Which sells best: major houses, ebook, or self-publishing?


“What kind of book do you want to sell?” has to be the first question.

I’m interested here in nonfiction.

That’s because self-publishers don’t publish fiction. It’s almost impossible for them to sell, and I want to compare all three since we can now dip into all three ponds, two directly and the third by accepting or rejecting a big-house invitation.

My gut reaction is that the big houses win by a sizable margin because the writers invited to their dance have survived rigid screening by agents and editors, all of whom are thinking selling when evaluating and choosing. So the chances are far higher that they would pick a book that would attract buyers, keep it hatching until it reads like a winner, dress it up in a classier bonnet, and then slide it down their oiled nonfiction marketing chutes. (Alas, the losing side of that process, for the writer, is that the major houses pay dismally every four or six months, it takes them about a year or two to get the book out, and they are dismal in the niche publishing field.)

Then self-publishing. One, self-publishers have much more invested in the final book than ebookers so I think they’d expand that investment into better marketing planning. Two, often they start with a go-ahead market that wants their book and provides a fast and steady buyer. Three, they can use most of the same selling techniques that the big houses do, but quicker, with more immediate attention and more flexibility in modifying a second or follow-up edition. POD helps them keep the first (in fact, all) runs modest and in budget. They have good guides too, like Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual and John Kremer’s 1,001 Ways to Market Your Book.

The niche self-publishers, done right, have the highest nonfiction selling ratio (better than major houses), with almost no risk (if they pre-test), very fast turn-over, and few if any remainders. My book explains how that’s done: Niche Publishing: Publish Profitably Every Time.

Last in likely non-fiction sales are ebooks. From what I read and friends confirm, nonfiction ebook sales from Kindle, Nook, the Smashwords buyers, Scribd, and others are by far the lowest of the three. It’s easy to convert a Word document into mobi or epub but nearly impossible to include charts, graphs, tables, and most other images. And beyond the front cover, the books themselves are anything but fetching. That ebook selling ratio may change but the engine seems to be slowing down right now.

Now, thanks to the Speaker Net News, we have some solid, current facts about which of the formats is the best seller. Their just-released $4.95 “Book Marketing Report—What Really Works” confirms my suspicions.

A bit about the polling structure, from the SNN text:

“We asked (SNN subscribers) who’ve published a book (e-book, self-published, or printed with a publisher [I presume that means a major publisher]) within the last 5 years:

* What are the top three techniques that sell the most books in our profession [speaking]?
* Which approaches waste the most time and money?
* What are the three most powerful ways to use your book to catapult your overall business?
* What key resources (books, audios, presentations) increase book sales the most?

“We received over 280 qualified responses. This brief e-report shares proven tools instead of mere opinion…”

Rebecca Morgan, well known speaker and editor of Speaker Net News, told me that she believes this is the only such study of its type in the past five years.

Here, I’m focusing on the respective sales by each kind of publisher. The SNN results were broken into four categories (major publishing house, ebook publishing, and self-publishing). They responded whether they sold (1) less than 1,000 books, (2) 1,000-5,000, (3) 5,000-10,000, and (4) 10,000+. (Giveaway books were excluded from all totals.)

Because blog charts are unreliable, here are the respective totals in linear form.

Major publishing houses: (1) 17%, (2) 34%, (3) 23%, and (4) 26%

Ebook publishing: (1) 78%, (2) 15%, (3) 3%, and (4) 1.5%

Self-publishing: (1) 61%, (2) 25%, (3) 6.5%, and (4) 8.5%

Those whose books were published by the major publishing houses sold the most books.

Self-publishing was in the middle, and ebook publishing was the lowest in all four selling ratios. The only (mild) surprise was that the self-publishers sold 6.5% of 5,000-10,000 copies of their books, but a higher percentage (8.5%) of 10,000+ books.

If this interests you, the rest of this short, inexpensive report is well worth your attention.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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