Manic Monday: 3 Truths About Self-Publishing

Last week, I saw a blog post titled: “How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway,” by Penelope Trunk. Intriguing title. I took the bait and clicked through to read the post.

Essentially Ms. Trunk wrote a non-fiction book about how to achieve happiness. She sold the book to a large publisher, got a “lot of money” for an advance (paid in full). According to her blog post, things began to go sour about three months before publication when she was contacted by the marketing department. 

She was, apparently, unimpressed with the first call. “Their call was just about giving me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book.” 

Hold it right there. Was she surprised by this? This didn’t fit with her expectation?

When I went to my first writer’s conference in 2009, I distinctly recall hearing from panels – and in individual conversations with authors – that the publishing house expects that the author will do the majority of marketing of their book. If you hang out with writers on Twitter, or anywhere else where writer-folk gather, you will hear a constant chorus of how publishing houses do NOT put significant money or time into marketing the books of first-time authors. Everyone knows (or should know) that your book won’t get a significant (or any) marketing budget unless you’ve previously had a best-seller.

In fact, even as far back as 2009 at that writer’s conference, I began wondering why writers needed publishing houses. I mean, they aren’t going to market my book. They’re not likely to do much editing of my book (I’ve been advised repeatedly to hire a freelance editor before I even query).

If they don’t edit and they don’t market, it really begs the question: What do they do? And why give up 90-96% of the royalties?

When I was finished my first book, I had a choice to make. Self-publish or begin the query process. Knowing that it would like to take 3-5 years to see my book in print if I went the traditional publishing route (IF I ever saw it in print), I decided to self-publish.

I don’t regret that decision and I’m quite pleased with the success of my first book, Emily’s House. But Ms. Trunk’s blog post got me to thinking about some truths about self-publishing and how she may have discounted the advantages to having a big publisher on board. Which begets another question: Are there still advantages to being traditionally published?

Some thoughts. First, BIG PUBLISHER STILL SELL THE VAST, VAST, VAST, VAST MAJORITY OF ALL BOOKS SOLD. PERIOD.

Indie and self-published books still make up a tiny fraction of overall sales.
Amanda Hocking, Uber Self-Publisher
JA Konrath, 4 - Click for larger version in new window
J.A. Konrath
If you have been lulled into thinking that you, an army of one, without a publishing house behind you, are going to shoot up the bestseller list, you are more than likely going to be sorely disappointed. Last year we watched Amanda Hocking sell over a million copies of her self-published books. J.A. Konrath talked about making $60,000 per month on his self-published books (but also cautioned writers to focus on writing more books rather than just jumping onto the self-publishing bandwagon). Writers worldwide collectively said “hell yeah” and stopped querying and started publishing on their own.

I’m on of them. And I’m glad I did and I’ll continue to self-publish.

But come on, lets have a reality check. My opinion (feel free to differ in the comments if you have experienced otherwise): if you have never been published by a publishing house, you should continue to try to get a contract.

Why?

Here are some truths:

1. Selling books is about discoverability. So long as there are brick and mortar stores, if you’re books aren’t in them, you are losing a facet of discoverability.  When you walk into your local Barnes & Noble, a publishers PAID to have their books on the table or end-caps. If you are a self-published author, your book isn’t even in the local Barnes & Noble. It certainly is NOT on an end-cap or table. Having your book in the bookstore is not just about vanity. Books on shelves and book-signings in stores are about sales. If you’re self-pubbed, you won’t have either of these things.
Tables full of books at a Barnes & Noble

2. Reviews sell books. Lots of reviews from influential people sell a lot of books. If you are self-published, it is unlikely that popular reviewers with lots of influence will even look at your book. That’s a fact. You may get lovely reviews from lesser known reviewers who are still willing to read self-pubbed books. But most popular reviewers long ago gave up on self-pubbed. Why? Because for every gem, they had to wade through nine clunkers. That’s a fact. Traditionally published books will be more likely to get reviewed by influential reviewers and bloggers. It will not be turned away by reviewers simply because of who published it.


3. Traditionally published books SELL BETTER. In the top 100 on Amazon, any day, any time, there may be two – perhaps even five – self-published books that have made it into the top 100 (my review of the list this morning showed no self-pubbed books in the top 60). THAT STILL MEANS THAT 95-98 percent of the top 100 are traditionally published. You will get an occasional Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, or The Mill River Recluse, or Switched (Trylle Trilogy) (originally self-pubbed, but now published by St. Martin’s Griffin). But the vast majority of books making it onto the bestseller list are from large publishers.

