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Self-publishing Is Not a Pipe Dream

April 11, 2010

So, over here, there is a discussion about self-publishing. From a guy who works in sales for a publishing house. Because, you know, when I want to know if I should self-publish my novel, I want to talk to a guy in sales at a publisher. Well, a lot of the comments really irked me, and so I felt the need to write a response of sorts here. I’ve just put their comments (both from the initial blog post and those who commented to it) with my response mainly because there is misinformation given with the usual bias towards traditional publishing.

Their quotes are in italics.

***

While I do think that going with a company like Lulu is the lesser of two evils, there are a number of caveats attached.

Let me stop you right there.

Vanity publishing has been called many things, but rarely, I think, the ‘lesser’ of two evils. Lulu, AuthorSolutions, CreateSpace… these people are middle men. You send your manuscript to them, and they turn around and send it to LSI (or their printer of choice) for printing. And, for that, they take 40-60% of your profit.

Alternatively, for a small initial investment (I know, I’ve done it), of setting up a business and purchasing an ISBN and barcode (or, more economically, a block of ISBNs), an author can contract with LSI directly for the printing and keep all the profit. Granted, if you only intend to ever intend to write and publish one book, then maybe a vanity press is a better investment in the long run, but very few authors ever intend to write a single book.

While it’s true that the traditional publishing model screens out a fair amount of good, salable material, it also screens out the most abominable garbage you’ve never seen.

The first part of that sentence is the most important. “While it’s true that the traditional publishing model screens out a fair amount of good” — full stop. Publishing houses are profit machines. They always have been, and they always will be. They are not interested in public welfare or the individual careers of their authors. They want to make money, and if they don’t think they can make money with your book, they won’t print it, no matter how good it is. On the other hand, if they think the public can be duped into shelling out $24.99 for it, they will plaster the shelves with it, no matter how bad it is. The Dan Browns and Stephanie Meyers of the world have exploited this to great advantage.

Just because you’ve got a NY contract and are on the NYT Bestseller list does not mean it’s a good book, plain and simple. It just means you’ve sold a lot of copies… And who knows, when your royalty statement comes in a year from now, you might see half those books were returned and you owe your publishing company those royalties back.

And for those good books that publishing houses turn down, self-publishing is a viable option. Those authors should not be expected to shelve those manuscripts in favor of whatever fad of the week agents and publishers are looking for.

Nobody wants to read paranormal romances anymore. Why? Because the market was flooded with them. Nobody wants to read steampunk anymore. Why? Because the market was flooded with it. Nobody wants to read vampires anymore. Why? Because the market was flooded with them. Right now, the fad is reworked classics with a horror twist (please, someone gag me, I think those are horrid), and the publishing houses are churning them out to make as much money as they can before everyone gets sick of it and declare it a dead genre. Then, they pick something new and cram it down our throats until we can’t stand it anymore, and then they move on to the next thing. Over and over, making every penny they can from every page they sell.

That’s their job. Make money. They don’t care about artistic integrity or what you want for your cover. They don’t work for the authors, the authors work for them, and not even for a living wage. This is the driving force of traditional publishing, and in the end, if you have a shitty manuscript or a great manuscript, it’s a coin toss whether or not you’ll get picked up.

The quality of self-published material is, on average, unequivocally far inferior to the quality of traditionally published material. Almost without exception, every writer benefits from a good editor.

The assumption that no self-published author uses an editor is false. Yes, there are plenty that don’t, but for those of us who are really serious about going that route, it’s essential to us. I wouldn’t dream of publishing a book that has not been edited by a freelance editor who has the skills to do that job. Too often, the term ‘self-publishing’ has been conflated with ‘unedited’ or ‘unprofessional’, and it’s not universally true. Nor are unedited, unprofessional works exclusive to self-publishing. Plenty of traditionally published books are rife with typos, formatting errors, bad writing, and plot holes one could drive a truck through.

Bad editing is not exclusive to one format of writing.

Second, I can’t stress this enough: you should not self-publish out of frustration or the belief that your book is “too good” or “too smart” for the average agent or reader.

This is probably one of few statements in this post that I am in total agreement. Self-publishing isn’t easy, and it should not be done for any of these reasons.

