Self-published fiction authors are supposed to hang their heads in shame.
I won’t hide away in a cave.
I don’t leave polite company before the other people get a whiff of my body odor.
That’s what traditional or legacy publishers say. It’s what many authors published by traditional publishers say, both A and mid-listers. Sadly, it’s also what many aspiring writers still say.
However, the world is changing. I’m embracing the future.
And the future will reward self-publishers with even more money than we’re making now.
First, for Context, a Little History
For many years, there have been companies who made — or attempted to make — a profit by publishing fiction for readers, in newspapers, magazines and books.
“Publishing” is here defined as using a printing press to impress ink letters (or characters if you’re Chinese) onto paper. These words tell stories.
However, publishers cannot bring every story available into print. They have to pick and choose. They hire people called ‘editors’ to perform this job function.
Editors buy the fiction they want, and reject the rest.
Partly they reject on the basis of type of fiction. A publisher of romance stories wouldn’t publish even the highest quality war story.
That’s simple common sense.
Once the obviously unsuitable manuscripts are screened out, editors must also choose on the basis of quality.
To some extent, quality is also a matter of common sense. Many years ago, I saw a sample of the slush pile for AMAZING and FANTASTIC magazines. All of the manuscripts I picked out to read at random were horribly incompetent, and could be rejected at a glance.
At some point, however, quality becomes a matter of personal opinion.
Some editors buy and reject based on their personal opinions. Where their personal opinions are aligned with their target audience, this works. John W. Campbell, editor of ASTOUNDING during the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” of the 1940s, is a good example.
Some editors no doubt regard themselves as slumming. They buy stories they hate because those stories are the best of a bad lot, and editors believe readers will enjoy this. I’m sure a lot of pulp magazines editors fell into this category.
Editors who pick stories their readers enjoy, grow the circulation of those magazines or book lines (the goal of the publishers). Those who don’t, get fired or lose their jobs when the magazines or book lines go out of business.
Until a few years ago, writers needed these publishers and the editors they hired to reach readers.
A book was a paper and ink object. You could buy one from a bookstore, a drugstore or order it online from Amazon, but you still read the ink on paper.
So book “publishing” still meant using a printer to spread ink on paper, just as it did 500 years ago when Gutenberg invented it. (Admittedly, the technology has advanced.)
Getting books into bookstores, drugstores, and Amazon and other online sites is called distribution.
Until a Few Years Ago, Professional Publishers had a Lock on Distribution
Especially for fiction.
(Some kinds of self-published nonfiction sold well through mail order, and in-person appearances such as speeches and seminars, but that’s not what I’m writing about here.)
If you wanted people to take your novel seriously, it had to be available at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Such bookstores carried only books published by “publishers.”
A new technology called Print On Demand was gradually changing this. However, POD cost authors a lot of money upfront, and not many people bought the books, especially fiction.
Self-Publishing Your Own Fiction Still Carried a Stigma with Many Readers
But that started changing when Amazon brought out the Kindle, followed by Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Kobo, and I don’t know how many other ereaders.
All of these companies allowed writers to publish their own works for nothing, subject only to some technical formatting issues.
Suddenly authors could put their short stories and novels in front of readers without first attaining the permission of editors.
And readers are finding they like a lot of those books!
Publishing companies — and many authors — are going apeshit!
Therefore, the first reason I’m proudly self-published is:
1. The traditional publishing companies are no longer necessary.
Good writers no longer need to confuse “access to bookstore distribution” with “validation of my work by an editor who may be no smarter than me” — and is often far less experienced and knowledgeable.
By some measures, editors as a whole are doing a good job. Good books get published. So do some lousy ones, but that’s life.
By other measures, publishing is a mess. Many editors rejected The Help, Harry Potter, Gone With the Wind, The Forever War, Catch-22, A Time to Kill, and a host of other famous and successful books, old and new, of many different types and genres.
If you were an editor, how would you like to have this on your resume? “I rejected the bestselling novel of the decade.”
Yet it doesn’t seem to matter. Editors seem to keep their jobs until they’re fired for personal reasons or their company is taken over by another company.
According to some statistics, four out of five books lose money for their publishers. Or four out of five fail to make back the advances paid to the authors. I’m not sure those two sentences are equivalent. However, it’s clear many editors don’t know the books readers want to buy and read.
Today, in many cases, the editors are not even in charge of the buying decision. If they like a novel, they write up their opinion and present it to the sales staff. The sales staff decides whether or not the book’s idea is salable. They also look up how much the author’s previous books sold (if a previously published author).
If the sales staff doesn’t like it, the editor returns it to the author.
