I’ve made two posts with the title Should I self-publish? before, a few years ago. The focus of the first post was shooting yourself in the foot with the publishing industry which, once upon a time declared you persona-non-grata if you self-published a single thing. Remember that time? Ridiculous!
The second post was about concerns of quality of self-published books, when we were all having “oceans of crap” conniptions and we wanted to stop the great unwashed putting up crap. You know what? Crap got published, a lot of it. We didn’t all drown in a vast sea of word-vomit.
Yes, you should be concerned about the quality of your book if you self-publish. But be concerned about the quality of books that other people publish? Nup. You have better things to do.
OK, so since this post is not going to be about those things, then what is it going to be about?
It’s about career choices.
It is about: if you want to have a shot at achieving an aim, should you self-publish?
First: define the aim.
What do you want to do achieve with your writing?
Let’s walk through a few scenarios that will hopefully make the choices and opportunities clearer.
1. Do you want to win awards?
The literary and award circuit relies heavily on a peer review network, even if this is not immediately obvious. Voters for voted awards are predominantly other writers. Judges in judged awards are often writers, too. Behind the scenes, everyone knows one another. Nor in a bad way, but simply because the scene is small.
It is incredibly difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to get into this circuit if your works have not been peer reviewed (as in: selected by an editor, who is also part of the network).
If winning awards is your game, don’t self-publish.
2. Do you want to see your book in a bookshop?
Often I see questions from people who have self-published who dream of seeing their name on bookshelves for the world to purchase.
I have my book on some very pretty worldwide bookshelves. They’re called Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google Play and Barnes & Noble. You can even buy a print book at some of these places, delivered directly to your door.
Oh, you mean real bookshops?
It’s not impossible. A number of years ago, before ebooks, I published a non-fiction book. It pitched it to publishers, but they all said no* and I thought screw it, I know where the market is, I’ll do it myself. So I did. I had the book printed in full colour in Hong Kong, and then manually wrote to 800 Australian bookshops. Sold a buttload of copies. My book is in something like 64 public libraries in Australia, and most university libraries.
Sounds like a lot of work? You bet it was! I was lucky because I wrote non-fiction in a niche subject where there were no other books. If you write fiction, bookshops have many other, similar books than they can stock and that are much easier and less risky for them to keep on their shelves. They have accounts with books distributors who give them at least 40% discount, and have this awful thing called a returns policy that allows the shop to return the book if it doesn’t sell within 30 days.
Schlepping physical books to bookshops is soooo 2001. Returns and accounts are an absolute pain in the butt. They might be interested if you’re an authority on a non-fiction subject, but they probably don’t want your self-published fiction unless you’re a friend or a local.
We have ebooks now. They cost nothing to send and nothing to print. Self-publishing means overwhelmingly selling ebooks.
Want print books on bookshelves? Find a publisher to handle all this crap for you. They have the inroads, they have the reps, they have the computer setup.
3. Do you see writing as a fun hobby?
One assumption embedded in this question is that you have sufficient income and have no necessity or great wish to make money from your writing.
You are totally free to submit to publishers to see if you can crack the door, or to self-publish and become part of the community.
Most likely, you will have a day job so not much time to devote to writing and publishing-related things. This will limit your sales, especially on the self-publishing side.
But, you know, you can publish a book and see what happens, or at least allow all your friends to get a copy.
4. Do you eventually want to pay some or all of your bills?
This article made some waves when it came out. Shock, horror! Authors don’t make a liveable wage! There was also this article for Australian authors, with even worse figures of only $12,000 per year. Both articles are about traditionally published authors only.
Author Earnings is attempting to fill in some of the strange omissions made by people who report on the publishing industry. About 30% of ebooks on Amazon don’t have ISBNs and get omitted from the publisher reports. The ISBN-less books are almost exclusively self-published. In one of the latest Author Earnings reports, they estimated the income of bestselling authors of all types on Amazon, without having to rely on self-reporting by those authors.
OK, this is about authors who already sell well. What about if you’re just starting?
