Can I Make More Money via Traditional or Self-Pub?

These days, authors are carefully considering the merits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and many are doing both at once. (My e-book: How Do I Decide? Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing, will help with these decisions.)

I’m having almost daily conversations with my clients, most of whom are already traditionally published, about various ways they can extend their brands, increase their income and/or grow their readership by self-publishing e-books “on the side.” I’m coming across some interesting questions during these discussions. One that I’ve been hearing lately comes from authors trying to figure out how they can make the most money with their next book: through traditional or self-pub.

They’re trying to estimate potential e-book sales vs. potential advance from a regular publisher.

Book made of money

This is clearly a speculative approach. While an agent might be pretty good at predicting the ballpark advance for a book, it’s almost impossible to predict how much money you’d make on your e-book unless you’ve done several already.

Trying to compare “potentials” is dicey business.

In any case, some authors are wondering:

If their agent shops the book and gets a publishing offer from a reputable house, but the advance is lower than the author wants, can the author reject the offer, take back the book, and self-publish it?

Technically, the answer is usually “yes” unless the author/agent agreement stipulates otherwise. If I shop a project, you are within your rights to reject any offers and take the project back. But it’s important to realize that it puts agents in the position of spending hours and weeks and months on something for which they’ll never be compensated.

It might be better for the author to set a threshold up front.

For example, “If I can’t get an advance of more than $10,000, I will not take the deal.” In that case, I (the agent) might be better off saying up front, “That doesn’t make it worth my while to work on this project, because I can’t guarantee ANY advance, let alone a $10,000 one, so I’m going to hand this back to you and you’re free to do with it what you like.”

Agents already spend time shopping projects that won’t sell, and we’ll never get paid for that work. We understand this, and it’s a risk we take. But to have the added pressure of “Even if I DO sell it, the author might reject the sale and I still won’t get paid,” is kind of unreasonable. So in the interest of not wasting your agent’s time and avoiding purposely derailing their attempt to make a living, it’s a good idea to have some specific idea up front of what you will and won’t accept—and talk to your agent about it.

Are you making the “self vs. traditional” decision based on potential income? If so, how are you making the calculations? And are you talking with your agent about it?


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. M. Rainwater on September 22, 2019 at 4:55 PM

    It’s absolutely wonderful to see professionals in the industry willing to give tips to others. Would you say that in your career as a literary agent, you leaned more towards counseling authors towards self-publishing or traditional?

  2. Maco Stewart on September 11, 2019 at 8:46 AM

    This is a great and ever-more-timely subject. Especially once rights revert to an author for a previously published book, promoting it among and beyond the author’s already established tribe makes $en$e. From my observation, struggling to find a traditional route for initial publication is prudent. Although poor sales from a trad published first book are not useful, poor publication from an Indie-published book not only kill the ability to sell that book traditionally but have doubly complicated turning from Indie to traditional publishing. The question I hear asked is “well, if we have to do all this promotion and platform building either way, not take the bigger royalty cut from publishing independently?” To me this is short sighted.

    Nonetheless, this is an issue. Thanks, Rachelle.

  3. Frank on December 10, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    This is a new subject, Rachel. Ageism. My grandmother has written two books, one really special, and would like to submit it to tradidional agents. The problem is, she has heard about ageism, and feels it even in the grocery store, and wonders if its general enough in publishing for her to bother trying. I don’t know what to tell her, except that she could publish her books as ebooks. I don’t want her to be hurt by her efforts to publish.
    Thanks. Hope you will do an article on this topic.

  4. louis vuitton cheap store on April 9, 2013 at 2:26 PM

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and also the rest of the website is also very good.

  5. I do accept as true with all the ideas you’ve presented on your post. They’re very convincing
    and can definitely work. Still, the posts are too
    brief for beginners. May just you please extend them a
    bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

  6. Vera on February 20, 2013 at 5:02 PM

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after
    I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  7. josey bozzo on November 26, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    Many of you probably won’t believe this but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t care what the advance is, I don’t care if I make money or not, all I want is to have my work out there for people to read. If all I wanted to do with writing was make money, then I could have self published a long time ago.
    It’s never been about the money for me.

  8. Friday Features #32 - yesenia vargas on November 24, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    […] Can I Make More Money via Traditional or Self-Pub? | Rachelle Gardner […]

  9. D. Willett on November 24, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    Wow! What an extraordinarily great article and the 80 responses generated.

    As a book reviewer, from my own 25+ year experience as an editor, self-pubbed books can be just as top-quality or, they can really “suck.” It depends on whether or not the author wants to spend the necessary funds for top-notch editing. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to get a good editing job. But, it does have to be someone who knows what they are doing, someone who will tell the author the truth, and hopefully someone who the author will listen to.

    I’ve read some very poorly written books – grammar, spelling, composition, punctuation, and some down right boring. But, if the author is not willing to make any edits or not willing to listen to any suggestions, the editor was just wasting their time.

    At the same time, trying to write a book review on a book that was poorly edited, sends me back to my editing phase and it is difficult to review the book. The publishers and the authors are then usually reluctant to have my negative reviews posted on my website. Who can blame them.

    So, when books are sent to me for reviews, I always send the book reviews to the publishers before I post them online. If I want to keep receiving books from them, I want to keep these publishers happy.

    Back on topic.
    Great article. Wonderful responses.
    Always have your MS edited, regardless of your pubbing venue — trad or indie.
    Enjoyed reading everybody’s posts!

