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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

5 Things I Learned From a Traditional Publisher

People self-publish for a variety of reasons. For some it’s repeated rejection from the big publishing houses; for others it’s a desire for complete control over the process. Honestly, neither was an influence for me. I've only submitted once and never heard back from them. It was my one and only rejection.

For me, all I've ever wanted was to attract the attention of a big publisher. i learned they closely watch the self-publishing world. Like talent scouts, they seek out for highly-developed talent and help them reach a larger market.

Two years and four published novels later, I have a small but loyal fan base. I had completely given up on traditional publishing because it didn’t seem necessary. People around the world were buying and enjoying my books. Still, a tiny part of me still wondered if I would be better off working with a traditional publisher.

Then the universe gifted me with a very fortunate “coincidence” (note: I don’t believe in coincidences). On a trip to China I met Jim, a author from  Canada, He was published through a small Canadian press and had even hit the best sellers list in Canada. He raved about his relationship with his editor and suddenly I was interested. I firmly believe a novel is only as good as its editor. People often rant about the low writing quality on books such as Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. However, I don’t blame that on the writers. Where were the bloody editors? It’s their freakin’ job to ensure quality. Okay, rant over.

Jim was one of the most fascinating and genuinely interesting person I’ve ever met. So when he told me he would speak to his publisher about me I told him to go ahead. I had zero expectation he would.

But he did.

And it turns out the company that published him was also incredibly interesting. When I saw the calibre of books they put out and the authors they had worked with I’ll admit to being more than a little star struck. We corresponded for several months through email. Last week we spoke for the first time on the phone. It was a life changing conversation.

So here’s what I learned talking to a traditional publisher.

1. Everyone takes you more seriously.

When I told people I was talking with a traditional publisher about getting my books into brick and mortar stores I was blown away by their response. People I hadn’t spoken to in years were suddenly congratulating me. Forget that I’d already published four books, now that a publisher was talking to me suddenly I was a real writer. Admitted I was wrapped up in the glamor too. This company had worked with some of the biggest names in Canadian literature. And now they were talking to me? I started to imagine myself at fancy writing events sitting next to Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman drinking champagne and talking about zombies. Hey, a guy can dream.

2. Most authors’ sales suck.

I’d always heard that publisher will only approach self-published authors if their sales numbers are really high. Although sales are higher on release day, I average 2 book sales per day.  Additionally I was recently part of an ebook box set called The Shadow Box which sold around 2000 copies in the first few weeks. I was disappointed by these numbers because they were way below my expectations.

When I told the publisher my sales numbers, he exhaled slowly and made the big reveal. I was currently selling about twice what he would expect to sell if my paperbacks were in brick and mortar stores. He also told me the average sale number for a book is around 300. Not 300 copies a year. Three hundred copies ever.

Sure I’d read the articles about how much money the average writer makes per year. I just didn’t believe it. After my experience with this publisher I believe those numbers are pretty accurate.

Just so you know, to be considered  a best seller in Canada you have to sell about 4000 copies. Best sellers in the U.S. are around 50,000 copies because they have 10x our population.
Source: Reality Check: Canadian Writer's Average Income

So how does that translate to income? The industry average for royalties through traditional publishers is 7% of cover price. That's all that goes to the author. So if you sell 50,000 copies at $30 a pop, that's $1,500,000 in revenue but only $105,000 goes the writer. That's a decent wage but remember that's at the upper end of the range. That's our rock star writers.

3. Publishers aren’t millionaires either.

One of my friends, Maer Wilson, has her own publishing house. And unless she’s been holding out on me she doesn’t have a summer homes in the Hamptons. Book sales in general have been sliding since 2007 as less and less people read. Both independent book stores and giants like Barnes and Nobles are closing. They finding it increasingly difficult to compete with online retailers who have low overhead and access to an immense back catalog.

Hatchet group only publishers around 1800 books a year and yet they employ about 914 people. Penguin Random House has over 12,000 employees and publishes around 15,000 books a year (Source: Global Publishing Leaders 2014). Although income in publishing is typically low, (Source: Working at a Big Six Publishing House) both offer benefits because they want to attract the best employees.

