Thursday, December 17, 2009

Comparison of a Self-published book versus a Publishing house-published book

Thanks a lot to everyone who commented on yesterday's post. I'm sorry I didn't have time to respond to everyone. I got caught up doing some aquatic chemistry modeling, but that's beside the point.

When I posted yesterday, I felt like I was more or less rambling about social circles, and it was interesting to me how that led to a discussion of self-publishing versus publishing house-publishing, and the idea of having strangers read your work rather than friends who are simply supporting you blindly, if you will.

I wanted to say a few more things about this. And, again, please keep in mind that I bring this up as a discussion point rather than an effort to persuade. I'm very much in the middle of the debate as I can't really decide if I would ever self-publish or not. I'm open to it.

A few months ago, I did a case study on two books. I happened to know two talented writers who published their books at the same time. One published through Scribner, and the other self-published through Amazon's site. What both of these writers had in common was their talent, and the fact that neither one was the type of person to do much in terms of self promotion.

For two weeks, I followed the Amazon sales rank for both of these books, which indicates approximately how many books are selling better than the book in question--meaning the lower the number, the better. (I know this is NOT the best metric, but it's what I had to work with.) From September 3rd to September 18th, the Scribner book had a sales rank ranging from 272,000 to 67,000. The self-published book ranged from 1.4 million to 690,000. (Incidentally, another self-published book by someone who did do a lot of self-promotion reached 57,000 during this time, and that book had been out for a few years.)

I then wanted to see what would happen to the sales rank, I bought just ONE copy of the self-published book. Before the purchase, the sales rank was 1.6 million. After the purchase, the sales rank was 192,000, within the range of the Scribner book. I took this to mean that, while the Scribner book was consistently selling better than the self-published book, it wasn't doing better by that much. Perhaps fewer than 5 copies a week.

As I mentioned before, neither author self-promoted much. The Scribner writer had done one public reading and got a book review in the Los Angeles Times. The self-publisher mentioned his book on Facebook.

So, I wonder if it's not a matter of how you publish, but a matter of who you reach. I no longer think publishing-house publishing guarantees better advertisement when compared to a self-publisher who has a decent platform. Like Terresa mentioned in the comments yesterday, there's a tipping point in sales, and any way of reaching that tipping point will suffice.

Arguments? Different interpretations? Other thoughts?


  1. Rampart Techpress did an article on Amazon rankings which could be found here.
    I hope the link works.

    I suspect a writer must love to write and not worry about paying the mortgage with their craft. It would be nice to write a blockbuster to put you on the map though.

  2. Thanks, Charlie. I'm familiar with that link, but it's good for other people to check it out too! I think you're right about not worrying about the business side of things, but that's an artistic argument. A lot of our readers (not me) want to make a career out of writing. In that case, this stuff comes into play. And, for me, I think readership is also important. Writing is communication to me, and it took me awhile to realize that I'm not contest just writing for myself. (Although in the end, writing for yourself is probably the best way to reach readers, in my opinion.)

  3. I've seen multiple places that everything comes down to marketing; and I'm not talking about the marketing department at a publishing house, which may or may not be behind you on pushing your book.

    What I mean is ... how much are you willing to promote your own work? How comfortable are you with doing so?

    For my part, I have no problem with marketing myself to various venues. Call it a function of my age (I'm 26), or of my naturally boisterous personality, but I like talking about things that interest me and I like to think that people enjoy hearing about them.

    This also translates into me already knowing that if/when I get that publishing contract I am going to go gung-ho with as much marketing as I can. Will this translate into sales? Possibly. I don't know. But I'm certainly going to make an effort.

    The big difference for me between traditional publishing and self-publishing is the traditional route gives me access to the contacts that said publishing house already has. Which is a huge leg up versus self-publishing where I would have to build all that myself. I'm not saying it's not possible to do so with a self-pubbed book, but it's harder.

