I have written on this topic several times in the past, but I wanted to get this all in one location, for one easy link to refer people to.
So you finished a book, and you're proud of your new masterpiece. Good for you, and I hope you outsell Steven King and E. L. James combined. But now you have it all done, what do you do with it? It seems like every new author faces two main choices today for their work: do I look for a publisher to print and distribute my book, or do I do it myself? The alleged third choice - go through a vanity press that charges you to publish - isn't a choice at all. No, not ever.
Every time someone brings up this question, I always answer the same way: I always encourage everyone to self publish. Its not that I think getting a publisher is some sort of moral wrong, or that you are a fool for going that route, it still is a valid choice, for now. Its that I believe the advantages of self publishing greatly outweigh its disadvantages, and the advantages of going the traditional publishing route are greatly outweighed by its disadvantages.
So why self publish? Why, I'm glad you asked.
First off, you have to understand the economics involved, and what you're facing when you get a book published. In essence, if you go through a publisher, you're hiring someone to take the effort and do the market work so you can be the talent.
Doing so means you're going to have to pay these people. And while you might think this means giving a percentage of your profits, what it actually ends up with is you getting a percentage of the profits instead. Here's how it works. Publishers do a little bit of editing, come up with a cover, bind and print your book, distribute it, and do a small amount of publicity. For that, they want a pretty big slice of the pie. You get 25% of the net (so about 17% in real life), the book sellers (stores, etc) get about 30%, and the publisher gets 55%. Forever. Your agent gets 15%-25% of what's left.
In other words, when all's said and done, you get about a dollar for each book that's sold. That's the basic amount you should expect, $1 per book, according to every single writer and publisher I've ever spoken to and read. That seems a bit... backward to me. Its like having someone build your house, then paying them rent until the house falls down.
Then there's also this little tidbit from J Konrath, who is doing very well in self-publishing:
Advance = $100,000. But the agent takes $15k, and the advance is broken up into payments of $57,000 each over three years
Five years of sales = $0 (a $100,000 advance, in today's market, with bookstores closing all around and ebook royalties at 17.5%, will never earn out)
Most people don't understand what an advance means. Advance means "we're paying in advance for what we believe your royalties will work out to." Until your payment for book sales exceeds your advance, you get paid nothing past that advance.
So, with that basic economic introduction in mind, here's my list of reasons to self publish, in summary:
- As noted above: you're getting paid what you're worth. Without the author, publishers have no product and its absurd they keep the bulk of the money. That is simply unacceptable, and no author should put up with it. If they charged a one-time flat fee and a small amount for printing costs, that would be one thing, but they keep most of the money, always. When you self publish, you get more per book, as you should.
- You control your book. No editor is going to tell you that the ending is too sad, or the story should have more vampires. Nobody is going to tell you first person is a bad perspective and to change it, its all yours, and yours to control. Nobody is going to force a cover of a buxom blonde on your book when its about a Sikh with leprosy.
- This also means you own all the rights for all forms of your book in any outlet. If the SyFy Network knocks on your door and offers you $500,000 for your book rights in a crappy movie, you get all of that money minus the taxes, not a small share of it. If you'd rather wait for Peter Jackson to knock on your door, nobody will take the SyFy deal behind your back. Nobody can take it away, hold it and prevent you from changing or publishing it somewhere else, or stop you from how you use your book.
- It can take several years of pitching your book to agents and editors trying to get noticed. It takes a year or more for your book to get to the shelves with a standard publisher. You can get your own book on the shelf in about an hour, although I highly recommend taking a few months for editing and rewrites, then a bit longer on the cover and layouts. Still, its a lot faster to get your product to market on your own than through a publisher. And every day you're on the market is one more day for sales that you would otherwise have missed.
- When your book finally hits the shelves through a publisher, it has to compete with every other book on the shelf to get noticed, so that's no different than having to compete to be seen on an e-book website. The big difference is that a book seller can only keep your book on the shelf for a certain amount of time before they have to make room for Snooki's book and the latest of 85 books by William Johnstone. Amazon's book shelf will last as long as Amazon is a company and the internet survives. And you can put as many of your books as you write out there, increasing your "shelf space" without being pushed out for another Steven King book.
- You have a chance to find your audience. If your book doesn't sell enough, traditional publishers "backlist" your book and its simply not available to sale anywhere, for any price. E-books and print on demand means you can leave them out there as long as it takes to catch on without worrying about anyone pulling the plug - unless you choose to.
- You can revise your book at any time. You can pull your book, fix that typo, slip in a line that you should have had in there, tweak the cover, whatever you want... and when you want. It can take years to get something like this done at a publisher, and they are extremely reluctant to do so because its expensive and hurts their ego.
- You're global. Your book will reach every country on the planet where there's the internet. They have internet connections in Antarctica. Getting this kind of distribution from a publisher is simply unheard of. You are glad when a publisher releases your book in another country, but your e-book or print-on-demand book is available everywhere. People on the International Space Station can download your e-book.
- Analytics are a big factor as well. You get sales reports every quarter or so with a traditional publisher. With self publishing you can get a report as often as you care to look the stats up (far too often, if you're like me. I'm not obsessed, honest). That feedback can be very helpful.
- By the same token, when you get paid, you get paid monthly, not quarterly or yearly. When Bob's Big Blue Book of Bones sells over $100 in books, Amazon cuts you a check or deposits the money in your bank the next month. When it sells 100 copies at your publisher, they send you a check in 3 months... or not at all, because 100 books isn't enough sales to break the threshold of when they pay you royalties.
- No deadlines. Nobody is breathing over your shoulder telling you to get your work done, so you can work at your own pace. Instead of stress, you can enjoy your work and shape it as carefully and with the pacing you need to do your best job.
