Yes You Can (Er … but should you?) by Josh Lanyon

My first column here at Wave’s dealt with the topic of whether it was necessary for m/m writers to find a mainstream publisher. Given the buzz about self-publishing these days, I guess it’s only natural that the next question would be whether m/m writers need a publisher at all.

The debate about self-publishing — and the best way to go about it — ramped up with a lengthy and much publicized conversation between literary self-promo guru J.A. Konrath and national best-selling author Barry Eisler who turned down a half million dollar advance in order to publish his next books himself. That conversation is an excellent starting point, and you can read it here.

OR I can save you an hour or so and condense it for you in one paragraph: there can be drawbacks to working with a publisher, especially if you’re a midlist author, and — thanks to Amazon’s game-changing decision to pay 70% royalties on books published directly through the Kindle and priced at $2.99 or higher — you might be better off going it on your own in this brave new digital-friendly age of literature.

Here’s the bottom line. Up until now, the book biz has been a publisher’s market. Now it’s an author’s market. Provided — and this one hell of a big provision — you are a name brand author and you have some idea as to what you’re doing when it comes to packaging and promoting your work.

Most authors don’t. I’m just going to put that out there right now. Not that it’s going to stop anyone, but it needs to be said.

Now lest I sound like the wet blanket I’m occasionally accused of being, I find these developments in publishing very exciting and I’m absolutely going to give publishing directly through Amazon a try. In fact, I did that very thing in February when I republished the short story “In a Dark Wood” after the rights reverted to me. As of a few days ago I’d earned a total of $1916. Kindle sales.

Considering that the story is several years old, and that it’s expensive in relation to what shorts typically go for on Amazon, that’s not too bad. It’s not great either, but it’s earning me significantly more than it did with the publisher. Further, In a Dark Wood has done better than my other two shorts on Amazon, which really are (deliberately) priced quite high for their word count. So make of that what you will.

How come I’m not snatching back the rights on all my existing works the second they pop up? A couple of reasons.

First, Amazon is only one piece of the publishing pie; my publishers make my work available through a variety of 3rd party sellers who have customers who don’t buy through Amazon. Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to be my own publisher. (These days I barely have the time or energy to be my own writer.)

Two, I’m not so keen on helping Amazon become an entertainment monopoly. I may get irritated with my various publishers, but I don’t particularly want to see them all go out of business; most of my books are doing well enough right where they are.

Am I intrigued by the prospect of publishing something new direct to Kindle? Definitely. I’ll probably take ‘er for a spin with a new novel-length work next year. I sincerely doubt I’m going to sell 35,000 copies or make half a mil, but that’s okay. I don’t need to get rich, I just need to make a decent living.

I should probably segue here into the controversial topic of pricing books for the Kindle, since that too is generating a lot of talk, but I don’t want this to be another monster post. There’s a useful overview on the subject in the Wall Street Journal.

Actually, it’s very difficult to get anyone to talk about money in this genre. A useful page to consult is Brenda Hiatt’s Show Me the Money. She’s working from a limited pool of data when it comes to ebooks, and the numbers are not specific to male-male, but it gives us a ballpark estimate. One thing we’re all agreed on is sales in ebooks have jumped since December. I don’t believe anyone in our genre, self-published or not, has sold 35,000 copies like JA Konrath, but we’re definitely seeing a healthy spike. All those folks who got Kindles and Nooks and iPads for the holidays are racing to fill them up with reading material. That boom will continue for a time until ereaders have become commonplace and until readers (the human kind) catch on to just how much dreck is out there. At that stage all the 99-cent price points in the world won’t mean so much (partly because they’ll be standard practice for everyone trying to break into publishing).

Anyway, I don’t have much in the way of self-publishing numbers to throw at you, but I can quote you sales-to-date figures on two of my moderately successful titles from my primary publishers. Note: I have titles that do better and I have titles that do worse.

Dangerous Ground came out in April ’08 from Loose Id. It has a list price of $4.99. They pay 35% royalties. To date, my before tax total is $5342.

Somebody Killed His Editor came out in June ’09 from Samhain. List price $5.50. Samhain pays 40% royalties. To date, my before tax total is $7688.

Now, there are a couple of ways to look at those numbers. First off, seven to five thousand dollars spread over three years is not enough to live on. On the other hand, five thousand dollars for a month’s work (which is about how long it took to write Dangerous Ground) isn’t in itself horrendous. The horrendous part is when we start spreading that amount over the years it took to realize it.

