Saturday, November 20, 2010

Self Publishing

Not too long ago, I’d have warned people away from self publishing.

Self publishing (or vanity-publishing) used to be exactly that. You’d write a book, and then pay someone two or three grand for a print run of 500 copies. Then you’d put the book on your shelf and maybe give a few away to family and friends. Unless you actually owned your own book store, there wasn’t much else you could do with them.

My advice would have been to avoid vanity-publishers like the plague and try and get your work published through a reputable traditional publisher.

However, anyone who’s tried knows it’s not as simple as that.

To get published by a reputable publisher, you need an agent, and to get an agent you need a hell of a lot of publishing credits…and to get those publishing credits you need to spend years sending short stories to local magazines.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Very few people write best-sellers right out of the gate, and a few years of writing short stories and getting them rejected by local magazines is a great way to hone your craft…but the truth is (quite rightly) publishers and literary agents aren’t there to give you a career and make you the next big star, they’re there to make money. Your list of publishing credits is your resume. When you approach an agent, if you can say ‘these ten magazines published my work’, they’re far more likely to take you seriously.

Put it this way. If you ran your own business, exactly how much consideration would you give a job seeker who had no qualifications or experience?

The real downside, however, is even if you make it through the gauntlet and get your book published, your first contract with a publisher is going to be awful. They’re holding all the cards. If you don’t want their deal, then please stand aside because there’s a few hundred thousand people right behind you who’ll snatch it right up.

The sad truth is that writers who make a comfortable living off heir writing are rare. Writers who get rich (like your JK Rowlings and your Stephen Kings) have to be looked at as lottery winners. The average advance for a first novel is usually less than $3000, which may sound like a lot until you consider that you’ve probably spent over a year writing the thing and your publisher is going to be making a hell of a lot more than you are.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying a reputable publisher will actually straight-up scam you. The truth is they’re the ones taking all the risk. They’re spending the cash to print your book and they’re the ones left holding the bag if your book doesn’t sell…however, there are lots of reasons to be wary.

Do you know the difference between Primary, Secondary and Tertiary rights? If not, and you want to be a writer, I suggest you go do a lot of reading on the subject. New authors have a habit of signing anything that’s put in front of them when someone offers to publish their work… and this is a bad idea.


Well, let’s imagine your book is a hit. You’ve made a good chunk of change from royalties, but now there’s talk of a movie deal and a whole ton of merchandise (and trust me, franchises like Harry Potter make much more money from the movies, toys and T-shirts than they do from the book)…this is all well and good, but what rights did you sign over?

In simplest terms, It’s perfectly possible to own the copyright to your book, but give your publisher the rights to do anything they like with the idea. Now imagine watching your idea become a block buster movie and merchandizing empire… and all you’re making is royalties from book sales.

Again, this isn’t normal…but my point is that traditional publishing is a real minefield for the inexperienced.

Which brings me back to self publishing…which is something I would now highly recommend to new authors…here’s why:

Let’s say you’ve just written your first novel. Your chances of getting it published are extremely slim. Let’s assume you’ve had no interest in writing short fiction, have no publishing credits and no agent will look at you twice.

So you find a reputable self-publishing company, such as Createspace or Lulu and decide to publish through them. Let’s focus on CreateSpace, the company I’ve done the most research on.

I’ll be completely honest, the deal is pretty crappy. If you’ve written a 300 page book and set the sale price for $10, you’ll be making around $2 - $3 per copy. On the other hand, you keep all your rights, you get a free ISBN number and your book automatically goes up for sale on Amazon. The best part for the beginning author is that there are no out of pocket costs, except for buying the ‘proof’ copy of your novel which costs around five bucks. Once you approve your proof, they’re printed as people order them. You set the purchase price and when a copy is sold, CreateSpace takes their cut and the rest goes to you.

However, the most important factor to keep in mind about self publishing (apart from finding a reputable self publishing company that won’t screw you), is entering into the deal with realistic expectations.

Traditional publishers don’t just print your book. They market and advertise it, get it in front of the right people and make sure people know about it. Self publishing companies just print your book and put it in an online store. When you self publish a book, don’t expect to get rich or sell thousands of copies.

When you self publish, there are really only three possible outcomes:

1) You sell zero copies of your book.

If this is your first ever novel, this is the most likely outcome but, just like an old-fashioned vanity publisher, you get a paperback copy of your book with your name on the cover. The only real difference is it cost you around five dollars instead of five thousand and you don’t have 500 more copies moldering in your garage. If you’d made a painting instead of a novel, you’d still like to put it in a nice frame and hang it on your wall, right? Put your self-published book on the shelf, right next to the Terry Pratchetts and John Grishams, learn from it and get on with your next one.

2) You sell a couple hundred copies.

You won’t get rich, but you’re making some good ‘beer and pizza’ money, maybe a hundred bucks or so over the course of a year. You’re not exactly raking it in, but people are reading your work and you’re making a lot more than you would if your novel was just sitting on your hard-drive. You know for a fact you’re not a horrible writer and you may even get the odd email asking when your next book is coming out. Again, use it, learn from it and get on with your next book.

3) Your book becomes a decent sized hit.

This is the lottery-win option. The impossible happens, word of mouth spreads and you sell a few thousand copies of your book. You’re still not buying a house, but you’ll probably make a decent chunk of change. However, the best part of this outcome is you can now write to an agent and say “My last self-published book sold five thousand copies”. It’s no guarantee, but it’s definitely a foot in the door.

My point is that self publishing will never replace traditional publishing, but the world has changed. Writing is no longer about the handful of best seller writers getting rich, it’s about thousands of writers making some pocket money. A traditionally published book has to sell thousands of copies to make publishing it worthwhile, a single person doesn’t need to sell nearly that many to make a decent return…and if you’re in the writing business just to get rich, you’re in the wrong business.

In other words, it’s not just vanity publishing any more. At best, it’s a replacement to sending short fiction to literary magazines that, quite frankly, are folding left right and center.

No comments: