Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When and Why Does an Author Decide to Turn Their Back on Traditional Publishers and Self-Pub?

I am not talking about established name brand writers here, for they have a completely different biz model, but the debut and midlist writers who are struggling to find their audience and make a living.

A couple of factors have me thinking:

1. I gave my mom my kindle to borrow to see if she likes it. We went to find a book to buy and, as I have said before and would love to jump on my soapbox and help traditional publishers fix this but hey, I don't work for publishers, when you are searching for books while on your kindle, there is no quick way to tell if a book is by a traditional publisher or self-pubbed. I did not feel like clicking through each book to figure out who publishes what and also noted that price is not the go to resource as both traditional and self-publishers offer their books for little to no money. We downloaded MUST LOVE DOGS --the book, 'coz i loved the movie--for FREE! She wanted a book by one of her favorite writers but when she saw the cost she said, "I didn't realize that ebooks are as expensive as paperbacks (this is an adult novel), maybe an e-reader is not for me" (sigh)

Honestly, I cannot figure out the benefit to the author or the publisher of a free one-off book (1st book in an series (especially an aging series) is another thing--brilliant marketing move and I would say a must do to reignite interest in that series). I don't know if the author of MUST LOVE DOGS has written lots of other books 'coz on Kindle it is a pain to figure that out and negates the ease of the buying experience.

2. A man I know who is a great guy and a good writer wrote a book for which he could not secure an agent.  He revised and rather than again trying to go the traditional route decided to self-pub it as an ebook. Heck, one my my fabulous ex-clients did the same thing after I was unable to sell her book to a traditional publisher.

3. I know some of you have told me that your 'erotica' writer friends and 'genre' writer friends are making some big bucks selling their e-books for $0.99 to $3.99....we are talking 6 figures a year!

4. And this NYTimes article...Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking which is talking about traditionally published authors now needing to increase their output to keep in front of the consumers' eye including digital-only short stories. Interestingly,  "Advances [for digital-only short stories] are typically not part of the bargain, and the works are priced so low (usually $0.99 or $1.99) that they don’t produce much revenue, even if they take several weeks or months to write.  But some authors said that even though they are beginning to accept them as one of the necessary requirements of book marketing, they still find them taxing to produce."

5. Heck, these days you can buy a review from Kirkus and others....a good review is not guaranteed but in most reviews there are snippets to use to promote your book...and further blur the lines for consumers to know if it is traditionally or self-pubbed.

Where is this all going, including the negative effect of the unending lawsuits that some traditional pubs are now facing due to the US Gov't decision against Agency Pricing and the growing perception by consumers that e-books are not worth more than perhaps a buck or two. (Big sigh for the consumers who give an ebook low star ratings because they are angry that the ebook costs almost as much as the printed version.)

As you know from my previous posts, I am a huge believer in professional editing, cover design, marketing, distribution, etc. And I point you to Shelli Johannes Wells' blog on the hard work and results of self-pubbing from an author who is a professional marketer. And if you haven't read Amanda Hocking's Blog post HOW AM I DOING NOW? go read it, well, NOW. As well as Another informative perspective: When Self-Publishing Is More Useful As a Marketing Tool from the wonderful Jane Friedman blog.

What I know is I am selling my clients' books....LOTS OF THEM. And so are most of my agent friends. Traditional publishing and publishers are not going anywhere at this point, if they were they would not be hiring more editors, art directors, marketers, digital managers, etc...which many of them still are.

I am still waiting to read a self-published book that is as well edited as most of the traditionally published books. Many of these books have fun plots, interesting characters, tantalizing sex---ok, referring to a specific book here:)--and sell for way below the typical cost of a traditionally published book. Actually, part of me doesn't understand why if an author hires a top-notch professional editor, cover artist, designer, etc, their book isn't freak'n amazing. So people, please name those books for me 'coz I haven't found them yet.

Maybe the reason many self-pubbed books are lacking in some way is that authors do not want to or feel the need to invest in the things that traditional publishers do, and who btw also pay an advance and cover all costs. Maybe it is the dream/delusion that what and how we write is good enough. I don't need an editor/sales/marketing/acquisitions board telling me when it is good enough for human consumption?

