“I’ve fought this battle from her side. Pat Powers, he wanted the mouse and I didn’t have a bean back then. He was this big terrifying New York producer and I was just a kid from Missouri with a sketch of Mickey, but it would’ve killed me to give him up. Honest to God, killed me. That mouse, he’s family.” ~Walt Disney discussing P.L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks
Around the time At Any Price released, my husband and I got a rare chance to go on a date for our wedding anniversary. We went out to dinner and to see Saving Mr. Banks. I was surprised at how emotional I grew over the decision Ms. Travers faced to sell the Mary Poppins film rights to Walt Disney. I’d just released my debut novel and had no idea whether it would sink or swim. In turning down a “sure thing” advance, I’d taken a big risk.
Reality is a bit distant from the happy ending depicted in the movie. P.L. Travers, it is said, was quite upset with how Disney produced the film. Ultimately, she had little to no control over the final product, despite what she’d been promised. However, there’s no questioning the renown that Mary Poppins achieved due to Disney’s treatment of it.
But as I watched, I couldn’t stop equating P.L. Travers’ situation to mine and that’s what got me teary-eyed, especially when Walt Disney, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, delivered the line I quoted above.
If you haven’t followed my story before, then you should start here:
Last month I wrote a post in which I took an honest look at the road not taken. I’m afraid that some interpreted that post as an expression of regret. Rather, I wanted to explore the options fairly. In this current publishing environment, every aspiring author will, having their finished manuscript in hand, ask themselves: Do I look for an agent or do I go the indie route? Do I get my agent to shop it or do I start looking for my own editor? Do I take the offer on the table or publish it myself?
Both choices are valid. And there is also the third option—hybrid. There are so many factors that should be weighed: the genre of the book; the book’s length; whether or not there’s an existing readership for this author; whether or not the author is ready to also be a publisher; whether or not the author is comfortable with the risk of refusing an advance in favor of unrealized royalties as an indie.
The only wrong choice to make, in my opinion, is an uninformed one.
So again, I take up this discussion not to beat a dead horse (yes we already know how I feel about non-compete clauses and e-book pricing! I’m not about to belabor it). Instead I’d like discuss this milestone in my journey because people have contacted me privately, on my blog and in other forums to thank me for being open about it. I hope a few have benefited and were able to make informed choices with the help of my posts.
So here’s another blog post to add to that list. Because I’ve been asked to blog when I hit this particular milestone and it is a pretty exciting one. I hope you’ll feel the same way.
Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much…Let me sum up.
As a result of an editorial auction, I was offered a three-book deal, $40,000 advance against royalties per book and $120,000 in total to be delivered upon publication of the third book (likely late 2015). The first book would have been published in fall of 2014.
Upon publication (approximately October 2014) I would have received the balance of 85% of $40,000 for At Any Price (the full sum minus the agent’s fee). This amounts to $34,000.
The book released on December 9, 2013. By the end of the day on April 15, 2014, I’d sold 16,331 books with a total earned of $36,031. Subtracting the costs involved in production of the book, $1,827 (which I detailed in this blog post), this amounts to a net of $34,204.
Four months after publication, I hit the milestone of “selling through” what my advance would have been had I published traditionally.
The interesting thing here would be to examine how many books it would have taken to sell through had I signed the deal.
There are a ton of factors that prevent me from doing anything but making an educated guess. I don’t know what the print run or placement would have been in physical bookstores. I don’t know what the e-book pricing would have been and I don’t know what price the trade paperback would have been offered at.
But I can compare royalty rates and make some estimates. Hopefully you’ll forgive my bad math.
Using the figures above of my actual sales, my indie royalty rate averages out to be $2.21 per e-book sold (I do have print sales that have not been figured in, as the royalty and sales numbers are comparatively negligible). This royalty rate per e-book as an indie author averages out to be 63%.
Looking at typical e-book pricing for my genre by the Big 5 publishers, they range anywhere from $3.99 to $7.99. I’m going to optimistically guess that they would have offered my book at around $5.99, a happy medium. Vendor sites may or may not have discounted, but the terms of my contract would have been 25% royalty off the net. This averages out to about 12-13% of the full e-book price. So I would have made $0.78 per e-book sold. Had all my sales been e-book only (or e-book heavy), it would have taken 51,282 copies sold to “sell through” to my share of the advance for that book [i.e. 51,282 x $0.78 = $40,000 – $6,000 = $34,000 (my net minus agent commission)]
Trade paperback prices in this genre vary anywhere from $8.00 to $12.00. Again, I’ll pick the middle, $10.00 (also because I suck at math and 10 is an easy number). For print, I was offered a 7.5% royalty per trade paperback sold, which would have amounted to $0.75. This means 53,333 print books sold. [i.e. 53,333 x $0.75 = $40,000 – $6,000 = $34,000]
Could the publisher move more copies of my book than I could? It’s likely, but not definite. Do I need to move as many e-books on my own as a traditional publisher would have in order to make that same sell-through amount? No. Not even close.