  10. […] literary agent Rachelle Gardner had an informative post on her site recently: Can I make more money via traditional or self-publishing?. Her post looks at the issue from the agent side, specifically what the monetary threshold (e.g. […]

  11. […] and the pros and cons of each. Agents aren’t capable of seeing the future, though, so trying to weigh the potential money from a hypothetical traditional advance vs. the potential money from self-… is a difficult […]

  12. Dan Meadows on November 22, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    I sometimes fall into advocating for writers to bypass the traditional route and go indie. One day recently, it dawned on me that much of my opinions and attitudes are shaped by my experiences, skills and personality. I’ve always been independent and entrepreneurial, never one to blindly do what I’m told. I’ve worked in publishing for years, so I also know more about the inner workings of some of these companies that an outsider would, and that knowledge has pushed me to get away from them. I also have skills across the board from my years in publishing as an editor, graphic designer, photographer, even carried the “publisher” title for a while there, so the thought of putting out a quality professional product independently is not intimidating at all.

    But, as I said, this is my back story, the elements that shape my choices to disregard traditional and go indie all the way. Everyone has their own back stories, their own sets of experience and skills that shape who they are. Mine makes sense for my choices. The best advice I’ve seen is “know yourself”. That is absolutely crucial. The great thing about publishing today is that we’ve shed the one size fits all makeup that basically dictated to writers how things had to be done for decades. There are so many options now, its relatively simple to tailor one to your specific needs. My way won’t necessarily work for someone without my background, and vice versa, a stock traditional deal wouldn’t necessarily work for me. Find what fits you best and run with it. Indie is what works for me. Traditional may be what works for someone else. Just watch out for those contracts!

  13. Johnny Ray on November 22, 2012 at 9:57 AM

    I think there is another consideration that is important to me and many other authors–time. In addition to the amount needed to sign, I want a strict time table. If I do not receive an answer in 2 months, I will pull. However, I let that be known up front in my proposal letter. I consider my own publishing company offer on the table, as I evaluate others. After 6 novels self published, I know fairly close now what the novel will generate.

  14. Charlotte Rains Dixon on November 20, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    My novel is going to be published by a small house in February. At first I was disappointed not to be going the traditional route, but now I couldn’t be happy. I get the best of both worlds–an awesome editor, lots of personal attention, and royalty payments every month. Which is not to say I won’t be seeking representation for my next novel….

  15. Tim Klock on November 20, 2012 at 1:02 PM

    Dear Elle Casey,
    Maybe I didn’t express myself correctly. I’m not saying that I would NEVER self publish, but I am just starting out. I’m really excited about the story that I wrote. I never would have submitted it for publication, otherwise. It’s just that at this juncture, I feel that agents & editors know much more than I do. If my story gets repeatedly rejected, maybe then it will be time to self-publish, or perhaps evaluate why my story hasn’t caught anyone’s eye.

  16. […] Gardner (@RachelleGardner) discusses a too-often-asked question, Can I Make More Money via Traditional or Self-Pub? Rachelle’s too nice to just come out and say this is a dumb question. Instead she politely says […]

  17. CharityHawkins@TheHomeschoolExperiment on November 20, 2012 at 12:36 PM

    All I know is my Kindle and Nook versions are doing much better than I thought, and seem to be doing better than paperback, though I haven’t looked at the numbers latetly. The nice thing about that is once the book is done there’s little per unit cost (you don’t have the cost of the printed book you have to cover), so risk is lower. I’m a totally unknown author, so I would imagine for authors who have an existing fanbase this would be quite tempting. They are doing most of the marketing anyway via blogs and social media, so why not? I can understand the appeal.

  18. […] I read an article written by an agent, its distinct tone being: “Writers need agents, and an agent should be allowed to limit an author’s ability to self-publish her work,” even though this post’s subject was whether a writer can make more money being traditionally-published or self-published.  Here’s a link. […]

  19. Chad Matthews on November 20, 2012 at 4:41 AM

    Great article!

    I wish that I could say, “yes, choosing whether or not to self-publish my book or let my agent shop my book is such a difficult decision!”

    However, after speaking with several agents, they have informed me that, unfortunately, they are only accepting authors who have been published. So I contacted the publishers and they informed me that, unfortunately, they only accept manuscripts submitted by agents.

    So it feels as though the decision is being made for me! Ha!

  20. December House on November 20, 2012 at 2:57 AM

    At December House we think that there’s a middle ground for authors for e-books that lies between self publishing and a traditional low royalty publishing deal.

    We offer significantly higher royalty rates and still function like a traditional publisher (i.e. we only publish works that we think are good enough, we do the editing, proofing, covers, e-book conversions and PR all at no cost to the author).

    IN short we think the advance model is broken and that in the digital world authors should instead earn a decent royalty on their sales (paid monthly not annually), but that doesn’t mean they have to do everything themselves.

  21. Tim Klock on November 19, 2012 at 11:24 PM

    I personally am avoiding self-publishing, simply because I want the professionals to decide whether my story is worthy of publishing. If it is not “saleable” to professionals, how am I ever going to sell it if I publish it myself? I believe that agents and publishers know good writing when they see it. I plan to do a lot of publicity work myself (if I ever get published), but self publishing is too much work for me. If I had to do all publicity & shipping, how would I ever make money?

