Friday, February 20, 2009

The Rush to Self-Publish

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

I’m doing my part to rise to the challenge of 21st century book marketing by actively increasing my Internet footprint. I post on writers boards and try to be as cooperative and patient as I can be. People were helpful to me when I was first starting, so I think I need to invest in the Karmic balance.

A prevalent theme in these sites is an attempt to normalize and legitimize self-publishing, and I genuinely don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would pay the thousands of dollars necessary to make self-publishing happen. If the goal is to get one’s book into the hands of friends and family, a Kinko’s would serve as well as a self-publishing house. If the desired audience is bigger than that, the writer is hosed.

Selling a hundred copies to people who all know where you live is not really publishing, is it? Isn’t the point to sell not tens of copies, but tens of thousands of copies? It’s impossible to get that kind of distribution without a legitimate publisher.

Getting books on distant bookshelves requires infrastructure. Publishers establish a distribution network that involves wholesalers and transporters. After a few months, the books that don’t sell are returned to the publisher for a full refund. Authors are paid cash as an advance against royalties, and the money is theirs to keep even if the publisher fails to sell a single copy of the book. As compensation for that risk, the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the book’s cover price.

For self-published authors, none of that infrastructure is in place. Many bookstores refuse to stock self-published books because they cannot return unsold stock. If they do agree to stock a self-published book it’s probably because the visiting author is a good salesman. That’s all well and good, but who’s writing the next book (and probably working the day job) while the author is out there pounding the pavement?

I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot of crap out there from traditional publishers, but in every case, at least there’ve been some editorial hurdles. First, a literary agent blesses the book, and then it’s passed to an acquiring editor who then has to get approval from others before making an offer to buy the book. After that, there are several more editing passes before the book is finally printed and distributed.

Justly or not, it’s easy to see how self-published material is perceived by booksellers as being too undercooked for general consumption. I’m not saying they’re right necessarily, but the perception is understandable.

A popular hypothesis on the writers’ boards touts the notion that traditional publishers are resistant to new talent, and that writers have no choice but to publish on their own. It’s ridiculous. Publishers live off of new talent. They anxiously await the next great well-told story.

I think there’s undeniably a place for self-publishing. The history of a certain military unit, for example, or the story of how someone’s grandfather made his fortune against all odds are tales that will resonate with a certain definable group that is almost certainly large enough to recoup the author’s investment, but nowhere near large enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher. But it’s not a route to bestsellerdom.

What I worry about is my sense that too many people enter into those contracts with inflated expectations that are underwritten my greedy businessmen who know how to feed off the desires of frustrated artists. For the foreseeable future, the two publishing routes will never be seen as “equal,” anymore than a community theater production of a play will be considered the equivalent of Broadway.

11 comments:

  1. Not all self-published books are rotten, but a fair good number are. There's a lot to be said for the editorial process.

    One other aspect that makes self-published books nuisancy from a bookseller perspective in addition to no right of return is that self-published books tend to cost more than those published by the bigger houses.

    It's harder to convince a customer to pay more for someone whose writing may or may not be good, and for a book that may very well have sloppy editing.

    Then too, most self-published books have a low discount. That means more of a shop's capital is tied up in a book that is more difficult to sell. And that discount is the profit margin the shop needs to exist. Out of that discount, the shop has to make enough to cover rent, more books, salaries, utilities, all the overhead.

    We're not making fortunes selling books. That's obvious by the number of indies going out of business. A short discount only speeds the process along.

    Wow. I'm sorry! That's quite a soapbox I toted in here! Thanks for letting me vent!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a very good post. When I put my own books out as audio podcast series while trying to sell them, there were a lot of people who tried to pressure me to self-publish instead of waiting for a traditional deal.

    In the end I told them all, I am not sitting here writing books for the sake being called a writer. I want to be the next Clancy, Higgins, Forsythe guy...which means going the long way.

    In other words, I'm not looking for local fame...I intend to either conquer my market segment, or stay in my cave until I come up with a diabolical plan to rule the world. No substitutions. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I believe the process of publishing a novel should be earned, not bought. Like any other business, participants must enter at the ground floor as a novice and work their way up. Finding an agent and editor, getting rejected, learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry are all part of learning the trade, and they help us become professionals at our craft. Spending thousands of dollars to pay for the printing of a hundred copies of a book is a shortcut to a dead end, and I think is part of an instant gratification mentality ruled by a lack of patience. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Having your novel published by a traditional house through the traditional methods is the advice I would give any would-be writer.

    Having said that, there are always going to be exceptions such as small print-run books dealing with local or regional topics which are print worthy but would not be attractive to traditional publishing houses. Also, self-publishing is an excellent alternative if the author uses the book to support his business such as a motivational speaker or technical instructor who conducts his trade to small or specialized audiences. There are others, I’m sure. The one characteristic is that they almost always deal with non-fiction topics.

    When it comes to fiction, I recommend sticking with the traditional methods. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think it's tempting to self-publish before a work is ready for publication. Say you've already done a lot of work on your first draft, or maybe it's your fifth draft, but you've got a nagging feeling that it still needs some work. But you say to yourself, "Shoot, I've put all this work into it. I'm not going to go through a bunch of rejection or rewrites again. I'll just put a hot cover on it and see what happens."

    Well, nothing will happen.

