Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The self-publishing option

Having published two books using the same traditional publisher, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am no authority on the publishing industry. In fact, I feel I know even less than before I was published. Why? Maybe the industry is filled with so many inconsistencies that I am confused. Or maybe, the industry is just constantly changing.

One of the biggest changes in the industry is the increase in self-published books. With the internet, the rise of e-books and the proliferation of e-readers, self-publishing has become much more attractive than a few years back. There are many advantages to self-publishing as well as many drawbacks. I will outline a few and you are welcomed to add (or dispute) as you see fit.

Advantage # 1: You publish what you want to write and retain the rights
Back in the mid 1990’s while in college, I worked for an author who was trying to get a work of non-fiction published. It was a book about walking from Manhattan to Bear Mountain. The author included a lot of little anecdotes about the history of the area and the changes in the area that he noted on each walk. He first submitted to traditional publishing houses. Several accepted but with changes to the manuscript. One of the publishers wanted him to remove the anecdotes and just outline the walking; another wanted the title changed. The thing is, the anecdotes made the book come alive. Without them it was just another boring “how to” book.

That author, in frustration, decided to self-publish. He was able to publish his story as is, anecdotes included. He retained all the rights to his books. And yes, back then he had an advantage. He was already running a small vanity press.

Drawback #1: You do all the work

Based on what that author went through I decided never to self-publish any book in my life. That author had to do everything. Editing (I edited that book and it was grueling); cover design; getting it to a printing press; warehousing, distributing and the author’s favorite nightmare, the marketing. The upfront cost was expensive. The last time I spoke to that author, some fifteen years ago, he had just broken even.

Advantage #2: you have a higher profit margin
Very true. But if the book doesn’t sell enough to offset your initial investment you still don’t make Jack. 100% of zero is still zero. Traditional publishing houses can spread the cost because they publish multiple books. In the case of my boss, he barely broke even a few years later.

Today, with print on demand and electronic books, self publishing does not require the warehousing, mass printing and the exorbitant upfront cost that my boss had to cough up. That means it is easier to make a profit. If you google “self-publishing” you see hundreds, if not thousands of self-publishing websites. For a small cost, many will get your manuscript published. Unfortunately, the onus is on the author to maintain the integrity of the work, making sure it is edited correctly. And yes the marketing nightmare persists.

Drawback #2: people still frown on self-published authors
Even today, many authors whose works are published by traditional publishing houses view self-published authors as second class wannabes. Many consider their work to be substandard (though that is not always the case). That is probably because traditional publishing houses are selective in the authors and work they choose while anyone with a few bucks and time to invest can self-publish.

So would I self-publish today?
Considering the ease of self-publishing today compared to the 1990’s, I will consider that avenue. But because I absolutely hate the business side of writing, I’ll have to exhaust the traditional route before I venture into the realm of self-publishing.

So what about you? Will you self-publish?


Anonymous said...

I perceive that there's a still a stigma associated with self-publishing, despite its rise in abundance. You know, the "failed to make it by the traditional route" label. For me, that's enough of a discouragement to give self-publishing a try.

I can't absolutely rule it out forever, though.

KeVin K. said...

As a matter of fact, I am looking into self-publishing, Jewel. I'm learning software and marketing at this point and have experimented with a few short projects.

The production and business side of publishing is indeed daunting, easily 3/4ths the work involved in getting a story from the writer's head out to the readers.

I think that's why so many would-be writers ignore production and marketing and just run their story through a free conversion program and slap it on the internet. Leads to the sort of problem Liane described.

As I've said elsewhere, I trust myself with short projects, but I'll be hiring a professional freelance editor to vet any novel-length mss before I publish it independently.

G. B. Miller said...

I did early one, but I realized that honestly, I was in over my head with it.

Right now I'm gonna take a crack at doing it the normal way, but that's not to say that I wouldn't think of doing it again.

There are pluses and minuses to everything, and I think it would work for me the second time around if I was a little more established.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, it's hard not to feel you're constantly losing ground against the flood of change in the industry.

With few exceptions, the authors who appear to be benefiting the most from going 'indie' are the ones who have previously been traditionally published, and who already have a solid backlist and fan base. For these, the stigma Captain Black mentions doesn't apply.

When the industry settles I suspect - or rather, hope - that there will be a bit more equity for professional authors and that the legions of self-pubbers - the ones who are clogging the market with inferior (badly written, poorly formatted and unedited) products in the hope of making some fast money - will either step up their game or move on so that the good stuff might actually stand a chance of being found.

If I self-publish it'll be experimental rather than because I believe it's truly a viable option for me at this stage. I've had one novel with a traditional publisher and I don't think that's enough to make a successful transition to 'indie', unlike the authors I know of who have extensive backlists and whose rights have reverted.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Captain Black, there is indeed a stigma of failure attached to self-publishing, but with more and more established authors taking that route I think that perception will soon be a thing of the past.

