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Three Traditional Publishing Myths

If you’ve always dreamed of becoming a published author, chances are you dreamed of taking the traditional publishing path. But what does that mean, and how do you navigate that path? Traditional publishing is when you sign a book deal with one of the Big 5—Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, and the likes. In return for signing over most of your creative rights and copyrights, the publisher covers upfront costs and offers most authors an advance and potential for future royalties.

However, the reality behind traditional publishing is often less glamorous than Hollywood makes it out to be. In fact, 90% of first-time authors don’t get a second book deal because their first books didn’t sell as expected.

To help you make the best decision about how to publish your book, here are three myths about traditional publishing, and how to avoid them.

Myth #1: Traditional Publishers Will Pay You to Publish

One of the most alluring assumed benefits of signing with a traditional publisher is the notion that you won’t have to pay anything upfront to produce, distribute, and market your book. Unlike self-publishing where the author foots the bill, traditional publishers offer advances so you supposedly don’t pay a cent towards getting your book out into the world. This has led to the commonly held belief among authors that publishers are “paying you” to publish your work.

However, this line of thinking ignores the reality behind what a standard book advance actually means and how traditional publishing economics truly shake out financially for the vast majority of authors.

Understanding Advances in Traditional Publishing

While it’s technically accurate that traditional publishing deals come with an advance payable to the author rather than requiring any upfront investments, the implications of this are widely misunderstood. An advance needs to be properly recognized for what it is – an early partial payment of predicted future royalties, not a compensation for the author’s creative efforts and contributions.

In other words, a publisher advance simply represents money borrowed against earnings from eventual sales of the author’s intellectual property. It is not in any way the publisher funding or paying for the act of publishing.

To understand why, consider the typical size of advances, especially for first-time authors. A standard advance generally falls in the range of $1,000 to $10,000 total, with most debut authors receiving advances on the lower end closer to $2,000 to $5,000.

So while it may seem like “free money” with no strings attached on the surface, an advance of a few thousand dollars barely makes a dent in the actual investments publishers must make to edit, design, print, distribute and market books. Not to mention the arduous creative efforts expended by the author.

Advance Pay Outs

More revealing still is what happens after the advance is paid out. An author does not receive any further royalty payments until their book earns out the advance amount in sales. So if an author gets a $5,000 advance, that means their book must generate over $5,000 before seeing another dollar. Until earning out the advance, all other sales revenue goes directly back to the publisher.

Realistically, a large percentage of books, especially from newer authors, never sell enough copies to surpass the advance paid. So while avoiding upfront costs seems attractive, traditional publishing essentially front-loads author earnings into a small lump sum advance while forfeiting all future royalties on underperforming books.

And exactly what share of royalties do publishers claim from the small minority of successful book sales? An exorbitant 75 to 90% or more in most standard industry contracts. This disproportionate revenue split cannot be justified by their modest investments into editing, distribution, and marketing costs. In nearly all cases, publishers propel their own profits over properly compensating creative authors.

To illustrate the earnings dynamics at play, consider a typical $14.95 paperback royalty breakdown:

  • $7.48 – Bookseller
  • $5.83 – Publisher
  • $0.95 – Author
  • $0.17 – Agent

So for every copy sold, the publisher pockets over 6 times more revenue than the author responsible for creating the intellectual property driving sales in the first place. This amounts to forfeiting control and profits mainly for the illusion of avoided upfront production costs.

In another example, say a publisher offers a $10,000 advance to a debut novelist. Their contract stipulates an industry-standard 8% royalty rate for print books priced at $15. After covering the advance, the author would need to sell 13,698 copies to earn just $20,000 total on a book that might move 100,000+ units for the publisher.

Myth #2: A Publisher Will Get You More Sales

Another major misconception authors have about traditional book deals is that the publisher will take over marketing responsibilities, getting their book into many more hands through advertising, promotions and sales efforts. However, the reality is that unless an author already enjoys major bestselling status, publishers expect authors themselves to drive the lion’s share of marketing, not the other way around.