    • Elle Casey on November 20, 2012 at 6:59 AM

      I just don’t get this attitude at all. 🙁 You are walking away from a potential career and a huge income. If you can’t believe in your skills as a writer and your ability to enthrall readers, why do you think an agent will?

  22. Amber Argyle, author on November 19, 2012 at 9:37 PM

    I’ve done both traditional and self publishing. I’m making about 3Xs as much on my self published book.

  23. Joanna Aislinn on November 19, 2012 at 8:00 PM

    I like the agent’s perspective you present, Rachelle. Makes sense but it’s a good reminder that your job is just as challenging–if not more so–than the author’s.

  24. Bob Mayer on November 19, 2012 at 7:43 PM

    I agree with James Scott Bell. Every author is in a different situation. After 20 years, 4 agents, all the bestseller lists, etc. my position is unique so that makes my path unique.

    I would warn those who so blindly say: an agent knows the business. Frankly, it’s changing so fast, not many people really understand what’s going on. And my take after listening to agents at NINC, one on one, other conferences, etc. is that most are woefully ignorant of how the digital world has changed the landscape of publishing. I hear them saying things on panels that is at least a year if not two out of date and they are uniformed, in general, of what’s going on in the indie world. For example, I heard editor after editor and agent after agent saying there wouldn’t be a print only deal from a major publisher– with Bella Andre sitting there in the room. They didn’t know at all about her seven figure print only deal with Mira. Frankly, when you read Publishers Lunch and Marketplace, it often feels like a defense of the Big 6 (5?).

    Here’s the big change– long tail vs immediate money. How long do you think your paper book will get racked? And forget about ever getting the rights back.

    There are advantages and disadvantages to each path, but I’m more than happy with my choice to build my own publishing company that is agile, fast and focused on selling books. At the same time my first release from 47North will be out on 11 Dec. And my last Big 6 book came out last year. A wide base is good.

    • Elle Casey on November 20, 2012 at 7:01 AM

      Viola. The voice of reason. 🙂 I was at that NINC conference too, and the only thing I got from most of what the agents said was their feeling of fear. They are afraid of their diminishing revenues and the mass exodus to selp-pubbing that is coming, and is in fact, already happening.

  25. TNeal on November 19, 2012 at 6:36 PM

    I went the self-pub route last spring on a book my agent had already shopped around but found no publishing home for.

    Before taking that step, I contacted him and moved forward on the project with his knowledge and consent.

    I have a 2nd manuscript I’m working on now and will submit through my agent when I have it completed and a proposal written.

    I appreciate the reminder that my agent deserves to be a strong part of the decision to self-publish or not.

  26. J. Tillman on November 19, 2012 at 5:07 PM

    1. Does it seem strange that this book, ostensibly aimed at authors, is written by a literary agent who makes no money if the author self-publishes?
    2. Does it seem strange that the only example from the book is about what’s best for the literary agent?

    Take with a grain of salt.

  27. Sharon A Lavy on November 19, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Maybe this is to public a forum for me to get an answer.

  28. Sharon A Lavy on November 19, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    I am seriously asking for advice on how to compensate my agent without compromising her stand as a reputable agent. There has to be a way. What kind of gifts are acceptable to give an agent? More than candy.

  29. […] Can I Make More Money via Traditional or Self-Pub?. […]

  30. […] via Can I Make More Money via Traditional or Self-Pub? | Rachelle Gardner […]

  31. Richard Gibson on November 19, 2012 at 11:33 AM

    I certainly factor in the cost/revenue ratio when I do anything, including getting or trying to get a book published. And of course there are costs to me associated with traditional publishing as well as self-publishing.

    I have one significant self-published book and one traditional (small press; no agent) and both have made net profit to me. I’m not trying or expecting to have megamillions sellers, or anything close to it, so this makes me reasonably content.

    If I did have a project that was agent-worthy, I cannot imagine pulling it if the agent has done his or her best job trying to sell it; if I had an agent that I felt was working for and with me, I’m pretty sure I’d be pretty content with the results. No guarantee of that, of course, but likely.

  32. Joan Cimyotte on November 19, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    I have concluded that I have to do both. I’m working with an editor at this point fine tooth combing it. I would never have guessed how much work is involved.
    My question is, how can you loose with something like Createspace? If an agent were to fall in love with it, they can take on the project without interfering with the self published version. Anyway that’s what I’m understanding. It seems win-win.

    • Marc Cabot on November 19, 2012 at 1:03 PM

      You can lose because a publisher might not be interested in a non-first-publication deal unless the indie-published work has a proven audience.

      I don’t know how valid a concern this is – as someone pointed out KDP is fast becoming the new slush pile for the Big Six – but it’s not unthinkable. A lot of serial publications in particular want first publishing rights anywhere or they won’t even look at the story.

  33. […] Can I Make More Money via Traditional or Self-Pub?. Share this:TwitterEmailFacebookGoogle +1TumblrLinkedInMoreStumbleUponRedditDiggPinterestPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  34. Jamie Beck on November 19, 2012 at 11:18 AM

    In the case of an agent taking on an author’s work and then being unable to sell it to a publisher, couldn’t the agent and author work out their own deal/partnership so that the author could still get the benefit of some of the editorial services and industry knowledge of the agent if they choose to self-publish (and the author would agree to share profits just as he/she would have in a traditional setting)?

