Once upon a time…
Self publishing was once regarded as only one step above vanity publishing, despite the fact that some self publishers went on to become famous and in the past (i.e. before the rise of modern publishing houses) almost all authors were either self published or published by private patrons.
Vanity publishing tends to cost a lot and leave the author with a number of volumes gathering dust in the garage. There is no ‘validation’ either by acceptance (they are only accepting the book because of payment) or by sales. The sad thing is that most authors conned by vanity publishers don’t suffer from vanity – they think they have found a genuine publisher for their work.
The advent of p.o.d. with sites such as lulu made it easier and more profitable for people to self publish, particularly in the non-fiction field, where the small size of the potential readership often stopped big publishing houses from taking on interesting books. Other writers used the internet to provide their work on websites organised on a pay-to-view basis. These changes involved only a tiny number of writers, fiction and non-fiction alike, but were the vanguard of the current trend. Both still have much to recommend them but do require quite a lot of initial financial outlay, even though this is usually recouped. The financial outlay is what tempts people to compare them with vanity publishing. The p.o.d. model is probably best suited to books which will sell to a local audience or a very specific one, e.g. within a sport or interest group. The website route requires marketing skills and enthusiasm. Some bookshops won’t stock books that have been self-published, but then some bookshops are going out of business. Websites can be tricky to bring to the attention of search engines.
Then came the e-reader, Amazon, and Smashwords. This has been a rapid and recent ‘revolution’ and like others, I was initially rather bemused by it. Now, I’ve been reading, and learning, and want to share my findings with you.
By about 2005 it dawned on a number of authors, both newcomers wanting to break into publication, and published writers wanting more control over their work and more reward, that:
*the global recession plus the rise of e-publishing has made it less and less likely that a total newcomer will be chosen in the publication lottery and even established series have been axed to make way for more ‘sure things’ such as TV tie-ins, ghosted autobiographies of celebrities and other ideas that will make money for the publishers.
*editing, in the old sense, has been curtailed; you only have to look at the number or typos in modern books to know that authors are expected to do their own spell checking
*marketing, in the old sense, has also been reduced; authors complain about having to pay their own expenses to get to interviews etc. and that books are not always available at book-signings
*huge advances are very rare and in any case are just that – an advance against possible future earnings, plus, they are paid all at once and therefore are taxed within that tax year, which can be a financial drawback
*e-publishers give even more parsimonious rewards than the big houses (advances are almost unheard of), though often the royalties are higher; they do even less work in terms of marketing and editing; many (though not all) of their editors are less able compared with those who work for the publishing giants; there are drawbacks in terms of copyright agreements, being tied in to contracts, etc.
*e-publishers, to give them their due, also produce very nice print versions, but at that point turn into regular publishing houses…
*Kindle and Smashwords provide a cheap, professional e-publishing service and a number of authors are taking advantage of this and making money selling their books; why give rights and control to a publisher if it isn’t necessary? (Note that we are not mentioning Apple with their greed for copyright control.)
There have been a lot of blogs and articles about this and I have been following: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/, http://tashasthinkings.blogspot.com/ (Tasha is a friend of mine), http://donovancreed.com/ and http://blog.smashwords.com/, plus reading articles recommended by them and by others. I am also watching with interest Josh Lanyon’s decision to take back his books as the various agreements time out, and self publish. For in depth analysis I would recommend starting with Konrath. His rather humorous style conceals a great deal of interesting comment.
Some of the arguments in favour of self publishing are:
* the writer retains more control over the book – editing, format, copyright, cover, price, marketing ploys
*the rewards are potentially higher; Kindle let the author retain 70% of the cover price if the book is priced at $2.99 upwards, and 35% for books priced below that.
