In my last post, I went over ten basic points of what I believe is necessary for an author to have the best chance making in self-publishing. They are by no means a guarantee of success; in fact, even if an author does them all, there’s still a good chance they won’t see that many sales at all. Such is the nature of publishing.
Every year, thousands upon thousands of books are self-published on Amazon, and every year the competition for virtual shelf-space gets thicker. We are living in a world without precedent. In the old world, books went out of print, but these days, a book stays “in print” forever, and this includes countless backlist titles.
All that said, why is it that self-publishing, on average, is a better choice than traditional publishing for an aspiring author? Maybe first we should talk about the advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing with one of the Big 5 publishing companies.
With traditional publishing, this is an absolute best case scenario:
An agent accepts manuscript, saying it’s amazing and exactly what they’re looking for. Maybe you even have multiple agents vying to represent the same book. One of these agents takes it to a publisher, and multiple publishers are interested. A bidding war ensues. Soon, you are offered a six figures deal (as a new author) for a multiple book contract over three years (many authors would consider this hitting the jackpot). You sign, and over the next three years, you will be paid that sum in increments twice a year(not including taxes you have to pay). Even so, you’re more than likely not going to be able to write books for other publishers during that time, even if you have the will to do so and the ideas, because most publishing contracts are paired with non-compete clauses. You’re held to writing these three books and these three books only for that publisher for the next three years. Likely, your first book will come out a year down the road, minimum. Best case scenario, it will receive the attention of the best editors, get an amazing cover, and be reviewed favorably by major publications. The book does very well, and the sheer number of sales means you make back your advance and then some over the next year, after which you make 25% of net for every e-book sale and about 8% of every hardback/paperback sale.
The above scenario, first of all, is highly unlikely, especially for a new author. Even if it all does happen, there are still disadvantages. You can’t write or publish anything else for another publisher, including yourself, until you’ve filled your quota and time for your main publisher. You will only get paid, most likely, twice a year. Your three books will be released about a year apart…and unless your first book is a huge success, most people are going to forget you by the time book two rolls around.
The main advantage of a big publisher is worldwide print distribution. It’s true that, as a self-published author, you will not be in any major bookstore. Traditional publishing becomes advantageous when you are literally so successful that you need that final push to get into bookstores all over the world, which is something an indie author currently cannot do. Even so, many successful indie authors who have publishers courting them still choose not to sign any sort of contract. E-books are where the money is at these days, and the Big 5 know that.
So let’s break down the possible outcomes of traditional publishing:
1. Best case scenario, you will be a superstar. You’re the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, the kind of author that only comes along every few years or so because their book, while not the best book of all time, somehow hits the public zeitgeist in the right way, causing it to explode in popularity. If this happens to you, then traditional publishing is the best way to go. But since no one has a time machine or a crystal ball, it’s very delusional to actually think you have a real chance of being this person. Even so, a lot of authors do believe this will be them, to their detriment.
2. Medium case scenario, you make back your advance. Despite the very generous above scenario where the author makes hundreds of thousands (which does happen, albeit rarely), you are much more likely to be offered, as a new author, an advance well below $10,000. Paid over X amount of time, this becomes even less impressive, and publishers are notorious for paying late. A publisher, when they accept to publish something, is betting that the book will sell enough copies to defray all their costs and net them a profit. They rely on superstar authors and e-book sales to pad their accounts, but the fact is, the majority of books they print won’t make them money. This is why publishers are so particular about what they print; most of the time, they will lose money. Likely, there are countless books they pass on that could have been the next Harry Potter. That said, making back your advance should be considered an accomplishment. You won’t be blacklisted for writing a dud, and you at least have another shot of being published.
