Jennie Nash is an author who decided to self-publish after publishing six books with traditional publishers. She has written a guest post for Rachelle Gardner’s blog where she discusses the surprises she experienced when she self-published. You can follow the link to the original post. I am going to talk here about her first surprise. She writes: I underestimated the weight of having the legitimacy of a traditional publisher. When I could say, “My third novel is being published by Penguin,” I was not just a wanna-be hopeful novelist. I was legit! I was chosen! Pitching book reviewers was a breeze. Attending high school reunions was a delight. When I ran into more famous writers, we met as colleagues, exchanging e-mails, making dates for lunch. Now that I am self publishing, I am no different than the crazy cat lady down the block who has been working on her memoir for 17 years or the guy at the street fair hawking Xeroxed pamphlets of his poetry about fruit. People smile indulgently when I tell them what I’m doing. Book reviewers politely decline. My doubts about writing, which I’ve spent a lifetime overcoming, have blossomed like a drug-resistant virus. Jennie’s case is interesting because she already had the “legitimacy” of traditional publishers. She was one of the “chosen.” It stands to reason that an author like her would not all of sudden publish crap just because she was now self-publishing. But as you can see from reading the passage above, all of her traditionally-published prestige vanished when the dreaded S-P word became linked to one of her books. Often one of the plusses associated with traditional publishing is the legitimacy mentioned above: the “I am traditionally published ergo I am a good writer” argument. The idea behind this argument is that if you are traditionally published then you have been vetted, you have been certified to be good, and what you publish does not belong in the slush pile. Jennie’s experience exposes the absurdity behind this argument. What gives you the legitimacy is not how good you really are, it’s the label, and once you lose it you are back to square one, again regardless of how good you are. The sad thing is that many self-published authors, even if they don’t say it out loud, crave for this label. There are valid reasons to traditionally publish, but legitimacy is not one of them. If you are willing to pay the price in terms of minuscule advances, dismal royalties, long publishing times, loss of artistic control, loss of your rights to your work, and lack of attention for the promotion of your book if it doesn't hit the big time soon, then I think you ought to have a good reason to traditionally publish other than the label of legitimacy. What do you think? Photo credit: Sudhamshu / Foter.com / CC BY ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I have heard this argument repeated so many times that I feel I need to say something about it. The argument in question comes from two sides. The reader's version states something like "I have bought a self-published book and it was awful. Self-published books have low quality and are badly written. I will never buy a self-published book again!" The writer's version is something like "We self-published writers need to make our work as good as possible because otherwise readers will end up buying sloppily written or edited books that will give self-published writers a bad name. We owe it to ourselves, and to our readers."
I disagree with both.
Let me deal first with the reader. As far as I am concerned, readers are responsible for their purchases. If you purchase a bad product you have no one to blame but yourself. I often think of the analogy of a supermarket. It has products of high and low quality. You walk around with your cart and make shopping decisions based on the quality of the products and your budget. You pick up the items, read the labels, compare one with the other and then make your decision. Why should book buying be any different? So you bought a book and it was bad. Did you read the sample pages? Did you read the reviews? Did you click on the names of the reviewers and check out their other reviews? Did you visit the author's website and read their blog and some free samples? Or did you buy the book because the cover looked good or because it has a high rating on a handful of reviews? The way I see it, the reader HAS the responsibility to find out about the quality of the book they are considering buying. And if a reader buys a bad book I don't appreciate them not owning up to their mistake and chiding all self-published writers in the process.
The argument from the writer's side, although it is a well-meaning call to excellence, falls short of understanding the reality of self-publishing. In self-publishing we are our own boss. We call the shots. The whole point of self-publishing is freedom: freedom from gatekeepers, and freedom to take our work directly to the reader. When you declare that there is freedom, there is someone out there who will use that freedom in ways you won't like. There are authors who put out sloppy books. In fact some do so as a formal strategy where they concentrate on quantity over quality. My approach is to make my book as good as possible within the confines of my personal situation. However, I don't feel I need to embrace a crusading banner and go around trying to encourage others to improve their books for the greater good for the simple reason that I am not a gatekeeper. It is my opinion that any pressure to try to make self-published authors conform to a mold sets a bar, and bars are the warp and woof of gatekeeping. The reason we are self-publishing is to avoid this. Of course there are some commonsense guidelines, and writers ignore them at their own risk. But what you do with your book is your own business. You don't HAVE to do anything and much less OWN IT to anyone. This is the way of the self-publishing frontier.
