Self-Publishing

A lot of thoughts being bandied about in various places on the topic of self-publishing. I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about it on blogs, on Twitter, via Facebook and in person over the past week, so I figured a blog post was probably worth doing.

It’s not really a surprise that self-publishing is starting to achieve an audible zeitgeistean rumble. The proliferation of platforms like the Kindle and the iPad, and the distribution tools that are now in the hands of everybody via the Internet, have made it pretty much inevitable. It’s just now getting to the point where it’s on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream, so people are noticing.

On Twitter, I’ve re-tweeted (gods, I HATE that verb) a lot of links to posts about self-publishing by J.A. Konrath. Yesterday, he posted a fairly good summary entry: “You Should Self-Publish.” It’s worth reading, if you haven’t already.

Every time I post something about Konrath, I get the inevitable wet-blanket nay-saying from friends, colleagues and followers — “yes, but… [insert usual arguments here. Usually something about how Konrath is an outlier, etc.]” There are three things that I find really fucking infuriating about this.

1. The most constant and consistent naysaying comes from people I know who… well, let’s put this as charitably as possible… are somewhat invested in the traditional publishing business. They’re traditionally published, or work for a Big 6 firm, or are struggling to “make it.” I get it. I do — and yet every time, the same voices with the same arguments. I heard you the first time, and I understand your need to validate a 19th-century business model. You don’t need to continually restate.

2. There is, at the core of these negative statements, a well-meaning, but frankly somewhat insulting, assumption that I’m just linking to this one guy’s opinion because I’m excited, and therefore need to be tempered or told how things “really are.” Here’s the thing — I’m linking to Konrath because he’s out there posting numbers (including screencaps of Amazon sales reports, in earlier posts this year) in a clear, easily-accessible form…. and because it confirms the data that I’ve gotten over the past year of speaking to *dozens* of other sources. This isn’t some whim of mine. I’m not the sort of person who risks my family’s livelihood on whims.

3. Related to that point, there’s also the tiny little fact that I’ve seen this before — I’ve spent the past decade watching it happen in microcosm in the tabletop games industry. (Hell, some folks actually give me a little bit of credit for helping to *make it happen*, so there’s a chance that I might know a thing or two about electronic publishing and distribution.) Funny thing about observable data — you can recognize its patterns when you see it happening on a larger scale.

So, yeah — I know that I’m coming off as a bit brittle here, but I have to admit that it gets under my skin that some comments don’t appear to give me any credit for maybe knowing what the hell I’m talking about. Not all comments are like that, and please don’t get me wrong — I really enjoy talking about the topic with people who have opinions on all sides of the issue. Just the above three points get me all grumpy.

But, back to the topic at hand….

Applying what I’ve seen in the games industry, here’s what you can expect: Yes, most of the stuff that will get released will be crap. However, creators who have the ability to produce professional material (hiring an editor, designing sharp-looking covers, and of course, good content in the first place), and who also are savvy in marketing their work, will rise well above the crap and compete rather handily with the output from the large traditional houses. Most importantly, they’ll be able to do so with every aspect of their livelihood shaped by their own decisions, and under their own control.

Even with the potential for higher reward and the status and validation of going through a traditional outfit, I wouldn’t want to hand over that control, given the uncertainty surrounding nearly every aspect of the publishing business right now. Not when I can reach an audience and make a perfectly reasonable living doing it without them.

7 Replies to “Self-Publishing”

  1. Gee, I’m guessing I’m one of the people you’re referring to? :) Let’s see:

    1. “Invested” in traditional publishing:
    a. traditionally published: check.
    b. work for a Big 6 firm: check.
    c. struggling to “make it”: check.

    2. Keep saying the same thing in reply to Konrath’s posts–and your retweets of them: check.

    The thing is, I will have at least two e-books out this year. Not exactly self-published, but close enough (published with small houses where I’m involved in every aspect of the book’s production, and get a substantial share of the profits as a result). So yes, I’m also giving it a whirl.

    These books will look sharp, be well-assembled, be properly and professionally edited, and (dare I claim it?) have excellent content.

    They will also be well-marketed–the reason I’m not just doing them myself, because we both know I’m crap at marketing, especially myself and my own work.

    But do I expect my books to “rise well above the crap and compete rather handily with the output from the large traditional houses”?

    “Expect” is a strong word. Let’s just say “hope mightly” and leave it at that.

    That’s my problem with Konrath–and it’s with him far more than with you. He’s touting his success as if it were attainable by anyone. It isn’t. It never will be. And a whole lot of people will try to follow his footsteps and fail miserably–and clutter the Internet with the carcasses of their attempts in the process.

    Should the attempt be made? Absolutely. I certainly will try it. But should anyone who does not already have the kind of fanbase Konrath possesses EXPECT his level of success? Not unless they thrive on disappointment and disillusionment.

    YOU could actually succeed at it–you’re good at marketing, you have a name and an established audience, you’ve got experience producing professional content. You aren’t the one I worry about. It’s all the people who are going to try it without those assets who are likely to run into trouble.

