Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Authors, Publishers, and Validation

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.

26 Comments

  • Zoe Winters February 10, 2011 at 12:17 am

    If it’s any consolation, I don’t think you said a single controversial thing, here! 🙂 I’ve been saying similar things for a LONG time. At some point many authors will need to decide if they want validation or to make money. I firmly believe I make more money as an indie than I would have if I’d gone the trad way.

    And thanks for the shout out!

    Reply
  • Zoe Winters February 10, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Actually, I might not be the best litmus test for “not a single controversial thing” my barometer for that doesn’t always work. 😛

    Reply
  • Meankitty February 10, 2011 at 12:24 am

    I can’t tell if you’re being serious or just rabble rousing. I’ll take you mostly seriously and just leave out the part where the post was kind of insulting *laugh*. I disagree that authors trying to sell to publishers ONLY benefit from the validation or only want validation. I want to NOT have to find and pay an editor, proofer, cover artist, perhaps a contracts lawyer, a formatter, isbner, etc etc. I don’t want to be responsible for every single little thing involved in getting the various formats of the book successfully into reader hands. I also can’t afford the $$ to pay all those people to do a professional level job for me. I already have to write and promote nonstop if I want so much as a chance to progress…but do I really want to add ALL the rest plus the initial investment? Not really. I’m not saying I’ll never self-publish and don’t see the appeal, but the primary motivator for me to keep approaching agents and publishers is not merely some need for validation.

    Reply
  • C.J. Archer February 10, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Congrats on your moderate success, Jackie, lol. I don’t think anything you posted is all that different to what tons of other independent authors have been touting for some time, J.A. Konrath for example. As far as I’m concerned I’m ONLY interested in a traditional publishing deal if it’s really good. Better than what I could potentially earn as an indie. I wouldn’t bother with the smaller presses or epublishers anymore. I have amazing writers (both published traditionally and unpublished) who edit my work for free and I just did a fine job on my last cover, so I’m happy to stay indie.

    But that’s just me. Everyone is different and some people still want the validation. That’s fine too.

    Reply
  • Evangeline Holland February 10, 2011 at 12:43 am

    I’ve got butterflies in my stomach while reading this post! Not from nervousness, but sheer excitement.

    I personally think the so-called “gatekeepers” are a bogeyman writers constructed to keep everyone in line, and publishing industries just went along with it, since it kept writers from pushing against things (much like how the lower the numbers the RWA set for their recognized publishers list, the lower some NY publishers went with their actual advances, and newly published authors said nothing because they were finally “validated” in the eyes of published authors and seen as “somebody” to the thousands of unpublished aspirants). Plus, I don’t see this as an “Us” (writers) vs “Them” (industry) situation, particularly when “We” handed “Them” the keys to take advantage of the rabid jockeying for position or prominence.

    I believe some agents are just as excited by the prospect of self-publishing as authors, particularly when faced with the roster of writers they represent who have been asked to change their name, have not had their options picked up, or have had their publisher pull the rug from beneath their feet (Dorchester!). Granted, an agent couldn’t represent a list of self-published authors, since they earn their living from advances, etc, but I think the savviest and forward thinkers are pragmatic about the monumental changes in the industry and will work to help their authors adjust to whatever curveball the industry throws their way.

    My main concern in this new sea of self-publishing is for authors to stick together, share resources and information, and most importantly, control and own their own books. There’s no telling how long the gravy train of 70% royalties on $2.99+ books via Kindle will last, and I believe it behooves authors to learn how to format their e-books, how to purchase ISBN numbers, etc, and better yet, open their own e-book store (and begin to direct traffic to it). The sky is the limit for self-publishing, but tasting success can make one just as complacent about this route as one can be about being NY published!

    Now I just wonder how the shifting dynamics will affect the RWA, since so much of the conflict and strife over the past decade has stemmed from creating (false) hierarchies.

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Meankitty, I didn’t mean to be insulting at all. Not one little smidgen of an iota of insulting. Nor am I deliberately rabble-rousing. I used to the feel the same way you did–that the initial investment to self-publish would be so high that I couldn’t afford to foot that bill upfront. But I’ve since come to understand that self-publishing does not have to cost a lot.

