What the Dream Looks Like or, Why This Self-Publisher is Still Pursuing Trad Publication


In Friday’s post, Self-Printing: My Biggest Mistake, I talked about how I was trying to shift my thinking away from self-publishing non-fiction as something to do while I pursue a traditional book deal, and towards self-publishing being a parallel to a traditional book deal and one that could, in the future, be profitable enough to ensure that I could be a full-time writer regardless of whether or not someone else ever gives me that illusive deal. I figured out, for instance, that if I were to double my current e-book sales, i.e. release another book that sells just as well, and either maintain or increase those sales, I could be making 50% more a month than the wage I was making working 9-5.

Which begs the question: why I am still pursuing traditional publication at all? Why don’t I just go with self-publishing? Why don’t I release the novel I’ve already written as an e-book, this afternoon, and start earning money from it instead of leaving it in a drawer (or my computer, to be specific) and waiting for someone else to publish it? Why don’t I forget about traditional publishing?

The arguments for doing that go something like this:

  • Going by average advances and the standard cut of 10% of the list price, I could make more money releasing it as an e-book and keeping up to 70% of the profits for myself
  • I could make more money in the long run, because if I do it myself my book will always be in print or at least always available as an e-book
  • If I do it myself, it can happen now and so I can start earning money now. No waiting a year or two for the book to come out, or spending years of my life submitting to agents and publishers and waiting to hear back from them.

The common denominator in all those is money. Now while I like money as much the next person, that’s not what this is about – or all about, anyway – for me. And so I still want to get “properly” published because that’s what my dream looks like.

I have spent more than a decade daydreaming about being a published author. In those daydreams, there is the excitement of being offered and then signing a book deal. I have the input of an editor who has a vested interest in the success of my book, an editor who says that in her professional opinion, my book is good enough. I get to work with a publishing house, staffed with people whose job it is to edit, design and sell books. In the meantime, I get a phone call to say my book has been sold abroad, and is going to be translated into other languages. I have a beautiful, physical book – one that looks and feels like all the other books, and has both my name and the logo of a major publishing house on the spine. I have a publicist who knows newspaper editors well enough to be able to get my book reviewed, or a story about me written. And when people read that story or hear me on the radio, they can walk into almost any bookshop and find my book on the shelf. I have achieved a lifelong dream.

Self-publishing – even if you work with an editor, produce a beautiful book, hire a publicist, find a distributor to take on your book so it can be in stores and get nothing but rave reviews – is not the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It’s great and it’s an achievement and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I haven’t ticked a dream off my list with it. And I know there will be traditionally published authors reading this whose experience of getting a book published will not be anything like the one described above (which would be the ideal) and they’ll tell me things like, “Stick with self-publishing – getting traditionally published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” I don’t care; I want to discover whether or not that’s the case for myself. I want to be traditionally published because that is my dream. My self-publishing success is irrelevant. I could sell 1,000,000 e-books and it still wouldn’t even begin to compare. It certainly wouldn’t “do.”

And the self-publishing evangelists may start to sharpen their stakes upon hearing this, but traditional publishing done right is done better. If I leave illustrated children’s books out of the equation, I can honestly say I have never seen a self-published book that looks as good or better than a “properly” published one, my own included. It is possible to make one? Surely. Hopefully. But does the average or even above average self-publisher have the time, knowledge and resources to do it? No. Not even close. Even Amanda Hocking (who I like a little bit more every time I read one of her down to earth, tell it like it is blog posts) has admitted that the time it takes just to produce her books is staggering, and that even after going through them with editors time and time again, she still finds errors in the finished product. It takes a village – or the staff of a publishing house – to produce a perfect or almost perfect book, and I’m just one person. And I want to write.

