On twitter the other day, Smart Bitch Sarah remarked that it’s sad that the discussion about ways to publish has turned into an official death cage match where each side has to sneer at the other. There are enough people on both sides of this debate who do that. I try not to. Sometimes I fail, because I don’t give enough disclaimers.
For a number of reasons, a lot of authors who are traditionally-published and curious about self-publishing talk to me about their careers when they’re up for contract renewal. Over the last 2 months, that number has been extraordinarily high—I think I’m up to 11 right now—but if I count over the last…three to four years, I’ve probably talked to dozens and dozens of authors. These range from people with print runs big enough to send a book to everyone in entire cities, to people with mass market print runs that are under 10K.
Believe it or not, I really do not push any of those people to self-publish. There really are benefits to both sides. (Although, fair warning, I have been known to say things like, “Holy crap, that advance is ridiculous, you’re worth more than that.”)
This blog post is for people who are traditionally published and who are thinking about self-publishing. It’s not intended for people who have not published yet. (That’s not to say it’s irrelevant to the unpublished; just that that is a slightly different ballgame, and one I’ve never had to play.*)
I want to note at the outset that a lot of this sounds like I’m assuming it’s an either/or question. It isn’t. I know and respect plenty of people who do both, and more power to them! I personally don’t write fast enough to do both effectively. I could traditionally publish a little on the side or self-publish a little on the side…or I could just go for broke. So while there is no theoretical reason why anyone has to make a choice, writing speed and career demands pose a practical limitation on me, and other authors as well.
This is a really, really massive blog post. Some caveats: my experience skews towards romance. I have made a personal choice about what I do, and it’s gone really well for me. Even though I try to be evenhanded I’m sure where I come from colors what I say. Take this all with a grain of salt.
With that being said, if you find yourself in an official death match between traditional and self-publishing, here are 11 points you should consider.
1. The money equation is not as simple as some suggest.
People usually want to know how much more money they might be able to make self-publishing versus traditionally publishing. I’ve talked some about net present value on this blog, but even that calculation has giant holes in it, because nobody knows how much you’ll make on your books 35 years from now.
There are more holes in the calculation, because you might be bad at self-publishing. Or you might be really good at it. These things matter. (More on this later.)
But on a more practical matter, if your income is advance-heavy—that is, you expect that it’ll take you years to earn out your advances, if you ever do—it is probable that you will make less money in the first year, or perhaps few years, of self-publishing, depending on how fast you write, how big your advances are, and how well you do.
That’s because as a self-published author, you’ll have more expenses up front and you won’t be getting income for earnings months (or years, depending on your contract) in advance. In order to really maximize your income at self-publishing you need to have multiple titles available so that you can best funnel sales from one title to the next. And self-publishing has a learning curve, and it will take you time to get to the top of your game (whatever that may be).
As a matter of personal experience, if I look at my taxable earnings from FY 2010 through FY 2013, I made less money in 2011 (when I first self-published) than in 2010 by a factor of 2.5, and that was with Unlocked taking off and hitting the New York Times list. In 2012, I earned about as much as I earned in 2010. In 2013, I earned about 4 times more than I earned in 2010. And my earnings in 2014 have been higher than 2013.
So if your income is advance-heavy, you are likely to experience at least a short-term (1-4 years) income hit if you self-publishing. You should know that, expect that, and prepare for it.
2. All things are not equal.
I sometimes hear people saying that all things being equal, an author will sell as many ebooks through self-publishing as she would if she were traditionally published.
All things are not equal.
This article talks (among other things; I don’t wholly recommend all conclusions of the article, but the behind-the-scenes discussions are interesting) about how Amazon gets publishers to pay for placement. A while back, I heard an Amazon rep describe the advantages some publishers get (for instance, traditionally published books are more likely to come up in searches—something the rep called a “sparkle search” and there are other visibility advantages as well).
You can’t (easily) get these things as a self-publisher, so if you want to equal your digital sales as a traditionally published author, you need to win the game on a straight algorithmic basis.
If your book is as professionally presented as your previous traditionally published books and is priced the same, you are likely to sell fewer copies. Most self-published authors get around this by pricing their books lower.
If you want your self-published books to sell more copies than your traditionally published books, you have to have a competitive marketing advantage over your traditionally published books.
3. Speaking of marketing…
A lot of times authors use the word “marketing” to refer to promotion. This is because, for a very long time, promotion was the only part of marketing (outside of the content of the book itself) that authors could control. But that’s only one part of what goes into marketing. Marketing typically consists of the following: product, placement, promotion, and price.
In order to be successful as a self-publisher, you need to be able to deliver a compelling product with you in the driver’s seat. That means you need to find a good freelance editor to work with you (and if you’ve worked with multiple editors over the years, you’ll know how hard it is to find a good fit). You’ll need to get good covers. If you’re doing your covers right, you’ll need to talk to a cover artist about establishing a unique brand and look that both captures your subgenre and still sets you subtly apart so that people can recognize your books at a glance. And since you have a prior career, you want to subtly (or, hey, not so subtly) evoke your previous books as well.
When you start out as a self-published author, compared to being a traditionally published author, you’re probably going to lose on the placement game. You won’t have print books that people pass in the grocery store aisle, reminding them to buy. Your publisher won’t have its thumb on Amazon’s algorithm button for you.
You may even lose on the promotion side of things. If, for instance, you’re an Avon author and have been for years, keep in mind that Avon has been hawking Author Tracker at the back of their books as you’ve built your career. If you walk away from Avon, you’re walking away from that database of readers who want to hear about your next book.
The only thing you can give yourself a guaranteed win on is price, and if you can’t do bang-up jobs on the product/promotion side of things, that is not enough of an advantage to carry the day.
Now, you can do worse than your publisher and still make more money—that’s the simple truth in the 25% of net royalty math—but I think few authors contemplate giving up print distribution and taking on extra responsibilities because they’re fine with losing digital market share.
That brings me to…
4. Successful self-publishing has one hard requirement
I’ll talk about the skills that you need to have later, but the most important skill that every successful self-publisher needs is this: good judgment.
As a single individual, you are extremely unlikely to start with all the skills you need to self-publish repeatedly at the highest levels of success. You might have a lot of the skills you need. You might have some really great advantages. But you, as an individual, do not have the skills you need to do everything you need to do to beat your publisher.
Luckily, you don’t have to have all those skills.
For instance, I’m not a marketing person. It probably took me six months or so to figure out that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do. At that point, I went and looked for authors where, every time they released a book, that book shot up in the rankings and hovered there for a while. I studied their books, what they were doing.
I’ve spent hours and hours analyzing back matter, websites, and cover copy from Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, Tina Folsom, Liliana Hart, H.M. Ward, Marie Force, Hugh Howey, and Debora Geary. I recognized that I was not performing optimally, that other people were doing better, and that I needed to change.
In order for that to happen, I needed to: (1) recognize that I could be doing better; (2) identify positive steps that would help improve my bottom line; (3) act on them; and (4) identify if those steps were working, and if not, why not.
But there are a lot of people spouting shit out there. If you don’t have the ability to discern what makes sense and what doesn’t, if you aren’t good at implementing changes and looking at the results and knowing when you’re confident that something has helped and when it’s just noise, if you believe everything you hear (or conversely, believe nothing you hear)… all that’s going to limit your success.
As a self-publisher, you really, really need to be able to know who is talking out of their ass, and when. You need to be open to changing what you do. When a new, good idea comes along, the first people to implement it get a huge first-mover advantage.
If you don’t have good judgment, you’re not going to do the best you can.
5. I brought a lot of skills with me, and they’ve helped enormously.
I put myself through college (in part) by building websites for people back in the Dark Ages of the Internet. I have a handful of programming classes under my belt, and years of programming computer simulations. The tech skill-set is extremely useful.
As part of this, I had to develop some rudimentary graphics skills, because after the first rush of “OMG a website!” people actually wanted something that was both functional and followed good design principles. Most of what I do graphics-wise is self-taught, but I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours teaching myself.
I know a little bit about production because I spent some time on a student-run print publication where errors were anathema, and so I have some idea of proper processes. I know about statistics because I spent years doing statistical mechanics simulations.
These are useful things to know, and the fact that I know all that without having to think about it was a huge help to me when I started out, and continues to be a help to me.
You should be able to assess your skills, to know what you’re good at, and what you need to be better at.
6. None of the words for self-publishing adequately describe what is happening today.
Not knowing the things I described above is not necessarily detrimental. Some things, you can just pay money for. But knowing who to pay money to is difficult. If you have no eye for graphics work yourself, you need to hire someone who is good at it. But how do you know they’re good if you have no eye for it? How do you direct someone to build you a branded look if you don’t have a sense for branding?
