The Business of Writing




I spoke with a literary agent yesterday.  To most of us independent writers, that is like winning the lottery.  Just getting one to talk to me says something about what I’ve accomplished and the stories Laura and I have written.

Here’s the deal I was offered by the agent, pending their “approval” of me.

They would represent me, and present my work to major publishers.  In exchange for a lump sum up-front, and 20% of my back-end.

The publishers, should they choose to publish me, would pay me between 6.5% and 7.5% of the mass market paperback retail.  Most mass market paperbacks retail for $7.99, with some up to $9.99.  I’m an “unproven” name, which means I’d be lucky to get the 6.5%.

Bear with me as we do a little math here.

6.5% of 7.99 is $0.519  (We’ll round to $0.52.)  So for each book someone buys in a book store, grocery store, airport sundries store, etc, I would make $0.52.  If we sold 10,000 copies, my cut would be $5193.50.

Minus the agent’s 20% ($1038.70) leaves me with $4154.80 to split with Laura.  So, selling 10,000 copies of my next book would give me $2077.40.

As an independent author, (I’m not giving anything away here, you can Google Amazon’s commission, and all the other retailers pretty much follow suit) I make 70% of an e-book’s sales price.  My e-books retail for $4.99, meaning I make $3.49 each.

In order to make the same money I would make if I got a literary agent to represent me and sold 10,000 copies, I would need to sell 596 e-books as an independent.

In order to make the same $2077.40 I’d make from a publisher who sold 10,000 copies, I’d have to sell 461 print books at book signings.   The drawback to selling print copies at book signings is that I have to purchase them up-front.  That’s a significant financial barrier, but absolutely do-able, especially in the small quantities we’re talking about.

Even IF I won the “publishing lottery” and signed an agent, who then got my book published by a real publisher, (non-vanity press) and then that publisher somehow managed to get 10,000 copies into bookstores, and then we managed to sell all 10,000 copies, would have sold significantly more e-books as an independent in the same amount of time.

E-Books and Print Books are a little bit of an apples-to-oranges, but for full disclosure, I don’t know exactly what would happen to e-books via a publishing house.  The “standard” terms say I’d probably get 35% of the 70% amazon pays, so $1.22 per e-book.  Which still means I’d have to sell three times more e-books than I currently am to make up.

I’m a huge fan of Macklemore.  His song Jimmy Iovine pretty much sums up my feelings exactly, even though he’s talking about the music business, there are a ton of parallels.

The interesting piece to me is even having done all the math.  Even knowing all of that, I’d *STILL* consider an offer from a publisher.  Maybe I have too much faith in my story.  Maybe I’m just cocky.  I’m sure every author feels this way about their book but I just feel like if I could get it in front of the right people…

Publishers, if you have ideas or points to make about the above, I’d love to talk to you.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe there’s something I’m missing.  I’m open to the conversation.


6 thoughts on “The Business of Writing

  1. In the wake of Hugh Howey cutting a deal with a major publisher for print-only rights and retaining the ebook rights himself, perhaps publishers are opening up to the idea.

    It’s an unfortunate reality that talking to an agent feels like winning the lottery, so it’s very easy to forget that they’re supposedly an employee working for you. But if I were you, I would float the idea that you’d only be interested in a print-only deal from a publisher and see what the agent says. If it’s a non-starter for the agent, then you’re probably better off on your own.

    Also, not sure if you follow Dean Wesley Smith or Kris Rusch’s blogs, but they have a lot of interesting things to say about agents and self-publishing.

    • I’ll check out their blogs. I get it about the agent thing, there are so many “wanna-be’s” these days. So many terrible self-published e-books.

      If you’re a “big deal” you can negotiate print-only. As a newb? No way.

      • But as the “big deals” insist on this more and more, it should trickle down to the regular guys.

        Anyway, so what? You just say, “These are my terms, take them or leave them.” And if they say “Leave them”, then you’re no worse off than you are now. Can’t hurt to ask! 🙂

      • That’s pretty much been my approach so far. They get offended when I ask what they’re going to do for me that I’m not already doing for myself.

  2. I know, I’ve done the math and arrived at the same sad conclusion (and the same unexplainable lust for a traditional publisher DESPITE the math). I think it comes down to what we know and what we don’t. We know how books work, how publishers market etc. The e-books game feels (at least for me, I won’t speak for you) a little ethereal still. That’s not to say we shouldn’t go there, it’s just new..ish.

    • I have 5 novels and a couple of short stories self published and am a full time author. I live pretty lean though, no writing “getaway” trips to the Hamptons for me!

      I love self publishing, and the ability it gives to tell my story. I’m really not greedy, I don’t need to be rich or a household name. I just want to make a decent living.

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