In mainstream publishing we have a thing known as advances. A five to seven thousand dollar advance for, say, a mass market paperback original is pretty common. You still can’t live on five thousand dollars, but getting a chunk of that money ahead of time does help. However, in our genre we don’t have five thousand dollar advances. In most cases we have no advance at all. So there goes one obvious reason for sticking with a publisher versus striking out on your own.

Another reason for dispensing with a publisher would be royalties held against returns. Mainstream publishers justify holding royalties because they do actual print runs and books can, in theory, be returned years later from bookstores (we could digress here and discuss how this business dynamic is one reason bookstores are helping to put themselves out of business, but one thing at a time). In the case of POD or print on demand, which is the technology most of our m/m publishers are using, returns are generally taken out monthly or quarterly as they occur, so an indie publisher hanging onto royalties for a year or so against highly unlikely mass returns is yet another incentive for DIY.

Although no one (with a clue) chooses writing as a surefire way to rake in the bucks, I think most of us dream of being able to make a living at doing what we love. So money is a factor for all of us. It has to be or the only people who will be able to afford to write will be the independently wealthy or the hobbyists.

But it isn’t just about money. Creative control is equally important. A couple of other reasons to dispense with publishers would be…incompetent content editors, tyrannical copyeditors, ugly cover art, dodgy accounting, and publishers who don’t listen to writers’ concerns about any of the above. There are publishers in our genre, just as in mainstream, who view writers not as publishing partners but as a necessary evil.

That’s where Amazon comes in. The playing field has been leveled for many writers.

Many but not most.

So let’s discuss why it might be in your best interests to stick with a publisher.

Good reasons to stay with a publisher would include great content editors, competent and experienced copyeditors, wider readership and professional cover art. Now it’s true that you can hire someone to provide those services for you, but what you do miss out on is the — possibly necessary — pain and pleasure of apprenticeship.

A lot of writers choose self-publishing because no one wants to publish them. Sometimes it has to do with edgy subject matter or shortsightedness on the part of mainstream publishing, but more often than not, it’s that these books simply aren’t ready for prime time. Those writers have finally come into their own — and it’s not pretty.

One obvious advantage of going with a publisher is that it means validation. It gives an artist credibility when someone not related to you finds your work worth investing in. You get a gold star for making it through the gauntlet! What you also get is the experience of working with other people (ideally publishing professionals) who might have different opinions from you. This is often annoying, but it’s usually instructive. It’s a good experience even when it’s a bad experience, if you know what I mean — provided you haven’t signed an exclusive contract that ties you up with a crook or an incompetent for seven years. Experience teaches us. We grow through experience. Even bad experience. Sometimes especially through bad experiences.

If you hire an editor you get to overrule anything he or she tells you, and the instinct of the inexperienced writer is to do just that. But when you’re the hired gun, you have to negotiate with editors and copyeditors, and that process will often make you a better writer. I’m not saying it’s always a perfect process, but I am saying that working with a variety of editors will almost certainly make you a stronger, smarter writer.

This presupposes that you’re working with one of the better publishers in our genre. Not everybody is. But learning to work well with others is still a useful experience. Especially when you’re starting out and you know painfully little. Which is the point at which we all start out.

And speaking of experience, when you work with a publisher, you get the benefit of all their experience. That could be significant or not. The publisher skill set is not the same as the author skill set. Being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good publisher — especially for your own work. The publisher will ideally invest in targeted advertising for you. Chances are, when you start out, you don’t even know what targeted advertising means. You probably think everyone who likes m/m is your target audience. With a publisher, you get the opportunity to network with other house writers and join forces for promotion on projects. You’ll probably have the opportunity to post regularly on their blog. Your title is introduced to their regular list of readers. Those reading lists are significant, particularly in our genre.

None of which changes the fact that your publisher is (generally speaking) still taking between sixty and seventy percent of the profits. Money that could be — and should be — yours.

Or are they?

We’re hearing a lot of self-publishing success stories from authors who are for the most part already established. One of the exceptions is Amanda Hocking who gets trotted out as the poster girl for DIY publishing. Hocking’s story seems to excite people the most. Not surprisingly, given that she became a millionaire through self-publishing. But Hocking is writing in two very hot mainstream genres: vampire and young adult.