But while marketing and promotion isn’t as much fun for me as writing the book in the first place, I still really enjoy it. I love blogging, tweeting and Facebooking and I don’t even mind talking on the radio or to rooms full of people. (Once it’s over and done with, anyway!) I have managed, after all, to sell a few thousand copies of a book that has a perceived super-niche readership and isn’t available in bookstores. What could I do if it was a mainstream, commercial book, and it was available in bookstores? And not just here in Ireland, but wherever you live as well. What could I manage to do then? And so that’s another reason I’m still chasing traditional publication: because I would love to be let loose promoting a book of mine that was widely available. That would be the ultimate challenge. And I love me a (non-physical type of!) challenge.

Finally, it’s not all about money but it is about money a little bit; I want to do nothing else but write or do writing-related things, and in order for that to happen the writing I do has to earn me some money. And while it’s easy to get carried away with the figures in the headlines, self-publishing is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not even a get slightly less poor slowly scheme. There are no guarantees. For every mega-selling e-book author, there are probably hundreds if not thousands if not millions of e-book authors who can count their sales to date on the fingers of one hand. They mightn’t even need all of them to do it.

I read about a couple of guys recently who released an e-book, as an experiment, to see if they could sell a million copies of it in six months. They did everything right, but they only sold a 1,000, because the most important factor in publishing success – be it e-book, print, self or traditionally published – is luck. And so you can’t say things like “By spending the next six months submitting my novel to agents, I’m losing money” or “By signing this publishing deal that will release my debut novel in 2013, I’m missing out on up to two years of earnings I would make if I self-published it” because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Money that doesn’t yet exist can’t be counted and money that does exist, however small the amount, is worth more than theoretical earnings.

Now I’m about to really over-simplify things but let’s say a traditional publishing house knock on my door and offer me €5,000 as an advance on a two-book deal. The first book won’t be published for a year, the second book will be published the year after that and I’ll earn 10% off its list price of €10.99. I’ll have sold 4,000 copies of Mousetrapped in a year so for the sake of argument let’s say I sell the same amount of these books, so that’s 4,000 sales in the first year and 8,000 in the second, because there’s two books. Because I have to wait a year to publish it, there’s no earnings in the first twelve months. An agent brokers the deal so all earnings are minus 15%. That means that in the next three years, I’d earn somewhere in the region of €11,118 from that deal.

If I released the first book right now as a $2.99 e-book (70% royalty), and then the second book as soon as it’s written in six month’s time, and they sold in the same amounts (4,000 each a year), I’d make €32,911 in the same period. (See calculations below for specifics.) And yet I would take the traditional deal because I’d be getting a €5,000 advance on those earnings, and there is no guarantee that I’ll ever sell a single copy of either book no matter what route I take. And money that exists is better than money that doesn’t.


(You knew there was going to be a but, right?)

I’m not an idiot, and I’m not going to keep submitting forever. I have one novel written, a third of another and a basic synopsis and two chapters of another one after that. The first novel has been relegated, for the time being, to The Drawer, as its feedback was (Mousetrapped flashback) along the lines of, It’s funny and well-written, but I don’t think it’s suitable for the market here or worse again,  I love it but I don’t love it enough. (I know, I know – it could be so much worse.) And I can’t self-publish it for a variety of reasons but mainly because it’s tied, thematically, to the other two and while I’m trying to get my fiction published, I think it’s safer to stick with just non-fiction for my DIY publishing adventures. The second one has had some interest but I haven’t been offered a dotted line to sign on. (Yet – I hope.) And a girl can only take so much rejection, so I’m not going to let this go on forever more. There will come a point where I will stop this and self-publish the first novel, see how it goes. This time is not anytime soon, and in the meantime I have two non-fiction projects which will be getting the Mousetrapped treatment this side of Christmas. But if I can’t find a traditionally published home for those books, which while connected are not a series, I will self-publish them.

Hopefully they’ll sell, and I’ll start to earn some serious money. (And bribe someone for a US visa and move to Celebration, while I’m at it.) But do you know what I’d do then? Write a new novel about something totally different.

