Preface: I’m prepared to take some heat for this post. Although I don’t think anything I’m about to say is inaccurate or unprofessional, I expect some people won’t like or agree with what I have to say. That’s okay. I don’t object to dissension, just name-calling. So keep it clean!
A few weeks ago, I dipped my toe very gingerly into the self-publishing pool by making the short story that I wrote for the Mammoth Book of Scottish Romance available in digital format on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. I did so mainly because the anthology is only available in print, and I know many people who have ereaders prefer digital format these days. Also, at present, none of the novellas I have with Cobblestone Press are available on Amazon (although that is supposedly going to change soon), and I thought it would be good to have something other than my relatively pricey Kensington anthology available for Kindle before my Spice Brief comes out in April (wow, that’s closing in fast!).
Anyway, I didn’t have particularly high aspirations for sales of this short story; I figured if I earned back what I sunk into the cover art in a few months, I’d be more than happy. And even if I didn’t make that investment back, I felt it was worth what I’d paid just for a little more “visibility.” I also thought there was at least a slight chance that people would buy the short story because it’s so inexpensive ($0.99), enjoy it, and decide to try some of my other titles. I haven’t made any major effort to promote the story other than mentioning that it’s available on Twitter and Facebook a few times and putting it on my Books page. And, of course, I blogged when I first posted it and I’m blogging about it now…but I swear, this is NOT a promotional blog entry.
Here’s the thing–the story went up for sale on January 18th. It’s been less than a month and between the three channels, more than 125 copies of the story have sold. (Interestingly, the sales volume at B&N has been easily quadruple Amazon’s and Smashwords has sold just one copy.) That’s not a HUGE number, by any means (Amanda Hocking puts me to shame, lol) but considering how much (or little) effort I’ve put into promoting it, it’s far more than I expected.
Now, at 30-35% of $0.99, this story is not by any means making me rich, and I expect sales to drop off rather than continue to increase. It’s still entirely possible that I’ll never earn back my investment in the cover art, but given my goals, I’m pleased. I’m also noticing a slight improvement in the Kindle rankings for Behind the Red Door since the short story came out, which gives me some hope there’s a correlation (i.e., people are reading the short story and liking it well enough to give my pricier book a shot).
But all of this is really just lead in to the point of my post, which is this: If I can sell this many copies of a self-published ebook that I’m not really promoting, why do I need a publisher? Why does any author need a publisher anymore, especially when the digital publishing outlets are offering 70% on ebooks priced $2.99 and over?
It used to be that digital publishing was a very tenuous proposition. Ebooks were a tiny sliver of the book market, and although they were growing, it was definitely a narrow market compared to print. If your book was available only in digital format, you had a much more limited audience. Traditional publishers were not only offering you an advance that assured you of a minimum payment for your book, they were offering distribution and visibility you just couldn’t get solely on the Internet.
As we know, all that has changed, seemingly overnight. USA Today and the New York Times are now tracking digital book sales. Every week, more and more of the titles hitting these bestseller lists are hitting due largely to their digital sales. The aforementioned Amanda Hocking, a self-published YA author, will be hitting the USA Today list three times in the top 50 this week. Maya Banks’ Samhain release, Colter’s Daughter, hit one of the lists this week, too, If I remember correctly. And many “traditionally published” authors are seeing a higher and higher percentage of their sales coming from digital versions of their books.
With the trend toward digital books accelerating at a seemingly exponential pace, the value of a traditional publishing in terms of distribution and visibility isn’t yet at nil, by any means, but it’s definitely not as powerful as it used to be. It’s not easy to get sell well in the ebook world, but it was never all that easy to sell well in the print world, either. Furthermore, with many publishers charging prices for digital books well in excess of $5, self-published books that have a cover prices starting at $2.99 have a natural advantage when readers are trying out an author for the first time. It’s a lot easier to sink the equivalent of a tall latte into an unknown quantity than $7.99, especially when you don’t even have a physical book you can sell or trade at the end of the game.