G,one of the attractive things about self publishing is the absence of limitations that the publishers set. Publisher's right now seem to subscribe to formula writing and every work has to fit in that narrow definition. Touchy subjects, controversial subject matter, anything that they percieve wouldn't sell they would think twice before accepting. On the other hand when you self publish, you don't necessarily have to stick to the formula.

Lynn Emery said...

Of course there are more than a handful of indie authors who are quite pleased with the monthly income they're making. With little upfront costs, including on promotion, word of mouth helped them build sales.

As for knowing the business, you need to know the business even if you have a traditional publishing deal, including if you have an agent. Not learning this stuff is the same as letting someone else manage your checking account and just hoping they're: A)honest and B)competent.

I probably need to write a blog on my own personal lessons learned about being traditionally published.

By the way, I didn't jump into indie publishing without a net, as in network. I connected with authors who are doing it, and the information is priceless. Before that I was thinking, "No. Way. I'll just keep submitting."

Jewel Amethyst said...

The thing is KeVin, if someone with a good reputation publish crap, whether it is by traditional or newer publishing means, it will be recieved as crap and that person's credibility will be damaged.

That said KeVin, they way you're going at it seems to be a very good way. I suspect there should be an increased market for free lance professional editors and like.

But the nightmare of the business end still persists.

Liane, even for authors using the traditional publishing houses, it is better for their sales when they already have a following. No matter what route we take, we need to build readership if we will succeed.

The first novel I ever wrote is unpublished. It doesn't fit neatly into the romance genre because it has some controversial issues. I may end up self-publishing it. But that would have to be after I've built up enough of a readership.

Liane Spicer said...

Lynn, some of those authors I know who have reissued their backlists claim they make more money in a month than they used to make in a year - not fortunes, but much better than before.

They also say the e-book sales for the books they self-pubbed put the e-book numbers appearing on their royalty statements from publishers to the lie. Apparently, royalty statements from some publishers are the biggest fiction of all.

I hope you do that post on what you've learned from being trad. pubbed. Some of what I've learned is probably unprintable.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, I don't think that stigma is going anywhere anytime soon. Established authors who choose to self-publish are seen as smart businesspeople who are leveraging their successful track record and the new options into increased revenue for themselves. The newbie who chooses to self-publish is still perceived as desperate, lacking in options and very likely pushing a sub-standard product.

G. B. Miller said...

Jewel: This is very true. A favorite author of mine, who I first met as a vendor at my office building (she does arts and crafts in addition to writing), wrote a mystery series featuring two childhood friends who are gay.

Everything she wrote about their relationship was done in an honest, true to life fashion, with no punches pulled and very tastefully done.

Would something like that find a home in today's environment? I'm not so sure.

But it does make a good read just the same.

Charles Gramlich said...

For me, right now, self publishing looks like a good 'element' of my attempts to bolster my career. For certain kinds of materials it seems the way to go, while I still want to go with a traditional (albeit small) publisher for other types of things. I like having the option.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lynn, as a newbie I and many others can benefit from a blog post about your experience both in traditional publishing and in Indie publishing. So I urge you to do that post.

Liane, I beg to differ. I believe that eventually there would come a point where self-published newbies aren't looked down on as desperate. That time would be hastened by better quality controls, and better products.

There was a time when an online MBA was just seen as a crap degree. Now Strayer University and University of Phoenix (both online Universities) have greatly increased the number of degrees they confer. Consequently, though an online MBA may still be seen as less valued than one from a reputable business school,they are no longer considered as crappy as a few years ago. One of the reasons maybe that many of the accredited universities offer online degrees. Accreditation ensures a certain level of quality.

If that could happen in one of the most discriminating (and elitist) element of our society (higher education) it can happen in publishing.

Jewel Amethyst said...

G, one of my pet peeves is the restrictions traditional mainstream publishers place on the writing they would publish. It makes the books a monolith. I think the proliferation of E-books and self publishing has the positive effect of exposing people to new and different books that they can now access easily. Another positive for self publishing.

Charles, like you, I don't think traditional vs independent should be mutually exclusive. There are some things you definitely want the traditional, but for others, self-pub is the way to go.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, you may be right; at this point no one can predict outcomes.

The critical difference between the example you cite and self-publishing is that the MBA candidate has to complete courses, put in the hours and maintain a passing GPA. A self-publishing candidate does the equivalent of printing her own diploma. There are minimum standards that have to be achieved in the former, which is not the case with self-publishing. "Published author" means nothing when it's a title you bestow on yourself.

My point is that all of self-publishing is not created equal. 'Indie' is being touted as the great equalizer, and it is not. The same stratification is already occurring as obtained before.

