Something over three years ago I completed the first draft of a thriller called The Alexandria Project. I’d had a great time writing and posting it chapter by chapter at another blog, one I’ve maintained for a decade now. After successfully managing the process of creating characters, developing a plot, and bringing the story through to a finish, I assumed that the hard part was over, especially since about 4,000 people had dutifully tuned in each week to read the next installment. If I were to turn that draft into a real book, what could be easier than just telling all these folks that it was now polished up and packaged, and wait for the orders to come in?
I learned, of course, that it was the easy part that was now complete. The really hard part was just about to begin. Here’s why.
We all know that finding a traditional publisher is really, really hard. But the common wisdom is that self-publishing is supposed to be easy – something that anyone can do. And it must be, if over 300,000 people do it every year, right?
Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “self publish.” True, you can upload your file at CreateSpace, drop a picture and some text into one of the cover templates you can find there, and be off to the races, without even spending a dollar. No question about it, that’s really pretty cool, especially if all you want to do is to create a simple eBook that you can share with friends and family. But what if you want to create a real, professional-quality book that’s available in print as well as eBook versions – one that would not only be of comparable quality to one published by a traditional publisher, but one that actually sells a lot of copies? How should you go about doing that?
What I found, much to my surprise, is that it’s really, really hard to gather the type of information and advice you need in order to get a complete picture of what the self-publishing landscape looks like in sufficient detail to be confident that you’re making the right decisions once you’re ready to make them. At every step of the way, there are multiple alternatives to evaluate – different print on demand models, different promotional alternatives, different design decisions, different rights to keep and others to consider giving to others, and – always – all sorts of opinions on every subject you can think of. And while there are lots of books out there on the subject, few of them cover all the bases. When they do, the discussion is usually relatively high level. The result that you still have lots of digging and investigating to do before you can, for example, decide which specific publisher you want to do business with.
And, of course, any resource in this fast-changing area gets out of date quickly. Some of the best books I found came out as far back as 2007 – almost a different age when it comes to self-publishing. Add to that the fact that many of the sources of information you’ll run into have some sort of conflict of interest. At the most basic level, they may want to sell you a book about self-publishing (e.g., telling you how easy it will all be), or a promotional service (telling you how incredible the results will be).
What I decided to do as I slogged my way through the process of figuring out how I wanted to self-publish was to record what I found out in a series of blog posts as I went along. I called that series, “Adventures in Publishing,” and eventually it ran for a total of 27 chapters.
Since I ran that series, the challenge to first-time authors hasn’t gotten an awful lot easier. On the one hand, the odds of success and the promotional methods that are most likely to bear fruit have become a bit clearer. But on the other, while the number and type of service providers has expanded dramatically, the challenge of telling which are worth engaging with is harder than ever.
The upshot is that I’ve decided to update that series, taking into account the additional experience I’ve gained and the changes that have occurred in the marketplace, and post the revised version here. So if you’re just starting down the self-publishing road, or are part way down and feeling a bit lost, or simply want to see whether there are some extra pointers you might pick up, feel free to follow along here. I’d be delighted if you’d share your own experiences and hard-won knowledge by commenting. And, of course, if you think that I’m every leading folks astray, by all means set me straight.
So let’s get started, shall we?
Adventures in Self Publishing – the Introduction
Ever thought about writing a book? If so, have you also thought about what your options are when you’re done? I’ve done both, in in this series I plan to share with you some insights into what it’s like to self-publish a book, since it appears that books of this type are destined not only to comprise an ever larger percentage of new titles reaching the market, but of all books sold as well. One reason is that self-publishing has become a much easier option, but another is that the value proposition provided by traditional publishers is becoming less and less compelling all of the time. Perhaps the best way to explain why that’s the case is by using the metaphor of the bundle of sticks.
Up until recently, there were only two ways to get a book into the marketplace: through traditional publishers, and “vanity publishers.” The difference between the two is that the former is what you think of when you think of a full service publisher, while the latter is basically a book formatter and binder, capable of drop shipping boxes of books to your doorstep but not capable of helping you establish demand for those books. The gap between these two business models becomes more apparent when you look at the complete bundle of services that “real” publishers used to provide, which can be broken down into the following “sticks:”
1. Winnowing the weak authors and books with promise from the chaff, and bringing to market only those books that are competently written and have some basic level of appeal.
2. Paying an advance to the author to help tide her over while she finishes the contracted for book.
3. Providing an author with an editor able to help the author create a better end product, through consultation and editing.
4. Converting the final typescript manuscript into a pleasing physical product through careful internal and external layout and design.
5. Executing a promotional campaign involving varying degrees of investment depending on the type or genre of book, reputation of the author, age, sex and breadth or narrowness of the book’s potential audience, and so on, but at minimum one intended to persuade as large a number of bookstores as possible to stock the book, and to acquaint as many potential readers as possible with the existence and appeal of the book. Typically, this would involve activities such as soliciting the interest of reviewers at major urban newspapers and organizing a coast to coast promotional tour for the author, comprising radio and TV interview and book signings at bookstores.
6. Management of printing, shipping, inventory tracking, invoicing, collecting of proceeds, and receiving of returns, as well as addressing a variety of lesser administrative chores (e.g., buying an ISBN number, registering the copyright in the book, listing it in trade directories, and so on).
7. Periodically reporting to, and paying, royalties to the author.
That’s a pretty impressive package, with a lot of value to an author. Today, however, not only is getting a contract with a traditional publisher much more difficult , but what you get has far less value. Notably, the advance (item one above) and the promotional assistance (item 5) may be dramatically smaller to non-existent. Many publishers now say that they expect authors to submit completely edited and proofread text, ready for printing, and to assume basically all of the promotional role as well.
At the same time, a new alternative – the print on demand publisher – has emerged and proliferated, and technology has completely transformed what can be done and by whom. As a result, anyone can handle items 4, and 5 either on their own, or using a POD publisher at a total cost of from $500 to $1,000. Additional services (editing, proofreading, cover design, promotional, and so on) can be purchased from the same sources, typically in packages of ascending cost and (often) descending real value. Freelancers are also available to provide many of the same services.
The other major difference is that traditional publishers demand ownership and control of your book, while many POD publishers allow the author to terminate their contract at any time, with the author keeping all rights in their book, cover design, and other related assets. POD publishers also allow the author to have significant control over pricing, and often pay higher royalties than traditional publishers.
As a result, the beneficial differences between traditional publishers and POD publishers are remarkably less than between traditional and vanity publishers, and, at the same time, self-publishing costs have dropped dramatically as well. In other words, if you’re not going to get the advance, the editorial assistance, and the promotional support, why give away control of your book and make lower royalties?
So POD publishing sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. The reality is that it’s a big, messy and (still) rapidly changing landscape out there. And that’s where we’ll pick up in the next installment in this narrative.