I quote from the Huffington Post article:
7. Believing that “traditional” is better, no matter what.
This mindset will limit your publishing opportunities. I’ve seen authors languish for years (literally) in the space of trying to find an agent or waiting for an agent to secure a publishing deal. Traditional publishing is also suffering in two distinct ways: the barriers to entry are so high that it’s alienating its base; and it’s so focused on author platform and “big books” that it’s losing relevance fast. Many more authors than ever before are opting out of traditional publishing for more control and better profit margins on their sales. It’s cool to aspire to traditionally publish, but if you’re not getting bites, don’t let your book die on the shelf just because you harbor some sort of judgment about alternative publishing paths.
If it is your goal to make money from your writing, do you have the years and years it takes for a publisher to come to the table… to then be given a $3-5000 advance (or no advance at all)… that may or may not earn out… that may or may not be paid on time. And if, after a period of a few months, the publisher didn’t like your sales and stops promoting your book, do you have the years it takes to get your rights back?
Even if you get 70% of a sale of a self-published ebook and 25% less agent costs from a publisher?
An advance of $5000 is rare these days (well, in SF/F at least). It’s more like $3000. When I sell a self-published ebook at $3.99, I get about $2.50. If, instead of sending it to agents, I hire an editor and self-publish, I can have it available within weeks. If the book earns $100 per month, I need to sell for 30 months to earn out. Oh, add $1000 for cover, editing and formatting, so 40 months. If you submit to the traditional industry, you wait 6 months to find representation, and your agent waits six months to get the go-ahead from the publisher, and they take a year to publish it, after which it doesn’t do much and you take 5 years to get your rights back. That’s more than 80 months.
There is also the publisher-saturation issue. Publishers have many authors, which means that for each individual author, they will only buy a limited number of books per year or even ever. If you can write four or six books per year (and saying you want a $5000 advance for each, this is what you’ll need to earn anywhere near a liveable income–and yes I’m assuming a worst-case scenario that this is all the books will earn, which may be true a lot more often than it isn’t), you’re going to run out of publishers who want to publish your books pretty darn fast, especially if you were daft enough to sign non-compete clauses and right-of-first-refusal clauses.
There are not enough publishers to sell 4-6 books a year (in SF/F at least) who will pay you a $5000 advance and will not ask you to sign stupid exclusivity clauses. Which means you’re banking on your books to earn out. As much as we’d all love to believe we sell awesome bestsellers, the reality is that it ain’t gonna happen for most books, and you really don’t know whether your books will or won’t until you’re a few years down the track. You can’t pay your bills with hope and crossed fingers.
Want to pay your bills? Self-publish, or a least start off self-publishing. If it is still your wish to find a publisher, you are in a much stronger position if you can offer them just one of your series, and you know that your work sells, and you have your own mailing list.
But. And there is a big but.
How do you get your book to sell at least $100 per month? (actually, once it starts selling, it will probably sell a lot more).
Point one: product. A single book rarely sells. A series has a much better chance, and then only if you promote book 1. But it’s even better if you have more series.
Self-publishing = high production schedule.
Point two: marketing.
If you self-publish, you’re the front and back end of the business.
You need to have the interest in learning marketing. There are a lot of places on the web where you can do this either as paid course or for free by just being a fly on the wall. There are sites and courses that are geared towards selling fiction.
You HAVE to devote time to this.
Most books don’t sell themselves, at least not initially, and I seriously pity people whose first book takes off like there’s no tomorrow and have no idea why, have no idea how to capture those readers and hold their interest after they finished the book. Because when, inevitably, the time comes that the book stop selling, and you don’t know how to run Facebook ads without blowing your budget, you have no idea where to advertise, you don’t have a mailing list, you haven’t capitalised on ANY of the attention you got while your book was out in the sun and receiving algorithm love from the big retailer websites, then when your book stops selling, you’re up the creek without a paddle and it’s a very long, muddy and humbling slog back down.
You HAVE to learn how to do this stuff, not to make your book a great bestseller, but to determine what works for you and where you can reach your audience so that you can keep steady sales going.
If you produce books at a decent rate in series, and if you are happy to learn the best marketing practices and implement them, then the world really is your oyster.
If not, you can still self-publish, have fun and wait for lightning to strike while you treat writing as a hobby. Or you can find a publisher.
* Ironically, one of those publishers wrote to me last month, asking if I wanted to write the book I originally pitched to them. I told them no, they were about ten years too late.