Thinking out loud about self-publishing

Independent film-making and independent music-making are long-standing and well-respected artistic and commercial endeavours. And, in both fields, ‘independent’ basically means self-funded

(NB: the term gets a bit stretched in both fields. It’s perhaps more accurate to describe independent music and film makers as those who either self-fund or self-raise their funding. That is, they either spend their own money to make the film or music or they raise the money to do so from other investors directly. In either case, they don’t get funding from their given field’s extant publisher equivalents: businesses that make money by marketing and distributing their works for profit.)

The equivalent behaviour in the book-writing field is, of course, self-publishing. And, unlike independent film- and music-making, self-publishing doesn’t have storied social status or value. In fact, it’s routinely seen as no better than (or even worse than) vanity publishing. This despite dozens of well-respected and successful authors taking to self-publishing over the centuries from John Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644 through Christopher Paolini’s Eragon in 2003 and beyond. (Others to take the self-publishing route include William Blake, Howard Fast, E Lynn Harris, James Joyce, William Morris, Wendy and Richard Pini, Matthew Reilly, Irma Rombauer, Dave Sim, Edward Tufte, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.)

On 2011/01/02, legendary literary agent, Richard Curtis, posted an article to his [e-reads] blog, ‘Do Authors Make Good Publishers’:

Do authors make good publishers? The answer is No. But it’s fascinating to watch them try.

In the way of things electronic, this prompted an immediate response all over the Interwebs, which prompted Curtis to publish a follow-up:

A blog I posted yesterday, Do Authors Make Good Publishers?, generated a record number of hits and a storm of comments, many of them fiercely refuting my contention that the answer to the question is No. The controversy even found its way onto Huffington Post.

As Curtis notes, the follow-up is mostly a re-posting (with permission) of J A Konrath’s own response, first posted on Konrath’s own blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, as the article ‘A Response to Richard Curtis’.

Near the beginning of said response, Konrath links to another of his blog postings, ‘You Should Self-Publish’ in which he notes he is (as of December 2010) ‘selling 1,000 ebooks a day’ and that:

Two close friends of mine have books on submission, waiting for the Big 6 to make offers. They’ve been waiting for a few months, and will probably have to wait a few months more.

Even being conservative in my estimates, these writers have lost thousands of dollars, and will continue to lose money every single day their books are on submission, rather than on Amazon.

Selling 1,000 ebooks a month equals $24,000 a year. Being on submission for 6 months is a loss of $12,000, and then waiting 18 more months for the book to be published is a loss of another $36,000.

He also notes that selling a 1,000 books a month is ‘a very conservative number — I have ebooks regularly selling 2000 or 3000 a month.’ He further notes that:

I'm on track to make over $200,000 on ebook sales in 2011, and have made over $100,000 this year. So I can earn more in two years on my own than I could in seven years with a traditional publisher. Hell, I earned more this month than I got as an advance for Afraid ($20k for Afraid, $22k for this December self-pubbing.)

Back at his article ‘A Response to Richard Curtis’, he gets more specific than ‘two close friends’ and calls out four authors — LJ Sellers, HP Mallory, Michael R Sullivan and Amanda Hocking — doing particularly well as ebook self-publishers and lists a further 43 ‘authors selling more than 1,000 ebooks a month, none of who had any traditional publishing background’.

I’d not heard of any of the listed authors but some quick searching turned most of them up quickly enough. Consider only the first and last five in Konrath’s list (minus ‘B Tackitt’ who I could only track down as a poster of interesting stuff on e-reader forums), all with an added sprinkle of hypertextual goodness:

Like the four called out above, these people aren’t producing works that look self-published.

In something of a follow-up, Konrath published a Guest Post by Robin Sullivan which provides rounded sales numbers (and links to the Amazon book pages) for 25 self-published authors, all of whom sold more than 2,500 copies of their various titles during December 2010.

The author list Sullivan includes in her guest post appears to be a sub-set of the list she published on the KindleBoards web-forum on 2011/01/01 as a post entitled ‘Dec 2010, 1000 books a month club (TBOM)’. (Stephen Leather is listed in the guest post but not in her KindleBoard posting. Also, I’m assuming ‘Michael Sullivan’ and ‘Michael R Sullivan’ are the same person: her husband.)

Another self-publishing author, Derek J Canyon, took the KindleBoards list and did some number and genre analysis on his blog Adventures in ePublishing. On the numbers front, he asks and answers the following key question:

[I]s 1,000 or more sales per month an indicator of success? That’s a good question. We don’t know how many of those books were given away for free or for a low price such as $0.99 (which would garner the author only $0.35 per sale).