  4. Matthew, Thanks for your comment. I think because the Scribner writer did publish through a house, that writer did have access to the writer of the Los Angeles Times book review. That may have made a big difference in sales, I'm not sure. I think it's a great thing that you are willing to promote yourself. I'm discouraged by people who aren't, but I figure that's their choice as well.

  5. the point you make about having access to reviewers at major newspapers is interesting and key. Many high-profile websites that review books will not accept self-published ones.

  6. That rampant article's a good one, Charlie, and it supports what you said, Davin. I remember you mentioned your a-few-copies-a-week idea a few months ago on my blog.

    About self-promoting, I think there are various reasons why some writers don't do any, and I don't only mean the usual reasons, like not enough time and they'd rather be writing. Sometimes you may not realize it but you're encountering burnt-out self-promotion-wise writers. These writers have already done tons and they've learned that sometimes--and for certain writers especially--this is largely a waste of time.

    Self-promotion doesn't always work. Some writers can attract too much negative attention when they force themselves onto the world and now they only wait for people to find them, for readers to make the first move.

    Some writers have learned that certain forms of self-promotion aren't fruitful enough for them; e.g., many times I've seen writers say they're not doing anymore booksignings. They just can't sell enough books. I've done one but, for various reasons, I don't think I'll ever do anymore, at least I don't plan on that.

    As I and many others have said before, word-of-mouth probably sells more books than anything. A writer can't really self-promote sustain that; it's up to readers to sustain.

  7. Very interesting case study. Note to self: market the hell out of my book, no matter who publishes it. Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Roz, I think you're right about access, and then the question becomes whether or not book reviews make a difference anymore. I've read a lot of articles that question the power of the book critic review, and it's supported by the downfall of may newspaper book sections.

    F. P. , For the two writers I describe here, I know that neither one of them has done much self-promotion. They just don't seem to be interested. One seems very nonchalant about publishing, and definitely focuses more on writing. The other, I think, is just lacking confidence. But, I think you're right that self-promotion only gets you so far. I just view it as a start, especially in the case of self-publishing.

    Valerie, You're welcome!

  9. I've been up since 2 a.m. with a sick child, so it's hard for me to follow your math today, Davin! :)

    I think the LA Times thing is a semi-big deal. I wonder how many self-pubbed books are reviewed in major papers. I'm guessing not a lot, and I'm wondering how much self-promo would have to come before a self-published author could get her book reviewed. So if it's a marketing tool for the traditionally pubbed author, maybe it's more of an indicia of demonstrable success for a self-published one.

    But isn't this potentially part of the changing landscape--what if a few key online sites reviewed it? What if a lot of bloggers blogged about it? Maybe that would translate into more sales than an LA Times review. Kind of like with politics and the news--bloggers sort of took over. I almost never read a newspaper, but during the election I was refreshing Andrew Sullivan's blog constantly.

  10. Jennifer, Yes, I think this is the conclusion I've been coming to. With things changing so dramatically, I think self-publishing is more likely to work now than it ever was before, for exactly the reasons you say. The subject matter is very interesting to me!

  11. Davin, it is interesting. And, in the interest of full disclosure (the lawyer in me): I sort of hope you do self-publish. I actually think you'd get published by a traditional publisher, but think of the time line. I feel like self-publishing would get your book in my hands sooner.

    And besides that little bit of self interest, I really do think you would be one of the ones to succeed at it. So from a trend perspective, it would be fascinating to watch.

  12. I don't know what's going to happen with self publishing versus traditional publishing, but if the playing field becomes more level between them, the problem is going to be putting books and readers together. This will be everyone's problem, not just those who self-pub. I think that reviewing sites might become far more important than they are now, and likely the social networking thing will, too. Right now, the published authors I talk to do some self-promotion, but none of them honestly has any idea how this affects sales, especially for debut authors. But it does seem that most of the sales are through referrals had via word-of-mouth, and that there is some sort of tipping point where, once a book has a certain number of enthusiastic readers, the sales sort of "take off." But nobody knows if that will be a month, a year or a decade after the book hits the stands (or the aether). I don't know what sort of promotion I'll do for my book (or books, hopefully). I like being on stage and have no fear of big crowds (3 weeks ago I addressed 200+ medical students), so I think I'll enjoy doing book signings and readings and I might enjoy being interviewed and God knows I like blogging. So we'll see. I'm really keeping my fingers crossed for good reviews and mention on NPR, though. But still, once my book is published, everyone I meet will hear about it because, you know, it can't hurt.

