Sunday, November 29, 2009

Et Tu, Indie Author?

I am a maven of self-publishing. I believe that in today’s world, in most cases, there’s not much of great value a traditional publisher can do to help a previously unknown, debut author reach her goals that the author can’t do on her own. Advances are down, publisher-funded promotional budgets are slim to nonexistent, and brick-and-mortar bookstore distribution is no longer the crucial linchpin for driving book sales that it once was. In fact, in the few weeks since I first drafted this post Borders UK has gone into receivership.

I’ve also recently come to learn, much to my shock and dismay, that mainstream publication isn’t the surefire path to solvency and a career in authorship so many aspiring authors assume it to be—even if your book is successful enough to land on the New York Times Bestseller List. Even if many of your books land on that list, it seems your net annual earnings will likely be no better than the wages of a typical fast food restaurant manager. Now that Lynne Viehl and some other mainstream-published authors are going public about their earnings, the conspiracy of silence among authors is being slowly but surely dismantled and the truth is nothing short of mind-blowing. It’s now all too obvious that for the most part, the only authors who are earning a comfortable living off their books are those who have become cultural phenomena, those around whom entire cottage industries of movies and merchandise have sprung up (e.g., Stephanie Meyer, Stephen Covey, Stephen King, JK Rowling, et al.) and those who were already cultural phenomena before they published (e.g., Sarah Palin).

The problem is, most aspiring authors have unrealistic goals for their books and assume a mainstream publisher will be doing all sorts of things for them that aren’t really in the cards at all. They think signing a contract entitles them to a sizable advance, a significant promotional budget and effort on the publisher’s part, editorial reviews in major magazines and newspapers and on important websites, and possibly a book tour as well. Unless you’re a celebrity or otherwise notorious individual, or someone around whom buzz has built up for some reason, none of these things are likely to happen. Once you realize:

- the great majority of mainstream-published books never even earn back their advances (which means most debut authors have more trouble selling their second book than their first, if they can sell it at all)

- even if you manage to hit the NYT Bestseller List you aren’t likely to see a commensurate uptick in your standard of living

- and something on the order of just 5% of all mainstream-published authors are capable of earning a living from their book royalties alone (and nearly all of that 5% has a name like King, Rowling, Meyer or Brown),

you stop seeing stars and start getting down to brass tacks. Your goals become far more realistic and attainable. You begin to understand that the decision between self-publishing and mainstream publishing comes down to choosing the path that is the most likely to bring your newly-downsized goals to fruition. If one of your goals is to earn a profit on your book, the decision of whether or not to self-publish is a business decision, nothing more nor less. Particularly in light of recent revelations about what mainstream-published authors really earn, it should be a very easy thing to divorce this decision from considerations of status or “legitimacy”.

So why am I working with Writer’s Digest Books on the release of an updated and revised edition of my book, The IndieAuthor Guide, for publication in 2010?

Maven of self-pub I may be, but even I realize self-pub is just one option among several for getting one’s work to a readership. Though I honestly believe it’s the most practical option for most debut authors in today’s chilly trade publishing environment, self-pub is just a means to an end—and the end is the thing that matters.

When I wrote and self-published The IndieAuthor Guide, my goal was simple: for the book to reach as large an audience of would-be indie authors as possible. It wasn’t even truly about sales, it was about getting good information out there to—ideally—every would-be self-published author out there before they went down the path of misinformation and made all kinds of costly mistakes that could doom their books to failure (and themselves to incurring unnecessary expense).

Working with Writer’s Digest Books will not get me a whopping advance, book tour, nor any of those other pie-in-the-sky things aspiring authors dream of, but it will do far more to help me reach my goal of maximizing readership than I could possibly do on my own.
Writer’s Digest is a brand that’s known and trusted by writers the world over. Writer’s Digest is a source authors specifically seek out when they want trustworthy, clear, and helpful information that will help them with craft and career. Having my book released under WD’s aegis grants a tacit endorsement from WD of the book’s value to authors, and that will increase author interest in the book.

Writer’s Digest Books is an imprint that specializes in books for authors and about writing. Their title list is small and highly specialized, WD Books’ staff are experts in how best to reach their target demographic of authors and in this case, their target demo is the same as mine. Had I signed with say, Random House or Penguin, or even Workman, there wouldn’t be any Books Especially Written For And Marketed To Authors department backing my play.

