunk novel, but let’s just say it happened.

Let’s also say I got an average $5,000 advance.

The publisher absorbs all the expenses, so my only expenses are my agent’s cut of $750.

That leaves me with $4,250.

Let's compare!

So, if my hypothetical scenario actually happened, I’d be doing a bit better monetarily if I had gone with legacy publishing.

Of course, it’s possible my book wouldn’t even be for sale yet, since it can take 6 – 18 months for a publisher to get a novel on the shelves.

Knowing what I do now, would I go back in time and instead pursue an average publishing deal?


My hypothetical scenario makes a major assumption that I do not think is remotely likely.

The cyberpunk genre is not a popular one, and I don’t think most publishers would even give it a look. I expect that, had I struggled in the query letter carousel, I would not have found a publisher yet. Look at Joe Konrath. He had 500 rejections over many years before he found a publisher, and he was writing in a popular genre. I believe that I would still be searching for a publishing deal, and collecting a growing pile of rejection postcards.

In the far more likely hypothetical scenario, my legacy publishing career would still be spinning wheels with $0 in advances.

So, I’m still happy I self-published. As I publish more books, I think I’ll be even more happy.

Are you happy self-publishing?


  1. Interesting post, Derek.

    I'm wondering, did you even consider legacy pub? Send any queries at all? I sent only a handful, about a dozen I think. I had a few agents ask for the full, but it all took sooo long and seemed so pointless. Waiting for one person who is obviously drowning in material to get to yours because he liked a pitch he saw months before... and even moving forward from there is really just the beginning of the process. I remember distinctly feeling like "this can't be the correct way of doing this, there must me a a more sensible alternative." It's amazing to think that just a few short years ago, there wasn't. But once I looked deeper into what's been going on the last couple of years, I haven't even thought about legacy.

    To me it feels like there is a fence. I have no problem with people on the other side of it, but I'm just much more interested in what's going on out here. Crossing the fence has lost it's allure and appeal.

  2. Derek,

    I have been watching you...not in a sketchy kind of way but you are a few steps ahead of me in this process...about a year and a half. Congrats on the successful year! It will only build from here.

    I completely agree with you, Stephen. I sent out several queries and the process just drags on forever. Not only that but everyone's motivation is different from your own. The agents are overworked and drowning in the transition. I like this side of the fence too.

  3. Derek,

    Again thank you for being so honest with us and the rest of the world. Everyone likes to point to Amanda Hocking, but she is the exception, not the adverage. Like what V. Furnas said, I am also looking to get my first self-published book out before the end of the year and I have been following you to see what is a more realistic sales might be like.

    For simplicity sake let’s round up your profit and say that you made $4,000 for this year for DDDD. Now let’s say that you continue to make that much for the next few years. In three years you will make $12,000 for this one book.

    With traditional publishing a book can be make the rounds for years before a publisher might take a chance and give you an advance and then another year before it make the book shelf. That is years of not making any money with your book.

    Also with traditional publishers there is a problem with keeping the book in print and in the stores. After that first print run if the book was not a huge hit, it would slowly vanish off the shelf of book stores and not generate any more money for the authors.

    The combination of getting money right away and keeping the book available year after year make self-publishing the only logical way to go, unless the traditional publisher was giving an insane amount of money for the advance.

    While we would all like to make more money with our books, one must remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint.

  4. The real math comes in subsequent years. How many copies of DDDD did you sell to earn $4,000? How many will you sell next year? Odds are, even if you'd gotten an agent, publisher, and a $5,000 advance, you wouldn't earn out that advance in the first year--especially since your royalty would probably be about $1 per copy sold. Remember, too, that the publisher is going to hold back at least 20% of whatever you sell to allow for returns--basically forever.
    I've been there, done that, and am really, really glad to be self-publishing now.

  5. I'm going to get my teeth kicked in a little bit before I strongly consider self-publishing. I feel like I need to earn my stripes first.

  6. Jay, writing the book is earning your stripes not having some big wig publisher bless you with a contract.

    That being said, you should also self publish correctly and have/hire and editor go over your work before you publish and have a good cover and good layout.

  7. Jay, I think that's a good idea. Obviously I don't know where you are as a writer, but finding critique groups of talented and knowledgeable writers or even smart selective readers from whom you can expect "brutal honesty" is a very smart and pretty necessary thing to do before you invest money on publishing. When you spend money on your writing (like with a pro editor), make sure it's ready for that so you get the max benefit from it. Getting your "teeth kicked it" when its free or still on a small stage is wise.

  8. Derek,

    Congrats. I personally believe DDDD hasn't yet seen its heyday. Why? It is begging to be the introduction to a trilogy.

    If earning your stripes is doing as Stphen T. Harper suggests above... kudos. if it with a legacy publisher... Why? The non-compete clause could end your carrier at one book.

    When you have a good book, self publish. If Derek had tried to go traditional, he would have been unlikely to see any cash before 2013. Instead, he has three books, an anthology, and a short story selling.

    I believe Derek is 'path-finding' with the Elemental Odyssey as the Kindle Fire will be 'jump starting' that age group. DDDD... is in a genre which is tough to sell solo titles. I see much future potential.


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