Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Zombie Publishing Meme #4: Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free.

This is the fourth in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free

This meme takes a couple different forms. Sometimes it expresses itself as a comparison of the worst possible example of self-publishing to the best possible example of legacy publishing. Other times, the comparison is between the typical reality of self-publishing and the rare ideal of legacy publishing. Either way, the framework is misleading.

The meme is customarily introduced by someone claiming she explored self-publishing and was shocked to find it involved such high costs--$4000 just for editing, for example. The writer paid anyway, then was disappointed to discover that her ebook, which she was selling for $14.99, sold poorly and seems unlikely ever to recoup its costs (for more, see this shocking Wall Street Journal discovery that higher prices can lead to lower revenues).

The writer then compares this unfortunate state of affairs to the possible ease of mailing out a few query letters, landing a six-figure deal with a Big Five publisher, and having all publishing services delivered smoothly and expertly.

In fact, many authors self-publish for nothing (both in ebook and pbook). They do it themselves, or barter for services (I'll proofread yours if you proofread mine.) There are also many affordable freelance editors, artists, proofers, and designers (here is a partial list). So the notion that self-publishing necessarily costs thousands of dollars upfront is chimerical, akin to wild stories of hundred-dollar melons told by western travelers returning from Tokyo. Yes, such specimens can be found in the gift departments of certain high-end Ginza department stores, but they are far from the norm, and certainly not representative of what food actually costs in Japan or how the vast majority of people go about nourishing themselves.

But regardless of what a self-published author chooses to spend on publishing services, it’s critical to understand that the author keeps her rights and the majority of revenues (typically 70% in digital). In other words, the costs of self-publishing--whether the self-published author prefers to spend a few dollars or a few thousand--are generally upfront; the payout is over the long term.

By contrast, the upfront costs of the legacy route tend to be relatively modest (if you don’t include time spent mailing out query letters and manuscripts, and waiting, perhaps permanently, to hear from an agent or editor). If you do land a legacy contract, you can expect some sort of advance (probably a few thousand dollars) and a promise that you’ll receive all relevant publishing services. In exchange, you’ll have to give up approximately 85% of revenues and you’ll almost certainly be surrendering your rights forever. The costs of legacy-publishing are therefore long-term; the payout, in the form of whatever advance you are offered, is upfront.

If a writer is lucky enough to get a gigantic advance--which Joe guesses only happens in less than 0.1% of legacy contracts--royalties don't matter because they won't ever be earned out. The advance is the only money the writer will likely ever see. But any advance less than life-changing money functions as an ridiculously high interest loan.
If you were a genre author offered a $100k advance earning 17.5% royalties off of the digital list price, and your ebook is priced at $4.99, you earn $0.88 per ebook sold. You need to sell 113,600 ebooks to earn out your advance. And when you do, you're stuck with 88 cents per sale, FOREVER.
The same ebook, self-published, earns the author $3.49 per copy sold. If they sell 28,653 copies, they made the $100,000. Every copy they sell after that, they make 4x more money than they do on a legacy ebook.
Which seems like a better deal for authors?
Not only is the loan high interest, it's also forever, because the author will never get those rights back.

So while it’s technically not inaccurate to note that self-publishing isn’t free, it’s more accurate--and useful--to note that this is because no form of publishing is free. To discuss the costs of only one system while ignoring the costs of another is fundamentally misleading. To be empowered to make good decisions for themselves, authors need to be able to compare. To be able to compare, they need information about the costs and benefits of both systems.

For more on the unfortunate tendency to compare the reality of self-publishing to the ideal of legacy publishing, we recommend Publishing is a Lottery/Publishing is a Carny Game. The general idea is that all publishing systems are, statistically speaking, lotteries, and that to make good choices for themselves, writers need information about four things: (i) the cost of a ticket; (ii), the odds of winning (iii); the size of potential payouts; and (iv) the nature of opportunities for influencing the lottery’s outcome. It’s rare that legacy publishing boosters are willing to discuss all these categories. More commonly, the boostership consists of discussion only of the size of item (iii), in which to date the legacy lottery has the clear advantage. Anyone who is trying to sell you on one system or another without including information about each of the four categories is not providing sound advice.

But even the lottery metaphor can be unnecessarily limiting. Which system is right for you will depend on many other factors, as well, including the size of the advance (if you receive a legacy offer), how important digital is to you vs paper, how much you value control over business decisions vs how comfortable you are delegating, how much you value time to market, etc. For more on how to develop a proper framework for evaluating which publishing route makes the most sense for you, we recommend this summary of a keynote Barry gave at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in 2013.

Previously addressed zombie memes: