If I had a dollar for every author who told me they can’t decide if they should self-publish or seek a book deal, well, I’d have a LOT of extra dollars. I get it. When I wrote my first book back in 2004, I wanted a book deal too. I thought it was the ultimate answer and would ensure my book was as successful as it could be.
I didn’t get a deal for that first book, but I got deals for the three books that followed, and I learned a lot along the way. Following are some important considerations and realities you should know before you decide to pursue a traditional book deal for a nonfiction book.
Publishing Reality: Platform Matters 99% of the Time
When I was seeking that first book deal, I pitched many agents. One of them took time to call me and said, “Nobody knows who you are. You need to reach thousands of people each year if you want publishers to pay attention.” (Thank you, Michael Larsen! That phone call changed my life.)
The reality is that publishers want a sure thing. They want to hedge their bets on authors who have a captive audience waiting to buy their books. While there are some exceptions to the platform rule, the fact is that it is much harder to get a book deal if you don’t have an audience. (I’ll add that for memoir, the writing is as important as platform, so make sure your manuscript is in the best shape possible.)
Because of that fateful phone call, I decided to build a blog-site and fill it with content that appealed to my target audience (back then it was entrepreneurs). That effort paid off. After self-publishing the first book, and selling thousands of copies to that captive audience on my blog, I was able to demonstrate my platform and landed my first book deal a year later. The good news is that you can do this too!
If a traditional book deal is a major goal for you, start building your platform NOW. This is the best way to ensure you’ll get an offer.
Publishing Reality: The Financial Side of Publishing May Not Match Your Expectations
I landed that first book contract by myself. It was with a mid-size publisher that had a great reputation back then. But that contract was incredibly one-sided, and so were the contracts that followed it.
One of the biggest appeals of traditional publishing is that illusive book advance. An advance is paid based on what the publisher forecasts to be the future earning potential of your book. An advance can be as small as $2,500. Six and seven-figure advances are typically reserved for celebrities and people with huge platforms. If this includes you, kudos! Make sure you negotiate the biggest piece of pie possible. But for most of us mere mortals, keep expectations low.
A book advance is typically paid in installments. You might receive 1/3 up front, 1/3 upon submission of manuscript, and 1/3 upon publication of the book. And here’s the part most authors don’t realize: You won’t see another dime until you earn back that advance.
Your contract will detail terms for royalties, and you’ll likely receive around $1 per book sold. There are exceptions, but this is the most common rate I’ve heard from authors over the years, and it’s what I experienced in my own contracts. (Conversely, self-published authors typically earn between $5 to $15 per copy, depending on the sales channel.)
So, if you receive an advance of $7,500, you’ll have to wait to sell around 7,500 copies before you ever see another check. Don’t count on your advance or your royalties to pay your mortgage anytime soon.
Author Cheryl Strayed shared what it was like to receive an advance of $100k for her bestselling memoir, Wild. According to this article, her advance was paid out over four installments, delivered when she reached various milestones. After agent fees of 15%, the payments were $21k each, paid over a period of four years.
Of course, that book achieved bestseller status and became a movie, so we can’t feel too bad for her. But the reality is that the $100k advance, paid over four years, wasn’t enough to pay her bills. Even when you think you’ve won the publishing lottery; it will likely be years before a big pay-off arrives, if it ever does.
Another financial consideration is how much you will pay to purchase copies of your book. Most traditional presses sell authors their own books at a discount of around 50% off retail. So, if your book retails for $20, you’ll buy copies from your publisher for $10 each—even though it costs them just a few dollars to print. Yes, the publisher will make money off you, too.
Publishing Reality: Traditional Publishing is a Long Process
The process starts by sending query letters to agents. The goal here is to get an agent interested in representing you, because agents can pitch your work to the top publishing houses and can typically negotiate bigger advances. In fact, you can’t send pitches directly to Random House or other big presses. They only accept pitches from agents.
Agents take 15% of the advance and royalties, and they earn every penny. Publishing contracts can be 20+ pages long and incredibly intimidating. An experienced agent knows how to negotiate better terms and higher royalties.
Incidentally, you can pitch many small and mid-sized publishers directly. Most list submission guidelines on their website. But you’ll still have to sign a contract that will make your eyes cross and your brain hurt, so once again, having an agent can really come in handy.
