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Jessica Steiner ([personal profile] jessicasteiner) wrote2012-06-08 08:25 pm

Why I Decided to Self-Publish

I've been meaning to do an in-depth post like this for a long time, and now I've had a couple of requests, so I'm going to bite the bullet and try to put my thoughts into order about this topic. I've done a tonne of research over the last couple of years, and there are many reasons why I've decided to self-publish, some financial, some not. I very much welcome discussion about this topic. It's a hugely timely issue for writers, as well as readers, and I think a lot of people don't really grasp the enormity of the issue.

My reasons break down into several categories, which can probably be summarized as: money, career planning, control, and trends.

Greater remuneration per book and price control

I get to decide how much to price my books. Maybe that's not something that is important to everyone, but it's something I feel strongly about. I feel that the publishers are overpricing genre books, even now, and I don't feel comfortable having my own books priced as if they're paper books, when all the person is getting is an electronic copy.

I do understand that there are business reasons why books are being priced the way they do. It has a lot to do with the fact that publishers still base their pricing strategies on paper books, and that they have to pay all of their employees regardless of whether their books are sold electronically or in dead tree. But just because a product may cost a certain amount to put together, doesn't mean that those who consume the product believe it should cost as much as the manufacturer may want. If the customer's perception is that a widget is worth $10, it doesn't matter if it costs the manufacturer $15 to make it, they still won't buy it for that much. Manufacturers may whine and cry that it costs them so much to make the widgets and it's not fair that customers want to only pay $10, but their business will still fail.

I would rather have control, make my own mistakes, and also have the ability to change the prices when I feel a strategy isn't working. I don't have to wait for a publisher to realize that my books aren't selling well at their current price point, and try a different one. I can just do it myself. I feel that I have the most to gain or lose from the success of my book. Despite the fact that a lot of other people are involved in the creation of a book, ultimately, the risk is on my shoulders. An editor can always find other books to edit if my book tanks. A publisher can always get another book from another author to sell. But I have only one way to build my writing career, and that's by writing and selling my own books.

So I want the control.

I also want to get the lion's share of the profits. By selling books myself, I get a much higher level of remuneration. Perhaps I'll sell fewer books (though I'm not sure that’s true, but I'll get there) but if I'm getting 70% of the cover price, rather than 25% or even less, the amount I'll make will make up for it. Despite the fact that I have to pay my own editor, buy my own cover, the higher percentage royalties will make up for it.

Monthly, predictable income

In the traditional publishing world, authors get an advance and then "earn it out", by earning enough royalties on sold books that they exceed the amount of the advance. Once they've earned out the advance, they begin to receive royalty cheques. So assuming that you sell enough books, you will start to receive royalties. The cheques come in, at best, twice a year. Sometimes, publishers hold your money for years, or never pay. I'm sure these things are rare, but I can name authors it's happened to.

There are lots of problems, besides only getting paid once every six months, which is a long time to stretch out groceries.

Firstly, the publisher figures out how much you should be receiving, through their accounting departments. There's no way for an author to track sales in real time, to determine, for example, how a blog tour, or a change in price, or some marketing strategy boosts or drops their sales. In fact, I understand that publishers rarely track such things.

Furthermore, many people don't know that bookstores have buyback deals with the publishers. Basically, a bookstore can order as many books as they want, and if any aren't sold, they can send books back to the publisher for a full refund, and this refund comes out of the author's royalties. Publishers keep a certain amount of earned royalties for a period of time just in case a book is returned. There is no end date to this. A bookstore could send a book back 10 years after purchasing it, and the author still has to eat that cost.

Amazon and similar websites offer tools to track sales, so you can literally check day to day how your book is doing - giving you the ability to determine the best marketing strategy for your book. Also, you receive cheques for sold ebooks every month, with no holdbacks. Thus, income is regular and predictable, and it's possible to budget. While you don't get an advance, once one builds up a regular income with a backlist that is selling, even moderately, you have money you can count on, which is - in my opinion - far more valuable than a lump sum with no guarantee of any further earnings.

Three book death spiral

Another accounting problem relating to bookstores has to do with their buying policies, which are by and large computer-automated these days, based on past sales figures. This causes a "three-book death spiral", as Holly Lisle calls it, that has given a lot of mid-list authors a lot of grief, if not prematurely ended a career.

Let's say you're a new author. You put out a book and the bookstore chain buys 5000 copies. Most of these copies sell! That's wonderful. Some get returned, some are damaged, the rest are eventually returned too make room for new books on the shelf. All in all, the new author sells 4000 books.

The next year, new author puts out a second book. Excellent. The computer looks at the sales figures and sees that last time, the author sold 4000 copies of their book, so they buy... 4000 copies.

Now there are fewer copies in each store, so it's less visible. There is always some kind of loss on any kind of merchandise in a store, as you can probably understand. Fewer people notice the book because it's lost amongst the other books, etc. This book sells 2500 copies.

Book number three goes out, and based on sales figures the bookstore chain purchases - you guessed it - 2500 copies. Cue even less visibility in the store, and now the author's editor is looking at them saying "Look, your sales projections are not good - you're selling fewer books with each one you put out!"