3. Worst case scenario, your book flops. This is what’s most likely to happen. A flop means your book doesn’t make enough money for you to ever receive royalties, because the royalties don’t exceed your advance. This scenario is also more likely than #2 and especially #1, all the more because most publishers don’t give all books the editing and attention they deserve. They reserve the best editing, marketing, and artwork for their top sellers and those they believe have huge potential; all others get much less of an investment. And finally, the most likely outcome of all…
4. Your book is rejected for publication. This outcome is far, far more likely to happen than the above two. A lot of authors would consider themselves lucky to get to point three. Whether you’re rejected at the editorial stage or the agent acquisition stage (the latter being more likely), this is probably what is going to happen, even if you write an amazing novel. Agents reject in seconds what it takes authors months, or even years, to work on. They get so many submissions that they’ll reject a submission based on the fact that the page numbers are done in a way they don’t like. Most manuscripts, they won’t even read past the first sentence, and are more likely to scan the summary to see if it’s something they can make money off of. I can’t remember the exact number, but something like 95 percent of manuscripts are rejected at this stage. Probably more.
Traditional publishing, at its best, makes a few authors very rich, while making some authors an okay living, with the majority of published authors making some side cash. It’s best for the few authors who are the money makers. This is why you’ll see highly successful traditionally published authors often rally to defend traditional publishing. Traditional publishing is a system that’s very good for a few lucky ones, while the majority are forced to take bad deals that limit their options and pay peanuts. Until recently, it was the only viable way to get published.
Now, however, there is a more reliable method: self-publishing. And it’s more reliable as long as you do the right things.
I’ve very briefly went over traditional publishing, so let’s go over self-publishing. There are still disadvantages, but the truth is, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
Let’s talk about the advantages first:
1. No gatekeepers. There is no agent or editor who is going to say no to your idea. Some people say that’s a bad thing. I consider it a good thing. With self-publishing, people often have different goals. Some want to make money. Some just love to write. Most are a combination of the first two.
Then again, some people just want to scratch something off their bucket list. Maybe a child wants to write a simple book just for the sheer fun of it. Maybe someone has discovered that their father or grandfather had written a novel, but never told anyone about it before he passed.
There are a lot of reasons to self-publish, but there is only one reason anyone is getting traditionally published: an editor believes you will make them money, and they will pay you just enough for you to hand over your rights while chaining you with a non-compete clause. In today’s landscape, that’s not even worth tens of thousands of dollars for a writer with talent and the work ethic. Of course, there are always exceptions and it’s a case by case thing, because no situation or contract is the same. But generally, I believe that to be true unless you’re comfortable with the idea of not writing a lot of novels, or you simply don’t want to worry about anything besides the writing aspect.
No gatekeepers mean that literally anyone can publish. Yes, that means most books won’t see a single sale, or make $100 (but these books don’t really do the things I outlined in my first part). But no gatekeepers means even if you have an amazing novel that was rejected by an agent or publisher because they didn’t want to foot the bill, you still have the option of footing the bill yourself if you believe enough in your work. Maybe in the end those agents were right, but it’s important to remember in this day and age that writers have options.
2. Control of content. There is sort of a cliche most people are familiar with; that of a writer and an editor going at it. The writer fights for artistic control while the editor wants to mercilessly cut something out. Those changes can be good, and the writer isn’t always right. Even so, lots of things are cut, simply because a book must be shorter to save costs. With e-books, length doesn’t really matter. An author, if they truly believe in something in their story, does not have to cut it out at the behest of anyone and they are free to write the kind of book they want to write.
3. Royalties. Royalties for self-published authors at most major e-book distributors, like Amazon and iTunes, pay 70% of list price, given that you price within a certain range (usually $2.99-$9.99). That’s anywhere from $2-$7 per sale. Traditional publishers give far less. On e-books, an author makes 25% of net. So if a book is listed at $10, Amazon takes $3, leaving $7 with the publisher. The publisher then gives 25% of that $7 to the author. You can see the dual advantage of self-publishing here: a self-published author can charge much less and still get the same amount of royalties as a book that costs three times as much. This is a huge reason for the success of indies. Most readers believe e-books should be cheap because there are no real distribution costs. Traditional publishers charge a premium for e-books because they are afraid it will eat into their print sales. However, as an indie, you won’t have to worry about that. When you’re a one man or woman operation, there aren’t much costs involved, and since you’re selling something intangible, the margins have the potential to be very, very high.
