Brandon Sanderson 318R #6

The amazing Brandon Sanderson shares his wisdom about the business side of writing in session #6 of his BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction.

Class #6: The business of writing.

While you’re writing, you should just be focused on the best artistic decision for your story. Ignore any ideas about what might be marketable. Once you’re done, though, he says:

Lock the artist in the closet, take their manuscript, run away giggling, and try to figure out how to exploit it.

Self publishing

Once upon a time, this was called vanity publishing. If you wanted to see your book in print and couldn’t get a traditional publisher, you’d spend a bunch of money to get some copies printed and hope you could sell them. Some famous writers self-published their books, but it wasn’t very common.

Around 2010, when everyone got Kindles for Christmas, ebooks came into their own and the world of self publishing changed. Now, self publishing has settled down as a valid and legitimate way to sell books. On Amazon, something like 30-40% of all books sold are self published. Amazon controls and dominates the ebook market, with about 85-90% of all ebooks being sold through Amazon.

The big selling points on self publishing are:

  1. Control – You choose the cover, nobody can put a spoiler on the back of your book, and you decide what ends up in the final copy and where it’s sold. In traditional publishing, you’re dealing with one publisher in the U.S., another in the U.K, another in India, etc., but when you self-publish your ebook, you can click a button to make it available worldwide
  2. Revenue per book – In general, you make 70% of the cover price. At Amazon, you get 70% if you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99; if you price it higher you only get 35%, and you also get less if you price it lower.

More to come on this in a later class, when Sanderson’s on book tour and a self-publishing author friend will be filling in.


Some professional writers have some traditional contracts but self-publish some of their stuff. Shonna Slayton, who I wrote about earlier, has a traditional publisher for her fairy tale retellings, but recently self-published a historical novel. The dream would be to traditionally publish print books and self-publish ebooks, but Sanderson only knows of one person who managed to get a contract like that (Hugh Howie with his Wool series).

Small press

If you sign up with a small press, you may be able to get a contract that’s more favorable to you than a traditional contract, similar to the deal you get if you self-publish. The small press will do the same things the big publishing house will do, but you get a higher rate.

Traditional publishing

The advantages of traditional publishing are the things the company does for you (cover design, editing, etc.) and the advance they pay you.

Here’s what you can expect or might run into if you have a traditional, big publisher:

  • Advance – For a first novel, the average advance is $5,000 (but $2,000 and $10,000 aren’t uncommon). This isn’t free money: it’s an advance against royalties your book will earn. The company prepares a P&L (profit and loss) estimate, looking at similar books by new authors and guesstimating how many they can sell and figuring costs based on a hypothetical print run. They’ll try to give you what they think you’ll earn in the first 2-3 years. If you have a good agent and get a better-than-usual advance on your first book, it’s not unusual to get a bit less on your second, but your advances should climb from there.
  • Royalties – The author gets a percent of the price:
    • Hardback 10-15% of the cover price (not the discounted price the reader might actually pay at B&N)
    • Paperback 6-10% of cover price (8% mass market, 10% trade paperback)
    • Ebooks 25% of net, meaning the actual selling price after discount
    • Bargain bin books – see returns, below
    • Some contracts give a variable percent based on sales, like 8% for the first 75,000 copies and 10% after that.
  • Earning out the advance – The company doesn’t start paying you royalties till they’ve surpassed the advance. You don’t have to pay back the advance if your book doesn’t sell as much as they thought it would. You only have to repay the advance if you fail to deliver the book. On the other hand, you’ll get a smaller advance on the next book.
  • Returns – To get stores to take a chance on new authors, publishers allow them to return any unsold books for full credit. You lose the royalties for those. The company sells the returns for $2 each (you can buy them at this price too), the stores sell for $4, and you get 6 cents a copy. It’s not a bad thing to have your books in the bargain bin where new readers can discover you.
  • Sell-through – This is the percent of the print run that actually sells. The publisher usually prints about twice as many books as they have orders for. The magic number is 80%: if you sell 60%, that’s okay. Less is a failure, and so is more than 80% because it means the publisher underestimated sales and should have printed more.
  • Audio books – These are sold almost exclusively through Audible. You’ll get about 20% of the credit the user spends, or about $2 per book. People who buy audiobooks generally only buy audiobooks, and they buy a lot of them. If anyone ever actually buys the physical audiobook, you make more.
  • Bidding war – Your agent may get multiple offers for your book. If that happens, they go into a book auction. Your agent knows how to do this. If you’re spectacularly lucky, you could end up with a $100,000 advance for your first book, which in turn means the publisher is invested in you and will do the marketing to try to make it profitable. If your initial contract runs out before the end of your book series, you can go into another bidding war.
  • Reversion of rights – It’s common for contracts to have a clause that says if the book sells under a certain number, you get the copyright back (normally, the publisher gets it for the life of the copyright). Ebooks throw this off, since they don’t have to be printed. If you get a contract, research this.


