I’ve had conversations with a few friends outside the publishing industry lately who tell me that they think self publishing is the way to go for their fiction. They’ve got a lot of reasons for it, but the one that stands out is that they think they can make more money by self-publishing, because writers make so little per book that unless you’re a hit, publishers don’t pay any attention to you and you’d be better off hiring a PR firm to market your book.
There are so many things I’d like to dispute in this thinking about the industry, not least of which that you only get PR attention if your book is already big (not true). While self publishing can be quite successful for very particular purposes–for example, independent comic artists tend to do better by self publishing (see my friend Howard at Schlock Mercenary for a great example)–and it can definitely serve writers who only have a limited audience in mind–as a family historian, I can tell you I’m looking forward to using LuLu or a similar service for several personal projects for which the only audience would be my family, and I know one friend who wrote a picturebook for her daughter and wanted to have it published in time for the daughter to be able to enjoy it, and felt that any other sales she might get would be a bonus–in general, for fiction, self-publishing is a sure way to ensure you spend a lot of money and that few people will ever see your book.
If you’re okay with that and have money to spare, go for it. But if you want your book to sell to a wide audience, especially if you’d like to make a living at your writing, self-publishing is definitely not the way to go, even if you know someone at a PR firm who would do some google-bombing and social networking for you. There are some very few exceptions—very few. Out of the several thousand self-published books every year, about 5, tops, break out enough to actually make a profit for the writer and/or get picked up by a trade publisher, and few more are actually well-written*. That’s not really very good odds, especially if the author is paying out of pocket for the PR and marketing.
Let’s break it down and talk about why this is. I’m pretty sure the majority of my readers will have heard this kind of thing before, especially if they frequent blogs like Writer Beware. But let’s assume a lack of basic knowledge of publishing for this post, because that’s where these friends, most of whom fall into the ‘would like to write someday” category, are coming from.
What’s in it for me?
Such prospective writers might think that a publisher is just plain greedy and is hogging all the money to themselves. Why not just get a bigger piece of the pie by publishing the book themselves—then even if it’s just a little bit more money, they’d still be making a better margin than the small percentage an author makes in a deal with a publishing house.
But there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on at a publisher that a writer might not be aware of until he or she starts talking to people already in the industry, going to conventions and conferences, and just in general learning what it takes to get that lovely story from manuscript to beautiful, hardcover or paperback, finished book on a bookstore shelf.
What a good publisher contributes so that you don’t have to
While I agree that what most authors make per book can be harsh, that’s the reality of the book business. Most publishers don’t make that much, either–overhead of editors, art directors, and designers (and don’t discount the importance of a good editor, let alone somebody to make the book actually look good) takes up a small chunk, and then there’s the illustrator or photographer for the cover, and then there’s the overhead of production staff (typesetters, prepress staff), and then there’s the cost of printing the book–the price of which goes up all the time, due to the cost of freight, paper, etc.–and that all depends on the length of the run. Smaller runs (for example, self-published runs, which rarely go higher than 2000 books) are usually exorbitant because the cost per unit is smaller with increasing volume.
And don’t underestimate the contribution of a talented editor and design/art team to making your book more marketable and enjoyable. (Don’t get me started on the so-called “editing” of a vanity press. And the horror that is the covers and interior design of most self-published books… *shudder*) Few authors are able to bring forth a manuscript that needs no editing whatsoever—writing groups can be helpful, but the partnership with an editor who knows the particular market is an entirely different thing. It is an editor’s job to take that manuscript and shape it, mold it into the best story you have ever told. We’ve been trained in education and job experience to know what the market needs and to help you perfect your style and all those other things that a second pair of eyes can do. The different perspective of a like-minded professional makes such a difference, and it’s one that pretty much no self-published book I’ve ever seen benefits from.
Young readers especially are not even going to bother to pick up a book if it’s not packaged well. That means quality binding, beautiful artwork, nice finishes on the paper, clean and beautiful interior design, perhaps interior artwork. Who will illustrate your cover for you? Who will buy the fonts and design them? Do you really have either the money to hire an illustrator or photographer and know how to negotiate a contract for that, or the ability to illustrate or photograph and design your own cover? Do you own InDesign or QuarkXpress and can you make your book look as beautiful as the books on the shelves of the bookstores?
We’re living in a golden age of children’s and YA literature, and if a book’s cover doesn’t measure up, few kids will pick it up to know whether it’s worth reading or not.
So here’s our list so far:
- illustrator (dust jacket, interior art)
- art director
- prepress staff (prepare book for printer, get quotes from printer, and other business-related liaising with printer)
Add to that other behind-the-scenes staff that you might not think of right away. How do you get a book listed in the Library of Congress? Most publishers have someone who submits the book for cataloging in publishing data. Did you know that the Library of Congress will not catalog self-published books?
And what about legal protection? If you self-publish, you will be the one legally responsible for what’s in your book. The legal team at a publisher usually reviews books as they head out to press to be sure that copyright and other legal information is correct, that contracts are in order, and all sorts of things that I can’t even begin to list because even I don’t know them all—but I do know that our legal team is always working hard and helping to make sure that all the legal details are considered. A contract between the author and publisher affords the author some legal protections—not a lack of responsibility, obviously, but it’s a partnership.
So we can add to the list:
- Library of Congress
But wait! There’s more!
Just the fact that the book can get printed by a printer who has access to higher-end paper, cover paper with nice glosses and varnishes and foil—these are things that few who self-publish could afford. When it’s right for a book, a trade publisher is more able to fit these kinds of things into the budget (not always of course—there are always sacrifices that have to be made—but it’s definitely more in the realm of possibility).
