So You Want To Write A Book: Traditional Publishing Vs. Self-Publishing

first draft of new american road trip mixtape

[NOTE: I originally wrote this piece for a finance website in 2016, but they eventually deleted their blog, so I’m re-publishing it here. I ended up writing a very short book, Make It Till You Make It, about creating. It’s available in paperback and ebook editions here.]

Moving into a new apartment this spring, I found an unmarked file folder containing about 40 rejection letters from between 2004 and 2009. Remember letters? No? Well, letters were these things where you wrote on a piece of paper the ideas you wanted to tell someone, and then you folded the piece of paper in thirds, placed it in an envelope and mailed it to their home or office. Not so long ago, publishing houses and magazines used to communicate with writers (or people like me who wanted to be writers) via letters.

rejection letters

The process for trying to convince a book publisher to take on your book project started with one letter, a query letter, in which you tried to convince them your idea was a good one for a book. It usually (for me and a lot of other people) ended when the publisher sent you back a rejection letter, usually just a form letter saying something like “Dear Author, thank you for sending us your idea, but unfortunately, we feel your project is not right for us at this time …” And I collected a lot of them.

I figured the only way I would ever be a “real writer” was if someone published a book I had written. I had a 60,000-word manuscript put together by 2007, and I wrote a query letter to anyone I thought might be a good fit for my story. As the querying process moved from hard-copy mailed letters to emails, I kept at it. My book idea got rejected around 50 times.

Not wanting to put all my eggs in one basket, I tried to write for magazines, and collected dozens of rejection letters and emails, but made gradual headway—a small story for a small magazine here, another story there. I took a break from getting my book idea rejected, because I could get paid for articles in magazines and websites.

But by 2012, I had another book idea, and I pretty much knew it was hopeless as far as publishers were concerned. It was a road trip book, which I assumed had to be at least the millionth road trip book idea since the invention of the automobile. I pitched it to a handful of publishers and literary agents, and and after maybe a dozen rejections, I abandoned the idea of needing a publisher, because another option had emerged: Self-publishing.

I didn’t have any pie-in-the-sky dreams of my book shooting to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list (or even grazing the bottom of that list, really). I just had a story I thought a few people might like. I had a blog that got about 65,000 page views per month, and I had a little over 1,000 Twitter followers. So I figured I would put the book out myself and see what happened. Self-publishing houses are usually print-on-demand, so when your book sells, they print more, whether that’s a few dozen or a few hundred.

I checked out the costs of self-publishing options, and ended up using CreateSpace, the self-publishing platform owned by Amazon, and later also publishing the same book through IngramSpark. (FYI, there are plenty of CreateSpace vs. IngramSpark articles out there that cover the pros and cons of each platform—here’s a good one.)

Setup for a self-published book is almost free, depending on which options you choose for design, ISBN numbers, and a few other things. I chose to pay a friend a few hundred dollars to design the cover of my book, and another friend to copy edit the book, but I won’t include those costs here because they’re not mandatory when self-publishing. For my 238-page book, the finances were:

  • Cover price: $15.00
  • Profits per copy sold: $5.29
  • Author copies: $3.70 per copy + $0.65 shipping per copy (shipping based on order of 20 copies) = $4.35 per copy
  • Kindle sales: Priced at $7.99, profits are $5.56 per copy

I also published the same book through IngramSpark, another self-publishing company, to make it available in case bookstores wanted to order it (most independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble won’t carry books published by CreateSpace because CreateSpace is owned by Amazon). With IngramSpark, publishing the exact same book, 238 pages with a 6-inch by 9-inch layout, the numbers were:

Cover price: $15.00
Profits per copy sold: $2.32
Author copies: $4.43 each + $0.67 shipping per copy (shipping based on order of 20 copies)
= $5.10 per copy

With self-publishing, both CreateSpace and IngramSpark wire transfer profits from the sales of your book directly into your checking account once a month—compared to publishing houses, which usually pay out royalties twice a year. Monthly sales reports (and monthly checking account deposits) can be a wonderful thing or a slightly depressing thing (“Wow, my book sales are paying my cell phone bill every month!” vs. “My book isn’t making me rich—it’s hardly enough to pay my cell phone bill every month!”).