Whether you’re on the bestseller list or not depends on a lot of things, including which list you’re looking at, and who else released a book at the same time as you did. The first time Sanderson was on the list, he was #31, based on 2,300 hardcopy sales the previous week; and the first time he was #1 on the list, he’d had about 80,000 copies sold that week, and the #2 book was at about 32,000. If John Grisham had released a book that week, Sanderson’s 80K wouldn’t have put him at #1. The lowest number he’s heard of for a #1 print bestseller was in the 20,000s. Preorders count as Day One sales.

This puts a whole different perspective on a book I recently read, The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, in which they taught a computer to read books and predict whether or not they’d hit the New York Times bestseller list. I’m in a group that’s reading through that book’s 100 recommendations in reverse order, and this month-to-month variation probably explains a lot. Here’s a link to the group discussion – join us if you’re interested!

Ebooks have changed things a lot. Sanderson’s 2,300 to get on the list was before ebooks came along. Now, more people are earning money by writing, but the people at the top are earning a bit less than they used to, because people have more to choose from now.

The competition for the list depends on which list you’re looking at. USA Today and the Times of London only have one list that combines all book sales. The New York Times list is broken down into several lists nowadays, with ebooks separate from hardcopies, and different lists for different types of books. I remember the controversy over this when the Harry Potter books were new and had overtaken all the grownup books on the NYT list; the paper’s decision was to separate them out (here’s their article explaining the change). On Amazon, they subcategorize like crazy and they rate not just books but authors – check out the author rank for Brandon Sanderson as of today:


If you make it onto the NYT list, your publisher will call you on a Wednesday to tell you. They’ll send you champagne (Sanderson is Mormon and obviously speaking at BYU, so he had some funny comments about that). You don’t need any help to see where you stand on Amazon; it’s right there on the book’s page.


This is the real reason people go to traditional publishing these days, because you can go far higher than you can with self publishing or a small press.

Once you’re established, your publisher will send you on a book tour, in which they fly you around to a bunch of stores where you do signings. If you’re a new author, they might bundle you with a few others, making it an event. Some stores have regular signing events and customers who show up every week for that; at others, you might be sitting by yourself. Sanderson had some tips for making the most out of book tour, whether anyone shows up for it or not:

  • Meet the store manager – If you can get a bookseller interested in your book, and they read it and like it, they will hand sell it for you. The Mysterious Galaxy bookstore was a big help to Sanderson. This is how a lot of fantasy and science fiction books become bestsellers – through word of mouth. A bookseller named Steve Diamond personally sold 100 copies of Sanderson’s Elantris.
  • Give the bookseller a copy – Sanderson asked his publisher to give him a box of books one year, and the day before each signing, he visited the store and said “if I give you a free book, will you read it?”
  • Sign books and leave them on the shelf – The signed-copy sticker attracts attention and your book may get featured on an end cap with other signed books for a couple of weeks, attracting more.
  • Meet some fans and build a mailing list

It’s rare to get a book tour for your first book. For Sanderson’s second book, Tor sent him on a driving book tour – he lives in Salt Lake City, so they figured he could drive to Fresno and San Francisco. The third year, he called them with a proposal: he and another author he knew would drive and hit 10 bookstores in western states. Tor gave them $1,000, which to them was virtually nothing – book tour typically costs $2,000 a day. He got in a car with Dave, they shared a room, and went to bookstores in Las Vegas, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boise, Idaho Falls where he has relatives, and Salt Lake City. He ended up doing that for 5 years. Publishers are willing to listen to what you pitch to them if you have a good plan.

Generally, your publisher won’t tour you till you have some momentum, so you’ll have to build your own. You can pitch anything to your publicist. Whether they’ll go for it or not depends on the publisher. Publicity is different from marketing:

  • Marketing is expensive. The publisher won’t do a lot of this. An ad in NYT costs $50,000. The marketing industry is set up to sell things everyone uses, like soap, not to sell books. The publisher may, however, spend on targeted ads on Facebook, Audible, or Goodreads. The front page of Amazon and iTunes is all paid advertising space, as is the space at the front of the bookstore and the end caps. The bookstore marketing is called co-op: the publisher gives the store a higher percent off on each book. The advertising budget for Sanderson’s books nowadays is around $150-200K. Giveaways, bookmarks, and postcards are less expensive, and even as a new author, you can usually pitch them on some of these things.
  • Publicity is separate, with a different person called a publicist in charge. This includes interviews, social media Q&As, and book tour. NPR is one of the best places to be – people who read are listening to NPR, so if you can get on a local affiliate, it’s much better than anything else local; if you can get on national NPR, it’s fantastic.

Blog tours

Blog tours are the big thing nowadays. A lot of people follow bloggers, especially in Young Adult. You can write a guest piece on some of these. The key is to read the blog first to see what’s interesting to its readers, and then write a good essay that will be interesting to them. Don’t just write a standard essay about your book.

I can’t wait to be in a position to use this information! How about you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.