How BookTrope made me realize the publishing industry are all pirates

booktropeCan someone explain Booktrope to me? I don’t get it. It looks like people can volunteer to be part of a creative time to produce the book, then earn a percentage of the sales revenue (and, apparently they only publish quality books that the community has supported, which means a better chance of revenue.)

If I design the book cover I’d make 4%, but I’d make far more if was the “book manager” (managing the project, including marketing) – for that I’d make 24%! Since I’m pretty damn awesome at book marketing, if I started out with great books I could sell a ton of copies and earn a lot of money. If they let me take the whole thing over (editing, proofing, book design and management; all of which I’m eminently qualified to do) I could make 38%.

Booktrope takes 20% and the author gets 30%.

Obviously, Booktrope is going to make a freaking killing merely by acting as a mediator for creatives and authors to partner together to publish books. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a well timed, genius business move. They swept into an already saturated marketed and offered something a little bit new and radical.

For a lot of authors, Booktrope may be a great option – they get professional design for free and somebody actually gives a damn about the book (there’s a reason the manager gets more money, it means they will work harder at selling it).

And it could be an impressive move for service providers as well.

With a really decent book in a popular genre, if I had control over the cover design, the platform and everything, it wouldn’t be that hard to sell 10,000 copies. Even at $2 profit per book, that’s $20,000 – if I were making 38% I’d make $7600. Just for the cover design, I’d make $800, about what I make now, and it’s also about what I would charge for hard core marketing (which I don’t offer, because I have to think the books have a big market and I don’t want to take money unless the books are actually selling).

In other words, I would be earning more money AND so would the author – win win. As opposed to, charging $7600 for marketing and not being able to sell enough books to recoup that expense and make a profit, which would make me feel like as asshole.

And if I got to choose my projects and put all my weight behind books with bestseller potential, we could sell 100,000 copies and I’d make $76,000. Which is really fucking awesome. I could do just one book a year – or better yet, 10!

But I would kind of feel like I was taking advantage of the authors – especially the poor authors who don’t have a bunch of money to invest in their books. They did all the work of writing it, all I did was clean it up, turn it into a product and use my marketing and internet mastery to put it in front of a lot of people. If they had the money to just hire creatives (probably about $5000 for high-quality everything), and knew how to build a platform, they could have earned much more.

And that’s when I realized…

The 30% authors are making is still a better deal than traditional publishing!

Sure they don’t get an advance, but those are pretty meager anyway. After you earn out the deposit there’s a big difference between 10% and 30%. It’s not exactly that publishers are taking advantage of authors, but Booktrope opened my eyes towards what the publishing industry actually does: it trades its expertise and knowledge (how to make and distribute books) and shares the profits with authors.

The big danger with self-publishing is that, not only do you spend a lot of money to get everything done (and then throw money away on marketing or advertising because you don’t know what you’re doing), but you actually have too much control over the project.

I’m not sure exactly how Booktrope works: whether or not authors have control over everything, but it sounds like they do:

Unlike most traditional publishers, Booktrope provides an open process with more creative freedom, while still providing essential support for the operational, business and marketing side of the publication process. (

Which will inevitably lead to butting of heads. The creative team and especially the project manager is going to actually give a shit about how many copies of books sell. And authors are really, really bad at making necessary design decisions. I charge money up front because I know that authors won’t always choose the book covers I recommend.

If I was just doing management at 24%, and the author gets 30% and Booktrope 20% (and I don’t think Booktrope will actively be in this conversation at all, because they are making rivers of gold anyway) then the author and I would be the major stakeholders, but he/she would have the larger authority. But if the author picks an ugly book cover, which alone could easily cut sales in half, I would lose out on potentially tens of thousands of dollars.

And who should really have control over the book design, the author, or the book-industry-insider professional-designer who’s been selling and marketing books for 10 years? So while a brilliant move for Booktrope, it muddies the water for authors.

What this means for you, dear indie author

The great thing (still) about traditional publishing is they mainly know what they’re doing, at least in terms of production. So you’ll get a quality book made, but traditional publishers don’t actively market anymore – or don’t get how to actually sell books online without bookstores.

Also, publishers are bad at choosing books that are going to sell a lot of copies. That’s why they’re all going out of business. So traditional publishing is still good for prestige and your career, but not so good for earning money (unless you have a huge platform and con them into giving you an insane advance that they will never earn back.)

