If you read my post the other day about why direct publishing will prevail, you will know that direct publishing and traditional publishing are different distribution models. In other words, they present two different options for moving a product from the author to the reader.
So, over the weekend, I heard a common author complaint. She had direct-published one of her books using the usual channels for direct publishing. Her sales were good. She intended to use that good sales record to entice a traditional publisher into taking over publishing duties. Her theory was that they ought to be interested in a title with a proven sales record. Readers were interested. And so should be the publishers.
To her surprise, she received nothing but form rejections and one personalized rejection that said, in essence, that the publisher doesn't think it makes financial sense to re-release the title when the author has already picked off the easy sales to friends in family. (More on this in a moment.) She was baffled that no publishers would be interested in taking over a title that was a proven seller.
But really, why would they want to? Books are neither fungible nor consumable. There is a set number of people willing to purchase a particular title, and they will usually only purchase it once. If those sales have already been made through one distribution channel, you won't re-make them through a different channel. Maybe you can reach new buyers, but why would a publisher want to take on a title knowing that its sales prospects are already limited by a competing distribution effort? "I've already made 50% of the sales this book can possibly make. Now I want you to make the other 50%, but your up-front costs will still be the same, even if your possible gross is diminished." It doesn't make good financial sense, and in this market, publisher have to watch their numbers very closely.
Now, about that publisher who complained that the author had already sold to her friends and family. That statement worried me for a different reason because it betrays a fundamental flaw in logic used by some smaller houses. For a long time now, the conventional wisdom has had it that the efforts of the publishing company will be responsible for 80-90% of a book's sales, and the author's efforts will be responsible for about 10-20%. (I don't know where those numbers come from, but I've been hearing them for years.) That 10-20% are the friends and family sales. I've heard more than one publishing professional at small houses say that the friends and family sales are their bread and butter. They undertake minimal distribution and no promotion, and they throw away the 80-90% of the sales they should be going after, instead expecting the friends and family sales to cover costs and generate profits. For many of these houses, it's a model that works for them. It might not be great for the author -- the author might make more elsewhere -- but if the author complains, the publisher response is, "Do more PR."In other words, maximize your friends and family sales, and hope you pick up some extra sales along the way.
But this is not what I said to my friend who was upset that a publishing house wouldn't take over responsibility for a direct-published title that was selling well. What I said to her was, why do you want a traditional publisher at all? If you're making good money doing it on your own, claiming 70% of retail on every sale, why would you trade that for an 8% royalty? The book is selling, and selling well. Thank the gods of publishing and cash the check. And for the next book, consider whether to direct publish or try to entice a traditional publisher, but do it in the knowledge that either option is more viable for this second book than it was for the first.