  13. Jennifer, thanks a lot for saying that! I do appreciate your honestly. Part of me wants to try self-publishing sheerly for the experimental value of it too. That's a very strong driving force, and I think it will be interesting to readers here. I've thought about self-publishing under a pen name in case I should decide it was a flop, but that has its own disadvantages too. Decisions, decisions. But, I really appreciate your input!

  14. Scott, thanks for the comment. This brings up one reason I think it might be an advantage to self-publish. That's the time you mention. I hear often that some books have such a small window when any sort of promotion by a publisher happens. If your book doesn't break out during that window, then your numbers are bad and that can hurt future book deals. With self-publishing, you might always have faith in yourself, so you'll continually be able to publish. I have no direct experience with this, mind you. And, I know I sound like I'm pro-pro-self-publishing. I'm really not. I'm just open to it, but I keep finding reasons why it seems like a good idea.

  15. I think those two writers are making a mistake then; they should at least give the self-promotion a good try before not trying at all. You just can't know what will happen until you've worked at this.

  16. Wow, Davin! I'm learning so much with all of the thoughts you're sharing about self-publishing, and as we chat back and forth about it day to day, I'm changing my mind about a lot of things with publishing.

    I'm beginning to see that although I still think traditional publishing feels safer and more of a sure-bet for sales (for me), self-publishing is not a Bad Thing, like I used to think. I used to think of it as a Last Resort and a Bad Thing that only people who could Not Write Well did. I don't think that at all now. At all. Everyone is in a different position and wants different things out of their craft. And everyone makes the choice how much they promote their work, traditional or self-published. Me, being a mom with a young child, and a lot more on my plate than I can handle, if I were to publish either way right now, I honestly don't think I'd have the energy or the time to promote myself much. This is one of the main reasons why I am not in any hurry to publish right now.

  17. Davin: I think that at this point, when most books are still purchased in print form and published by people other than authors, distribution into bookstores and credibility with reviewers is a real problem for self-pub. Can you get a book into a bookstore by yourself, if your book isn't distributed by Ingram or Perseus or Publishers Group West or Baker & Taylor? Maybe, if you're a familiar face at your local independants, but how do you get your book into a store 1000 miles away? That's really the big advantage traditional publishers have right now. They can buy co-op space at B&N. They can buy ads on Amazon. They can buy ads in national magazines. They have reps who will talk about your book to the buyer at every bookstore in their territory. That's a lot of selling that a self-published author would have a hard time doing on his own.

    The future may be e-books where all books are, to a reader, equal. But that future isn't here yet. And in that future, it will still take money to sell books and I don't think many authors will have the time or energy or know-how to compete with Random House and the like. I really don't think that authors, through sheer force of will or even concentrated effort on their part, will manage to sell many books. Frankly, I think the real future might be with smaller presses like Soft Skull or Hobart, who might be able to compete, in the virtual world, with the big houses. We'll see.

  18. F. P., I've tried to talk to the self-published writer, and he isn't willing to budge. That's his choice. The Scribner writer recently scheduled another reading, so I think she's willing to do at least a little more self-promotion.

    Michelle, I've gone through this same transition. If I had to choose right now, I'd probably still try to publish with an agent and a publishing house, but I don't see self-publishing as foolish anymore. Not necessarily. It's a small change, but an important one.

    Scott, that makes a lot of sense. And, I agree with you. And, the question I have is, how fast will things change. Hearing people getting publishing contracts for 2012 just makes me wonder what the atmosphere will be like at that time. Is the transition going to take a year or a decade? I've been looking into small presses too, not because I think I have a better chance with them, but because I've found some amazing books being published by them. I want to interview some of the people who run these places. I think they know where it's at.