And try to get that traditionally published, but that has always been and always will be The Dream.

Click here to read more about Mousetrapped.


Traditional deal: earning 10% off €10.99, or €1.09 per book. 1st  year: no sales. 2nd year: 4,000 x 1.09 = €4,360. 3rd year: 8,000 (2 books each selling 4k) x 1.09 = €8,720. Combine all 3 years (€13,080) – 15% agent’s fee (€1,982) = €11,098. (The advance is just that – an advance – and so is not added but included.)

Self-published e-books: earning 70% off $2.99, or $2.09 per book. 1st year: 4,000 sales of book 1 and 2,000 sales of book 2 (released six months from now) = (4,000 x 2.09) + (2,000 x 2.09) = $12,540. 2nd year: 8,000 sales (2 books each selling 4k) x 2.09 = $16,720. 3rd year: 8,000 sales (2 books each selling 4k) x 2.09 = $16,720. Combine all 3 years ($45,980) and convert to euro where 1 EUR = 1.39709 USD = €32,911.37.

These calculators do not factor in tax or self-publishing costs such as cover design.

UPDATE: Five years later, I got a book deal. Six years later, I got published.

24 thoughts on “What the Dream Looks Like or, Why This Self-Publisher is Still Pursuing Trad Publication

  1. Dolores Keaveney ta Dbeepress says:

    This is a very interesting article and very well thought out. I am a self publisher of 3 childrens books. I started out of the blue 4 years ago and wrote ans illustrated a small book called If I were a bee…. printed 2000 copies, invested 5000. I have since done a reprint. Invested again in a second book Jenny the little brown hen…. and printed 3000 copies. I have now have a distributor but I still do all the promotion myself. I definitely got all my money back and have made some and now have a stock of books which I hope will bring me some income in my old age. I have written all my books purely for pleasure and I have several other ones in the pipeline. I hope to self publish them too. I would not turn away an offer to have one of my books published and I have submitted all of them to many publishers and got the usual no.

    Good luck with your writing.

    Dolores Keaveney

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Dolores. Your story is a good reflection of my point: yes, you can make money from self-publishing but you have to do SO much work, and if you do a print run as you have, you have to take a financial risk as well. And why wouldn’t you say yes if someone offered you a traditional deal? There’s no good reason not to, and someone else does all the work! (Wouldn’t THAT be nice?)

      Congrats on your success (very impressive!) and best of luck with future books. 🙂

  2. Ellie says:

    I love that you are such a realist. I get fed up, like really fed up of people saying ‘oh but it is not about the money.’ Well what weird reality do you live in?

    It is about the money. It has to be about the money. Well, that is unless you have a millionaire relative who is prepared to fund your ‘little hobby’.

    Because that is the point, until you are signed, or making thousands upon thousands through self -publishing, it will only ever be regarded by others as a hobby…and you will be asked, ‘when are you going to get a proper job?’

    Keep writing and treating each piece as an individual, one WILL get you that golden deal.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Ellie!

      Yeah I know re: “it’s not about the money”. Give me a BREAK. Unless you always want to be something other than a writer for 8 hours or more a day, it has to be about the money. My dad was just telling me this morning – only half jokingly, as per usual! – to get “a proper job” and when I said I’ve written x words this week and sold x books, he asked where was the money?! Everything thinks writing is just scribbling until it starts earning you money and while that’s fine for some people, I want a career and I won’t stop until I have one.


  3. Claire King says:

    Catherine – this is a great post – I love that you’ve started to get into the nitty gritty of the money, because I too share the dream that one day I’ll actually be able to make *a proper living* from my writing and as you say there are no guarantees, even for those of us with a publishing contract.

    Amanda Hocking made the point on her blog that at the moment she isn’t even finding time to write, because of the massive workload she has managing her self-pub set up, not to mention all the copy edits she has to do herself etc. For me, one of the massive benefits of finding a trade publisher is that so much of that work is taken off your hands, freeing you up to write the next novel.

