Monday, September 6, 2010

Self-Publishing Is the Route to ( ) Success ( ) Failure [Check One]

The literary agent Nathan Bransford, who writes one of the shrewdest and most entertaining blogs about publishing, recently had an excellent post on a much misunderstood topic: just what publishers actually do for authors. (In brief: a lot.)  With the increasing ease of self-publishing in an e-book marketplace; prominent authors dropping their publishers to sell their work themselves, the question of whether and how publishers "add value" to an author's work certainly calls for discussion.

It's a big subject and I'll attempt to tackle it in future posts. But I encourage anyone interested in it to read Nathan's article, and also the comments thread. What particularly struck me there was reports from two different commenters about their diametrically opposed experiences of self-publishing. Author A writes:
Self-publishing is a difficult road to take. As an experiment, I uploaded two short works to Amazon and made them available in the Kindle store. I designed the covers, did the editing, and the layout design and html code juggling that needed to be done in order to get them looking right. And let me tell you, after all of that, the time you have to put in to promote your work is exhausting. And there aren't many ways to do it successfully. The grand total of copies sold thus far (after several months)? Somewhere around 14. Four of which were to relatives. 
A sobering tale. But scroll down a bit further and read this from Author B:
I was very fortunate. After being rejected (but almost making it!) by traditional publishing I let my book set on the hard drive a couple years. Then Kindle store came along and Bezos offered to e-publish my book for free. With nothing to lose I used the digital text platform interface (very easy) to upload my book. I created a cover from a beautiful photo taken by a friend. My book has sold over 5,000 copies, and continues to sell at a brisk pace. I've added more books, and I have a nice monthly income.

What this author said that really surprised me was this:

I don't have a blog, don't use Facebook, have never twittered. I don't even use my name on blogs (like this one). My books sell very well and I'm making more money than I ever imagined, thanks to 70% royalty on Amazon. Marketing is not necessary. 
Even though they report completely opposite results, both of these stories illustrate the same fact about self-publishing: as I have said elsewhere, the skills involved in writing a book are utterly different from the ones necessary to flog it to the buying public. A writer capable of creating a wonderful book may have no aptitude--or as author B's comment suggests, no interest--in networking with readers, flacking her product, etc. That's where publishers come in.

True, Author B is doing just fine without publishers, thank you very much. I take my hat off this to this person who has figured out how to write books that sell without marketing. I'm not sure what big conclusions you can draw from these starkly different stories, although I believe that the experiences of author A are probably more typical of self-publishing. But as I know all too well, many authors have had almost equally frustrating experiences with major publishing houses. And some books truly will sell without marketing, sometimes on the title or even a jacket image alone. Of course, I can't help wondering, if author B's book had come out from an established publisher, and had a creative, energetic marketing push behind it, might it have sold 50,000 copies, or 500,000 instead of 5000? Several titles come to mind that were successfully self-published, then were picked up by major houses and transformed into blockbusters. (For instance, the authors of The One Minute Manager sold 20,000 copies of their book themselves--pretty impressive. But after William Morrow took it over, it went on to sell 20 million.)

None of this is to say that self-publishing may not be viable and even preferable, for some authors, to the old-school method. But when it comes to reaching the largest possible audience, a HarperCollins or Random House, with its marketing expertise and massive distribution apparatus, still offers something pretty powerful.


Carrie Callaghan said...

Thanks for highlighting this. It will be interesting to see how this field evolves over the coming years. Two additional services that publishers provide (that I, as a reader, appreciate): high-quality editing, and (in some cases) tasteful selection. I don't want to have to scroll through a million self-published books trying to figure out which ones are well-written and cleanly edited; I like having some of that work done for me by the publishers and bookstore. Perhaps independent editors and book reviewers will fill the gap?

Peter Ginna said...

Thanks, Carrie C. You have mentioned two of the most important functions that publishers do provide. Many self-publishing evangelists heap scorn on publishers' role as gatekeepers or curators--and it's true we make mistakes often--but I believe it will remain important for some time to come. Your question about book reviewers highlights why. With tens of thousands of books being published every year, how can book reviewers know which ones to review? The first tool they have for knowing where to look is to see who's publishing those titles.

High-quality editing is easier to come by. There are lots of talented and experienced freelance editors at work nowadays--many of whom were downsized out of positions within established publishing houses.

Mary Sayler said...

Thanks for a balanced perspective on an issue that most of us deal with as writers or poets at almost any stage of our work.

In the past, I considered only traditional publishing houses and eventually received a couple dozen contracts for all genres of books but poetry. Ironically, many now-well-known poets initially self-published their own now-classical works, but I've been reluctant to do that or to encourage the poets who come to me for editorial help to self-publish. Perhaps it's time to rethink.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Hmm. This is making me wonder about all the advice to blog and tweet utnil you go hoarse on the page.

I've seen lots of self-published books. They are either a good story, badly written or a bad story, badly written.

I supect B had a good story, well written, and it sold itself, to which I give her credit, as well as a bit to Fortuna. Most of us would need some editing and marketing help.

Thanks for the food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this topic, it's something I've been going back and forth on as well. The value of marketing and how able we are as individuals to market ourselves when our true talents may lie elsewhere?

We'll have to see how it goes...