I’ve yet to meet any independent authors who have given any of those as their reason. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and that plenty of the authors on services like Lulu who do feel this way. But, among those authors who are vocal about being independent, and having chosen self-publishing after careful consideration, “too smart” and “too good” are not the reasons we do it. A desire to retain creative control… A disillusionment with the fickle nature of the industry… A desire to keep 100% of the profit… These are reasons to self-publish, not out of frustration or an undeserved ego-trip.

Third, if you are dead-set on self-publishing, I recommend you do your research and go with a company like Lulu that specializes in this sort of thing. While self-publishing via an outside party can signal to industry professionals that you’re (potentially) impatient or overly confident of your abilities, it at least earns you the opportunity to have your work showcased in a somewhat professional manner (and we do hear the very occasional story of a self-published novel being picked up by an agent).

This statement assumes every writer has the same goal: be noticed, get the NY contract, cash in. Wrong. A lot of independent authors didn’t start out submitting to agents and mainstream publishers, have no desire to be picked up by a mainstream publisher, and have, in fact, turned down offers by mainstream publishers. Some of us prefer to keep control of our work and own the rights to our creations, plain and simple.

Hell, most people who are picked up by mainstream publishers never earn a living wage or gain any sort of fame, so why don’t I just publish my own works the way I want and reap the same mid-list rewards without having to share it with 20 other people? In short, different people have different goals for their writing, and it’s a mistake to assume that a traditional, mainstream publisher is part of everyone’s dream.

Opening your own press to publish your work (and no one else’s), on the other hand, will not only be perceived as the height of hubris and ignorance of how this business actually works, but will probably cost you far more money than a basic Lulu-type package (assuming you actually shell out the money to do it right).

This is akin to saying don’t spend the money to open up your own business to promote your own ideas and products, but buy a Taco Bell franchise instead and churn out the same cheap, bad food as everybody else. Hubris? Really?

You know, writing is the only profession where it is still considered unacceptable to be your own boss. Every week, it seems like, on the FoodNetwork, people are spotlighted and revered for having the courage to leave their high-profile, high-paying corporate jobs to open a hole-in-the-wall diner that they run themselves. Independent musicians are often lauded as visionaries. And I’ve never heard of a painter or sculptor who was ostracized for daring to go freelance with their work. But the propaganda machine, spearheaded by the publishing companies (and helped along heartily by other traditionally published authors and their agents), has laid a stigma on independent authors that is only in recent years begun to be challenged as technology has allowed for easier and cheaper means to publish independently.

It is true that making the investment to start a business would be significantly greater than simply paying Lulu to print your book. However, a serious independent author who is looking at this as a career is not seeing it in terms of the immediate, but sees it as a long-term investment. One that will give greater returns over time. I’ll offer up my own financial information here for comparisons.

1. Creating the LLC to publish under: $392.95 (which included our state filing fees and the filing for our EIN) — mind you, we could have done all the paperwork ourselves and only paid the filing fees, but we’re not lawyers and would rather pay the professionals to do it for us. Thus, it cost us a little more.

2. ISBN block: $250 for 10 ISBNs, which will last us through two years (keeping with our planned rate of releases)

That’s just to create the business as the accounts with the bank and LSI cost us nothing to create. For about $650, we created our publishing house with the base tools needed.

Our first book, Rachmaninoff, will cost us an initial set-up fee with LSI of $75, $30 for our proof copy (+ overnight delivery, as required by LSI), $12 a year for wholesale distribution, and $3.90 per book ordered. Lulu, on the other hand, does not charge a set-up fee, but does charge $75 for distribution beyond Amazon.com, $42.50 for your proof copy (+ overnight delivery, comparing apples to apples here), and $5.50 per book ordered. Additionally, Lulu will take a percentage of the royalties off of your book, something LSI will not do.

In the short term, Lulu is cheaper for set-up, but in the long-term, you will see a quicker return on your investment and begin to profit faster by going to the printer. In practical terms, by going through LSI, I can list Rachmaninoff at a retailer for $14.99 (which is competitive for a POD trade paperback erotic romance) and made $2.84 a book. Going through Lulu with the same cover price, nets me only $1.59 in profit. And were this book traditionally published, I would see far less than that… as little as $0.60 a book.

A $9.99 domain name and a bunch of .pdfs of your novels available for paid download does not a professional press make.

This is a strawman argument. No one has ever claimed that something like that would be a professional press. A professional press is an incorporated and legal entity that produces published works. This completely ignores the idea that you can contract with a printer and offer printed books without paying for vanity publishing.

