28 February 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 14 comments

A good article came out today on the GoodeReader blog, which can be viewed here. In it, I’m interviewed and quoted about my thoughts on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.

To expand a little on my comments, I’ve always viewed traditional publishing as a lottery. Because it is. One with very long odds of success, even if you’re fortunate enough to land an agent who believes in your work and is pulling on the oars right along with you. That’s not news. It’s been like that for years. All you have to do is consider masterful bestselling authors like James Lee Burke, whose breakthrough novel was rejected 115 times by every New York publisher over thirteen years, to get a feel for the odds.

The model I liken it to is the record business. Or rather, the old record business that’s largely dying, or dead. In that model, a record company would sign 100 promising acts every year. Each would get a recording budget and one video. Then they would be spewed into the market, and the company would wait to see who caught fire. The one or two that did got most of the marketing money (along with the big selling established acts) and the rest would languish.

If that sounds familiar, that’s the NY model. Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of fine, hardworking, talented folks at publishing houses. Every book they sign, somebody had to feel had that special something that would make it a bestseller. Just as every act that was signed by an A&R department had that special something. Were these big brains all wrong, when the vast majority of their picks consistently do nothing?

Yes and no.

I think the more important point is that with self-publishing more authors than ever before are earning a livable wage. Because what might have been a yawn in terms of sales numbers for a big company is more than enough to support a lifestyle for an individual. I know at least a dozen folks who are earning in the six figures, who’ve never had a hit book. Never cracked the Top 100. But their work appeals to a readership that’s loyal, loves it, and buys every book the author puts out.

I know close to a hundred who are earning five figures and don’t go to work anymore, preferring to write for a living instead.

That’s amazing.

Sure, self-publishing is a lottery as well. The odds are long. The hours longer. You have to be prolific, dedicated, determined, and confident in your abilities to make it. And persistent.

But the chances of being able to make a nice living from self-publishing are better than at any point in history. eBooks and Kindle changed everything. The 70% royalty rate, as opposed to 25% of net, represents a roughly 5X larger payday for the same number of books at the same price. To put that into perspective, if you sell 15,000 books a year as an indie, at, say, $5, you’re taking home a nice fat paycheck for your time, and getting paid monthly. If you sold the same number as a trad pubbed author, you’d be a failure, and would probably be dropped, likely not earning out your meager advance once you were done (after reserves for returns, special discounts, related party subsidiary sales, etc.). In other words, you’d still be going to your job every day while writing at night, and you’d have made less than minimum wage when you added up all the hours you put in.

That’s the reality. Unless you’re Dan Brown. In which case, forget everything I said. You’re rich, a rock star, and the system is working for you.

But if your business model isn’t “Be Dan Brown” you have a rude awakening in store, even if you’re lucky enough to win the lottery and get an agent who knows his stuff, and then find an acquisition editor who gets your work, and then make it through committee, where a host of folks who have never written a bestseller decide the safe place to invest the company’s cash this quarter so they don’t get downsized…you are still likely to make peanuts in the trad system. It’s always been like that. But it’s getting more so now, because with mergers and tightened belts the chances of your work getting picked up are slimmer than ever.

Self-publishing is also a big crap shoot, but one where you can do things to narrow the odds. Get compelling professional covers done. Release books on an aggressive schedule. Hire pro editors to polish your work. Use out-of-the-box marketing to gain visibility. React to new changes in the landscape quickly. Price aggressively and do constant promotions.

In both systems there’s lots of risk. I maintain for the average author, though, the financial reward is considerably bigger in self-publishing. As a guy who’s built a comfortable business with a lot of titles, none of which are blockbusters, I can assure you that it’s possible to have a sustainable gig where you make more than enough money, and you can be your own boss.

Does that mean traditional publishing sucks a bag of dicks? I guess it depends. I’m shopping to the trade right now with a new series, because I want to be in airports. In my genre, being in airports is big. That’s where many thrillers and action/adventure books are purchased, and I can’t reach those readers without a trad deal. So for me it’s worth it to roll the dice – and I’m getting paid in the meantime. Frankly, with 500K books sold in 32 months, I can afford to wait a year or two if things don’t catch fire. That’s the other dynamic that’s kind of amazing. I can earn solid money while waiting and honing my craft. Maybe at a million sold I become attractive for an airport deal. If not, maybe at two million. At the end of the day does it really matter? If you have thousands of excited, supportive fans who buy your work, do you really need more? I mean, you can always have more. But do you need more?

These are exciting times. I by no means believe trad publishing is in trouble or going anywhere. I think the sentiment that they’re all going the way of the dinosaur is misguided, and probably driven by a certain bitterness over how unfair it all seems. Reality is that the publishers will continue making plenty of money – they can release their massive backlists (to which they own the authors’ rights for pretty much ever) and price them at sub-$5 whenever they like, and pay their way for years without ever signing anyone again.

The good news is that you can make a nice living outside of that system and you don’t have to worry about a deal. If you sell enough, they’ll come to you. If you don’t, guess what? You’re making money instead of waiting for a chance to maybe make money.