    You don’t need to pay someone to format your manuscript and upload it to the different formats. You don’t need an ISBN number. A beautiful, professional cover can be had for around $100. Editing is the largest line item, but I didn’t have to worry about that with the short story, since it had already been edited. That said, the edits that were done were modest in the extreme. I could have sent it to a few CPs and gotten the same basic results.

    There’s certainly something to be said for having someone else foot that bill. But the trade-off is you have less control (you don’t set the price, for example, so your ebook may have a ridiculously high price on Amazon, which means it sells next to no copies there or you may get the lousiest cover on earth or you may get the copy editor from hell) AND you give up a BIG portion of your royalties for that privilege.

    I’m not saying there’s NOTHING publishers have to offer. And I was thinking more of the big traditional print publishers here, not so much the epublishers, although I do think you have to choose epublishers very carefully or you’re likely far worse off with an epub than if you’d done it yourself.

    I wish I could quote hard number for you from some of the people I know who’ve been doing this a while. It’s shockingly inexpensive and easy to self-publish and the return on that investment can be very good, even with relatively little promotional effort. (A big part of that is, as I mentioned in my post, price point. A lot more people are willing to give a new author a shot at $2.99 than at $7.99.)

    Reply
  • Zoe Winters February 10, 2011 at 12:57 am

    @Evangeline a lot of that is why I never was interested in joining RWA. Why join a group that would never recognize me as “real”.

    Reply
  • Evangeline Holland February 10, 2011 at 12:59 am

    I agree with the sentiments expressed by @Meankitty, if not the tone or words. I am pursuing NY publishing because it continues to provide at least solid foundation for a writing career, particularly if you are not incredibly prolific or you do not write the current trend. I do, however, as per my words above, fully support self-publishing because it is a sound business decision that places the control firmly back into the hands of the author.

    I cheer on anyone who decides to self-publish because it’s the first step in seeing writing as a business, and I see much to learn from the marketing, promotion, writing, etc tactics from indie authors because they have to do everything themselves, from setting deadlines to creating marketing plans to reading up on visual design–and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes the first time around. Whether I end up becoming the next Nora Roberts, or getting down and dirty as a successful indie author, It is a freeing example to live by as a writer.

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 1:05 am

    I am pursuing NY publishing because it continues to provide at least solid foundation for a writing career, particularly if you are not incredibly prolific or you do not write the current trend.

    I can’t actually respond to this sentiment without saying things I will definitely regret. Suffice it to say that, in my experience, NY publishing ONLY provides a solid foundation for authors who ARE prolific or write to the current trend.

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 1:17 am

    One more thought–I still think there are reasons to pursue NY publishing or to publish with an epublisher OTHER THAN “validation.” I’m still pursuing contracts with traditional publishers.

    But validation used to be the main reason for me. I wanted that imprimatur. (I also wanted the editorial input and the cover art and all that stuff.) Now, I know that’s not enough. The publisher has to bring more to the table than a few thousand dollars in advance, cover art, and editorial for me to cede a huge percentage of my royalties.

    Reply
  • Evangeline Holland February 10, 2011 at 1:31 am

    I can’t actually respond to this sentiment without saying things I will definitely regret. Suffice it to say that, in my experience, NY publishing ONLY provides a solid foundation for authors who ARE prolific or write to the current trend.

    LOL!

    I don’t doubt your experience, and completely empathize with it; however, I’m going with my gut instinct. It may change down the road, but presently, since I write non-erotic historical romance, NY is a better foundation for laying the first brick of my writing career.

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 1:37 am

    The problem with saying “I don’t write erotic, therefore I can’t succeed in digital/indie publishing” is that none of the “breakouts” in indie publishing I know of thus far have been erotic romance, though.

    Amanda Hocking is paranormal YA. HP Mallory, who was just picked up by Random House, writes paranormal romance/UF. Zoe Winters writes paranormal romance. All of them started as self-published authors and all of them have sold in the thousands of copies of their books (if not the hundreds of thousands).

    If anything, it looks like what you have to write isn’t erotic, but paranormal, lol.

    Reply
  • Nadia Lee February 10, 2011 at 2:06 am

    Jackie,

    I just hired a cover artist & a freelance editor for a novel, and it cost me $205.

