The State of Self-Publishing
The great thing about blogs is that they serve a purpose even if no one is reading them. They are a way to journal out loud and a great method for gathering your thoughts. Blogs can also (hopefully) become extended conversations that go on for years. The problem is, the people who arrive in the middle of this conversation will have missed so much of what’s already been said. There are posts buried pages deep here that underscore so much of what I love about self-publishing. After seeing some comments elsewhere about the slim chances self-published authors have of earning a living, I thought it would be nice to dredge up a few reminders and gather my thoughts on the current state of an ever-changing industry.
One reminder that I’ve blogged about at length is that most books don’t sell very many copies. And that’s okay. It’s not a self-publishing thing; it’s a publishing thing. 98% of manuscripts submitted to agents never get published at all. They don’t sell a single copy. Nobody mentions this when they deride self-publishing as an option. The false premise seems to be that you can choose to self-publish, or you can choose to have your book on an endcap in every bookstore while you are sent on a 12-city tour by your publisher. That’s not the choice. The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent. This is the choice.
If you self-publish, you can immediately move on to writing the next work. You don’t have to look back at all if you don’t want. You have the rest of your life to promote that work, if you decide to promote it at all. If you are one of the 1% to secure an agent, the earliest you might see that work in a bookstore is a year. More likely, it’ll be three to five years. And you’ll be asked to rewrite that work, not based on any artistic vision, but based on what’s currently selling, what publishers are currently looking for.
Most analysts don’t cover these options honestly from the writer’s point of view. I’ve blogged about this before. What you get is coverage of what books do once they have already been published. Which means hearing experts hold up NYT bestselling Big 5 authors as the perfect example of what publishers do well while claiming that any self-publishing success story is an outlier and a fluke. I’ve got some news for everyone: Any book that gets published by a Big 5 publisher is a fluke. The books on the endcaps? Those are the flukes among the flukes.
The truth is that when it comes to trade fiction, more self-published authors are making a living today than traditionally published authors. And despite what some people claim, this isn’t because of output. Those self-published authors are doing better with fewer published titles, on average. The biggest names and highest earners in traditional publishing are overwhelmingly authors who debuted prior to 2009 and have a lot of works available. And the biggest earners on both sides publish in the genres that readers overwhelmingly prefer.
Also, despite what some experts would have you believe, self-published authors are still breaking out with their first works. AJ Riddle and Brenna Aubrey are two examples, and the current bestseller lists on Amazon are loaded with new self-published authors you’ve never heard of. Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN sold a ton of copies and was picked up by Random House and 20th Century Fox. This was a debut novel, and Andy hasn’t published anything since. He succeeded through self-publishing faster than he would have landed an agent if he went the traditional route.
The claim that these are exceptions ignores that every book in the bookstore is an exception. It also ignores the fact that there are more exceptions among the self-published crowd than there are among the traditionally published crowd. We know. We counted.
Another thing that has been mentioned over and over again here but rarely gets any press is that not all of us got into this because we wanted to make money. Many of us would pay to write if there was a fee involved. We love this like a hobby, one that we attempt to do on a professional level. I pay more for a single lens as a passionate photographer than it costs to have a manuscript professionally edited and wrapped in gorgeous cover art.
I’ve had a grand total of three paying gigs as a photographer. I will never earn back the money I have spent on camera equipment, and this is camera equipment I saved up for back when I was working for $10/hour shelving books. Where is the outcry? Why don’t we approach literature like we approach music and the fine arts? Yes, there is a commitment when it comes to time and money. Yes, the chances of “making it” are slim. But with music, photography, and the fine arts, we “self produce” while we grow our audience and hone our craft. We work our way up, rather than break out. We love what we do, and we dream of making a living doing it, but it isn’t necessary. What’s amazeballs about self-publishing is that you have the freedom to do all of this, and your chances of making money are still greater than submitting to agents! Note that I’m not saying your chances are great, only that they are greater. 98% of those who go the traditional route will earn precisely zero dollars.
Meanwhile, what I’m seeing in the trenches is a rapid rise in the quality of self-published works. Here’s another reminder: How you decide to publish does not appreciably alter the quality of the end product, and this is more and more true every day as publishers do less editing and self-published authors do more editing. The output of the two paths are converging. Part of this is due to people making different choices in how to publish in the first place. As more hardworking and serious writers skip to self-publishing, the quality of books available to readers will continue to increase, while the number of gems in the traditional publishing slush pile will go down. This is a self-reinforcing system.