    Another financial consideration is foreign rights. You’ve used a reasonable example of an debut advance in your calculations, but what you’ve not included is the possibility that foreign markets may also publish your novel. My debut (yes the one due out in 2013!) just went to auction for Dutch rights and the winning offer was very tidy. I’m not sure how usual this is, but in any case ultimately no-one really knows how things will work out financially, so you have to stick with the things you can control…what the dream looks like!

    Good luck sticking with it and fingers crossed for your breakthrough.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Claire! I actually had you in mind when I was writing it because I was rolling my eyes here at the people who greeting your FANTASTIC news (and I thought it was fantastic before I even heard about your foreign rights!!) with, “Wait two years? Think of the money you’re losing. Wouldn’t you be better off self-publishing?” As I said no matter what happens, self-publishing will never be enough for me because I certainly wasn’t dreaming about seeing my book on a Kindle growing up! And I will do everything in my power to try and get those novels published before I even begin to think about self-publishing, because that’s what I REALLY want. But self-publishing is there as a Plan B, just like it was for Mousetrapped.

      And failing all that, I’m going to get a job in Starbucks or something… ;-D

  4. ironholgs says:

    Very interesting read as always.

    I sincerely hope that you get the deal that you are looking for, purely as a fan of mousetrapped, I enjoy your writing. Looking forward to More Mousetrapped and the other non-fiction books.

    My book was traditionally published in January, selling over a thousand copies in the first month shocking the publisher who thought maybe a few hundred. Totally shocking myself, who thought 500 odd maybe in 6 months.

    I’m sorry Ellie, but to me it isn’t about the money, didn’t even realise I’d get paid. I was a blogger who was spotted, and now has a book out that is doing well. I get such a buzz from seeing my book on the shelves, my money comes from my career ( librarian ) and I have no desire to be a full time writer.

    I’m just enjoying the whole experience of book signings, radio, press and tv interviews and the rest of it. Should add that I don’t have an agent. Now I’m also a realist and if writing was my career it would be completely about the money, I get that completely.

    I’ll stop rambling now.

    Keep following your dream Catherine. Good Luck

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      In Ellie’s (and my!) defense, I do think there is a significant difference between someone who has dreamed of a writer career all their lives, and someone who got published because they were producing content that someone spotted and thought would make a good book. (Which it obviously did – congrats on your sales!)

      But by definition a career is how you make a living, and you want it to be writing, the writing HAS to earn you money.

      Thanks for commenting and thanks re: Mousetrapped – which reminds me, I must get started on that first More Mousetrapped story!!! 🙂

      • ironholgs says:

        Sorry I didn’t mean to come across as critical, certainly not my intention – was just offering a viewpoint. Apologies to you and Ellie. I agree there is a significant difference.

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          No need to apologize – I didn’t take it as critical at all! Honestly. I didn’t mean to come across like I had taken it like that. Blog comments are for this very reason: interesting discussion. 🙂

    • Ellie says:

      I didn’t wish to imply that it should be about the money, that we are all wanting to earn the big bucks like JK Rowling. Far from it, we do it because we love it, and yes, the ultimate thrill fo rme would be to have my book on the hselves ta Waterstones.

      But, and this is a big but, no money, no time to write – well not as much time as you need if writing is to be a full time career. I for one will be holding down a full time job, whilst taking care of two kids whilst trying to complete my novel. I know everyone is different, but I’m pretty certain life would be a lot easier if I had the money coming in to stop me needing to work full time.

      • catherineryanhoward says:

        It all comes down to money Vs time, definitely.

        For example, don’t tell any publishers this, but I would let them publish my book for no advance at all, and just take whatever I could get them from sales royalties. But I don’t want to do anything BUT be a writer, romantic and all as that may seem, so unless I want to live under a bridge that means I’m going to have to earn money from it. Although it’s not ALL about that, that’s just reality.

