Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You Should Self-Publish

One of the traits I value most about myself is my ability to change my mind about something as more data becomes available.

Well, the data is in. And I'm reversing one of my long-held beliefs about writing.

For many years, I said DO NOT SELF-PUBLISH.

I had many good reasons to support this belief.

1. Self-publishing was expensive
2. The final product was over priced and inferior
3. Self-pubbed were impossible to distribute
4. Most self-pubbed books weren't returnable
5. Chances were, the reason you had to self pub was because your writing wasn't good enough
6. Most POD houses were scams

I had ample evidence to support my opinion. Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors and Absolute Write all had detailed tales of authors being screwed. I'd done enough local signings with self-pubbed authors to see how epic their failures were. I was a judge for several self-pub contests for Writer's Digest, and saw firsthand the dreck being released.

Yep, I was pretty confident that traditional publishing was the only game in town.

Then, in 2009, I became aware of the Kindle.

Even though I began to experience some success self-publishing my ebooks, I still believed in traditional publishing. For all of its flaws, signing with a Big 6 house was still the best way to make the most money and reach the most readers.

So now it's December 2010, and I'm selling 1000 ebooks a day, and I'm ready to change my mind on the matter.

Two close friends of mine have books on submission, waiting for the Big 6 to make offers. They've been waiting for a few months, and will probably have to wait a few months more.

Even being conservative in my estimates, these writers have lost thousands of dollars, and will continue to lose money every single day their books are on submission, rather than on Amazon.

Selling 1000 ebooks a month equals $24,000 a year. Being on submission for 6 months is a loss of $12,000, and then waiting 18 more months for the book to be published is a loss of another $36,000.

Even if they got a nice advance, say $100,000, they'd still be losing money hand over fist.

Let's compare:

Self-Pubbing
Two years of extra sales (the submission time and the time to publication) = $48,000
Three years of sales beyond that @ $24k per year = $72,000
Total five year earnings for self pubbing = $120,000

Traditional Pubbing
Advance = $100,000. But the agent takes $15k, and the advance is broken up into three payments of $57,000 each over three years
Five years of sales = $0 (a $100,000 advance, in today's market, with bookstores closing all around and ebook royalties at 17.5%, will never earn out)
Total five year earnings = $85,000

1000 ebook sales a month for a $2.99 self-pubbed ebook is a very conservative number--I have ebooks regularly selling 2000 or 3000 a month.

But I've NEVER had a $5.99 ebook sell 1000 copies a month, and that's what a traditional publisher will price their ebooks at. Each $5.99 ebook that sells will earn the author $1.05, and they'll sell considerably fewer (as many as ten times fewer, according to my numbers) than the $2.99 ebook earning them $2.04.

Yes, there will be paper sales, but my best selling paper book, Afraid, didn't even earn me $25k in print royalties, and it has a hardcover, trade paper, and two mass market releases on three continents.

I'm also very concerned that many print publishers, in the next few years, are going to go bankrupt. I'd hate to wait 18 months for my book to come out, then have it canceled. And if it is canceled, what happens to the rights? Do they get tangled up in some lengthy court battle? Do I ever get my erights back?

And how about after the five year period? Chances are high, five years from now, that ebooks will be the dominant format. Do I want to be locked into a contract making 17.5% on every sale when I could have been making 70%?

Let's say publishers wise up and begin selling ebooks for $2.99. That would mean authors only get 52 cents from each sale, or 1/4 of what they could make on their own. That's $6k a year in royalties, rather than $24k.

If that went on for ten years, an author who signed with a publisher would make $60,000. An author who self-pubbed and sold the same amount of ebooks would make $240,000.

Yes, traditional publishers offer editing and cover art. But is editing and cover art worth you losing $18,000 a year, every year, forever?

Even if we assume print will remain competitive, I can trot out the royalties I've earned on my Jack Daniels books over the last seven years. With six JD books, including ebook sales, I've made over $300,000.

I'm on track to make over $200,000 on ebook sales in 2011, and have made over $100,000 this year. So I can earn more in two years on my own than I could in seven years with a traditional publisher. Hell, I earned more this month than I got as an advance for Afraid ($20k for Afraid, $22k for this December self-pubbing.)

If I look at the poor royalty rates publishers offer, the changing, volatile marketplace, the long time to publication, and then add in the multitude of mistakes publishers continue to make (like high ebook prices), I'd be hard pressed to think of ANY reason to sign a book deal.

Unless it's for a huge sum of money. If that happens, take the money and assume you'll never get your rights back or make another cent off of that book.

Years ago, publishers used to grow authors. When authors reached a certain number of books in print, the publisher would have a huge marketing campaign to break the author out into the mainstream and hit the bestseller lists. That's how a lot of NYT bestsellers got there.

These days, you can grow yourself. You can put out books quicker than the Big 6, earn more money, reach more readers, and have more control over the entire process.

