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The New Era of Self-Publishing

Is everyone sick of talking about the piece in the New York Times on David Mamet and his decision to self-publish [1]? I hope not, because I’m dying to talk about it. So I’m going to…I hope you’re not already bored. If you haven’t read it, you should, especially if you’re a traditionally published author, but here’s a quick synopsis: Mamet is tired of feeling like he’s been kicked around by traditional publishers, so he’s self-publishing his next book. That’s it in a nutshell.

I read this piece and felt my pulse accelerate because, I, too, have been toying with the idea of doing my next book myself. The last time I was at Writer Unboxed, I talked about how demoralized I had felt [2] by my experiences with my most recent novel, The Song Remains the Same, and how it nearly permanently derailed my interest in pursuing fiction. I managed to rediscover my love of writing but also swore that I would write my new novel – which is now finished – only for the pure joy of doing it…and I wouldn’t allow the system and the politics and the ever-shifting uncertainty within the industry to beat me down. So…it was (and is) with this in mind that my agent and I began chatting last month about the idea of publishing the book on my own. I resisted immediately and forcefully until I started reading up on how to do it and how to do it well. And then…the seed was planted and has started to grow. BUT. But. But. But look, I was/am nervous about the idea. And full disclosure, because my career was born and raised within the framework of traditional publishers, I have never been a big fan of self-publishing. But times are changing, and I don’t like to think of myself as someone who can’t and won’t acknowledge that things need to be shaken up. So this Mamet piece couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Maybe it is time for a change. And if it is, I’d like to think that I’m the type of person who would embrace that change rather than dig my heels in deeper.

A few things, before we go further:

1) I am exploring all options now. Talking with traditional publishers but also doing my own research on how to best go about indie publishing. It is DAUNTING, and I have yet to see a lot of people do it WELL. There is a very big difference between self-publishing and self-publishing well. Also, this post is not meant to take away from the fact that I have a lot of respect for many of the people I’ve worked with and many others with whom I hope to work with within the industry. There are some amazing, amazing minds at traditional houses, and that needs to be said and acknowledged.

2) David Mamet has a platform. I think readers would be imprudent to ignore this. He can self-publish because he has built-in readers. Self-publishing as a debut/untested/unknown author is very, very different experience (I would guess), than self-publishing as an author who already has a following. I have long maintained that the marketing and publicity angle of publishing is the most difficult, and I really can’t stress that enough. Self-publishing your book almost has nothing to do with getting people to buy it. Those are two really different things – and Mamet already knows that he has the fans to buy it. I think that makes the difference here.

So, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons on my own, and I thought I’d list them here, so we can discuss what you view as your own pros and cons in self-publishing. Here’s what I’ve gotten so far:

PROS:

1) Complete control over the process. This is obviously the most appealing aspect for Mamet, and it’s also the most appealing for me. (And for many other authors I know, I’m sure.) It’s true that I am one of those people who often feel like if I want something done perfectly, I may as well do it myself, so it’s easy to understand why the “control aspect” matters to me. One thing nearly every traditionally-published writer loathes/dreads/complains about about is their total loss of control in the process once they file the manuscript. I think I’d enjoy taking ownership of every aspect.

2) Pricing. This might be more of a 1a, but the idea of being able to set my own price point is thrilling. As an author, I have never been influenced by price…I strictly buy what I’m going to buy, based on reviews, friendships, etc. But in surveying readers recently, I’ve discovered that price point is king…people will buy books they never otherwise would if it falls within a certain price range. The same theory holds in reverse: it is so very frustrating to know that an e-book, set by the publisher at $12.99, will simply not sell because readers won’t pay it. Whereas the same book, set at $5.99, would generate huge sales. I love that I can offer the book I want at the price that I want, which also happens to be the price that readers want.

3) Timing. If I were to self-publish, I could have my new book out within, probably, six months. This isn’t an “upload your Word document to Amazon” type of deal. Many of those are the self-published books that make other self-published books look bad. I would have my edited and copy-edited, print up galleys, print up real books and hire a jacket designer. These things take time, but they don’t take as much time as they would within a traditional house….where the cycle generally takes about a year, if not longer. I love the notion that this new book could get to readers by, say, late October. That makes a difference to me. (And to readers.)

4) Accountability. Here’s the truth: no one cares more about your book than you do. Not your in-house publicist (though he/she may care). Not your in-house editor (though she may care too). NO ONE. And inevitably, there will be times (many) during the publishing process when you want answers and you want attention and you want to change something, but you have to go well up the chain of command or deal with office politics or whatever. And if and when something breaks down (because it will), you will want to blame someone. At times, you’ll know exactly who to blame; other times, you won’t. If you self-publish, you only have yourself to blame…or to champion or to triumph. For a control freak like me, I welcome this accountability. I would so, so, so much rather point the finger at myself than at anyone else. (And yes, there’s a caveat here that goes back to point #1 – because I like to do things thoroughly, I also like to think that there may be less finger-pointing in the end.)

5) Earnings upside. This is a tricky one, and it can also fall into the CONS. But if your book does well, you could potentially earn bucketfuls of money. Sure, you can also earn a nice living at traditionals. (Don’t get me wrong…they have paid my bills for many years, and I am grateful.) But the royalty rate is so much higher when you do it on your own…somewhere around 70% vs. 10%. That is, quite literally, no small change.

CONS:

Let’s be honest…there are still plenty of them.