    • MP McDonald on November 19, 2012 at 3:50 PM

      I’m trying to figure out why a self-published author needs someone who knows the ‘industry’? Unless a Big 6 publisher comes calling, in which case I might seek out an agent (or maybe a lawyer instead)I don’t need to know what the trends are in the industry. I’m going to write what I want to write regardless so if the trend from publishers is for flying werewolves and I’m writing about magical dolphins, I’m not going to turn my dolphins into werewolves. In other words, that knowledge isn’t relevant to me. There will always be readers looking for something out of the usual genre parameters and it is my job to find them. If I’m lucky, some mainstream readers will wander over as well and check out my books.

      • Jamie Beck on November 19, 2012 at 8:01 PM

        I have noticed a lot of deals reported on Publishers Marketplace where agents are selling successfully self-published work to traditional publishers. So that would be one reason why it might not hurt to have an agent relationship in place. Plus, in addition to negotiating that contract, I think agents have a lot of industry contacts and general knowledge that might be useful to a self-publishing author (putting together a team with an editor, artist, marketing strategy, etc.), especially a novice. I could be wrong though. I’m new to all of this!

        • MP McDonald on November 19, 2012 at 8:12 PM

          I’m not sure how someone would have an agent relationship in place unless they already had an agent for some other book. For people like me, who are completely self-published, there really isn’t a way of getting an agent to be on standby just on the off chance that a publisher might be interested.

          I’m not a self-publishing star, but I’ve surpassed 45,000 books sold. However, my books are a series, so I can’t exactly query new books in the series.

          • Jamie Beck on November 19, 2012 at 9:17 PM

            Congratulations (on your sales). I’m so impressed with how many people write books and enjoy success selling them. I’m at the beginning of my journey, but I hope to soon see some success of my own.

            Anyway, I believe I started my original post stating the assumption that the agent had represented the author but failed to find a publishing deal…so there would have been the start of a relationship to build on. Again, being new to this industry and its practices, I am just trying to learn the ropes.

            Have a great holiday!

  35. Juturna F. on November 19, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    There are advantages to both forms for writers. Shouldn’t an agent be able to advise a client on the most profitable course without any bias?

    My question: Are agents beginning to consider expanding services to include self-publishing career advice, in exchange for a cut?

    For example, Agent X gets 12% commission on all traditional pub sales. But, Agent X gets 6% of what the author earns, for the duration of their working relationship, on anything the author self-publishes after the author has earned back initial investments (author must keep track of all cover design fees, editing fees, etc). In exchange, Agent X helps writer decide what kind of editing is needed and whether story would sell better self- or traditionally published, gives advice on marketing, helps in planning the best timing of releases, and offers other long-term career planning advice.

    The downside for agents would be extra work; since they’d be trading their specialization in getting contracts with publishers for job security through diversification of services, they would of course have to offer services specific to self-publishing, such as access to aggregate data on what most improves self-published sales. However, it seems to me that agents have many other duties besides those dealing with publishers, services that still add value and would still be worth paying for, especially when it comes to general career advice.

    Do you think this is something agents are considering as the industry changes? I’ve heard it brought up before, and it seems like a fair way to juggle the lure of self-publishing with the typical agent duties of obtaining traditional publishing. And if an author stands to make more book-for-book through self-publishing, but sells more books through traditional publishing, it still allows the agent to draw approximately the same earnings–thus, there is no need for an agent to favor one path over the other, except as would be most profitable for the client, including hybrid career paths involving both traditional and self-publishing.

  36. Dan Miller on November 19, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    Drawing from the Stephen Covey principle I always look for AND solutions rather than EITHER/OR. So with my latest book I negotiated a deal with the largest Christian publisher in the world, making sure I have a buy-back option comparable to just printing the books myself, and then jump in the game and sell like I had self-published. That way I get all the benefits of the major publisher’s efforts as well as being able to do all the creative things on my own that I would do if I “self-published.”

    • Ernie Zelinski on November 19, 2012 at 7:04 PM


      I totally agree with you.

      You are one of the most astute people in this business.

      And it is a business.

      Ernie J. Zelinski
      International Best-Selling Author
      “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”

  37. Connie Almony on November 19, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    Other factors to consider in the self-pub vs. traditional pub debate is do you have all the other mechanisms in place which the traditional route supplies? An author needs to be careful publishing work that was not polished by various points of view. I’ve found wonderful gems in the throng of the self-pubbed, but I’ve also seen ones that I know would never have passed muster had they attempted the traditional route. It made me leery about purchasing another self-pub. However, given the low prices of the ebooks these days, I will buy them again, but not from an author whose writing really disappointed me.
    This subject has been on my mind a lot lately as I know lots of wonderful authors who are now considering it for multiple reasons that make a lot of sense. One, because the timing of her subject matter was waning in the public. Another wanted to bring her backlist back to readers, not only bringing them back to life, but also giving her author-brand more “shelf-space.” Another author, who’d written for both the general market and the inspirational, wanted to publish her stories that “fell through the cracks.” Now she has an avenue to do this—and I, as a reader, am grateful.

    • Marc Cabot on November 19, 2012 at 1:00 PM

      Those are good points, but have you never purchased a traditionally published book which was unpolished, etc?

      I know I sure have. Granted the odds are better, but it seems like they’re getting worse. I just recently bought a novel from a well-known (NYT multiple bestsellers) author and his long-time Big Six publisher. It felt like both the author and the copyeditor had phoned it in, to be frank.

      • Connie Almony on November 19, 2012 at 1:21 PM

        Yes. Another good reason not to lump authors into categories and judge all the same. You still need to check the author out, which is why the author needs to put out the best product they can from the beginning, and then keep producing the best product.