Many years ago, in the science fiction field, people made a big deal out of separating amateur authors from professionals.
Professionals made money, most people said.
If you didn’t make money, you were an amateur.
QED. Ipso facto.
And to make money in those days, you had to have a story or novel bought by an editor working for a traditional publisher.
Now, many people want to say I’m not a professional because I’m not making money from a traditional publisher.
But I’m making money from readers who buy my books through Kindle, Smashwords and its partners (including Kobo and Apple), the Nook, and Amazon’s Print On Demand service.
People buy my audiobooks on Audible or iTunes. Foreign fans read them in French, Italian, German and other languages.
Who’s most important? The publisher or the readers?
It’s always been the readers.
When all books were ink on dead trees, fiction writers needed publishers to reach the readers. Publishers who couldn’t satisfy enough readers to make a profit went out of business and stopped buying new books.
Now, writers who want the past to continue condemn self-published writers such as myself not because we don’t make money (many do, though not all), but because we don’t do it the old-fashioned way by appealing to editors and sales representatives.
No, we do it by appealing directly to readers.
What’s even worse, especially from the standpoint of the publishers, is many self-published authors are making money.
How can that be?
In essence, by cutting out the middlemen between writers and readers. That is, the publishers themselves. And agents.
So long as I price a book from $2.99 to $9.99, Kindle pays me 70% of the gross price. Other distributors vary a little, but not by much.
If a traditional publisher puts the book on Kindle, Kindle pays them the same. However, it goes to them, not to me.
I get 25% of that. .25 X .7 = 17.5%
If I have an agent, they get 15% of that.
.175 X .85 = 14.875% of the cover price is what I wind up with.
Now, some will say I’d be better off, because the traditional publishers are charging a lot more than us self-published authors.
If the traditional publisher prices my paperback book at $9.99, I get:
9.99 X .14875 = $1.48
If I price my self-published novel at $2.99 I get about $2.09, so even at that low cover price I’m better off self-published.
If you’ve bought Kindle books from traditional publishers, you may be shaking your head here. Older titles may go for $8.99 or $9.99, you want to tell me.
But new A-list novels are often priced at $12.99 or even $14.99.
Here’s something really interesting. On books priced below $2.99 and above $9.99, Kindle pays ONLY 35%.
They obviously believe $2.99 thru $9.99 is the optimum range of cover prices readers want to buy.
So when a big publisher charges us the readers over $9.99 for a book, they are CUTTING their own money AND that of their authors.
Because the publisher receives only 35% of the cover price, they receive less money total, unless the price is over $20.
And that means the author is receiving 25% of less money, despite the higher cover price.
.25 X .35 X .85 = 7.43% of the cover price is what the author gets
$14.99 X .0743 = $1.11 per ebook sale is what the Big Boys and Girls get per book.
While I get $2.09.
Or more, because while all my novels are now priced at $2.99, that may not remain true for future books.
Because I’m not supporting the cost of offices in Manhattan, power lunches with agents, sales representatives and so on.
In a recent blog post, Joe Konrath, who has some books published by traditional publishers and some books he’s self-published (because the traditional publishers rejected them), reveals his numbers.
He makes a lot more money on his self-published titles, and now claims to be sorry he ever sold any books to a legacy publisher.
In this post, Kristine Kathryn Rusch analyzes Joe’s numbers. She points out the number of books he sold are not impressive when compared to the Big Boys and Girls, but the money he makes from them is.
It’s now possible for a self-published author to make a decent living by selling a number of books that would make traditional publishers laugh out loud at the writer.
2. Although writers now have an alternative to traditional publishers, traditional publishers are treating them worse than ever before.
You’d think traditional publishers, who offer writers less than ever before in history, would become nicer, to attract good writers.
The truth is exactly the opposite.
If you’re not already selling boatloads of books, you’re dog poop on their shoes.
Back in the mid to late 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s I submitted many novels to many editors. Mainly science fiction, but also horror, young adult/juvenile, picture books and mainstream.
Over the years I got rejected by a wide selection of book editors and agents.
Am I bitter because of all those rejections?
I hope not, because I deserved the vast majority of them.
I think one of my picture books deserves to be published, and I will, once I find a good illustrator I can afford.
And the ‘horror’ novel I wrote in the 1990s is terrific and doesn’t deserve to languish in total obscurity just because the horror genre died. Which is why Virgin Blood is now for sale at all good online distributors.
Younger readers may not automatically realize this but, I used a typewriter back in those days. Everybody did.
