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.
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.