So I ask you all, when do you say to yourself, ah....forget publishers....if they can't see my brilliance/or heck who knows, maybe mine will be the next 50 Shades or Wool? 

Are your writer friends, non-agented or agented, debut or published, talking self-pubbing for either new work or books that have not sold in the past?

Picture above from http://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/ebook-pricing-still-a-mystery-to-some-publishers/


  1. Publishers are picky. Agents are also picky. But that doesn't mean a book can't do well.

    I have a good friend who self-pubbed a book recently, and despite it not being professionally edited and not doing any marketing, by word-of-mouth alone she's done EXTREMELY well. Far better than either of us thought she would. I can only imagine if she'd managed to place the book in a traditional publishing house and had the marketing to back it up.

    I have one book through a traditional publisher and another forthcoming, but I'm putting serious thought into self-pubbing the book after that, just to see how it goes. But who knows. ;)

    I had a point to this and I forgot what it was. Probably something about how self-pubbing seems great for some people, but *really* not for others? I'd still love to snag an agent and go that route one of these days.

  2. First off, to Kelley - tons of books that are excellent don't sell well from traditional publishers, so there is simply no way to know what would've happened to your friend had it gone a different way - could've been edited differently, had a different cover, etc, and everything changes. All we know is that it's different.

    Jill - I agree about the blurring of lines and the bizarreness of paying for reviews from the Kirkuses of the world. And there is no question that the ease of entry into self-pubbing means that lots of lower quality work gets out there. We agree. That said, there is quality self-pub out there if you believe reviews - lots of mysteries, genre, romance, erotica, and beyond. Are there tons of well-edited children's books? Not as many, but it's a newer, smaller niche right now. There will be, however. And, frankly, I'll put my own poetry collection up against others any day. There are many people who DO take craft seriously.

    What I don't understand is the black/white lines that are being drawn. Self-pubbing doesn't mean turning your back on traditional publishing. They are not mutually exclusive; they are choices. One is not inherently bad or good. As we progress more in this field, curation will exist - and frankly, I don't think it matters if something is pubbed by a big company or not, as long as it is quality.

    Oh, and to add to the reasons - since most people can't make a living from their books alone in children's publishing, and since agents and editors often take months (or in some cases, years!) to respond to queries and manuscripts (or, in some cases, refuse to take them), there is something to be said for the ability to have a book to market on your own terms, in your own time. Oh, right... there's the whole royalty on e-book issue, too.

    Again, though, my thought is that these don't have to be battles. Publishers can bring a lot to the table, and that has value. Each person makes a choice about what that value is for them. That's how it should be, isn't it?

  3. I find it interesting that a lot of self-pub authors went that route after they couldn't get an agent.

  4. I have seen this on so many blogs lately and I just don't see what the big deal is.

    If you are concerned with reading a self-pubbed book that might not be "professionally" edited, then get the sample you can download and take it for a spin before buying. You can usually tell from 1-3 chapters if it's something you might like.

    I used to be a purest. I'd only read traditionally published books. But really at .99-3.99, even if you end up not caring for the book, it's better than forking over 7.99-20.00 for a traditional you still might not like. Sure, they might have spelling and grammatical errors, but so do some traditional books that happen to slip by everyone involved. A few might have benefited from a pro editor, but maybe they couldn't afford one and really just wanted to share their story with the world. I see nothing wrong with this. I also think that not everyone knows or cares when there are mistakes. The majority of people out there aren't with the grammar police. Most just want an entertaining read.

    I think of it like pizza. There is a place about an hour away from me and the pizza is consistently amazing. But the money (and time) getting there is only for special occasions. So I eat the local pie, which isn't nearly as good, but still satisfying and easily accessible.

    I also think that some self-published writers have had bad experiences with agents and/or publishing houses. Others go all in for self-pubbing without trying the traditional route because they like that they have full control. Whereas some want nothing to do with the editing, design and marketing and just want to write and hope that they can be picked up by an agent. And I think a lot of the stories you hear about people trying to sell their book traditionally is discouraging. Going to workshops, conferences, critique groups, having an agent ask for more then turn you down, having an agent pick you up and then never being sold, being sold to a Big 6 and be put through 20 rounds of revisions that basically makes you rework your entire story, having your editor leave the company and being shelved because no one else wants it, being put in a low tier for a minimum print run, not having the full backing of marketing and understanding your original vision, being dropped because your sales were low. It's one thing to fail on your own doing, but to not even be given the chance is heartbreaking after all that work.