- Traditional publishers are hurting and the industry is in dire shape. They are very cautious about what they print and are extremely unwilling to take risks. In fact, unless your book is part of a popular trend, chances are you won't even get a page in the door to be looked at. Self publishing lets you put books out that aren't in a popular category or are in a style or setting publishers won't consider.
- If you are faced with some kind of publication deal, a traditional publisher will be reluctant for certain deals because they need a minimum volume before its worth their cost and effort. For you, any deal is welcome and easy to do.
- Publishers are dying. I don't like this to be true, I hate the idea, and I wish it wasn't a fact, but traditional publishing is in horribly bad shape. Your book, accepted today, might never be published anyway because the business goes under.
However, this is not so cut and dry as it might seem there are some drawbacks you should consider to self publishing that every writer should continue as well:
- Many publishing contracts will expect you to do publicity, and do not pay you for this professional task. You will often be expected to do appearances, book signings, interviews, etc as part of your contract. That means you're working to get your book publicized. However, when you self publish the only one doing publicity is you; nobody is going to get your book out there but you. You have to do it all, without any professional connections or training, for no pay whatsoever.
- Its going to cost you. Getting someone to edit your book can cost several thousand dollars. Getting a cover done can cost you several hundred. Paying someone to do professional layouts for your text will cost you $20-$50 an hour. If you don't have a good cover, you miss some sales, and if your layouts suck, you miss word of mouth (or get bad word of mouth) which means you miss future sales.
- No deadlines means you have to rely on your own discipline. Many writers need a whip-cracking tyrant to force them to do the job, to bear down and get the business of writing done each day, and self publishing means its entirely left up to you to do what you should. Some simply cannot work properly under those conditions.
- Without that editor leaning on you and all that professional experience, you're not going to have an easy a time putting out a really professional book. Yes, I've read some real awful trash from big publishing houses with poor sentence construction, typos and grammatical errors. Traditional publishing is not immune to bad books poorly written. But self publishing can result in some terrible stuff junking up the entire bookshelf.
- Traditional publishers have contacts and inroads with publicity that you cannot. They know who to contact at the newspaper, what name to drop, how to slip your book to someone who'll tell others, and so on. You don't have those contacts or that ability to reach out and get noticed. Chances are you will not get noticed unless you work very hard to be seen.
- Its hard work. You have to do everything, and that means you have to be active, jamming away to get your book to sell, or it won't. You can't just write and fire it off then relax in the Hamptons with Buffy and Chance, you have to keep plugging.
- The reason J Konrath sells 1000 books a day, other than being a good writer in a popular genre, is that he's an established writer. Yes, there are some amazingly successful self-published authors out there, but most of them already had established careers in traditional publishing. If Steven King decided he was done with traditional publishing and did it all himself, he'd still sell a kabillion books, because he's Steven King. You aren't.
- You gotta go through the soul-destroying megacompanies to have a platform. I don't care for Google, but I use their blog system because, well, its where you get to blog for free and its easy. I started before Google bought Blogspot, but still. If you want to sell e-books, you gotta go through the big businesses and there's a piece of me that hates that and wants nothing to do with them.
- Self Publishing is immediate satisfaction, and if you have too much success, too easily, too early as a writer, you end up a lousy writer. Writers need that rejection, that failure, and that struggle to get out there as part of the process of learning to write better, to question themselves, and to hone their craft. The worst thing that can happen to an author, I think is being an overnight phenomenon with their first book.
- Right now, there's an elitist reputation that goes with self-publishing. It feels cheap and unprofessional. The big time glitterati view it as amateurish and pathetic, and always mention that one awful piece of junk they saw and how poorly written and unedited it was. You aren't going to be the talk of NPR or at a fashionable dinner party. If that's your target audience it or matters to you... you're better off looking for an editor.
So there are some concerns to keep in mind. But despite all this, I strongly encourage people to self publish, because I think on the whole, the balance of reasons is heavily on the side of self-pub vs traditional.
One last thought, again from Konrath about pricing. Right now, the average price for a Kindle book is about $6.50 and for the Nook it is around $8.94. Publishers price their ebooks ridiculously out of the range of most people's impulse buys or curiosity. You want a new e-book from Bantam House? Its going to cost you 6-15 dollars. For an e-book.
Now you'll get buyers at that price, both from people who don't know any better and people who have too much money and too little sense. But its outrageous and nobody should pay that much for an e-book. Konrath writes:
But I've NEVER had a $5.99 ebook sell 1000 copies a month, and that's what a traditional publisher will price their ebooks at. Each $5.99 ebook that sells will earn the author $1.05, and they'll sell considerably fewer (as many as ten times fewer, according to my numbers) than the $2.99 ebook earning them $2.04.
If you price your book at $2.99 you get over $2.00 a copy you sell. Don't feel like you're ripping yourself off or coming across as too cheap, you're selling basically vapor to people; computer data is weightless, easily lost, and does not feel valuable. And at a buck a book for traditional publishing earnings, you're getting about double that with your $2.99 book.
And when it comes to prices and money, you'll notice I didn't mention anything about best sellers or striking it rich! That's because you almost certainly won't. Almost nobody does. The reason we hear about best seller self pub stories is because they are so rare, they are news. Everyone, everywhere, in the publishing and writing business says you're going to make minimum wage, if you do well. Don't look at this as a money maker. Look at it as a labor of love that lets you get your story told.
Just finishing a book is a wonderful accomplishment. Being a published author is something to brag about (and trust me, people will view you with a new level of respect). Making money is something extra to hope for and dream of, but not count on or work toward. Be the best writer you can, enjoy the sheer pleasure of writing, and maybe you'll do well as a result. Don't make that your goal. Make being a good writer the goal.