The only answer I know to being able to overcome weaknesses is that you need to have friends. And acquaintances. And, hell, people who annoy the crap out of you but who you pay attention to anyway because they’re ridiculously good at what they do, and you’d be an idiot not to pay attention to them.
Some people call it “self” publishing. Some people call it “independent” publishing. I don’t think either of those terms describe what is happening. The other day, I described self-publishers as more like bacteria: most will never register above a blip, but because we’re capable of swapping ideas with each other and evolving at a high rate, the ones that do well can do really well.
It’s why the point that Mike Shatzkin expresses in the comments on this post here—that “it is hugely counterintuitive to me that a single actor whose main capability MUST BE writing could be a more effective marketer than a publisher who would have good reason to develop capabilities at scale across a list”—is both completely right and totally wrong. He’s totally right in that one individual, standing on his or her own, is always going to lose versus publishers. I suspect that is true, on average, by a margin larger than the 4x royalty difference.
But he’s not taking into account the intelligence of the self-publishing collective. The fact that writers have been so poorly paid for years is actually a huge bonus. Most authors by necessity have more skills than just writing. Do the math: There are more self-publishers with marketing backgrounds than there are marketers working in New York publishing. There are more self-publishers with backgrounds in statistics and data collection than New York has on their payroll. There are more computer experts, more graphics designers, more photographers. There are just so darned many of us, and so darned few (relatively speaking) of New York.
As an added bonus, we don’t have to pass ideas by a committee before we try them, so collectively, we have more information on crazy-ass shit that some person tried just because, hell, why not see what happens?
None of that would matter one damned bit—one person who has data expertise still might not understand what makes a good cover–except we talk to each other all the time. Participating in that conversation to some degree, staying nimble, seeing results, listening, learning as a constant matter—is where 70% of the value-added of being a self-publisher lies. The royalty rate is good, but it’s not the winner. The best self-publishers are doing things much, much better than the best publishers do. That may be hard to imagine, but it’s because taken as a whole, we have more data (most publishers don’t get the regular fine-grained data that self-publishers do, and don’t pore over it as we do) and more expertise than publishers do.
We can’t pay Amazon to put its thumb on the algorithms—but on the other hand, those who live and die by the algorithm know it better than anyone else. If you’ve followed Phoenix Sullivan’s blog series about the things she’s learned managing Steel Magnolia Press, you’d know that self-publishers collect enough information to pinpoint the exact week when Amazon shifted its algorithms to start taking book pricing into account on its lists.
I suspect that if you asked the digital sales managers at the major publishers, half of them wouldn’t know the difference between the bestsellers list and the popularity list. They might not even know that there was a popularity list. They probably wouldn’t know which list takes book price into account—not without googling.
I don’t think we’ve had a survey that accurately captures the gamut of income distribution of self-publishing**, but all the surveys we’ve seen convey some interesting information. The Taleist survey (cost: $4.99) probably has one of the most extensive crosstabs of all the available surveys, but it’s one of the older ones. The most important thing I took from that survey was this: that the people who make the most self-publishing get their information from other authors, rather than books or pundits or conferences or individual websites.
And that brings me to…
7. Being in the top percent of self-published authors takes time.
I’m not one of the very top self-published authors. I haven’t sold a million books.
But I’m firmly in the tier just below that, and I think that given the number of books I have available for sale (four full-length books plus a handful of novellas, which is ridiculously small for a self-published author), I’m doing about as well as I can with what I have.
Keeping my head in the game takes time. It means that I read a lot of blogs, and a lot of comments. I spend a good amount of time reading stuff that annoys the crap out of me. I spend time on Kboards every day to make sure I’m not missing out on anything useful. I am okay with this, because it is fun for me.
It might not be fun for you. It might be a huge drag. It might take a ton of time away from your writing. You might not do it at all, in which case, you might end up selling worse than you’d hoped.
I think you are unlikely to be one of the top self-published authors, no matter where you start traditionally, if you don’t pay attention and work on your game. That has a very real time cost.
8. Even if you are not at the very tippy top of the game, you can still make good money.
If you’re at the top of the advance heap in traditional publishing, if you’re typically a lead title, you need to know what you’re walking away from. There’s a lot of time and attention that goes into your books that is invisible to you. It won’t be invisible once you start self-publishing.
That sort of author is rare. More typical is the author who isn’t getting that kind of time and attention from her publisher. If you can manage yourself to a decent mid-list self-publishing career, you’re going to be doing pretty darned well.
