Yesterday I introduced some of the new possibilities in self-publishing, primarily e-book and print on demand. But why would anyone choose to self-publishing a great book? Isn’t it better to try for a traditional publishing deal? Assuming you can get that traditional publishing deal in a timely manner… maybe.
Self-publishing is a gamble. Many people talk about the greater money that can be made through self-publishing. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. You can make more per book, but you still have to sell a large number of books in order to make more money than you’d get with a decent advance. Plus, there’s always the temptation of taking money now (an advance!) versus waiting for possible money later as a book takes maybe a year or two to find its audience with self-publishing.
Traditional publishing is a gamble as well, but once you have that traditional publisher’s advance, you get to keep it even if the book doesn’t sell. With self-publishing, you have no guarantee that your book will ever sell and you don’t get money unless it does. So it’s no wonder that many authors who are selling their books and getting decent advances would rather stick with the traditional publishing system.
Money Can’t Buy Happiness
But money isn’t the only consideration. Sure, I’d like to make more money from each published book, but that’s not my primary motive for self-publishing. My first concern is the amount of time it takes for editors to respond to submissions—often six months to a year or more even with an agent or when I know the editor personally. And that’s just to get any response, even a “No.”
I can’t run my business this way. It takes too long to get answers, too long to get a contract, and way too long to get the book in print. When the rest of our world is speeding up, publishing seems to be slowing down. I have one friend whose editor has taken five years on her book, with up to a year for each revision letter.
With self-publishing, you can have your book available in a few weeks or months (depending on how much time you devote). This is especially an advantage if you have a timely book—one that fits current trends or relates to something in the news.
You may not get an advance up front, but you start earning money immediately. Amazon pays monthly for the previous month’s sales—compared to royalty statements every six months. Getting paid sooner means you can afford to spend time working on the next book. Check out Joe Konrath’s blog post on Time Is Money for a comparison of the math: “Every day your book isn’t being sold, is a day lost that you could have been earning money.”
The ability to control when your book is published, and to publish as many books a year as you want (and can write) are factors drawing some people to self-publishing.
Opportunities In Special Cases
I know plenty of authors who love their editors and are happy with their publishing situation. I know at least as many who have suffered from career-damaging setbacks. One of these challenges probably hits speculative fiction writers more than most: The canceled series.
The Spectacle’s own Joni Sensel has faced this. If you loved The Farwalker’s Quest and its sequel, The Timekeeper’s Moon, you may be waiting for the third book in the trilogy. Problem is, the publisher isn’t going to publish it.
Joni has finished writing the book. She has a fan base. And now she has a way to publish it herself. She may or may not have great sales and make tons of money—but at least she will be able to share her work with interested readers. (Joni will weigh in on the subject with her own post next week.)
I’m facing a similar situation with my Haunted series. I was part way through writing book 4 when my editor got fired in part of the great cleansing of children’s book publishing after the economic downturn. After that, the publisher provided no support for the series and sales have been “okay but not great.” When I said I was considering self-publishing the fourth book, they cheerfully gave me the go-ahead. Maybe it can’t sell enough copies to please their accountants, but since I had a nearly finished manuscript and a built-in audience, why not put it out there myself?
Fantasy and science fiction writers are more likely to conceive books in trilogies or longer series. That means they’re more likely to run into these kinds of problems. It’s next to impossible to find a publisher who wants to take on a series that started someplace else, but now the series doesn’t have to die.
Old books can take on a new life as well. Author Laura Ruby is publishing her out-of-print title Lily’s Ghost as an e-book. She notes in this blog post that experimenting with out-of-print titles is a safe and easy way to explore the possibilities. After all, you’re not choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Plus, you know the book has already been vetted by the experts.
It’s (Not) All about the Market
The children’s book market has also gotten more narrowly focused than ever in the last couple of years. Like movie studios aiming for the summer blockbuster, many publishers only seem interested in trendy, flashy books. This isn’t entirely new, but it’s gotten worse. Several years ago I wrote a mystery set in ancient Egypt. I’ve been told repeatedly that editors like the book but won’t buy it, either because they already have a book set in ancient Egypt, or because historical fiction doesn’t sell well enough.
Yet kids love Egypt and several teachers have told me they wish they could get my book for their classroom. The superintendent of a New Jersey school district asked if I would consider self-publishing the book if they would buy out the first print run of 5000 copies. (That fell through due to restrictions on how the schools could buy books and then budget cuts after the economy tanked, but it shows that the market for Egypt books is not saturated.)
The book is written. I’ve had enough feedback to know it’s a good book. Why wouldn’t I self-publish it and see what happens?
I do know writers who are selling new books, even first novels, so the market isn’t completely closed. Yet attend any writing conference and you’ll hear what’s hot and what’s simply not. Quality is not enough for a traditional publisher (especially the big ones). Market considerations have to play a major role in their decisions about publishing books. They have a lot of overhead and often “bottom line” pressure from a parent company and/or investors. A major publisher may need to sell 20,000 copies to break even and 50,000 to consider the book a success.
But my definition of success may be different. Say I self-publish The Eyes of Pharaoh. Because I traded for proofreading and cover art, and did the layout myself, my upfront costs are next to nothing (except time, and that’s a small percentage of the time I’d already spent writing the book). Maybe I only sell 50 copies to family and friends. At least I’ve learned new skills and shared my work with a few more people. And who knows, the book can be for sale eternally on Amazon and it might take off someday.
But what if I sell 1000 copies? That doesn’t seem unrealistic, considering that I’m already somewhat known in children’s literature. Fans of my traditionally published historical fiction, The Well of Sacrifice, may be happy to see the Egypt book. I can promote the book when I speak at conferences. I have a strong social network of children’s book writers. And people do love ancient Egypt!
I’ll make roughly $1.50 profit for the print on demand version (priced at $6.99) and $2 for the e-book version (priced at $2.99). At 1000 copies, I’ll have more than paid back the time I spent turning it into an e-book. Plus, I get the satisfaction of having readers.
And if the book takes off, if schools pick it up for the classroom, if it reaches the tipping point and gets noticed…. Well, I’ll be very happy. I may even get courted by a traditional publisher, but they’ll have to deal with me on my terms.
So self-publishing can also be an option for professional authors who have an “unmarketable” book. Maybe you have a trendy book but you’re afraid the trend will die out before a publisher could get your book to print, or publishers have grown tired of the trend before readers have, or you’re writing in a genre that’s not currently popular, or that only appeals to a small market segment. Self-publishing can help you reach a pool of readers that might be too small or uncertain to interest a traditional publisher.
Tomorrow: What about self-publishing for first-time authors?