Self-Publishing Guide Part One: Editing

It’s official! My debut epic fantasy novel, Wake of the Phoenix, releases in eight weeks! This blog will have an eight week build-up even featuring in depth information I learned while tackling self-publishing interspersed with a series of fiction blogs from the four POV characters of my novel.

Several months ago I released a post comparing self-publication to traditional publication and looking at the challenges inherent in each path. While the discussion was a little tongue in cheek at times, it also captured some of the unexpected stresses I encountered after choosing self-publishing for my own path. Having now been through the majority of the process, I want to take a little time to evaluate those experiences and share some gained wisdom. I know everyone does this, but none of the YouTuber “My Self-Pub Path” videos did me any good while researching the process. As a result, I’m looking into four primary categories of self-publishing in detail over the next two months: Editing, Cover Design, Final Packaging, and Marketing.

Where to Start

One of the great challenges of producing a quality book through self-publishing is ensuring your editing is of high enough quality to keep readers entertained. There are several aspects of this struggle. First, knowing what editing you even need. Second, knowing how much to pay for editing (and having the money to pay it). Third, finding the right editors for your project. Fourth, scheduling edits at the right time in the process with enough leeway for unexpected turns. And fifth, knowing when your editing is done. There are other, smaller issues that I’ll also address in this discussion, but these are the major ones. And let’s be honest… I’ll no doubt miss some things, as well. No one’s perfect.

So to get this started, let’s define the types of editing. In order of when they should be completed, the types are Developmental Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. For those who know these definitions a bit, yes, proofreading is a bit different, but I want to emphasize the importance so I’m including it.

A development edit is one that looks at big picture pieces. This is the time when you’ll change character arcs, re-imagine how your plot goes, make changes to the fabric of your world, magic systems, or political standings, and remove (or add) entire POVs. You should not spend any time at this stage evaluating if a particular word is used correctly, if you could improve your minute descriptions, or if your comma placement is right. Any—and often all—of those details may change by the time you’re done with your developmental edits. Almost every book will need developmental edits, but not every book will need to be edited by a professional developmental editor. The decision on whether or not to hire an editor for this rests heavily on how thorough and diverse your critique partners and beta readers are.

Line editing is the next type of editing and that covers looking at the structure of your sentences, the clarity of your writing, and your word usage. It will also include small amounts of rewriting—a paragraph that is confusing might get rewritten, but if it’s a couple pages you’re back in developmental editing territory. This stage is sometimes (honestly, in self-publishing, often) combined with copy editing, which looks at internal consistency of details and technical grammar. However, these are different edit types and you should ensure that any editor claiming to do both at once is actually doing both. This is best handled with a sample edit, which most reputable editors won’t have any issues providing. All books should go through these edits using a professional editor well-tailored to your book. No exclusions. Trust me, you’ll be shocked by what they find.

The final type of edit, proofreading, is technically not an edit pass so much as a polishing sweep. This sweep focuses exclusively on typos and missed punctuation and is unique in that it can be done after typesetting so the proofreader can also catch oddities created by the formatting. All the other edit types should be completed before you start finalizing covers or formatting. The proofread is another area of uncertainty somewhat like the developmental edit. Every book needs a proofreading pass (or five), but there are a number of ways to do this without hiring a formal proofreader. That said, if you can afford a formal proofreader, it’s better to spend the money. I opted not to hire a proofreader and use volunteers from my network and I have been very, very frustrated with constantly catching typos that got missed as I prepare the manuscript for release. Nothing frustrates readers like a novel riddled with typos, and this is the stage that fixes that.

Planning Your Editing

In my personal research, the definitions above were the end of the discussion about how to select your edit types. But that doesn’t tell me anything about who to hire. So, in an attempt to create the resource I wish I’d had, let’s look at ways how you decide if you need a developmental edit.

Most authors don’t know if their plot arc sags or their characters fall a bit flat. They rely on critique partners and beta readers to tell them if their writing has issues, but finding good critique partners and beta readers can be challenging. So here’s a flowchart to help you decide if you need more developmental edits.