WD puts out multiple periodicals, holds numerous events for writers, and has a sprawling, dynamic and forward-thinking web presence. WD cross-promotes its various product lines across all its available venues, resulting in a highly-targeted and low-cost approach to advertising. WD further promotes all of its books by making them available for sale through its own book club and at its writer events. I will still need to keep up my own promotional efforts of course, but I know WD will be every bit as invested as I am in ensuring writers everywhere know my book exists, and that they know how it can help them.

WD is no ivory-tower monolith of the “old ways” of publishing, its staff are quick to adapt to market and technological shifts in publishing, and WD was among the first to recognize the potential of self-publishing to help authors, both aspiring and established, reach their goals.
Long story short: I couldn’t possibly find a more desirable publisher for The IndieAuthor Guide than Writer’s Digest Books, and that’s including myself.

My self-published novels are another story. I can’t imagine signing either of them over for mainstream publication, but if the publisher were to guarantee me major promotional backing—in writing—, I might consider it. I’d also consider it if I’d already built up a bunch of buzz around the book, or had an offer in hand for a film adaptation, because that’s a scenario in which the book would already be at the tipping point of success and a nudge from a publisher could pump up the book’s momentum. But, given my total-nobody status in published fiction circles, none of this is likely to happen anytime soon.

Another instance where I think it would make sense for an author to sign a mainstream publishing contract for a novel is if a huge advance is on offer, and the author wants that chunk of money more than he wants longevity for his book. Mainstream publication with a huge advance means the author better hustle and invest heavily in book promotion, because if the book doesn’t earn back the advance the author’s mainstream publication career is over. Now, if the publisher is offering enough money upfront that the author can move to Bora Bora and live like royalty for the rest of her days, maybe she doesn’t care too much about the book’s ultimate performance, or whether or not she ever gets another book published by the mainstream.

Finally, it seems to me that self-pub versus mainstream pub is no longer an either-or proposition; increasing numbers of authors are successfully straddling that line to do both. Whether it’s about getting one’s back catalog back into print, publishing something one’s publisher has rejected due to market concerns, making one’s print edition works available in ebook or podcast formats when one’s publisher hasn’t elected to release them in those formats (and the author has retained the rights to do so himself), building momentum for an upcoming release, or simply reaching a readership through any means necessary, such familiar names as Stephen King, JA Konrath, Cory Doctorow and Piers Anthony have self-published, or are currently self-publishing.

I will continue to bang the self-publishing drum and provide whatever information and assistance I can to self-publishers for the sake of raising awareness and dispelling myths, but that doesn’t mean I’ve taken a hard line stance against going the mainstream route. That’s an author-by-author, book-by-book, or even format-by-format decision each of us must make. So long as the author is making an informed decision, neither option is any more or less valid than the other.


Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Congratulations, April! I'm biased, of course, but the WD team is great. :-)

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks, Guy! I know both I and my book are in good hands there. =')

Joanna Penn said...

Congrats April - that's great! Let me know if they need a more techy platform building book :)

I am with you on this too - I'm sure most indie authors would be happy to sign a trad pub contract if the deal was right for that book. But to get started, you may as well DIY rather than spend years waiting for something to happen.
Self-pub the first books and then see what happens!

Thanks, Joanna

PV Lundqvist said...

I'm very happy for you. Self-pubbing is a means to an end, not religion. If we were talking about any other business, starting from garage-tinkering moving on to glass skyscraper-corporate, nobody would care.

You made it. Good for you.

JFBookman said...

Congratulations, April. I think it's great that you have the flexibility to judge what's right in one instance is not necessarily the best solution in another. Totally agree that this is a book-by-decision, and authors shouldn't get locked into one mindset.

Hope you will continue to blog the experience, should be interesting!

liraelwiddershins said...

You might also want to look at the comment left by Ellen Hopkins on my blog post about what her earnings are (a great deal more impressive than Viehl's). I'm happy with my numbers, but I think I had realistic expectations as a debut author. Anyone who goes into it thinking they are going to be multi-millionaires with their first book are just crazy.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for your support and congratulations, Joanna, PV and JF. =')

Kimberly -
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I did see that comment on your blog from Ellen Hopkins, but I think the format distinction she and others have raised (between trade paperback, mass-market paperback, and hardover) is a critical one. I fear most debut fiction authors are being released in mass-market paperback, which decreases the publisher's upfront investment but also tends to make the publisher offer less support for the book in general, which makes it harder for the author to earn out his/her advance and ultimately go on to earn a living wage on royalties from the book.

Releasing titles as mass-market paperbacks allows for more authors and books to get into print, but it also dilutes the value proposition for everyone involved.