But don't take my word for it. Go to Kindleboards.com and look at all the self-pubbed authors selling like crazy. Go to Amazon.com and look at the bestseller lists, which are full of indie authors (who are competing with huge bestselling authors, and in many cases making more money than those bestsellers.) Crunch the numbers yourself, and try to find a scenario where you'd actually do better in the long term by signing with the Big 6.

I'll now take some questions.

Q: But Joe, I've got a self-pubbed ebook on Kindle, and I've only sold 6 copies. Wouldn't I sell more through a publisher?

A: I've seen evidence that the return rates on print books are over 70%. If your book is selling poorly on Kindle, what makes you think you'll sell well having two copies, spine out, in a bookstore that will soon go out of business?

And do you think you'll sell more ebooks through a publisher when they list it at $9.99 and only pay you 17.5%?

If your sales are poor, change the cover art, change the description, rewrite the book, write more books, change genres, etc. There are a lot of ways to improve sales, because you have control.

You have no control once you sign over your rights to a publisher.

Q: Print is still the dominant form of media. Don't you think you're putting all your eggs in the ebook basket?

A: Not at all. Most of my self-pubbed ebooks are available in print, through Createspace. This December, I've earned over $2300 on them.

Q: You're such a hypocrite. You've got several print deals.

A: I signed those deals before I came to this conclusion. I highly doubt I'll ever sign another print deal.

Q: But I need the traditional publishing gatekeepers in order to know my book is good enough. Aren't you concerned a whole bunch of wannabes will flood the Kindle with self-pubbed crapola?

A: Decades ago, pulp writers learned to write while on the job. Early books by many of the greatest mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, and romance writers, weren't very good. But getting paid allow those writers to improve, and become the masters we now revere.

If you write crap, it probably won't sell very well. But you can learn from it and get better. You can rewrite and revise your early work to improve it. With self-publishing, readers become the gatekeepers, and if you work hard, keep an open mind, and learn from your mistakes, you'll improve as a writer.

Q: But what about editing and formatting and cover art?

A: See my sidebar for the folks I use to make my cover art and format my ebooks and print books.

As for editing, I'll be candid here. My last four print releases, all done my major houses, required very little editing. That's because I have writing peers who help me vet my manuscripts.

Join a writers group, or make friends with a writer in your genre and trade manuscripts.

Q: But I want to be traditionally published so my books are in bookstores, and so I can join professional writer organizations like HWA, SFWA, RWA, MWA, ITW, NinC, the Author's Guild, so I can get nominated for awards, and so I can get professional reviews in newspapers and Kirkus, PW, Booklist, and so my books get into libraries, and so I can sell to foreign countries and sell audio rights and get movie deals.

A: Years ago, self-pubbing was called "vanity publishing" because it existed to appeal to the writer's ego.

Joining organizations, winning awards, getting into newspapers, and seeing your books in bookstores and libraries all seems like it caters directly to a writer's vanity.

As a writer, I could give a shit what the New York Times thinks of my latest, or if MWA gives me an Edgar award, or if I'm on a shelf in the Podunk Public Library. Those are all ego strokes.

I care about money, and reaching readers, and none of these things are necessary to make money or reach readers.

As for foreign, audio, and movie rights, watch what happens over the next few years. Print is no longer a prerequisite.

Q: You're doing well because you have a platform in traditional publishing.

A: Will this assumption ever die? I'm not saying every self-pubbed writer will sell as well as I do. But there are many writers selling just as well, or better, and many of them never had a print deal. I'm sure my backlist helps. I'm also sure a backlist isn't needed to succeed.

Q: You're a bitter, angry man, your mediocre success has turned you into an insufferable egomaniac, and your bashing the publishing industry is petty and misguided.

A: I'm guessing you work for the publishing industry. Better get that resume up on Monster.com ASAP.

Q: But what if your ebook predictions are wrong? What if the bubble bursts? Do you think any publisher in the world would ever offer you another contract? I'd much rather stick with a multi-million dollar company who has had a hundred years of experience. Publishers are too smart, and there is too much money involved, for them to fail.

A: I'm sure a lot of people felt the same way about Enron, Delta, Chrysler, General Motors, Northwest Airlines, Montgomery Wards, Kmart, Delta, the Tribune Group, Pacific Gas and Electric, etc.

Bankruptcy happens to big companies all the time. And technology changes how media is distributed and sold.

I wouldn't want to be associated with any company who still supported Betamax, VHS, 8 tracks, cassette tapes, vinyl records, 35mm film, analog televisions, CRT monitors, dot matrix printers, etc.

I don't doubt that print will always exist.

I also don't doubt that digital will dominate print, just as it has dominated music, TV, film, communications, etc.

If you want to stick with the old guard, that's up to you. I wish you much success.

In the meantime, I'll be self-pubbing, making money.