If you’re having trouble finding independent readers, you can try a few options. Reddit has a beta reader subreddit. Several book reviewer YouTubers have discord channels that help you connect with similar readers and you can find beta readers there (I use Jenna Moreci and Merphy Napier). Local writer’s groups are typically big on supporting critique partner swaps. Twitter has been known to help people network within the writing community. NaNoWriMo forums can be a great place to find like-minded writers. And if you can’t find anything else, I always recommend Scribophile. It’s where I started getting good feedback on my work that helped me focus on the type of writing I wanted to create.

When considering line editing and copy editing, remember that every book should have these done, preferably by an independent, professional editor. Line editing can maybe be handled by a robust critique partner group and an editing software like Prowritingaid but that’s riskier and if you’re going that route I highly encourage you to use an editor that does line edits and copy edits together. I do not recommend Grammarly—Prowritingaid is much better for fiction writers. I’ve already addressed proofreading. You need to do it, if you can afford to pay for it then do, but it can be done yourself.

The Cost

The next step in planning is deciding how much you can spend on editing. If you need a developmental editor, be prepared to save some money. For line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, keep in mind that skimping on those costs can really bite you later. That said, prices are very, very confusing in this field. A quick search will tell you that editing prices run between 1 cent per word for the low end of copy editing rates to 8 cents per word for the high end of developmental editing. Personally, for my 130k word novel, I paid $2500 for a combined line edit and copy edit (2 cents per word). However, I know indie authors who swear that’s insanely high and insist that edit should have cost only $800. So, it matters where you find your editor and what you’re looking for. Here’s a few resources to help you out.

  1. Reedsy—I used Reedsy and I was happy with my editor, although I do think the rate ended up being a bit high for the work she did. She herself said my line edits were very light because my writing was strong. That said, she wasn’t on the high end of Reedsy quotes. Don’t expect to get an editor from Reedsy that charges much less than I paid, and they may charge more. It’s a great network of professionals that can really help you get a selection of options, but it won’t be on the low end.
  2. I’ve heard very good things about Kimberly Cannon, although I haven’t personally used her. She’s on the lower end (0.6 cents per word) of copy editing and I’ve read some books she edited that had high editing quality. That said, I can’t tell you if those well-edited books were due to her work or not, only that the author of those books recommends her.
  3. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a listing of editors and you can post there requesting editors. When getting bids like this, make sure everyone is willing to give you a sample edit. That will (hopefully) protect you from scammers claiming to be editors who don’t really have the credentials or skill needed for the job.
  4. The Creative Penn is a web site with a ton of useful information on various aspects of self publishing. Her resource on finding editors is listed here. As with the above listing, I encourage you to ensure the editors you consider are willing to do a reasonably sized sample edit before committing to one.
  5. The Alliance of Independent Authors. I wish I’d found this organization before I booked my editor. They have a community you can talk to when you have questions and offer discounts on some editing services. Most of their editing is on the lower end of pricing anyway. This is another great resource and I highly recommend them for a variety of reasons. They’ll come up several times in my self-publishing discussions.

The Editing Process

Now you’re ready to schedule your edit. First, look at your timeline. If you’re doing a professional developmental editor, you’ll want at least six months from the start date to complete that process and maybe longer, depending on the length of the novel. You’ll be booking that edit at least three months out, maybe longer depending on the editor’s backlog. If you’re starting at line and copy editing, that typically take one to two months and gets booked three or four months out. Proofreading you want to book at least three months in advance as well, and just as a reminder, all other edits need to be done before you get to that stage.

Once you have your timing decided, pick the right people. This starts with sample edits. You can also ask for other books they’ve edited and look at the quality of those (either from online samples or, if they’re in your genre, support your fellow authors and give the book a shot). As much as possible, I encourage using developmental, copy, and line editors who tend to work within your genre or similar genres. An editor who usually works on contemporary romance is going to be less valuable on a grimdark fantasy than one who usually works on urban fantasy. This isn’t the case for proofreading, since proofreading shouldn’t be subjective to genre at all, and is less true for copy editing. But it is something to consider. Also, make sure that the types of edits they’re suggesting fit your vision. One of the reasons I chose my editor is because I inquired about a developmental edit and she read my sample, was intrigued by my sample, and encouraged me to go for a line and copy editing instead of developmental because she thought the development was strong. Look for someone who’ll give you that type of honest opinion on your work.

