Becoming a Working Author

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly – Vanity Publishing – Traditional Publishing – and Kindle Direct

Are you writing a book? Great, but do you know the difference between publishing options? Good publishers are like a good family. Bad ones are just a money drain. So don’t subject your best efforts to failure before getting traction.

My first book efforts could have been better, and so could my pay, mostly because I was dumb. I overestimated my ability and my book’s market. Big mistake, huge!

Fortunately, I’ve learned to exploit my strengths and batten down my weaknesses like monsters trying to escape from below deck in a horror movie. And fortunately, the internet brought us eBooks and Amazon. Whoopie!

Your Work and Copyrights

Since the first European movable-type printing press was built and popularized by Johannes Gutenberg (yup, the Gutenberg Press), there have been printed books – and money squabbles with partners, authors, and finally, publishers (his financer and partner actually sued him in the 1650s).

Today we have crypto winter, a stock market freeze, and rising inflation, but writing great stories has never paid better. Not all writers will sell their work, but working hard, learning the craft, and exercising your right to publish your work can pay royalties for a long time.

As an author, you can have a book printer make you copies to sell at conventions, trade shows, or any one of hundreds of markets. You’ll need a substantial story, comparable editing, formatting, and the cash to make those books. At the end of the day, though, you’ll own the copyright to your work, and it’ll stay yours forever.

If you don’t own the copyright for the original work or plagiarize another’s work, expect questions, lawyers, and lawsuits. Please don’t do it!

If you sign a contract to write, read it carefully. It probably states that you don’t own the work or the copyright. I should know. I’ve written hundreds of articles and books over the years and own very few of them, but I’ve been paid for my work.

When you are the creator, you can obtain copyright and receive royalties. These payments occur when another person is profiting from something you’ve created with your permission.

The Different Forms of Book Writing and Publishing

As noted above, I’ve written articles for cash and ghostwritten several books like other columnists here at Working Authors. When I saw Ron’s last article on Ghostwriting, I wondered how many readers are also doing some paid articles or ghostwriting. I hope you’ll leave responses to this article if you are.

Vanity Publishing

What is Vanity Publishing? Well, there used to be a company that printed books for authors with that name. Still, generally, it’s a derogatory term because it infers that the author is paying to have their book printed instead of being awarded a publishing contract with a traditional publisher.

These days there are plenty of vanity presses (or just companies that will print your book) on the internet. Without giving any of them a plug here, they usually offer to print a few dozen of your books in paperback or hardback varieties and charge a substantial amount per copy. They may also convince you to have your manuscript edited (usually a good idea), punched up to improve readability, and formatted. And then you’ll have to pay for a snazzy cover. Expect these expenses to run several thousand dollars.

They won’t sell your books exactly, although it sounds like they will – when they state your book will be listed in their wonderful online bookstore. One company even maintains two brick-and-mortar locations, so they can guarantee your book will be in bookstores.

Still, you must do your own marketing, and it’ll be a tough slog to break even, much less make a profit, because they will only pay you a couple of bucks each time a book they have in their “stores” sells.

Any “publisher” that offers to print your book but asks you to pay any fees is a vanity publisher.

Traditional Book Publishers

The world of traditional publishers has shrunk due to mergers and acquisitions, but there are still millions of books sold by real publishers that award authors with a cash advance against royalties and pay you as your book sells. You won’t pay any upfront fees but expect to do the bulk of the marketing yourself.

I’ve worked with two traditional publishers. One as an assistant, one as an author. Both experiences were satisfactory. I made more as the assistant.

You can get a book agent to represent you (a bit tough these days) or try and land a deal yourself (very tough). But either way, there’s a significant time lag from submission to acceptance to contract signing to publishing to (drum roll here…………) payment.

You might wait six months to finalize a deal and get an advance, and it could be at least a year before your book is available for purchase. By the time your book rolls out, you will have likely spent your advance (perhaps $7500 for a small press and first-time author). Just remember what advance means: a cash advance against royalties. If your book tanks, you may have to repay some of your advances – check your contract!

A typical publisher pays 12% of the cover price to the author. If books are discounted or remaindered, you may get less. Again, read your contract before signing and ask questions.

If your book goes straight to paperback at $15.95 and sells 25,000 copies, you’ll get $1.90 per copy. That’s $47,500 and gets paid quarterly. Payments often start 90 days after the last sale of the previous quarter. And the first $7500 in royalties will be deducted because you got that cool advance. You also share with your agent. Fifteen percent is standard.  

So, if you sell 10,000 copies in the first quarter, your income will be $19,140 minus the $7500 advance, minus your agent’s $2870 (if you haven’t already paid his share of the advance), leaving you a total of $8770.  If the remaining 15,000 copies are sold over the next three quarters, you’ll get $8100 every 90 days after your agent gets their cut. You grossed $48,000 and netted $40,800 for the two years that have passed. But don’t be discouraged, you probably got a three-book deal and have those both written, with the second coming out soon!

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing

While you may continue to make royalties from a Vanity publisher or a Traditional publisher, with the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing program, your accepted books will be available at Amazon forever. As long as there is interest in your book, you’ll get monthly payments for whatever you produce: eBooks, Kindle unlimited eBook reading, paperbacks, and hardcover copies.

However, unlike a traditional publisher that will assign a qualified editor to your work and produce a beautifully formatted copy at no cost, the KDP program “helps” you produce your eBook and paperback. You can even make a rudimentary cover – but paying a professional (try Fiverr for great covers) will likely get you an inexpensive but high-quality product to front your book.

If you price your eBook at $2.99 or more on Amazon, you’ll be paid 70% of the list price! You won’t get paid until two months later, but you can continue to have your royalties automatically deposited to your bank account at the end of each month.

Paperback and hardcover copy sales can also generate income. Five years ago, my eBooks and paperback sales were about 50-50. Today my paperbacks are about 75% of my sales, with 15% from eBooks and 10% from Kindle Unlimited.  I also have income from ACX – Amazon’s Audible program.

With KDP’s easy-to-navigate pricing system, you can find the exact royalty you’ll get from paperback and hardcover copies. I’ve successfully set my royalty at 35% of the sale’s price, so I’m paid about $5.60 on a $15.95 cover price on a book like Vegas and the Chicago Outfit. Your mileage may vary, but my thinking is that nothing beats royalties.

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