Self-publishing – a contrarian view

lemonade

Silk’s Post #101 — In his last post, 5writer Joe shared some valuable advice from experts in self-publishing, compiled by Betty Kelly Sargent, founder of BookWorks, in a Publishers Weekly article. It all sounds eminently sensible and business like. Calm. Reasoned. Soothing, almost.

Oh, except for the number bomb dropped into the introduction, which activated my morbid fascination with “arithmetic for writers”. Sargent did some Googling, and found 54,400,000 results when she searched “self-publishing an e-book”. Although I’m grateful to her for reducing this Niagara Falls of advice to a mini-fount of wisdom, there’s nothing calming about the depth and breadth of self-publishing chatter out there. It’s terrifying.

If you immerse yourself in this conversation, it’s easy to see exclamation points (my favourite abandoned punctuation mark!) where none need exist: You must know this! You better not do that! Hurry up! Slow down! Self-publishing is a dead end! Self-publishing is the future! Don’t even think about self-publishing without reading (listening to, attending, buying) this important book (article, conference, workshop, guide)! Sargent opens her Publishers Weekly piece on this cautionary note: “It can be a jungle out there for self-publishers.”

No kidding.

The only possible responses are: a) to face one’s fears and put it into perspective, or b) to curl up in a ball and whimper like a baby. So let’s break it down.

First: How did this daunting body of knowledge and advice about self-publishing and e-books get so big, so fast?

My theory: this is a whole new business model for a centuries-old industry. A revolution. And in a revolution, chaos tends to reign. Lots of people are running around the public square and up blind alleys, trying to figure out where to go, what to do, who all the other people are, and whether one should follow them or run away from them. Everything is, to at least some degree, experimental. Everyone is coming up with their own thoughts and theories and recipes for success, from authors who want to be published, to publishing industry folks who want to keep (or get) a paying gig in this brave new world. Everyone’s trying to read the bones and get a lock on the future, but it’s a complex and fluid situation. There’s a lot of re-invention going on here, a lot of pathfinding.

And since we’re all writers, we are, of course, writing about it. Endlessly.

Not only that, but – as you no doubt have noticed – the Internet is a gigantic echo chamber. Of those 54,400,000 hits on the “self-publishing an e-book” search, what percentage of them are truly original and substantive? How much of all this verbiage is derivative, recycled or simply repeated in an endless game of “telephone”?

Okay, whew. That cuts it down to size neatly. I feel better already.

Second: How – and when – does a potential indie author need to learn about self-publishing to be successful?

Writing a novel and publishing a novel are two completely different enterprises (whether as an e-book, or in print, with or without a traditional publisher). That may seem self-evident, but it’s worth thinking about the implications at a personal level.

These two processes do not use the same brain cells, or at least they don’t use them in the same way. They’re entirely separate challenges, and require different skill sets, knowledge, methodologies and mindsets. For me, and probably for many novelists, the writing part is what I love and the business side is something of a necessary evil.

I’ve been here before in another life.

When I started my graphic design business many years ago as a freelancer working from a tiny home office, it was my love of design and copywriting that drove me to take the plunge. I had just lost my job as a designer in a small studio, which was the psychological equivalent of about 100 rejection letters. Yeah, okay, I was fired. For being too “headstrong”. I had no formal training and little experience and – like an unpublished novelist who believes in her own talent even when no one else is willing to take a chance on her – I knew if I wanted to get into the field, I was going to have to create the opportunity myself.

Not only was I a novice designer, I knew virtually nothing about running a business. I just jumped in with both feet, blissfully ignorant but confident that I’d figure it out.

Fortunately, I did.

Every day I learned what I needed to know. It was pure, hands-on, real-world, just-in-time training, and a ridiculous amount of hard work. My modus operandi was to make it up as I went along. That meant being constantly on the alert for opportunities and pitfalls, and learning from my mistakes (of omission as well as commission). Since I wasn’t part of the “establishment” I had to be inventive – and build a great team of collaborators – to survive.

The good news was that we not only survived, we thrived. The venture turned into a 35-year career, a sometimes crazy roller-coaster ride, and a successful, award-winning agency in an industry not known for longevity. Still, I always viewed the business side of it as the price I had to pay to get the chance to do the creative work.

(Eventually, I became the “establishment”, which, ironically perhaps, took a lot of the fun out of it for me.)