*the rewards are paid monthly (good for tax purposes) and authors don’t usually have to ‘chase’ Kindle – something not unknown with big publishers
*readers will often buy cheap e-books on a whim and as a result, sales figures can be higher than with a traditional publishing route; of course they won’t come back for more unless your book is worth reading
*it’s free; there is no charge for putting your book on the site although of course like any writer you have the cost of your time and your materials (such as your computer) and your research – there aren’t even the postage/printing costs associated with submitting to the big print publishers
Of course, some of the arguments against self publishing are very much the same points (with my comments in italics):
*the writer is responsible for the editing, format, cover, etc; but if you write on a computer anyway, you’re half way there and if you have good betas/supportive friends it gets even more manageable and the sites give a lot of help
*your book can get lost in among the drivel that is coming out in e-books; well, yes, but it can also sink like a stone in a conventional publishing format or with a professional e-publisher; there is a vast amount of drivel out there anyway
* people will regard your book as somehow less worthy if you are only charging $2.99 for it; this is an argument that can only be resolved by your bank manager depending on your sales and it depends, in the final analysis, on whether you’d rather be rich or famous (given that both may not be on offer)
*self publication does not give you the validation that acceptance by a professional publisher does; no, it doesn’t, but see the previous point about sales; also, I wouldn’t try to self publish anything without a lot of beta input from people I trust, so the validation comes at that point, and publisher acceptance is more like winning the lottery
*it’s a lot of work and you wanted to be a writer, not a publisher; but it is almost as much work to get something ready to submit to a publisher and then there’s all the waiting and worry; also, while marketing is a pain, a publisher expects you to do a lot of your own publicity anyway
*it only works for people who have already built up a fanbase of loyal readers; according to admittedly anecdotal but numerically vast accounts in Writing’, a magazine I subscribe to, this is not true.
Note that I am not suggesting for a moment that weighty academic books or highly illustrated volumes have any place in the self publishing world. I think the professional publishers are going to have to change their whole publishing model to be able to continue to bring us that kind of thing and meanwhile I wish any authors of those sorts of books well and hope they manage to attract publishers’ attention.
By the way, the magazine I mention also has a free (but limited) online presence: https://www.writers-online.co.uk/ It’s worth a look.
My own personal reasons for even considering self publishing are as follows:
*my work tends to stray outside the tight genres beloved by publishers, making it less likely to get published
* I have a kind of submission phobia, based on the assumption that it is statistically improbable that my work will be considered and that therefore it is a lot of work and worry for nothing
*some friends/family want to see some of my work published
*if I was published/self published, I could legitimately call myself a writer and thus justify spending hours on my laptop and in a dreamworld
*it is easy to share or ‘publish’ my fanfiction; I think/hope my original fiction is as good if not better but it is harder to get it to an audience.
I have to admit that I am not particularly interested in fame or fortune except insofar as both or either would allow me justify the hours etc. Of course I would welcome fame, in terms of interested readers. If I didn’t want to share my work I wouldn’t spend so long on it. I might write a first draft (second if you count the draft in my head) and leave it at that. All the rewrites and edits are for other people and for the pleasure of sharing. (Incidentally, I put the same amount of work into fanfiction which brings no monetary reward.) I wouldn’t say no to money, either, but it isn’t why I write, and as I’m retired it isn’t even a pressing necessity. I have my finances worked out to allow me to spend time writing; it’s the family demands I would like to be able to counter with claims that I had to ‘work’.
I know some of you have experiences to share and others have plans. Are there general points I haven’t covered? (I’ll leave the details to Konrath etc.) And what do the rest of you think?
“*the writer is responsible for the editing, format, cover, etc;”
I scent here another branch waiting for flourishing. The market of graphic small-business, with people looking for and offering their services in illustrating and making covers.
“be rich or famous”
Being rich and avoiding the disadvantages of fame, at once. Sounds like a paradise. *g* However, I’d say that both do may be on offer, but the nature of fame, with Internet, changes too. The global sort of fame, TV / Hollywood / mass media fame probably will survive, but Internet is perfect in making another sort of fame, the small fame of a popular blogger, writer, artist, who gathers his/her audience. Personally I think it’s a more precious fame. And if someone just wants to earn a living, even quite a comfortable one? That “small fame” will be enough, who really needs a hundred of Maybachs and a golden bathtub with champagne (argh…).
“*self publication does not give you the validation that acceptance by a professional publisher does;”
I think it will change in due time. We’re on the beginning of the way. I must admit I’m curious what the future will bring yet.