That means I didn’t have a printer to print the words onto the sheets of paper for me. I had to type them myself. Just remembering that makes me tired.
I completed a story by making all the revisions it needed. That entailed reading and re-reading and making corrections with pen. Correcting spelling errors. Crossing out paragraphs. Adding pages of scenes I left out of the first draft.
By the time a story was ‘done,’ it was a pile of paper that looked like garbage to everyone else but me. Ink corrections. Numbers to identify where to put in new sections. Lines and arrows. Many times I cut up pages with a scissors and injected new sections with scotch tape.
Just tracing through my own directions was like following a scavenger hunt puzzle.
That’s not the fault of publishers. It was the state of technology. When the IBM Selectric came out, many writers adopted it (I couldn’t afford one), but it still just speeded up the same process.
So I had to take that messy pile of scrap paper and type it into an immaculate manuscript in the mandatory format, with few or no errors.
All the writer’s books and magazines said mistakes made editors reject your story.
For me, that was harder than writing the story. I typed fast, but flunked the ‘no error’ Chapter in my high school typing class. I still make a lot of errors, but now I just back space and correct them.
Then I mailed the immaculate manuscript to an editor. I paperclipped the ms. to the self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) that had to be enclosed with it.
That risked the paperclip leaving an impression on those twenty or so pages, but it seemed safer than allowing the 8 1/2 X 11 sheets of papers to slide around the 10 X 13 envelope (which also had to contain the 9 1/2 X 12 SASE.
See, the writing books and magazines also said a damaged manuscript meant you’ve already sent the story to other magazines, and they had rejected it.
Now, editors know the writing books and magazines also advise writers to send the stories out until all potential markets have been exhausted. They know the writers most likely to succeed actually do this.
But, being human, they don’t want to be the editor of an already-rejected story, so you have to make editors think they’re the first one to read the story.
That’s true even if they pay 1/2 a cent a word and the top market in their genre pays $1 a word. That means a writer who’s written a story in that particular genre would be a fool not to try for a dollar a word before sending the story to the 1/2 cent a word market.
And the editor of the 1/2 cent a word market knows that as well. And would do the same thing if they were a writer in that genre instead of an editor.
But because they’re an editor (and a proud human being), they want to be treated as the most important editor in that genre even when they know they’re not.
The point is that whenever I sent out a story back then, I had to make the entire manuscript look brand new, even when it’d been rejected two, ten, or twenty times.
That entailed LOTS of retyping.
Sometimes only the first page. Almost always, the first page. And almost always the last page. Those are the two that took the most punishment.
Editors and first readers actually looked at the first page.
I resent the extra typing I had to do because those editors and first readers turned down the corners of the sheets of paper.
Spilled coffee on my stories.
Mangled the paper when reading.
Fastened rejection slips to the manuscript with paper clips so I had to retype up to ten pages or more (sometimes the entire story).
And the book editors who threw away the box I sent the manuscript in, and used a thick rubber band to tie the loose sheets of paper to a piece of cardboard, and tossing that into a flimsy brown return envelope.
Looking back, it’s amazing I had time to write new stories. Because nearly every Monday through Saturday I had to retype large numbers of pages to send out rejected manuscripts to new editors. So they had to look new and fresh. As though they’d never been rejected.
That does make a lot of psychological sense, but man oh man, in the days of typewriters did it entail a lot of work. It stole a lot of time away from working on new stories.
Yet, all the books and articles told us to be persistent, to keep submitting manuscripts until exhausting all possible markets.
That advice is a lot easier to follow when you can command your computer to print out new pages to replace the ones mangled by the last editor or the Post Office.
Writers starting out today have no idea how grateful they should be for computers and word processing programs. Especially printers.
Yes, I do resent the hours I had to spend retyping manuscript pages because editors mangled them, folded them, or stuck their rejection slip on with a paper clip, which leaves a permanent impression the next editor doesn’t want to see.
What was even worse than receiving a manuscript submission back in the mail (necessitating retyping and resubmission), was not receiving it . . . for ages. In some cases, ever.
Some editors were courteous enough to return manuscripts quickly. But others took months, and even longer. Some book publishers took a year or more to reject my submission.
So if you wrote a novel and wanted it published, and they all held it for one year, it’d take many years.
And that’s assuming they each have only one line fitting your novel. Many houses have a lot of overlap between lines so, depending on your novel, you may want to submit it to different editors.
How are you supposed to start a career when one novel could take a decade or longer just to work its way through the system?
And, remember, when I was subsidizing the United States Postal System by sending submissions to New York City and elsewhere nearly every day, it was the late 1970s to the early 1990s.
