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.


  • Very interesting, and sensible, article. Although I’ve done a little writing and had a few short stories published with a good small press, I really want to respond from the perspective of both an avid reader and a freelance copy editor. From both perspectives, I feel that self-published authors who don’t know what they are doing and publishers who don’t care what they are doing–except for raking in a few bucks–are doing themselves and their readers a disservice. As you so rightly point out, after every boom comes a bust and then a settling-out process. In the end, quality product is going to survive. In some cases that may be self-published product, but only if it’s done right by someone who does the work–both the writing and all the rest. And the small publishers who take the trouble to serve and nurture the talent with solid editing, art, and marketing will be around when the rest have collapsed.

    • Love the icon. 😀

      Yes. People talk about the inevitable bust coming in m/m fiction. Is our market flooded? Sure. But certain writers — the good and/or those profficient at promo — are still doing fine.

      The problem is that in this democratization of book buying, promotion isn’t going to be enough if the quality of the book isn’t there. It’s the old fool me once…shtick.

  • Thanks for this post, Josh. Very interesting take on this issue from the m/m romance author’s point of view.

    You might want to take a look at Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, where he’s been discussing midlist writers self-publishing their backlists. Very eye-opening and food for thought.

  • Excellent discussion.

    I will add a couple of things:

    1. I recently attended a panel of editors and agents and they discussed self-pubbing and the fact that for many people the decision to selfpub is a one made in anger or frustration after rejection. As someone said, “Maybe your initial consideration is tell the publishing industry to f–k off but that shouldn’t be your last consideration.” The biggest pitfall is un-edited work hitting the street and ruining your reputation before you have one.
    2. Amy Atwell (Carina Press Author) recently started a project that collected sales data from e-published authors (much like Ms. Hiatt) and that should be out soon for public consumption.


    • Wow. Robin, that is so true. I do think that a lot of the decision to self-pub is fueled by anger and frustration.

      And that’s not always a bad thing. JA Konrath made the right decision. He’s the perfect example of a competent but unspectacular writer — the classic midlister. Very bright aqnd vry ambitious (a tireless genius at self-promotion) and not being served as well by traditional publishing as he could do on his own. For those writers, self-publishing throws open financial doors that did not previously exist.

      But for the author whose work isn’t quite there yet…sometimes, most of the time, you get one shot with a reader. If the work is amateur and clearly not ready for prime time, that’s it. Chances are, you won’t get another shot at that reader for some time. Maybe years. Maybe never.

      I’m fascinated to see Amy’s numbers.

  • I think the other great thing that this mini-revolution has ushered in is the fact there now are choices. Not that long ago, you had the traditional publishing houses with agents as the gatekeepers and vanity presses. That was about it. Now we have small indie publishers, niche publishers, DIY self-publishing and more. (I am waiting for someone to serialize a book via a blog and publish to the Amazon Kindle! Now there’s an idea!). There’s always been tons of good stuff that’s never seen the light of day. Now it is getting out there, in whatever form. Of course, there’s also a fair amount of drek, but I readers are not stupid. Plus, one person’s drek is another person’s five star read, right? LOL.


    • So true, Leslie. When I said “Author’s Market,” I should have said “Reader’s Market” because as readers the world is our oyster. We’ve got everything from the edgiest of niches to all the OP stuff on the Gutenberg Project site — and everything in between. It’s a great time to be a reader if you have access to the internet.

  • I think self-publishing mainstream fiction is even more difficult than niche genre like M/M romance because there are simply too many books out there and the target audience is too wide. Like all internet marketing, it is easier to target a niche market than a wide market.

    On the one hand the potential for sales is much higher overall. On the other hand, standing out — getting noticed — in that much larger crowd, is a lot harder. That’s the challenge of all midlist authors.

    Of course 3-7K books sold through Amazon directly, while unacceptable to a mainstream publisher, would be a dream come true to an author realizing 70% royalties.

    But a mainstream midlist author has already been through the mill, and probably has a workmanlike understanding of what it takes to craft a commercial story.

  • Excellent post as usual, Josh. I link this post on another writers’ forum I participate in because some of them have problems with their publishers and consider self publishing. Granted, they are mostly mainstream fiction.

    I think self-publishing mainstream fiction is even more difficult than niche genre like M/M romance because there are simply too many books out there and the target audience is too wide. Like all internet marketing, it is easier to target a niche market than a wide market.

    I want to publish something one day, with a publisher. More for confirmation than making money. I am simply not cut out to produce a novella every month. lol. And yes, it feels different when someone else is willing to invest in your work rather than yourself.

  • I have mixed feelings about self-publishing. My stories are too short to attract a NY publisher, which is why I’ve turned to the digital publishers. But (sigh) one book isn’t enough. More than one published author has told me one needs a back list. That said, I might self-publish a novella that’s too short for my publisher but is tied in with a particular book. “Might” being the key word. Right now, though, I’ll stay with working with and submitting my work to the E-publishers. (That is, unless my editor doesn’t think my first full-length novel is a horrible piece of dreck and I get the courage to submit it to an agent.) LOL

    • No, one book is not enough. I’m making a living because I have 40 ebook titles floating around out there in a multitude of venues. But my Amazon sales definitely dominate those numbers.

      B&N comes next — sometimes neck and neck with All Romance Ebooks (who has also changed their definition of “publisher” and their royalty percentage so as to compete with Amazon).

      You do need a backlist to make money, but it’s GOT to be a quality backlist. I see so many authors rushing to put out a giant backlist of really, REALLY awful books which they then sell to 50 – 100 loyal friends and fans. You can’t make a living like that. You can only make a living at this game if your readership expands and your sales grow.

      Which is why it’s important to keep accurate records of your numbers.

      I’m being asked a lot about self-publishing right now, and what I keep telling people is go ahead and try the waters. But don’t burn any bridges.