It started with a question from a reader named Katie. Her email to me read in part:
I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to evaluate the differences between getting published by a major publisher compared to a smaller house or (especially) an e-publisher. I know that the future will include more ebooks, and Samhain has some sort of contract with one of the big houses (which one escapes me at the moment), so those who are writing for them might get to ride the beginning crest of the wave... but I'm having trouble bring all the tidbits of information together in such a way that I can discover whether I'd be happier submitting to Samhaim or another epublisher, or to hold out for an agent to help me get to a major publisher.
I talked about this a little in November, but am happy to revisit the subject. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to focus on large New York publishers rather than regional presses, university presses or other small publishing houses. And when I refer to an e-publisher, I'm talking about the better-known names.
First, let me say that I don't think this necessarily has to be a case of "either/or." Increasingly, there are writers who are comfortable moving back and forth between the two mediums of print and electronic publishing. Off the top of my head I can think of MaryJanice Davidson, Angela Knight, Sylvia Day and Shelley Bradley.
And, as Katie said, we are seeing relationships being developed between print and e-publishers so an author's books can be seen in both mediums. Simon & Schuster has formed a relationship with Ellora's Cave, and Kensington has done the same thing with Samhain.
Let me run through the major differences between the two mediums first.
New York Print Publisher: You're more likely to get an advance, and your books will be sold to the two biggest markets: bookstores and libraries. As a new author, your royalty percentage will be on the low end (6% to 8%), and it can take a long time to see your book in print (usually about a year although it can sometimes take longer).
This is a huge investment for the publisher, and they're going to want to see a return on that investment. Your sell-through percentage is critical (Sell-through is the percentage of copies sold versus the percentage of copies that were distributed. Example: 12K copies were printed and 10K copies were sold to retailers and libraries. After returns, 4K copies were actually sold. Four thousand copies versus the 10K distributed would be a sell-through percentage of 40%).
The last I heard, the average advance for a first book was $5,000. I'd welcome hearing from anyone who has more up-to-date information than that. Of course, you have to earn back your advance before your royalty payments start (that's why it's called an advance).
Online publisher: The chief advantages that all online publishers have over print publishers are that they can publish a virtual book with very little investment and with a great deal of speed. For these reasons, online publishers rarely pay advances, but their royalty percentages are much higher (from 33% to 50%).
Before you get excited about the higher royalty percentage, remember that making money depends upon how many books are sold. Therefore, the size of your target audience is critical. This is where those bookstore and library sales can tilt the balance. Even if we assume the prices of the print book and of the e-book are the same (not likely), seven percent of 3,500 books sold is a better deal than 35% of 500 books sold.
The critical issue in how much you'll make is how big an audience the e-publisher attracts.
Common wisdom has it that print houses are much more selective than on-line publishers in the quality of work they accept. I think this is less true of the biggest on-line publishers. What I do think is true is that on-line houses are much more comfortable taking risks in the type of work they contract for. Print publishers are much slower to respond to trends. M/m erotic romance is huge at the on-line houses right now, but is not as common in print.
Common wisdom once had it that an indicator of quality writing and career advancement was being able to start out at a lesser known e-publisher and move up to the better known e-publishers or over to print. The danger was that some writers got too comfortable with the lowered bar for quality at the smaller e-publishers and developed sloppy habits (head hopping, squishy characterizations, over-used plots). But the same thing could be said about formula print novelists. Writers simply need to be committed to constant improvement of their craft.
Katie, IMHO, the decision of which direction to take comes down to a few questions:
1) How well do you tolerate long waits? It can be tougher to get an agent than to get published. Can you persevere for what might be a long time, continuing to write while sending your manuscript out to multiple agents?
2) How well do you tolerate rejection? Can you continue to send your manuscript out and stay positive despite receiving multiple rejections?
3) How important is it to you to hold a physical book in your hands? Will you be satisfied with an e-book?
My book will be released September 4--two years after I finished writing it. Half of my friends opted to go the e-book route, and they've been published for more than a year. And not just published. Multi-published by multiple e-publishers. I'd be lying if I said I didn't second guess my decision half a dozen times over that first year. But I opted for the longer road.
Only you can answer these questions for you. Good luck.