What do you think? (Photo credit: Vectorportal /CC BY-NC-ND)
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Recently I became embroiled in arguments on a couple of blogs regarding how much authors should pay to publish their books (I’m always getting in trouble). I mentioned that the cost of professional editing, formatting, and cover design, can be in excess of a thousand dollars, and then I went on to argue that not all self-published authors could justify paying for this, and that it is acceptable to publish without meeting these requirements. I got several replies to my argument. I was told that if I did not have my book handled by professional editors, formatters, and cover designers, I was asking readers to take a risk on poor writing just because I, the author, decided to penny pinch. I was told that my mindset is what hurts the reputation of Indie authors. I was told that polishing my work can only help retain my audience. I was told that if I am putting out a product that I am asking people to buy, it is my duty to make it perfect. Let me be clear about something. If you feel your book SHOULD be perfect then yes, by all means go out and spend whatever is needed to make it so. If you feel making your book as good as possible will give you an edge when your lucky break comes along a few years down the line, then likewise go ahead. I respect this; no problem. Everyone has their strategy. Let me tell you about mine. I reason that when you are considering making an investment you always have to gauge your chances of success. Why would you spend money if you are not likely to make a profit or even recover your investment? Books can be viewed as an investment, and they are a very high risk-investment. The majority of books will not sell well, this is a fact. I wanted to publish my short stories. But as new author I had never written a book, published it, or promoted it. I felt it would be unrealistic of me to assume that my book would be a success even a modest one. Thus it was clear to me that sinking 1,000 plus dollars into a book with five stories that I would sell for $0.99 or $1.99 was a very risky proposition. I decided that I would publish my first book The Sun Zebra for free. With the help of friends I got the editing, formatting, and the cover design done. I made mistakes along the way and corrected them. My book is not “perfect,” but readers have liked it. I am proud of this. I did it without spending a single dollar on publishing the book, and I even made a modest amount of money. Now that I know more about writing, publishing, and promotion, I reason that the risk associated with publishing my next book is less. Because of this I plan to invest the money that I gained from the Sun Zebra on my next book. I plan to keep on doing this (using the gains of one book to finance the next), and if my earnings keep increasing I will be able to pay more for editing, formatting, and cover design in the future. As I wrote above, this is just my strategy. I accept that there are many other equally valid ones, and I respect them. However, I cannot agree with the notion that every new author HAS to spend a large sum of money on professional editing, formatting and cover design services for their book, with the alternative presumably being not to publish at all. This in effect sets the bar so high that we are back again to a gatekeeper model, which is what we are trying to avoid by being independent authors to begin with. What do you think about this, and what is your strategy? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Most authors about to self-publish their first book will probably acknowledge that it will not be a best seller. But even though many beginning authors have read countless blogs about the trials and tribulations of selling books, ask them whether they think THEIR book sales will be reasonable or acceptable as opposed to bad, and most of them will agree. The majority of these authors find out the hard way that in self-publishing bad is the norm. Why are we so optimistic about the sales of OUR book in the face of all the information out there that screams the opposite at us? This is an example of what scientist call the good news/bad news effect; which is a bias in belief formation. When people are exposed to new facts they tend to alter their beliefs less in response to negative information than to positive information. This is why beginning writers give preeminence in their minds to the examples of successful self-published writers like Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke, or Hugh Howey, and discount the stories of tens of thousands of other writers that are struggling out there to get their books noticed. This effect, of course, goes beyond writing. It is related to things as massive and complex as economic bubbles. But there is a fascinating development in this field. Scientists have identified a brain structure that is involved in the good news/bad news effect. It is called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and we have two of them located in our brains (right and left). The left IFG has been linked to the capacity for adjusting beliefs in response to good news whereas the right IFG has been linked to the capacity for adjusting belief in response to bad news. In the majority of people the left IFG either has a greater activity and/or tends to inhibit the function of the right IFG. This makes it