The Big Question: Self-Publish or Perish?

How many of us know a Mr. Fix-It who really doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing but keeps pressing on anyway? While I may admire the tenacity, I wouldn’t want to live with the results. Which we once did, in fact – our first house was purchased from someone with a boundless lack of appreciation for his own limits. We spent the next eight years finding one unpleasant surprise after another, and it often involved electrical current.

Until very recently, self-publishing was a career-killer. Going down that road would forever tarnish your work as “vanity press”, never to be taken seriously. Granted, a few exceptions were picked up by traditional publishers and went on to become best sellers (think “The Shack”), but the odds were stacked against you.

Why was that? Well, I suppose a lot of it had to do with the fact that a large percentage of self-pubbers were true do-it-yourselfers. No editor, no proofreader, no cover artist…all of which meant the books were probably crap. Even a really good writer needs an editor, because it’s awfully hard to appreciate the forest when you’re lost among the trees. And unless you’re an accomplished graphic artist, handing off your book cover to a pro seems like common-sense to me.

I suppose that DIY element will always be with us, but the respectability of self-publishing has changed dramatically just in the past few months. Amazon was already killing the brick-and-mortar stores (RIP Borders), and e-readers are certainly the final nail in the coffin. The Borders liquidation is already having ripple effects: Barnes & Noble just ordered their stores to dramatically reduce –again– the amount of shelf space devoted to actual books. They are well on the way to becoming a literature-themed toy store.

For those of us who want to see our work in print, this is bad news. Maybe. But you’d better believe publishers and agents are in full-bore freakout mode if they haven’t been already. The creative destruction of the internet has finally hit the publishing world squarely in the doo-doos. I won’t bore you with my own take on that, check out Passive Voice or Kris Rusch for the inside view.

In an earlier post I described the soul-killing query process. What I didn’t mention is that I took a month off to clear my head at my wife’s suggestion pleading. That month stretched into nearly a year. The thought of sending more queries turned my stomach, and I couldn’t even bring myself to work on the manuscript any more. Suffering a general lack of motivation, I consciously removed myself from the writing world until recently.

And then I learned about what was going on in the industry.

Not only do you have less chance of getting a publishing deal the traditional way, but advances are on the decline. The advice I’m getting is that, now more than ever, that advance may be all you ever see. The way they’re reportedly playing games with sales numbers, forget about royalties (particularly for e-books).

Everything was turned upside down. Experienced writers were now advising us newbies to forget agents, forget publishers, and do it ourselves. Sort of.

As mentioned above, you still need editors and cover artists. These can be hired, about which more will be posted later. But that means you must be willing to take the risk of putting up your own money for those services. But once the finished work is up on Amazon, something like 70% of the revenue is now yours. Sounds a lot better to me than 25% of net, which is what a lot of pub houses are paying for e-books. And if you understand net vs. gross, you understand what a screw job that really is. Net apparently means whatever the publisher wants it to mean.

If advances for new writers are really getting down into the very low thousands, forget it. I can make that much with two or three magazine articles that each take 8 or 10 hours of work. Why would I accept the same amount for a 96,000-word novel that took months to finish?

But the tipping point is publicity, much of which has always been placed on the author’s shoulders except for the very biggest sellers. If it’s on me to drum up sales anyway, I might as well just go all-in. If it turns into a big enough hit, maybe a publishing house will be interested in buying the rights for hard-copy some day.

Print-on-demand may be another option in addition to e-books, but that’s something I don’t know enough about yet.

What all of this means is that writers have to become a lot more business-savvy. We have to be willing to assume more up-front risk (i.e. spend money) for the chance of greater returns (i.e make money). Freelance editors, artists, and publicists are going to reap a windfall as well. If you’re interested in finding out more, here’s a great resource.

Quite a few self-published works are showing up in Amazon’s top 20 sci-fi. Hopefully mine will be joining them in a few weeks. Guess I’d better pick up a Kindle, huh?

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