The publishing world is changing so fast that a newbie novelist can’t help feeling confused by all the options out there. Now that e-books are hot, hot, hot, should an unpublished writer try to self-publish herself or should she go with a traditional publisher?
Lisa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Randy I want you to pretend you are a new author and would have your first book completed and ready to submit in six months to a year from today. Would you go the traditional route of getting an agent/publisher or would you self publish as an ebook and why would you choose that route?
This is the timeframe I am looking at and since the market is changing so rapidly I am concerned about going one way or the other and having it be the wrong decision. If I go the traditional route and ebooks take an even larger chunk of the market I may waste precious time marketing a book that no publisher will take because I am not a proven comodity.
If I go the ebook route and am not able to market it effectively my book could fail due to my lack of marketing abilities.
Lastly most of us dream of getting one of our creations turned into a movie, if don’t go the traditional route have we made this dream impossible?
I love your ezine and like so many have writen my novel using the snowflake method and can’t thank you enough!
Randy sez: Wow, Lisa, that’s a tough decision. Two years ago, I’d have automatically said, “Go with the traditional, royalty-paying publisher, because your odds of making it big as a self-published novelist are roughly one in ten million. Whereas your odds of making it big with a traditional publisher are roughly one in a hundred thousand.”
That was then. This is now. Now I’d say that your odds of making it big are about the same, either way: About one in a hundred thousand.
Of course, it’s not necessary to “make it big” to be a happy, successful author. I define “making it big” to be this: Your first novel earns you more than $250,000.
A disclaimer is in order here. I don’t know the real odds of making it big. One in a hundred thousand seems to be about the right order of magnitude. It’s a guess. Might be high. Might be low.
What about if you lower your sights just a bit and think about earning, say, $5000 on your first novel? That’s a lot easier, but it’s still no cakewalk. Hundreds of novelists are going to be able to hit that level of success this year. Probably more than 1000. If we assume that there are 300,000 wannabe writers out there who want to publish their novel, then your odds of earning a $5k advance are probably one in a few hundred. It’s doable.
Now the big question: What if those writers avoided the traditional publishers and went the e-book route? How would they do?
Absolutely nobody knows the answer to that question. My best guess is that some would do better, some would do worse, but on average, they’d probably average about $5k. With $2 royalty per book, they’d only have to sell 2500 copies in a year to do that. That’s a couple of hundred copies per month. Maybe 7 per day. It’s doable. A lot depends on their willingness to market themselves. Those willing to work hard could do Xtremely well.
What about the rest? What about the hundreds of thousands of wannabe writers who aren’t yet writing well enough to sell to a traditional publisher? Would they do better by e-publishing?
That’s easy. Of course they would. For these authors, the traditional route would earn them $0, and you can’t do worse than that. Whereas by e-publishing, they could easily earn dozens of dollars.
So if your writing is not yet up to snuff, you can get in the game by e-publishing and you can earn a few bucks. You will almost certainly not earn very many bucks. But you will earn something.
Should you go that route? Here’s my opinion: If you’re not yet good enough to get published by a traditional publisher, then self-publishing won’t hurt you, but it won’t noticeably help you either. Your best bet is to put your energy into improving your craft.
In my view, self-publishing is most advantageous for the A-list authors. Authors whose name alone sells zillions of copies of their books. An author like that who self-pubbed at a price point of $2.99 would (I believe) see much higher sales than he would by publishing with a traditional publisher (who would want to price the hardcover at $26.99 and the e-book at $14.99.)
I’m guessing here, since I don’t have hard numbers. Very few people have hard numbers. We’ll know more when Barry Eisler’s next novel comes out. (Barry recently turned down a 2-book deal for half a million dollars in order to self-publish.)
Self-publishing would also be a big advantage for a midlist author whose publishers haven’t ever quite figured out how to market her. (There are tens of thousands of these authors out there.) Publishers do their best, but they have a lot of authors, and if they can’t get a handle on how to market them all, you can hardly blame them.
A midlist author who took the time to market herself well would very likely do much better by self-publishing. How do I know that? Because there are a fair number of midlist authors who are very quietly doing exactly that RIGHT NOW. Read the last several months of Joe Konrath’s blog to see interviews with a number of them, and references to many more.
Now finally, I’ll answer Lisa’s question, which was intensely personal. What would I, Randy, do if I were just starting out as a novelist? I’m going to assume Lisa means, what would I do if I had my current set of skills, which include the ability to write an award-winning novel and the ability to market myself online.
See, the answer to that is easy: I’d self-publish myself. Every publisher I’ve worked with has had a hard time figuring out how to market me. (Except for the publishers of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, who had no trouble at all figuring out how to market me, because I told them how.) I can’t blame my other publishers. I didn’t know how to market myself either, so I could hardly expect them to know. I’m a weirdo, and weirdos are hard to figure out how to market.
But now I do know how to market my work. Here, my weirdness actually helps. Weirdos are Xtremely easy to market, once you’ve figured out exactly what they are and why they’re different from everybody else on the planet. So it makes perfect sense to e-publish myself in the current climate.
What do I mean by the “current climate?” I mean simply this. Currently, traditional publishers are paying no more than 25% royalties on e-books. (That’s 25% of the money received from retailers, not 25% of the retail price of the book.)
Most authors consider that 25% rate to be unfairly low. Insanely low. I know that the publishers have their reasons for keeping the royalties at that level. But I still don’t think it’s a remotely fair royalty rate, and I don’t know a single published author who thinks it’s fair.
Eventually, I believe that publishers are going to raise their royalty rates on e-books. I have no idea when, but I think it’ll happen. I don’t know if they’ll raise it to a fair level (which I would define to be somewhere north of 50% of what they receive.)
In the meantime, I think a midlist author can simply do better by e-publishing herself (if she has any marketing sense at all). That’s the “current climate” in the publishing world. That could change tomorrow, or it might take ten years.
Here’s something you probably learned in kindergarten which is still true: You can’t make people play fair, but you can choose to play in a different sandbox.
So if you think you’ll do better by not going the traditional publishing route, then you can try riding the e-ticket. And if you think you’ll do better with a traditional publisher, then do so. You have options. Act in your own best interest, whatever that is.
Lisa also asked about movies. The fact is that your book has a vastly better chance of being made into a movie if it sells a lot of copies. So if you can sell a zillion copies of your book with a traditional publisher, then that’s your route to moviedom. If you can sell a zillion copies by self-publishing, then that’s your ticket. Either way, let’s be brutally honest, a movie is a long-shot. Probably won’t happen. Try not to have an aneurysm if it does.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.