less likely that individuals will change their beliefs in response to bad news. In a recent experiment scientists asked a group of subjects to list what their odds were of experiencing 40 adverse life effects (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, robbery, etc.). The individuals were then presented with the real probabilities of experiencing these events (good or bad news), and they were asked to list their odds of these events again. This way the scientists gauged whether these persons changed their beliefs in response to this new information (positive or negative). The researchers found that the individuals exhibited the usual good news/bad news effect (i.e. they changed their belief less in response to bad news). Then the scientists combined this experimental protocol with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS has the effect of temporarily disrupting the functioning of the brain area that it targets. When they disrupted the functioning of the left IFG the researchers found that this allowed the right IFG to become more dominant. Individuals so treated tended to change their beliefs more in response to bad news. By this selective disruption the scientists modified the bias in belief formation in the human brain. They eliminated the good news/bad news effect! This study cements the notion that the “set point” in our brains seems to be hard wired to dismiss negative information rather than modify our beliefs (i.e. we learn less from bad news). But this study also raises the intriguing possibility that this behavior can be changed. So, should beginning authors endeavor to develop a realistic pessimistic outlook of their publishing success? Should they perhaps even consider getting their left IFG zapped by TMS to be better able to do this? I think that “keeping your feet on the ground” is a good thing. But fully grasping how high the odds of failure are can have a stifling effect on individual initiative. Maybe the only way for a few to reach the highest heights is for countless thousands to fall short trying. That may the price society has to pay to generate dreams that motivate people to action. Perhaps new authors are better served by following the age old maxim: hope for the best but prepare for the worst. What do you think?
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Getting traditionally published is tough. Most authors get stuck in the query-go-round and are never published, which supposedly means (adding insult to injury) that they are not good enough. A few do get selected to receive one of those ever shrinking advances in exchange for giving away the rights to their books for life and meager royalties. Then most of these few find out that very little resources are allocated to the promotion of their books and that they have to work as hard as self-published authors on promotion, but with the added disadvantage that they have a narrow time window for their books to succeed. So why in the world would anyone want to submit themselves to this process? As it happens there are valid reasons to go the traditional route when publishing. For example, the print market is still very large and traditional publishers can provide a strong distribution service for print books. Also a traditional publisher will handle many aspects of the publication of a book freeing authors from having to deal with this. However, the problem remains that unknown authors are a question mark for any potential publisher. There is no way to predict whether their books will be successful, and publishers are reluctant to offer authors any deal that is not overtly slanted in the publisher’s favor. So what can authors do about this? Believe it or not, the answer is self-publish! How can this be? The idea is that if an author self-publishes, works hard at promotion, and readers like their books, they will develop a fan base. An author with a fan base wipes out a lot of the risk for traditional publishers who will have hard numbers to make their decision based on the author’s self-published books’ sales. In fact publishers may come knocking at their door, which will leave authors in a much better position to negotiate a contract that is more beneficial. In a recent article on Forbes, David Vinjamuri made three predictions about the future of publishing. Included in his third prediction is that traditional publishers will use indie publishing as their “little leagues” choosing authors who are successful in the arena of self-publishing. Some people still bring up the argument about the “stigma” of self-publishing. They claim that authors blow their chances of getting traditionally published if they self-publish. This argument is a canard. Money has no stigma. If you demonstrate you can sell, no publisher will reject you because you are self-published. Successful self-published author Hugh Howey, whose book “Wool” will be made into a movie, put it in the following way in one of his posts: There is no better way to break into traditional publishing than self-publishing. Period. End of story. So there you have it. Nowadays to get to those two different places you take the same road. Do you want to bypass the traditional publishing establishment? Then self-publish! Do you dream about getting traditionally published? Then self-publish! Are these interesting times or what? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to you e-mail address. Please click here.
