Thursday, 2 October 2008

Questions About Self-Publishing

While commenting about my proposed publishing survey Jay Mandal has asked,

“Will having dabbled with self-publishing put agents and publishers off…? How often are self-published books picked up by the mainstream publishing houses? And do publishers and agents make any distinction between Print-on-Demand and Publish-on-Demand?”

I don’t think that anyone’s going to be put off from considering someone’s work because they’ve self-published in the past—so long as it’s a new, unpublished book that is being considered. The problem comes when an editor wants to publish a book and discovers that it has already been published. Regardless of how the book was published—whether it was self-published, vanity-published, or scribbled on the back of a load of used envelopes and left pinned to bus seats, the fact is that it has already been published. So, first rights have been used up and, as publishers usually want to acquire first rights and nothing but, they’ll decline and move on. For a full explanation of why this is read my previous post here, which directs you to a piece over at Lynn Price’s excellent blog (which is part of my daily reading and yes, Lynn, that's two nice things I've said about you now).

Self-published books are very rarely picked up by mainstream publishing houses. That’s why it makes the news when it does happen: and bear in mind that a lot of the stories you’ll read online about writers who self-published before going on to mainstream success are just not true—see my previous post on this subject here. There are several reasons why publishers won’t republish a previously self-published book: the first rights issue, the problems with promoting a pre-published book as new and fresh, and the possible confusion that will arise between the self-published version and the commercially-published version. There’s also the quality issue. Many books are self-published because no mainstream publishers would take them on, and there’s usually a good reason for this: most self-published books are just plain awful! In addition to the poor writing they aren’t usually edited properly, and are often underdeveloped first drafts (and if you’d like to prove me wrong on this, you could consider submitting your self-published, subsidy-published, or published-in-any-way-other-than-mainstream books to me for inclusion in my other blog, The Self-Publishing Review).

I’ll cover the publish/print on demand issue separately, as it’s important enough to warrant a whole post of its own.


jonathan pinnock said...

I understand what you're saying, but I do know of one example who did succeed in making the leap from self-publishing to the mainstream, and that's this guy, who came to talk to our circle a while back. However, he only managed to make the leap because he is (a) extremely articulate and (b) unbelievably persistent.

Enjoying your blog, BTW. A hell of a lot of common sense there.

Jane Smith said...

Jonathan, that jump from self-publishing to commercial publishing does happen: just not very often. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of books that are commercially published each year, only a tiny proportion were originally self-published. The odds aren't very good.

Thanks for the kind words about my blog: I hope to see you back here again soon.

Jill said...

I look forward to reading your blog about POD publishing.

Jane Smith said...

Jill, that will probably appear early next week, depending on how much of my real, paid-for writing work I get done today. Thanks for your interest.

Jane Smith said...

Just so you know, the follow-on piece to this, "publish on demand or print on demand", should appear tomorrow.

Philip Davis said...

I agree with everything you say regarding the quality of books, in general, that are being self-published. Self-publishing authors simply need to make the investment in book design and editing.

That said, one aspect of self-publishing that I like is, if done correctly, it can teach an author how to market and sell his or her book. Another big myth is if an author sells his/her book to a publisher then the publisher will do all the promotion. This rarely happens.

The best of both worlds is to sell your book to a big house and then go about agressively promoting the book yourself.

Self-publishing can help authors become good sales people, if they apply themselves to it.

Ernest Scribbler said...

Damning self-publishing or POD as a sleazy scam for wannabe authors is like damning the telephone because some people make dirty phone calls. I am an established author with an agent and a trak record, and I am using POD as a way of publishing fiction and seizing control of my own work. What you don't go into in your excellent blog is the downside of conventional publishing - the laziness, the incompetence, the inefficiencies - and how exhilirating it is to market and sell one's own books, for once, without some undeserving middlemen taking a cut.

Ernest Scribbler said...

Sorry about my spelling errors. It's hard to write in a straight line on a moving planet.

Jane Smith said...

(Forgive me my typos: I’m trialling a new version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking which I purposely have not yet tweaked to fit me. My normal standards of perfection will be resumed when I’ve fiddled about with it a bit more.)

Philip Davis wrote, "Another big myth is if an author sells his/her book to a publisher then the publisher will do all the promotion. This rarely happens."

Philip, you're almost right, but not quite.

Publishers don't allocate over-large promotional budgets to every single book that they publish, and arrange book launches or signing tours for everyone: however, they do include every title that they publish in their catalogue, and it's this catalogue that their distributors' sales teams use as a sales tool when they visit bookshops.

Those sales teams visit every single bookshop in the country, every week, to discuss new releases and hot titles. This is what gets books into bookshops; and consequently, books into people's homes.

Publishers also routinely send out advance review copies of every single title that they publish, to every appropriate publication that they can find, and to carefully-selected bookshops all over the country (usually the independents). Depending on the title they might send out 50 ARCs, or perhaps a few hundred: but this is something that very few self-publishers can afford to do, or have the mailing list and contacts to do effectively. And it's this that generates the most effective reviews, and gets booksellers motivated to promote certain books.

So while it's true that big publishers don't automatically spend big money promoting every single book that they publish, they do an awful lot to get them into bookshops, which is where most people buy their books. And even though publishers don't heavily promote every title, what they do is very effective at selling books—and is something that no self-publisher can even hope to rival.

Jane Smith said...

Ernest scribbler wrote: “Damning self-publishing or POD as a sleazy scam for wannabe authors is like damning the telephone because some people make dirty phone calls. I am an established author with an agent and a trak record, and I am using POD as a way of publishing fiction and seizing control of my own work. What you don't go into in your excellent blog is the downside of conventional publishing - the laziness, the incompetence, the inefficiencies - and how exhilirating it is to market and sell one's own books, for once, without some undeserving middlemen taking a cut.”