While publishers focus primarily on distribution—getting books into physical bookstores and retail outlets—the expectation is that individual authors will handle the heavy lifting around actual consumer awareness and sales generation. The notion that simply landing a deal will catapult sales is naive at best for most authors.

Publishers dedicate very little resources towards direct or mass consumer marketing for books, reserving advertising budgets mostly for proven top earning authors only. The small allotment a typical publisher dedicates towards marketing gets soaked up largely by distributing review copies to media outlets and industry influencers along with producing basic promotional materials for retailers.

But targeted consumer marketing falls squarely on authors through whatever creative grassroots means they can muster from blog posts to podcast interviews to email lists. Without these relentless direct outreach efforts, most books fade quickly into the ether.

Some eye-opening statistics around declining print sales channels further reinforce these mismatched expectations. Ebook sales have rapidly eaten into print revenue for over a decade. And according to recent data, print book demand on Amazon alone now outpaces physical bookstores 3:1.

So while traditional publishing can efficiently get books into bookstore chains thanks to longstanding distribution relationships, this no longer translates directly into sales growth. Physical shelf space has diminishing returns without authors directly connecting with online communities and digital audiences.

Myth #3: A Publisher Will Provide an Experienced Team

Intuitively, it seems reasonable for authors to expect that signing a traditional publishing deal would come with the benefit of collaborating with an entire experienced team of editors, designers, publicists, and more. However, while capable, the incentives and interests of a publisher’s employees ultimately serve the publisher itself first, not individual authors.

These company-hired teams certainly contain many talented professionals devoted to shaping, polishing and positioning books for success in the wider marketplace. But that definition of “success” remains aligned to whichever outcomes yield the greatest profits for their employer—the publisher calling the shots.

So while authors may envision a publisher’s team opening doors for their long-term career growth, the reality skews quite differently. These teams make decisions catering to maximize immediate or cumulative book sales for their company overall, not what might serve an individual author best across their body of work.

Aligning Your Author Goals

Say a publisher’s cover designer creates three striking cover option drafts for your book. Two of the concepts align beautifully with the personal brand and style you’ve nurtured in your niche. The brand that you use to earn money. The third screams mass market appeal by riding the coattails of current bestselling trends in your genre but feels disjointed from your platform’s tone.

Now, which option do you suppose the designer—an employee obligated to serve the publisher’s interests first—subtly pushes you to select? The outcome best suited to quickly repaying the publisher’s modest advance and earning steadier longer-term royalties through maximized unit sales carries the day. Your own personal preferences or platform take back stage consideration here.

This system misalignment permeates all throughout a traditional publisher team’s efforts—from editing that excises passages key for your core readers to satisfy mass market tastes… to publicity pitches chasing flash-in-the-pan media mentions rather than methodically boosting your authority with target outlets… to prioritizing retailer relationships over direct community building.

In essence, traditional publisher teams act as extensions of the publishers themselves. And in the process, authors sacrifice control over long-term career choices to satisfy short-term company revenue interests. Your book gets shaped to serve their predefined notion of success, not yours.

So while still capable professionals, relying on a publisher’s staff means leaning on mismatched incentives putting corporate profits over nurturing hard-won personal author platforms. Only by retaining flexibility can authors respond to their niche audiences and priorities rather than get confined to a single company’s traditional definition of effective book promotion and brand building.

Is Traditional Publishing Right for You?

Let’s be clear. While there are many myths about traditional publishing, it can still prove the right route for some authors.

If maximizing book sales revenue and brand visibility outweigh retaining creative control or nurturing a niche audience, traditional publishing merits consideration. Just ensure proper due diligence around actual publisher incentives and services rendered.

Any publishing approach must align with clearly defined author goals and priorities first since no one path serves all writing careers equally. Choose mindfully based on realistic outcomes specific to your definition of success.

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What is Your Path to Getting Published?

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