Then you have the little presses and small publishers that give you a little advance, or work for free and split profits with you… but they aren’t great at design OR marketing, which is less than idea.

Then you have things that call themselves small publishers but are actually vanity presses. You pay them upfront and they take care of everything. They usually suck, because the less they spend producing your book, the more money they keep (and they earn the same regardless of whether your book is successful). So they will do stuff they aren’t really qualified for, like editing and cover design, or even web design, and if they can’t do it themselves they’ll outsource it cheap and save money. THIS IS ALL BAD FOR YOU. Run away.

Then you have author services, like me – there’s a huge range in price and quality. The danger is that you will get the best you can afford, but then make the final decisions yourself. I make great covers, and I offer clients a lot of good options, but my favorite option may outsell the one they prefer by a huge margin…. and I tell them this and they usually choose the one they like anyway.

Unlike a lot of other designers, I really care if the book sells so I get frustrated and a little testy when they don’t agree with me.

But ultimately it’s their book, and they are free to make less money if they choose to do so.

It’s sad but it doesn’t hurt my income.

You can also just do everything yourself and save a lot of money. If your story is great and you build your platform, you can do really well anyway. It is possible. But getting started, getting reviews, getting anyone to reply to your email or take you seriously (without being politely aloof and non-committal) will be so much easier if you have a nice book cover – although formatting and your website design are also hugely important.

What it means for me

$760,000 a year sounds pretty awesome for me – and it would be much less work than what I’m doing now. But I would only work with Booktrope if they let me choose the projects, and if I had the tie-breaking vote when it came to the final cover design or other big marketing decisions. I wouldn’t want the author to be able to sabotage my efforts.

If I sold 100,000 copies of a book (at $2 profit each) the author would earn $60,000, a tidy sum.

And Booktrope would make a cool $40,000 just for introducing us (hear that Booktrope? Give me the position I want and I’ll pay you $400,000 a year!)

What have pirates got to do with it?

Pirate communities were actually some of the earliest democratic society in the Americas. Each man got a share of the profit, based on the total revenue. They were compensated fairly for particularly dangerous missions, or for losing a limb, eye or ear. Often they would take a vote on courses of action. But mutiny was not allowed. It wasn’t communism. The captain got the biggest share, because the captain had the map, the plan and knew where the gold was.

If the captain hadn’t gotten the biggest share, if he got the same share as everyone else, or if he was paid a fair wage for his work – he probably wouldn’t be so courageous, bold and daring. He might only go after the safe, easy wins (like missions) instead of taking on the fortified, canon-lined cities.

You need to find the guy who can actually turn your book into a bestseller and then give him a large chunk of profits.

The problem of course, is that most books don’t have bestseller potential. For every 1 breakout book, there are a thousand mediocre, boring or amateur attempts. Or even really good books that simply don’t have a big market. Which means most people are going to ignore you and your book, because it isn’t worth their time to invest in you.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t be profitable for you. It might earn $100 a month. If you write ten you could make $1000. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and if I were to guess, I would say 75%~90% of indie authors don’t ever make it to $1000 a month in earnings (but YOU can do it – I swear you can, just keep publishing books until it happens).

But if you spend $5000 publishing each book, you are likely to lose money.

I’m intrigued by Booktrope, but their future will depend a lot on the quality of their teams and the quality of the submissions.

If they’ll let me, I’d very much like to sift through the submissions and pick a few books I think will sell 100,000 copies, and then keep marketing them until they do.

But I suppose that’s why so many little publishing companies are starting up all over. Maybe I should open my own and split things 50%-50% with authors, so we don’t pay a large chunk to a middle man. I may do that someday, but I’m not doing that now. (Please don’t send submissions).

Instead I’m building a lot of content that will help all authors write and publisher better books, and not get screwed over by everybody else.

There’s a good chance that, in my analogy/metaphor, the authors are the good townspeople just trying to make a living. The pirates/publishing professionals are the ones who know how to turn opportunity into gold. And if they can’t do that, they’ll just steal everything you own.

About Derek Murphy

Hey there! I'm a philosophy dropout and book cover designer with a PhD in Literature. After spending a decade as a starving artist, I vowed to create the life of freedom my restless spirit demands. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write young adult fantasy novels and do a few editorial critiques to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles. FREE GUIDE: Book Marketing is Dead.