      • CharityHawkins@TheHomeschoolExperiment on November 20, 2012 at 1:19 PM

        I agree. I’ve read several books lately by multi-published authors and traditional houses that seemed like a first or second draft. Not so many typos (though that certainly happens) but more wandering prose, sloppy descriptions, poor characters. Like they’d done this so many times they and the editor were bored with the whole thing.

  38. Jeanne on November 19, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    This is a timely post as more and more writers consider traditional vs self pubbing possibilities.

    As a currently unpublished writer, and as a person who is not a big risk taker, the idea of going the traditional route is more comfortable. I come into this writing world knowing I won’t see a “big” advance any time soon. When I am represented by an agent, I believe the relationship with that agent and with a one-day publisher need to figure prominently into the considerations of publishing, which route to pursue and how to maintain the important relationships.

    Taking a long-term view, a solid relationship with an agent and with a publisher seem to take precedence over the short-term benefits of accepting only a certain minimum amount for an advance.

    I can see possible benefits of self-pubbing once I am more established as an author and have a better understanding of how to do it well. Right now, I’m not there. There are definite advantages to having an agent who knows the industry guide me in the decision making process of both publication and how to stay in this industry for the long term.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on November 19, 2012 at 1:45 PM

      Very well said, Jeanne. I totally agree with you.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on November 19, 2012 at 8:01 PM


      I agree with you except for the last paragraph.

      Once I developed a readership, I’d only self-pub something my agent couldn’t sell or wasn’t interested in, if I felt my readership wanted it.

      • Jeanne on November 19, 2012 at 8:03 PM

        Roxanne, that makes sense. 🙂 I didn’t specify that, but that was what I was thinking. Thanks for clarifying what I was thinking/trying to say. 😉

        • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on November 19, 2012 at 8:33 PM

          Glad I could help! You’d already articulated what I wanted to say. 😉

  39. […] up front of what you will and won’t accept—and talk to your agent about it.Link to the rest at Rachelle GardnerPassive Guy will suggest that no author should ever sign an agency agreement that doesn’t give […]

  40. Cherry Odelberg on November 19, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    I would not make a traditional verses independent publishing decision based on potential income; rather, I made the decision based on potential marketing-finding I will invest just as much time and effort in marketing either way.

    Perhaps the deciding point for me was timeframe; how quickly you can get the material published and available.

  41. Heather Sunseri on November 19, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    Rachelle, this is a great post and super timely for many, I’m sure.

    And Mr. Bell, above, sums up my decision-making process in two words… “Know thyself.”

    I’d say a writer needs to do a complete assessment of who they are, not only as a writer, but as a business person. It’s not good business to enter into an agreement, written or not, and then back out, especially if he/she knew the risks going in.

    I know an agent might not be able to get me a strong, large advance as a debut, unknown author. I know it might take a year or more to get a deal with a publisher and another eighteen to twenty-four months for my book to actually hit the shelves. To sign with an agent then decide these things are deal breakers, and I’d rather do the self-thing would just be wrong. For me, anyway.

    Know thyself!!

    • Heather Sunseri on November 19, 2012 at 10:13 AM

      Okay, my punctuation got a little messed up there. I meant for that to read: to decide those things are deal breakers and then decide that I’d rather self-publish because the agent didn’t deliver what I expected would be the wrong thing to do to an agent after knowing the risks.

  42. Philip Hansen on November 19, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    I’ve made over $2000.00 from some of my short stories going the self-publishing route. In light of that kind of revenue stream, an advance as low as $10k on a novel seems almost insulting.

    Keep in mind… eBooks are forever. Even a small income from a self-published book will return more than $10k over the span of several years.

    • Marc Cabot on November 19, 2012 at 12:57 PM

      As Dean Wesley Smith points out, assuming anybody wants to read your stuff at all, it’s mathematically impossible not to make a reasonable amount of money from indie-publishing if you just keep plugging along. Time and titles will do the work for you.

      This is demonstrably not true in traditional publishing.

  43. Ron on November 19, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    Although I’d love to be published in paper form, the rules set down by publishers seem so restricting that it puts me off straight away. I’ve submitted to plenty of publishers and agents and, without feedback, I’m basically stuck as to knowing why I’ve been rejected. If I self publish digitally then not only is it pretty much completely in my hands, but I can also dictate how and when my books are marketed, where they’re sold and even the artwork. Yes, a publisher has experience of these things, but at least if it goes wrong it’s my own fault and I can blame nobody else.

  44. Sharon A Lavy on November 19, 2012 at 9:27 AM

    Rachelle I have a question. I am in the process of self-publishing (with my agent’s blessing) a book from 1973. Yes extablished authors are publishing stories from the 60’s and 70’s but for a new untested author the time line is all wrong. Not old enough to be historical, not current enough to be contemporary.

    Yes I tried to rewrite the book for today. But the father’s attitude really didn’t work (Surely no on is stuck with his conflicting attitude today.)

    Why is it unethical for me to compensate my agent? What would be ethical?

    And I am not in this for the money. Sadly, husband wishes I were. But he supports me well, and while money does talk . . . I cannot not write and these characters will NOT SHUT UP.

  45. James Scott Bell on November 19, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    The question at the top of this post is really unanswerable. No one knows. No one can know. Further, more needs to go into the decision that just money. Issues like where will I be happiest? Some writers want to write and have others take care of everything else; others want to write MORE and in different genres and don’t mind doing shouldering some of the technical and business aspects in order to achieve that.