Ernest, you’ve misunderstood me. I don’t believe that self-publishing is sleazy at all: it’s a very good channel for some writers, and I applaud those who are successful at it. What I don’t like is how some people and companies use it to exploit the vulnerable or naïve, by offering high-cost self-publishing “services” of little or no value to the writer.

There’s a reason why I don’t discuss the laziness and incompetence of mainstream publishing in my blog: it’s because I’ve worked in publishing, one way or another, for over twenty years and I’ve yet to come across any that’s entrenched or systemic. Sure, you get the odd sloth, and the occasional incompetent: but they’re in the minority.

I truly believe that mainstream, commercial publishing is the best option for the vast majority of good-enough writers. Why? Because it encourages writers to be writers, and not salespeople. I know how exhilarating sales can be: before I worked in book publishing I had a somewhat glittering career in sales and marketing. These days, though, I prefer to leave the selling to the salespeople, and concentrate on my writing. It’s more productive all round.

Ernest Scribbler said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments. Sure, in an ideal world, one should just concentrate on the writing and leave the sales to the salespeople. But it isn't an ideal world, and in my opinion, sales and marketing people are often very poor, so that the good ones don't have the time they need to devote to one's project, and, in any case, will not know one's market as well as the author him/herself.

Now, here's a thing. One thing I'm finding with POD is you soon get to find out what works as a sales technique and what doesn't.

What irks me about conventional publishing is that it takes so long for sales figures to come through, that you simply don't know how many books you've sold (once returns and such have been factored in) and what works best to sell them.

I have been marketing my book 'By The Sea' for a few weeks now. It's a thrilleer set in north Norfolk, England, where I live. I arranged a feature in my local paper, which lots of people have seen - but I know for a fact that this feature has sold zero copies. Most of what I have sold comes from relentless plugging on my blogs (one of which receives 10,000 hits, regularly) and through Facebook. And yet I have sold, to date, all of 16 copies (14 books, 2 downloads). A forthcoming appearance at a reading group should sell a few more. Were I to sell 100 I'd be ecstatic.

And my point is ...? Well, I'd be willing to bet that having a sales and marketing team behind you wouldn't do much better (indeed, from previous experience, I know it does not).

My best-received book was a pop-science title called 'Jacob's Ladder', published by a respected conventional publisher in the US (Norton) and in the UK (Fourth Estate). It got a truly stellar review in the New York Times, and has won a modest prize. Despite that, it's not tuyrned a penny in royalties even after five years, and that was on a relatively modest advance (£17,500). So, as you see, I don't think the hoopla of conventional publishing amounts to a hill of beans.

What's worse, when one's book fails to sell, you'll find that publishers hate you, even when they took on the book, and it was their marketing and sales people who weren't doing their jobs. I sometimes feel that publishers put out books and expect them to sell themselves - leaving the author to do all the work. In which case, why bother with publishers at all?

Jane Smith said...

Ernest, thanks for coming back to fight your corner.

I don't call £17,500 a modest advance at all: I think it's a very good one. It's not surprising that you haven't earned that advance out, as only about 30% of books do earn out and earn further royalties for their authors (I've blogged about this somewhere, if you want to go and fish about in my archives).

As for how self-publishing competes with commercial publication: let us suppose for a moment that you make a clear profit of £10 from every copy of your self-published book that you sell (and I doubt that you'll make anything like that much). That would give you a total income of £160 from the sale of your 16 copies. If you sell the 100 copies that you said would make you ecstatic, you would still only make £1,000. From where I'm standing, your "modest advance” still looks preferable.

Ernest Scribbler said...

Ah, advances. They are a two-edged sword. For my first trade book I made about £100,000 in advances. Needless to say the book has never recouped anything like this, but somehow it's me who gets the blame for the publisher's idiotic financial decisions. £17,500 was for my second trade book, when reality had bitten the publisher on the bum. Since then my advances have been tiny, in the £1000-£2000 range, and I am beginning to think that advances are silly - I'd much rather have no advance and get paid a whacking great royalty rate, of say, 30%. That represents an old-fashioned business model to which publishers are now returning.

My two books on Lulu sell for £6.99, for which I get 31p for By The Sea (313 pages), and 85p for Siege of Stars (257 pages - the calculation is related to pagination, as you see.) So, my 16 copies have netted me an amazing sum of eight quid. Why doesn't this add up? Because two of those 16 sales were downloads. Because these take almost nothing to manufacture, lulu takes relatively little, so I can sell these for £1.99 and get a profit of £1.59. So, as you see, I'd rather people bought my books as downloads.

Now, I am not a professional author, in the sense that I earn my living doing something else, so advances aren't as essential to my welfare as they are to some. But I guess that very few people indeed can live exclusively on their earnings from books. I'd really rather see precisely how many books have sold, and when, and what I get out of it, rather than the slow and inefficient accounts departments of publishers taking months to pay me anything at all, and me having little idea whether they are pulling the wool over my eyes.

Jane Smith said...

Ernest, I'll almost agree with you now! A more transparent accounting procedure would be good: but it's difficult to do that without oversimplifying the process, which is much complicated by The Great Reserve Against Returns Problem.

If you're worried that your royalties are way out you should have the right to have your accounts audited--check your contract. But that is a bit slegehammer/nut if you're only worried about a handful of sales.

(What was that first trade book that you sold for such a lovely chunk of money? I'd love to know.)

Ernest Scribbler said...

This one