The business of publishing. Seriously, how much money will my book make?

The business of publishing. Seriously, how much money will my book make?

Literary agent Rubin Pfeffer was in Atlanta last spring. He gave an insightful talk about the business of publishing and how much an author makes from each book sold. This is what he said:

Once you turn a manuscript over to an agent you walk away from the creative side and you walk into the business side. Becoming a full time authors is down the road (way down).

How much money will you make?

With a traditional publisher, normally it’s a 1:1 ratio, as in you get about $1 for every book sold. Unless, of course, you are one of the lucky few who has a bestselling book.

This 1:1 ratio begs the question: where does all the money go? Read an weep my friends.

Here is a sample profit and loss:

Book retail price: $15

-50% discount to retailers

=Book net price: $7.50

Book net price: $7.50

-$2 production

-.50 shipping and warehouse

-.50 marketing

-.50 returns and obsolete inventory

-$1.00 overhead

-$1.50 net to publisher

=$1.50 net to author

The 80/20 Rule

About 20% of books make money, the other 80% break even or loose money. Normally, it’s more like 10% to 90%.

First step is finding an agent:

Getting an agent is the first step of entering the business. The craft of writing never goes away. It actually becomes that much more important when you get here.

When you get to the mountain of publishing you see more mountains. At this point, you are trying to improve the craft, sense of self and confidence.

An agent is a person with a big heart and a lot of responsibility.

A great agent:

-Believes in you and your future

-Has pride in representing you

-Is clear on your goals

-Has a career-building strategy for you

-Gives you sound advice (even if it’s not what you want to hear!)

-Has a mutually respectful relationship (respect goes both ways, mind you)

-Is approachable and creative

-Is your advocate

-agency agreements that usually have an easy out with both sides

Role of an agent:

Assess: the manuscript and the author’s skills and talents. Agents are looking for a long term commitment because it takes a lot of time and work to get authors informed about the publishing industry.

Enhance: and edit the manuscript. It could be light or heavy editing, depending on the editorial skills of the agent. A agent will want to work on it until it can be delivered to an editor for submission. Debut author manuscripts need to be flawless.

Sell: and judging what editor is the best match for the manuscript. They have to decide where it might be better received and only send where it makes sense to send it. An agent knows the 30 #KidLit publishers and the 150 potential editors.    

Reassess: sometimes a manuscript goes into a coma. Sadly, it happens more often than not. The 80/20 rule also applies here. In some cases, a second manuscript will sell the first manuscript (keep writing!).

By the 10th month of submission, the agent will probably want to have a conversation with the author about what has happened and how they can move forward.

Also, your book may sell and not get published for two years.

Adjust: and make changes to the selling process.

Edit: and bring out the best in your work.

Review: handle feedback and the business side, negotiate the terms of contracts which are 18-24 pages long.

Check and repeat: work on another book.

What you want in a publishing house:

A great publishing house is:


-Has in-house editorial, design and marketing

-Strong sales and income

-Focus on career-building

-Has momentum

-It is your home, you feel comfortable saying I am published by so and so 

-You have a mutually respectful relationship 

Reasons to stay with one publishing house:

-If everything is great, you stay and build the relationships

-You have security and can focus on your career-building

-You are contractually bound

-No one else wants you. It maybe that other houses already have their roster of writers. It may have nothing to do with your work.   

Reasons to switch houses: 

-An author may want better relationships.

-They may want to follow an editor to a different house.

-Another house maybe able to do a better genre.

-The author needs to reinvent themselves.

Number one thing to remember in the publishing world: things don’t work out as planned.