    Some writers are risk averse; others want the “stamp of approval” a trad contract brings; still others have a creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

    Know thyself is the first rule.

    As far as money, I always tell the workshops I teach on e-publishing: Your mileage will vary. Which is why I don’t go in for self-pub authors sharing all their numbers. It’s meaningless. It has no relevance to anything but them personally.

    What matters is consistent, quality production over time. What you want to see is a trendline. You want that trendline to be at a good angle. It can be, but it takes time. Which is why the fifth law in my book is “Repeat over and over the rest of your life.” But if you’re a real writer, that’s what you’d do anyway.

    And speaking of “thresholds” it shouldn’t be about the money (or, at least, only about the money). It should also be about a fair non-compete clause that serves both the publisher’s and the author’s long term interests; an OP clause that is tied to significant royalty income. And speaking of royalties…..there’s going to need to be flexibility here, for that is in the publisher’s long term interest, too: getting new writers to sign on and partner with them.

    • Cherry Odelberg on November 19, 2012 at 10:21 AM

      This sounds like good, solid insight and advice. Thank you.

    • Jamie Beck on November 19, 2012 at 11:14 AM

      You make several excellent points. As a new author, it is disquieting to read about how little marketing support one might expect from a traditional publisher.

      When I began my writing journey recently (a ‘new’ career), I thought I’d get an agent once I wrote a good story, and then I’d get all the support and help I needed to get it out to the reader.

      I’m learning, quickly, that in addition to writing a good story, I need to also learn all about marketing and social media/technology regardless of whether or not I get an agent/ publishing contract. That, combined with the fact that self-published authors can turn their projects out more quickly, tends to make self-publishing look very attractive.

      However, at this point, I think I’d like the guidance afforded by an agent who is familiar with the ins and outs of the business, as well as the editing team I’d expect from a publisher. That said, I do like the idea of maintaining more creative control over the process (a la self-publishers).

      I’d like to make money, but most importantly I want to put out a high quality product. Perhaps once I feel I have more experience, I’d feel more confident and adventurous about going it alone!

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Caleb Jennings Breakey on November 20, 2012 at 12:14 AM

      Does anyone else feel like they just got away with something? James Scott Bell just commented.

  46. Julia Munroe Martin on November 19, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    This is such an important reminder post for me to read as an author (who is currently querying but also curious about self publishing). I can only begin to imagine the amount of work that you, as a literary agent, put into a client’s writing. It’s why writers like me long for an agent!

  47. Sue Harrison on November 19, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    I’m more inclined to think about the long-term impact on my career than the monetary factor when it comes to any decision about self-publishing or traditional.

  48. Lisa on November 19, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    I’ve only considered something like self-publishing an e-book for additional free resources for my readers.

    I really hope to take a traditional route, because I would love to have a long relationship with an agent and editor in my career. I think what they bring to the table will be invaluable to my journey.

    • Meghan Carver on November 19, 2012 at 12:53 PM

      I agree completely, Lisa. It’s not just the money. Agents bring long-term experience and relationships to the table, as well as brainstorming availability and suggestions and career development. Self-publishing just seems too lonely.

      • MP McDonald on November 19, 2012 at 3:21 PM

        Self-publishing isn’t lonely at all unless you want it to be that way. Kindleboards and other sites are full of self-published authors who support each other and freely share ideas for marketing, give cover opinions, help with writing book descriptions, etc. In fact, I have met so many wonderful people who have been so giving of their time and energy, it’s been humbling.

        I know trade published authors also have networks, but just wanted to put my experience out there to let people know that there are many resources for self-publishers.

        • Meghan Carver on November 19, 2012 at 4:42 PM

          Thank you for the information and sharing your experience.

  49. Kirstie on November 19, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    I’m at a stage where I’m approaching agents with my book, but if I can’t get one of the agents I have my eye on I am seriously considering self-publishing (after hiring an editor of course). In my mind if I were to snag one of the agents I am stalking (in a non-creepy totally legal way) I couldn’t enter into a business relationship with them and let them down by changing my mind. While I can understand the motivation of potential increase in money, the destruction of a business relationship seems like too large a price to pay.
    If you have an agent shopping manuscript but want to try self publishing, test the waters with a different manuscript and compare the two. That would probably be the wisest move for anyone wondering which will be more profitable.

  50. Jeremiah Zeiset on November 19, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    What a great topic – I think regardless of what route an author chooses, there are many other factors surrounding the success of a book.

    Freda Cameron makes some great points about the work that goes into editing, formatting, cover design, distribution, etc. Above and beyond that, promotion of a self-published book adds another dimension entirely.

    For anyone thinking of self-publishing, consider going with a hybrid publishing company. Our company, for example, will professionally copy and story edit, and will market your book and ebooks as a standard part of our publishing packages. The cost to publish through a hybrid company is far less than you’d pay to self-publish. This is due to the fact that we only need to cover the basic costs – we want to make money as our author’s book sell, in true traditional and hybrid fashion.

    Jeremiah Zeiset
    LIFE SENTENCE Publishing

  51. HJGarrett on November 19, 2012 at 6:00 AM

    While I’m not yet published, and do have a full length MS I’m almost ready to query (which I will query lit agents for). I have gone ahead and self-pubbed a short novella from an alternate genre. It wasn’t anything that I ever intended to do something with, and I really didn’t do it just to get sales, but rather for the experience of the process, and to see how my writing in that genre was reviewed. I’m happy to say I think it’s done well, and I’m purposely writing another novella now as a sort of break from my main WIP.

