Thursday, January 25, 2007

Book buzz: self publishing

First in a series of meditations on options for authors

Self-publishing causes more waffling than a politician can exhibit.

Many mainstream reviewers won’t touch a self-published book, and many bookstores won’t stock them. I’m not sure why reviewers won’t touch them, because many books that go through a publisher and a filter aren’t much better than vanity books, and nor are they more honorable. James Frey ring a bell?

According to the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 22, ’07), “the top 12 consumer publishers in the U.S., as measured by revenue, generated about 67% of consumer sales of $8.88 billion, in 2005, or $5.94 billion.” WSJ quotes Albert N. Greco, professor at Fordham Graduate School of Business. Greco studies the book industry.

And you thought Wal-Mart had the corner on monopolies.

But what about all the book sales that weren’t measured? What about sales of books at coffee shops, independent author readings for groups or schools, and online sales directly from author sites?

I’m not so sure the book industry can be accurately measured anyway. How many of those “top 12 consumer publishers” received substantial returns? It’s common. Would those returns change the figures? Were they factored in?

Who knows?

The brouhaha over self-publishing isn’t going away any time soon. And lately, I’ve talked to a number of reputable authors who agree sometimes, self-publication can be the right thing to do.

Here’s why.

Say you get a book published traditionally.

If you go with a big house, you’re going to need to sell around 20,000 books to justify your existence. Chances are you will not have a p.r. person to hold your hand. You’ll handle much of the legwork for a tour (if your publisher allows you to do signings and they will not always do so). And your advance will be given with the understanding it will help cover your costs. Then you have to earn the advance back.

Go with an independent press, you’re going to need to sell around 5,000 books to keep your title active. These presses, except for those connected enough to receive some sort of government grant, will be hard-pressed to market and promote, and it will be an uphill battle all the way unless they’ve established a presence in the marketplace. That requires schmoozing bookstores and other retail outlets, and building a solid list of titles. As author, your advance will be small, if you get one at all, and your royalty will probably be a percentage of the wholesale cost, something many small presses are expressing enthusiasm for.

If you go with self-publishing, and you sell around 5,000 copies, you stand to actually make some money. But you will do all the work, fulfillment, billing and marketing.

I’ve said it so many times. The book biz sucks.

So what’s an author to do?

I’ll offer more musings on this topic next week.

Question for visitors:
How do you feel about self-publishing?


Sally said...

As an author, all I want to do is write. The problem is that I want (and do) make a living at it, which means I have to deal with all these questions about publishing and getting the word about my book out to potential readers (buyers).

As long as mainstream publishers continue to want to publish my work, I can't imagine willingly taking the slippery path of self-publishing. First of all, I'm a snob, and I like the idea that my books are put out by major name publishers. But more importantly, I really don't want to go into the business of publishing -- to have to learn (and master) yet another business. And publishing is a definitely a tough business. I'm a writer. Writers write. When we're very lucky, we make some money from it.

Now, I fully expect to eat my words in a few years, when my friends who self-publish end up making more money than I do, and possibly getting more readers.

Kay Day said...

Sally, thanks so much for weighing in. The responsibilities involved in self-publishing are daunting.

I'm pubbed through a small traditional press, so that takes all the work of fulfillment off my shoulders (as well as billing and all those other chores).

I think self-publication can work for certain kinds of books. But you're definitely on target about having to run a whole other business that would surely cut into writing time.

I also think a lot of aspiring writers who self-pub are spending a lot of money that is going straight into a black hole.

I really appreciate your insight. I admire your writing.

Best, Kay