  2. @Aaron: “He’s touting his success as if it were attainable by anyone. It isn’t. It never will be.” I think you mean “attainable by everyone,” which is false and impossible, as opposed to “attainable by any given individual,” which seems self-evidently true. There is no overwhelming obstacle in place that would prevent any particular specific individual from duplicating Konrath’s success. So why discourage everyone from trying?

    @GMS: “they’ll be able to do so with every aspect of their livelihood shaped by their own decisions, and under their own control.” The Amazon publishing platform is not under our control, nor is the royalty rate Amazon pays. I fear a repeat of the rise of casual-game portals in shareware gaming. Early in their existence, the portals paid 70-80% royalties to game developers, and everyone flocked to the portals; then, having aggregated almost the entire audience for shareware games, the portals began reducing their royalty rates, to the point that now they typically pay only 20-30% royalties to the benighted developers.

  3. @Aaron — thank you for the compliments!

    I’m very curious to hear more about your ebooks coming this year.

    Also, I think the problem isn’t Konrath, but rather people who are reading his results and only seeing the success. He’s very clear and very honest about the amount of work that it requires — his success is the result of pure HUSTLE on his part, which goes back to when he was in the traditional model and paid out of his own pocket to drive around the country and do signings and appearances at hundreds of bookstores. His publisher didn’t do that — he did, on his own. That level of hustle is what’s paying off for him now.

  4. @Allen — I’m not as concerned, for a few reasons:

    First, Amazon is only half the market, and I really don’t see them dominating much more than that, given Google and Apple, and Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and Sony, and Kobo, and etc. etc. As long as there are other options, it’s in Amazon’s best interests to keep royalties competitive.

    Second, even if royalty did drop to 30%, that’s still a better deal than the standard 17.5% ebook rate from the Big 6.

    Third, it still leaves production schedule, cover design, marketing effort, pricing, and other decisions in my hands, rather than the hands of any number of decision-makers in a large corporation (with their own needs, motivations, external pressures, office politics, etc.).

  5. @Allen—no, I meant exactly what I said. His success is definitely not within the reach of any given individual, because there are overwhelming obstacles in place. Specifically, talent and the ability to hustle. Oh, and phenomenal good luck. It would take all three, I believe, for someone to match Konrath’s success.

    However, I don’t think people shouldn’t try. I just think they shouldn’t be led to believe they will be an overnight success, or become as successful at it as Konrath himself.

  6. Even if you are an author who has been published by the established industry, it is more than likely that you are, at best, a mid-list author. In which case you are still going to have to use every marketing tool at your disposal to shift books. That includes cultivating a following on the Internet, as well as personal appearances at bookstores and conventions (if you are a “genre” author) or writer’s weeks (if you are “mainstream”).

    All it takes is one poor bookscan report (which may not be your fault if the release was badly timed and the publisher didn’t push hard enough without you watching them like a hawk) and your career is toast. And even if you do build a following with your latest book, then it is entirely likely that your back-list will not be available.

    Remember that publishers aren’t selling your book to the customer, but rather to the book stores, distributors, and chain stores. It’s you that are going to have to sell your work to the actual audience that will consume it (either by reputation or getting out there and being noticed). And since you are doing that yourself, why not take total control of the procedure and reap a greater return.

    It’s getting easier to establish the needed numbers to support yourself as an author electronically. It’s unlikely you will reach megastar author status doing so, but if you are writing books that appeal to a select core of the market then it is easier to directly reach that core than it is to go through generic middlemen.

    Eventually I can see the establishment of freelance editing and layout houses that will professionally edit your work for a fee. And even the establishment or art fulfilment houses to provide attractive cover art. Both services will probably start out as services run by students (literature and art), but I can see them gaining ready popularity. Even if they just act to subcontract the work amongst their contacts. It’s easier than having to hunt out good artists individually.

    Already small ePublishing houses are starting up in competition with the main stores (such as Naked Reader Press). They offer flexibility that the major markets currently can’t attain. Whilst small now, they care, and have the opportunity to grow. They rely on providing their service to the artist (rather than forcing the artist to fit the consumer).

    To put it in other terms, take a look at what Bandcamp is doing for the indie music scene. They are gaining popularity with the artists, who are directing their fans to them (rather than iTunes or CDBaby), and fans are discovering the benefits of being about to download their choice of format

    Of course, if you have made it and book stores already order in hundreds of copies of your book (and actually put them on the shelves where people can find them), then you don’t need to consider this. Although you probably have earned that break from hustling your books back when they were not popular.

  7. I think it’s useful to recognize that Konrath doesn’t claim that any individual can enjoy the same success that he has. His claim is that an individual has a better chance of success, as measured by income, through e-self-publishing than that same individual would have through traditional publishing.

    Whether that assertion is correct or not is certainly still debatable, but it is at least a reasonable assertion based on the information he provides on himself and others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.