As of this morning, I reached an interesting milestone on sales of my self-published short story. I’ve now earned $1,000 from it. That amount is a net, including the $250 advance I was originally paid by the editor of the anthology it first appeared in, less the cost of the cover art.
The reason this is interesting is because the $1,000 threshold has meaning within Romance Writers of America. An author is considered “published” for the purposes of joining RWA’s Published Author Network (PAN) when he or she has earned a minimum of $1,000 from a single published title. There are a couple of caveats to this. The first is that the work must be novel (40k+) or novella (20k-40k) in length. The second is that it must be published by what RWA terms a non-vanity, non-subsidy publisher.
I met the minimum requirements to join PAN when I sold Behind the Red Door to Kensington for a $2,500 advance back in 2008. (I’ve since earned about $800 more in royalties from that book, mostly thanks to digital sales.) This means RWA considers me published pretty much forever. I never have to sell another book to a publishing house to remain in PAN or stay on the list of published authors on their website or get the “Published Author” moniker on my conference name tags.
But here’s the thing. It has long been a precept of the professional writers’ organizations (not just RWA, but also SFWA, MWA, and, I’m sure, others) that all monies in publishing should flow toward the author. This means that authors are cautioned from signing with agents or publishers who charge any fees (other than, of course, the percentage they take of the book’s earnings or the author’s royalties). For a long time, RWA and other organizations hewed to the notion that it was critical not only for the author not to pay anything upfront to publish a book, but also to receive an advance on royalties, thereby effectively ensuring that author was never paid less than that amount for the work.
Of course, the digital publishing model came along and threw that logic into a cocked hat as authors began to earn good money. Although the sales numbers were lower, the royalties were significantly higher, which led to more money in the author’s pockets. The digital publishers also paid more regularly, sometimes as often as monthly, which meant that although the author didn’t receive any money upfront, the actual payout of royalties beyond the amount that might have been advanced was much quicker. But the recognized digital publishers still followed the primary tenet of writers’ organizations–the author was never charged upfront for cover art, editing, or distribution. All monies still flowed toward the author, albeit at a different point in the publishing process.
Even so, digital publishing was viewed askance for quite a long while in writers’ organizations. Although it seemed some authors made a LOT of money at it, the majority of authors didn’t (and probably still don’t). Moreover, there persisted a persisted a perception of a “quality gap” between ebooks and print books (although that divide between digital and print has narrowed because pretty much every print book issued now has a digital counterpart). Notwithstanding, there’s still a certain “sniff test” factor out there, and I imagine a lot of us still suspect that if you submit to enough digital publishers, eventually you’ll find one that’s willing to publish even the crappiest manuscript.
Now, we have the new age of self-publishing. Digital self-publishing is so cheap and easy1, everyone really can be published. And let’s face it–this fact, that everyone CAN be published, even the worthless hacks–is a huge bone in the craw of professional writers who’ve been at this a long time and feel they’ve “paid their dues” and shouldn’t have to share the status of “published” with authors who haven’t proven themselves through the gatekeeping structure of agents and editors. It just doesn’t seem “fair” somehow.
But it’s time for the writers’ organizations to get real. The fact that authors got published through the gatekeeping structure has never been an objective measure of quality or talent or skill. The fact that an author has earned at least $1,000 from a single title is no guarantee that the work isn’t a worthless piece of trash. The writers’ organizations like RWA have set up a system that is TRYING to control for quality by demanding the existence of a gatekeeper, but the reality is that this has never actually worked. When a relatively unknown author like me (I can’t even call myself midlist) can earn more money by self-publishing a short story than by selling a short story of twice that length to a major publisher (my advance from Harlequin for Grace Under Fire and Taking Liberties was $800 for each manuscript, and I will almost certainly never see another dime from them since the royalty rate is only 8% per copy sold) AND hit the Amazon top 100 with that self-published story, it’s difficult to see any reasonable rationale for steering authors (even previously unpublished ones) away from self-publishing.
Quite simply, RWA and other writers’ organizations have to stop pretending that the PUBLISHER matters. Authors who have published a book and earned the prescribed minimum from its sales should be treated as published authors, regardless of how the book was published. And yes, I’ll go so far as to say that even if there is a vanity/subsidy publisher involved (rather than the author acting as the publisher), that should be the case.2 If there are upfront costs to the author involved in publishing the work, perhaps those figures should be netted from total revenue to ensure that authors aren’t earning $1,000 on a book they paid $5,000 to publish, which isn’t exactly a winning strategy for a career, but that should be the only real difference between the self-published and the publisher-published book.
“But, Jackie,” you’re saying, “what about the Ritas? What about the horrible books that for inexplicable reasons sell thousands and thousands of copies? And ONLY $1,000? Shouldn’t it be more?”
To which I say, read Part 2, which I imagine will be up sometime early next week. (I was going to try to do this all as a single post, but this one is already too damned long!)
1I am not saying it’s easy (or necessarily cheap) to create a high quality product through self-publishing. But if you don’t care about having great cover art and you think your critique parts are editors (hint: they aren’t), you can publish a book for an upfront investment of less than $100. Doing it right is going to cost you a lot more than that–I anticipate spending around $500 to publish The Lesson Plan, which I’m expecting to release toward the end of October. That’s because I paid for a professional cover design (although really, that was very inexpensive) and I expect to pay my content/copy editor a nice chunk of change for her efforts. I won’t put out a book that’s not professionally edited. I just won’t.
2Given that several well-respected epublishers, most notably Ellora’s Cave, started in large part to publish books written by their founders, the distinction between author and publisher becomes even sillier, doesn’t it?