If the author is lucky, they'll be asked to abandon that series - it's obviously not selling - and move in a different direction. If they're unlucky, they'll be dropped and have to start over with a new publisher, and a new series in any case.

This just plain doesn't happen with ebooks.

Shorter lead time in getting the book on the shelves

It takes between 1-2 years, minimum, from acceptance of a book to the first time it'll ever appear on a shelf or online. Once I have my book ready to go, there's nothing stopping me from releasing it immediately, and beginning to earn income.

No need to convince someone that the book will sell or write to accommodate the publisher's wishes

Publishers are in the business of buying books with general appeal to sell to as many people as possible. Like movies in Hollywood, this has the effect of creating a sameness of product across the industry. Sure, there are unusual books published that break the mold, and many of the books that come out are very good in themselves, but take a look at how many urban-fantasy-starring-kickass-white-chick-in-first-person-pov there are out there right now. If something does well, they buy a lot of that something, and if something seems too strange, and doesn't fit into neat categories (such as a recognized genre) it's likely not to be picked up.

Also, one is always at the whim of an editor's personal preferences and biases. If your book doesn't appeal to the particular editor who picks it up off the slush pile, it won't be bought, plain and simple. But just because it doesn't appeal to a particular individual doesn't mean that a lot of people wouldn't love it.

Bookstores have limited inventory

The reality of today's book market is that of shrinking bookshelf space. Bookstores are closing their doors, and those that remain, especially the large big-box stores like Chapters and Barnes & Noble, are devoting less and less shelf space to actual books, and more to coffee, gifts, and other merchandise in a desperate attempt to draw more people through their doors. If you're not one of the superstars with a prime spot, well known and guaranteed to sell, you're lucky to get any space at all on a bookshelf.

I've recently heard a statistic that the turnaround time for a book is now around four months. That's right. If a brand new book comes out in January, it'll be nowhere to be seen by May. It used to take about a year, and by the time the book was coming off the shelves, the next book in a series will be out. How can you possibly build a readership if no one can find your books?

Backlists go out of print and stay out of print, making it impossible for people to go back and buy books once they do discover you.

It's impossible to build a readership under those conditions.

Ebooks never go out of print. Once they're uploaded, they can stay available for sale forever with no additional cost. That means that if someone finds a book of mine that seems worth giving a chance, reads it and looks to see what else I've written, they can find my previous books. With every book I put out, more new people will become loyal readers, and also go back and purchase my old books, providing me with ongoing, forever income that continues to build.

Ebook sales continue to grow, fast, but they will eventually level off

Now is the right time to get into the ebook market. Ebook sales continue to grow, and already the market is becoming glutted with new people, making it more and more difficult for a single bit of cream to rise to the top. The longer I wait, the more difficult it will be to break into the market.

If I go the conservative route, and send my book out now to traditional publishers, I might not hear back and/or make a sale for a year. After that, at least a year before my book sees print. If I wind up in one of those career-killing death spirals, it'll be years and years before that happens. The print industry will continue to decline during that time.

It makes no sense to join a sinking ship now, and it does make sense to get in on the ground floor of what we know will be the future. It doesn't make any sense to wait for more certainty, and miss the boat entirely.

I have to market anyway

Again, if I'm not one of the stars who get sent on book tours by their publisher, who have special displays set up at the front of the store (which costs a lot of money!) and gets all the aggressive marketing by the publisher, I have to do all of my marketing myself anyway, regardless of whether I'm self-published or traditionally published.

If that's the case, then what am I losing by self-publishing? The responsibility is still on my shoulders to get the word out there to sell books, to build my career, regardless of which option I choose.

There are a few good reasons not to self-publish, and they're worthy of examination as well.

No hand-holding

I do have to do everything myself, which is taking a lot of research, time, and effort. I have to hire an editor out of pocket, commission a cover, figure out how to convert my book into ebook format so it looks nice and pretty, and upload it all over. This is maybe time that I could be spending writing, allowing other people to work out all of those logistics.

Personally, given everything else I've said, I think that expenditure of time will pay off in the long run.

No additional cred from being published by a major publisher

It's true that there is a certain amount of inherent prestige to being able to say that a major publisher believes me worthy of being published. I can't join SFWA if I don't have any publishing credits, for example.

People call publishers gatekeepers, as if they keep out all of the bad stuff and only allow the really good stuff to be published (Twilight, anyone? Seriously... are they really doing that great a job? That's a debate for another day, though).

But as I said before, "bad stuff" according to whom? According to a select group of individuals, with all of their biases and preconceived notions. Just because you're published doesn't necessarily mean you're the best, and a lot of good writers are out there with manuscripts that didn't get accepted.

Personally, I think that reviews are becoming more important. Rather than assuming something's good just because it's been published, people are looking at the reviews. And a self-published book with five stars on Amazon is going to sell. Most people probably wouldn't even know the difference, at first glance - or care. A good book is a good book, and it'll do well because of marketing and word of mouth, not because it says 'Tor' on the spine.

Nothing against Tor, of course.

So I hope that this helps to clarify why I've decided to self-publish my novels. If you have any questions about the above, please ask, and as always I welcome discussion about this topic.

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