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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Self-Publish and Watch the Dollars Flow In?

My column on Jan 25 stated that “self-publishing will remain hot, but it still won’t make people any money.” The column got picked up and disseminated around the blogosphere, with some people torching me for claiming I’m biased against self-publishing.

Rot. Self-publishing is a great idea, and I’m helping several authors do it. Your e-book with a traditional publisher these days will earn you a 25% royalty. Your e-book with a self-publisher will earn you a 70% royalty. On paper that looks like an easy decision for an author. 

In fact, a couple days ago thriller author Barry Eisler made headlines for turning down a half-million dollar deal with St Martins in order to self-publish. Maybe you’re thinking you’re going to follow his lead, self-publish your book, and start watching the dollars flow in.

Um… don’t put any money down on that Maserati just yet. I work with authors full-time, have for years, and while the percentages look great, the numbers don’t always work out. You see, self-publishing is still PUBLISHING, and the keys to success are still (1) write a great book, (2) market it exceptionally well, and (3) know how to sells large quantities. Unfortunately, most self-publishing authors are not doing any of those three. They’re frequently taking a manuscript that’s been rejected everywhere. I know this sounds elitist, but it’s just possible all those agents and editors who rejected that book know something that you don’t know. 

Maybe (just maybe) if everyone has rejected your manuscript, it’s not because “the system is stacked against you.” It could be you could use some editing. In addition, if you don’t know how to market your book, you’re dead in the water. You could produce a great book and people may not flock to it – there’s too much competition, and if readers don’t know about it, they can’t buy it. You’ve got to know how to reach readers and get them to buy your book or self-publishing won’t make you any money.

I’ve been spending time talking with self-published novelists, and you’ve got to work to find people who are making more than a couple hundred bucks per month. Many are making $20 per month – including one author who turned down a $5000 offer because she was convinced she could do better. 

So, frankly, I think Barry Eisler got taken. Somebody convinced him he could do better than to cash that $500,000 check and let a great company like St Martins market and sell his book. They’re probably wrong. Eisler is good, but does he have enough of a following to sell that many books? I don’t think so. AND he now has to be a full-time marketing and sales guy, rather than a writer.

So yes, I think self-pubbing is great. But it’s not a miracle solution for your career. And yes, there’s still some wisdom in listening to all those experienced publishing people who know something about the business.

Chip MacGregor is President of MacGregor Literary Inc., a literary agency that works in both the CBA and general markets.


  1. Great post: it's good to hear a different bell ringing. Overall I agree with you: newbies should beware and not be taken by the allure of self-publishing!

    But on Barry Eisler: I believe he probably did not make a mistake because he's got a solid fan base and a good online following. I understand his wife is an agent? Anyway, he knows the publishing industry real well.

    You need all that as a minimum to make a success at self-publishing. AND you have to be a prolific writer (not just a well-edited one)...

  2. I loved your post, Chip. I agree with you. Yes, some people can make money self-publishing, but 98% of the self-published books that get submitted to my blog need editing. Most need a lot of editing.

    And beginning authors don't have the knowledge to market as they should.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. True, though, the further and further publishers slash their marketing and editing budgets, the more and more they render themselves irrelevant to any established authors already responsible for 90% or more of the marketing and editing. Right now traditional publishing remains the most viable option mainly because they still do invest a lot of money we'd otherwise have to come up with somehow and of course a traditional publisher contributes their name and reputation to each book they put out.

  5. Chip,
    What do you think about e-book publishing and the 99 cent craze?

    I think the idea of hitting the 'bargain-vein' in some buyers is relevant. You know, the ones that wait until the holiday is over and then buy up all the 70% off candy!

  6. I agree, great post.

    I self-published because I had a book that was only of interest to a small population.

    I'm terrible at marketing! I wish I didn't have to do that part, but I'm doing what I can to get my book to the people it will benefit.

    I've sold 65 copies, which is awesome to me. I will continue to sell a copy here and there, but I won't be at all surprised if I never earn back the money I paid the publisher to produce it.

    And that's okay. I had something I wanted to communicate, I felt my book was important, and now it is out there doing that.

  7. Great points! A big part of how successful we are is what we expect and the reality of it all. I self published only because I wanted the material in the hands of many of my readers, not to get famous. God's got the rest under control. My goal is to help people.

    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

  8. I love ebooks and have a Nook and love reading on it. You can find many great novels cheaper, and I'm reading more than I ever have as a result. I chose not to self publish for many of the reasons you state, but I did have a manuscript accepted that releases July 15. I love to read and write. I also review the books I read and post reviews on my blog,, and Barnes and I think ebooks are going to make a huge impact and many people do not like going back to paperback after getting use to reading them on an ereader. I'm one. I no longer have to travel with a big bag of books. The Nook is so much more convenient. I enjoy your informational blog. Thanks for sharing. I read the Janurary one as well. Blessings, BJ

  9. I considered self-publishing, but I'm a traditionalist at heart. So I'm going through the agent searching stage. I did have an agent ask to see the next 50 pages, so that is encouraging.

    I appreciate all the points you make about publishing. It isn't a get-rich-quick business no matter how a writer publishes. A great story and strong marketing are the best foundation upon which to build. Thank you for these great words of advice.

  10. Here, here! Amen, amen. What he said. Yes. Such a great post.


  11. Thanks for the insight, Dude. Let me know when you are in the ATL and perhaps we can do Braves. cm

  12. Well I will be that Guy. I do not agree. On some points like how you have to market like crazy, yes. But in this market and with eBooks if you are a hard worker you can do a much better job getting your work out there. Most big publishers put the marketing on you anyway and the amount you give up to go with a regular publisher is downright wrong.

    However, I would say to go with a small out of the box press so you can get paid what you should and get your book sold the new way. Most publishers are so stuck in the old way of doing it that they don't understand how people buy. The end caps in stores and things like that do not work as well as they once did. People buy online, they buy eBooks and want a deal. Publishers are not sure what to think of eBooks, most are fighting them and trying to keep the price high so as to make up for their lower print sales.

    So, from a Author and a small publisher who sells an average of 5000 of my own personal books a month and has another author right now that is selling 2000 a day on Amazon... I say yes you can do it if you are willing to try something new.

    What does this mean to you? Well, that means that I am a full time writer with only two novels. This other author is a full time writer with the sales of three books. Can you say the same thing with any mid-list best-seller? The % most publishers give is so low that is makes me sick. I know of one that has 6 great selling books and I ran the numbers and his publisher on the low end is making 25K a month and he will and has not seen a dime in ten years. Doing it on his own or with someone like me he will earn 50% of that.

    Anyway... rant over... this is the other side, the future if you choose to see it.


  13. I'm with you Chip. I know you're talking about what's best for most, not for all. Certainly it's what's best for me.

    With my newest book coming out with Revell, trying to keep it real, I think I could move 500 copies on my own, maybe a few more. They have orders for 60 times that number.

    That's a lot of blogging, Twittering and Facebooking for a guy that knows little about doing that well and would much rather be writing.

  14. You said, "In addition, if you don’t know how to market your book, you’re dead in the water." I totally agree, but this is also true if you're a new author or you publish with a small publisher. Publishers (even the big publishing houses) don't market their authors unless they already have a large following and their books have made them money in the past.

  15. On the same note, wouldn't you do just as well hiring someone to market you as you would with a publisher since they don't really promote their new authors anyway?


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