The publisher’s connections
Now let’s take this book out of the printer and off to the market—to the influencers. While the marketing and PR budgets for a publisher vary greatly depending on the book, they’ve got the force of a whole catalog list behind them, not to mention the publisher name, sales force contacts with each and every bookstore in the nation, especially the ability to get it into the chains, which have one buyer they have to convince for a whole network of bookstores.
If you’re self-publishing, it’s pretty rare to get your book into a bookstore unless you have connections at a local independent, and getting a self-published book into the chains is nigh on impossible unless you’re Christopher Paolini or one of the other five breakouts I referred to above. Few bookstore buyers want to deal with self-published books because they don’t give a discount like the big publishers will and won’t take returns.
That doesn’t even get into the review side of things, which are tough all over, too. Google-bombing and social network sites only do so much–you have to have a quality site to link to, which requires money to build, and you have to have people running that site with content. Perhaps this is where a PR firm might come in handy, but from my experience, you’d rather have your PR firm getting you in local media, getting interviews with your local radio stations and with bloggers in your field, getting press releases out to widely-read news outlets, and most importantly, getting your book the attention of the trade press such as PW or Kirkus, in either reviews or articles (as it applies). Few reviewers will review self-published books—and that includes bloggers with any kind of influence. Your PR is the way you reach booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents–all those gatekeepers that are between the publisher and the book. A good PR firm knows what influences each of these parties in their different ways, because each has particular needs and agendas.
- marketing team
- sales team
- PR team
Granted, a lot of this kind of publicity is harder to get for a midlist author nowadays, but authors who are willing to work with their trade publishers at publicity will find that they don’t have to do it all. Authors need to get involved in the publicity of their books through reaching out to their community—school visits, library activities, local bookstore signings, throwing a launch party, talking to your local paper, etc. (I’ll have to do a post on author promotional tools sometime!)—and should be willing to attend conventions and conferences. This kind of grassroots publicity will then be a support to whatever marketing and publicity a publisher is able to give, and the author doesn’t end up having to do her job plus the job of a whole team of professionals. They can work in concert with each other, supporting each other’s efforts.
One argument I’ve heard is that an author might be more successful in a niche market with a targeted web site than having a bookstore presence. While this may be true if you already have a built-in following (see my webcomic example), for most authors if you’re not already a household name to at least several thousand, if not tens of thousands, of people, then it’s a pretty hard sell.
Few people buy fiction through websites other than the standard bookselling ones. From what I understand, Amazon itself only accounts for 5% of the bookselling market. Those booklovers who do buy from Amazon tend to buy in large quantities, but those quantities usually consist of books they’ve looked at in a brick and mortar store or the library, and/or read reviews of in reputable review outlets. And as we already discussed, it’s very, very hard to get a self-published book reviewed by a reputable outlet. With something in the neighborhood of 2000-5000 children’s books published by publishing companies every year (I’m not sure of the exact number, as it fluctuates), it’s hard enough to get those reviewed, let alone the self-published books. Many reviewers won’t even review original paperbacks but even if they do, they often draw the line at self-published works.
Beware scam artists
If none of this daunts you and you’re thinking of self publishing, then you need to be extra cautious. Check out Preditors and Editors, Writer Beware, and the Writer Beware blog to ensure you’re not sucked into a scam vanity publisher.
What it costs
All of this costs money, capital that most authors don’t (and shouldn’t have to) possess. That is the strength of a traditional publisher
Have you ever seen a P&L for a publisher? That’s mostly a rhetorical question, since most are proprietary. What it comes down to is this: given the cost of all those services I listed above, and add in the author’s royalty, compare that to the list price, expected sales, and however many returns and discounts a publisher might be giving to a bookseller, and what you come out with are margins that are *extremely* low.
None of us are in it for the money, and there are definite market advantages to what a real publisher offers.
*And believe me, I see a lot of the other kind in my slush pile. (DO NOT think that self-publishing will get you the attention of a real publisher. In fact, it will ensure that book will never see the light of day from a regular publisher in most cases except for the very rare exceptions.)
Also, one reader asks:
No doubt you don’t need anyone to tell you this, but I wish SP folks realized that the places to advertise their book are not 1) editors–since if it’s already published they don’t need an editor (see Editorial Anonymous), 2) agents, since you can’t rep a book that’s already been published, and 3) boards for writers to discuss craft and traditional publishing. SP is not for me, but maybe a few pointers on where it IS appropriate to plaster your ads would be helpful to those who want to do it?
This is a very good question. Anyone want to tackle this in the comments? I’d say stay out of my inbox, stay off my Myspace, and please don’t market to me as an editor, period. I don’t want to see previously published stuff in my slush pile because I can’t publish previously published work.
I do think that especially if you’re writing science fiction and fantasy, you should be going to as many fan conventions as possible to market to actual readers. Sometimes school visits work. I know that Eragon did so well because his family packed up a van and traveled across the country selling it–I don’t know where. Was it at flea markets? Something like that–someone correct me, as I don’t have time to google it. Whatever it was, they did a great job and it ended up being successful for them. But just know that it’s going to be a big, uphill battle if you go the self-publishing route, and that when you act as your own publisher, you’re going to have to fill all the roles of the people I listed above, or hire them out yourself. That’s a lot to juggle, and for most people, they’d rather just be in charge of their writing, period. They’re willing to do the self promotion because it’s a necessary evil in this market–and because it connects them with readers.