Author Kristen Lamb wrote a great post on her website entitled: How Self-Publishing has Helped All Writers–Welcome to the Revolution. You can click on the link to read it, but what caught my attention was a particular section where she discusses how many writers linger forever making their book more and more perfect, and how the self-publishing revolution is teaching writers that they should “let go.” She writes: “One of the largest barriers to becoming a successful writer is trying to be a perfect writer.” This is something that rang a bell with me because it is a thought I have been trying to convey in many of my posts. The plain and simple truth of self-publishing is that the vast majority of books will not be a success: at best they will have modest sales. Therefore, if your goal is to actually sell books, spending years and years writing one will just not cut it. The only business paradigm that makes sense in self-publishing for the average author is to build the “long tail.” What is that? The long tail is the concept that you can derive a substantial amount of profit from selling items that don’t sell much as long as you sell enough of them. Imagine that you write two books a year (and nowadays many people will tell you that anything less than that is “slacking”). In five years you will have accumulated 10 books. If each book sells say 40 copies a year, then your ten books are selling a combined 400 copies per year. On the other hand if you write one book every 5 years and it also sells 40 copies a year… get my drift? Another thing to remember is that the success of a book does not depend only on how good it is. Rewriting a book over and over to make it better will not necessarily make it sell more. The success of a book is part art and part voodoo. Nobody has a formula that works reliably. The reality, again, is that most books will not “catch on” and sell like hotcakes no matter how well written they are. Of course we hope that every now and then we will write a book that sells exceptionally well, and having this hope is fine. But the chances that this will happen will be increased if you write a large number of books. Finally there are two more considerations. The first one is that each book that you write counts as advertisement that will make you better known among potential readers. The second is that if the tenth book you write hits the big time, your readers will want to read more. Having nine more books on your shelf for them to buy is a great advantage. On the other hand if you only have that one book you will have, as the surfers say, “missed the wave.” So put all of the above together and what do we have? Self-publishing favors the prolific writer. And this goes back to what Kristen wrote. You are doing yourself a disservice by trying to be perfect. Yes you read that correctly. The important thing is for you is to put out those books. Do not, of course, interpret this as a license to be sloppy. Clearly your writing needs to have a certain level of competence, but the take home message is: don’t let perfection slow you down. This is even more justifiable if you publish e-books, which can easily be modified (in case a reader points out a mistake) and republished in no time at all. For many the above is not easy. I myself tend to be one of those “perfectionists.” I get really annoyed when someone finds a mistake I missed. Couple this with the fact that I don’t write very fast and that I don’t have a lot of time for writing, and you see how this is a problem for me. But I am trying my best to be more imperfect because it’s the road to success! Are you imperfect or trying your darnest to be imperfect? Please leave a comment and let us know. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Traditionally published author Shannon Hale wrote a post on her blog where she stated the following. “I suffered the years of rejections. I was told again and again that I was not good enough, my stories were not good enough, my book was not good enough. Most published writers I know suffered through a similar process. For good or ill, it's survival of the fittest, and many writers give up too soon. The yearning to share creative works is natural and fierce. Here's my unrequested advice: Writers, you just keep going. You keep trying. You keep improving. You fight for that right to be vetted, edited, and published professionally. You fight for it. Sometimes it takes years to find the right house, the right editor, the right manuscript, but you do it and your book will be better for it.” I don’t get this. About 1% of all new authors vying for a publisher gets signed up every year, and of those 10% do well enough to be considered successful (0.01% of the total). Also getting published traditionally means signing up the rights to your books for life, earning meager royalties in exchange for ever-shrinking advances, and zero control over how your books are published. And this typically happens only (if ever) after years and years of the so called “query go round.” Authors are supposed to “fight” for their right to endure this torture? Also what does “vetted, edited, and published professionally” mean? If you self-publish you can hire professionals who will edit and format your books. But what about “vetted,” what is it to be vetted? Ideally it means that somebody decides whether what you write is good enough to be published. But there are two problems with