Why is that so? I believe there are two reasons.

First, see numbers one & two above. Large publishers have the distribution channels to get books on every shelf, everywhere. Virtual and real. When it comes to discoverability and availability, traditional publishers still have self-pubbers beat.

Second, and this may ruffle feathers, but traditionally published books are (generally) better reads. I’m sorry, but this is true. I download and read about ten book samples a week. I only download samples of books that a friend has recommended, or that I’ve read the cover blurb, and/or seen reviews, and/or buzz, and I think it’s a book up my alley.

For traditionally published books, I’ll buy about 50-60% of the time. This means that from the sample I read, I’m hooked enough on the premise and feel the writing is strong enough that I’m willing to pay the (usually) $6-$10 to buy the book.

For self-published titles, I hit the buy button less than 5% of the time. Most of the time, I’m sucked in by the premise and think it sounds like a great story. But my choice not to buy is generally because the writing fell short, either in the first pages or by the end of the sample. And usually, these books are priced at 99 cents to $2.99. I won’t even download a whole book that’s free if I can’t get through the sample.

Now there are exceptions – self-pubbed or small press books that are as good – or better – than traditionally published books (like Keir, by Pippa Jay, one of my recent favorites which I’ll review here on my blog soon). But the truth is, you have to wade through a lot of not-so-hot books to get to those gems.

Look, I self-published my first book, Emily’s House (The Akasha Chronicles), and I’ll self-publish the rest of that trilogy and perhaps other books. I’ve been quite happy with the results of my first publishing adventure, and I believe that a self-published author can achieve fabulous sales.

But I think that it is grossly inaccurate to assume, with an unchecked ego, that a self-pubber can do better without a big publisher. Folks like J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler both had traditionally published books in their back-list before embarking on their self-publishing journey. They already had a fan base, folks ready to purchase their books, regardless of the publisher.

Let’s face it, whether we have one of the Big 6 backing us up, or we’re on our own, the writer is going to do the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing the book. But when your book bears the publishing house imprimatur, the author has marketing avenues that aren’t even open to self-published writers.

That is why I’ll seek a publishing contract for my next series of books while continuing to self-publish. It is my belief, (I could be wrong), that working both avenues will produce better results than going down only one road.

What do you think? Am I full of bull? Do you think self-publishing is the way to go and screw traditional publishing? Or do you think self-publishing is for amateurs and only traditionally published authors can be considered pros? What are your thoughts on the publishing houses?
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2 thoughts on “Manic Monday: 3 Truths About Self-Publishing”

  1. Really great thoughts, thanks for sharing.

    You mentioned a few authors toward the end there who had been traditionally published before going the self-pubbed route. I belong to two national writing organizations and met long-time published authors through both. Many of these writers have found success by re-releasing old out-of-print novels as ebooks, or they've started a new series apart from a publisher as self-pubbed. They have found success because they'd already built a name for themselves and because they know how to write a book from years of working in the industry.

    For newbies like me, I'm still shooting to traditionally publish (eventually!) because I've never worked with an editor or marketed a book. I don't want to be lost in the sea of $1.99 ebooks that all sound the same (sorry) and blend into one another. I would LOVE to find more self-pubbed books but it takes a lot of effort to find the good ones. My 2 writing groups are great for that, we share book finds all the time.

    There will always be folks who want the cheap and easy way out, but with publishing, both paths require a lot of work on the author's behalf, so there isn't a cheap and easy route. If you self-pub, you need to hire an editor and a graphic artist for a cover and maybe even a web designer. I've seen some truly horrifying author websites out there. I feel bad because I know they're trying, but it's like a flashback to 1997 and I start to wonder if I've logged too many hours on AOL.com.

    My eyes have been opened to the nuances of self-publishing, but I think expectations need to be realistic.

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  2. Stephanie, thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. And kudos to you for doing your research, keeping your eyes open, and keeping things in perspective.
    You are so right -in this business (as I suspect in all business), there's no easy way. Being a published author is a hell of a lot of work, and to be successful at it requires persistence, patience and quite a bit of luck.
    Best wishes to you and your quest for publication.

    Like

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