There are other pressures as well. Traditionally published authors are expected to do more and more of their own marketing these days, and fewer of them are being sent on book tours. Authors are even expected to shell out their own money to attend book conventions. Meanwhile, publishers are still wasting money on traditional media advertising that no longer works. These days, it’s not uncommon for self-published authors to know more about metadata and how to market a work than publishers do. I have met people in charge of publishing and marketing procedures at major houses who don’t even know the basics. I could tell you horror stories—and I’m not alone.
Critics of self-publishing will say that not every writer wants to be a businessperson. Meanwhile, publishers expect just this of their successful writers. And they should. Few musicians make a career of their art without understanding the business side of performing and releasing their work. The same is true of commercial artists, photographers, and filmmakers. Yet somehow, the myth of the writer who just pounds out words and hands in rough drafts persists. One of the top-selling authors at this very moment is John Green, and where are the critics who make fun of all the hours he and his brother Hank pour into their YouTube videos? If theirs was a self-published success story, it would be denounced as a gimmick of social media. But all I see is genius and hard work.
The simple facts are these: Writing can be a blast. It should be a blast. People do it on places like WattPad and FanFiction.net for free. Yes, it’s almost impossible to make a living at this, and that’s true no matter which direction you go. The chances are just orders of magnitude greater if you self-publish. It’s not just the greater royalties or the ability to control your prices. It’s the ability to write stories that readers want but publishers fear to invest in. And there’s the greatest advantage of all, which is that self-publishing allows you to complete your work, make it available, and then move on to the next project. There is less chance of burning out or getting discouraged.
Those who submit to agents often drop out of the race before they even cross the starting line. They don’t get to their fifth or sixth work to see what they are capable of. Publishers no longer give authors that much time to grow. A good friend of mine published his first work with a Big 5 publisher and got a fat 6-figure advance. His editor botched the second book (demonstrably), and no offer came for the third book. This is by far the most talented writer I personally know, and he has given up on the one creative outlet that he is best at.
On the other hand, I have several friends who self-published and got discouraged by their lack of sales. They quit, but their books were still available. When sales picked up and reviews and emails began filtering in months later, they rediscovered and returned to their passion for storytelling. The eternal nature of the modern book is vastly underappreciated, because the development is so new. Of the dozens of advantages self-publishing has over signing away lifetime rights to our art, this may be one of the most powerful.
Here’s a fun trick: When you see someone deriding self-publishing, ask yourself if their critiques don’t in fact apply to all publishing. Generally, they do. And then remember all the advantages listed here and elsewhere that those critics try to wave away but can’t. Among my peers, I’m seeing more and more authors move from traditional publishing to self-publishing. Even Pulitzer Prize winners, Edgar Award winners, Hugo Award winners, and mega celebrities.
I’m also seeing writers like HM Ward, Brenna Aubrey, and myself forego 6 and 7-figure contracts in order to self-publish. The biggest untold story of them all, however, is the number of authors I know who have tried traditional publishing after having success on their own who swear to me that they’ll never do that again. And yet you have pundits claiming that every self-published success runs immediately to a New York publisher. That simply isn’t true.
- Very few writers of any stripe earn serious money from their work. Most earn nothing at all.
- Self-published authors, on average, earn more than their traditional counterparts.
- It is disingenuous to compare all self-published works to the mere two percent of works that manage to get traditionally published.
- What is expected of authors is not as different as people think. Self-publishing isn’t that hard, and traditional publishing doesn’t mean writing and doing nothing else.
- The output of what manages to get traditionally published is not any better than the corresponding top 2% of what is self-published.
- Genre matters however you publish. You can shelve it under “fiction” if it makes you happy, but it’s probably still a mystery, fantasy, romance, or speculative fiction story if it’s selling well.
- More than half of all print book sales are now online, and audiobooks are as popular as ever. The “digital revolution” isn’t just about e-books, which is why the playing field is even more level than most care to admit.
- The claims that e-book sales have flattened comes from sources that ignore self-publishing completely. The sales needed to hit the same ranking on Amazon’s bestseller lists keep going up, which means the market is still seeing growth. Ignore pundits who are only covering roughly 50% of the market.
- Most of us write because we love it, not because we expect anything from it. Success cannot be measured by someone else, only yourself.
- Anyone covering this industry from the perspective of publishers or bookstores should be ignored. Seriously. This industry is about the reader and the writer. All discussions about those in the middle should be secondary, at best.
- Finally and most importantly, there shouldn’t be any animus between writers, however they publish. This is hard enough without trying to tear each other down. We are in this together. It’s our world that’s changing. In many ways, we should be standing together and demand that it change faster.