In short, Eric has done no research into the process but is spewing the same partyline that most of those in mainstream publishing do.

Now, onto some of the comments in response to his post…

For all that, he keeps himself fed, clothed, and housed, but not a whole lot more. It’s not like he’s living in an eight bedroom mansion with a butler bringing him caviar on crackers at the ring of a silver bell.

I don’t know a single author who has that. Even million dollar book-deal authors don’t live like this, and the only reason one would even point that out is to downplay his success. He earns enough self-publishing to live. Wow. How terrible! He’s able to do more than the vast majority of traditionally published mid-list authors are able to do. Every year, when I go to writers’ conventions, and talk with these authors, I am constantly reminded that for the majority, writing does not pay the bills. These authors are working full-time jobs in addition to writing, and usually have a significant other who is working full-time and adding to the household income. So, the fact this author self-publishes and is doing better than a large percentage of traditional publishers, should be evidence enough that it can be done if you’re willing to put in the work.

Otherwise, do as Eric says: focus on improving your writing, keep querying, and someday you might get the break you’ve _earned_.

This implies that by self-publishing, an independent authors deserves none of the success they reap from their work. They haven’t “earned” it by having to shill themselves out to 30 agents until someone finally thinks they can use the author’s work to make money and agrees to take them on. As much as that “earned” statement annoys me, what really rubs me wrong in the statement is the “might”. That “might” gets me. These authors acknowledge the fact that even if you do everything right, even if you have a great book that is well-edited and strong and salable, that you might not be published.

I can’t even fathom that. I can imagine spending years of my life knowing — and accepting — that there’s a good chance I will never see any return on the time I’ve put in. Would you work for someplace like that? Show up day in, day out, do your job, do your work, knowing that unless you are in the top 1% of your company, and get very, very lucky, you’ll never get a paycheck? And yet, the authors who aspire to mainstream publishing are all right with that.

Well, I — and my fellow independent authors — are not.

One additional point of which those considering self-publishing should be aware is that a self-published author is not eligible for many author guilds and organisations(sic) and does not qualify for many/most awards. It’s also very rare for anyone (with a sizeable(sic) audience) to review anything self-published. And a large amount of people will dismiss the content of a self-published book without even a glance.

1. Not everyone needs the validation of author guilds, organizations, or awards in order to feel accomplished as an author. Many of those author guilds and organizations have agendas of their own, and when you look closely enough, they’re not pretty. Awards are also basically popularity contests for grown-ups. I outgrew such things in high school.

2. There are many review sites on the ‘net whose sole job it is to review self-published works. Also, at least in my chosen genre, many review sites have no problem reviewing self-published material. But, the key here is that, if you’ve self-published shit, be prepared for a reviewer to go to town on you. Be sure you want your piece reviewed, and if it gets a negative review, accept it gracefully.

3. A properly self-published book is indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. If you can tell it was self-published, then it wasn’t done right.

For non-fiction, self-publishing is a very viable option.

I am so tired of this statement. It shows the fear traditional authors hold for great, self-published books. It’s always the fiction writers telling the independent authors they’ll fail if publishing fiction. But, man, if you publish a non-fiction book on model trains, whoa, you’ll make a killing!

***

Bottom line is that these people don’t know because they haven’t done any research and they have no desire to be independent authors. And the people who are asking them about self-publishing aren’t looking for information — they’re looking to be talked out of it. Because if they were really interested in learning about self-publishing, they’d ask self-published authors themselves. Instead, what they want is to be told that self-publishing is a crap shoot that requires lots and lots of hard work that most people just aren’t capable or willing to do so that they can feel better about the crap shoot that requires lots and lots of hard work that represents the traditional publishing route that they’ve been conditioned to believe it the One True Way.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 13, 2010 10:48 pm

    Don’t get too rustled by his comments – he is merely a Sales ASSISTANT, not much more than a Shop Assistant. PLUS he is part of the establishment that sees the world changing around them yet they cling anyway to the days when they had power and control. He’ll be out of a job before you know it – you’ll get the last laugh.

  2. April 13, 2010 11:02 pm

    I know what forces those in traditional, mainstream publishing to lash out at those of us who shun that path is fear of a changing system they have relied on for a very long time. When authors can do for themselves — or contract individually with those freelancers to do what we can’t — agents and massive publishing houses start to see their own profit margin dwindle.

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