Author, Know Thyself

Anyone who is interested in self-publishing should read Janni Simner‘s most recent comment to my post “Is Publishing a Dirty Word.”  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Janni’s right.  Self-publishing is (by everything I’ve read) a rough row to hoe.  The odds are against you.  So why do it?

Why does one decide to self-publish?  No, let’s make the question bigger:  How does an author decide on her career path?  Some of that path is, obviously, out of her hands.  An author can do her best to perfect her craft, study the markets, and submit to all the right places (that serve her goals), she can promote herself online and in the “real” world, but in the end she has no control over whether her book is published — unless she chooses self-publishing.

That statement should not be taken as the reason to choose self-publishing.  Janni is right in pretty much every particular.  If what an author wants is wide distribution, she probably shouldn’t choose self-publishing.

And that brings me to my point:  What do you want?  Why are you writing?

These aren’t simple questions.  There’s a lot of emotion tied up in these questions.  And it’s been pretty well established that no matter how much we try to be rational and logical, our decisions are ultimately made by our subconscious base on the info the conscious mind has gathered.  (Some results of some consciousness studies have shown that an action is begun before the conscious mind is aware of it and so creates a decision to justify it, thus making Behaviorists happy.)

But I digress.

As Linda Houle points out in her book The Naked Truth About Book Publishing, an author should know what they want and what their expectations are.  Only then can she make an informed decision.

Traditional publishing (with a NY publisher) is slow but will get you wider distribution, more promotion.  You’ll get paid an advance.  There’s a certain prestige in getting published by the Big Six.  The odds are stacked against you here too, though.  Less than 1% of books submitted are published.  (Some would argue that’s a good thing.  The vast majority of books in the slush pile are dreadful.  They just aren’t ready to see the light of day.)  It’s been said by more than one person giving advice on how to submit to NY, editors are looking for a reason to reject you.  Don’t give them one.  They want to find the next great book, but they don’t have time to sift through the mountains of drek stacked in the corners of their offices.  So they look for reasons to reject your book.

The odds are better with small, independent presses, but not much.  They may accept about 4% of what’s sent to them. They’ll give you more personal attention than a big house will, but the advances are small if they give one at all.  They have smaller promotional budgets.  An author will have to shoulder a lot of that responsibility.  Many, if not most, don’t get into the brick and mortar bookstores, though readers can usually special order a book if they pay up front.

Ebooks still only command about 5 – 8 % of the market, but that’s growing.  A number of people in the industry (Michael Stackpole, Mike Shatzkin, Carolyn Reidy) have predicted that by the end of 2012 they will comprise 25% of book sales.  Still, at present, your book won’t reach most of the reading public because they don’t yet read on their computers or a dedicated device.  Ebook publishers do make an effort to promote their releases, but they don’t have big budgets either, so it will mostly be up to the author.  Most don’t pay advances and if they do it’s hundreds, not thousands of dollars.  There’s more prestige connected with being published by an ebook gatekeeper than if you go it alone. (Thanks to Kris Tualla for pointing me in the direction of the statistics.)

Self-publishing.  It’s all up to the author.  There are numerous resources to guide the author-publisher, but in the end it’s up to her to pay for everything with time and money.  There is precious little prestige unless you are one of the few who have a great book and the promotional skills to create buzz about your work.  You probably won’t make a lot of money.  (It can happen, I’m just relating the odds.)  It’s main recommendation:  Control.  The author decides when and how to put her ass work on the line.

Will self-pubbing damage your reputation in the publishing community?  I think that depends on the quality of the work and how professionally the author presents herself.  And that kind of self-examination is very hard.

So what do you want?  Money?  Prestige?  People to read your book?  All of the above?


Filed under writing

7 responses to “Author, Know Thyself

  1. Thinking in terms of “what do I really want from my writing” is a really good way to look at it–thanks! Am going to keep that in mind when I have other conversations about these sorts of issues, which, as you say, don’t really have a one-size-fits-all solution.

