A friend of mine just got back from the DFW Writer's Conference. He talked to an agent who threw out a few facts about self-publishing. I don't doubt the facts (although I have not checked them) they need a little context.
#1 99.3% of all self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies.
This number might be true. That reflects how the ebook market works. Self-published books rely on word of mouth. A person stumbles on your book, likes it and tells others. They look for your other books. If they like those they tell others. Most writers on Smashwords have only one book. You have to beg the press and review sites to read it. A couple people like it and might comment on it. Even if a single self-published book gets great reviews it is tough to get critical mass to have enough people talking about it to break 100 copies.
If you have more than one ebook out the math changes. I had two titles for sale when I release my free ebook, I KILLED THE MAN THAT WASN'T THERE on Smashwords and Amazon combined roughly 4,000 people downloaded it. That gave me a nice little spike in people checking out my other books. Which gave me a couple of sales.
The same thing happened when I released REPOSSESSING SANITY I saw a spike of interest in my other books. No sales, it was pretty different than my other works.
Oddly, HOW MUCH HEAD SHOULD A GIRL GIVE IN A DAY made barely a ripple in views of my other books, but visits to PROJECT SAVIOR REBORN jumped by about 50 visits a day.
I've read you need at least six ebooks out before you start seeing any real money. I believe this. You need a critical mass to start really selling ebooks. With six or more books out there when someone enjoys one of your books they check out more. Most people put up one, sell a couple of copies and give up.
Also here is a surprise, the ebook market is different than the print market. I'll get into that later.
#2 The big six publishing houses will not be thrilled (understatement) to buy your novel if your self-publishing history shows less than 10,000 copies sold. (This was the agent's perspective. Many others touted self-pub as the only way to go.)
I don't doubt this, but this is a case of ego gone amok.
Let's look at the numbers.
If your self-published book sold 10,000 copies earning you a little over $2 a piece. That's $20,000.
If you sell your book to one of the big six you will get between $5,000 and $10,000. $10,000 being the high end of advances for a first novel. That means you get between ¼ and ½ in cash what you could get on your own.
Looking at it that way it's horrible, but there are other factors. Your book will be reviewed in newspapers, rather than a blog here and there. You will have the “credibility factor” when you ask for a review of your next book. As well as “street cred” with other writers.
How much is all that worth? It's up to the writer. For a $10,000 advance it's probably worth it, for a $5,000 advance, its a toss up.
Also while the big six might not be thrilled if you've sold less than 10,000 copies, some agents are. Some agents love authors that have sold 2,000 copies on their own. It's simple math. If you've sold 2,000 and earned $4,000, then $5,000 with all the benefits I listed above is a great deal for the author. They only have to worry about the publishers ego, not the writers. If you can sell 2,000 on your own, with the publisher's power you can easily double that earning back your advance so the publisher won't give the agent a black mark. So it's a safe bet for the agent.
An enthusiastic agent will make up for the publisher bias against self-publishers.
#3 First time novelists, keep your word count around 60-80k.
Here is where the ebook market and the print market differ. It's hard to know if print market figures are based on real numbers or just tradition, but I've heard the best length for a print book is between 65k and 95k. Pages cost money and publisher will want to go on the lower end of that scale. Since a first time writers time is free to them, they can (and frankly should) insist the writer spend an extra month cutting every necessary word to get the 100,000 word novel down to 80,000. It will be tighter and read better.
Luckily, Matt Corker of Smashwords is a geek. This means he looks at real hard numbers and analyses them. He has found that the magic number for ebooks is around 40,000 words. That makes sense.
Once I start reading a paper book, it lurks around my favorite reading spot. I've read 20,000 words and it passive aggressively demands I come back for another 20,000 word session. (Damn passive-aggressive books). I try to get away but it looks at me pleading, what about the characters? Are you going to abandon them? So I stick it out for another 20,000 words. Finally I'm ¾ of the way through the book and figure, what the hell? and finish it so I can move on to a new one.
I've read several mediocre books that way.
On my computer it's different. I look at my list of new ebooks. I start reading. I stop 20,000 words later (if the book doesn't totally absorb me). Next session I look at my list and think do I want to finish that one or start a new one? The ebook looks at me like, “Up to you, dude. I'm not going to force you to read me.” If it's 40,000 words I'll probably finish it. If it's 80,000 I'll move on.
Simply put: a good ebook writer can put out twice the amount of books as a print writer.
My take on all of this.
The idea of “Traditional publishing vs. Self-Publishing” shouldn't exist. They can be two different markets.
As ebooks evolve you'll see them becoming very different than print books. They'll be smaller 40,000 words, Written in series, more vulgar (in the old meaning of common) lots of action and sex, and quirky.
Print books will go the opposite way after trying to get smaller to compete with ebooks they will start being longer (slightly), more romance (as in a focus on characters), stand alone, and highly refined.
These markets are like TV vs. Movies. A TV show starts with a teaser, to grab your attention. A movie starts with the characters to give you an emotional investment. A movie builds up to the final showdown that forever changes the lives of the characters. A TV show builds up to the final showdown where the heroes win, leaving everything the same.
TV shows aren't a threat to Movies and Movies aren't threats to TV shows. There is bias among the executives about the other. TV producers aren't guaranteed that their pitches for a movie will be heard and people from the Movie industry aren't guaranteed to get more than a guest slot in a TV show. But the cross-over happens all the time.
What makes a good ebook and what makes a good print book aren't always the same.