Self-Publishing Series: I. Making the Decision

26 06 2013

Self-publishing is becoming an ever more viable option for authors, given the erosion of commercial publishing, economic print-on-demand technologies, and the marketing power of Amazon and other online bookstores.

Since I’m both a self-published and commercially published author, I thought it would be helpful to share my experience, as well as the resources I’ve found useful.

Here are links to the other articles in the series:

As to my experience, my most recent commercially published book is Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010). As an initial experiment in self-publishing, my wife Joni and IExplaining Research produced a supplementary booklet Working with Public Information Officers.

Now we’re in the process of self-publishing my novels: The Rainbow Virus, Wormholes,  Solomon’s Freedom, and The Cerulean’s Secret.

Commercial publishing: advantages and frustrations

I’ve had positive and negative experiences with both commercial and self-publishing, and I hope those experiences will help you make the decision. First, my commercial publishing experience:

Working with Oxford was generally a positive experience. The publisher provided excellent manuscript editing, visibility, and the imprimatur and distribution of a prestigious academic publisher.

But there was a downside, experiences that seem to be par for the course in commercial publishing these days. First, came the frustrating contract negotiations, in which their initial contract gave them everything, including the kitchen sink. Perhaps most outrageous was a clause in which they reserved the right to hire another writer—with the fee deducted from my royalties—to do another edition if they wanted one and I didn’t.

The royalties were also terrible; Oxford has adopted a policy now common among publishers to pay royalties on net sales rather than gross sales, significantly reducing royalties. Net royalties are paid based on publishers’ income after deducting production costs; gross royalties are higher because they are based on the retail price. I had to hire a lawyer to negotiate more reasonable terms, although the advance and royalties remained very low.

Perhaps more of a negative for me was the lack of editorial control—which is standard and understandable, given that the publisher is taking the financial risk. This control resulted in a less attractive book. For example, Oxford chose a boring “academic” cover design, even though I provided them with an excellent, dynamic alternative, designed by a professional book cover designer. And, Oxford decided the book needed to be cut by 10,000 words, which meant cutting out a useful section on working with public information officers. Finally, I was disappointed in the index, which was done by an indexer the publisher recommended, but paid for by me. I ended up having to considerably revise that index.

My ultimate decision to self-publish also reflected the fact that I had to do the vast majority of marketing myself, which is also standard in publishing today. And, since Joni and I already knew how to manage the other major component, the editorial process, why not self-publish? What’s more, given the sad economic state of commercial publishing, particularly fiction, the reality was that my novels would likely not see the light of day unless I self-published them.

What finally tipped the balance in favor of self-publishing my novels was my frustrating experience with the unnamed publisher to whom I submitted The Cerulean’s Secret. While the editors responded positively to the book, it took years to go through the frustrating process of submitting initial chapters, more chapters, the full manuscript, and waiting a year for any further response. Finally, although they had indicated that the novel had been recommended for publication, they simply stopped responding to my queries.  This stunningly slow, even unprofessional,  process may well be standard and familiar to veteran authors. However, it exhausted my patience.

A gratifying self-publishing experiment

Working with Public Information OfficersAlso, by this time, my experiment in self-publishing Working with Public Information Officers had shown me how easy it was. I used LightningSource, which is the largest print-on-demand producer. Not only did I have complete editorial and production control, the economics worked well. I priced the booklet at $10, gave Amazon a 20 percent discount, and thus made $8 per copy. Since the booklet’s publication, I’ve received a steady but very small income. However, I didn’t mean for the experiment to make money. I purposely “sabotaged” print sales, in that I posted the entire content online, because I wanted people to have access to the text. For my novels, however, I’ve used CreateSpace for reasons I’ll cover in the post, Operating the Publishing Machinery.

I’m not totally soured on commercial publishing. They still offer advantages of broad distribution and the imprimatur of a commercial publisher.

However, whether self- or commercially publishing, authors must face the hard financial reality that you will not likely make significant income, even with a bestseller. For example, a Nielsen Bookscan study of sales of 1,200,000 books found that only 2.1 percent sold more than 5,000 copies. The vast majority, 79 percent, sold less than 99 copies. Even a “bestseller” won’t bring riches, as described in this article by novelist Patrick Wensink.

To cite a widely quoted maxim in publishing: you won’t make money from a book; you’ll make money because of a book. That is, think of your book as a means of enhancing your brand as a writer/expert. Nonfiction books can build your reputation, lead to writing assignments, and give the opportunity to make money teaching workshops in your subject. I’ve made much more money from my communication workshops for scientists than I have from Explaining Research.

And for novels, building a brand means publishing multiple novels and working to create a following such that readers of one novel will buy others.

A self-publishing trend

My decision to self-publish is very much in line with the times. For example, Guy Kawasaki author of APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) How to Publish a Book—has listed these “Top Ten Reasons to Self-publish Your Book.”

Self-publishing is also very much the wave of the future, contends David Vinjamuri in his overview of the publishing industry, “Publishing is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books—And That’s a Good Thing.” Vinjamuri predicts that “. . . mainstream authors who don’t reach the blockbuster sales of Brad Thor or Sue Grafton—but have an established audience—will choose the favorable economics of Indie publishing.” He also points out that “authors like Edgar-winning mystery author Lawrence Block and Margaret Muir have already embraced indie publishing for the obvious economic benefits.  There are also many authors who started as self-publishers and are making a solid living in Indie-land.”

Here are other recent articles on the subject:

However, there are major cautions that should be added to these writers’ upbeat views of self-publishing: In your marketing, you will be trying to distinguish your book from masses of self-published dreck and battling the still-questionable image of self-published authors—although some of this may be sour grapes, as pointed out by Debra Holland in this blog post.

The decision and the process are complex; and I hope this series helps you to decide whether to self-publish, and if you do, to successfully navigate those complexities.

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