Self-publishing becomes an option

The timing has been interesting. Just as I’ve been collecting rejection notes for my more recent novel, there have been a spate of news stories about the increased profile and viability of self-publishing.

You probably know the old image of self-publishing. It was called the “vanity press,” and people paid a lot of money to publish a hundred copies of a book that was too lousy for anyone to want to read. The image was like going to the high school prom with your brother as your date — in a word, loser.

But technology — in particular, e-books and print-on-demand books that can be sold online — are changing that.

Two events that recently made headlines in the publishing world, and even rippled out into the broader media:

One of Amanda Hocking's e-books

  • Amanda Hocking, a 26-year-old unknown writer from Minnesota, started selling her paranormal young-adult novels online in March 2010. She priced them really low, from 99 cents to $2.99, and sold them primarily as e-books through Amazon and other sites. By the end of 2010, Hocking had sold 164,000 books. In January 2011, she sold 450,000. Last month, she signed a deal for over $2 million with St. Martin’s Press for her next four books.

Barry Eisler's new e-book

  • In March, best-selling thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 deal from a conventional publisher to self-publish his own books. This was a man-bites-dog story: In the olden days, someone would have self-published with hopes of moving on to a conventional publishing contract. But here someone with a solid track record in conventional publishing was leaving a six-figure contract to go the solo route.

What’s happening with all this? Basically, the development of Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other devices for reading digital manuscripts has created a viable market for e-books. And when people can download books rather than buy paper copies, it  cuts out a lot of overhead and middleman costs — printing, distribution, etc. — and allows authors to sell directly to readers through sites like Amazon.

The economics change. Former literary agent Nathan Bransford has a good blog post on this, where he notes that in traditional publishing, an author typically gets 10% of the list price of a hardcover or 7.5%  of the list price of a trade paperback. By contrast, e-books that are self-published and sold on Amazon give the author a cut of 70% if the list price is between $2.99 and $9.99, or 35% if the list price is above or below that window.

So say you go the traditional route and publish a hardcover book that lists for $25. You would get $2.50 for every copy sold.

If you self-publish that same work as an e-book on Amazon for $9.99, you would get $6.99 per copy.

That difference adds up. Selling 10,000 traditional hardcovers would give you $25,000 in royalties. Selling 10,000 self-published e-books would give you $69,900.

That’s just a random example — there are of course lots of details that vary by publisher, price point, format etc. And the self-published author has to pay costs such as copy editing, book jacket design and marketing that would be covered by the publisher in a traditional arrangement.

But even so, there’s the potential for a lot more profit with self-publishing. There’s also more room for an author to exercise control over the design and publishing process. And in reality, authors have to do most of their own marketing these days — even with a big, respected publisher — so in that area, at least, there is less of a gap between self- and traditional publishing than there used to be.

There are of course a zillion mucky, tarry pits that one can fall into with this. The folks out there shouting “Huzzah! Now anyone with a keyboard can be a successful author!” are being either naive or duplicitous. The two big hazards of self-publishing are quality and marketing.

Quality: Without agents and editors to vet and polish manuscripts, it’s possible to publish things that are not quite ready for prime time — or are just plain garbage. Most of the self-published stuff on the web right now is badly written, cliched, and filled with grammar mistakes and typos. Even Amanda Hocking: I’ve only glanced at the first pages of a couple of her books, but I hope that one of the things she gets from her $2 million contract with St. Martin’s is a good editor.

The upside of self-publishing is it gives authors more control over the final form of their work. The downside is that some authors really should have less control over the final form of their work.

And then marketing: So you self-publish your book, list it on Amazon, create a lovely web page for it, hold a book party with 40 of your dearest friends and… then what? How do any readers ever learn about your book as it swims little circles in the vast Pacific Ocean of published and self-published stuff?

There are more than 100,000 books put out by conventional publishers each year, and probably hundreds of thousands more being self-published now. So anyone contemplating self-publishing better enjoy marketing and have a darn good plan to make their work stand out.

Where does this all leave me? I’m still in the investigating-and-learning phase, trying to figure out what is involved in doing a good job of self-publishing. I recently joined a self-publishing group at the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco, where a bunch of writers bring in a guest speaker each week to talk about some aspect of the self-publishing process.

