As many small-time authors and self-publishers have discovered the hard way, the traditional book publishing model is fraught with problems that conspire against an individual author/publisher making a decent living from their work.
The traditional model normally involves two basic choices: 1) use a commercial publisher, or 2) self-publish.
THE COMMERCIAL PUBLISHER ROUTE
This option involves the author submitting book proposals or full manuscripts to commercial publishing houses in hope of acceptance.
Once a manuscript is accepted by a publishing house (the vast majority are not accepted) a contract is signed between the author and the publishing house. This kicks-off a time- consuming and often complex process involving printers, shippers, wholesalers, distributors, marketers, and finally, booksellers, all managed on the author's behalf by the publishing house.
Typically, it takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months from the time the author finishes a book manuscript, until the actual book gets onto the bookshelves.
THE SELF-PUBLISHING ROUTE
The self-publishing option is one in which the author eliminates some of the middlemen and manages the overall publishing, distribution and marketing processes him/herself.
This option gives the author much more personal control of the whole process and allows him/her to earn more money per copy than through a commercial publisher. It also involves a lot of work by the self-publisher who is responsible for performing all of the functions and services that a commercial publisher would normally look after.
This model is normally less time-consuming in terms of elapsed time, since there is no manuscript submission and approval process involved. On average, the self-publishing process can save 6 to 12 months over the commercial publisher model.
THE SHOCKING DOWNSIDES OF TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
Based on my first-hand experience with the North American book publishing and distribution industry, I have to say that it is one of the most archaic and poorly run business models that I have ever encountered. The entire industry seems to be decades behind current-day business practices of other industries.
Very few people know from the outset what they're getting into when they choose to publish their book via the traditional publishing route. They have no idea at the beginning just how backward, outdated and dysfunctional the entire conventional book publishing industry business model really is.
Here's what the conventional book publishing industry WILL NOT spell out to you before you sign-up...
Give Away Half Your Book's Value Up-Front
If your book's cover price is, say $30, you will be forced to discount at least 40% to 60% right off the top when selling your book to wholesalers and retailers. So, you'll really be working from an actual price of somewhere between $12 and $18 -- not the $30 you first thought.
Don't Count On Making Big Bucks
If you choose the commercial publisher option, the best you can hope to receive for your book is a royalty somewhere between 6% and 10% of the "net". The "net" is the amount the publisher receives AFTER discounting to retailers.
Example; cover price = $30; discount to large retail chain = $15 (i.e. 50%). Your cut would be somewhere between $0.90 and $1.50 per sale. So, for selling 3,000 copies (a very good sales figure) you would receive a grand total of somewhere between $2,700 and $4,500!
You'll Have To Write Lots Of Books
If you choose the self-publishing option your main distributor will pay you somewhere around 45% of the cover price of your book. Using our $30 cover price example; that works out to $13.50 per sale that goes to you under this scenario. Then you have to deduct your costs which include: printing the book, overheads, and marketing, publicity and advertising expenses.
Example: cover price = $30; distributor payment to you at 45% of cover = $13.50, before expenses. Deduct: printing costs - $3.50; overheads - $1.00; marketing, advertising, publicity - $1.00 = ($13.50-$5.50) = $8.00 per book sale. So, for selling 3,000 copies you would make only $24,000.
And don't forget, this option involves your ongoing direct personal time and effort involvement.
Wait Forever To Get Paid
Typically, you will have to wait between 90 days and 120 days after an actual book sale before you will receive your payment for that sale. I still shake my head at this one. How does the publishing industry get away with such an archaic practice in the 21st Century?
In normal business the standard wait for payment is usually 30 days, sometimes as much as 60 days; but 90 to 120 days to pay a poor struggling author? It's a crying shame that they still manage to get away with it. This kind of payment delay is the norm, whether you go through a commercial publisher or if you're a self-publisher.
Issue 100% Refunds On Unsold Books
A trademark feature of the conventional book publishing industry is the way in which it deals with "returns". In almost all cases -- publishers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers - they maintain the right to return unsold books to you, the author, for a 100% refund, even many months later!
Example: Say you sell 200 copies of your book to a particular retail chain through your publisher (commercial publisher model) or through your distributor (self-publisher model). Then, let's say that after five months, various stores in that retail chain find that 45 unsold copies of your book are still on their shelves. The retailer would simply send those books back to your publisher or distributor for a 100% refund. That company would would then routinely pay that retail chain a 100% refund for each book returned and in-turn would deduct that total amount from your account!
I'm not kidding folks, this is how it really works!
There is absolutely NO incentive for bookstores or publishers/distributors to make any extra effort whatsoever to move your book off their shelves since they know you will provide a 100% rebate for all "returns" in any case. Go figure?
Pay Them Extra Money... Just In Case
And just to add insult to injury, many publishers and distributors will also withhold funds from your regular royalty payments (20% or more) as insurance to cover the costs of possible future returns.
So, not only do you get paid 90 to 120 days late, you will NOT receive the full amount to which you are entitled, as your publisher/distributor hedges against the possibility of eventual returns of unsold and/or damaged books months down the line.
Get Stuck In Someone Else's Time Cycle
Most commercial publishers operate on a time-frame of 18 to 24 months from approved/accepted manuscript until the book is released for sale. If you are a self-publisher you can whittle this down to maybe 3 to 6 months depending on when your book is ready vis a vis your distributor's catalog publication schedule.
If you time it perfectly, or just get lucky, there might only be 6 to 8 weeks between your book being ready to ship and it getting it onto store shelves.
In addition to the foregoing, there are other problems with the traditional book publishing model which I won't go into here. So, as you can see, from an author's point of view it is a highly dysfunctional, badly flawed business model that wouldn't survive in most industries.
In fact, the system is so stacked against the average author I'm amazed that some people actually try to eke out an ongoing living in that thankless industry. I guess they feel they have no other choice, or they are hoping against the odds that they will one day get lucky and pen a mega best-seller.
So, if you are an aspiring author, and you're hoping to make a modest living writing and publishing your own books or ebooks -- the traditional book publishing and distribution model is definitely NOT the way to go.
The good news is that over the past couple of years a new publishing model has evolved that eliminates all of the negative aspects of the traditional publishing model and adds a number of additional benefits.
It's called the "Online Publishing Model".
It's a combination of online digital download delivery and print-on-demand (POD) publishing that sidesteps most of the pitfalls of the traditional book publishing model.