But, even at a cover price of only $0.99, an author would make $350/month if they sold 1,000 units. That’s $4,200 per year. That’s not enough for a career, but it is a very nice income boost. I’d call this a success for any “hobbyist” or newbie author. If I make $4,200 this year, I'll certainly consider it a success.

If you assume that the cover price of the book is $2.99 (the minimum required to receive a 70% royalty from Amazon), then the author is making just over $2,000 per month, or $24,000 per year! Even after Uncle Sam takes his cut, the author is probably left with a very good chunk of change. Enough for a couple very nice vacations a year, a snazzy home theater system, or a down payment on a house. I’d call this an unqualified success.

Anything more than $2,000 a month is getting close to being enough to live on comfortably. So, I’d say that 1,000+ sales per month is a success no matter how you cut it.

Which brings us back to the opening point, about self-publishing’s low social status. If I could add $2,000.00 a month to my gross income (no need to distinguish between A$ and US$ while the two currencies are hovering around parity), I suspect I’d take the same position as Joe Konrath does in his afore-mentioned article ‘You Should Self-Publish’:

As a writer, I could give a shit what the New York Times thinks of my latest, or if MWA gives me an Edgar award, or if I’m on a shelf in the Podunk Public Library. Those are all ego strokes.

I care about money, and reaching readers, and none of these things are necessary to make money or reach readers.

So, should writers take Konrath’s advice and self-publish? Perhaps….

There are at least two other questions to answer first. The first is practical: how much work is actually involved in turning a manuscript into a saleable product?

As I noted above, the folk doing well as self-publishers are producing a professional looking product. You can’t do that without effort, so anyone considering this route needs to understand how much effort is involved and know if they can put in that effort.

NB: assumed and otherwise unsaid in all this is that the professional looking product contains professional-grade prose. If you take some time wandering around the various author-sites linked to above, a common thread you’ll find is their professional approach to the craft. Most got close to, or even made it to, traditional publishing contracts or agency representation. Those that didn’t (most notably, Amanda Hocking) still took the work seriously, attending writing courses, writing a lot, and treating their work with appropriate editorial care.

Like the folks doing well, I’ve gotten close to traditional publishing contracts and I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I take a professional approach and produce professional-grade prose. If nothing else, earning my keep as a writer and editor for most of the last twenty-five years suggests other people believe this.

That said, I’ve turned other people’s manuscripts into books, and I’ve built a few dozen web-sites over the years. I know there’s a chunk of work involved turning a manuscript into a product, so it’s sensible to get an idea of how much work there is.

I suspect it’s about as much work as turning a manuscript into a printed book, or laying down the infrastructure for a professional web-site: ie a non-trivial but doable workload. I also suspect — at least with regards ebooks — it’s something of a combination of turning a manuscript into a printed book and laying down the infrastructure for a professional web-site.

Which brings us to the second question: what about marketing?

As Amanda Hocking notes in an interview with Tonya Plank published on The Huffington Post:

TP: What has been your strategy for marketing and publicizing your books?

AH: I didn’t really have a strategy. I think one of the advantages I have is that stuff considered marketing is stuff that I do a lot anyway. I’ve been active on social networks and blogs for years. I also send ARCs [advance review copies] out to book bloggers. Book bloggers are a really amazing community, and they’ve been tremendously supportive. They’ve definitely been a major force that got my books on the map.

When I first published, I did do a bit of promoting on the Amazon forums, but they’re not really open to that, so I haven’t really interacted there much at all in months. I hang out [on] Goodreads, Kindleboards, Facebook, Twitter, and I blog. And that’s about it.

The stuff Hocking does ‘a lot’ is stuff I clearly don’t do much of at all. I’ve got two blogs: Between Borders and Non-Standard Deviation. I’ve kept the underlying WordPress installations up-to-date, but I’ve not been what you’d call a prolific poster.

Similarly, I have a twitter account with exactly one posting. I use it to follow others, and those I follow mostly use Twitter as a convenient alternative to producing a link blog (ie a blog mostly consisting of links to articles they are interested in rather than a blog made up of articles of their own).

Not to say I can’t do this stuff, but deciding if it’s worth while isn’t as obvious as it appears.

This said, this little exercise in thinking out-loud (so to speak) has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for more on the two questions directly.