    You also hear a lot of traditionally published authors saying how it's rare to make a living writing and even they have other jobs or they wouldn't recommend it as a career. The majority of traditionally pubbed writers aren't best selling and even those that are, aren't necessarily making a full time living at it. You'd be lucky to sell more than your advance especially if they (the publishers) decided to print a certain amount and most debut authors don't get a large number of printing to even hit a best sellers list. And if you are lucky to get past your advance (and returns) and can start making royalty on your sales that number is so low by the time you receive your check (isn't it like only a few times a year) it's usually not enough to survive. And what happens if you don't sell a lot because either your book wasn't marketed well or wasn't giving a good print run or just got bad reception? Then you're dropped. I can see why after all that, which is YEARS, can throw aspiring writers in the direction of self-publishing, especially when Amazon and the like make it so easy. And you know what? That's okay. Because this is America and we grow and thrive on freedom and being able to choose what is best for us personally. It sure is better than someone telling us what we can and cannot do, or read!

    Sorry this was so long, just wanted to get my point across as a reader and writer.

  5. To chime in with my 2-cents in order to answer your question, "So I ask you all, when do you say to yourself, ah....forget publishers...."

    I went that route because after sending more than 100 queries to agents/agencies, and after editing my manuscript a dozen different times, and having a dozen people pour over it with a fine-toothed comb looking for the spots I messed up. Even then, when it was as good as I could get it, all the agents (well the ones that chose to respond) said the same thing: there's something compelling here, but I don't think I can sell it.

    So I said, screw it, and designed my own cover, did all the layout for the print edition, converted the text to Nook and Kindle format, made sure on my own that they displayed the way I wanted them, and made the book available for sale at the low price of $2.99.

    That's why I did it. After all the work, I saw no reason to just chuck it in the trash bin considering that there's a LOT of traditionally published material out there that--in my, and other people's opinions--doesn't deserve the shelf-space they take up.

    You also mention the editing and grammar being somewhat lacking in indie self-pub stuff...whereas this may be true, I have more than one supposedly professionally done ebook by big name publishers that have glaring, hideous formatting, grammar, and spelling errors. The "Big Six" aren't doing too hot on this metric, either.

    Will my book find its audience? I sure hope so. Having it available for 5 months, I can count on both hands the number of sales I've made (and to date the profit to me is zero), but the fact that there are folks out there who bought, read, and liked my work enough to actually put up positive reviews on Amazon is a little bit of a boost for me...in a way, it makes me feel almost vindicated that all the agents who said "No" to me were possibly mistaken and that "my bird can fly" after all.

    Do we have hopes of being the next big break-out hit? Sure! Who doesn't? But will that happen? Probably not. But I can tell you the exact same thing for all the traditionally published material. There was a lot of buzz about "The Night Circus" when it came out...since then what?

    See. It's a total crap-shoot. You never know what will happen. Quoth Yoda: "Difficult to see, always in motion is the future."

  6. I've been reading, and thinking, about this issue a lot lately. I still can't wrap my head around the fact that a Harlequin author sold 179,000 copies of her books and made a total of only 20K. Also, I think the marketing plan for Amanda Hocking is atypical for traditionally published authors, and reflects the amount invested in her via the advance. An author with an average advance is not going to get the red carpet treatment from a publisher. They will have to do most of the work on their own, so I can see why they'd rather get 70% of the earnings rather than 8%.

    As a newly agented writer, I'm struggling with this. I always thought I wanted to go the traditional route, but a lot of what I'm reading lately has me re-thinking that.

  7. Thank you for the post and comments. I find everything fascinating and overwhelming at the same time.

    Jill, I appreciate your comment about publishing houses still hiring. I admit that I do own an e-reader, but I still prefer a book. Even my son in college refused to go the route of e-text books, which really surprised me.

    My two younger children seem to prefer books over the e-reader as well. The only advantage I have with one son is being able to hide the length of a story when I hand it to him on the e-reader. (He judges a book by how fat it is.)