Along those lines, Beverley Kendall’s survey of authors (biases: romance heavy; success-heavy) is one of the best reports on what the midlist of self-publishing can do that I’ve seen.
Where you end up depends on luck, positioning, and what you bring to the game.
9. Why I made the choice that I did.
I think the above describes what I get from self-publishing and what I put into it.
For all practical purposes, I have to make a choice about whether to self-publish. I’ve chosen the option that allows me to innovate, to pay attention, and to reap all the rewards. If I didn’t self-publish, I’d still be paying attention, but gnashing my teeth at the things my publisher wasn’t doing. At this point, I have enough feedback from reality that I know that my judgment about how to handle my books is generally good, and that I can do what it takes to move with the times and improve my market share.
But I wasn’t walking away from robust print sales, and unless and until I can regularly hit the NYT list as a self-published author—enough to give the bookselling industry enough of a jolt to push me past the anchor that is my past Bookscan numbers—it would be foolish of me to sign a contract expecting robust print sales in the future.
For me, at this point, self-publishing is less of a risk than traditional publishing. I write slowly enough, and have enough of a buffer, that the size of advance is irrelevant to me. I can’t afford is to write a book and have it not grow my audience. My choice is very much determined by who I am and where I come from.
10. Money isn’t everything.
Your books are more likely to be in libraries if you don’t self-publish. The digital divide is real and growing; if you care about accessibility of your books, you care about print. You might have independent goals aside from and in addition to making money.
On the other side of things, you may find that not having control annoys you and it’s worth leaving money on the table just so you can do it yourself.
And you know what? It’s all good. You’re not a corporate CEO, and random people on the internet aren’t stockholders in your success. They don’t get a vote. They don’t even have standing to complain. Nobody should tell you you’re making bad decisions because you’re failing to maximize your profits, and if they do, (a) they’re assholes, and (b) they should probably mention that writing books is a crappy way to make money in the first place, so give it all up and go get a real job, sucker.
You get to figure out what your priorities are. If your goal is to insert the word “goat” in as many books as you can, go for it. Fuck anyone who doesn’t like it and makes you justify your choice about what to do with your life.
11. You are in the best position to make your own decisions.
In writing this, I’m trying to convey an adequate picture of what I bring to the table. If you’re trying to make a decision, you need to know what I’m putting in, and what other self-publishers are putting in. It’s not as simple as 70% > 70%/4.
If you’re thinking of turning down a subsequent contract, you don’t need any survey, no matter how good it is, to tell you about industry averages, because that’s largely irrelevant.
You know what your digital sales are. You know what your offered advance is. You have a newsletter and a Facebook page and a twitter account (I presume you have all this, yes?) and you can get analytics from those things (and if you can’t, learn how!) and you have a rough idea how many sales you personally are bringing to the table on day one. You know what your print sales and print distribution come out to. You know if those sales are holding steady, growing, or falling. You can best judge whether you would enjoy additional tasks or resent them. You’re in the best position to judge your own skill set.
You are very likely to be the best person to make a decision about what you should do.
In some few cases, that isn’t true. Some people are not good at making business decisions. But if that’s you (and if it is, you probably don’t know it and won’t recognize it), I’m the last person who will ever tell you to self publish. See number 4: If you lack good business judgment, you’re probably going to be particularly bad at self-publishing, because now instead of making one business decision, you have to make thirty of them.
So the general rule remains: You are likely to be the best person to make good decisions for your career, and if you aren’t, you lack major markers for self-publishing success.
That’s all I have, but I know there are tons of people who have points to add. Please feel free, but try not to be an asshole.
* I can’t write the version of this blog post for the not-yet published author, or for the published-but-not-really-discovered author. That’s because I don’t know the answer to the question of how an author starts to build an audience. As a self-publisher, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how to best grow a small audience into a bigger one. All I know is that it’s a lot easier to make 1000 out of 50 than it is to make 5 out of 0. I have no experience with the latter.
** In fact, I suspect that every survey we have overestimates average self-publishing income by a substantial margin. That is because the long tail of the distribution is dominated by people whose salient feature is that nobody knows who they are. They’re not on any loops, they’re not paying attention, and they don’t know there’s a survey on.
This does not bother me. I don’t care whether the average self-published author makes $50/year, $500/year, or $5,000/year. Those are all numbers that are not a living wage. I don’t want any of those numbers, so I do my best not to be average.