    N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

    I was tempted to self-publish the manuscript that eventually became the first installment of the Fat City Mysteries. What would have happened if I'd done that? Nothing. It would have gone absolutely nowhere. Would have been a HUGE mistake. Don't do it, folks.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I also think that a lot of writers who self publish think their book is the greatest thing ever written. (Usually it's the first book they ever wrote, and most writer's first books end up either in a drawer or a landfill somewhere.) They get a couple of rejections, get miffed and say, "I'll show them. I'll publish this and they'll all be crying to represent me." Then like Kathryn said--nothing.

    It takes a lot more courage to keep improving, keep submitting, and keep getting rejected. Some people just want to take the easy way out.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You summed up my thoughts exactly. I may well self-publish some day; it will mean I've given up. It will be nce to have a few decent-looking copies on my bookshelf, with some available for the firends and relatives who have supported and encouraged me and who have always asked to see the whole things after reading fragments. I'll have no delusiuons of making a career that way. The printed copies will be memerobilia, not career building.

    ReplyDelete
  7. John
    Timely post as I was just at the San Francisco Writers Conference and I can't tell you how many people wanted to circumvent the traditional route to publishing. I get that they are frustrated - I get that they think the industry sucks but there is a reason for the hurdles and just because the writer thinks their book is great doesn't make it so...it was very frustrating hearing the endless questions on bypassing agents, self publishing deals turning into mega advances with large houses etc. To me it sounded like grasping at straws and it was depressing. It's hard in this industry - we all know that - but I do feel that sometimes writers are in such a rush and they want to have their novels 'out there' before they are really ready. Now I'll get down off my soapbox:)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Recently I got an email from a "writer" asking if I knew any new agents looking for new writers. Basically I said, "work the steps." All of us published authors did just that. I don't have any shortcuts for authors except: I wrote a book. I found an agent after being turned down by more than one. I wrote three books before I sold one and only after 160 rejections from very good and probably a few very bad editors. Shortcuts come from having a lot of talent and maybe a lot of luck. This ain't easy from any direction, and it shouldn't be.

    Work hard, be persistent, and if you have the talent and ability, you MIGHT be published, and you might make a few bucks at it. In my book, self-publishing is for people who sell books at their self-motivational shows and people who are lazy or lack the talent it takes to do it right. It ain't about who you know, but what you can do.

    "Dance for us, Uncle Billy!"
    Shirley Temple

    ReplyDelete
  9. And yet, then we end up with books like "The Shack." Although the reason that those books make headlines is because the self-published success stories are so very, very rare, that when it happens it's newsworthy.

    ReplyDelete
  10. >>I don’t understand why people would pay the thousands of dollars necessary to make self-publishing happen.<<

    There's definitely no need to pay thousands. It can be done for hundreds.

    >>Isn’t the point to sell not tens of copies, but tens of thousands of copies? It’s impossible to get that kind of distribution without a legitimate publisher.<<

    A writer who becomes a publisher CAN sell tens of thousands of copies throu Amazon.com, BN.com, Target.com etc.

    Using a traditional publisher is certainly no guarantee of success. Many books from big-name book companies are on the buck-a-book remainder table after a few months.

    >>After a few months, the books that don’t sell are returned to the publisher for a full refund.<<

    That policy, introduced in the Depression, is a major flaw in the current publishing system, and intolerable in a time when we are trying to conserve forests, clean air, water and energy.

    >>As compensation for that risk, the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the book’s cover price.<<

    As the author AND publisher of my books, I keep the lion's share. For example, on a 400-page $30 book, I keep over $18 -- MUCH better than the 8% 2.40 royalty I might get from a traditional publisher -- AND the money comes in much faster.

    >>For self-published authors, none of that infrastructure is in place.<<

    For self-published authors none of that is necessary. The Internet replaces the old infrastructure.

    >>Many bookstores refuse to stock self-published books because they cannot return unsold stock.<<

    Returns are the sign of a failed system, and terribly wasteful. The cost of printing, promoting, storing, shipping, returning, marking-down, shredding and pulping failed books must be built-into the price of every book produced by a traditional publisher. With print-on-demand, there is almost no waste, and author/publishers can dictate "no returns." I was in a Barnes & Noble store yesterday. While my books were not on their shelves, they were on their self-service computers as well as the staff computers, and easy to buy by anyone in the store -- certainly no worse than any other special order book.

    >>First, a literary agent blesses the book, and then it’s passed to an acquiring editor who then has to get approval from others before making an offer to buy the book. After that, there are several more editing passes before the book is finally printed and distributed.<<

    But that can take YEARS. A self-pubbed book can be selling one week after the writing stops.

    >>What I worry about is my sense that too many people enter into those contracts with inflated expectations that are underwritten my greedy businessmen who know how to feed off the desires of frustrated artists.<<

    Writers using author-service companies like Lulu or Outskirts are NOT self-publishing. They are just using a different kind of publisher that passes all risk to the writer.

    A real self-publisher still has the risk and (less) expense. She or he can make all of the creative and business decisions, hire others when needed, have complete control, and perhaps produce a better product faster and make more money.

    That's REAL self-publishing. I do it, and I'm writing a book to tell others how to do it. Of course, I'll publish the book myself.

    I've had books published by Doubleday and other traditional publishers, but I'd much rather do it myself.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://bookmakingblog.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  11. It's disappointing to read that self-published authors are so loathed and disrespected. I have to say that I recently read a book by a famous author which was traditionally published and was very disappointed in it. It left me scratching my head as to how it ever got published. The dialogue was ridiculous and the plot was so jerky it seemed amateurish and thrown together. Still, I recognize many of your points. It gives me pause as I am considering self-publication and your article has stopped me short. I do retain my belief, however, that it can be done. But maybe not by me.

    ReplyDelete