Lessons from Big Publishers

I’ve read a lot about writing and and getting published, but it occurred to me that as a small author/publisher, I could likely learn a lot from the big publishers. This New York Magazine article on Random House gives insights that may apply to authors everywhere.


1) “Every week, the country’s biggest trade publisher releases 67 new books, but it’s the the 33,000-book backlist (Ian McEwan’s Atonement, for example) that supplies 80 percent of its profit.”


a) Write books that could sell for decades, or can be easily updated.

b) Publish for the long-haul – you don’t build up a backlist over night. Since publishers don’t tend to market their backlist, this means that these books are likely selling passively. Thus, building up a backlist of publications could work for having a passive income for retirement.

2. “Out of every eight books, one is very profitable, one is very unprofitable, and six either break even or lose money.”


a) Not even the experts can determine how well a book will sell. Authors will likely need to write many books to have some sell well. Don’t expect to strike gold on your first book.

b) Typically, if published wisely, self-publishers don’t have to worry about losing much money, seemingly giving them an advantage over large publishers, since our cost of publication is so inexpensive. I don’t have the huge risk of paying out $5,000 advances or printing 5,000 copies on spec. If some books sell only one copy per week, but sell for decades, they could still be profitable for a self-publisher, who invested little more than his/her time.

3) “Two thirds of Random House’s income comes from paperbacks, which retail for about $10. Of that, $5 goes to the retailer; $2 covers Random House buildings and staff; $1.50 goes to author payments; $1 goes to paper, printing, and binding; 50 cents is profit.”

a) As a self-publisher, I’m lean. Thus, the money that Random House pays out for buildings and staff, I essentially keep. As both author and publisher, I keep both of those categories as well. If I pay $200 for an editor to do a final run through after me, friends and family have relentlessly edited, then pay a professional designer $250 to do a cover, I’ve got $450 upfront investment to earn back. I may also later spend $200 submitting to contests and $200 giving away copies to potential reviewers, but by then my book is typically generating sales. That’s $850 total that I’ve got into it, with no yearly fees to keep it in publication.

After publication, I’m making 70% of each Kindle sale on Amazon and 25% or so (depending on how I price it) of each paper sale. That’s a ton more per book profit than the 50 cent per book profit made by Random House.

That’s not to say that self-publishing is typically a great way to make money for authors. Like any entrepreneurial exercise, there are many ways to lose money or never make a profit. Since I’ve been published traditionally and have self-published as well, I see the benefits and drawbacks of each.

One Response “Lessons from Big Publishers”

  1. Book publishing has changed a great deal in the last decade, and most people believe that change has been for the better. Self-publishing has empowered authors in new and exciting ways, while still leaving the door to more traditional publishing methods wide open for those who prefer to pursue them.

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