4. You aren’t limited by a publisher’s schedule. You’re the publisher. You can publish a book every three months or even less if you want to. With a traditional publisher, with their resources stretched thin and the schedule they are beholden to, you’re lucky to get one book a year. If you remember the above, best-case scenario, where you are paid six figures for three books in three years (which sounds amazing), imagine what you could do with that time self-publishing. If your books truly have the potential the publisher believes they have, you could write those three books, plus many more, in the same three years and stand to make even more. Most indie authors’ success stems from having a lot of modest-selling books out, not a few heavy hitters. The former is a lot more conservative and safe.
5. Self-publishing gives you flexibility. A one person operation can easily change course when the tides turn. Over the past five years, the publishing industry has been absolutely rocked by Amazon and other players. The majority of publishing revenue now comes from e-books. Indie authors take a higher share of royalties than all Big 5 authors combined. When Amazon makes a big change, you can talk to other indie authors and get ideas on how to navigate that change. Kindle Unlimited greatly affected how things were done, and it was good for some authors while being bad for others. Big corporations take a long time to change course, and if they don’t, they eventually founder. The Big 5 publishers are getting better at changing, but they still are under their own pressures, and for the most part, they want to make the transition to e-books as slowly as possible. As an indie, you can go full force into doing the things that make you successful. No one is holding you back.
6. You control your marketing. A truth that most people don’t realize is that most traditionally published books don’t get any sort of meaningful marketing. That costs money and is reserved for their proven sellers. As an indie, you have an opportunity to give each of your books the attention it deserves. BookBub has literally changed the landscape for indie authors. By offering deeply discounted deals, it’s great for both readers and publishers. At first, it mostly catered to indie authors, but now all kinds of publishers vie to get featured by them, because a few hundred dollars paid to BookBub can net thousands in the long run, making it especially powerful for series authors. There are also lots of services similar to BookBub an indie author can enlist. Some authors do Facebook advertising. Many indie authors love to experiment with advertising and discover what works. I mainly just like to write, although I try to get a BookBub feature whenever I can simply because it’s so groundbreaking.
7. You control your covers. The beautiful cover you’ve always dreamed about can be yours. It’s on you to do research on covers and to find an artist who can replicate what you’re looking for, but when you decide what goes on the front cover, you can ensure it’s eye-catching and beautiful. I’m often astounded by how many indie authors are such bad judges of what makes a good cover. This is why I recommend authors browse the top books in their genre on Amazon, since it’s extremely rare for a bad cover to get a lot of sales. Even if you don’t have an artistic eye, hiring a cover artist like Damonza (at least if you’re doing sci-fi/fantasy) will pretty much ensure you can get a great cover.
8. You control your editing. You get to choose how much editing and to what extent your books are edited. I spend about $500 per book. That’s editing and covers, and that’s not bad at all. Many authors spend more, others spend nada if they are already skilled cover artists. The up front costs of self-publishing often turn many people off, but to me, spending $500 to keep my rights and freedom is well worth it. Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, you are probably not going to be successful – defined as making your money back. That’s a risk of starting any business, so self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. If you spend $500 on editing and charge $3.99 for your book, you’ll have to sell about 178 books to make your money back. In half a year, selling one a day, you can make that back. After that you’re just making money. For every author that makes a living self-publishing, ten more are making meaningful cash and paying bills. Even if you “only” make a few hundred dollars a month, that’s still much better than you would get traditionally publishing. And since your books will never go out of print, you can build up your catalogue. By the time, over the years, you get to twenty books, you’ll be making a lot more.
9. Self-publishing offers unique strategies unavailable to traditionally published authors. Here are just a few:
The Permafree Strategy. This is what I do. I have a series of seven books, The Wasteland Chronicles. The first book is free. Readers download the first book, get hooked, and then go on to the next ones. The cost of those books is only $2.99, which is very cheap in comparison to traditional publishers. Assuming a reader goes through all the books, it costs them about $18, and nets me, the author, about $12. It does sound expensive when you put it that way, but paying that much for almost 400,000 words is actually quite reasonable. If my first book weren’t free, most people wouldn’t have picked it up to begin with. It’s the same reason food courts in malls give away free samples, and it can be applied to a lot of other industries as well.
Releasing an entire series at once. Say you have three books in a series. You can release all three in a very short time frame (like a month apart) to really drive sales and generate interest. A lot of the times, if there are only one or two books in a series and a reader has to wait, they get frustrated and move on. Three books show that the author is committed to finishing the series, and readers have an expectation that a series be concluded as soon as possible. I’m sort of finding that with Xenoworld at the moment, and it’s why I’m striving to finish it as quickly as I can.
Blitz releasing short books, paired with Kindle Unlimited. You see this a lot in romance and all its subgenres. Books will often be less than a hundred pages, but they will be cheap and released mere weeks apart. Maybe even once a week. I’d love to try this for sci-fi or fantasy, but so far, it seems to have been established mainly for romance genres. Put the books in Kindle Unlimited and you stand to make more, since the price of the book doesn’t matter when it comes to how much the author gets paid for a KU download.
Writing lots of books and series, fast. This one is not fancy at all, but it’s still a strategy that can only be done by indie authors. You can write fast and publish fast, not going for high sales with any particular book, while putting little marketing into them, that way your main priority is infrastructure (that is, building your digital empire by publishing lots of books). You are relying on sheer volume of quality books. This was my strategy all along: write lots of books that people love to read, not really hoping any one of them would get tons of sales. My sales are not amazing on any of my books, but I now have nine out. Even if I only get a few sales each day on each of them across all retailers, that really, really adds up. This is the best and most effective way to make a living writing. More books.
People will often say, if you write that fast, your books must be horrible. This isn’t true at all. I’m not writing The Great Gatsy or Moby Dick. I’m mainly concerned with writing an entertaining, genre fiction story that gets right to the point, which some good feels thrown in. And often I’ve found that when you write “simple stories,” a lot of ideas will transcend that simplicity and really make an emotional impact on readers (as it surely did for me). Getting to a point where you can write good books quickly is a skill you learn, and it gets easier with practice. This is why it’s important for young authors especially to write every day. It takes a while to reach a point where things start to click in your head. But once they do, there will be nothing to hold you back.
10. The ultimate advantage: freedom. Freedom, in my opinion, is the main advantage of self-publishing. You are not beholden to a publisher that doesn’t always have your best interests at heart. Since your books are your babies, you will always care more about them than anyone else. You will never be restricted by a publisher’s non-compete clause. In my opinion, unless a publisher is offering huge money paired with a non-compete clause, an author should not sign it. Personally, I will never sign a publishing contract with a non-compete clause written in. To me, that is more important than the advance.
Conclusion: As always, there is no guarantee of success. You can do everything I did and still not make a living writing. But if you write lots of books, give them good covers and editing, and an enticing blurb on your sales page – and if they’re in a popular genre and are in a series – your odds of success go way up. This is all assuming, of course, that you’re a decent writer. None of this advice will not be any good if you can’t write well. But that skill can be learned over the years, and it often takes several books before an author can get their skills up to snuff. I have lots of incomplete books from the late 2000’s, as well as a couple of crappy uncompleted novels, before I wrote Wasteland Chronicles. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A daily habit, if it is really daily, always outperforms a spasmodic Hercules.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and at points, it’s quite rambling, but it functions as my argument why self-publishing is almost always better for an aspiring author. You stand to make more. You retain creative freedom. You can unleash marketing strategies that would be impossible were you beholden to another publisher. And if you’re writing lots of books, you’re getting lots of practice.
Most of all, it’s just fun to be in control of your destiny, and writing is supposed to be fun. Most self-published authors won’t make a living, but many will make enough to pay some bills. And the more books an author has out, the better their chances are. The key is consistency.
Well, that’s pretty much it. I’m probably done talking about writing for a while. I hope this has been informative on what I’ve learned about self-publishing. It’s kind hard to condense everything I’ve learned in my almost three years of doing this, but this will have to do for now.