To self-publish or not to self-publish?

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Joe Konrath asserts that you should self-publish (meaning self-publish in eb00k format, primarily) and offers his reasons for that view.  Among other things, he lists many self-published authors who appear to be doing well, in some cases very well.

Like a lot of authors, I’ve wrestled with this issue.    At this point, I’ve self-published only a collection of my short fiction, Ephemera: Dark Stories from the mind of Paul S. Kemp.  I’ve been pleased with the results, so much so that I’m now debating whether or not to self-publish my supernatural thriller, Azazel.

In this case, the benefit of self-publishing is obvious.  There’s no barrier to entry, no publishing gatekeeper to keep Azazel out of the marketplace.   If I want to publish it, I can (I hasten to add that I think Azazel is high-quality work and have some basis for that view:  many agents wanted to represent it, and it came that close — and I mean that close — to getting picked up by a publisher with whom I would have loved to be associated.  But it did not, in the end, sell, and I hate the thought of it not getting read).

Of course, the gatekeepers serve a purpose — in theory they choose to publish quality work that they believe will sell, and they reject the rest (whether they do this job well is another question entirely).   More importantly, they put their money where their mouth is by paying authors an advance against expected sales.  On average, for a debut genre author, this advance is in the neighborhood of $5-6K.  Not great, but better than a stick in the eye.

Obviously, there’s no advance in self-publishing.  In fact, there are probably expenses that the author must bear, in the form of payments for cover art and (maybe) copy editing or other editorial assistance.   That’s okay, though, because there are big royalties coming, right?  After all, if you self-publish through Amazon, you’ll earn 70% royalties on your eb0ok sales, as opposed to 17.5% on your ebooks sales under contracts with traditional publishers.

Ah, but this is where the law of large numbers starts to urge caution, or at least reminds us to enter into the self-publishing arena with our eyes wide open.

Joe’s list of financially successful self-published authors is impressive, and I’m sure there are many, many more that he does not name.  But there are an enormous number of self-pubbed books put out every year (anyone have a number?) and I suspect that the vast, vast number of them sell copies in the double digits (if that).  If that’s true, then most self-published authors don’t make enough from their annual book earnings to buy themselves and their spouse a nice dinner.

On the other hand, publishing with a traditional, large-press publisher all but guarantees a chunk of money that you’ll probably notice (recall the $5K advance from above).  But getting through the gatekeepers to actually get published is a challenge of another sort (as my friend and colleague Elaine Cunningham observed on Twitter).

So a very large percentage of self-pubbed ebooks (99.99%?) will sell a negligible number of copies, earning the author next to nothing.  And a very large percentage of traditionally published books will earn the author $5K or more (putting a financial “floor” under the writer’s earnings), but the odds are strongly against breaking into traditional publishing (99.99%?).

Which way to go?  I wish I knew.  I think self-publishing makes sense in some circumstances (obviously, since I’ve done it).   But I think the kind of advice Joe gives paints far too rosy a picture of the self-pubbed author’s prospects, mostly because Joe highlights a few success stories, instead of the millions of other self-published authors who sell almost nothing (to be clear, the success stories are very much worth highlighting, they could just use some context).

The hard truth is that if you self-publish, it’s very likely that you’ll sell a tiny number of copies.   If you can break out, you might be able to earn a respectable sum, even a lot (as Joe seems to do).  As long as your eyes are wide open about that, then go forth and self-publish.

And the hard truth is that if you pursue the traditional publishing route, it’s very likely that you’ll get rejected.  If you get accepted, you’re all but guaranteed a decent sum, and could earn a lot.  As long as your eyes are wide open about that, then go forth and seek traditional publication.

Me?  I’m still noodling this. 🙂

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7 Comments

  1. Pingback: January 4, 2011 « Paul S. Kemp, Fictioneer

  2. Nick Vertodoulos

    I think in your case Paul you have a loyal fan following that would go a long ways toward ensuring more than a few copies would be purchased of Azazel if you self-published that book (which I hope I get to read!).

    I bought and read Ephemera and thought it was a bargain for the entertainment value.

  3. I have wrestle with this as well. On one hand, I have a novel and part of a sequel written and I would like to self publish it this way, as I know that it isn’t on par with a Martin or Tolkien, I doubt it will be made into anything other than a book.

    However, I wrote a children’s fable and had my daughter illustrate it. I have yet to shop it, but I do think it could become more than the simple fable I wrote. It could become a movie or animated tale… Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t publishing through an Amazon or like retailer, usually forfeit my rights to the work as the author, something Stephen King ran into the Carrie, I believe.

    -Brian, anxiously awaiting Godborn and more of the Walking Dead.

  4. For a new or relatively unknown writer self-publishing seems like a rather precarious route to getting your work “out there,” but for an established author it might work out very well.

    I think if you’re comfortable with the idea of taking a gamble, trying a test run with a book to see if your fans are willing to make the leap to a fully digital form might be a good idea.

    One thing you potentially lose through self-publishing though would be the bookstore browser. These are the people (myself included) who casually browse the shelves looking for something to jump out at them. That puts you at risk of not attracting new readers unless your fans put out the word.

  5. I’ve had many discussions with friends over the topic of self-publishing. I’m young and have aspirations as a writer that are mostly crippled by a lack of self-confidence. A few of my friends have recommended that I self publish a few of my stories to see what kind of a response I get, with the side bonus that if I fluke out on lottery scale proportions I may make some money.

    I’ve looked into it and found that Paul is right, the majority of self published authors sell in very small numbers and make very little money, so as a way to get ahead in the business it’s probably more of a gamble than a shortcut. Nick is probably correct on the matter of Azazel. I’d like to believe that a writer with a loyal fanbase and proven record like Paul could do well off self publishing, not to mention that as a fan I’d like to read it!

    But, self publishing could be a very good way to make a start in the business, since it allows a writer to create a readership without the ‘middle-man’ aspect of a publisher acting as a potential hurdle.

    This is definitly a subject that bears a lot of thought and observation.

    • You know, after I posted, I went on Createspace, the Amazon company that does this. I was astounded at the costs for getting your title put together. Costs directly placed upon the author.

      I knew then that this isn’t something I wish to do. I am a writer, I get paid for my writing, not the other way around. Maybe a good way would be to start off getting into a lit magazine? I get rejection letters, it doesn’t bother me, but like you, I am afraid to “pull the trigger.” I need an assistant that could do all the “selling.” I guess that is what an agent is for…

      But the costs were prohibitive to my even considering self publishing and with Createspace your work still must meet approval. Which kind of begs the question: Then what am I paying for?

  6. Michael W. Tucker

    Paul and Soon-to-Be Successful Authors,

    Absolutely, positively, no-doubt whatsoever, whether you have made “a name” for yourself yet or not, 100% SELF-PUBLISH.

    You will look back from this a few years from now and still see the intellectual side of the debate, but your heart will gloat that it was always a “No-Brainer” when you realize how much more money (NET Profit!) you made, even taking into account your “failures.”

    Not to mention all that time you saved because you are no longer jumping through hoops, you used it to write more quality stuff that is going to continue to make money for the rest of your life.

    Just do it. Pull the trigger and ride the bullet.

    If you are afraid of marketing and sales, stop everything else that you are doing in life and get yourself a copy of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. You can Google a free PDF copy or get it from your local library.

    Make money or make excuses, your choice.

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