  5. christopher wills says:

    Hi Catherine, interesting post as usual. Baring your soul is hard; I couldn’t do it. I used to empathise with your dream because we had the same dream but no longer. The reason is I don’t believe in it any more. Having read J A Konrath et al over the last 6 months I no longer see being a published author as a cosy club that I wish to belong to. I suspect it might be good if one belongs to the gliterrati who sell well, get invited onto talk shows, into launch parties etc but I suspect that is like winning the lottery; mathematically possible but highly unlikely.

    Also can I say this? I suspect your dream might be similar to your dream in Mousetrapped (I’ve bought Mousetrapped – excellent read, but I haven’t finished it yet). Hope that’s not too much of a plot spoiler

    The way I see it is I enjoy writing and I would prefer to do it every day to putting my suit on and going to work. To be in that position I need to earn money to pay my mortgage. If I earn lots of money I can go abroad three times a year to do research so I can set my books in exotic places. Simple really.

    I suspect in the near future a similar cosy club will evolve from indie epublishing – most people like a sense of belonging to something

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Christopher I’m not sure you’ve understood what I was saying in this piece, because we’re definitely on the same page re: getting paid to write.

      I don’t wish to belong any cosy club; I want to get published by a publishing house because that is what I’ve always dreamed of. This isn’t so I can go onto talk shows – it’s so I can see my book as produced by people who get paid to do it, and free me up to write.

      But the reality is that this won’t pay enough for me to do it full-time, so in parallel with it, I’ll continue to self-publish other books.

      This would be the best of both worlds because I’d be generating income (self-publishing) while seeing one or more of my books as I’ve always wanted to and getting in bookstores, etc. (trad publishing).

      Konrath et al are having amazing success, yes, but around 80% of all book sales in the world right now are print books, and most of them are in physical stores. If you’re not, then you just can’t compete. But there’s a lot more money to be made from self-publishing, so the best way to move forward in a modern writing career is to pursue both.

  6. rozmorris says:

    Catherine, I’m so glad you’re discussing this. I’m in a similar boat – happy to self-publish my non-fiction, but still pursuing traditional publishers for my fiction.

    The main reason is that as far as I can see they are two different markets. I can build a reputation that will sell my non-fiction for me, but in fiction I need to get past the gatekeepers to be seen as a serious contender. Of course, it’s imperfect – fiction is often chosen by marketing considerations, and excellent books are rejected year after year because they don’t fit with publishers’ needs. But to sell books we need to work with the book-buying public’s perception – and that is ‘published traditionally is a hallmark of quality’. This will change, of course, but it’s the way of the world at the moment.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think it’s definitely changing – especially with the rise of the 99c Kindle bestsellers. But it is easier, as a self-publisher, to sell non-fiction. As you said it’s too different markets and for us with our blogs, etc. it’s not that difficult to translate it into book sales.

      One day, Roz. One day! 🙂

  7. Laura Pepper says:

    I could have written this post exactly!
    I’m stuck between wanting to pub on the Kindle to see if I could have Amanda Hocking or Karen McQuestion style success, and also because I enjoy the promotional work (to a point) and having control of my work. But I realise that fiction is a different kettle of fish, and besides
    “I certainly wasn’t dreaming about seeing my book on a Kindle growing up!”
    echoes my sentiments exactly. =)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Laura!

      The problem is that even if you don’t have Hocking-esque success, you can still be really successful. I probably haven’t sold in a year what she sells in a day but because of the 70% royalty, I’m still making decent money which just makes the trad Vs self-publishing decision even harder to make! 😦 It’s just so hard to know which will be better for your career in the long run. All I know is never say never…

  8. Anne Lyle says:

    Very thoughtful post, Catherine, and much along the lines of what I’ve been going through these past few years. Self-publishing for me was always going to be second-best, which is why I’ve worked like a Trojan to get my writing in front of people who can help my career. And it’s finally paid off – I’ve managed to snag a commercial publisher, albeit a relatively small one, and the thought of seeing my novel on bookshop shelves in a year’s time still makes me dizzy with anticipation!