“I am not suggesting for a moment that weighty academic books or highly illustrated volumes have any place in the self publishing world”
There is a lot of comics artists who show their works in the Net and sell them as printed volumes, at the same time. You can even buy single pages. I don’t know how well it pays for them in fact, but anyway they see also the market for themselves here. Black&white e-reader is a problem here, but I think that still many people would buy well made colorful e-versions of comics and albums of art. I’d buy, in a decent price and an easy paying system.
I think you’re right about the artists. I’m thinking of doing my own covers, with my own photographs as the basis. But another of my ‘followers’ here is looking for an artist to illustrate his sci-fi/fantasy saga – I think he intends publication via a website. There will certainly be a demand. Konrath, on his blog, refers to it. And Josh Lanyon set up a competition for the artists among his blog followers and chose a cover/future art from that.
I think that kind of niche ‘fame’ is lovely, and is all most writers can ever hope for whatever route they choose. Personally I’d be happy with the kind of reactions I get from people who read my fanfic (kudos on AO3, comments on LJ, etc). Money-wise, I’d be happy to be able to buy a state-of-the-art laptop and a better camera…
I see what you mean about comic artists and of course with the new colour Kindle there will be new possibilities for art books. I don’t want my maps, travel guides, bird and flower identification guides, etc. on my Kindle (or on my laptop). For one thing, I want to carry them around on journeys and be able to put them down safely on rocks, bus seats, etc.without having to think hard, and for another I want to be able to search them quickly; Kindle’s search function is still very ‘clunky’ and once you start searching you can’t easily find your way straight back to the page you were reading.That means books with a lot of index/glossary/footnote/family tree/map/etc. content will be better in print for now, though some of them will be OK on a laptop in .pdf.
And we know from bitter experience that a Kindle is too fragile for a small child to hold.
You’ve made some very interesting points. One of the values in self-publishing is that you skip the angst and often expense of submitting to agents/publisher only to have continual rejection. And of course rejection is not really a reflection on a writer, but a reflection on agents/publishers who are overwhelmed with submissions and will therefore only chose what they consider to be marketable – perhaps not always an ideal criteria to be guided by!
I agree with Aletheia’s points about fame and fortune too. Having people who appreciate what you write and enjoy it is really everything that a writer could want. Being world famous would be wonderful for about five minutes, then imagine what it would do for your privacy! No thanks!
I just read an appropriate quotation in my copy of that grammar book I gave you. It was, of course, there to point out the uses of who/whom, but it caught my eye!
“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing , and for whom you care as little.” (Lord Byron)
I think I am so happy with the way AO3 works for fanfic that I want something similar for my original fic. The Kindle/Smashwords set-up seems to fit all the criteria. Then I can by-pass all the pitfalls of publishing!!
All excellent points. For me, the validation trumps all the other arguments. I’d like my book to be accepted by someone else. But the economic points are compelling. I haven’t tried kindle myself — I prefer old-fashioned paper books — so I don’t really know the reading experience.
I completely understand the validation argument. But I’m not personally swayed much by it.
I adore my Kindle. Reading on it is pleasanter than reading a heavy paperback or a hardback, it fits in a large pocket/small shoulder bag (or backpack pocket), is easy to see in bright sunlight, has a light in the cover (which runs off the battery) to enable reading in really dim light, and once you get used to clicking a button to turn a page, you stop noticing. You can take an entire library on holiday. It isn’t any good for books where you want to keep referring to indices, glossaries, maps, etc. but otherwise, it’s perfect!! 🙂 The only drawback is that it’s so tempting to buy more books for it because they don’t take up any room – and I have a huge backlog to get through!!
I’m nowhere near the submitting stage yet but I think that when I am, and if for years I try and fail the traditional publication route, I’ll self publish, if only to let my friends and family see what I’ve been working on for years.
I think ‘failure’ in the mainstream publishing sense, is more likely nowadays for the new writer. The publishing houses are diminishing and are tending to back ‘certainties’ – known best sellers, celebrities, etc. Self publishing, on the the other hand, lets you control how your work reaches the public and has more likelihood of reaching your family and friends in print or e-book format. I can see why you would want a mainstream contract and wish you all the luck in the world.