Risk and Reward

Human beings aren’t very good at evaluating risk.  More people are afraid of flying than driving, even though more people die in car accidents than in plane crashes.

These evaluations are often affected by our mis-perceptions of how much control we have and this blindness can pertain to our business decisions as well, especially in publishing.

Here are some more statistics:

Bob Mayer observed in his blog that only .5% of self published books sell over 500 copies.  (If 90% of these manuscripts are crap – remember Sturgeon’s Law – then that translates to a 1 in 20 chance of selling 500 + copies.)

In a post on Slush.net Alexandra Cooper, an assistant editor at Simon and Schuster said that maybe 1% of the manuscripts from the slushpile get published.  (Keep in mind that at least 90% of the slushpile is pretty awful, so if you have a good manuscript you actually have a 1 in 10 chance of getting picked up.)

Nathan Bransford of the Curtis Brown Literary Agency said in a blog post in 2007 (before the economic meltdown) that he had picked a whopping total of three manuscripts out of the slushpile to represent.  He wrote:  The reality is that most agents do not find the bulk of their clients through the slush pile. They find them through referrals, by people they have actively pursued after becoming familiar with their work, and by people they meet at conferences, literary events or at parties. It’s worth stressing again that your #1 method for finding an agent should first be to mine your personal connections and to try and not be in the slush pile. The slush pile is a last resort — it’s one that works very occasionally, but it’s not the avenue with the best odds.

So what does all this mean?

If you self-publish you have all the control and all the responsibility.  If you do it frugally and carefully, you will get your book out there. If it’s good and properly edited, and you promote and market well, I believe you will substantially increase your odds of selling more than the standard 50 copies.  You may even make some money.  However, you probably won’t make as much money as you would if the book had been traditionally published and distributed.  If it was published at all, that is.

Making money isn’t the only pay-off in getting published (though a very nice one).  It’s great to be able to hold a book in your hands and know that you made it. You can get that with self or subsidy publishing.  But as numerous others have observed, including Tim Ferris in his blog, there is a certain respect that goes along with being blessed by the gatekeepers and published by a traditional publisher, a respect that’s usually not accorded to self-pubbed authors and their books.  Whether it’s fair or not, it’s the way it is, and it’s worth considering in the process of making your choice of how to publish.

Self publishing companies promote themselves by saying they return control to author.  This is an effective sales pitch when authors wait months for a traditional publisher to reply with a “no thank you” and no reason why.  Numerous studies have shown that a perceived lack of control in the workplace leads to job dissatisfaction.  That quest for control, along with improved technology, is fueling the surge in self-publishing.  But whether you choose to self or traditionally publish, you still have control over the most important factor of all:  how good your book is. You also have control over how you market yourself and your work.  And by doing well in both these areas you increase your odds of success, whichever game you play.

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