    I did my own conversion since I know how, and I had 100% control over the cover.

    Meankitty — Even if you have a publisher you may have to hire a contract lawyer (provided that you don’t have an agent). The one working for the publisher won’t help you out.

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Thanks for the example, Nadia. I was thinking the entire outlay to edit a novel and get cover art could not be much over $500, if that much. I know Samhain’s copy editors are paid 0.002 per word, or about $200 for a 100k novel. Content editing is paid for separate at most publishing houses, but not all.

    Reply
  • India Drummond February 10, 2011 at 3:43 am

    I totally agree. I spent years and years touting the company line, saying “Don’t self-publish, you’ll ruin your chances at a career.–It’s all vanity.” But now I think that insisting on seeing your books in book stores (for about two weeks) is the vanity.

    My first book (out in two months) is with a ‘real’ publisher. I’ve learned a lot, and I don’t regret the experience. But my next books will all be indie. Why? Just like you said: they aren’t doing anything I can’t do or can’t hire done. I’ve worked out a business plan and estimated my costs, and it’s not NEARLY as expensive as people say. I’m good enough with graphic design to do my own covers, can do formatting myself as well, and I’ve hired an editor for about $300. I’ll make that money back quickly getting the full 70% royalty on amazon instead of 40% of 70% for ebooks and 10% of 70% for print that I currently have with my publisher.

    Indie publishing is NOT a shortcut. It’s a ton of work. But the good news is I can put a book out much much faster (there’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ in trad publishing–months and months of it)

    And guess what? EVERY trad publishing author I know either has a day job or a spouse who brings home the bacon. On the other hand, I know several indie authors who are the biggest earners in their household.

    Reply
  • Linda Pendleton February 10, 2011 at 4:05 am

    Jackie,
    I believe you made a wise choice in self-publishing. I began self-publishing a decade ago, partly because it gave me an opportunity to put my late husband, Don Pendleton’s mystery novels back in print. Many of the books I published 8-10 years ago had ebook editions. Then Jeff Bezos came along with Kindle! Now I have more than forty books at Kindle, and adding books to Smashwords. I am pleased. I’m able to format and I have a great cover designer for POD and ebooks and she’s reasonably priced. She is also my web designer and we’ve worked together ten years or more now. I love having control over my works and my husband’s works. I love not having to have the “permission” of someone else to publish –and the higher royalty is great, something we do not receive from the Big 6. So, it looks like many of us do not need a traditional publisher. I find the current opportunities exciting, and I hope you do, too.

    Reply
  • Nadia Lee February 10, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Jackie,

    I think most people overestimate the cost of doing it themselves. It really doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars to edit a book. I’ve been very happy with my freelance editor.

    Reply
  • Bev February 10, 2011 at 7:12 am

    I think that as a writer who would not even think of self-publishing as an option until I got my first royalty cheque, I’m a fairly unbiased source because I’ve been “traditionally” published and this year will release 3 self-published books (2 novella & one full length).

    I’m EXTREMELY for the experience and opportunity that being published by NY has given me, but now I know it’s not the only way to go and I’m even MORE grateful that that’s the case.

    My publisher passed on my option book (which is, IMO, the best thing I ever wrote) because sales for the first book were not good. My agent shopped the book to other houses to no avail and I wasn’t going to put this one under my virtual bed until I was contracted again. That would have meant at the very least, years of waiting for my fans to get the next installment for a series they love. By the time (if ever) that book came out, it would have been like, Beverley who? The Elusive Lords what?

    My royalty cheque at a time that my author friend was telling me about her foray into self-pubbling and how well she was doing in comparison to the money she made from her NY contract (we were both contracted for identical money for the same publishing company). That’s when I knew, not only what I wanted to do, but had to do.

    And I have to tell you, there is ENORMOUS peace that comes with not constantly chasing that NY contract. Not wondering who had passed on my submission, how many houses were on 2nd reads and who hadn’t even started reading it yet. It’s a relief to not be holding my breath to wonder if I’ll like my cover. I tell you the freedom I’ve found so far, from self-publication is seriously intoxicating.

    This not to say I wouldn’t submit to NY again, but I’m happy that I know in my heart I don’t HAVE to.

