For some, self-publishing is still something to look down upon. Self-published work is thought to be inferior. Self-published work is less, because it doesn’t have a publishing house’s stamp of approval on it.
I get it. There is a very low bar to self-publish, and there is a huge pile of low-effort, low-quality content out there. Consumers have every right to be skeptical when it comes to paying money for something that has never been vetted by anyone. This is why I intend to make 15-20% of all of my work freely available to sample, to prove that it is high enough quality to be worth your money.
Still, self-publishing has a lot of upsides for authors that traditional publishing simply can’t match. I’ve chosen to go this route because of these benefits, and in spite of the popular perception.
For those that don’t know the first thing about self-publishing, here’s a quick primer. Online retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and others (including some third party self-publishing services) allow anyone to create publishing accounts through which to distribute their work. From novels to memoirs, instruction manuals to poetry, anyone can publish anything.
The Self-Publishing Process
Ebooks are the most common form of self-publishing as they are (relatively) easy to create and easy to distribute. Amazon’s Kindle Store, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, Apple Books, and Kobo are just a few of the ebook retailers self-publishers utilize. It’s as easy as making an account, uploading your files, naming your price, and raking in piles and piles of cash. Except for that last part. Profiting is hard.
Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and some other services also provide print-on-demand physical book publishing for do-it-yourselfers. Where a publishing house would print an initial run of physical books (maybe 25,000, for example) at great expense up front, then attempt to sell them. Print-on-demand services print the copies individually as orders are placed. This lowers the risk of losing out on the financial investment making it perfect for individuals on a budget as opposed to massive corporations.
For self-publishers, royalties (and by extension) profit margins) are much higher on ebooks that print-on-demand copies. At present, I’m not interested in printing physical copies, but it’s not a matter of money for me. First, I feel that ebooks are more environmentally conscientious. I don’t want to encourage paper usage. Second, printing physical books puts self-publishers between a rock and a hard place. Every physical book is required to have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which is kind of like a serial number. Acquiring an ISBN for your book is an expensive proposition, and each unique version (paperback, hardcover, large print, trim size, etc.) of the book requires it’s own unique ISBN. A single ISBN costs $125 dollars. Or you buy 10 for $295, or 100 for $575.
Printing paper books requires a massive investment up front with no guarantee of earning it back.
Luckily, print-on-demand services realized that this wasn’t a good thing for self-publishers and offer a free ISBN for your books. They can afford to buy massive bulk batches of them where individuals can’t. The problem with using a free ISBN? Well, if Amazon supplies you with an ISBN, that book is registered forever as being published by Amazon, not you, the self-publisher. It’s the same with every print-on-demand service. Therefore, if you want to sell through multiple retailers, you have to create different versions of your book for each retailer, ostensibly “Amazon Exclusive Edition”, “Barnes and Noble Exclusive Edition”, and so on.
This all requires more work and effort on the author’s part. It makes the process more tedious and prevents us from getting to work on our next project.
For those reasons, I’m not concerned with printing paper copies right now. Perhaps someday, when I can control the ISBN, but not now.
The Traditional Route
Writing a book is hard. Truly. Even the worst book has several hundred hours of someone’s time wrapped up in it. It is my personal belief that a competent novel can’t be created from scratch in less than 10 weeks. And that’s assuming it’s being treated as a full-time job. It is that hard and requires a huge amount of commitment to see through to the end.
Everyone wants to write a book. Very few ever finish one.
In traditional publishing, a writer writes their novel, finishes it, revises and edits it several times, then seeks out a Literary Agent to represent them. Getting an agent is incredibly difficult and time consuming. You must send out dozens (if not) hundreds of personalized letters, most of which turn into rejections. It’s tough. But, if a writer and an agent connect on a good project, the agent will then shop the book to publishers. If a publisher wants the book, they’ll offer the author a contract with an advance payment (usually under $25,000 for debut writers, depending on market factors). This is the writer’s dream come true.
The publisher then professionally edits the book, pays an artist to make a cover for it, and eventually, usually over a year after the contract was signed, the release the book to stores. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that most book deals give the writer a very, very small royalty percentage, and furthermore, the writer doesn’t get any royalty payments until the publisher earns back the amount of money they advanced to the author. That’s right, advances aren’t payment, they’re no-interest loans. If your book doesn’t “earn out” the advance, then you’re not a profitable writer and selling your next book to a publisher is going to be very even more difficult than the first one.
If by some miracle it does “earn out” the advance, then you’ll get royalty checks for future sales, but the rate is still quite low. Less than 20% of the cover price low.
Oh, and remember that Literary Agent, they get 10-15% of everything you make, including the advance.
Self-publishers can easily get 70% of the cover price in royalties, aren’t indebted to a publisher, and don’t have to pay an agent commission.
Self-publishing makes a lot of financial sense.
The Difficulties Of Self-Publishing
Just because it’s possible for self-publishers to make out like bandits doesn’t mean that it’s a common occurrence. Without the support of a publisher, everything falls on the author’s shoulders.
A manuscript has to be proofread and edited.
A cover has to be designed.
All of the self publishing administration must be dealt with.
And once your book goes on sale, the real work begins.
The biggest service publishers provide to writers is marketing. They advertise you and your book. They set up book signing events, maybe even a tour. They get your book prominent placement in bookstores where people can find it.
Without that, most books languish. People can’t read what they can’t find.
Self-publishers have to market themselves and their work. This usually means a ton of social media hustling, networking, and of course, opening up the old wallet to buy ad placements and promotions.
A quality ad campaign can easily cost hundreds of dollars, again, with no guarantee of success.
Self-publishers deserve much more respect than they get. They are betting big on themselves. It’s basically sink or swim. I’ve outlined the sheer amount of effort and investment it takes to write, edit, publish and market a book without any support system. It’s a massive undertaking.
Anyone who is confident or foolhardy enough to think they can succeed in those efforts deserves to be taken seriously. Now, if their work isn’t good, that’s fine. Don’t buy it. But if they produce good, high quality work while also shouldering all of these extra responsibilities.
Those people deserve the most support.
I’m self-publishing because I want to get on with it. I don’t want to do my book releases on anyone’s schedule but mine. I don’t want an advance payment that could jeopardize my future as a writer. I’ll take a few bucks here and there for as long as it trickles in. I don’t want to be contractually obligated to print thousands of copies of paper books and risk having them sit in a warehouse, a total waste of precious natural resources. I don’t want to be told what to write or how to write it. I’m in this for me, and I believe that there is an audience out there that will appreciate and gravitate to that.