Once an agent expresses interest, you’ll need to send a thorough book proposal and sample chapters. The process of writing a proposal can be almost as challenging as writing the book manuscript. It’s a lot of work, though can also be a great exercise to go through. You’ll be forced to think about target audience, marketing plans, and how you’re going to sell books.
You may send out dozens of queries and proposals before getting an agent excited about your work. If you strike gold, you will eventually sign an agreement with the agent. Then, the agent gets to work. This might involve suggesting revisions to your work, which can add months or even a year or more to the timeline. Agents don’t pitch until they’re certain the work is ready for prime time. Although, for nonfiction, the manuscript doesn’t need to be completely written before pitching, so you may get lucky and skip this part of the process.
The next step is for the agent to start pitching publishers. If you’re lucky, an offer will come. If you’re extra super-duper lucky, your manuscript could end up in a bidding war. This is pretty rare, but it can happen. Then, your agent will help negotiate terms and you’ll sign with the publisher. You might think this is when the pedal hits the metal, but it’s not.
Once you submit your manuscript to the publisher, it will go through several rounds of editing. The publisher may slice and dice your work. They may remove chapters, change your title, or design a cover you hate. You will have no choice but to accept these revisions because you’ve signed over all the control.
Once editing is complete, you’ll wait and wait and wait. For most major publishing houses, it typically takes a year before a book makes it on to bookstore shelves.
Publishing Reality: Bookstore Sales Can Disappoint
I’m not going to lie; seeing my book on a store shelf for the first time was incredibly exciting. It was even more fun when friends sent me pictures of my book on display in their own local bookstores. It was a lifelong dream realized for someone who grew up always wanting to “be a writer,” whatever that means.
Yes, bookstore distribution is one of the biggest benefits of traditional publishing, especially if you’ve authored a book that has mass audience appeal. And you’ll need your book to be appealing to readers because if it doesn’t sell well within a few months, stores will pull copies off the shelves and return them to the publisher (or destroy them) and expect a full refund—a refund that will be deducted from your sales figures. If this happens, you can bet the publisher won’t want another book deal with you.
On the flip side, if the book sells well, the publisher will be thrilled. Your agent will be thrilled. You’ll be thrilled. Although, those royalty checks will still quite likely disappoint, unless you hit a major bestseller list.
Speaking of bestsellers lists, the only way for a book to make it on to the illustrious New York Times bestsellers list is to sell thousands of copies in a single week, primarily through brick and mortar bookstores. Sales through Amazon don’t count, unfortunately. So, if do have a massive platform and can potentially generate thousands of book sales, then bookstore distribution should indeed be important to you.
But for most authors, the reality is that the total copies sold will ultimately far lower than you might think. Literary Agent Steve Laube shared some statistics from actual client book projects his agency has represented in this post. Here’s a breakdown of sales for the nonfiction authors he shares in the article:
Author 5: nonfiction devotional – 5 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 10,900
Author 6: nonfiction – 2 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 5,300
Author 8: nonfiction – 3 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 18,900
Author 10: nonfiction – 5 books – avg. lifetime sales per title = 6,800 (three different publishers)
(The other authors listed in his line-up are novelists, which I’ve left out since we’re focused on nonfiction here.)
I’m betting these numbers are surprising to you, but these are a great example of the most common sales trends in publishing. I was told by one of the traditional publishers years ago that they hope they sell 8k copies of a business title. They HOPE they sell that many. As you can see, that doesn’t always happen. Most publishers don’t expect to sell tens of thousands of copies of a book unless the author is famous. You’ll do well if you sell 10k copies.
Publishing Reality: Most People Don’t Read Much
According to this recent Reader’s Digest article, people read an average of 12 books per year. And that number factors in those of us who read more than that. The reality is that most people read just four books per year, and 25% of Americans haven’t read a single book in the last year.
Think about what this means for authors. If you want people to read your memoir or health book or history guide, you need to convince them to prioritize your book as one of the four books they’ll read in the coming year. And your book is competing with thousands of other titles. It’s a difficult reality that impacts your potential sales no matter how your book is published.
Publishing Reality: Traditional Publishers Don’t Do All the Marketing
Many authors assume that getting their books published with a traditional press means that the marketing will be handled for them. Nope, nada, not going to happen. Sorry to break this news.