And finally but most importantly, remember that the book is yours. If the editor you’re considering is telling you to make major changes to voice or book content that don’t fit what you want, find someone else. I promise you, there is someone else. If five different editors all tell you to make the same changes, maybe consider why they’re saying that, but never change your book to please one person. All editing is subjective.

The Final Challenge

I said above that one of the challenges of editing for self-publishing is knowing when the editing is done. I don’t have any tips for that one. Barely four days ago I was debating with my entire support team (my husband, my parents, and my discord communities) over whether or not to write, edit, and proofread an extra thousand word epilogue to add to my book in response to my ARC reviews because several felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I talked it over with everyone, got mixed responses (split about half and half), and finally re-read the ending. It ends where I wanted it to, and leaves the right feel at the end, at least for me. As a result, I’m not changing it. Part of that is because I like the end, but most of it is because I realized that those ARC readers aren’t getting what I am, so if I tried to “fix” their frustration with a new ending, they wouldn’t feel what I did there, either.

You may get your edits back and love them and never be concerned. Or you may hate everything the editor said and argue with yourself over every decision. But if you worry that this round of edits is maybe not enough for the next stage, or maybe you need another change before release, or whatever insecurities nag at you, consider this: I almost restructured my entire ending to include a new last scene on a whim eight weeks before my release day because I, like all authors, struggle to know when the editing is done. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

Novel Update

I’m posting a little bit of a different format today because I want to share some exciting updates on my upcoming novel, Wake of the Phoenix. Over the past few months I’ve been going through the process of preparing my book for publication and I have hit several milestones.

  1. Edits are complete. This is a huge milestone. Some self-published authors make edits even after they’ve released a version of their novel and every author releases their book and then wishes they could make one last change. Despite those constant insecurities, my editing is complete. This is not to say that no changes will be made to any of the content between now and my release date. After receiving my professional edits back, applying the changes, and calling my manuscript “done but for the formatting,” the first thing I did was see it in a different format and find typos. There will no doubt be more typos. Nonetheless, this does mean that all substantive changes to the novel have been made.
  2. Maps are finalized for first book status. The maps released a couple weeks ago are now confirmed as the final maps depicting the status of this world at the beginning of Wake of the Phoenix. These maps were created on Inkarnate using their premium subscription. I initially made sketches on the free version and figured those would be okay, but I do have to plug the premium version now. Aside from more complexity, it allows you to make more traditional styles of internal maps and I greatly enjoyed playing with the expanded tools and stamp options. Those maps will be present in the opening pages of my novel, but they can also be used as reference material for events recorded in the fiction posts on my blog.
  3. Interior formatting is in its final stages. This is exciting news, in no small part because I have spent years working at a legal publishing company where my job was to skim PDF documents of official court cases looking for formatting errors. These included everything from weird hyphenations to misspelled words to backwards quote marks. It has been a genuinely surreal experience applying those same skills to making my own book look professional and complete.
  4. Cover design has progressed from concept into detailing. Many authors walk into their books with a concept of their cover art or with an image that represents the story to them. I’ve never been that person. As a result, gathering visual ideas and trying to craft those into something to represent the book I worked so hard on was a daunting task. Thankfully, I had a skilled cover artist who sketched a rough concept in 20 minutes on the phone with me. While the initial concept was exciting, he has had two weeks to work on building that concept into a solid cover design and I am expecting a second draft in the next day or two. From there I will discuss any concerns and suggest and specific changes and wait for the final draft, in 1-2 weeks. I can’t wait to share the result with everyone. I’ll be revealing my final cover in early July both here and on Twitter. Keep an eye out. I’m pretty excited by my artist’s work.
  5. Advance Review Copies will be available to request in 2-3 weeks. I’ve been saying for some time that my book, Wake of the Phoenix, will be released this fall. That means it’s time for ARC readers! I’m still waiting on my cover to send any copies, but I’ll begin collecting information for anyone interested in a free copy of my novel soon. I hope to be able to send e-book ARCs starting in early to mid July and physical ARCs by the first week of August. Keep an eye out here and on Twitter for a form to request an ARC if you’re interested. My only request is that if you accept an ARC you write me an honest review on Amazon. I am a firm believer that truth brings the right readers and unreasonably inflated ratings just piss people off.
  6. A release date has been selected. This is a bit of a funny announcement, since I’ve been saying my book is coming out “this fall” for months. As well, anyone who has ever self-published knows that you pick a release date much earlier than this. The exciting news here is that my plans are coming together, my tasks are getting completed, and the book is ready. This means that my release date (which will be announced when I reveal the cover in a couple weeks), will be the same one I’ve been targeting for several months now.

