My indie-released songwriter friends never understood why writers are so hung up about self-publishing. Musicians have long separated from the labels and ventured out on their own, releasing their own CDs and working with indie distributors like cdbaby.
But we writers have been told for decades that unless we get an agent and go the traditional route, we'll never be taken seriously in our writing careers.
I believed this. I went the traditional route for my first eight published books: two agents, traditional publishers and small presses, advances and royalties, book tours, the works. Each experience had its ups and downs. I worked with some wonderful editors and publishers and some not so. I loved my first agent and fired my second. I went solo (no agent) with several small presses and enjoyed the personal attention.
But for most of my career, I stayed away from the stigma of "vanity press," or self-publishing, because I still bought the myth: it was a fast route to career suicide.
Besides, I wanted the marketing and distribution help a publisher could give.
Those first-time authors who have braved the submission routes and maybe gotten published are laughing by now: "marketing and distribution help" is rare these days. Times have changed. Advances are also few and small now, as most publishers don't have the upfront funds to back a new author. There are exceptions, of course: two of my students recently scored good advances. But most are being told, You're lucky to get published by us, in kinder words.
Great editors still exist, but many publishers don't quite follow the same careful editorial procedures I benefited from as a writer starting out in the 1980s. Manuscripts today must arrive in pristine condition--the writer's responsibility, not the editor's.
Even more challenging for writers: Agents and publishers demand a platform, which is an industry term for a solid marketing plan and media presence. Most new writers must start a blog and plan just how they will promote their book.
We writers are more than just wordsmiths with a good story now. We have to learn how to sell our books as well as write them.
For this, writers get 7-1/2 percent of sales, which for a $14.00 trade size paperback amounts to about $1.13 per copy. We do the marketing work, we hire editors before submitting it. The publisher prints the book as orders come in (print on demand) in most cases, not wanting to carry inventory, or does a short run of less than 500 copies to see whether the book will sell. Agents take 15-20 percent of everything.
It's not all gloom and doom--please, remember the exceptions! There are still fairytales being made. But many writers writers are thinking seriously about their options now. Many are looking again self-publishing, figuring out the system themselves, crafting their lower-cost e-books and selling them for 99 cents a copy to drive up sales. Some are making money. Even if they self-publish a printed book, through Create Space or Lightning Source, they can make up to $10.00 a copy after expenses are paid back (for typesetter, proofer, cover designer, and editor).
Self-publishing requires money up front, for a printed book. Less or none for an electronic book. But if you're going to have to market it yourself anyway, why not make $10.00 a copy instead of $1.13?
But . . . and here's the catch, as there always is: Neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing will sell your book for you today. If you self-publish, you will still need to market. Here's the link to a fascinating article from Publishers Weekly, about three self-published writers and their post-publishing experiences.
But it is also worthwhile to find out the potential, explore your options. Don't be swayed by the traditional route when there are more opportunities for writers than ever.
And don't forget the many success stories about first-time authors who've self-published. Writer Darcie Chan was rejected by over 100 literary agents and dozens of publishers, then went on to self-publish her debut novel and sell over 400,000 copies on Kindle. Think this kind of story is a fairytale? It's happening more and more.
Self-publishing is still a controversial topic. But as the industry takes one hit after another, it's an option many writers are considering--and succeeding with.
For more success stories about self-publishing also check out chapter 25 of my book, Your Book Starts Here.