that. The first is that your book may get rejected, not because it’s not good, but because the publisher doesn’t think it will sell. The second problem is that agents, editors, and publishers are not competent at deciding whether a book is good. Shannon mentions the saga of her children’s book “The Goose Girl.” She writes: “The goose girl, was rejected (unread) by dozens of agents, then after I found an agent…it was again rejected nine times by the who's who of children's publishers.” Finally she got an editor who loved the book, which was published, won awards, and is still in print. She posts some of her rejection letters and calls these editors “well-meaning (but obviously misguided!).” So this is my point: The majority of the people in the publishing business fit this description. They are “misguided.” These are the people to whom an author is supposed to send his/her book in the hope of finding the oddball who will love it? I sympathize with Shannon and I am glad she has found her niche and is happy. But for every writer like her there are scores of very talented writers who are not making it and due to simple numbers (0.01% of the total) will never make it. I would not wish what she went through on anyone. She writes: “Oh, the days when you looked for the positive in a rejection--at least they bothered to send a letter! At least they seemed to read it at all! At least they said something sort of nice! (Oh, the pain, the pain!)” Is this really necessary? Fight for your “right” to go through this? No wonder some writers stop writing altogether while others even kill themselves! Self-publishing is not the Holy Grail to riches but at least you don’t have to deal with this stuff. With self-publishing you are in control, and the only one who will decide whether you are good enough is that person who is ideally suited for this: the reader And this is all that matters in the end. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
As many of you probably know the Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued Apple and 5 of the big six publishers for collusion to keep prices of e-books artificially high. Now that the case is getting close to a settlement, the Author’s Guild has jumped into the fray with a letter directed to the DOJ where they blast Amazon for its business practices and criticize the proposed settlement. Who is this group? According to their website “The Authors Guild has been the published writer's advocate for effective copyright, fair contracts, and free expression since 1912.” This claim confused me. Does this mean they have been criticizing traditional publishers for the lopsided contracts and meager royalties they impose on writers? The answer is no. Now that Amazon has demonstrated to the world how e-books can be published faster and cheaper earning authors greater royalties and giving readers lower priced books, this “Author’s Guild” has come out from under its rock to defend the inefficiency and unfairness of traditional publishing, and the way in which these publishers colluded with Apple and each other to keep the prices of e-books artificially high when e-books should cost less. I share their concern about Amazon taking over the market but I cannot sanction stupidity and unwillingness to evolve. Those businesses that don’t adapt to new realities, compete hard, and reward their clients should not be protected from those that do. Consider the following example that I have written about here before. Traditional publishers did not want to make their e-books available for lending at public libraries because, get this: it was too easy for readers to borrow books! I’m not kidding you. They were concerned that readers who were not “inconvenienced” enough would turn into borrowers and not buy enough books thus cutting into the publisher’s profits. Well Amazon kept making their e-books available for lending at public libraries and guess what? A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life project has revealed that e-book borrowers are also avid e-book buyers with 41% of them saying they bought the last book they read. While this rate is lower than the larger population of e-book readers (55%), it is not the profit busting nightmare that traditional publishers were concerned about. Those companies that have the vision to see the future should be rewarded with it, not their slower dimwitted competitors. Personally, I cannot complain about Amazon. They have provided me with the platform to become a self-published author, they pay me 35% on e-books under $2.99 and 70% on those above, and with the KDP Select program they have given me a powerful tool to promote my books. They have also made e-books available to me and other readers at the lower cost these books should have compared to print books. But, being an author, I was curious as to what the Author’s Guild had to offer me. However, before learning about all the wonderful things they could do for me, I checked the eligibility criteria to join the guild and I found out that: “Self-published works and works published by subsidy presses do not qualify an author for membership.” Well…just substitute “guild” for “job” in the video below. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