  19. Davin: Yeah, there's a lot of frenzy going on right now about the death of publishing and eBooks, but according to Barron's, Amazon (source of most eBook sales) has only about a 10% market share for booksales in the US. That isn't much. And I think this means that 90% of books are sold through brick-and-mortar stores (or through websites owned by real bookstores). What's killing small stores and independants isn't Amazon or eBooks so much as it's big box stores like B&N and Borders (the way Walmart has killed mom & pop retailers all over rural America). So the game still seems to be getting your books into real-world stores across the country, and for that, you really need a publisher who has distribution already in place.

    But like you say, writers getting book deals today are seeing pub dates two or three years out, and nobody knows what the market will be like at that time. Will eBooks still make up 10% of the market, or will they make up 60%? Nobody knows, nor does anyone know who'll be selling all these eBooks. So perhaps, given how long it takes for a book to get from agented-to-on-sale, maybe it makes sense for writers to look at smaller publishers or even self-publishing as viable options. If you're willing to build a writing career over a longer span of years, then there may be no harm at all in self-publishing. Also, you can have a book in hand a lot sooner. If, that is, you have all the skills to edit, design and produce your own book. The big success stories in self-publishing have been from people who paid professionals to do all the production work and hired publicists one the book was printed. Still, the landscape is changing and it will be interesting to see what happens.

  20. Davin, maybe that self-publishing writer just wants to express himself, and have his opinion and experiences available to others. The amount of response to his work might not matter to him. Some writers feel this way, including some traditionally published ones. Everything-writing is about self-expression to them.

    Self-promotion really is hard; you can put yourself out there and put yourself out there and put yourself out there...and it still might not make a difference. And then YOU have been rejected just as much along with your work. But promotion must be done sometimes.

    Years ago when querying Hollywood on my screenplays, I included professional headshot printouts of me. Yes, I did this! lol It's Hollywood, and people are encouraged to be more creative there. There's an if-you-don-task-you'll-never-get mantra people throw around.

    Believe me when I say, I've tried many promotional tactics. It is NOT easy, so I can understand why some people don't wanna be bothered.

  21. I don't know...

    I think this is too small of a test circle to really be valid. There's a lot of factors involved. What if the Scribner book just wasn't that good, or that interesting of a topic?

    And you also have to consider longer terms. If the Scribner book continues to sell more every week and the selfpubbed book fizzles out...

    I don't know. I am definitely biased because I think fiction self publishing is a scam by vanity publishers preying on writers. Expectations of anything great with self publishing is deceptive. At least with traditional publishing you have more of a chance.

  22. beth, thanks a lot for your comments. (And, big congrats too!) You may be biased, but I think what you are saying here is very reasonable, and I appreciate that. Regarding the two books, I will say that I have read them both and both are truly strong. I'm not being nice. The self-published author decided to self-publish from the beginning. He never approached a single agent, and so I have no idea what would have happened. But, in my opinion, it is an equal comparison, though the sample size is small, as you say.

    Regarding longevity, I think we can make the argument for either book, since we don't know at the moment which one will be longer-lived.

    I know that for my genre, literary writing, a sales record of 10,000 books is considered quite successful. The one self-published writer I know--and granted he has a niche market--sold 3000 without every leaving the state or doing anything online. To me, that's a success. I think in other genres, self-publishing might not be reasonable at all. I don't know enough about that.

  23. I really enjoyed your post yesterday Davin, but I did not get a chance to post a comment. I'm always about the last person to read a post and by the time I get home, read through blogs and form a comment, everyone else has moved on to the next days doings.

    But I had some of the same thoughts as you bring up today, and in other comments I'm reading. I'm wondering if a midlist author - which I have to classify myself even though I haven't been published anywhere yet - is a likely to sell as many books on Amazon or any e-site as with a Big House.

    Because I think it really is the amount of publicity an upcoming novel release generates rather than who actually published it that gets the book sold. Unless you have a huge display at the front of the store with only your novel in sight, your (mine) novel is going to be filed alphebetically amongst the rest of the novels in your particular genre.

