David sez: Joe features a lot of great writers on his blog who are selling insane amounts. I always get a kick out of those stories and learn a lot. I’m not one of those guys, but maybe I can address the question of whether to self-publish from another angle.
I tried the traditional route for eighteen months – collecting over 300 rejections – before deciding to take control of my career. Self-publishing had been on my radar for a while. I was reading the heretical thoughts of Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath who said we didn’t need a publishing deal, that we could publish ourselves.
Some critics say that people like Joe are repetitive: banging the same drum over and over. I don’t know about anyone else, but I needed that. I was so wrapped up in various myths that the message had to be repeated again and again before it got through to me.
Eventually, I confronted my assumptions and found them to be flawed. I decided to self-publish some shorts to see if I could sell anything (and if I enjoyed the process), but held that novel in reserve as it was still being considered by a few NY agents.
I still had a lot of doubts. While I was convinced of the viability of self-publishing, and had serious concerns about the sustainability of the traditional model, I was less sure about my own abilities to handle things like promotion and platform-building: I had no blog, no Facebook page, I didn’t even have a Twitter account (something I swore I would never do).
Well, it turned out that I enjoyed all that stuff and was kind of good at it. After five months I’ve sold over 1,000 books, I’m getting 20,000 visits a month to my blog, and I have 10,000 followers on Twitter. Not bad for an unknown, unpublished writer.
I don’t take this as proof that the Gatekeeper was wrong. For starters, I still haven’t released the novel that attracted all those rejections. I pulled it from the last agents that had it after I sold 150 copies of my two short story titles in my first month.
I was having lots of fun, enjoyed connecting with readers for the first time, and found an aptitude for promotion which surprised me. But that wasn’t why I decided to self-publish the novel. It was because I was convinced I could sell more and make more on my own.
My logic was this. I hadn’t snagged an agent yet, but I was pretty sure it was only a matter of time – I was getting closer and closer. I don’t know if an agent could have placed my book, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they would have got me the average advance: $5,000.
When I release it in December, it will be priced at $4.99. It’s a long novel, and I think the genre (historical fiction) allows higher prices, and I like the idea of earning $3.50 per copy. To beat that average advance, and to cover production costs and some promotion, I need to sell around 2,000 copies.
Joe likes to say e-books are forever, which sometimes draws a reaction. But if you are self-publishing, you will own the rights to that content for as long as you live (and your heirs will own it long after that too). Maybe it will be consumed as a holo-novel or something we can’t conceive of yet, but you will still own those rights.
But to avoid clouding the argument, let’s assume I only earn off it for ten years – maybe tastes will change or I will forego the internet and pushing my books for a simple life. Can I sell 2,000 copies in ten years? Well, if I can’t I shouldn’t be in this game. That’s less than one book a day.
In fact, I would say that any writer good enough to attract the average advance could do that too. Even if you are pricing your book at $2.99, earning $2 a copy, you only need to need to sell one book a day over ten years to beat that advance.
There are lots of nice things about a publishing deal (from the outside at least, I’ve never had one). You get your book published for free and they throw in a little promotion. However, the only real selling point, for me, is access to bookstores.
Let’s be honest here, on a $5,000 advance no-one is going to be walking into Barnes & Noble facing a wall of my books. I’ll be lucky if they don’t have to order it. And it’s probably going to be the last money I see from that book, at least until I get the rights back – if I ever can.
As I said above, I easily beat that deal if I can sell a book a day for ten years, which is more than doable. In fact, the way things are going, I might even beat that advance before my book would have hit the shelves by the traditional route.
In short, I can’t afford to take a publishing deal.
Some writers are worried about how much writing time they will have to sacrifice if they decide to strike out on their own. But I can tell you that I am writing more than before. Self-publishing is immensely satisfying, incredibly motivating, and my productivity has soared.
But there are other considerations. Just recently, huge formatting/editing/proofing errors have been spotted in major releases from Neal Stephenson and Terry Pratchett. If this is the level of quality control the Big 6 have for new books from their big writers, I shudder to think what is happening lower down the food chain.
I can’t afford to take the chance that could happen with my book or that I would be stuck with a crappy cover. I know that if I do it myself, the formatting, editing, and cover will be top quality because I work with experienced, committed professionals of my choice, and I have final approval of everything.
When you enter a business relationship with someone (which is how I look at a publishing deal), there are going to be issues if the two parties have divergent views. During the London Book Fair in April, publishers were defending their paltry royalty rates, saying they needed a bigger share of the cover price to help them combat piracy.
At the last Frankfurt Book Fair, the story had changed. Now they say they don’t need to raise royalty rates because authors are doing fine because they charge so much for e-books.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that this is all backwards and speaks nothing to the money going into their pockets at those higher prices. It’s also shows contempt for readers forced to pay that premium so publishers can get a juicy cut. I can’t afford to grant an exclusive license to sell my products to someone who has such an outdated view of the marketplace.
