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 Now that e-books are hot, hot, hot, should an unpublished writer try to self-publish herself or should she go with a traditional publisher?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.
Jaina Kay says
Just a quick thought – Eragon was originally self-published before self-publishing was even the thing, if I recall correctly, and it was made into a movie. (Of course opinions vary on how good of a movie it was, but that’s beside the point). Yes, he was picked up by a legacy publisher first, but then Amanda Hocking was picked up by a legacy publisher too after getting a start in self-publishing, so it’s not like self-publishing absolutely closes the door on all possible chances of getting a movie. I doubt that will be the deal-breaker for anyone who is looking to make a movie out of a book.
Just some thoughts.
Thanks Randy. Your answers to Lisa’s question are insightful. I have been a dabbling storyteller for years, and I have recently made the final decision to turn my love of the craft into a career. I recently left the corporate world and have a fairly foul taste from it. Albeit, my experience is from banking and not publishing. That being said, I have been adamant that when my book is finished I would self publish. Thus avoiding corporate structure. I may be jaded, but I think with my personality and unique story ideas it would be better to market myself instead of letting a corporate entity define me.
Thanks again. I love the Snowflake method. I have been struggling with keeping the organization to my stories cohesive. I have usually just written from the hip. This method seems to have given me the structure that I needed.
Andie Mock says
Can you play both sides of the aisle and self-publish while you look for an agent/editor.
Randy sez: Yes.
Daniel R. Marvello says
I’m impressed. You are one of the first traditionally-published authors I’ve heard from who actually makes it sound like it’s okay to just put your stuff out there and see what happens. There is, after all, little to lose.
On the other hand, I agree that a book has to be of professional quality, or at least *near* professional quality for it to really get anywhere.
The book marketplace (and I do mean marketplace, not the book “industry”) is amazingly supportive of good work, regardless of its origin. It’s also amazingly brutal toward work that isn’t so good.
To a poorly-written book, the marketplace resembles a giant void. You push your book into it and get nothing in return.
Tami Meyers says
I am in the process of e-publishing a children’s book. I’ve tried the traditional route, with some very positive feedback, but they don’t seem to like that it is a Christian children’s read-aloud bedtime story book.
I don’t expect to set the net on fire with the number of downloads, but feel that I can promote a respectable number of sales – respectable for a newbie anyway.
There are a lot of steps to follow, and I’m sure it will be harder than traditional publishing, but I’m willing to pay my dues and work hard for my membership into the ranks of “published author”. It has to be easier than the struggling, frustrated, wannabe club that I’ve been a member of for the last ten years.
Thanks, Randy, for teaching the lessons we need, and for the encouraging words that keep us going!
I feel like you gotta go with a real publisher, since they’ll know how to market your book better than you can, and that’s the bottom line. Plus, your book can easily be converted e-books, that’s not the point.
Randy sez: A traditional publisher of course CAN market your book better than you can. But in most cases, they WON’T. You can easily verify this by asking 100 traditionally published novelists.
If you choose them at random, then probably 80 of them will tell you that they already do all the marketing for their books.
About 10 will tell you that they do about the same amount of marketing as their publisher.
About 10 will tell you that their publisher does a lot more marketing than they do. These last 10 are the A-list authors. The system works for them. The system really doesn’t work very well for everyone else.
Publishers market the winners. They don’t market the losers. That is smart. You’d do the same thing if you were a publisher. But it also makes for a massively self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you believe you should be a winner, and if your publisher doesn’t believe you are likely to be a winner, then you’re stuck. You are exactly the kind of person who might well benefit from self-publishing via e-books. Because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Lyn Cote says
Jarvis, you have blind faith in publishers. Get over it. 🙂
One size does not fit all–as Randy sez.
Daniel R. Marvello says
Jarvis: These days, a publisher won’t do much of anything to market a book for a first-time author. That’s why they won’t even accept your book unless you have some kind of “platform.” They expect YOU to market it.
Thanks for your answer. I wonder the same as Andie, what happens if you do both. I guess if your ebook does well that would help, but if it gets missed for some reason that could hurt your chances of getting a traditional publisher. I am looking forward to the day when agents get print and ebook rights seperated so you can easily do both in any order, and not take as large a hit on the ebook profits.
Sally Ferguson says
Lisa mentioned the need for marketing. That falls on authors to do in any field they publish!
Jaina: Traditional publishers often want first publication rights for a book. If you self-publish, and that includes putting an early version on a blog, that can count as publishing. You would have used up the first publication rights, even if you later take it down. (That’s how I read it. The line might be fuzzy in some places, but “self-publishing” is publishing.)
If the book does well, or your other works are popular, a publisher may still pick it up, or a sequel, or first rights for a book you didn’t self-publish, so self-publishing doesn’t destroy all chances, but it does eliminate one of the big ones for that book.
Also, if your early work isn’t up to par, readers (and agents and publishers) who search for you will see that work. They might not give you the chance to prove that you’ve improved.
Wow, I knew that you had the “Ask a question” feature, so I came to ask my question, and I see here that someone already asked it!
After several years of studying and practicing the craft of writing (about five years, to be more precise), I’m starting to feel like my stuff has improved to the point of being publish-worthy, but this crossroads has stumped me.
I’m thinking I’ll probably attempt the traditional route first. We’ll see. Self-publishing an e-book has its appeal, but since I haven’t purchased any e-books myself, I’m hesitant to go that route.
Debbie Thorkildsen says
A friend of mine had her book printed and sold a few hundred copies online. Another author who has her own publishing company told my friend that she didn’t self-publish her book, she just had it printed. What’s the difference between self-publishing and just printing and selling copies of your book or is there really a difference?
Garry Grierson says
But what about the hundreds of thousands of wannabe writers who are writing well enough to sell to a traditional publisher, but can’t get a deal or just want to try the self-publishing thing? And there isn’t a magic gong that goes off when someone reaches the bar, so how do you know when you are ready?
I think a very large part of making e-sales is down to the marketing; obviously not all of it, you also need a well written and saleable book; and most wannabe writers, myself included, don’t have a clue what to do or where to start with marketing.
So there may very well be good books e-published that don’t get any sales