1) Expense. Unlike with traditional publishers, where YOU GET PAID upfront and then they also put in their own money (via the editor, jacket designer, etc), when you self-publish, you have to front all of your costs. Sure, if you just upload a book to Amazon, your costs are virtually nil. But again, I would want to do it right. When you add up all of the outsourced jobs – copy editor, editor, jacket design, paying for print books, publicist – you’re easily looking at 10k and likely more. (By my math and the people I’ve spoken to – there are certainly ways to trim the budget but for what my vision would require, this is about what I’m looking at.) For every dollar you sink into this venture, you have to sell that many more books. And I’m nervous about selling that many more books. Which leads me to…

2) How many books do you really sell? This is the great unknown. I have no flipping idea how many books I’d really sell. It could be 100,000; it could be 5,000. We all read about the wildly successful self-published authors, but we read about them because they are exceptions to the rule. Now, with the right price point and the right platform, I do believe that authors with a built-in readership would likely have success. (Mamet agrees.) But…who knows? It could really be a spectacular failed experiment.

3) Tough going on subsidiary rights. As someone who has earned her advance out before her book even published, I understand the value of foreign rights deals. They can certainly bring in nice (and at times, hefty) checks that either offset your initial advance (if you’ve sold World Rights) or boost your take home pay (if you’ve sold North American). Can you sell foreign rights for self-published books? My initial research tells me that yes, you can, but almost exclusively after your book as broken out as a success story. So foreign rights and editions are not something you can count on. I assume that the same is true for audio, large print, etc. And of course, film rights. Now yes, we are all seeing those deals on Deadline.com about self-published books that are now the hottest properties in Hollywood. They are the exception. It’s very difficult to sell book-to-film rights at all, much less self-published book rights. (Now…given that the probability of selling film rights isn’t high for either type of book, perhaps this isn’t such a factor. But still. It is worth noting. I’ve sold film rights to books before, and listen, it’s always better to have sold them or to have had the option of selling them than not. Is that a make it or break it point? Probably not.)

4) Loss of industry cred. I hate to even give voice to this “con,” but the truth is, that many authors wonder about it, and it’s part of the reason that more authors don’t take the leap into the indie world. So what the hell, I’m gonna talk about it. Look, the truth is this: the traditionally published world looks down on self-published novels. That may be changing, but generally speaking, this is true. (Or was true…again, the winds are shifting.) And even though it feels juvenile and silly, it is hard to know that people may not take you as seriously because you’ve chosen this path. Mamet may have done a lot to change perception. But still, it’s daunting. It’s not enough to deter me, but sure, after working for years to establish respect within the industry, it’s tough to think that people would consider me…I don’t know…less professional? Oh well. I’ve never cared enough about outside perception to change my behavior before. But still. This is a big factor that must be acknowledged: authors do NOT want to be thought of as amateurs, and just the notion of “self-publishing” can do that. (Like it or not.)

5) You’re out of luck at bookstores. Okay, some people I’ve spoken to say that you can sell copies to bookstores. I’m dubious. If you can, you sell very few. Barnes and Noble and indie stores have entire sales teams pitching them…not many are paying attention to the self-published author who hope the stores will stock her book. Library sales are possible (again, from what I’ve learned in speaking with people), but again, large quantities are hard to come by. Now…given how well e-books sell and given that a self-published author may be able to move a ton of books because of a certain price point, the math may well even out on this. Ie: if you sell a crapload of books online because of your lowered price, you may well outsell the quantity you’d have sold at BN or indies anyway. But it’s hard to know. And it’s always nice to be in stores when you can be. (Of course.)

6) It’s a heck of a lot of work. One thing that cannot be understated is how much work goes into producing a good book. The traditional publishers know this, and they do it well. I don’t think anyone is arguing that publisher don’t publish well…it’s that times have changed, and now, perhaps, at times, with some authors, (see all my caveats there?), they don’t sell well. And I mean this: some publishers do. Some are still totally great at their jobs, and if they beat down my door, I would publish with them in a heartbeat. But all of that aside, what a traditional publisher offers you is all of the things that you have to wrangle on your own, should you self-publish. The fact-checking (ugh, my least favorite), the copy-editing (also hate that), the editing with a smart editor (invaluable), the jacket design, the marketing, the publicity, etc. Of course all of this can be taken on solo. There is no doubt that it can be. Mamet believes it. And I believe it…every day, I believe it more. But self-publishing is, essentially, akin to launching a company. It’s entrepreneurial. Not all authors would be savvy at launching companies, and with good reason…many companies fail. So there is an assurance that comes with signing onto a traditional publisher: that they will do the heavy lifting. That you can focus on the book. I guess the question I’m asking myself is…is focusing on my book enough? And if I do the heavy lifting, can I lift it higher, faster, better and more brightly than anyone else can?

I don’t yet know my answer. Whatever I decide, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts. Traditionally published authors…what say you? Is this a leap you’d be willing to make?

 

About Allison Winn Scotch [3]

Allison Winn Scotch [4] is the bestselling author of six novels, including IN TWENTY YEARS, THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES, and TIME OF MY LIFE. Her seventh novel, BETWEEN ME AND YOU, will be released on January 9th, 2018. In addition to fiction, she pens celebrity profiles for a variety of magazines, which justifies her pop culture obsession and occasionally lends to awesome Facebook status updates. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. For more about her and her books, go to allisonwinn.com or follow her on Twitter at @aswinn.

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