We are not writing in a mainstream genre. If your books are not selling well in this genre, putting them up directly on Amazon is probably not going to change that. Yes, you will keep seventy percent of your earnings, but seventy percent of damn little is still damn little.

Looking at self-publishing as a shortcut is a mistake. Self-publishing is not easy. Instead of relying on a publisher for editing, artwork, accounting, promotion, etc. you’ll now be handling all of that yourself. You might find you have a knack for it, you might find you’re much better at it than your publisher, but what you will also find is being your own publisher cuts into your writing time. And writing is where you make most of your money, regardless of who publishes you.

I’ve said I’m excited about the opportunities of self-publishing and yet I keep coming up with reasons to go with a publisher. So what would be some reasons to turn to self-publishing?

You’re actively and consistently unhappy with your publishers. Yep, that’ll do it. If all you can think about is how much you hate your publisher and how much better you could do it on your own, you’re definitely a candidate for self-publishing.

And on those same lines…you’re a control freak and you prefer to do it — all of it — yourself. Wanting, needing artistic control isn’t always a bad thing. Provided the business end of it doesn’t interfere with the creative part of it, again you could be making the right choice.

You can make more money. It’s certainly possible. There are plenty of stories out there right this minute of authors finding success self-publishing ebooks. For a cogent breakdown of the financial realities, read this blog by former literary agent Nathan Bransford. Granted, he’s talking mainstream and we’re working in a healthy niche market, which does change it up some.

You’ve built your brand, you’ve got a solid core readership, and you’re looking to expand your horizons. Makes sense to me. You’ve put in your time, you’ve paid your dues, and you’re looking to supplement your already steady revenues.

No one else will publish you. Ouch. This is what happened with Hocking. Turns out she was right to have faith in herself, but she’s the first to point out that her story is not typical. Even so, I’m all in favor of following your dream. What’s the worst that can happen? That dream tanks and you realize that you have other dreams

I’m sure there are other solid reasons for choosing to self-publish. But whatever your reasons, to have any shot at success you’ll have to be prepared to invest in editing and art work and promotion. You’re going to have to figure out how to price your work and how to pace yourself between your publisher and author duties. That’s not so easy given that every writer I know is already she’s they’re having trouble balancing writing and promotion.

Finally, we’re hearing a lot along the lines that any real money to be made in self-publishing will be made in the first year or so of this ebook revolution — that those who get there first, will have the home team advantage. We’re already there. We’re already in ebooks and we’ve already got an ebook-loving readership. The best news is if you’re successful in ebooks now, your ebook sales are only going to increase, regardless of whether you choose to stick with your publishers or forge out on your own.

I thought it would be useful to end with a little perspective from K.A Mitchell who, among other things, keeps far better track of her numbers than I do. These three titles were published through Samhain (40% royalties) and they reflect only her ebook numbers.

Diving In Deep released March ‘08 Cover price $4.50 Life to date earnings: $13,196

Regularly Scheduled Life released August ‘08 Cover price $5.50 LTD earnings: $9467

Collision Course released December ‘08 Cover price $5.50 LTD earnings $14,812

K.A. says this: If you want a quote, I figure that if I had self-published any of these titles, I would have earned roughly double, assuming the same number of sales (which is a big assumption). For me, the question of self over e-pubbing comes down to this: is content and line editing, professional cover design, publisher branding, publicity, formatting and placement worth that percentage of my earnings? Considering the amount of time I would have to spend on all those details, it’s worth it to me. I want to spend as much of my professional time writing, which is the part I like, the part I do best, not doing all the stuff about professional writing I hate.

58 comments

  • Hi Josh…

    This is such a well timed post! Thank you for the time you put into this, you don’t know how interesting this is to read at this very moment in time for RJ Scott.

    I have written three YA books that unfortunately my publisher of choice can’t take, given that their site is geared to an *adult* market.

    I am considering self publishing these storeis, and I do seem to have a core of people that like to read my writing, YA though is a new direction.

    My husband tracks every sale I make religiously, and I admire that you can come out and tell people how much you have earned… lets just say Christmas Throwaway did very well *grins* and is still doing really well, and forms a good core of the rest of my sales. I have become a full time writer, it is the main source of my income now… *bites nails*.

