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:


Editor Cassandra said...

Any chance you could add to your fab list in the editor section?

Anonymous said...

Prince, the musician, has the same issues with the recording industry as authors have with publishing. In the latest edition of EW, he says that it no longer makes sense to sign a record contract, since they keep the rights to the material an artists creates, and that it takes almost a year to put the material on the market. He has his own recording studio, so he bypassed signing a record contract for his latest release.

Ryan Crown said...

A closely related meme -- with a traditional publisher all your marketing is handled for you, so you can focus on just writing more books. If only that were true!!

Steven M. Moore said...

It IS true for established authors, those authors who are the sure bets in the trad-pubbers' stables. I see full-page ads in the NY Times, TV ads, and so forth. Most traditionally published authors don't receive that kind of PR and marketing, and indie writers obviously don't either. I'm not sure this type of PR and marketing is effective either. Smart consumers see a trad-pubbed ebook over $10 and cringe. As an avid reader as well as an author, I won't pay more than $5 for any ebook, no matter how it's published. In general, indies offer solid entertainment for a reasonable price.
More and more my main motivation for staying indie is that I'm in control. I pretty much ignore the memes, as they're called here. I call them sophistic lies because the hypotheses, stated or implied, are so often false. I can't say I'm doing well, but at least I'm the one making the decisions.

Anonymous said...

'Legacy is guaranteed'

1. What is supposedly 'guaranteed'?
2. Who is currently making such claims? Could you provide links?

Barry Eisler said...

1. The suite of publishing services for which you are paying 85% of your revenues: editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, PR, distribution.

2. Did you not click on any of the links in the post?

Anonymous said...

['guarateed' =] 1. The suite of publishing services for which you are paying 85% of your revenues: editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, PR, distribution.

uhmm... the opositions established in the title are:

self pub = costly; trad = free
self pub = risky; trad = guaranteed

so to say that by 'guaranteed' you meant 'the suit of services that trad offers' is a bit misleading. 'risky' in such an argument/opposition would mean what? the risk of not having services??

'risky' vs. 'guaranteed' in any normal interpretation would relate to success of some sort.

JA Konrath said...

so to say that by 'guaranteed' you meant 'the suit of services that trad offers' is a bit misleading. 'risky' in such an argument/opposition would mean what? the risk of not having services?

So what you're asking for is to show that legacy pundits are saying authors shoudl publish traditionally? Have you followed all the links?

Michael Cader
David Gernert
Robert Gottlieb
Donald Maass, Mike Shatzkin
More Mike Shatzkin
Steve Zacharius

Have you been following this revolution? Since 2009, my blog has had over a hundred posts that have refuted the concensus that legacy publishing is still the proper path for writers. If I were to link to them all, the links would be longer than this post.

Barry Eisler said...

Anonymous, if you'd rather, you could tell us the title of the piece should have just been "A comparison of the costs and benefits, risks and rewards of legacy vs self-publishing." You could then feel satisfied that you're correct in arguing no one has ever claimed anything remotely like self-publishing is costly and risky while legacy publishing is guaranteed and free. You'd get to feel vindicated; we'd get to focus on the substance of the article. I'm game if you are.

Anonymous said...

"I'm game if you are."

Or you could just title articles correctly. We don't need click bait.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous above.

Nobody is making these claims except Joe and Barry.

It's kind of weird.

Steven M. Moore said...

@ Anonymice,
I agree with Barry. The title doesn't often reflect the content of the book; it can also be misleading for a post. Let's stick to the substance of the article, though.
It's obvious in this new digital paradigm that an indie author can go DIY all the way. S/he might choose to outsource some steps, especially PR and marketing, which many authors abhor, but that doesn't change the argument that trad-pubbing can be costly for an author, with the agent's cut, fewer royalties, and years down the road when her/his book is stuck in the limbo of a binding contract s/he wants to get out of.
I'm faced with the problem that even my PODs are no longer competitive in price. I don't sell many books, but two of those PODs are first books in a series, so their high price tags can't help the rest of the series. I'm working on solving that problem, but thankful that I'm not stuck in that trad-pubbed limbo.

Kathryn Meyer Griffith said...

I started self-publishing in 2012 thanks to Joe's blog...and as of today I now have nine books (getting 70% royalties) self-published and making me the best money I've ever made. Good thing, too, because 13 of my books are still with a small publisher who only gives me 18% and has had them each for five long years under contract. The problem is, though the publisher claims I don't sell many copies of any of them each year (pitiful, pitiful sales), she refuses to give me the books back even a day early and right now I'm actually fuming because my second book of the 13 with her reverted back to me fully on September 6 (yes, after 5 years!) and she won't take it down from all the sales venues so I can self-publish it...or even return my emails! I've been emailing her for almost a month and she WON'T REPLY! I am in legacy publisher hell and I will be for another 17 months as those 13 books slowly revert back to me-if I can even get her to release them. She makes me beg every time for each book and keeps them longer than the 5 years. Traditional publishing...over 31 years I've found them all to be thieves. I need a cheap lawyer, you know someone who could help me?

Unknown said...

I started self-publishing over a year ago and now have a novel, a short story collection, and a short story published online. Thus far, the only cost has been grabbing hi-res stock images to make the ebook covers. I learned how to format my ebooks and create simple ebook covers on my own for no cost, and while I had a few stumbles, I now have pretty well-written, edited, and packaged stuff available on Amazon and elsewhere.