Here’s a couple sneak peaks of formatted pages from the book:

Indie-pub vs. Trad-pub

Many writers begin their writing journey with a dream. That big name publisher calls, excited by their book, and offers them a huge advance. The fans swarm their book signings. And then comes the movie deal, or the TV adaptation. And then they start hearing statistics about how many writers fail to ever get published at all and the starry eyes fade, the dream hides a little bit, and they buckle down to the work of writing. Or not. Let’s be honest, some people give up when they realize that dream is just wishful thinking. But for those of us who stick it out, we get to work. And at some point, that work leads us to this question: Is traditional publishing the right route for me?

Up until five or six months ago, I was convinced that traditional publishing was the best option for my work. I had been diligently editing based on beta reader feedback. I’d been through a few rounds of querying and felt confident with the process. I’d even received a few partial manuscript requests from cold queries, which anyone in the querying world knows is a pretty big step in the right direction. It’s not a full, and it’s not an R&R, but it means your query is likely doing its job. And then I pitched at a writer’s conference to an agent who was really, really excited about the concept I was pitching. I eagerly ran through a final polish of my query materials, sent the query through the form she’d told me to use, and waited to hear how much of the book she wanted to see.

I got my form rejection in six days.

Now everyone who has been very far into querying has had that one rejection that just crushes their hopes and this was it for me. Not just an agent I was interested in. Not an agent whose MSWL seemed to match my project perfectly. I’d seen those before. But this was the agent who seemed to really connect with my ideas when we spoke and she liked the story I was trying to bring to life. She knew the project. I personally know another of her clients who she picked up despite that client’s book having pacing issues she asked them to adjust after signing, so she’s not prone to rejecting a book because it might need some work. And she gave up on my book after the ten to fifteen pages included in the basic query.

To say I was demoralized is the wildest of understatements. I immediately quit querying (even though I had just restarted a query cycle), I sent my book back to a new round of betas, and I started questioning every sentence in the draft. Does this one really need to be here? Does that sound like telling instead of showing? Is this emotion overdone? Is my conclusion okay? Are my characters bad? I challenged things the agent hadn’t even known existed in the draft, because maybe that eventual turn destroyed the entire book and my knowledge of it caused me to write something earlier poorly.

After about a month and a half of this frantic scrambling to determine what I’d done wrong, I had to admit it. This rejection wasn’t about my book. It was about the agent’s expectations for how this sort of storyline might play out. She’d referenced Game of Thrones as a series she’d love to see something similar to, and I realized she’d meant the TV series and all its sensationalism, not the books with their painstaking (and therefore very slow) world building. She rejected me for writing epic fantasy, instead of just high fantasy. And that is when I started seriously considering self-publishing for the first time.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

I’ve assumed thus far that you know the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing. For the purpose of this post, I am using the term “self-publishing” to refer to all forms of “pay for your own services to release a book” publishing. However, there is a wide range of tactics used to publish outside traditional publishing, so this blanket category is somewhat misleading. It’s worth understanding the distinctions between the processes, but in many instances the points here apply similarly to all forms of self-publishing. If you need a refresher of the basics of each form, here’s the rough outline of each.

