Talking About Self-Publishing

I had an interesting conversation with Janni Lee Simner on facebook this week about her blog, “On why traditional publishing is about more than a few weeks of chain bookstore distribution.”  (At least it was interesting to me.)  Ultimately, we agree on many of the fundamentals, but the conversation brought up some points that I’d like to develop here a bit more.

The big advantages that traditional publishing offers, as I see it, are:

  • Good covers.  In most cases, the covers traditional publishers provide are of good quality.  Covers are important in that they create that important first impression.  Covers that work best for digital and online sales are often different than those that work best on a bookstore shelf because they are much smaller.  Too much detail or too dark, and the image will just look muddy and confused online.
  • Extensive editing.  In many cases, the publisher will put a contracted novel through several rounds of developmental editing as well as copy editing to bring the work up to it’s absolute best potential.
  • An established sales force and distribution system.   While digital sales are growing at an incredible rate, brick and mortar stores still account for the vast majority of fiction sales. (There’s apparently some discrepancy in the reporting of ebook sales by some of the traditional publishers which may affect these numbers. See Kris Rusch’s posts on Royalty Statements and the Update.) It’s still nearly impossible for an independently published book to get into physical stores.  Generally, only indie bookstores will talk to self-published authors.  There are ways around this, but it takes time and effort, more than most of us want to take away from the actual writing.
  • Review copies.  Traditional publishers will submit books to many reviewers in advance of publication, some of whom won’t review independently produced books.

Traditional publishers do all of this at no charge to the author.  In fact, in addition to investing thousands of dollars in the book, the publisher pays the author up front, before any books are sold, usually 1/3 on signing, on acceptance, and on publication.  In return, the author agrees to accept a much smaller amount of money per unit sold, not only until the advance is repaid, but in perpetuity, or for as long as the publisher holds the rights to publication.  How long that will be depends on the contract.

This is a bargain that appeals to many writers, for several reasons:

  • They can devote all their attention (or most of it) to writing.  They don’t have to spend precious writing time learning how to produce a book.
  • They don’t want to pay up front for the services a traditional publisher will do for them.
  • It feels really good to have someone in authority say, “I love your book.  Let me give you money for it.” And they’re willing to wait until an editor and the marketing department (it’s a group decision) believes their work will be profitable enough to justify the investment.
  • They want the respect and perceived stamp of quality that’s associated with a traditionally published book.  They’ve “made the cut.” (Don’t dismiss this as shallow.  People are generally more motivated by emotion than money.)
  • They want their book to be the very best it can be, and they want a higher level of editing than most indie authors can afford to pay for.
  • They want their book to reach the widest possible audience.

So why would someone choose to self-publish? Here are the main points as I see them:

  • The author doesn’t want to wait any more.  As mentioned above, traditional publishing often uses a committee to decide which book to contract.  If a work is too quirky, or doesn’t fit into a clear marketing slot, it’s hard for the editor to sell it to the marketing department, no matter how good it is.  Digital and online sales of POD books don’t depend so much on marketing slots.
  • Improving technology makes the production of acceptable covers and interior formatting by non-professionals possible.
  • Freelance competition makes editing, cover, and interior design more affordable for those who don’t want to do it themselves.
  • Competently written (not perfect) books with decent, even poor covers, will still sell. (See Kris’s post, mentioned above.)
  • Independently published books, both digital and POD, earn much more per unit for the author than traditionally published books.  Once the book reaches the break-even point, where all up-front costs have been covered by income, it’s pure profit.
  • Infinite shelf-space.  Books sold online will never be remaindered to make room for the new crop even if sales drop to one a year.
  • Cash flow is nearly immediate.  (Though it will take longer, in most cases, for it to compare to the advances paid by traditional publishers.)

It really comes down to the 80/20 rule.  Eighty percent of the results are made by twenty percent of the effort.  If a self-published book is competently written, copy-edited, and adequately clothed in a decent cover, it will find readers and it will sell.  It probably won’t sell as many copies as a book professionally designed and edited and distributed, but it will sell many more copies than a book still in the metaphorical drawer.

Some authors would rather wait until they sell to a traditional publisher.  Some would rather not have their lesser efforts see the light of day.  Each author has to decide that for themselves. It’s a very personal decision. Our professional reputations are built of many things, including the quality of our work (as subjective as that may be), how we interact with other professionals, and sales.  (Money is capitalism’s scorecard.)

There are many reasons books don’t sell to traditional publishers.  Sometimes it’s because they suck. A smart author will try to get objective feedback.  But if that feedback is positive (and not from your mother) there are good reasons to let the readers decide if it has merit.  A self-published book may not be quite as polished as one that is traditionally produced, but it’s the story that matters.  It’s the story that will generate the word-of-mouth that will translate into sales.  In some cases, in-depth editing might be necessary to bring that story out, but not all.  In-depth editing might make every story somewhat better, but perfection is not attainable.  Each author has to decide how many iterations of the 80/20 rule will produce a product that is good enough to share.

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