Posted by Peter Kazmaier
In the Writer’s Group that I attend we talked about self-publishing at our last meeting before we began to read our most recent creations. There were many thoughts presented for and against self-publishing versus the traditional route of searching for a royalty publisher for your manuscript. This question has been brought into sharp relief as traditional publishers and booksellers continue to suffer. For example Borders’ process toward Chapter 11 protection was recently documented (see the article by Tiffany Cary Borders Liquidation Riles Toronto’s Kobo, National Post, page FP1, July 19, 2011). So what is a neophyte writer to do with this question about whether or not to self-publish?
Let me begin by quoting Robert Sawyer, arguably the most successful Science Fiction writer in Canada.
Sawyer, in his Letter to Beginning Writers, says in his 10th bullet “Do not self-publish. Seriously. Don’t.”
Beginning with that rather strong censure of Self-Publishing, let me summarize the arguments against self-publishing that I have heard from writers, editors, and publishers:
- In Self-Publishing editors, publishing companies, and marketing vendors take advantage of neophyte authors by lauding a bad book idea and then encouraging the author pay them thousands of dollars for services that produce a book that will never sell.
- If the manuscript were really any good, a conventional royalty publisher would pay to have it published.
- An individual does not have the infrastructure or the marketing clout to compete with the major publishing houses.
- Most self-publishers only sell 100-200 copies of their book.
- Self-publishing is synonymous with low quality work.
- If you self-publish a book, your brand (name) will be tainted and conventional publishers will not consider your future submissions.
I think some (perhaps all) of these statements contain an element of truth in them and I will talk about them in more detail later, but is there another side to this story?
The Traditional Flight Plan
When I observe other novelists trying to break into the traditional publishing market, I see the following sequence:
- Many beginning novelists spend years getting their first manuscript together. They buy books on writing, pay for critiques, attend workshops and writer’s conferences (all cost tens to hundreds of dollars) and they wonder if their manuscript and writing is any good. Some never leave this stage, endlessly revising their work. Others, in their hearts wonder if they can take the criticism that comes with having their “baby” critically appraised. If they can screw up their courage, they go to stage two and submit their manuscript to royalty publishers. It is important to realize (and frequently overlooked) that in stage 1 you are already spending copious amounts of time and money. Every book on writing, every conference you visit and every workshop you attend is money out of your pocket. It is not as if you only start to spend money when you decide to self-publish. So what about stage 2?
- In stage 2 writers will send query letters along with their manuscript to publishing houses, perhaps hundreds of them, proposing their manuscript for publication. Many will come back with a boiler plate “no,” others will say “we like the idea but it doesn’t fit with our publishing objectives” and a lucky few will actually receive a favorable response. An initial favorable response however does not guarantee publication. Generally each publishing house has a committee that oversees cash expenditures and even though an acquisition editor may pitch your idea to that committee they many still not fund it. The key point to remember at stage 2 is that the query letter time is competing with your writing competency development time. You have less time to write and all of the rejections you receive serve only to undermine your self-confidence (that may have some long run benefit since all writers need to develop a thick skin). Finally (and to me this is the most important shortcoming) you have not yet been able to get your book into the hands of your true audience, the book buyer. Let’s suppose that you are one of the lucky few who is offered a book contract. Now you have made it right? Check out stage 3.
- So you have your book contract and advance. The publisher now owns your idea and wants to maximize revenue from it. That may mean major changes in the content to direct it toward the market “sweet spot.” Furthermore with tight marketing budgets and most marketing directed toward the surefire money makers (authors with a large following, name recognition, and a good track record) the publisher will rely heavily on you to help with the marketing through book signings, blogging, publicity events, and public speaking. You are likely not on salary, but it is expected that you shoulder a significant burden of the marketing responsibility. One ought to ask oneself: “If I am spending all this time to make money for a royalty publisher, would I not be better off doing the same things for my own publication where the margins are much higher?” The answer is not straightforward. The publisher may have experts for every stage of the publication process and that may make for a better book (some publishers as a way of reducing costs, are laying off staff editors and using free lance editors instead). Those potential benefits are being traded off against the freedom of managing your own affairs. When you manage your own publishing you can change printers, decide when to launch e-books and try whatever marketing strategy makes the most sense to you. But you are not finished yet. There is also a stage 4.
- So your book is published and you have begun to bring in sales for your publishing house. Is your book a success? Generally a publisher’s minimum expectations are to cover the writer’s advance with royalty payments. If you do not cover that spread then your book has been a financial failure from the point of view of the publisher’s expectations. However some 96% of initial contracts are not covered by the paid royalty from sales. So after all this time if you are not one of the lucky 4%, you have a marketing failure next to your name. Is this really better than self-publishing?
My Own Approach
I am not at all against working with a royalty publisher, but my priorities are to grow in competence in the craft of writing, to learn how to market my books, and to connect with my readership. I cannot accomplish that if I leave the publication process solely in hands of someone else. I want to be wise about paying for printing, and I want to proceed with realistic expectations, but if I don’t have a book to give to my readers, I will not be listening to the people that really count.
So what do you think? Am I on the right track? Have you had any personal experiences with either royalty or pay-for-print publishers? Stay tuned for the next installment where I talk about some of the confusions, obfuscations, and misunderstanding related to self-publishing.
Thanks for reading,
Peter Kazmaier is author The Halcyon Dislocation, a colonization epic about a university transported into a parallel world.