Traditional Publishing
  • Requires querying agents, who then query publishing houses, who ultimately decide who gets published
  • Requires a certain level of skill to get a foot in the door, followed by a decent chunk of luck to get noticed by the right agent, then more luck to get noticed by the right editor
  • Offers an up-front advance of money if you get selected for publication…but that’s not as good as it sounds (for a few reasons)
  • All costs of publishing are paid for by the publishing house (if you’re paying anything up front, you aren’t getting traditionally published)
  • Provides help in the form of a team of editors, artists, marketing professionals, and your own personal cheerleader (that agent you worked so hard to get)
  • Almost never does as much marketing as the author thinks they will, and generally not as much as the book needs
  • Control of cover, editing, marketing, and release details entirely in the hand of the publishing house
  • Very low royalties, and you get to share those with your agent, too (Plus, taxes! Don’t forget taxes)
  • Nothing barring entry for anyone willing to click a few buttons on some free publishing software (a point both good and bad)
  • No marketing done beyond what the author does, and marketing can be expensive
  • Author must pay for all cover work, editing, marketing materials, publication fees, and anything else that comes up (good editing and cover design are also expensive)
  • Offers very little visibility without a great deal of work, resulting in typically much lower sales numbers
  • Allows complete author control over editing, cover design, marketing, release details, price and price adjustments, etc. (not always as good as it sounds)
  • No built-in team to lean on when you have questions (all research and planning has to be done by the author)
  • Relies heavily on luck and author work to get noticed, but if you get noticed, you have just as good a chance of being successful as a traditionally published author (even getting on bookstore shelves, if you do it right)
  • Much, much higher royalty rates, and they’re all yours (except taxes. Don’t forget taxes)

The Catch

I said above that a few of the points weren’t as good as they sounded. These included author advances from traditional publishing, the easy availability of publishing under the self-publishing model, and the freedom of choice in self-publishing. Let’s take a look at an example.

Jane Trad and Amy Indie

For fairness, we’ll set the stage this way: Jane Trad has been working on her novel for years. She’s gone through betas, edits, querying, agent submissions, and she’s finally received an offer from a traditional publishing house. The contract says her release date is two years out (relatively standard, though some are longer and I’ve heard of one as short as 16 months) and her advance will be $8,000. On the same day, Amy Indie decides that her manuscript, which she has been working on for at least a year and has edited using critique partners and beta readers, is ready to self publish. Amy, being a responsible indie author, is ready to scope out professional editors and get this show on the road.

Now Jane is very excited. Her advance isn’t super high, but it’s decent and relatively common (she’s a fantasy author, so a publisher has to give her at least $3,000 or they can’t be a publisher under the SWFA, barring any grandfather clauses exempting long-established publishers). Right off the top of that advance comes 15% for Jane’s agent, so she’s really got a $6,800 advance. But that $6,800 is not a lump sum. She gets it in installments over the course of her publication process. Most publishing houses have three installments (or did before COVID hit) but it’s not entirely uncommon to see a four-installment contract. Let’s say Jane’s is three. The first installment comes when she signs the contract. $2,667 right out the gate (minus her agent’s 15%) gives her a take home of $2,267…from which she immediately sets aside taxes.

As Jane is doing her happy dance, Amy begins researching editors and cover designers. Amy falls down a black hole of Google searches, reading post after post about how much various services should cost. How is it possible there are so many different answers to this simple question? That guy says he’ll do a developmental edit for $250, but these three blogs say developmental editors cost $0.03/word at a minimum. Author A recommends his amazing editor, but when Amy looks at a sample of Author A’s book she cringes. The characters are absurd, the plot is random, women are “breasting boobily” places instead of just walking. Is this the author or the editor? How did this even get published?

Oh, right. Because self-publishing has no gatekeepers. And as a result, when Amy self-publishes, many potential readers will think her book has quality like this.