This experience taught me that you don’t need to know everything at the beginning of a venture that you’ll eventually have to know in order to make it successful. In fact, I believe that you can only learn things when you’re ready for them. And what makes you “ready” is usually the necessity to act – the point in your journey when you simply have to move forward or fall back.

It also taught me that when you do get to that tipping point, you need to get out of your comfort zone, do your homework, figure out a plan (even if you change it later), rev yourself up for hard work and commitment, and forge ahead without fear. Mindset is everything. Even if you fail to reach the goal you hoped for, you won’t fail to learn – and that new expertise will propel you to a new goal.

This is the nature of risk-taking, and business is all about risk. For that matter, so is writing. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith.

Third: Who do you listen to when you need to figure out how to navigate the swirling waters of this emerging self-publishing industry?

Clearly, there is no shortage of advice. While some of it may be conflicting, and trends and opportunities are continually shifting, it just can’t be that hard to find some models of success to emulate. Find them, study them, then tune them to fit your own circumstances.

Because the short answer to this question is that, in the end, you have to listen to yourself.

Yes, you. The novice. The “non-establishment” (and likely unpublished) writer. Because you’re the person who’s going to have to do all the work, make and learn from your mistakes, and think on your feet.

The advice Sargent curated in her Publishers Weekly article – based on industry experts’ “single, most important piece of advice” to aspiring authors – focused on the themes of “knowing what your want” and “being patient”. We’re told to:

  • Take enough time to produce a product that’s worth our readers’ time and money.
  • Know our goals and be absolutely clear about what they are and how we plan to achieve them.
  • Be patient and not worry about how the work sells out of the gate.
  • Make our books as widely available as possible in the networked world.
  • Avoid premature distribution by starting small, publishing beta versions and growing our “author platform”.
  • Write every day and hire an editor.
  • Treat self-publishing as a business, including doing competitive research and having a business plan and marketing plan in place.

All good advice. But it doesn’t really get us there, does it?

And that’s the problem with everything I’ve read to date on self-publishing. It tends to be either at the level of platitudes, or at the level of step-by-step prescriptions. Yes, I think it’s critical to take all this on board, but knowing stuff isn’t the same as doing stuff.

If Sargent had asked me her question – “If you could give someone starting out in self-publishing only one piece of advice, what would it be?” (and there’s no reason anyone would really want to ask me, a total novice, so consider the source) – I would have had a contrarian answer:

Before you consider self-publishing, look into your own heart and ask yourself whether you’re willing to do what’s necessary to take on a completely new business enterprise without knowing everything you need to know at the outset, or being guaranteed of a formula for success. Whatever other advice you follow, it won’t magically get you there.

Only you can get yourself there, under your own power.

You are a writer. You know how to research. You plan your books (maybe by outlining or maybe organically). You invent stories. You innovate. You improvise. Are you prepared to embark on the journey of adapting these skills to a business venture – as opposed to an artistic one?

I do believe self-publishing is a do-it-yourself extension to the modern writer’s journey. But make no mistake, it requires one to become an entrepreneur – with all the challenges (and rewards) that entails. In many ways, self-publishing should be treated as a kind of small business start-up. I believe that it’s impossible for those who’ve never been down this road before to know whether they’ll really take to it – or not – until they try it.

But look at it this way: you have nothing to lose but your literary anonymity!

 

The age of the hybrid

hybrid

Silk’s Post #91 — Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “hybrid”?

Cars that run on gas and electric power? You’re probably ecologically-minded.

More productive strains of corn and tomatoes? You’re probably a farmer or a gardener.

Alien lifeforms arising from cosmic cross-breeding? You’re probably a sci-fi fan.

Your next book? Wait a minute. What do hybrids have to do with books and authors?

Possibly everything.

As part of my preparation for our next crazy 5writers challenge (launching September 5, 2014 … watch for it!), I’ve been doing yet more research on the publishing industry. This may seem redundant, since the five of us – as wannabe-published authors – have tried to  proactively inform ourselves about what it takes to get in print. Many books, many articles, many blogs, many discussions with published authors, many scans of online writers’ groups, many workshops, and many writers’ conferences later, we thought we were on top of it.

Think again.

What my latest web scan revealed is that publishing opportunities yesterday are already very different from publishing opportunities today, and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Whatever received wisdom you believed about publishing, say, six months ago, it’s probably wrong now.