Traditional publishers struggle to keep revenues up, which is why they offer book deals to politicians and reality show stars. Chances are far higher that those books will sell than books by unknown writers. And they primarily put their marketing budgets back into their top authors’ books. Notice book launch campaigns for Stephen King, James Patterson, and Nora Roberts. Ads for those books are sure to reap big rewards. New authors are expected to work HARD to sell books or else face the publisher’s chopping block.
You know those display tables and end caps you see featuring books at Barnes and Noble? Many of those books are there because the publisher paid for that placement.
One of the publishers I worked with connected me with their “publicist,” and I was thrilled. It turned out she was a freelancer, and after several calls with her, she booked me on exactly one radio interview and landed one guest blog post—on a small blog that nobody was reading. I could land myself far better opportunities in the next hour if I wanted to. And that was the extent of marketing support I received.
There are of course some exceptions. Smaller presses tend to have more to lose and may actually assist with marketing more than some of the bigger publishing houses where newer authors get lost in the shuffle. Either way, you’ll still be expected to do the majority of the book marketing.
Additional Publishing Myths and Deal-Breakers
Let’s address some other common publishing myths I hear too often.
- Publishers will acquire my self-published book. This is quite rare, actually. Publishers don’t want a book that’s already maxed out its audience appeal, unless you can demonstrate it still has great sales potential. A publisher is more likely to acquire your NEXT book, if you can show successful sales history for your self-published title(s).
- My book will appeal to everyone, everywhere. You will actually hurt your pitch if you try to convince publishers that every person in America will want to read your book. This simply isn’t true. (See reading statistics above.) No book appeals to all men and women across ages, income levels, and other demographics. If you want to improve your chances of getting a traditional book deal, identify a target audience that you can address through your own marketing efforts, and show the publisher you can reach them.
- I will start marketing after my book is released. Stating this to an agent or publisher is the fasted way to get your pitch rejected. If you want to be taken seriously, start marketing now and demonstrate how you are cultivating an audience of readers.
- I don’t have a budget for book marketing. If it’s true that you don’t have marketing funds, don’t mention it to publishers. And if you can hustle up substantial funds to put toward marketing (at least $5k), then let the publisher know and ask them to match your budget. Publishers like when authors are committed to their book and willing to invest their own money in its success. If you’re lucky, the publisher MIGHT match your budget.
- If I self-publish, my book can’t be in bookstores. While it’s true that bookstore placement can be challenging for self-published titles, it’s also not impossible. You can potentially work with a book distributor to get bookstore placement, though you will need to demonstrate that you are creating demand for your book because just like publishers and agents, distributors need to know you’re working on building your audience. You can also create reverse demand. If you’re building your platform and your target audience members are walking into stores asking for your book, you can bet the stores will be reaching out to inquire about buying copies. But it all comes back to marketing. By the way, you can download a list of distributors here.
How to Decide Whether to Pursue Traditional or Self-Publishing
I realize I’ve painted a rather grim picture here, and I’m sure some authors would disagree with this outlook. But it’s based on the reality I’ve personally experienced and that I’ve heard from authors over and over again for many years. I chose to leave traditional publishing behind after the last publisher called me just before going to press and said, “We need you to remove a chapter. We don’t care which one, you choose. We’re trying to cut costs.” I swore I’d never give anyone that much power over my work again.
With all of this said, I also understand the desire to be traditionally published.
There is no question that traditional publishing can bring added credibility, and it can help you reach a bigger audience. My first book with a traditional press (From Entrepreneur to Infopreneur) sold well for years, and its success changed the trajectory of my career. It led to media interviews, invitations to speak and consult, and more than ten years later, I still hear from readers who said that book made an impact for them. I’m not sure it would have reached as many people had it been self-published back then. I was growing my audience at the time, but the publisher absolutely helped me reach more people simply by getting it into stores.
I don’t regret any of my book deals, and I also have no regrets about returning to self-publishing. Perhaps you will choose to do both, too. It’s a personal decision.
My goal here is to share the reality of this industry. It’s not easy. But no matter which way you go, there is little in life that’s as rewarding as seeing your book in print—and then hearing from readers. If this is a life goal for you, I hope you make it a priority and get your book in print. Whatever publishing direction you choose will be the right one for you. Just proceed with your eyes wide open, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
- Download a list of literary agents here.
- We offer lots of tools for both traditional and self-publishing in our store.
- We provide plenty of free advice on publishing, marketing, and writing nonfiction on our blog.
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