If you’re paying attention to news from the writing world, you’ve probably heard self-publishing success stories, along with plenty of debate. Is self-publishing still the ghetto of publishing, filled with people who can’t write? A valid option for new writers who haven’t found a place in traditional publishing? The only sensible way for any writer to publish her book in the current market? A shortcut to fame and fortune?
And finally, while many writers still hold up traditional publishing as the Holy Grail, a growing number are quietly asking, “Could this be right for me?”
I’ve been writing for many years and have published hundreds of articles, several short stories, and 12 books, including historical fiction, contemporary paranormal, fictionalized biographies, and both fiction and nonfiction work for hire. Two years ago I would have said you shouldn’t self-publish unless you either don’t care about selling more than a handful of books, or you have a great platform and like to market.
In recent months I’ve changed my mind.
I am diving into self-publishing with not one but two books, and more planned. Two factors play into this. First, the traditional publishing industry, which was never ideal, seems more troubled than ever and writers are suffering. Second, advances in technology make it possible to produce a quality book with a low upfront investment, and to reach readers without selling books from the back of a van.
This week, I’ll be exploring the world of self-publishing with daily posts, discussing my personal journey and quoting from the experts. While my initial self-publishing offerings are not speculative fiction, I’ll also note some special challenges of the genre.
Let’s start by defining some terms.
Self-publishing is a term that can be used in different ways, but my definition is quite simple—the author chooses when and how to bring his or her book to press and controls the process. This can involve e-books, print on demand, or hiring a printer to do a print run of a few thousand books. It may cost anywhere from nothing to thousands of dollars.
Until recently, if you wanted to self-publish, you essentially had to start your own company and pay at least $5000 to have boxes of books delivered to your door. Now we have more reasonable options.
Print on demand (POD) allows authors to have printed books available online. Some companies charge an upfront fee; others charge only for specific services such as cover design and proofreading. As one example, you can use Amazon’s CreateSpace to release a POD book. You upload your cover file and a PDF of the interior layout. You set the price (so long as it is above the cost of printing). You can buy copies at an author discount (under three dollars for my 160-page paperback). Amazon sells the book online and prints a copy when someone orders it. Their royalty calculator shows you how much you’ll make by offering the book for sale at various prices. I’m pricing The Eyes of Pharaoh at $6.99, which will give me over one dollar per book with standard Amazon sales.
E-books are electronic versions of books which can be read on electronic devices such as computers, e-readers, smart phones, and iPods. You can make a book available on the Kindle through Amazon, or in other formats through Barnes & Noble and other companies. You do not need an e-reader to read an e-book. You can get e-reader apps for smartphones, iPods and computers.
Some people think e-books are a trend that will go away. Others think they are here to stay but will never be a major part of the market. Still others think e-books will eventually dominate—possibly in just a couple of years.
E-books have not taken over the market, but sales are growing. Adult genre novels have been especially successful. Crossover young adult titles have also created success stories, such as Amanda Hocking, who went from unpublished author to e-book millionaire with her paranormal romance books priced at $.99 to $2.99.
The market for middle grade e-books is uncertain, but casual market research shows that some middle grade students are getting e-readers, often passed down from their parents when the new version comes in. Plus, kids can read e-books on their iPods, phones, and computers. Many schools are moving toward getting all the kids an e-reader or laptop and providing textbooks in electronic form. As young people get ever more comfortable reading on an electronic device, e-book sales will rise.
Some other factors will come into play, especially with younger kids. They may not have their own disposable income, so books with parent appeal will do better. The market will probably favor cheap books, like the discounted print versions available at school book fairs. Chapter books with illustrations have some formatting issues because of the way pages flow on different devices. Until color readers become common, picture books may do better as apps than as true e-books.
A PW article tries to make some predictions: “Though teens are only slowly switching to digital stories, they’re keeping an open mind. In the Kids and Family Reading Report national survey released last September, Scholastic and Harrison Group found that 57% of nine-to-17-year-olds said they were interested in reading an e-book, and a third said they would read more books for fun if they had access to digital titles on electronic devices. At the time of the survey, only 6% of parents owned an e-reader and 16% planned to buy one in the next year. More than eight in 10 parents said they do or would encourage their kids to use their e-reading device.”
Regardless of the challenges, I’m convinced e-books will be a major segment of middle grade and young adult publishing within a couple of years, and I think it’s better to get in ahead of the curve than behind.
The Death of Publishing?
So the e-book market is growing, but what does this have to do with self-publishing? Well, e-books provide special opportunities to self-published authors, because you can set a low price to lure new readers and still make money. (The author gets 70 percent of the price for self-published Kindle books priced between $2.99 and $9.99.) Because the author keeps more of the list price, some authors are doing much better with self published e-books than with traditional publishing deals.
For the most part, publishers are doing business the way they did a century ago. Sure, they’re releasing books as e-books, but they are holding onto hardcover as the ideal. (Publishers make more money off of hardcover per copy, and they seem to resist the idea that a low-priced e-book may sell more copies, dropping the per unit cost and ultimately making more money.)
Publishers are also trying to hold authors at an unreasonably low royalty rate for e-books. The Authors Guild offers this warning about the e-book and traditional publishers: “Aauthors have long been able to take comfort in this: once the contract is signed, the interests of the author and the publisher are largely aligned. If the publisher works to maximize its revenues, it will necessarily work to maximize the author’s royalties…. Now, for the first time, publishers have strong incentives to work against the author’s interests.”
Publishers are holding on to the old way of doing things because it’s difficult and expensive for a big company to change. Novelr says, “Publishers will die if they cannot change, but it doesn’t seem like they’re interested in change anytime soon. Why?
“The way forward for publishing appears to be clear, if people like MCM and Mark Barrett and Michael Stackpole are to be believed. Go online, stay digital, jettison your legacy printing systems, and build good digital filters for popular content. More importantly: create publishing brands readers can identify with—the same way readers now cluster around authors as brand names. But this has yet to happen…. Traditional publishers are a solution to a vanishing problem. They are becoming obsolete, but not quickly enough. And they refuse to change because they are attempting to preserve the problem to which they are a solution.”
I don’t expect traditional publishing to go away anytime soon. But in this changing climate, authors—even those who have successfully published with traditional publishers—have many new incentives for turning to self-publishing. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some specific reasons authors may choose to self-publish.