Book sales timeline in traditional vs. self-publishing‘Hurry up and wait,’ or ‘wait and hurry up?’

That’s an authors choice when it comes to publishing paths, according to an article called “The Business Rusch: Hurry Up. Wait.” by fiction writer and blogger Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Self-publishing involves a lot of upfront scrambling (finishing the book, editing, cover design, distribution, etc.). Then you wait, and wait, and wait for sales — sales which trickle in month-by-month but that may add up to significant revenue in the long-run.

Indie authors need patience and must understand that they’re building a readership by word-of-mouth, one person at a time. Because eBooks have no shelf-life (or more accurately, their shelf-life is forever), the smartest thing an indie author can do to increase sales is to write the NEXT book.

Traditional publishing is an almost completely opposite model. You do all the waiting upfront (months or years to place the book in the hands of an editor or agent, months to negotiate the contracts, many more months to put the book and marketing plan together, even more months of pre-publication promo/publicity work, and then finally the big day arrives when your book is released to the public).

Now comes the rush! Your success, in the eyes of your publisher, is based on your pre-sales in the months leading up to your launch and your sales for the first 1-3 months after your launch. Those numbers will determine whether you get to put out another book with that publisher. If initial sales are lower than expected, your book will be out of print within a year. No chance to slowly build an audience year after year.

Why understanding the differences matters

Because each model has such a drastically different view on sales and production timelines, there is a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication between the two publishing camps. According to Rusch:

The problem comes in trying to talk from one side of the publishing divide to the other.

Since folks steeped in traditional publishing only look at how well a book does in its first  year—really, its first month–on the stands, traditional publishing folk look at almost all indie titles as failures.

Think about it: If you expect a book to sell thousands if not tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of copies in its first year, and you hear that someone is happy with 500 sales scattered over 12 months, you’d see that as a failure too.

The folks who believe in indie publishing only hear that a book goes out of print in less than a year, and is probably done earning after that point (except for a few high-priced e-book sales), and they wonder who would ever sign a deal like that. After all, books can now last forever. Or as long as we read books electronically and in paper form. The virtual bookshelf means that books don’t have to go away to make way for next month’s books. Books will remain easy to find with the click of a mouse.

As mentioned above, Rusch believes the sanest strategy for indie-publishing success is to put out as many good books as possible. Here’s why:

I’m not unusual. I buy five or more books per week, usually when I see a review, get a notice from a bookseller that a new one of my favorites is out, or follow a recommendation from a friend about a really good book she’s read. I buy because of word-of-mouth, just like every other reader on the planet.

That’s why traditional publishers only spend advertising dollars on the bestsellers. They’re not informing you of a new writer. They’re letting you know that a favorite writer has a new book. They’re relying on word-of-mouth and habit.

Otherwise, they hope that word of mouth will sell a new writer by having that book on the shelf of a favorite bookstore or by some linked (paid-for) recommendations in the Amazon store or a (paid-for) point-of-purchase slot near a Wal-Mart check-out.

So indie writers who promote their book instead of writing the next book are wasting their time. The more books you’ve written, the more books you’ll sell.

That’s how it works. That’s how it’s always worked.

Or, put another way:

All publishing isn’t even equal inside one writer’s career. I have books that sell really well and books I can’t give away. I’m the same writer. But readers have different reactions to different books.

So the key is to give readers what they want. What do they want? Good stories. And the readers will differ as to which of your stories are “good.” So give the readers a lot of stories to choose from.

Kristine’s article is an honest and insightful look at the challenges and opportunities authors face today when trying to decide which publication route is best for them. Read the whole article HERE.

Have you published books traditionally and independently? What was best for you? Did it differ depending on the project? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 570 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard’s Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of “Short Works Poetry.”

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