I’m also not sure how to determine if/when my novels are ready for self-publishing. Over 20 years of newspapering, I got used to having editors — some authority figure who reads what you turn in and says “yup, good to go,” or “nope, go back and re-work that lede.” I can certainly hire a freelance editor to go over my novel manuscripts, but there’s still no one in charge other than myself to say “good enough!” and give a final thumbs-up.

I’ve spent the past year trying to be self-critical as part of  revising my work. How do I know when it’s time to shift from the self-criticism of rewriting to the self-confidence of publishing?

So there are lots of questions, both for me personally and for this nascent industry as a whole.

But the main point is — self-publishing is now a viable option.

It may not be the equivalent of going to the prom in a limo with the high school quarterback, but it’s no longer going with your brother.

————————————–

P.S. Want more info? Check out this excellent interview of both Hocking and Eisler by San Francisco literary agent Ted Weinstein.

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6 Responses to “Self-publishing becomes an option”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    Nice piece. Of course even poorly written stuff gets bought by publishers–and even bought by undiscerning readers.

    From another perspective, a consideration is the bookstore owner. Of course, we have no idea whether independent (or even ~any~ bricks and mortar bookstores will be around in five or ten years, but some of the self-publishing deals leave them unable to carry the books, leaving Amazon, for example, the only seller.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      That is a good and sad point about bookstores. But even without the coming onslaught of e-books, only 3.5 percent of books are sold through independent bookstores. Three point five!! (Data courtesy of Andy Ross’ blog, Ask the Agent, at http://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/book-publishing-by-the-numbers-iii-bookstores/ .)

      Independent bookstores have worked out a deal where you can download e-books through their web sites — thus they get a piece of the sale. But I suspect most people will still stick to Amazon or Apple-type online stores.

      Everyone who cares about having a neighborhood bookstore around five years from now should make sure at least part of their book purchases every month go to that bricks-and-mortar store, even if it costs an extra $5 or 10. I mean, you could also save money by eating all your meals at McDonald’s, but would you want to?

  2. judymintz Says:

    I spent most of my adult life working in marketing in high tech, so I can certainly appreciate the power of the Internet. There’s no doubt in my mind that an eBook can reach an audience the scope of which traditional publishers would kill for. However, I also know how hard it is to have your product stand out, much less be found, in amongst the competition. I’ve gotten enough positive feedback sprinkled through the more than fifty rejections for my first YA manuscript to leave me feeling that lots of readers would enjoy it. Now I need to decide, do I put it online, or hope to sell my second manuscript, and thereby cause the sale of the first? I know I have the marketing chops that other authors lack, but that doesn’t mean I have the budget… The good news is that “content is still king.” Good luck to us all.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Good luck to you too Judy! Having that marketing background gives you a big advantage.

      Here’s a question: Suppose there was a service that would take care of the logistical/business end of publishing your book for you. This service would hire an editor to give you input, a copy editor to do a final read for grammar, typo’s, inconsistencies, a book jacket designer, and someone to either put together a marketing plan or actually do a bunch of the marketing.

      Would you pay for that service? And how much would you be willing to pay? (First how much would you be willing to pay in total outlay? Then to put it another way, how much mark-up would you be willing to pay over the cost of hiring your own editors, book designer etc. — how much markup for not having to hassle with choosing an editor etc.?

      Just curious. This seems like a possible business niche.

  3. Susan Says:

    I recently came across another wrinkle caused by the self-publishing phenom. I read a series of glowing reviews on Amazon about a book I’d seen mentioned elsewhere. I ordered the book and anticipated a really enjoyable read. Imagine my surprise when the book turned out to be a beefy 150-page outline. It was a good outline and would have made a super book at twice the length, but you know there’s not enough ‘there’ there when you feel squeamish reading a sex scene because you don’t feel like you know the characters well enough to be eavesdropping.

    Then I looked at the reviews on Amazon again and found that every last one of them was a one-book reviewer and the reviews themselves were surprisingly similar. So if you do go the self-publishing route, be sure to tell your girlfriends to review other books as well as yours.

  4. Susan Says:

    Oh, dear! On re-reading, that comment didn’t come across the way I intended at all! It was supposed to be a joke, but only looks snide.

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