In a recent piece entitled “No, Virginia, e-books don't publish themselves” (subtitled “Ken Auletta addresses one of the popular myths of the Internet”) Philip Elmer-DeWitt quotes an article by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker (only available by subscription). "E-books are cheaper to produce, by about twenty per cent per book, because they do away with the cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing. They also eliminate returns of unsold books—a significant expense, since thirty to fifty per cent of books are returned. But they create additional costs: maintaining computer servers, monitoring piracy, digitizing old books. And publishers have to pay authors and editors, as well as rent and administrative overhead, not to mention the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books, which continue to account for the large majority of their sales.” So there you have it. E-books, although cheaper to produce, do not cost much less than print books because they end up generating “additional” costs for publishers. But what are these “additional cost?” They can’t be to “pay authors and editors, as well as rent and administrative overhead.” These costs are not unique to e-books. What about “maintaining computer servers, monitoring piracy, and digitizing old books?” What servers is this guy writing about? Traditional publishers are not paying to maintain the servers of outlets like Amazon or B & B. The cost of monitoring piracy again is not unique to e-books. It is also incurred with print books. And digitizing old books is not as costly as it is made out to be here, but this is a particular case. I believe the real reason is in the last sentence: “not to mention the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books, which continue to account for the large majority of their sales.” This in effect suggests that part of the cost of print books is transferred to e-books, and this is why e-books are not cheap. In other words “our e-books are not cheap because we are also publishing print books.” The thing is that this has nothing to do with the cost of e-books, which is the issue that we are dealing with! I am amazed how this article intended to debunk a myth, ends up debunking itself in just this paragraph. Let’s stop this silliness and repeat what is known as a fact by the writing community: traditional publishers are charging more for e-books to protect their paper sales. Making an average e-book is much less costly than making an average print book. This is not a myth. Traditional publishers are in effect saying “we are charging more for e-books because we are still selling print books, and we don’t want the lower costs of e-books to undercut print book profits.” In doing this traditional publishers are making a lot of money, and by the way, they also pay e-book authors less than they pay print authors. If you want to dig more into the numbers you can check for example the posts by greengeekgirl at Insatiable Booksluts. She lays out her case that traditional publishers could charge much less for e-books and still make a handsome profit. She also makes the important observation that, unlike print books, e-books can generate income for years without the added costs of additional print runs.
Maybe I am fortunate that the majority of the writing ideas that come to me are in the format of short stories. I think this is because I tend to have less patience for the longer works. If I can tell a story in 5,000 words I just find it very hard and tedious to expand this to 50,000. It’s just not in my nature. However, I have had a few ideas to write stories that would have easily grown into the writing length of what would classify as a novel (40,000 or more words). Nevertheless, as a beginning writer, when it comes to choosing whether to write novels or short stories, I have decided to take the advice of Ray Bradbury who, early in his career, used to say: I am a sprinter not a long-distance runner.A novel is a very risky enterprise for a new writer because of the length of time it takes to write one and the chance that it will not be good or sell well, whereas the short story format diminishes these risks. I may add to Bradbury's advice that this is especially true if you are a beginning writer who will self-publish his/her own work. If you are still learning the ropes and developing contacts, it is more prudent to reserve your more complex works for later on when you have the infrastructure and experience to support/promote them.
Unfortunately the current writing culture seems to be a novel-centric one. People who decide they want to be a writer tend to think in terms of writing a novel as though there weren’t other alternatives. Everyone talks about a writer’s debut novel, but you never hear anything about a writer’s debut book of short stories. Some websites that list the work of writers do not even have a category for short stories. My guess is that this is either because of reader demand (people like to read longer works with the same theme), or because the prevailing belief among writers is that what truly tests a writer’s mettle is a novel.
Be that as it may, I think that with a few exceptions most beginning writers (especially the ones that will self-publish) are better off setting more modest goals for their first efforts. I fear the current system is just pushing many authors who are not ready yet to invest a substantial amount of time and effort in putting out a novel, and many of these will crash and burn as a result of this. What do you think? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.