    I know an awesome cover artist that I would hope to hire (watch out Reese, coming your way!), and the awesome Jason at Parenthetical Proofing would be my first stop for the final checks after editing. I have the technical know how, so does my IT geek hubby… I could set up a website to pimp it…

    So why am I hesitating?

    Mostly I feel a little disloyal to Silver, who, I tell you, deserve every penny that they make from my work (incidentally Silver only take 40% which is an amazing contract percentage). I just can’t wait until they branch out into YA themselves…

    Your post has certainly given me something to think about. 😕

    And one thing… “Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to be my own publisher. (These days I barely have the time or energy to be my own writer.)” Ditto…

    Hugs and thank you for letting me ramble… Rj x 😀

    Reply
  • It’s not only good business, it can also give you insight into why one book sells like hotcakes and one doesn’t.

    And tracking promo efforts? It’s dicey at best, but impossible without sales numbers. Despite what anyone says, very little promo is done by publishers (including NY). Today, an author must be aware of promo, and be actively involved with it.

    Hocking states that she spent a ton of time doing promo for her books. Now that she’s sold to NY she’s going to hire someone to do promo for her. So? She got a huge deal, and she still feels like she needs to do promo, not leave it up to the NY publisher.

    For anyone self-publishing, be ready to become a promo slut. Put on your red dress, Roxanne….

    Reply
  • Great article Josh!!

    As an author I probably fall into the category of “established author with titles reverted.”

    After 25 books, I’m going to self-publish for the first time this summer a reverted book. It’s a m/f – great book that languished, due to the word count = price that most publishers work with (my belief, however right or wrong it may be).
    I’m going to offer it at over half it’s original price, and even then, I’ll make the same amount of money as I did with the publisher.

    Self-publishing is a pain in the patooie. I re-edited it myself since it had been edited very well the first time, hired a cover artist, and my dh is going to do the technical stuff in the uploading to Kindle. Let’s not even talk about promo!

    This is an experiment for me. I’m not even considering doing another self-pub until I see what’s happens with this one. If it looks promising, I may try it again.

    I have no intentions of leaving my publishers, all of which I love and respect. There’s too many benefits they give me, and I’m happy with them on all counts.

    But I’m glad I have this self-pub option now. I look at it as another venue, for now. Maybe it’ll be a game changer, maybe not. Time will tell.

    And I am a strong believer in tracking your sales from day one. (I’m giving a little chat at L.I. in June on using spreadsheets to track sales) Anal I might be, but it’s valuable information a writer needs to have – once you publish, despite feeling you’re an “artiste”, you are a business. Tracking sales and money is just part of that business.

    Once again, great article Josh!

    Reply
  • Josh, first of all, a huge thank you to you and KA for sharing some of your earnings figures. One of the hardest things to find out when starting out has been what an m/m writer can reasonably aspire to make (assuming they’re any good and manage to capture reader’s imaginations). I know most of us won’t be able to acheive these figures, but it’s good to know that they’re possible and gives me hope for the future 🙂

    Secondly, thanks for a great analysis of the pros and cons of going it alone. I might self-pub a few short stories as the rights revert to me, but other than that, I appreciate what publishers do far too much to want to go it alone. Plus, I’m really not all that fond of paperwork…

    Reply
    • Josh, first of all, a huge thank you to you and KA for sharing some of your earnings figures. One of the hardest things to find out when starting out has been what an m/m writer can reasonably aspire to make (assuming they’re any good and manage to capture reader’s imaginations). I know most of us won’t be able to acheive these figures, but it’s good to know that they’re possible and gives me hope for the future

      Thanks, Josephine. I wish more authors had been brave enough to kick in with what they earn — I did have a couple who offered figures but for the most part…it does remain a questionmark for aspiring authors. I know from looking over my statements that from January on my sales doubled and tripled all across the board.

      That’s primarily, if not solely, due to ereaders being THE gift of choice last year. So in theory we’ve all benefitted from that.

      I know the question that haunts all of us is will those numbers hold true? Is this the new norm or is this a temporary boom?

      Secondly, thanks for a great analysis of the pros and cons of going it alone. I might self-pub a few short stories as the rights revert to me, but other than that, I appreciate what publishers do far too much to want to go it alone. Plus, I’m really not all that fond of paperwork…

      The advantages of going with a terrific publishing are huge. But moving forward — say, a year or two down the line — there will be pressure on publishers to prove their value added. It’ll be interesting to see how the shrewdest publishers move on that — those will be the survivors.

