Learning About Author Business Models

I meet a lot of authors who don’t realize they’re in business for themselves, but they are. Every author who hopes to have a book published or earn some money from the months or years of hard work they’ve put into their book, even authors who treat writing as a hobby, are in business. Traditional, hybrid, or self-published. All are business models.

All Products Have a Supply Chain

All product-related businesses have an ultimate customer and a supply chain that provides materials and services that move the product from the idea stage to the hands of the customer. And just like there are an infinite number of ways for other products to reach the hands of the consumer, there are a huge number of ways for books to go from the mind of the author to the hands of the consumer.

That means there are a vast number of ways for authors to approach the publication of their work, and every one of those ways is equally legitimate. If you’re an author or a reader, you are probably most familiar with traditional publishing.

Traditional Publishing Supply Chain

The simplified supply chain steps for traditional publishing look like this:

  1. The author has an idea and writes a book
  2. The author may or may not hire editors
  3. The author “sells” the book to an agent (no money changes hands yet)
  4. The agent sells the book to a publisher for an advance against sales, takes 15%
  5. The Publisher manages all book production and marketing steps (editing, cover design, book formatting, distribution, launch marketing). Author mostly remains uninvolved.
  6. Publisher supplies books to a distributor
  7. The distributor supplies books to retailers
  8. The author markets the book in a myriad of ways
  9. Customer buys book

This is actually one of the more straightforward but potentially least lucrative business models an author can choose. It has advantages: The author doesn’t have to worry about production or supply chain issues, but there is a financial cost to this business model. Leaving out the agent fees, which given how hard they work is a well-deserved slice, the author receives a much smaller royalty on a sale than they otherwise might.

This is because there are a lot of fingers in this pie. In addition to the author and agent, the publisher, distributors, and retailers all take a slice. So do the printers. The publisher has a large and complex infrastructure that must be supported.

Simplified Self-Publishing Supply Chain

Self-publishing is an alternative, but let me be honest here, it can be complex, especially at first. The supply chain might look like this:

  1. The author has an idea and writes a book
  2. The author may or may not hire editors, but definitely should if they can afford it
  3. The author hires a cover designer or designs it themselves (not usually a good idea)
  4. The author formats the book for printing or hires a book designer
  5. The author decides on book formats, sizes, and other aspects, right down to the font and the color of the paper used
  6. The author applies for copyright
  7. The author decides where to publish (the publisher takes a defined fee for printing and distribution)
  8. The author writes jacket copy
  9. The author buys and applies an ISBN
  10. The author posts the book on the chosen platforms
  11. The author markets the book in a myriad of ways
  12. With luck, customers buy the book

Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Publishing

So, there are a few more steps where the responsibility falls on the author’s shoulders, and they are some of the more complex activities involved in successful book publishing, like cover design and marketing. But as compensation, the author receives a higher per book royalty and has complete autonomy. In addition, the author can exercise their own creativity in marketing the book, in cover design, in series direction, and a lot more.

It can be extremely exciting.

It can be extremely scary. There’s a lot to learn.

How to Learn How to Self-Publish

There’s a lot to learn, and there’s a lot of conflicting or just plain bad advice out there.

I learned back in college (long time ago) that people learn by hooking new facts onto things they already know—sort of the way Velcro works with its hook and loop design. But to approach any new topic, the first thing you need to learn is the vocabulary. Otherwise, you don’t have anything to hook your new knowledge to.

This idea may seem silly at first. After all, marketing and self-publishing didn’t invent a new language. But we did add new meanings to words we already know. Take ‘long tail keywords’’, for instance. We know what ‘long’ means. We know what a ‘tail’ is. We all sorta know what a ‘keyword’ is because we’ve all done a search on the internet. But when you put them together, what does it mean? Why should you care?

Same for words like auction, bid, category, impressions, and a lot of other everyday words with new specialized meanings.

Can You Make This Simple?

Yes. The problem with a lot of books on self-publishing or digital marketing is that they assume you already know what those new specialized meanings are.

But you probably don’t. And that’s one reason a lot of authors turn their backs on self-publishing. It sounds like gibberish. It’s confusing.

But what if you had a guide that walked you through the basics? That gave you a roadmap or checklist to follow? You might find self-publishing is worth a second look.

That’s why I wrote Smart Self-Publishing Strategies: A Roadmap for Beginners. It’s not a deep dive into any aspect of self-publishing, but it does provide the basic knowledge and vocabulary you need to decide if the self-publishing business model is right for you. If you’ve ever thought of self-publishing but got discouraged, I hope you’ll give it a try.

About Sharon Ward

Sharon Ward is the author of the traditional mysteries In Deep Sunken Death, and Dark Tide, and Killer Storm, all part of the Fin Fleming Scuba Diving Series.

Writing as S L Ward, she is the author of the new release Smart Self-Publishing Strategies: A Roadmap for Beginners.

Sharon was a marketing executive at prominent software companies Oracle and Microsoft before starting her writing business. She was also a PADI certified divemaster who has hundreds of dives under her weight belt.

Sharon is a member of Sisters in Crime, MWA, ITW, Grub Street, and the Cape Cod Writers Center.

She lives near Cape Cod with her husband Jack and their miniature long-haired dachshund Molly.


    1. Exactly what I’m hoping. When I started, every book and every class assumed I already knew a ton of stuff. I was lucky because of my business/marketing/sales/strategy career background that I had something to connect a lot of the stuff I needed to know, but it was still a struggle.

    1. Thanks, Marnie. When Michele and I started thinking about this, we both read everything we could find and took a bunch of classes, but there wasn’t anything that said “This is how you get started. Do this, then that. And whatever you do–DON’T do this other thing.” It was like driving cross country without GPS or even a paper map, and whenever we asked for directions, somebody answered in another language. Daunting!

  1. Good luck with Smart Self-Publishing Strategies: A Roadmap for Beginners, Sharon. It sounds like a book any authors considering self- publishing should check out. Maybe even authors who haven’t considered it before.

    1. Thanks, Catherine. I do think a lot of the book is applicable even to traditionally published authors. Writers need to understand both business models before they can make an informed decision on what’s right for them.

  2. Interesting and clear! One additional advantage to traditional publishing is eligibility for some prestigious national awards. Good thing I’m not in this for the big bucks!

    1. That’s one of the items I cover in the book. If you’re in it for awards, self-publishing is probably not for you. Although there are now some awards that are exclusively for self-published books, and some come with a cash reward as well as the accolades.

  3. Good luck!!

    I love your wise, measured and practical approach — as opposed to writers who promise impossible things like “Five Steps to Being A Self-Published Bestseller” or “How to Get Rich Self-Publishing.”

    1. Thanks, Deb. I do know some self-published authors who have gotten rich, but I know a whole lot more who are just scraping by. It’s like traditional publishing in that way–you never know where lightning will strike.

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