With a determined sigh, Amy begins making a list of every self-published author whose books she respects and tries to find any advice they have about finding editors and cover artists. Meanwhile, Jane has worked with her agent and sent in an initial version of her manuscript. She waits for her first round of edits, the developmental edit, so she can get started. Two years before release, she doesn’t have much to do for her book’s publication besides wait and try to write something new. Under some contracts she might need to supply marketing copy or discuss title adjustments, but let’s say the publisher liked her query blurb and title and are giving that to marketing as is. The marketing department will still make changes, but Jane doesn’t have to do anything about it right now.

So she stares at blank pages, wonders how many changes she’ll have to make, tries to think of a unique characteristic for a new protagonist. She has a great idea for the sequel to her first book, but she only got a one-book contract, so her agent told her to write something unconnected for now in case this doesn’t sell. Jane tries to blog and become engaged in social media, since she needs the connections to promote her book, but she doesn’t really know what to say. She’s not well-known and she can’t talk about her book yet. Finally, eight weeks after submission, Jane gets her edits. The editor said six weeks, but editors are always overworked, so it took a bit longer. Jane has a month to get her changes made and resubmitted.

By now, Amy has muddled through the confusion of Google and chosen an editor, proofreader, and cover designer. Her cover designer also does formatting for a small additional fee, so she’s done picking services. The editor is booking three months out, but her cover designer is busy and won’t have a spot for six months. She’s happy with him, though, so she’s willing to wait. Amy sets her release date for eight months out so she’ll have time to prep after getting everything done. Then, Amy announces on her social media and to her network that her book will be releasing later that year. She begins planning a marketing strategy, recruiting some of her beta readers to help her spread the word, and preparing to run a pre-order campaign. She also decides on a price for her book. She picks the relatively common price of $8.99 to be competitive.

After a grueling month of intensive editing, Jane finally finishes her edits and sends the completed draft back. While she doesn’t make every change, she feels like most of them are an improvement to the story and if she has any questions she can ask her agent. Now she has another wait, filled with any number of relatively minor obligations to her publisher and a growing need to build her market. In another month and a half the editor sends back a second round of changes, a few more developmental items but mostly line edits this time, which Jane has to finish in three weeks. By the time Amy’s editing appointment comes around, Jane is sending her second round of edits back to the editor.

Amy sends her book in to her editor and continues her marketing and social media campaigns. She gets the edits back in a month, pays her editor (typically around $2,500), and evaluates the recommendations. She makes the changes she agrees with and stares in crippling anxiety at the others, unsure if she is making a mistake by choosing not to implement those changes. But there’s no one for Amy to ask for advice, and she is the final arbiter of what changes get made in the book. If the editing sucks (if women start “breasting boobily” places) it’s all on her. Amy feels bad for rejecting Author A’s editor. He can’t control what Author A did with his recommendations. So, Amy signs up for a month of a writing aid software and looks at the recommendations it gives to evaluate why the editor’s changes might be good or bad.

As she begins that, Jane gets her manuscript accepted by the publisher. This is different from signing the contract to publish. It means that the publishing house thinks the book is now ready for the next step. Along with this comes Jane’s second installment of her advance, same numbers as before, and she’s done a lot of work I that time. Certainly more than her advance is worth in hourly wages. But Jane isn’t here for the advance money. She’s getting her book published! And they’re paying her for it! She can make money off the book after it releases.

While Jane waits for the next round of edits, or her cover, or whatever the next step is, Amy has decided on her final edits. She has a proofread-ready copy. Except for the formatting, which will happen during cover design. In the two months before that begins, Amy prepares a pre-order campaign. She announces, talks about her book’s upcoming release, and starts collecting some ARC readers to give initial reviews. When her cover appointment comes around, she has a stack of covers from similar books to discuss and she and her cover designer come up with a great idea. That plus the formatting is done within three weeks of beginning and Amy pays for that. Because she went with a photo-realistic cover from an experienced artist and formatting is included, she pays $600 to the cover designer. She announces a cover reveal and sends her formatted manuscript to her proofreader.

