Is dealing with a publisher worth it?
February 12, 2007 6:26 PM   Subscribe

Should I bother with a publisher? How much do nonfiction authors make off a book deal these days?

For about five years I have been self-publishing my own nonfiction books (let's just say they would be filed in the 500s in the Dewey Decimal System). I have about 5 titles, which altogether have sold over 10,000 copies over a 5-year period through my website (70%), through Amazon Advantage (20%), and to universities (10%) for their course fulfillment. My name is well-known; I have a national magazine column in this field.

I have thought about turning over one of my titles to a publishing house. The title I have in mind is not one of my fast movers, but it's sold 1250 copies over 5 years. The overall cost of this was $9000 in printing, leaving me with about $28,000 in profit on a $30 price tag.

The problem is I can't picture any publisher cutting me a $28,000 check for 1250 copies. Maybe I'm wrong. My impression has always been that a typical non-bestseller trade book earns about $5000-9000 for an author. Plus I'm not even sure if a publisher is capable of reaching a bigger market than I already have. My only problem is that I don't have enough cash lying around to bankroll a giant offset print run. I'm working within the constraints of typical DocuTech short-run print quality.

My main question is to other authors and any publishing types is this:

A. How do my sales figures and quantities sound? Am I small peanuts, or am I doing pretty well? What are typical sales figures for a run-of-the-mill nonfiction book not targeted at bestseller lists?

B. How much does a typical nonfiction book author earn for a title, in cold hard numbers, not percentages? What is a typical or sample take-home earning for X number of books?

C. Do you feel it's smart for me to keep what I'm doing rather than deal with a publisher or agent? I suspect that if I'm small peanuts then I should start looking at publishers.

I'm hoping someone outside the box can illuminate this situation for me.
posted by antipasta_explosion to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Not directly answering your question: I sold around 13,000 copies of this book. For the copies sold by the publishers, I made around 85 cents per copy. For the reprint published by B&N I made even less (but they paid in advance).

My book was heavily illustrated, so the publisher had to pay the illustrator, too -- that's part of why I got so little.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:26 PM on February 12, 2007

Response by poster: (Actually you answered 'A' and 'B', so it helps greatly)
posted by antipasta_explosion at 7:33 PM on February 12, 2007

Would a print-on-demand service like Lulu work for the kind of book you write?
posted by ambilevous at 7:37 PM on February 12, 2007

I only have experience with self-publishing ebooks, of which I keep all but some PayPal fees. However, I minored in publishing in university. My business of book publishing courses included a lot of business cases and pricing scenarios. I've never seen an author get $22.40 a book on a $30 price tag.

However, what does it take for you to make that $22? If you could free up your time by letting someone else take over some of the administration and marketing, it might make sense to move to a publisher. But only if you can make other money (or books) with that freed up time.
posted by acoutu at 8:03 PM on February 12, 2007

There's a much-circulated quote among book bloggers, allegedly from the Author's Guild but usually deriving from this page, that asserts "A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies." Much of the Author's Guild site is behind members-only walls, so I didn't get far in searching there, but you might want to email them to verify that figure.
posted by mediareport at 8:45 PM on February 12, 2007

Well, there's a really good way to find out. Really, you have very little to lose by submitting your book to publishers and see if you get a bite. If someone makes you an offer, there's no obligation to take it, but you'll see how much they're willing to pay. They'll give you an offer of an advance and a royalty rate.

I can't really tell you how much you might make with a publisher as opposed to self-pubbing. But I think that having sold over 1000 of the self-pubbed version is solid enough to make them take a look. (Also include the sales figures for your other books).

No, of course you're not going to make 75% of the cover price. Your publisher probably won't make more than 25%, and you'd probably get 5-12% royalty. It's not like they're going to give you $X for the right to print X copies (forgive me if you already know this, but it seems that's how you presented it). They pay you a certain percentage per book sold (royalty), and they print as many books as they want for the term of copyright, or when rights are reverted, whichever comes first. The advance is against that royalty. When they sell enough books to earn out the advance, they start sending you more money for every extra book sold. If a publisher takes on your book, it should sell a hell of a lot more than 1250 copies, or it will probably be considered a failure (unless it's a really tiny publisher). To be clear: 1250 is really good for a self-pubbed book, and pretty bad for a published book. So it's good that you've sold that many so far, but a publisher will expect to sell many more than that. And they probably will.

One thing to consider is that while pulling a $28K profit on a self-pubbed book is amazing, how much longer can you keep that up? Perhaps you can double that in another five years, and that might be worth it. But maybe what you really need is to expand your distribution and potential audience, and it's worth making less money per book to sell a lot more books. Maybe you'll make the same profit, but with practically no initial investment (in fact, they pay you!), much less time put in (time is money), and with many times as many people with your book in their hands, which is always good. And there's something to be said for having more of your money now, rather than later.

In short, you'll make a lot less per book, but sell a lot more books, and you'll do a lot less work, but have a lot less control. How the actual numbers would work out for your book, there's no real way of telling.
posted by lampoil at 5:11 AM on February 13, 2007

I've published through an established and respected press and I have self-published. I made more money out of self-publishing. I would say, use a publisher if it will bring you and your book otherwise unattainable prestige and you need that prestige. Otherwise I suspect it's more fun and more profitable to do the whole thing yourself.
posted by londongeezer at 3:46 PM on February 13, 2007

If you sign a deal with a publisher, will that prevent you from selling it on your website like you do know?
posted by smackfu at 10:44 AM on February 14, 2007

« Older Migraines and (de)hydration   |   Help with my Telecaster and HUM! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.