  2. Benita

    As someone from COMPLETELY outside this industry, but who has been following this discussion…
    It sounds like people want to be published in the fiction world for
    1) the readership (to “be heard”) and/or
    2) the money.
    And it sounds like you agree that for both those goals the big publishers come first, the small publishers second, and self-publishing a distant third.

    So here is a basic question:
    Does being self-published improve your chances to get accepted by a small or big publisher?
    If not, then under what circumstances is being read by a small group worth the money, time, and effort of self-publishing, when that same money, time, and effort might instead be put toward the less-achievable, but bigger payoff, goal of getting published by a big publisher?

    • You’ve asked two good questions. The first one is easier. Statistically, being self-published does not improve a book’s chances of being picked up by a big publisher. It does happen occasionally to really good, well-edited books whose authors are lucky and savvy about marketing. But not very often.

      The answer to your second question varies with the author.

      I spoke with one author who went directly to self-publishing because she didn’t want to wait through what can be an incredibly long process of submitting to numerous NY publishers. She was just about to go back to press after selling out her initial print run of 600 after two years. She was happy, and she’d self-published a sequel to her first book. (I read the first book. It wasn’t bad.)

      Lisa Cotrell-Bentley created her own company to self-publish her Wright on Time Books, a series of chapter books for home-schooled kids. She was turned down by an editor that the market wasn’t big enough for a big publisher to buy them. She’s much happier now than she was on the submit-and-reject merry-go-round.

      M.J. Rose started out having her agent submit to NY but after exhausting her options she self-published Lip Service because she wanted at least one person to read it. After a lot of trial and error marketing and selling over 1000 copies, a major publisher picked it up. (Same book they’d rejected before — only now they weren’t taking a risk on an unknown.) She’s now multi-published. I’m guessing she’s pretty happy with her choice to self-publish.

      Why spend time self-publishing that could be spent writing another book? Part of it is wanting to see the hours and hours spent writing and revising bear some fruit. Part of it is believing that the reason your book is rejected has more to do with the economics of the publishing industry as it does with any perceived deficiency of your work. Part of it has to do with wanting control over your destiny.

      • The control argument always baffles me a little. As far as I can tell, the only things one controls that one _wants_ to control by self-publishing are whether the book gets printed and when.

        I mean, sure, self-publishing also means controlling how much the book gets edited–but I _want_ my book to be professionally edited, because it makes my book better, and I know enough about the work that goes into editing, having done it for non-fiction, to know I cannot afford to pay someone with knowledge and experience in my field to do the same level of edit on my work as I get from my publisher, or anything _close_ to that.

        And self-publishing means controlling the art–except that I’ve yet to meet a self-published book with the same production values as a traditionally published one (even some small presses don’t manage high production values), because, again, truly professional art is really really expensive–I’ve worked with illustrators and graphic designers, too. And publishers bring, of course, marketing expertise that I don’t have to the design of their covers, too.

        So I can control cover art and editing, technically, but only in a sort of limited sphere where both are starting off as lower quality. I can’t really control my destiny or the destiny of my book, though, not with the limited resources I’d have for getting the book out there.

        And sure, lightning can strike and a self-published book can get picked up by a traditional publisher–but aren’t the odds there are actually lower than those of getting published traditionally, less than that 1 percent? (If there are stats on that, though, I’d love to see them, because it’d be useful to know.) If the ultimate goal is to be published traditionally, it seems best to just focus on that, at least from a where-are-my-chances-better perspective, rather than to self-publish in hopes that that will happen.

        I think there are occasionally (more occasionally than most writers think, but still) brilliantly written books that get passed on by major publishers for reasons that have more to do with economics than with deficiencies in the work. I’m a little more skeptical that there are brilliant books that get passed on by all the major publishers and by every single small press out there as well. If even the smallest of the small presses, many of which are out there with the goal of specifically catching the brilliant work the large presses miss, pass on one’s work, then it’s time to do some serious soul-searching about whether the book truly is as strong as one thinks.

