You’ve written a book, and you’re wondering which mode of publishing—self- or traditional—is most likely to lead to a career in writing. Good. You should be wondering. It’s a new century, and new ways exist to get your book to buyers that can be at least as rewarding as the traditional publishing model.
Despite all recent innovation, the easiest road to the land of a book publishing career still passes through the traditional publishing house. Here’s the way it works: either you or your agent finds an editor at a publishing house who wants to publish your book, and the house (usually) writes you a check for it. That check is called an advance, and it isn’t free; you get it up front against future royalties of your book. You don’t receive any more money from the publisher until your book sells so many copies—when it “earns out” your advance—and then you start to bank your dollar or whatever in royalties for each book sold.
While not without its drawbacks, this is the easiest path to financial success for the writer because you collect money months or years before your book comes out. Think about that. You get paid before anyone in the book-buying market even knows you’ve written a book, much less decides they want it. It’s now in your publisher’s best interest to do a great job editing, proofreading, designing a cover, printing and marketing your book, or it might not see that advance money again. The risk is all theirs.
Moreover, your publishing company could do a great job publishing and marketing your book and, for whatever reason, people still don’t buy it. In that instance, the company absorbs the loss while you keep the advance money. Finally, if your book sells well, you still have a chance to earn royalties well beyond the advance. These backend royalties are how many of the writers in the world make their living. Welcome to the big leagues.
And if I were writing this piece twenty years ago, that would pretty much be the end of the story. But in 2014, an argument can be made that self-publishing your book is a legitimate business model as well. What’s changed?
The biggest advent to the business of self-publishing is the proliferation of ebooks and ebook devices. Writers now have a way to get their books distributed to millions of readers all by themselves. The self-publisher of a couple decades ago falls to her knees and weeps at the mention of entities like Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords. From the time your book is finished, you can have it available to a large buying audience in less than 24 hours. For free. Unprecedented.
Second only to ebooks, the advent in the last decade or so of print-on-demand publishing has also changed the game for the self-publisher. As late as the mid-1990s, if a self-publisher wanted to create an affordable edition of his work, he had to call a book printer, who usually had to print a thousand copies or more to bring the book’s price-per-unit to a reasonable level. This meant the self-publisher had to pay at least $3,000 to the printer before anyone could buy a single book. Then he had to find a place to store them, which often amounted to a home stuffed with boxes of books. A common scenario involved the self-publisher never being able to sell all of them. Can you imagine being forced to choose between space in your garage or several hundred copies of your book? Some gave their extras away to libraries for tax write-offs. Others, after years of futility, drove them to the dump.
With print-on-demand technology, you can publish an actual book, and the old issues of high cost and storage space need never darken your (garage) door. Print-on-demand companies like Lightning Source and Createspace charge as little as $25 to have your book in their database, where it’s ready to be printed and distributed. Then they charge a reasonable fee per book (about $3-10, depending on many variables) to print them. In other words, self-publishers don’t have to buy 1,000 copies of their title to have a few copies on hand, or to have it available to customers at places like Amazon and Powells.com. You can buy just one copy if you want. Print-on-demand companies are happy to oblige.
Because of all this new technology, self-publishing is at least in the ballgame now. And there’s one more issue I haven’t yet mentioned.
Take, for example, the case of Hugh Howey. Howey self-published his post-apocalyptic novel Wool as an ebook in 2012. Things went very well for Howey and Wool, which sold a half-million copies in electronic form. When Simon and Schuster approached Howey, wanting to purchase the rights to Wool, Howey was all for it—until he heard the company wanted his ebook rights too. “I had made seven figures [selling Wool as an ebook] … so it was easy to walk away,” he said. Eventually, he sold just the book-book rights to Simon and Schuster, and I saw Wool prominently displayed at my local bookstore this past Christmas season.
Or the case of Jenny McGuire. McGuire self-published her new adult romance Beautiful Disaster in 2011, which went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was later sold to Atria Books, with the movie rights sold to Warner Bros.
Or the case of Amanda Hocking. Hocking made millions in her first year self-publishing her young adult paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels as ebooks. She then went on to sign a $2.2 million contract with St. Martins Press.
The successfully self-published author who later decides to go the traditional route has more leverage than those writers with nothing but a manuscript and their good looks. She can bag both the writer’s and publisher’s share while self-publishing, then use that success to get a far more favorable deal with a major. Win-win.
To be clear, these mega-success stories represent only the smallest fraction of those who self-publish. The vast majority wind up with less remarkable sales (that’s me), or none at all. Still, no one but the willfully blind could argue this phenomenon doesn’t exist.
Perhaps more relevant than hitting pay dirt, because of ebooks and print-on-demand technology, many writers now make modest livings self-publishing their works. This list includes Meilin Miranda, who self-publishes Victorianesque fantasy and science fiction; Shanna Germain, who has one self-published book that yielded $32k through a Kickstarter campaign; or Aaron Shepherd, whose how-to books about self-publishing are staples of the genre. I didn’t have to go to the edges of the earth to find these folks. They’re friends, or friends of friends, or people I’ve run across when searching for practical help with self-publishing. My guess is none of them will be sailing to Bora Bora anytime soon on their self-publishing earnings, but each manages at least to sustain themselves through the model. How many more of them are out there? Hundreds? Thousands?
While the get-rich stories get more attention, what the ascendance of self-publishing technology in 2014 really means for the aspiring writer is she can realistically hope for a new, freer path to a writing career. If you can write a book people want to read and market it well, you may not hit pay-dirt, but you just might get a life.
Ready to self-pub? Take my one-day seminar in early November at The Attic.