    I am a newbie (two years) in a writer's critique group which has met together for 15 years. Most are self published or indie published. When I think about all the work and money they put into self publishing and marketing I become overwhelmed. My thought always goes back to "When do you have time to write?"

    However, I have to admit my bias up front. I would rather work to my strengths and pay someone else to do the parts that I could probably do -- after inordinate amounts of time learning how to do it.

  8. Another informative perspective: When Self-Publishing Is More Useful As a Marketing Tool http://janefriedman.com/2012/05/16/self-publishing-marketing-tool/

  9. I am planning to self-publish my sequel to my first book which was published by a publisher, who did nothing to promote or market my book, so I had to do my own promotion. Because not enough copies have sold, they will not consider a sequel. I am not prepared for the years of waiting in the submission/rejection cycle. I'm not getting any younger! I have had the sequel professionally edited and have a professional artist working on the cover. I will soon be ready to publish it as an e-book. I don't plan to do a print run.

  10. I have recently self-pubbed my first middle grade novel THE COLOR OF BONES in paperback and ebook formats. I've never had an agent, never been published. I searched for an agent for a couple of years with two different manuscripts. Both manuscripts received compliments about the writing, characters, story, etc., but in the end no one felt they could sell either book. I'm a realist. I get it. If the agents really felt that way, I'm glad they decided to pass.

    Then, last fall, I received a 3 page set of notes about one of my manuscripts from a fabulous industry professional who pointed me in a different direction, a better, more effective, direction. I rewrote the whole book from page one, with her permission to use her notes, and then I told her I was thinking about self-pubbing. She gave me the okay and was totally behind me no matter which way I decided to go. I even had the option to resubmit to her agency. But in the end, I didn't. I published. And here's why.

    I'm a teacher. I've taught fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I've basically taught every kind of middle grade reader that ever lived. After rewriting one of my manuscripts completely, with the notes and new direction, I knew it contained various elements middle graders would like. I knew it was a true middle grade book. I knew it was the best manuscript I could write. I knew it was clean and well written and engaging and suspenseful. But I didn't do this alone. My critique group was there every step of the way. They pushed me to make the manuscript meet this high criteria. After all, I didn't have an agent's or an editor's eyes.

    So now, the book has been out for one week. It's selling moderately well, with several online reviews from valid sites still to come. Middle grade is a new territory for self-pub. Distribution is tough, but I have several teachers and librarians already on my side, not to mention an army of kids. That'll count for something.

    This is an industry in flux, but I would never rule out the traditional path. I'd kill to work with an editor and team of people who shared the same passion for my stories. I'd also kill to have wide distribution to school and libraries and the brick and mortar that's still standing. But in reality, I now have a book out in the world, one that I'm totally confident in, one that shows off what I can do on my own, and one that shows what I'd be capable of doing with a team of people behind me.

    If only the book can find an audience amidst the rubble. We'll see.

  11. Jane's article is interesting and speaks to the level of involvement a writer desires to have (or doesn't) with the business side of things. I'm trying to weigh that out because I've run my own successful private practice for years and am very comfortable with business decisions. I'm not sure how much control (and revenue) I want to hand over to someone else if I'm doing most of the work. That said, I have yet to do any marketing for my business (I don't even have a website), as word of mouth has been so strong. This lack of marketing approach obviously isn't a viable option for selling books, so I'd have to create a new business model. Luckily, my agent has been very supportive of my thoughts about this and I don't have to make a decision right now.

    Ultimately, I don't think there's a right or wrong answer, and I could see publishing through both traditional and self-publishing means. The positive is that authors now have more choices than ever, and most of us realize that we're all on the same team and are supportive of each other.

  12. After reading the post and all the comments I realize I must be easily persuaded! I am new to serious writing (actually looking for publication) and can see valid points to each argument. Children's lit is very very difficult to break into partly I believe because so many people think they can do it but not so many do it really well. Personally, I think writers often decide to go the self-pub route because they want to "show em" after they have done good or even great work only to be turned down. After the classes are taken, the book is done, the writing partner has given it the high five, the critique group has passed it the professional paid editor has approved it and kids have howled at the hilarity it offers, it is humbling to be turned down over and over and over. I think often something wells up inside that just says "heck with this let me self-pub, put it out there and make a tiny amount just to feel better about me." Wrong? I think not...just different. Maybe the next one will be traditional. We ARE thankfully free to choose EACH TIME WE WRITE A STORY. No either/or there.