For a typical small book publisher, you sign a contract for an advance on sales, usually somewhere between $4,000 and $15,000. You receive that money up front before the book is actually printed (and usually in installments like 50 percent when you deliver the first half of the manuscript to the publisher and the other 50 percent when you deliver the second half of the manuscript, or a something similar). This is great, but it also means you’ll probably have to sell a few thousand books before you get your first royalty check. And when you get your royalty check, you’ll get a smaller percentage per book. For example, a typical author payout for a paperback book might be:

  • 10 percent of net amount billed by the publisher for copies 1 through 4,999
  • 12.5 percent of the net amount billed by the publisher for copies 5,000 through 10,000
  • 15 percent of the net amount billed by the publisher for copies 10,000 and up

“Net amount billed” refers to how much the publisher is selling your book for. Publishers sell books to retailers at a 55 percent discount, so if you had that same book priced at $15 retail, the publisher is billing the retailer for $6.75 per book. So your 10 percent of that $6.75 comes out to 67.5 cents per book (and at your 12.5 percent rate, you’d get 84.4 cents per book, and at your 15 percent rate, you’d get $1.01 per book). And that probably doesn’t sound like much money, compared to self-publishing. So why would you send your book to a publisher instead of just publishing it yourself? A couple reasons.

First and foremost, selling 10,000 books at 67.5-84.4 cents per copy (for you) is better than selling 1,000 at your self-publishing cut of $5.29 per copy. And it’s hard to sell thousands of copies of a self-published book unless you already have a big social following and/or online platform. Book publishers, even small ones, are made up of people whose jobs depend on selling books, so they tend to work pretty hard at it and know a little bit more about the business side than your average author. I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I don’t have the email addresses for the sales folks at Barnes & Noble handy—but most publishers do.

Your book will most probably be better quality when a publisher takes it on. With a publisher, the book will be professionally edited, professionally copy edited, and then be read by multiple editors, have a better chance of getting into independent bookstores (and Barnes & Noble), and have a publicist working to get the book press coverage and to arrange book signings and other publicity events. The negatives of having a publisher? You get less money per copy of your book—but of course ideally all the previously mentioned pros will get your book more sales overall (with less work on your end). Oh, and also, you might have a difficult time convincing a publisher to take on your book idea (as mentioned above), so you might approach ten to 100 publishers before you find one to work with you—or, you might give up.

If you self-publish, you’re in control of everything—which can be a good and a bad thing. The thing that makes you happiest, for example, the book cover you designed yourself in MS Paint, or the quotes you put at the beginning of each chapter, might be a really bad idea for your readership. The title of my self-published book is one particular thing I was in love with (even though I knew it was a bad idea), and probably could have used someone to tell me to change it. It was too long, and no one besides me can still, to this day, remember the exact title when they’re telling a friend about it. And then that friend can’t remember it when they want to order it a couple hours or a couple days later. (For the record, the book’s title is The New American Road Trip Mixtape. I know.)


photos of The New American Road Trip Mixtape


Despite the title, in the first year, my self-published book sold a little over 3,200 copies in paperback and 1,300+ ebook copies across all ebook platforms (Kindle, iTunes Books, Nook, Kobo). Within 15 months, it had sold 5,000 copies total. It was a good experience overall, and I didn’t have to wait for a publisher to publish my book before I started believing I was a “real writer” (the first year I wrote full-time and didn’t starve took care of that misconception). I also was able to use the sales of my self-published book to convince a publisher that my next book might be worth taking on, and in May 2016, Mountaineers Books published my newest book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere. I can say it’s been a great experience having a family of people in the Mountaineers offices who are as hopeful and excited about the book as I am. And the book, of course, is a far better book than it would have been if I had just put it out myself, because of the team of editors I worked with.

I’m not a staunch proponent of either traditional publishing or self-publishing—I think they both have their place. I’ve read great books that were self-published that might never have seen the light of day had their authors not chosen to put them out there on their own. James Altucher, author of “Choose Yourself,” has made a name (and probably quite a living) self-publishing books and selling them dirt-cheap on Kindle, in one wildly successful example.

I currently have a couple other book projects in the works with different publishers, but also want to put out a small, self-published book about creating for a living late this fall. It will probably be no longer than 75 pages, and it won’t justify a book tour or investing tons of time in publicity, but I think it has a place, and maybe a few hundred people might like it. So I’ll put it out myself, and if it makes a few hundred dollars, I’ll be happy. If not, I’ll be satisfied that I got it out of my head and into book form. The great thing about self-publishing, after all, is that there’s so much less risk—a dozen people at the publishing company aren’t betting on your book selling, so you don’t have to convince an editor it’s a good idea, and that editor doesn’t have to convince the rest of the company. You can just put it directly in front of readers and see what happens—if they’re into it, they’re into it, and if not, nobody loses their job over it. It’s a wonderful thing to be a writer in an age where we have options.