    Reply
  • Bev February 10, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Please don’t mind the missing words that would have made my sentences make ACTUAL sense.

    ie. EXTREMELY grateful
    ie. my royal cheque came at a time…

    Reply
  • Meankitty February 10, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Hey Jackie — I’ve got more to say but I’m taking it offlist :). I think it’s fantastic whenever writers can make money doing what they love, whatever route they choose to take. But we all need to respect that not everyone can walk the same path because we’re all very different, with different books and different lives behind the books. The disrespect of other workable avenues is what makes me cringe when I see it, no matter where it comes from. And now the life behind my books contains a stopped up toilet, a snow day and two sick kids so I must hie off to enjoy the glamour.

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Meankitty, I’ll be expecting an email :).

    I do not think I ever said that there is only one path, nor did I say traditional publishing isn’t a respectable option. Heck, I’m writing a novel intended for category RIGHT THIS MINUTE. I haven’t decided that publishers are obsolete.

    What I AM saying is that a big part of what motivates aspiring authors to submit to publishers of ALL stripes isn’t the money (people hope to strike it rich with our first contract, sure, but most of us know that’s not likely), or the free cover/editing, or the free formatting/typesetting. I don’t think authors are even thinking about those costs when they start out. What they ARE thinking is, “If I get an offer for publication, it means my work is good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” That need for validation is how so many authors get sucked into really bad contracts or place their work with fly-by-night epubs that have next to no actual editing, sucky covers, and will never sell more than 20 copies.

    What I’m really asking is how long traditional publishers can keep offering authors less and less in the way of money and promotion and rights (Macmillan’s grab for derivative rights, anyone) and still entice writers to submit their work to them once those writers realize that they don’t NEED the validation?

    Reply
  • Jackie Barbosa February 10, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Hey, Bev, tell us how you really feel :)!

    I have to agree that having been traditionally published is probably a bit of a leg-up if you decide to turn to self-publishing, simply because you’ve already developed a fan base to draw from for your self-published work.

    Starting from “scratch” as Amanda Hocking, HP Mallory, and Zoe Winters have all done is certainly a tougher hill to climb, although all of them have done it with tremendous success. That doesn’t mean that it’s EASIER to self-publish and more of a “sure thing” than traditional publishing. Being successful (whatever the yardstick for THAT is!) and earning a decent living in publishing is ALWAYS hard, no matter how you get published. I’m simply no longer buying the theory that self-publishing is significantly “iffier” than the alternatives.

    I like options. That’s all. And I think self-publishing is a much more viable option now than ever before–although it may not last forever.

    Vive la Revolucion!

    Reply
  • Leslie Dicken February 10, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Nothing controversial here. I know that for me, I need some validation. And it doesn’t seem that just the readers is enough. I still get the “not good enough” feeling — from other authors, mostly. And that’s because I’m pubbed through smaller press, epub before print. It seems that without the wide distribution and large publisher backing, the respect isn’t there — or is less. Maybe that’s just my vision of it.

    So that said, I do still seek an agent and a NY publisher for my newer works. HOWEVER, I am also seeing the benefits of the self-publishing for smaller stories. I think it works best if there is a backlist of traditionally pubbed titles before one puts up a story through the self-publishing route. I am considering having a short story or two out there, but I won’t give up my desire for a mass-market book either.

    Reply
  • Heather Boyd February 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    I don’t know that I need a publishing house to validate my right to call myself an author. But since I’m fairly new to writing (I haven’t been writing since childhood like some) I do need and want to see what professional editors would change in my mss.

    At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on a self-pub project, but I am also contracted with an epublisher for a novella to come out in two months time. I’d like pursue both if I can.

    And making ebook covers is such fun! I’ve got more mock covers made up than I have stories for. LOL. Great post

    Reply
  • Courtney Milan February 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    You get no heat from me. I’m good with any way that authors can earn money!

    Reply
  • Jill Sorenson February 11, 2011 at 8:23 am

    My attitude about self publishing has changed a lot over the past year but I’m not tempted to try it. I need my publisher to put the book on the shelf! Most of my sales are print, and probably impulse buys.

    If I were Maya Banks, I might think differently. Her ebook sales are amazing. And where did that Amanda Hocking come from? I think she might be a borg.

    Interesting post!

    Reply

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