    A consumer will see it, buy it or not.

    So unless an author considers him/herself the next best-selling novelist, the expectation of rave reviews and a stand alone display just isn't expected.

    I consider myself a good writer with an intriguing story to tell - but I think people who have already read my novel would let me know if it was the best book they've ever read in its genre.

    I'd be just as happy if my CreateSpace self-published novel occupied the same shelf space as that author who was picked up by Little Brown and Co.

    Not knocking the traditional venue of obtaining an Agent and letting them do all the leg work of contacting publishers; but the advance and prestige of being published by a well known publishing house has less appeal than having everyone I know - or even many people in my home area - buy my novel.

    But yes, I'm on the fence about self publishing too. I don't see myself going to book signings, readings, or expensive conferences just to get people to buy my book, so I need to rely on someone else to market the thing. But I also think word of mouth from blogging, FB, Twitter and local advertising can do as much for sales as a NY Times review.

    Whew; that was a long-winded comment.

    Thanks for the debate and info.


  24. Davin - a great post. Was very interested in your little exercise about the sales ranking on amazon.

    I was amazed that 1 book purchased made such a difference to a book's overall Amazon ranking. And also interested to note that there wasn't that much difference between a traditionally published and self-published book.

    To self-publish or not to self publish is an internal debate that I'm constantly wrestling with, so this was a timely post. Thanks (and also for the interesting comments)

  25. I think you may be right about who you reach as opposed to who you publish with.

    It's just a shame so much good paper is being wasted on so many bad writers. I feel like they're clogging the portals for those of us who are really working hard to do it right/write.

  26. Thanks for that post. It is a reminder to all authors regardless of what method is used to publish that you must market and promote yourself as well.

  27. Thanks for your post. A reminder to all authors regardless of the publishing method that you must market and promote yourself and your book.

  28. Lets say all of us here- and I think we constitute good writers- decided to self-publish our books. Who's book breaks out? Why that particular book and not others? Is that book better written or is the writer better at networking?

    Of course to find out you have to make like my grandmother and buy the lottery ticket.

    Damned logic aside, I happen to know all of my books would be a hit. I have hundreds of friends, a blog, and if I told my co-workers I was a published author they'd buy my book. (They're easy to impress, what can I say?) Then there's the thousands of friends my friends know.Plus I'm a marketing genius. I'd say if I did self-publish, I'd could sell at least 100,000 copies (probably will turn out closer to a million)....

    I figure feeling this way is safe as long as I don't put it to the test.

  29. Donna, thanks for your comments. We do see it, even if you're one of the later people to comment! I think you're right that it does come down to whether or not you are a best-selling author. I considered bringing that topic up, but I figured that was just another can of worms best saved for its own post. I also think that my readers would have told me if they thought my book was best-seller material, and since they didn't, I'll probably end up in alpha order, spine showing. :)

    Ann, I hope the post was helpful! This is a topic that I think about a lot, one that I flip-flop on a lot, so I feel the need to discuss it.

    Bish, I'd tend to agree with you on that. But, and I hope this is true, I think most bad writers don't realize they're bad. :P

    Jen, yes! Thanks for your comment.

    Zuccini, I think we do need to buy the lottery ticket. Someone needs to buy the lottery ticket. Maybe I'll by the lottery ticket. But, so often I save my dollar.

  30. Internet sales are one thing, and book store sales are another. It's extremely difficult for an author to get his/her self-published book into actual book stores.

    Just another thing to consider.

    Have a fabulous weekend!

  31. Davin.

    I bought the lottery ticket when I was nine- one of those quarter games at the fair. You put the quarter trying to knock more coins off the edge. At first I fed them in slow and with planning, but by the end I was dropping them as fast as my hands could, always thinking "just one more." Thirty minutes later I used up my last one more.

    My sister's rode all the rides for hours and bought food. I watched.

    I haven't bought a ticket since.

    One day I'll tell you about the 20 dollar bill in the trashcan.


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