Because we’ve now entered a new age: the age of the hybrid author.

Here’s how Chuck Wendig, in his February 2014 Writer’s Digest Magazine article “Case Study: Becoming a Hybrid Author”, describes this new creature we are all probably going to morph into:

“A hybrid author is one who refuses to accept that there exists One True Way up the Publishing Mountain and who embraces all the methods available. The hybrid author prefers a diverse approach to getting her work out there, which means utilizing both the traditional system of publishing and also acting as an author-publisher in order to retain control and self-publish her own work.”

This may not sound new to you. Self-publishing has been going on forever. But here’s what’s different in the new hybrid world:

#1 – There ain’t no taint to self-publishing

The headwinds buffeting the traditional book publishing industry are blowing away some old musty ideas. Historically, self-published authors who resorted to “vanity presses” to see their own words in print were presumed to be – forgive the expression – permanent rejects. Tainted. Writers whose work was never going to be good enough to get out of the slush pile. Budding authors were warned that self-publishing was the kiss of death with agents and “real” publishers.

Now, let’s be realistic. Is there some real sh*t out there among self-published works? Yep. Lots of it. (Of course, it’s self-evident to the discerning reader that traditional publishing is not exactly sh*t free, either). But self-publishing a book is no longer considered a literary felony, sentencing the author to automatic disqualification from working within the traditional publishing system on other projects.

Writers who evolve to this new hybrid author state may be the survivors in this new publishing environment.

#2 – In today’s marketplace, all writers need to be entrepreneurial

I don’t think I’ll stir up a lot of disagreement when I suggest that the publishing industry is undergoing massive change. I’m no economist, but it’s easy to see industry after industry becoming revolutionized in our newly networked, globalized world.

These factors have accelerated the free-market cycle, where businesses spring up, compete and grow in the lush times, then consolidate when things get leaner and meaner. The strong swallow the weak, gaining control of the marketplace (for instance, only a handful of publishing empires now control most imprints you’ve ever heard of). Ouch. There are so many reasons to worry about powerful monopolies that are bottom-line by nature, serving shareholders first, customers second, and suppliers/producers (often) last. This is especially sensitive in industries that sell creative products.

Monopolies that calcify can become vulnerable – more fragile than they seem. Enter the independent challengers: the Amazons and Apples of the world who move fast, break the rules, and build new business models (and monopolies of their own) on a large scale. But this upheaval also leaves space for many new players: the smaller-scale indies. They’re like economic phytoplankton, the profusion of life at the bottom of the food chain that keeps the whole ecosystem alive.

This pattern is already well underway in the music industry, in the movie industry, in magazines and newspapers, in radio and television. Virtually everything that has to do with news and entertainment is in flux.

The book industry is following suit. Where once there were clear rules, standards and pathways to success, now virtually anything goes. Anything that works. There will, of course, be winners and losers (and I truly mourn the decline of the comforting, beautiful, traditional bookstore). There will be good and bad outcomes. The deserving will not always be rewarded. And the roadmaps that will help authors find their way to the goal of publication and success are still being drawn.

Hybrid authors will need to become creative opportunists.

#3 – There are more reasons to self-publish than rejection

Increasingly, writers with their ears to the ground will hear strange tales of bestselling authors choosing to self-publish a project. Of new authors turning down traditional publishing contracts in favour of going the indie route. Of agents working with hybrid authors in new ways, and seeking new talent among the latest crop of successful self-published writers.

Heresy!

Where will you find these weird anomalies in the books of advice for writers on your groaning bookshelf? You probably won’t, unless the book was published very recently. You may begin to hear hints and rumours at a writers’ conference workshop. But if you look in the right places online – where trends now show up first – you’ll discover that the hybrid author is already alive and well. And comes in every shape and size.

So why would any author actually choose self-publication over the traditional route – except rejection? Isn’t traditional publishing the holy grail we’re all seeking? Here are just a few possible reasons:

Creative freedom — An established writer may want to do a project her traditional publisher is not interested in. Maybe it’s outside the writer’s usual genre, or it’s experimental, or for some other reason the publisher doesn’t think it will fit their list or profit expectations. What choice does the writer have but to follow the creative dictates of her publisher? Yep. Become her own publisher.