  13. Greetings from Australia. A great discussion, as always.

    A selling point could be adding 'Certified edited by a professional editor' on the cover, or even the editor's name and professional membership.

    Giving away a Kindle book for short periods as part of an Amazon marketing program is called 'pulsing' and can boost ranking. ((I can tell you more when we meet at SCBWI Sydney, Jill.))

    Some people give books away until they have 5 Amazon reviews, which can be important in tempting buyers.

    At the London Digital Conference a couple of years ago (out of date by now?) the overall message was 'Do not undervalue your product'. It was believed that readers will happily pay 'large amounts' - up to $25 - for an ebook if they perceive sufficient added value through enhancements, eg interview with the author, background information discovered through research, the editing process detailed, an alternative ending, a bonus short story, an excerpt from the next book...

    Professionally edited self-pub'd ebook by SCBWI Queensland member Karen Tyrell getting rave reviews in the first week: 'Me and Her - a memoir of madness'

    Harassed for months by parents when teaching, she became mentally ill and Bipolar, ran to a motel and had to be discovered by police and forcibly hospitalised. The book tells the story and how she clawed her way back to health.

    Very best wishes to all

    Peter Taylor

  14. "Why do you self-pub?" is as intimate and difficult to reply to as "Why do you write?" and yet, they both have the same answers.

    I write for the pleasure of writing and the joy of being read. No Big 6 would have me, so I put my books out myself. I price them low, and have used Kindle's Select program to give away over 100,000 copies of my 5 books. Few of these will be read, but some will.

    I do all the work myself, from editing to cover art. I bought some books on editing and I try to make my work as professional and polished as I can, yet I stop short of sinking thousands of $ into them hiring out help, because I'm unlikely to get it back. While not everyone is a huge fan of my work, they hold their own against trad-pubbed books when it comes to reviews.

    I still have Dreams with a capital D.

    I have Sales and Readers.

    What I don't have is Form Rejections From Agents and Editors.

    Am I doing it wrong?

  15. I have just gotten into the world of self-publishing. Starting to read the books and my first was S.R. Johannes' Untraceable (her blog is mentioned in this post-Market My Words).
    Honestly Untraceable was amazing. I rated it 5/5 stars on my blog. Even for a book not in my normal genre I was so involved with the story.

    You can check out my review here

    I do believe that there are many fine stories that are self-published and it really is just a matter of taking the good and the bad and not letting that bad mar a whole publishing method. Because really there will always be good and bad in everything.

    So to answer this
    "So people, please name those books for me 'coz I haven't found them yet."
    You should try Untraceable. It is well edited, the cover was done by a very good artist and I would almost dare to say more time has been invested in the book (The making, editing, cover, marketing) than a traditional book.

    Here it is on goodreads -http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12731861-untraceable

  16. One of my friends pulled her ms from agents (she had accumulated over 15 rejections on requested material over the year) and self published her novel. She bucked the trend of charging a low price. Most people didn't clue in that her $7.99 book was actually self published. In the short few weeks the book has been on the market, it has sold over $10 K. But it's women's fiction not YA. I'm still nervous about self publishing my YA novels (not that they're ready for publication) because teens still are huge buyers of ebooks, and I want teens to read my books. I write them for teens, not for adults who love reading YA stories.

  17. Great post!

    "I cannot figure out the benefit to the author or the publisher of a free one-off book."

    Word of mouth. By offering an ebook for free, you may reach readers who would not have otherwise purchased your book. If they like it, they may right a review, blog about it, or rave about it to your friends. Free marketing.

  18. Sigh... I don't know. All I know is, given the exchange rate and where I live, traditional publishing is a much more likely option than paying for an editor, a cover artist etc. etc. before self publishing.

  19. Don't know if anyone mentioned this, but Claire Cook offered MUST LOVE DOGS for free for Mother's Day, just 24 hours, as a "thank you" to her fans. Looks like you caught it at just the right time!



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