      Reply
  • I am a reader not a writer and my interest is that I want my preferred authors to earn a living so I can indulge in the books I love. I have heard two things in the past couple of weeks that are interesting to me in light of this discussion:

    1. overheard in a cafe … ‘you have to work as hard at your business as you do your craft’
    2. heard on Aunty ABC… ‘there is a power shift happening through the e-book revolution that is taking power from publishers and giving it too readers’.

    Point 1 speaks for itself; there are two sets of actions in getting a book into the reader’s hands. I was intrigued that the power shift discussion didn’t mention author’s power but I think took that as a given in this changing e-environment and that they discussed these changes in terms of power dynamics.

    Reply
    • Point 1 speaks for itself; there are two sets of actions in getting a book into the reader’s hands. I was intrigued that the power shift discussion didn’t mention author’s power but I think took that as a given in this changing e-environment and that they discussed these changes in terms of power dynamics.

      In a funny way I think you have two separate revolutions going on. One is the revolution of authors against the establishment AKA traditional publishing.

      But the other revolution has to do with readers feeling “gouged” by ebook pricing and DRM — tactics used by mainstream publishing to protect a dying infrastructure. That’s where some of the (specious) arguments for piracy come in.

      And there’s no question that an ebook priced higher than the hardcover is an artificial price designed to protect hardcover sales.

      Of course readers are angry about that. It’s ridiculous.

      But there are readers who are angry at the idea of paying more than 2.99 for any story, regardless of length or production values, and that’s equally unrealistic and artificial. The expense of a book is about a lot more than paper and ink. In fact, paper and ink is the least expensive part of a book.

      The simple truth is that you’re not going to get quality work on an ongoing basis for the price of a cheap taco.

      Reply
  • I think I agree with just about everything you said. 🙂 I started out in e-publishing back when it was considered laughable and also write for small press, and NY. I’m a great believer in keeping my options open and trying out new publishing ventures. I put up a 99c short erotic story on smashwords and kindle a year ago and have sold roughly 50 copies a week for the past year, which I understand is quite unusual, but I think it sells consistently because I have a small core audience and a ton of backlist on amazon etc.

    Reply
    • (Let’s try this again. The internet keeps eating my posts.

      I think the 99-cent book or the freebie works well as an introduction to a writer’s backlist.)

      Samhain offered The Dickens With Love free for one month and I had over 20K downloads. A number of readers contacted me saying that freebie was their intro to my work and they’ve gone on to buy my entire backlist. But for other readers that freebie is still unread. They’re too busy hunting for the next freebie. 😀

      The danger of the 99=cent book is it leads some readers to believe that a story is worth less than a cup of fancy-pants coffee or a 99-cent all-shell-no-filler taco.

      Reply
  • I re-released collections of previously published short stories under my own imprint. I couldn’t place them anywhere else, and there was some call for them.

    I am considering self-publishing the rest of the Nikolai ‘verse. In order to take the story where it needs to go, I am crossing every hard line all the publishers set. “I raped, killed and ate the mayor’s wife. Not in that order.” Those sentences alone, from our anti-hero’s mouth, violate at least three rules in the first page.

    The biggest problem for me is going to be distribution. I have enough trouble racking up sales with a publishing house behind me and their distribution channels.

    Reply
    • Angelia, I think print remains tricky. It’s certainly more acceptable for authors to do print themselves than it used to be, but distribution remains iffy.

      But strong ebook sales can fund experiments in print, I think. There are still a lot of readers who aren’t budging from print.

      As dearly as I love my Kindle, I’m not getting rid of my print collection any time soon.

      Reply
      • The average self-published book sells about 200 copies, I remember reading years ago. Not sure if that’s still true.

        I did my collections as .pdf, kindle and POD. I find the print sells fairly well at conventions, especially when I do a reading.

        I’m part of a author’s consortium, so my stuff is not just at Amazon and my site, but at the Literary Underworld too. That’s an extra channel, and I gave them the exclusive on the .pdf format.

        Reply
        • That’s a shrewd move. And, yes, I agree it’s certainly more feasible to move print in person. I think it’s probably the single best way to move print — which is why book signings exploded to the point that bookstores were holding them weekdays.

          I’m not sure myself on what the self-pubbed numbers are. I’m thinking that online these days they’re higher. I hope they are, anyway!

          Reply

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