Money — A writer, whether previously published or not, may put on his business hat and take a close look at the numbers. Shockingly, he discovers that he can make more money – sometimes a lot more – if he self-publishes than if he signs a contract with a traditional publisher, based on realistic estimates of sales and author revenue likely to be generated by the two different routes. Careful, though. Risk-reward ratio is not an easy calculation to do, even for the experienced. Better rattle some chicken bones and throw in some eye of newt for good luck. Welcome to entrepreneurship.

Choice and control — A writer may want to keep certain publishing rights – such as e-book rights – and sell other rights to a traditional publisher. The author may have already self-published electronically, but now has an opportunity to take her book to market with an interested publisher. Or she may have been traditionally published and now wants more control of a new project and an opportunity to share more of the profits. This is where the new hybrid agent and the new hybrid author may need to have a meeting of the minds. Tricky new territory, but early pioneers could be creating the pathways and precedents for many hybrid authors to follow.

Career direction — A published mid-list writer may be dropped by his traditional publishing house, and now must either self-publish, or find another publisher (and not many traditional publishers are dying to sign up lots of new mid-list authors who have been dropped elsewhere). Of course, she could always take up another career such as brain surgery, which might be less daunting. Getting back on the horse may require becoming a hybrid author.

So that’s what I’ve learned from my research to date. I know just enough to know that I need to learn a lot more about hybrid authorship. It’s a brave new world out there.

What do you think about it? Was any of this news to you?

Does it fill you with excitement and hope … or does it seem fearfully overwhelming?

We’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

Arithmetic for writers, part 2: publishing equations

numbers

Silk’s Post #88 — Confession time. I have read much about, listened to experts on, contemplated, discussed and agonized over the lifeblood topic of getting published (a.k.a. what’s supposed to happen after your book is written). Nevertheless, if I had to take an exam on the subject, I’d flunk the course.

It’s complicated. The traditional versus the independent (self-published) routes. The large and small publishing houses, the agents, the editors, the book doctors, the vanity presses, the e-books, the online marketing channels, the promotion. All of it doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly. So I’ve been putting off any truly serious study of this topic on the theory that I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an account by a writer whose digital publishing dream turned into something of a nightmare. It finally pushed me out of my warm, feather-lined, fledgling writer’s nest and into the wild blue yonder called Today’s Publishing Reality.

So, reluctantly, I started flapping – in preference to going splat on the ground before I even have a manuscript ready for publishing consideration. That day will come. I’d like to have at least a rudimentary flight plan before it does.

The digitally disappointed writer is journalist and successful book author Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic and other non-fiction titles), and his plaint, “I Was a Digital Bestseller”, was published in the NY Times op-ed pages this month. Okay, don’t get too freaked out. There are a lot of caveats, buts, qualifications and exceptions to this story as it might apply to you and me, the unpublished novelists of the world. First, his book on the Keystone Pipeline titled Boom was a topical, long-form journalistic work, not a novel. Second, after all sorts of disappointing complications such as his digital publisher going belly up, he still managed to get paid $15,000 to write itI assume he also got paid something by the NY Times to write about writing it. I know. What’s he whining about?

For me, the point was that an experienced, “name brand”, published author (with an agent, even) found himself lost in space when it came to the realities – the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls – of today’s increasingly complex and fragmented publishing industry. What does that mean for a nameless little baby chick like me? Or maybe you?

So after being shook up by one author who has sworn off publishing e-books and has resumed his love affair with traditional print and traditional publishers, I checked out the other side of the story. You can too in the blog post by author Brenna Aubrey, “Why I Turned Down a Three-Book New York Print Deal to Self-Publish”, which makes a compelling argument for just the opposite. How to judge who’s right, if either?

So I started doing some basic research, and of course quickly got lost in a thicket of information and perspectives. Paula, our 5writers Research Queen, initially came to my rescue with an excellent report on the website Author Earnings by Hugh Howey, titled “The 7k Report”, which neatly sorts through a ton of data regarding the financial side of various publishing channels (Independent, Amazon, Small-Medium Publishers, Big 5 Publishers, Single Author Publishers). The report’s conclusions favour Indie publishing over other routes, in terms of benefits to authors.