    It’s going to be a lot more work on the self-promotion side, thanks to the current market, but at least I have experienced staff handling editing, cover art, ebook production and so on. Not to mention the small but welcome advances that will be coming my way over the next two-three years (I have a three-book deal). Of course I have to hit my deadlines or pay that money back, so it’s not the easy route, even once you sign on that dotted line…

    Good luck with your own dream!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Anne! And congrats to you! 🙂

      I did this post because I’ve encountered so many people who have a rejection-shaped chip on their shoulder about publishing, and are very interested in what I have to say about self-publishing (like at talks and stuff) until they hear WHY I did it (to save a book from the drawer, yes, but more importantly to improve my chances of getting “properly” published) and then it’s like I’m selling to The Man. (I’m rolling my eyes right now!) When you take money out of the equation – and you have to, because there’s no guarantees and 99.9% of self-publishers aren’t making much of it or any at all – self-publishing is always second best. And then they start off with “even if you do get published, they won’t publicize your book and you’ll have to wait ages for it to come out” etc. etc…. I despair, I really do! Although it does make my chances of getting publishing better, i.e. the less people who are trying to get their book published, the better! 😀

  9. Sybil Nelson says:

    I know exactly how you feel. But for me, the dream of being traditionally published is dead…at least for now. I mean I was rejected by every publisher even after my agent sold the movie option for Priscilla the Great. It’s like, what more do they want? And one of the big publishers has had The Queen Bee of Bridgeton since Nov. 2008 and still hadn’t made a decision. Two weeks ago I told them never mind, and published it myself. It’s already available as an ebook. The print copy will be available soon as well. Personally, I hope to prove all the publishers who rejected me wrong. But if they were to suddenly change their mind and offer me a contract…I can’t say that I would say no.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It sounds like you have every chance of succeeding by yourself, Sybil, so good luck!

      Re “proving publishers wrong” though, it’s not always that cut and dry. Mousetrapped (my book) was rejected by 5/6 Irish publishers – and with very good reason. If any of them had published it, it would only have been available in Ireland and maybe the UK, and in bookshops. Now a year later I’ve sold 4000 copies, but those readers came from all over the world, i.e. I had to something for sale globally before I could achieve those sales. And most of them were low priced ebooks where instead of the reader walking into a store and seeing the book, they happen upon it on their ereading device. So even if today, a publishing house took another look at Mousetrapped, they’d still have to reject it because it wouldn’t make financial sense for them to print up a couple of thousand copies and stick them on bookstore shelves.

      But as you say, I wouldn’t say no! 🙂 That’s the Catch 22 – by the time you’re selling enough to catch their attention, it’s not in your financial interested either to hand over your book. But maybe it’ll lead to something else – that’s what I’m hoping!

  10. amber says:

    Catherine, this post was a very engaging read, and I can totally see where you’re coming from on this. As someone who has done the exact opposite– that is, traditional publishing first and self-publishing second– I know both sides of this argument quite well. Being traditionally published was super exciting, a real dream come true…but after all was said and done, I found myself not completely satisfied with the loss of control that comes with having a manuscript trad-pubbed.

    Of course, I’m a horrid control freak, so I think that (in most cases) self-publishing is the road I’ve chosen to walk down for now. It definitely takes a lot– like, A LOT– more effort, especially where the marketing is concerned, but at the end of the day, I’ve found that I just feel more accomplished this way.

    I certainly hope that you get the deal that you’re seeking. Your blog posts are informative and generally fabulous, and I certainly don’t say that to everyone. Now that I’ve had a taste, I think I’ll be seeking out your books on Kindle.

    Here’s wishing you the very best of luck!

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