        Even if it is, I keep coming around to the idea that unless one’s goal is to have a physical bound copy of one’s story in hand without having to wait all that long (and waiting is one of the hardest parts of this business, no doubt), writing another book and trying to get that book out there first is going to be better for both books. Maybe one day this will change (maybe not), but with the industry as it is right now.

        Unless one does have a niche audience (like, say, homeschoolers). Or truly has tried every single publisher out there, large and small, and still has reason, based on outside objective feedback, to believe the book is not only lacking “deficiencies” (because it’s not enough for a book not to do anything wrong–it also has to do things right) but is actively well-written; and also believes that this will be one’s only book or series, and that there really won’t later be another book (maybe even a stronger book, but certainly a different one) that might fare better in the marketplace.

      • I’m glad you’ve had such good experiences with having your books edited.

        I think we can agree that self-publishing isn’t the best answer for everyone. It has inherent risks, as any small business venture does. I was citing examples of happy self-publishers in answer to Benita’s question of why someone would want to travel that path, given the problems.

        Traditional publishing has a lot to offer, but I don’t think we can state unequivocally that it’s superior in all things, all the time. I think we’ve all seen bad covers and bad editing come out of NY. Alternatively, I have seen many good self published covers. The proportions aren’t the same, but they do exist.

        As for New York’s judgment of commercial viability, I personally know three multi-published authors (two are best-selling) whose agents are having trouble selling their next books. (We’re talking about each having written more than one book on spec which hasn’t sold.) These authors have track records, but the books apparently don’t fit in the box.

        (For those who don’t know, the publishing industry operates on a fairly slim profit margin. It also operates under the handicap of an antiquated business plan which is hampered by the custom of printing at least 40% more books than the publisher expects to sell and allowing bookstores to return the covers of unsold books within 90 days so they don’t have to pay for them. Given these limitations, most of publishers profit is made from sales of their big name authors. If publishers print fewer books, the sales force takes that a sign the book is lower tier, and they sell fewer books. Then the author is penalized with smaller print runs on the next book — if they sell it all. But don’t blame the publishers alone. It’s impossible for them to change this labyrinthine set-up without getting all parties to agree: publishers, distributors, bookstores, and don’t forget airports and Walmart. And that would take negotiations worthy of the UN.)

        There are, surely, naive authors out there who don’t do their homework and are taken advantage of by unscrupulous vanity presses. At some point caveat emptor must apply. But self-publishing can’t be too horrible, or major authors wouldn’t be availing themselves of it even if they do have a huge advantage over the unknown author.

        We are in agreement on the basic premise however. Most new authors would be better served going the traditional route. But failing that, and assuming they’ve done their homework and have objective confirmation of the quality of their work, self-publishing can, in some cases, be a viable alternative.

  3. One more link I found interesting: the “formula” for articles on self-publishing.

    Don’t know if this applies to books on the subject as well or not!

    • This is a well written article which is followed by a large number of intelligent comments. I recommend investing the time to read them. A follow-up comment from the author, Victoria Strauss:

      . . . while acknowledging that there are valid reasons to choose self-publishing, I always suggest that writers who are really interested in a traditional-style writing career (including a wide readership and professional recognition) try going the commercial publishing route first, by searching for an agent and/or a commercial publisher. If that doesn’t work out (and you can’t know whether it will or not unless you try), self-publishing is always there as an alternative. But if you start with self-publishing, you’ve got a much, much bigger chance of laboring in obscurity than you do of success. This would be a shame if you have a publishable book.

      She doesn’t say that self-pubbing is a bad idea in every instance.

      As for articles promoting self-publishing being slanted, there really is no such thing as a completely impartial press. There never has been. We should always seek out multiple sources of information, because EVERYONE has some bias. (Personally, I try to be balanced in my approach because that’s just who I am. My arguments often are as many handed as Kali. :-))

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