    • Cherry Odelberg on November 19, 2012 at 10:27 AM

      I concur with your approach. The bulk of my writing – and my W(s)IP-is women’s fiction. So, I independently published my one children’s book to test the system and learn. It has been a good education.

  52. Murees Dupé on November 19, 2012 at 5:43 AM

    Personally, I am looking at the traditional route, not so much because of the money, but because I want to hold that actual book in my hand and work on a long term writing career with that publisher. I know this all sounds really naive, but if given the choice between making a lot of money with one e-book or settling with a traditional publisher for a small amount of money, but for a longer term, I would still go with traditional publishing, but that is just me.

    Great post.

  53. Ernie Zelinski on November 19, 2012 at 5:12 AM

    To me, even the advance is not all that important. In fact, the advance is totally irrelevant if one can get the right deal. The important thing is how much money you stand to make in the long run.

    The problem with most people is that they think short term – which costs them big time in the long run.

    The best deal I made with a traditional publisher (mind you, I have had few deals with U.S. traditional publishers) was to accept no advance but with a royalty rate that paid me 30 percent of net (the equivalent of 15 percent of the retail price) for a tradeback. This has given me a royalty of around $2.54 for evey copy sold for a book selling for $16.95. Many authors accept a royalty of 10 percent (even lower in some cases) of net, thinking that this is good. Problem is that 10 percent of net gives the author around 85 cents for every copy sold. If there is an agent involved, then the agent gets 15 percent of this and the author winds up with around 72 cents for every copy sold on a book selling for $16.95.

    In short, think long term. There are many benefits to self-publishing and there are just as many benefits to having a traditional publisher publish your book. Just don’t get delusional like so many writers do about how great your book is. The market (readers) will decide how good your book is.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 165,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Cherry Odelberg on November 19, 2012 at 10:29 AM

      Love the titles. Now, that’s scope for the imagination.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM

      I got the same sort of deal, same numbers. I was quite happy with it.

      I’m not sure, but I think it might inhibit my writing if my sales didn’t match an advance. It would certainly be a weight to carry, both personally and professionally.

      • Ernie Zelinski on November 19, 2012 at 7:01 PM


        So true,

        I know a writer in my home town who received a $200,000 advance from Random House for his book a few years ago. The book has sold fewer than 15,000 copies. My estimate is that Random House took a $240,000 loss on this title.

        If I was in this writer’s shoes, I would feel like a fraud. With my three true best-sellers (each with at least 100,000 copies sold), I know that I have earned every cent of the profits (from self-published titles) and the royalties (from titles published by mainstream publishers) that I have received.


        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 20, 2012 at 2:55 AM

          High expectations can be lethal in other areas, as well.

          Like marriage.

          So often we ‘advance’ our heart and soul to a beloved…and when it turns out that she’s human, and can make the sort of stupid relational mistakes to which her sweet features and gentle voice would make her seem immune…we judge her with a vindictive harshnessthat we’d never use on a friend.

          Sorry about going slightly off-topic, but I;m learning, more and more, that we can find important metaphirs very close to home.

  54. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 19, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    I’d rather take the time to build a relationship with an agent, and take a potentially smaller advance, than self-pub.

    The agent is not only a partner in the venture, but she’s another voice, another outlook. As a writer I know my book quite well, but my agent knows the industry.

    I know what my characters have been up to; my agent knows what next year’s trends are shaping to be.

    For me, it’s personal. For my agent, it’s business.

    She’s my consigliere. What would any self-respecting Godfather do without one?

    (Now if I only HAD an agent…)

    • Cherry Odelberg on November 19, 2012 at 10:30 AM

      Yay! Well said.

    • Joe Pote on November 19, 2012 at 10:36 AM

      “As a writer I know my book quite well, but my agent knows the industry.”

      Well stated, Andrew!

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on November 19, 2012 at 5:53 PM

      Hope nobody makes you mad…

    • Elle Casey on November 20, 2012 at 6:56 AM

      For those authors or would-be authors who are leaning on an agent for “another voice” or “knowledge of trends” (and paying 15% for the privilege), know that there are hundreds of indie authors out there who do this for each other for FREE, and most of them are far more tapped into the trends than agents are. Why? Because agents are constrained by what publishers want, and publishers don’t always know what readers want. Go to Amazon’s bestseller lists and see how many indie books are there, ahead of trad-pubbed books. I’ll save you the trouble: there are lots. Readers are voting with their dollars and telling *us* what the trends are. Trends aren’t being artificially set by the Big 6 anymore. Finally! Do you know how many indies are making a very handsome living from books that were deemed “unsellable” by an agent or an editor? Hundreds. Maybe thousands. I’m not agent-bashing here, because I do see a value to having one, but only in limited circumstances. Most authors would be financially better off self-pubbing, and I have numbers to back that up. If you have a book and you’ve done everything you can to make it as good as it can be (editing, professional cover, etc.), publish the dang thing! If you sell the hell out of it, the publishers and agents will come to YOU. The Amazon bestseller list is the new slush-pile. I say, let the readers decide if you deserve to be an author, not an agent.

    • David Todd on November 22, 2012 at 7:30 PM

      So are you hoping for an offer you can’t refuse?