Although, being a buzz kill, I should end with the fact that most self-published authors don’t make much, or any, money.

Then again, most aspiring trad pub authors don’t either.

I just like that you can even the odds some and get paid while you reach readers. If you’re in the slush pile you aren’t being read, and there’s nothing sadder for an author than not being read. For me, that was the deciding factor in doing this the way I have. I wanted to build a sustainable biz, but I also wanted to see what readers thought of my work.

And now, every day’s Christmas. Which doesn’t suck at all.

 

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Comments

  1. Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Russell: Good advice across the board. And I hear you about the airport shops. Surprisingly, they sell a disproportionate number of books. I was shocked when I looked into it. Have you tried going direct with them? I know they don’t usually do that, but with your track record it might work. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 9:54 pm

      Waste of time, because the big pubs essentially pay for shelf space. Just like with all other bookstores. So you wouldn’t get the visibility. Assuming that they even wanted to stock without being able to return the books if they didn’t sell.

      Reply
  2. Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 6:06 pm

    I’ve thought the same thing. Your books are perfect for airports. If it all turns out well, then great. If not, while you’re waiting to hear, you never know if things will change and Amazon Createspace print books may find their way into airports. You never know.
    Maybe Amazon will buy the airport bookstores. That would be nice. Good news is you’re doing awesome either way.
    Speaking of sales for you, Mom’s still in Florida and has read Jet 4, 5, 6, Fatal Exchange, Silver Justice, and King of Swords. She’s only been gone 6 weeks. She’s a beach bum/book reading maniac. All on kindle though.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 9:54 pm

      Good for her! Nice to know she’s enjoying her time with the Russler!!!

      Reply
  3. Michael Picco
    Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Keep on keepin’ your pencil sharp … and Merry Christmas!

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 9:55 pm

      I’ve spent my entire life doing so.

      Reply
  4. Robert Jones
    Fri 28th Feb 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Russell,

    Those are actually better odds than some would have us believe as far as what people are making and how many are actually making a living self-pubbing. I appreciate that, and your time discussing such things.

    It’s true that in either taditional publishing and indy, those who make money are always a relatively small percentage of the pool.

    I’m torn. Due to physical injuries from a car accident, I can’t put the sort of hours in you (and a few others) recommend as being necesary to make the indy trade feasible.

    On the other hand, I really don’t like the notion of getting paid a small advance–after running the crazy gambit trad. publishers lay out–plus having them own my book indefinitely.

    I won’t stop writing. But I’m thinking it better be good if I can’t produce several per year. The one thing about self-publishing though, if it doesn’t take, I haven’t lost my rights. And I can always keep knocking on the traditional publishers doors if I fall flat here.

    Thanks, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Reply
  5. Sat 01st Mar 2014 at 10:23 am

    Every time you throw your pearls before us, you keep increasing my working hours–and my enthusiasm. Not having bought my ticket yet, the lottery’s jackpot still escapes me; unlike your winning posts. A great thanks for sharing your wisdoms with this pearl-loving lady.

    Reply
  6. Sat 01st Mar 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Russell, I think you’re right on the mark with your interpretation of the current publishing landscape. There are those who portend the end of the Big 5 but I just don’t see it – at least not in the near future.

    When I was growing up my father had a successful writing career. When he started out there were numerous magazines that published short stories in every edition. In fact, he made a living for a couple of years selling short stories before he sold his first novel.

    Based on his exposure through Argosy, Colliers, the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, etc., he had agents and publishers courting him. But by the end of his career the industry had changed drastically.

    When I started out trying to get publishers and agents interested in my writing the odds were miniscule, virtually impossible. But now it’s changing. Now I have a much better chance of getting noticed through self-publishing. But, more importantly, I don’t have to get a trad publishing contract. I can make good money on my own, much like back when my father started out. Ebooks and digital publishing are truly revolutionizing the industry.

    I’ve seen the business from all sides. My father published through major NY publishers. I worked in the retail side of things – as a store manager, district manager, and eventually working at the corporate office of one of the largest book store chains in the nation. And now I’m self-publishing my own writing.

    I can say without any reservations that there are more opportunities for writers today than in any time during my lifetime. As authors we should embrace the opportunities and support each other, whatever route we take, not ridicule and denigrate those who choose a different path toward their dream.

    Reply
    • Robert Jones  –  Sat 01st Mar 2014 at 2:24 pm

      @Merrill Heath–I’m finding your post encouraging. And I appreciate the fact that you’ve seen the publishing industry over a period of time as you have.

      It’s very true about the people who are crying wolf being over-rated. Anyone who has known anyone in the arts and entertainment industry–or most any other large business–can testify that since the mid-90s, the invention of the Internet and electronic advancement has been seen as a huge threat, amorphously looming. What business hasn’t cried doom?

      Books, music, and movies are all still around. Some coming at us in a slightly different format or venue, but none have vanished.