What some writers now call “the good old days.”
From everything I read, all the problems I encountered have just gotten worse.
With one wrinkle. Many publishers now say they won’t accept unsolicited submissions, only those submitted by agents.
So ambitious novelists are submitting their novel manuscripts and queries to agents.
Who take forever to reject them.
And who, if they do agree to represent you, may have no better chances of selling it than you could. And if they do, they get 15% of its earnings, forever.
And that’s just the beginning. From everything I hear, if your novel is accepted for publication, you have to wait many more months:
To receive your contract.
If you negotiated anything, to receive the revised contract.
To receive your first advance check.
Then the publication process will take a long time. But when they do send you proofs to review, they want them back in a few days.
And when it’s finally published, you still wait . . .
Your book may no longer be on the shelves of your local B&N by the time they mail you the final installment of your advance.
You could wait a long time before it “earns out” its advance, and then call yourself lucky. Your first book may earn out its advance, but you still don’t receive royalty checks, because the publisher’s ‘basket accounting’ combines its performance with your second and third books. Even if your contract says not to do this.
Four out of five books never earn out their advances, and thus never provide their authors with royalty income.
And from what I read, those royalty statements are impossible to make sense of, and ebook sales reported are suspiciously low.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has written extensively on her blog about these issues, says some problems are caused by outdated accounting systems.
That may be. But why don’t the publishers update the accounting systems?
I mean, that’s what Chief Financial Officers and computer programmers are for.
I’ve read publishers refusing to sign contracts calling for an accurate accounting of books sold.
What other business could get away with refusing to give accurate reports to its customers and other business partners?
And now traditional publishers no longer have a lock on distribution. They still do on distribution of PAPER books in chain bookstores, big box stores, drugstores, and so on, but that’s a shrinking sector of the overall book market.
I’ve heard Borders went bankrupt due to mismanagement, not because of Kindle. Maybe, but the shelves of former Borders stores are now filled with other merchandise, or waiting for a tenant.
Barnes & Noble stores remain, but seem to contain more movies, albums, games, and gift cards than books.
The smaller paper book outlets such as Walgreen’s and airport bookstores prefer to carry the guaranteed big sellers such as James Patterson and Nora Roberts than the latest from a struggling midlist author who hasn’t made a name for themselves yet.
With their books squeezed out of the paper book outlets, how will they ever make a name for themselves?
If traditional publishers can’t get bookstores and other outlets to carry midlist books, then what is the advantage to the midlist author of putting up with the problems traditional publishers cause?
Midlist authors are praying to build their audience with each book. How can they, when book shelf space gets that much scarcer?
Book publishers used to ‘grow’ their authors. For nearly twenty years, John D. MacDonald published crime stories in pulp magazines and as cheap paperback originals. In the late 1960s, enough readers bought his book that the later Travis McGee novels became automatic bestsellers.
Besides, publishers today don’t like the traditional cheap paperback which I, and many others, grew up reading.
Now they focus on hardcover sales. They don’t like to publish paperback editions if you’re not already an A-list bestseller.
Since Walgreens and other outlets don’t want to carry nonbestsellers, that makes sense.
But it’s a downward cycle that feeds on itself.
Publishers have no patience now. If an author’s book sales go down a little, they are finished, at least under that name. They cannot publish any more novels under that name. If you’ve ever gotten attached to a series and wondered why you couldn’t find the fourth book of it, it was probably killed by the publisher because the third book didn’t sell as much as the second.
Some authors quit writing. Others write under new names.
As difficult as it is for new writers to get published, it’s easier to be brand new than a writer whose first two or three books did not earn out their advances.
And all of the above are still the minor reasons for not wanting to deal with traditional publishers.
They’re now asking almost all but the biggest name A-list writers to sign contracts that are little short of feudal peonage.
I don’t want to get too technical. For the details, refer to most of the blog posts Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote in July and August 2012.
They don’t want writers to write anything except what they approve.
Even though they don’t to pay a large enough advance to justify the author’s time.
And want to pay at their leisure.
And refuse to certify the accuracy of their sales numbers.
In some cases, writers are not supposed to even write a blog post without permission of their publisher.
I spent over 30 years working for an agency of the federal government.
Once I was signed out — on my own time — I could do almost anything I wanted. I couldn’t write about the subject my agency dealt with. That was fair. I couldn’t violate the Privacy Act. Or the Hatch Act. That sounds heavy, and it would be to violate them, but they are very narrow in scope. I don’t reveal people’s names and I don’t participate in partisan elections (except as a voter). Just as I didn’t write about the subject of the agency and the work I did.
