The Inevitable Death of Traditional Book Publishers

Traditional book publishers. They were once known as the titans of the book publishing industry. In the Baby Boomer era, self-publishing was an unknown concept. You needed a traditional publisher if you wanted the best chance to succeed with your book.

During that time, there was significantly less competition for publishers and authors, meaning more book sales for both parties.  

Over time, traditional publishers (especially The Big 5) gradually started to exploit authors by offering lower royalties and seizing the author’s publishing rights.

Fast forward, it is a common standard among these publishers today. Signing with a traditional publisher will limit you to a 10% royalty for print sales and 25% royalty for eBook and audiobook sales.

The truth is that you would need to sell a lot of books to be successful as an author. What if you sold a combined total of 5,000 books (i.e. half eBooks, half print books)?

For most traditional publishers, selling 5,000 books is considered a success. You can even get on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list with as little as 3,000 book sales and strangely on the New York Times bestseller list with as little as 2,000 book sales. Unfortunately, most authors do not sell more than 500 books.

Although, how much money would an author earn from selling 5,000 copies in a year?

About $6,000.

Living on a $6,000/year salary would classify you as poor in developed countries.

How about earning a $30,000/year salary as an author? Well, with a traditional publisher, you would need to sell 25,000 books.

How about $60,000/year salary? You would need to sell 50,000 books.

These findings may startle you, but it is the unfortunate reality.

Moreover, this is why I strongly believe this era marks the beginning of the end for traditional book publishers.

These publishers are getting desperate because their exploitative tactics are not working as effectively as they did in the past.

It is no surprise why they are offering six to seven figure book deals to bestselling self-published authors.

For self-published and indie authors, it can be a step up. Perhaps, for others, it may be a step down. If you are doing it mostly for the money, accepting a traditional publisher’s offer of $200,000 for a 3 year book deal can be a good thing.

That advance would be against your royalties. Although, you are only getting that much money because they believe that they can recoup their investment and profit significantly from your books.

Furthermore, in most cases, you are not required to pay back the book advance if your total book sales are less than the amount of the advance. Conversely, if you do not fulfill the obligations in your book contract, you could be required to pay it back to the publisher.

Traditional publishers want to stay in business, which explains why they are scouting bestselling self-published and indie authors.

However, if it is your intention to start a successful career as an author, I would suggest looking away from these publishers.

Why not work with an indie publisher instead? It is not uncommon for an indie publisher to offer you a royalty of 20% for print books and 50% for eBooks and audiobooks.

Imagine if you sold 5,000 books (half print books, half eBooks) with an indie publisher.

You would make about $12,000 in royalties (2x the royalties earned from a traditional publisher). A $12,000/year salary is still below the poverty line in developed countries. Although, it is significantly better than $6,000.

What if you were a self-published author instead? As a self-published author, you will earn the most royalties in comparison with the other type of authors.

You could earn a 40-50% royalty on print books and 60-70% royalty on eBooks.

What if you sold 5,000 books (half print books, half eBooks) as a self-published author?

You would earn up to $35,000 in royalties. Now, a $35,000/year salary is significantly better than the other two salaries combined. Additionally, it can be quite a comfortable salary if you are single and without kids.  

Perhaps, you are shocked about all what you have read up to this point. This is the unfortunate reality in this today’s world. It is the same for musicians.

Most people marvel after the illusory lifestyle of the penthouses, jewelry, luxury cars, and expensive items. Most authors and musicians do not have these things from millions of book or album sales. They have these things because their publishing company or record label gave them a huge advance. That is the truth!

As stated before, traditional publishers are so desperate that they are trying just about anything to stay relevant and in business.

For several years, Penguin-Random House owned Author Solutions, the parent company of many self-publishing companies and imprints.

Perhaps, you may have had a book contract or considered signing with one of the following:

Self-Publishing Companies




Self-Publishing Imprints

Archway Publishing (Simon & Schuster)

Westbow Press (Thomas Nelson)

Balboa Press (Hay House)

Abbott Press (Writer’s Digest)

I am almost certain that you are familiar with one or more of those self-publishing companies or imprints. Can you now see the eagerness and involvement of traditional publishers in this alternative arena?

Harper Collins launched an imprint to attract indie authors. Their imprint, Harper Legend, is seeking fiction manuscripts from eBook authors about topics related to spirituality, self-help, and fantasy.

Hachette entered a binding agreement to buy Perseus Books (an indie publisher with 10 imprints).

Traditional publishers can change with their trends or die with their stubbornness. I think we can all agree that they have already received the memo.

Although, Penguin-Random House recently stepped away from the self-publishing arena with the sale of Author Solutions.  

Is Penguin-Random House convinced that they can thrive without having an indie or self-publishing imprint? Or will they (at least) grant favorable contract terms that are more reflective to indie publishers’ contracts? We will find out eventually.

The definition of a traditional publisher will definitely change within the next 15 years. This is indeed a good thing, especially for authors. More authors are choosing to self-publish or publish with an indie publisher.

As a successful author, I want you to consider that it will probably take a few books to build upon your success. It is not so common for authors to become a New York Times bestselling author or international bestselling author with their first book. An author’s career is based on book royalties, which can be compounded with multiple books.

In today’s era, a traditional publisher cannot do much for you. Moreover, they probably will not do much for you unless you are a big name like J.K. Rowling or Jack Canfield.

So, why give more of your profits to a publisher who will not do much for you? Most traditional publishers have excellent international distribution. Although, what if the majority of your sales were based in the United States?

You would not need a publisher to establish contractual agreements with Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Ingram, or indie bookstores. All of these outlets work with self-published authors.

Perhaps, it would be worth working with a traditional publisher if you are looking to target physical bookstores abroad. Although, how many people in your target countries are buying print books vs eBooks? Maybe they prefer eBooks or would not mind buying the eBook version instead.   

Besides international distribution, I invite people to explain why traditional publishers would still be the best choice. The credibility argument is dying nowadays. Publishing with Penguin-Random House may give you credibility, but it will not necessarily give you as much credibility as your competition.

If a self-published author sells 30,000 books and you (as a traditionally published author) sold 5,000 books, who is more credible in the public domain? The fans are voting in the form of book sales.

By 2030, traditional publishers will die or be predominantly run by imprints that favor indie and self-published authors.

My advice to you: Do not be the average author. 80% of your results will be based on 20% of your efforts. Learn the art of sales. After all, that is what ultimately matters in the end. Focus on selling more books.