      What has vanished are some of the multi-million dollar companies who produced such things in large numbers. But I never believed this spelled the end. Having worked for some of those companies, what happened was usually a large house cleaning, firings, and cutting back…downsizing. The fear factor trickled down from on high. If an employee valued their job, they needed to become invaluable–because now there were hundreds, maybe thousands out of work, who would gladly take their place. Every major company has used the looming fear in this fashion.

      Never mind that it’s in no way conducive to producing quality entertainment when everyone’s nerves are being stretched out and play on like that. So not everyone came up with brilliant ideas that worked while numbers kept falling. Once at a certain low, and the next big money maker hasn’t come along, or brought the numbers back up to EXPECTED sales–and these guys had some pretty high expectation–it was time to close shop.

      It was never due to a lack of good ideas, or a certain story-telling medium being passé. It was about money, pure and simple and the corporate decree of, “If it ain’t working, it’s time to move on.” They will not look backwards, only march headlong.

      The unfortunate thing about many large companies who remain–which I personally find scary–are the games they play to maintain themselves. Profit and loss are always a part of business, but I’ve seen entire lines created by a toy company (for example) designated to fail as a numbers game and tax write off. Sure, these things happen all the time in business. But with the current economy, I think some businesses thrive more on the shell game than the legit game. I’m not saying any of the big 5 are doing this whole-hog. It just worries me that by going that route in the current climate could get a small advance, an extremely low print run, and a “marked for failure” label before a book comes out of the chute.

      Unfortunately, bean-counters assign these numbers all the time–even during the best of times. So the numbers game has always been in play. That’s why so few traditionally published writers meet with success. I can’t speak for the new climate in terms of it’s current fast track, but previously, it was entirely based on how large an advance an author was paid, and if they made it onto the secret hot-list of authors they were pushing this season.

      Everyone else was back in the pack somewhere playing the lottery. You did your best and hoped you broke out by stacking as many odds in your favor as possible. Much like self publishers are learning and advising today. The big difference being then, as now, if you lose the lottery in traditional publishing, you’re book is over and you don’t have any recourse in the matter. You simply move on and write another one, keep going and hoping one hits so your backlog (which your publisher owns the rights to) might see some reprints.

      When it works, it can work amazing well in traditional publishing. But for fiction, you really need to know your craft, how the business works, and find a really good agent who will fight for that big advance. Nearly an impossibility, and could take years and years of persistence. Because the better agents who have their stables full are reluctant to take chances with new authors who might sully the reputation they worked hard for. They have shields you need to keep blasting just to get noticed.

      I’m of the idea that it takes a bold move now and then to get noticed, plant you name, or face in someone’s head. I’ll dare to be different. So I called an agent one time, actually got her on the phone with some pretext of questions I wanted to ask. She rudely pummeled me questions as soon as she didn’t recognize my voice, “Who is this? What do you want?” And so it came out I was looking for an agent. She screamed into the receiver, “I don’t query over the phone!” and hung up in my ear.

      Her shields held. But I had to wonder who was less professional…the guy who played a gamble to make first contact, or the agent who blew up at me for stepping out of the pack and daring to be different?

      The trade books will tell you most are ALWAYS looking for new talent, something fresh, something different. That’s not altogether true.

      Reply
  7. Sat 01st Mar 2014 at 3:10 pm

    What’s worse, is that their self-unacknowledged lottery is touted as “quality control by industry experts.” Ridiculous when the obvious fact is that publishing is a business, with a finite amount of money—which means a finite number of books that can be published. Simple math. If each publishing house had twice the amount of money each year to spend on launching books, they’d suddenly be able to find twice the number of “industry approved, quality books.” The number of winners is determined ONLY by their budgets, not some lofty artistic talent scout process.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 01st Mar 2014 at 8:57 pm

      Yup. But that’s always been the case in the arts. Limited slots. Limited budgets.

      Reply
  8. Sat 01st Mar 2014 at 7:25 pm

    The one response from an agent (years ago) that sticks in my mind was, “For God’s sake, don’t send me anything LITERARY.”

    Did that include something “erudite,” with words that these days no longer exist in the average person’s vocabulary? All I knew then was, that my stuff was “out.”

    So, when Kindle came along, I jumped on it.

    Reply
    • Robert Jones  –  Sun 02nd Mar 2014 at 12:13 am

      @Inge–isn’t it interesting how most creative people get squashed first right out of the gate? Isn’t it also interesting that most agents and editors know little more than what they like, or what’s currently selling?

      I’m all for having certain guidelines. If a person can’t bother to even figure out the proper format, for example, maybe they haven’t looked very hard at any of the other criteria for what they’ve done. On the other hand, does any of that mean they don’t have a great idea, or have no idea what might make for an interesting story? Obviously many agents don’t. And some will admit they don’t know in terms of the actual writing–it’s more of a feeling, a nose they’ve learned to trust because they’ve established a reputation that needs maintaining.

      Not that noses and reputations are necessarily a bad thing. But maybe we need to back up a bit before everything got measured in terms of cost effectiveness and boiled down to a top 100 attitude that dishes up the same things over and over again. Variety dissipates under such conditions and quality is just the baby that’s thrown out with the dirty waters of a less efficient business model.

      Reply

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