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on November 22, 2012 at 10:01 PM


        I want an agent who’ll go to the mattresses on my behalf.

  55. mark williams international on November 19, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    “They’re trying to estimate potential e-book sales vs. potential advance from a regular publisher.!

    Quite apart from the point Freda makes in comments about the very real expenses of quality self-publishing, the issue of potential ebook sales vs. potential advance is a misleading one.

    Deduct from that potential advance the real costs of self-publishing and the average advance is suddenly not so lucrative.

    The real issue is whether you can reach more readers via one option or the other.

    Bottom line is the trad route can get you in all the same e-outlets you can get into as an indie, plus many, many more that are off limits to indies. And then there’s the small matter of nationwide and international bookstores for the paper version. POD is still along way from being able to compete.

    We’ve had respectable success self-publishing, and expect to clear a quarter million sales for one title early next year. But imagine how many more sales we might have made if we were also in print in bookshops…

    • Marc Cabot on November 19, 2012 at 12:53 PM

      Maybe butters no parsnips. Imagine how many sales you wouldn’t have had had you entered into a tradpub contract on the downcycle of the publishing house and waited another year and a half for the book to even hit the presses. And then had their distributor go bankrupt the day after the books shipped. (This happened to Circlet Press. Twice. They had to more or less smuggle their inventory out of the distributor’s warehouse.)

      I’m not arguing for or against tradpub. (At least not here.) I’m just pointing out why I find your argument unpersuasive.

  56. Freda Cameron on November 19, 2012 at 1:12 AM

    I don’t want to self-publish, but as I send out queries to agents, I understand why some writers think self-publishing is faster. Patience, perseverance and willingness to listen to expert advice is required for traditional publishing.

    I’m not ready to spend thousands to hire a professional editor to self-publish. To publish with errors will leave readers disappointed.

    Then, there is the formatting, covers/art, copyrights, legalize, etc. So many tools on the internet may be free, but time isn’t.

    A marketing plan, a sales strategy and sales channels and an advertising budget are needed. My background is in computer software (product manager/marketing strategist) and I’m aware of what it takes to promote a product….I don’t want to go down that path by myself!

    Kudos to anyone who is successful–whether traditional or self-published.

    • Mike Manto on November 19, 2012 at 7:17 AM

      “Patience, perseverance and willingness to listen to expert advice is required for traditional publishing.”

      Self-publishing is not inimical to patience, perseverance or a willingness to listen. It takes just as much to self-publish – probably more. After months of research into both avenues, i decided to self-publish mostly because I discovered that even if I were to land a traditional deal, I would still be responsible for most of the marketing. Traditional publishers have little if any budget for promoting new authors. And since the marketing is the hardest part (and the aspect of the business that is the biggest benefit to having a traditional deal), I decided there is little reason to chase a traditional deal if I can’t count on the marketing support.

      • Lori on November 19, 2012 at 10:23 AM

        I agree with Mike here. I have several self-published short books on Kindle, and if you work the system right, Amazon does a lot of the marketing for you. I even wrote a book about that!

        As far as the advances go, I would rather earn in one month with Kindle self-publishing than I would with a typical advance from a publisher. Plus I get to keep 70% of all sales, for life.

        This is not to say if a publisher approached me, I’d listen. But I can’t see me beating the path and time to hope for a nugget of a contract at this point. I may not have my book in print on Wal Mart shelves, but if I get multi-thousands of downloads a month at Amazon, it’s okay with me! 🙂

        • Julie Morrill on November 21, 2012 at 11:04 AM


          I experienced a jolting realization when I read your comment. I see now that attempting to publish my ms the mainstream way was a matter of pride for me. I thought self-publishing was only for those who had tried and failed to contract with a publisher. In a period of self-examination, I am concluding that, for me, making money is more noble and important than being able to boast about my books sitting on the shelves of a bookstore somewhere.

          I recently sent out queries for one of my manuscripts. I later found errors in them, however, so they’re headed for the slush pile. As I work to hone my query and proposal writing skills, I might as well do something productive by publishing a book with Kindle. This book will never be a bestseller; it’s a simple, light-hearted, historical Christian romance. Self-publishing with Kindle will be a means of test marketing my product. It could be fun too!

          Mike Manto commented here that mainstream published authors are responsible for much of their own marketing these days. If I’m putting just as much time and effort into marketing via self-publishing as I would as a mainstream published author, it might make more sense to self-publish right now (at least with Amazon Kindle).

          P.S. Thank you, Rachelle, for posting this blog. The comments here are helpful for a lot of people.

  57. Michael Seese on November 19, 2012 at 1:01 AM

    I really appreciated the insight of the paragraph following, “It might be better for the author to set a threshold up front.”

    Though I’d love to get an advance, I can’t imagine setting a threshold. Nonetheless, it’s great advice, should I ever feel that way.

  58. Krista Phillips on November 19, 2012 at 12:45 AM

    Your points are super valid! I honestly haven’t contemplated self-pubbing my fiction. I think in the ever-changing marketplace, it’d be naive to say “never” but it’s not even close to on my radar at the moment.

    I have thought in passing about writing something about my journey with Annabelle at some point, and that it might more of a self-published leaning venture than a traditional. But I’m not there yet, and whenever it becomes more than a “maybe someday” idea, I’d absolutely have the discussion with my super-cool agent.

    And for me, it wouldn’t be about money, but more about, “Where does this book best fit?”