At the top levels you have traditionally published writers who successfully self-publish some of their books, both new and backlist. Many of these continue to contract with traditional houses along with their self-publishing ventures.

Along with these there are a few breakout first-time authors who succeed because they have an outstanding product, their approach is professional and they work their butts off marketing.

Then you have all the rest. And while new writers who self-publish like to pretend all of publishing is now a level playing field, they themselves consider they have truly 'made it' only when they score a 'real' publishing contract. Why do you think this is so?

What I do know is that where formerly self-publishing would hurt a writer's chances of getting a traditional contract, that isn't so any more. It can be the first step in building readership and platform. Of critical importance here is the same issue I continue to have with many of these books. To quote Rachelle Gardener: "I caution you, however, to pay the utmost attention to putting out a quality product. Be ready to pay for help in editing, design, and e-book coding if you need to." This is exactly the opposite of what many indie writers are doing, and one of the reasons the stigma continues to cling.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, it took time, quality control, and regulations to make online degrees worth having. I think that definitely will be the case with self pub.

And unfortunately it may end up similar to many of the traditional publishing houses where with the regulation, quality control and standardization come restrictions on what topics get printed, what genres should look like etc.

the walking man said...


As a poet, not a novelist or writer of longer works (that I want to publish)I have just finished my third book (5" x 8" 80 pgs, real bound, 4 color gloss covers, matte paper.)going the self publishing route.

Yes I have a publishers name in them because they provided me the ISBN which registering myself would have added about $350 to the upfront cost. But the houses are "last leg houses" and I don't mind giving them a second breath. They don't raise the price or handle any marketing.

It has so far taken about a year from front to finish to do a book, because as you say the editing is tedious and as a poet no one piece is ever done. Then there is the mailing and being paid directly by my readers which adds to the PIA part but in a way it keeps me connected to the audience I write to. That personal touch. I doubt if I were selling thousands of books instead of hundreds I would do it.

That said, while not sitting on piles of cash I have made enough after all expenses to pay for a couple of tanks of gas and a few packs of cigarettes. *shrug* That was more than I thought I would do.

It isn't for everyone but I do write longer chap books at 80 pages than any other poet I know and I sell them at a fairer price $10 (if I have to mail it) $8 if I do a hand to hand transaction and still make $2 a copy.

So for me,once I built a bit of name recognition with my blog and doing readings it worked out OK for me.

The traditional houses for poetry could never put my work out there at the same price because too many people have to get paid in the process ergo self publishing is the route to go, for what I write.

Chicki Brown said...

I have published three books through Kindle and Nook so far and am getting ready to release the fourth next week.

It's true, e-publishing is a LOT of work, but IMO the benefits far outweigh the labor. In April and May I sold 800+ copies each month. The summer has been slow, but I did sell 400+ in June and July.

As far as expenses go, I've on spent a grand total of $50 on Internet advertising and about $50 on printed postcards to handout in person. I finally hired a professional editor for the new book, which cost me $265. All of my promo and marketing is done through e-book sites, book blogs, and social networks.

Amazon and B&N pay royalties (70% and 65%) every month!

I can't complain! :)

For those who are considering e-pubbing, I advise them to learn what it's all about before jumping in. If any of you want a list of the best places to learn, I'm more than happy to pass it on. E-mail me at chicki663@comcast.net.

Chicki Brown said...

I forgot to include the cost of having my covers done, which was only $25, because a friend did them.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Chikki, that is a lot less than my former boss spent a decade and a half ago. That is definitely an advantage in today's electronic age: reduced upfront cost. What you made from the limited number of books you've sold is far more than many of us make using traditional publishing houses and selling almost 20 000 units.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Walking Man,
Too few mainstream publishing houses take a chance on poetry. I had that discussion sometime ago on this blog, because I have poems from many years ago that I want to publish. It seems for them self pub is the way to go.

The way I see it, authors write to share their craft with the world. That's what publishing does. Whether it is self pub, traditional, e-books or hardcover or paperbacks, the intention is to get the work out there and enrich other's lives. If you make a little money on the way, that's the icing on the cake.

Writers hoping to make it rich or make a living solely by the craft would definitely disagree with me, but to each his own.

Cloudia said...

It is a thrill that my ('self published') book is in our State library system, Amazon, and in the homes of friends!

Aloha from Waikiki;

Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >


Jewel Amethyst said...

Congratulations Cloudia! I made very little from my first book, but the joy of seeing it in the bookstores and hearing friends comment on it was quite fulfilling.

The greatest thrill was when a relative of mine came to visit and saw the book and said, "Oh I've read that book and I love it." At that time she had no idea I was the author. It was only when my husband showed her the author's photo that she realized I was the author.