Even if snagging a traditional deal was one of my career goals (which it no longer is), I would still self-publish. Then, with some solid sales numbers, I could approach a publisher from a position of strength, instead of one of desperation.
I’m not going to tell anyone to self-publish; that’s a very personal decision. But if you want to take back control of your career, if you like the idea of connecting directly with your readers, and if you think you deserve more than the smallest slice of the book’s profits, then you should know that there are thousands of us ready to help you take your first steps.
Joe sez: David says a lot of really smart things in this blog entry, which doesn't surprise me because his blog is also very smart. His ebook, Let's Get Digital, is a must read for anyone considering self-pubbing. I recently bought, and read, his story Transfection and I'm happy to say it is terrific, and well worth the 99 cents.
Of the many memes being parroted by writers, one of the most destructive is "Most self-pubbed ebooks don't sell."
When you are arguing a point involving a new technology, such as ebooks, it is essential to make sure your argument also encompasses the older technology. The fact is, most legacy-pubbed books don't sell. Why do newbie writers continue to believe that signing with a publishing house is a guarantee of success? It isn't. You may get a modest advance--$5000 is still considered the average--but in today's publishing climate that may be the only money you ever see. And you can do far better on your own, even if you're selling modestly.
I've recently blogged about how ebook sales are far outselling paper sales. Bookstores are closing. The midlist is disappearing. David has a smart post about how declining paper sales aren't offset by rising ebook sales for legacy publishers, which points to Big Trouble for the Big 6.
So getting a legacy deal isn't about getting into print anymore. Which means you'd be signing with a Big 6 publisher in order for them to release your ebook.
Guess what? The Big 6 suck at releasing ebooks. They charge too much. Their royalties are too small. Often their formatting is sub-par (I've gotten into fights with my publishers to force them to reformat ebooks of mine riddled with errors.)
But exactly how bad a job do they do compared to self-pubbers?
I'll show you, with my numbers.
Hyperion has published six of my novels as ebooks, and Hachette has published one of my novels, and so has Berkley. That's eight novels, going back t0 2004.
On my own, I've published six novels, going back to 2009.
All totaled, my eight legacy pubbed ebooks have sold a little over 100,000 copies on Kindle.
All totaled, my six self-pubbed novels have sold over 235,000 copies on Kindle. And I made twice as much money per copy sold as I did on my legacy ebooks.
So my legacy pubbed ebooks have sold an average of 12,500 copies each, while my self pubbed ebooks have sold an average of 39,100 copies each.
Think about that. Ebooks that have had the support of three major publishers have only sold 1/3 of what I've done myself through KDP.
David is making a wise move, pulling his novel from submission and self-publishing it. Here's a quick recap of some of the reasons why.
1. Getting a legacy deal is difficult, and often doesn't happen even if the book is good. (All the novels I've self-pubbed were rejected by legacy publishers.) You can spend a looooong time looking for a legacy deal--time you could have been earning money via self-pubbing.
2. If you do land a legacy deal, you will get lower royalties.
3. If you do land a legacy deal, it will take 6 to 18 months before that book is for sale.
4. If you do land a legacy deal, the publisher has total control of price, title, and cover.
5. Ebooks are outselling paper books, bookstores are closing, and ereaders keep getting more advanced while coming down in price.
6. If you do land a legacy deal, you likely won't ever get your rights back.
7. If you do get an advance at a legacy deal, it will take a long time to earn out, if ever. Higher ebook prices mean fewer sales, and lower ebook royalties mean smaller checks.
So why are you still looking for a legacy deal? I can think of a few reasons.
Vanity. You want the prestige (whatever it may be) of signing with a legacy house.
Validation. You want the gatekeepers to tell you your book is good enough.
Dreams. You always wanted to see your book at a library, or on the shelf at a bookstore, and those dreams die hard.
Less work. You want a publisher to take care of things like promotion, editing, and cover art.
Money. You're getting a big advance that will amount to a life-changer.
Of those five reasons, the only one that makes sense from a business standpoint is money, and the chances of you getting a large advance from a legacy publisher are about the same as you being struck by lightening. This is a lottery dream, and not a smart business plan.
And as for those who believe legacy publishing is less work than self-publishing, you need to go back to 2005 and read my blog. I worked much harder as a legacy published author than I do as a self-pubbed author. I also make a much better living now than I did then.
If you're reading this, you're probably a writer, and these issues matter to you. Which means you need to gather as much information as you can, and think long and hard about your goals and how to reach them.
As David asks, can your really afford to take a legacy deal?