Would I have made this same choice if my book had been that Historical Romance manuscript that I’d originally shopped to editors? Or a mystery? Or a Young Adult fiction? I have no idea.
Again, it’s not always about the bottom line. Some genres move better in e-books than others do. I happened to be putting out a book in a very hot genre that had a strong, marketable hook with readers who, for the most part, absolutely love reading on their e-readers. These factors and others went into the decision.
Would someone else crunching the numbers for their own book have had similar results? I can’t tell you. I honestly wonder if my situation is reproducible—even by me. I did get a lot of publicity with that first blog post. I did get a lot of help from some very amazing authors. And luck was a factor too. But it wasn’t just about luck, any more than being offered a six-figure deal for print was just about luck.
Nevertheless, please don’t interpret this post to mean that because I got X results from the decision I made, you will too. Some debut indie authors have done far better than I have, in fact. I have no idea of what I did “right” and I have made some mistakes along the way.
And a lot of the time I feel like this:
Self-publishing is hard work. There is a constant and steep learning curve. There’s so much more that goes into it than just producing the words and making them pretty. You have to be your own art director for both the cover and any promotional materials you use. You have to be your own time manager (I completely suck at this part by the way, and have to get better at it soon or I’ll be in trouble!) You have to know how long each stage of the production of your novel will take, schedule cover art, content editing, copy editing, formatting and proofreading, all before you can set a publication date. And if you do any sort of promotion before your book is due out, you need to know that approximate release date at least a month or two in advance. If you publish across all outlets, posting the book up so that it is available at roughly the same time everywhere becomes a complicated set of maneuvers and machinations much like a game of Quidditch. All this and more. Pricing? Fuggedaboutit. Self-publishing really isn’t for everybody.
But it’s definitely for me. At least at this point in time. Having the complete control is addictive and I won’t give that up easily.
I can say to my cover artist (the amazingly talented Sarah Hansen at Okay Creations) “This looks awesome, but no, I want my name down here, and much bigger. Okay, that placement is great but make my name BIGGER so it can be read in a thumbnail…
Or, I LOVE this cover but I don’t like that color. How about something different? Okay, red is a great idea but not that shade of red… Ohh, that’s PERFECT!
A successful novel is rarely a one-man show. And I need to work with pros to make a nice finished product. Finding talented, flexible editors was hard. But now that I’ve found them, I’m hanging on for dear life!
Sharing results and learning from the results of other authors is a time-consuming task but it’s also very fun. The general camaraderie in the online independent publishing community is heartening. Most authors lift each other up and generally treat one another as a team rather than viewing everyone else as the competition.
There’s no denying that I’m glad I did what I did. I was able to earn out what my advance would have been on At Any Price six months before the novel would have seen the light of day. It’s like beginning the job early, with a six months head start. Yes, there are things I missed out on by not going that other route. These things mean less to me than they might to someone else. Everyone has different priorities and goals for what they want out of this business.
We’re all in this together and it doesn’t matter how we’ve chosen to get our stories out into the world. For me the bottom line, beyond just the earnings, is ultimately the connections I’ve made with readers through my works. I’ll never really know how my story may have affected most of them, but I treasure the messages of those who have reached out to me.
Walt Disney chose to keep his rights and from that decision and that one little mouse, he built an empire. P.L. Travers chose to sell her rights and her work achieved iconic status for the following generations.
This week, with the release of AT ANY TURN, I’ll be waiting to see if lightning can strike twice. Maybe this one will hit the same milestone as quickly, or maybe it will take much longer. The figures aren’t as important to me as how the readers will receive the continuation of Adam and Mia’s story. It’s a scary, stressful thing to release a story out into the world because once that happens, it will belong to the readers, not just me.
If there’s one thing I would hope an author would take away from this blog post, it would be this: To believe in your work. Never sell yourself short. Give your project the best that you are capable of giving it, then sit down and make the right choice for finding a vehicle that will send that work out into the world.