Normally self-published authors have very little overhead and no extra employees. They only have to pay for editing, marketing, and cover art of their book. All this means they're able to sell their book cheaper than a traditional publisher ever could. It also explains why they some price ebooks are so high. If Hatchett was forced to sell their books for $2.99, they would have to significantly decrease the staff and operational costs. It would also likely mean they’d have to leave their New York offices.

4. Publishers need writers more than writers need publishers.

After the phone conversation I spent several days doing some serious thinking. I realize the relationship wouldn’t be a win-win for me. Why would I give up copyright to someone who cannot guarantee me an increase in sales? So I sent a breakup letter to the publisher. Don’t worry. I was gentle. And then the weirdest thing happen.

He kept writing.

No, he wasn’t offering me ridiculously large advances or begging me to sign. But he still wanted me to consider traditional publishing after I said “no thanks.” My how the times have changed. It used to be writers clamoring for the attention of publishers. Now it seems that publishers are trying to convince writers that they are still relevant.

5. Publishers are still relevant

If you think the self-publishing is the end of traditional publishers you’re dead wrong. There have been indie musicians for decades and that hasn’t hurt the traditional music industry. Even though ebook sales have risen (source: Rising Ebook Sales and Declining Publishing Market), nearly 70% of all book sales are still done in book stores.

Sure there are the rare cases of authors like Amanda Hocking who made 2.5 million off Amazon and yet she’s not really a household name. Be honest. Have you heard of her before? Most successful writers aren’t household names. However, they are well-known within their genre. This publisher published urban fantasy. Yet when I mentioned Jim Butcher he’d never heard of him. That was a big time alarm bell. This was obviously not the right publisher for my material.

So how did Amanda to it? She wrote a crap load of books: 17 in one year.
(Source: Amanda Hocking, the writer who made millions by self-publishing online).

Find Amanda Hocking Here:

Publishers still play a very important role. I just wish they would do more. Currently they offer limited promotional assistance, requiring the writer to build and market their own platform. In an email from the publisher, he told me here are 3 things a publisher can do for you that self-publishing can't:
  1. 1 Help author submit for government grants to subsidize their writing
  2. 2. Submit books to awards (since many awards still do not accept self-published work)
  3. 3. Assist with foreign distribution and translation

All are valid points. But here's the rub. Do those points merit the 93% cut that publishers take off the cover price? Sure, not all of the money goes into publishers pockets. Some goes to the book store. Some goes into production costs. But I'm not buying it. That's a very significant cut for what I see as a very limited reward.


After my recent experience with a traditional publisher, I feel a little like Cinderella in Into the Woods. All her life she dreams of meeting Prince Charming. But when she does, she soon realizes reality is nowhere near as glamorous as the dream. Everyone else thinks she’s crazy for walking away from the Prince. How could you not want the dream?

But for now, I'm walking away from traditional publishing. Future success for writers, it seems, is firmly in the self-publishing corner.


Amazon: M Joseph Murphy on Amazon: Paperback and ebook
Smashwords: M Joseph Murphy Author Page on Smashwords
Kobo: M Joseph Murphy Books on Kobo


  1. I enjoyed this post a lot!
    However, I do plan to try both roads (if I ever get the chance). See which works "better." Great insight, however!
    And what I love, after all, is being able to reach the author, because that's an important part of the book, too. And *ahem* I can say hey to you. ;)

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. And thank's for saying "hey".

  2. Fascinating story!

    I have always said to myself that I would consider a deal with a publisher for foreign rights or print-only, and only if they intended to put some serious marketing mojo behind my print novels.

    I think I am hypothesizing myself out of a contract with a publisher. LOL.

    Anyway, over this past year, I have watched people I know, people who I saw at the very start of their writing careers, who hit NYT and USA Today lists, and are making double-digit thousands per month.

    You know how they did it? They wrote a shit-ton of books, a lot of short fiction too. It seems that the world is changing, and short fiction is growing in demand.

    My advice, for what its worth: build a fiction world that has capacity for short story satellites revolving around main novels of one or more series. That is the strategy successful Indies are using. Not only romance, but hard scifi.



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