I think a person can also do DIY editing if he/she has a pretty decent background in the editing/copyediting field, but I notice that it took me a while to really edit and re-edit and get the necessary distance of time between the writing-editing and editing-re-editing stages to get the best effect. So, even if you can't afford an editor, it's possible to do it on your own for free if you're willing not to rush your work to Amazon, Smashwords, et al.

In the next few weeks and months, I'm going to start publishing new material, and unless there's a compelling reason to pay someone else to do what I can do for myself, there's no way I'm going to spend money for that.

Steven M. Moore said...

@ Kathryn, Your story is a good example of being stuck in trad-pubbing limbo. You're making money in self-pubbing; I'm not. That's life. I would go crazy in your limbo, though. @ Vincent, I outsource cover art, formatting, and what PR and marketing I can afford, but I've chosen carefully for all three--I'm in charge. I do my own content editing (that's just cut-and-delete and cut-and-paste usually) and copy editing (I know my own quirks better than any copy editor, so I go on a search-and-kill mission)--the first is just part of my writing process, while the second is to come up with a polished MS to send to my beta-readers.
The three of us are good examples of what Barry's talking about. On the other hand, I think I outdid Joe with my number of rejections when I spent three years looking for an agent (some said they would read an MS and then sit on it for months w/o any results). Joe didn't convince me to go indie, but he certainly has continued to convince me I made the right decision!

Anonymous said...

"Nobody is making these claims except Joe and Barry.

It's kind of weird."

What color is the sky in your world. I'm sure its pretty, but it ain't blue....

Alexis said...

Joe was really influential in convincing me to self-publish (going to beta this month). I was in the unique position in having a publishing contract which I turned down for many of the reasons discussed in this post. This will be my one and only book (non-fiction) and I have no illusions about retiring wealthy from my book royalties.

But I did run some what-if scenarios around the pub/self-pub. The truth is that if your book is a bust, in either scenario there's no money to be made. Possibly you eat a few thousand in the self-pub scenario, assuming you invested some $$ in cover art, editing, etc. However the farther you go down the "successful" path the more quickly self-publishing dominates, and it dominates enormously.

Unknown said...

I have a conundrum of being of the old guard of reading books when they were, well, "books." I've finished a lengthy literary historical novel. I would like to publish it in book and ebook form, but there is so much advice out there. Do it this way, watch out for that, our way is the cheapest, don't forget to jump through all these hoops to market your book. Better act fast, better know it all.
For you guys that have been immersed in this for decades, it's like breathing. For me it's like drowning.
I don't know where to start. Lots of people really, really like my manuscript. Is there anyone out there who for a reasonable price would take me step by step from lower that novice to ready to publish?

Inari said...

"A closely related meme -- with a traditional publisher all your marketing is handled for you, so you can focus on just writing more books. If only that were true!!"

I really hope Joe and Barry address this meme soon. Especially since a lot of writers I know believe this is one of the main benefits that ALL writers receive when they traditionally publish and not just the big names. One of the reasons why I chose to get a Master's degree in Integrated Marketing Communications was to help promote my novels in case I decided to self-publish. Which is a good thing since it also seems like some agents and/or publishers want the author to create marketing plans, have an established platform, etc.

Inari said...

Just to clarify, that's not the only reason why I went for a Master's degree in that field. I know a lot of people market their books via self-publishing without a degree and they are doing a phenomenal job.

Anonymous said...

Joe and Barry are right.

The argument is that traditional publishers give you an advance ("guaranteed") while royalties from self-publishing are uncertain ("risky"). Of course, the guaranteed amount is usually $1,000 to $5,000.

Steven M. Moore said...

@ GraniteStater, Royalties aren't paid until you "pay out" your advance, and some contracts are so onerous that if you don't do that in a certain time, you have to pay them back. This was the situation the last time I checked (many years ago, I confess); maybe the latter has changed, but it's hard to pay out your advance when they jerk your books off the shelves in a short time.
@ Inari, Many writers (I'm one) would love to get help in the PR and marketing area, but the business models are wrong for indie writers. I wrote a blog post that contained the idea that I'd be willing to sign over 15% of my 70% royalties instead of paying so much money up front. If the ideas for a PR and marketing campaign are any good (always debatable), the person doing that could end up making a ton of money, and I'd be happy with my 55% instead of 70%. Right now, with my paltry marketing efforts (the ones I can afford up front), I pretty much have 70% of zilch because I feed back all royalties into producing the next ebook. Anyone hear of a PR rep or marketer who uses this business model?

Inari said...


That might be a good idea for a marketer or PR who wants a side-job in the indie book marketing business (at least until the market grows large enough to make a full-time living). The only question I have is how does the marketer or PR rep know they are getting their 15%? I think once that question is settled then I think it would be an interesting idea.

Luke J Kendall said...

A big difference between marketing by the traditional publisher and the self publisher is that the TP marketing happens once, and runs for a period that is proportional to your expected popularity (typically a week or two, I'm told). After that, there's basically no marketing. With SP, it's all up to you: you can promote and market it for as long as you want to. Of course the sensible author will put much more effort into writing than marketing, but even a small, ongoing investment of time will reap a cumulative benefit, I believe.

Luke J Kendall said...

I think the short answer, Curt, is yes. The trick is finding a good editor; but I think there are lots, and you can look for recommendations. Different editors still handle different genres. I was lucky to find My blog might have some helpful advice for you, as it documents my own experience.

Luke J Kendall said...

Agreed. I think it's a good idea. I also think we're only about halfway through a period of massive change, so I expect this to happen!