But the eyebrow-raising numbers, including the apparent explosion in the number of published authors and books – now that just about anyone can do it for themselves – only served to raise more questions for me. Like: how many books really are published every year? How many authors are out there? How many of them make a living at it? What are the chances of “making it” and what factors really differentiate those who do from those who don’t?

The first thing I discovered is that “official” numbers, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are useless. Writers of novels are grouped in with a whole bunch of other kinds of writers, including advertising copywriters. Also, such counts are based on people’s self-reported primary jobs, so everyone who isn’t a full-time writer who makes their primary income from writing (but may have published some novels, or perhaps has secreted 27 unpublished manuscripts under the bed) likely doesn’t get counted.

The second thing I discovered is that in seeking the answers these questions, I was travelling down a well-worn path. What one might guess would be easily obtainable facts turned out to be quite hard to nail down. And many have tried. For a highly entertaining account of one Austin, TX writer’s rigorous pursuit of the answer to the question “How Many Novelists are at Work in America?”, see Dominic Smith’s terrific essay on the website The Millions.

But what of the writer’s chances of success? Are there no statistics that can shed some light on that burning question? Again, yes … and no. Novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist William Dietrich took a stab at this in his essay on Huffington Post titled “The Writer’s Odds of Success” in 2013. It was a good stab, but he failed to even draw blood, and the question escaped unanswered (sorry, no Pulitzer for this post, William). It’s still a good read, though, with lots of gossipy bits about the earnings of bestselling writers. Probably the essay on numbers and success that tickled me most was a post on Kirsten Lamb’s Blog titled “Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?” (one of her observations was that the harder a writer worked the luckier he/she got).

All these essays and blog posts are worthwhile reads. If you’re like me, they will enlighten and confuse you at the same time. However they offer many insights and interpretations that go beyond mere numbers. I especially recommend “The 7k Report” for its rigorous use of statistical data to clarify trends, complete with eye-popping charts and graphs.

But to cut to the chase (and without spoiling the recommended articles for you), here is some arithmetic for writers gleaned from various and sundry sources. I make no promises about their accuracy or reliability whatsoever, and caution the reader to recall the quip sometimes attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and made famous by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  • James Patterson made $94 million in 2012 (might as well start off with the good news) — Horowitz, citing Forbes magazine
  • More than 80% of Americans would like to be an author — Dietrich, citing polls
  • Only 5% of the millions of people who say they want to write actually do it. — Lamb
  • Only 5% of this who start writing a book will actually finish it. — Lamb
  • According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 145,900 American writers and authors in 2012, a quarter of them part time and two-thirds of them self-employed, with median earnings of $55,420 (but remember they include a ton of non-novelists) — Dietrich
  • Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 39% increase in the number of self-reported authors in the US. — Smith
  • In 2011, there were 329,259 books published in the US — Dietrich
  • In 2012, the number of adult fiction titles published with ISBN numbers in the US was 67, 254 — Smith, citing sources
  • 2.2 million books were published worldwide in 2011 — Dietrich
  • Self-published books make up 25% of the top 100 list on Amazon — Howey
  • Of 1.2 million books tracked by Neilson Bookscan, only 25,000 (just over 2%) sold more than 5,000 copies — Dietrich
  • A #1 ranking in “page turning narratives” on Amazon Kindle Singles is possible to achieve with as few as 700-800 sales — Horowitz, citing statistics for his book “Boom”
  • The average book in 2006 sold less than 500 copies — Dietrich, citing Publishers Weekly
  • The highest percentage of genre e-books on the bestseller lists (more than one third) are indie-published — Howey
  • Indie-published authors outsell Big-5 (traditional large publishing house) published authors on Amazon. — Howey
  • 76% of all books released in 2008 were self-published — Smith, citing sources
  • While the often-cited “rule of thumb” proportion of overall book sales represented by e-books is 25%, this figure accounts for only e-books through major publishers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBookstore, Google Play) and does not include self-published books or those e-published by small presses. — Howey
  • 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon bookstore are e-books. — Howey
  • While Big 5 publishers typically pay 25% of net revenue to authors for e-book sales, self-published authors usually keep 70% of the total purchase price. — Howey

That should give you a lot to think about, and hopefully some further reading that may toss you back and forth between elation and despair. But let me end by quoting some encouraging words from Kirsten Lamb, which bring some much-needed wisdom to this crazy writing and publishing game:

” … the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look. This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.”