Jane’s activity at this point varies widely by publisher. Maybe she’s already received her cover, or maybe she’s in the middle of copy edits. Maybe she’s just blogging, talking on social media, and trying to find writer’s conferences to attend. What is guaranteed is she hasn’t received her third installment yet. That won’t come until publication day from most publishers. Some publishers define “accepted manuscript” differently and wouldn’t have even paid her second installment yet. But whatever Jane’s step in the process is, she isn’t in control of any of the decisions being made about her book. She might get consulted on the cover, or she might not, but at the end of the day the publisher decides what her book will look like.

When Amy gets her book back from the proofreader, about two to three weeks, and pays about $1,000 for that, she’s ready to publish. Ten months after beginning the publishing process, Jane is waiting for her next steps while Amy announces that her book is now available. She’s already received ten sales through pre-order, which all count as sales on day one.

Status Report

Let’s pause right here and evaluate the standing of these two stories. Amy and Jane have been through a lot of stress over these ten months. Jane oscillated through stretches of endless waiting followed by short bursts of frantic activity and she’s not even half done yet. Amy struggled through a far too massive amount of dubiously accurate information to make decisions, and she has no idea if she made good choices. In the process, Amy spent around $4,000, while Jane earned about $4,500 and saved the $4,000 that Amy spent. That’s an $8,500 financial difference between what Amy spent and what Jane made. To make that up with a typical self-publishing royalty rate of 35-70%, Amy is going to have to sell between 1,351 and 2,700 copies of her book, depending on what royalty structure she uses.

Surely Jane’s strategy is better, right? She’s even got another lump sum coming up…in fourteen months.

So is Jane doing better? Amy went through a lot with that process, but she has a book out now. And to “break even” by selling enough to cover her publishing costs, she needs half as many books as I’ve listed above. She can continue building her social media presence and network with references to that book, and she can write the sequel she has planned. Plus, Amy has already sold ten books (about $31.50-$63 of her money made back). How many more might she sell before Jane’s book even releases? The average book sells 3,000 copies in its entire lifetime. Amy makes money on that number—between 676 and 1,350 copies to recoup her costs, then she makes between $5,190 and $14,625 on the rest of her sales. A total of $9,190-$18,625 if she makes the average sales numbers.

On the other hand, Jane’s royalty rate means she earns very little…after she finally starts getting any royalties. That advance she was so excited about is taken out of her royalty payments. I’ll admit, not being traditionally published, that I’m not certain how the math works out here, but let’s assume the scenario best for the author. The advance was $8,000, so when the book earns $8,000 in gross sales Jane starts getting royalties. Another option (and the one I honestly think most likely) is that Jane starts getting royalties when the total amount of royalties she would have earned without the advance meets $8,000; by that math Jane has to almost double the sales average to get royalties at all. But assuming the better scenario, Jane meets that mark at 890 book sales. The rest of those average sales earn her an additional $2,845 (minus 15% for her agent), or $2,419 in additional income. So a total of $9,219 in the best possible scenario for average sales. That’s not much better than Amy’s low number, and to get it she waited an extra 14 months for publication and lost all of her creative decision-making power.

Now some people may point out that the 3,000 book average is based on traditional publishing and it may not be accurate for self-publishing. That’s true, primarily because the quality of self-published novels varies so widely. For the most part, traditionally published novels all meet a minimum quality standard, so you can compare their sales numbers and get reasonable predictions. But consider, also, that if Amy plans her book releases right and targets readers to her 70% royalty options, she needs just over 1/5th of that average to break even. If Amy sells 2,800 books doing this, she makes more money than Jane’s best case scenario for selling the 3,000 average. And if Amy’s first book never does more than earn her investment back, she can choose to publish a sequel, which makes more people willing to buy her first book. If Jane only sells 676 books, she’s not getting a sequel and she’s lost the right to publish one herself.

For Consideration

Jane’s strategy isn’t necessarily wrong. Some books need the power of a publishing house behind them, and some authors can’t afford the $4,000 that Amy spent on good publishing. But if you can afford to self-publish and have the time or network to get the word out yourself, self-publishing can offer so much more potential. And for those people who can afford good self-publishing, the only thing traditional publishing has to offer is a reputation.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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