Moreover, we all know that publishers are doing less and less in terms of book promotion. Over the years, even before the digital book became a force to be reckoned with, authors have been expected to shoulder a greater and greater burden for marketing their books, both to booksellers and to readers. That’s not to say publishers aren’t doing enough, exactly. Who knows what “enough” is, after all? It is to say, however, that there’s a larger expectation for the author to have an online presence and do more “handselling” of their books. Whether that’s fair or not is neither here nor there; it just is.
And then, of course, there’s the Great Recession and its impact on advances, especially for debut or relatively unknown authors. I’ve heard average advances for romance novels are in the $5k-$10k range. (That’s not to say many authors don’t get much, much more. It’s also not to say some don’t get less.) That might sound like a pretty good amount of money, but when print runs are down and you’re only earning 8% of the cover price and (if you’re lucky) 25% of gross (more likely net) on ebook sales, it’s not exactly EASY to earn out, let alone see additional royalties beyond your advance. If your book isn’t picked up by WalMart/Target/et al., you could be in a position where your print run is so small, you don’t even have a chance to earn out unless your digital sales are brisk.
So, taking all of this into account, what, exactly, are publishers bringing to the table? Why are aspiring authors still submitting their work to the Big 6 or (to a lesser extent) the well-established digital publishers? There’s really only one remaining reason I can think of: Validation. Authors want someone in “authority” to put the stamp of approval on their work and say “This is good enough to publish.”
Writers have been told for decades (if not longer) that there is only one “real” way to be published. It involves proving your talent/abilities by getting past the gatekeepers—agents and editors—and getting paid to hand over your copyright in exchange for publication and distribution. Other avenues to publishing were derided as the last resort of writers who just didn’t “have what it takes” to be published. The only books that were self-published, the common wisdom held, were trash and the only reason authors resorted to self-publishing was because they weren’t “good enough” to get a real contract.
Well, all I can say is, welcome to the 21st century, writers. Yes, a lot of self-published books are poorly edited dreck that isn’t fit to wipe your bottom with (if you wanted to do that with your ereader or laptop, which I doubt!). But guess what? A lot of them aren’t. I’ve never read Amanda Hocking’s books, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be selling hundreds of thousands of copies if they were awful. Other authors I know who write very well and are self-publishing include Zoe Winters and Lori Brighton.
I’m a firm believer in the notion that the cream rises to the top and that good books will find an audience if given the chance. Self-publishing is providing authors with the chance for validation, but by readers rather than the traditional gatekeepers. It’s also giving them with an opportunity to keep a greater proportion of the income from their work than traditional publishers have ever provided (not to mention up-to-the-minute sales data, something those of us who only see royalty statements almost a year after the end of the period they cover can truly appreciate).
Keep in mind—I used to be a fervent self-publishing skeptic. I bit into every hook, line, and sinker of the “you jump through the hoops or no one will take you seriously, and besides, you must not be very good if you can’t.” And I knew the numbers. What were the chances that you’d ever sell more than a few hundred copies, if that many? What about the costs of cover art, editing, promotion?
But over the past few months, I’ve been swayed. I’ve seen how well many people have done in self-publishing. And I have too many friends whose books haven’t picked up offers from New York. Books I know are as good as or better than most of the ones being currently published. Getting through the hoops is just that—getting through the hoops, and luck and timing have as much to do with success as any objective standard of a book’s worthiness.
Don’t misunderstand me. I still believe traditional publishers have a something to offer and can be the very best route to publication for some authors and some books. But they’re no longer the only game in town, and in an increasing percentage of cases, they’re not even the best game in town. Self-publishing is truly a viable option for authors, and it doesn’t have to make you a laughingstock anymore.
The question is, what will happen when most writers decide they no longer need the validation of a publishing house to be a “real” published author? Because if no one’s clamoring at the gates any more, there’s no need for the gatekeepers.