I have the privilege of being part of an author panel at the December meeting of the California Writers Club Mt. Diablo chapter. We’ll talk about the three different types of publishing: traditional, hybrid, and self-publishing.

For those that don’t know, traditional publishing is when writers get a book contract and are paid an advance from an established publisher, including the “Big 5” publishers in the book industry (such as Penguin/Random House and Simon and Schuster, etc.). The publisher takes care of editing the book, creating a book cover, formatting, and getting the book into stores. Hybrid publishing is when writers hire a company to publish a book under the company’s publishing imprint and the author hires others for some tasks such as editing, creating a book cover, and formatting, or does some tasks themselves. Self-publishing, also known as independent or indie publishing, is when the author is responsible for all tasks or hires others to get the book published. No matter which form of publishing is chosen, the author is responsible for marketing the book, unless they are a bestselling author with a traditional publisher.

I’ve been doing some research about self-publishing, which is my assigned topic, and I’ve learned some interesting things about the publishing industry. According to ElectricLiterature.com, the majority of traditionally published novels sell only a couple thousand copies, if that, over their lifetime. Books with large publishers that sell more than 5,000 copies are considered to have done pretty well. Books with small publishers that sell 3,000 copies are considered as having good sales.

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion given by publishing representatives at the Bay Area Book Festival. An editor from one of the Big 5 publishers said they consider a book that sells less than 1,500 copies a dismal failure. That really stuck with me, and I was determined to sell more than 1,500 copies of my memoir, Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway, so I could jump past the dismal failure benchmark.

It sounded easy enough, but then Covid-19 put the kibosh on most of the book marketing activities after my book had been published for only ten months, resulting in a drop in sales. I still haven’t returned to doing in-person marketing events, but I’m happy to report that sales picked up and I’m past the dismal failure hurdle. My book royalties so far are the equivalent of what most first-time authors get for advances with traditional publishers. For me, that’s success.

Most traditionally published authors don’t earn out their advances, which means they never make any additional royalties beyond their advance, and my book continues to sell. But we all have to decide what success means to each of us, and it can be very different for every author. Some consider success just getting their book into print, and for others it means getting a book deal with a Big 5 publisher with a large advance.

I was surprised to learn from Reedsy.com that, as a whole, self-published authors make more money than traditionally published authors. There are exceptions like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and James Patterson, but they are a small minority. Self-published authors get a higher percentage of royalties than traditionally published authors (up to 70% compared to 5%-18%), and more self-published authors make a living than their traditionally published counterparts.

But higher royalties is not the only reason authors decide to self-publish. One big reason is the time it takes to get an agent, a publishing contract, and the book into stores. It can take years, whereas self-publishing a book can be done in months, if not weeks. That’s the main reason I decided to publish my book myself. I didn’t want to wait years to get my book published, because it had already taken me years to write it.

Indie authors also retain all of the rights and the control. That means they can sell the foreign translation, film, and other rights, decide the title and cover, and publish their work elsewhere. I’ve talked to many traditionally published authors who weren’t happy with their book deals and decided to self-publish going forward.

Although there was a huge learning curve for indie publishing and it was quite overwhelming at times, I’m glad I did it. Self-publishing requires patience, a willingness to learn, tenacity, and hard work, but the rewards can be huge. When a reader who has enjoyed my book takes the time to send me an email telling me so or posts a review on Amazon or other site, it makes all of the challenging work worthwhile. And that monthly paycheck from Amazon doesn’t hurt.

18 thoughts on “Escaping the “Dismal Failure” Book Sales Benchmark

      1. Hi, Heidi—

        I wrote my email to you as a reply to the post that appeared in my gmail. I simply clicked the reply arrow, wrote my message, and clicked send. Could it be lost in the ether? What is the most effective way of communicating with you directly? I have been wanting to get in touch with you since finishing your exceptional memoir. We met at the Pleasonton writers event in October. I was to your right at the breakfast table. (White hair, lots of questions!)

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for your article. I met you when i sat at your table at the authors event in Pleasant Hila couple of years ago with you and friends from your writing group and when your book Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway was being launched. I love the book and have given to many others. Michael who was also art our table for that event has also written a book. She has since then gone under gone back surgery and last month the death of her husband. I think she would like to connect with your writing group to discuss the book she wrote several years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for your comment! I remember you and Michael. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of Michael’s husband and her back surgery. That is a lot to carry. I’m sending my sympathies and healing wishes. The writing group you both met at Literary Women has disbanded, but the California Writers Club is a good way to connect with writers and critique groups.

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  2. Heidi,
    Having self-published three books ( 2 fiction, I family history) I have come to realize that some books aren’t intended to make money, and managing to sell hundreds or thousands has nothing to do with your work being a “success” or not.
    Some writing is intended for a small audience and I suspect many current self-published authors would agree…making big bucks wasn’t the goal. In my case, I believe, I just really wanted to have an end product of my own, especially on my work about my family’s history. I didn’t want that history to be lost to later generations because no one bothered to write it down.
    I don’t play golf, have a big speedboat, or spend much at all on other “hobbies,” so my costs for self-publishing have actually been very low, compared to many other pastimes. And the result? Kindly words of thank you, a feeling accomplishment, and often, praise for my efforts.
    I appreciate your thoughts, and thank you for your efforts.

    John Marvin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, I really appreciate your comments. Congratulations on your success in publishing three books! I agree that book sales have nothing to do with success, and I noted in my blog post that success means something different to everyone. For some, just getting a book in print is success, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think we all have benchmarks that we set for ourselves, and there could be one or many along the way. I consider reaching any benchmark we set for ourselves a success. Those comments from happy readers are the best! Happy writing!

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  3. Heidi!
    Very helpful article….thanks for sharing your research. I appreciate the information as I am looking into publishing my almost complete manuscript on yoga this year, and I have been weighing the issue of self-publishing vs. finding a publisher. So….a lot to learn going forward. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dawn, thanks for your comment! I’m so glad the information was helpful. Congratulations on nearing the finish line on your yoga book! Would love to hear which route you choose for publishing.

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