Good, because when I signed out and left the office I wanted to forget my job 🙂
When it came to writing fiction and almost all nonfiction, so long as it was on my own time, I could write what I wanted.
So just how are publishing companies getting away with demanding more from their self-employed business partners than the federal government is allowed to from its employees (AFTER working hours, that is)?
So, dealing with traditional publishers is — at best — a tremendous hassle. It takes huge amounts of time. There are HUGE legal pitfalls that could cripple an unwary writer’s career and earnings for the rest of their lives.
Let’s see . . . have I mentioned the possibility of some of them going out of business before they publish your novel? The business is changing so fast, nobody knows what the industry is going to look like next year. And if you have a series they’ll want to publish one book a year of (even if you can write one book every few months), so you’re really at risk. You really want your books tied up in bankruptcy proceedings?
Plus, their ability to reach new readers through on-display paper books is going rapidly downhill.
Getting you into the brick and mortar bookstores is all they now do that a self-publisher can’t do for themselves. And they’re increasingly reluctant to do that for midlist authors.
And for the hope of coming out in paperback and having one copy in your local supermarket behind Patterson’s latest, they want to control your entire writing career.
Even after they don’t want to publish any more of your new books.
Self-published authors can create covers, sell foreign language translations, put out audio books and negotiate movie rights.
With the help of other professionals. Fortunately, the world is full of artists and graphic designers, bilingual people, audio narrators and intellectual property attorneys.
Yes, they don’t come free.
But they’re a lot cheaper than waiting irreplaceable months out of your life.
What I’ve paid for covers wouldn’t have covered one month’s postage expense in 1980.
They’re a lot cheaper than paying 15% forever to an agent.
They’re a lot cheaper than accepting the tiny percentage of an ebook’s cover price the traditional publishers now pay to authors instead of the 70% the online distributors pay me.
Heck, it’s cheaper than waiting six months for royalty checks instead of getting the monthly payments Kindle, ACX and Smashwords send directly to my bank account.
To try to boil it down, in the face of overwhelming reasons for all rational midlist authors to switch to self-publishing, traditional publishing houses have begun treating their midlist even worse than before.
What an intelligent response.
I guess Stephen King, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and the other superstar writers who aren’t switching to self-publishing because they’re making millions under the current system are going to live forever.
That’s what the Big 5 publishers seem to expect.
As a reader, I hope those authors do last many more years, but I’d hate to stake my business on it.
So it comes back to the issue of quality.
Because the ONLY even half-way rational reason for today’s midlist writer not to self-publish is the fear readers and other writers will perceive their self-published novels as inferior to everything published by the traditional houses.
I self-publish. Are my books inferior?
Is Virgin Blood inferior to the greatest horror novel ever written, The Shining?
Yep, you bet.
So is every other Stephen King book I’ve ever read, before and since.
Virgin Blood is inferior to many Stephen King books, as well as other great novels of the field, from Interview With a Vampire to Ghost Story.
Is Virgin Blood superior to some professionally published horror novels?
Yep, you bet. I’ve read, or began reading, plenty of tired, cliche-ridden, incompetent horror novels that sold to traditional publishers.
Not that that’s saying much.
No, Virgin Blood is one dark fantasy suspense thriller you would enjoy if you like such books.
If you’re a fan only of sweet romances, stay away.
Assassin Years is a good young adult time travel political thriller.
Maybe the only one 🙂
It’s not Harry Potter and it’s not The Hunger Games, but if you’d enjoy experiencing two seventeen year old girls have their lives turned upside down to stop two presidential assassinations (44 years apart), check it out.
If you want me to apologize for making my novels and stories available directly to readers, instead of going the traditional route, where an agent would still have the manuscript of Virgin Blood sitting unread in their office, and if I managed to publish it I’d have to agree not to write anything else without permission . . .
Don’t hold your breath.
If I were already an A-list author, I’d continue to write for the current system, though without turning over control.
Stephen King can tell his publisher to take an unfair contract and shove it where the sun never shines, and get away with it.
James Patterson is self-published for all practical purposes. He’s Little, Brown’s rainmaker. Who at that company is going to tell him “no?” He controls everything about his books just as I do — but with much greater access to professional resources. Plus he gets overwhelming distribution through brick and mortar outlets. In other words, he enjoys the best of both worlds.
But as an unknown author, I find dealing with traditional publishing houses frightening. If I signed one of the nonnegotiable contracts they send to new writers, I’d be worse than crazy -
Why, I’d be ashamed.
Originally published at http://www.richardstooker.com on October 11, 2019.