Monday, 20 April 2009

The Problems With Selling Self Published Books

Mainstream, commercial publishers will publish just about anything they think they can make money on. So when a book is widely rejected (assuming it’s been submitted to the right people and places), it’s because the people who know and understand the market best consider that it’s not commercial enough to sell well. That it’s not going to appeal enough to readers to sell in any quantity.

If a writer then goes ahead and self-publishes the book, chances are it won’t sell many copies. Not only do they have a product which has already been judged insufficiently commercial, they won’t have the same support that commercially-published books receive—no editorial advice, no marketing clout, no sales team, and no promotional material or expertise.

Because they have no editorial support, their book is unlikely to be edited as well as a commercially-published title. Sure, they could get the book worked on by an editorial agency: but this edit is unlikely to be carried out in much detail, and might well focus more on typo-hunting than real line-editing.

Because the first-time self-published writer has no reputation for producing good books they are unlikely to be able to attract the attention of any of the major reviewers, and so that particular promotional route is closed to them.

So long as they have an ISBN, their books will be listed with Gardners and other wholesalers: but they’ll stand very little chance of getting any real distribution for their books; and even if they manage that, they’ll have no sales activity other than that which they carry out themselves—which means they’re restricted to sales in local bookshops only, with little hope of national stock placement. It’s not surprising, then, that few self-published books sell more than fifty or a hundred copies.

The suggestion is often made that self-published books might achieve better sales figures if given the same sort of support that is routine for a commercially-published title.

While some might, I doubt that many would. I've seen a lot of self-published books over the last few years and it's clear to me that most were rejected by the commercial presses because they simply weren’t good enough to command a decent level of sales. I don't think they'd sell many more copies if given more support: I'm just surprised that so many have managed to sell more than five or ten copies each, given their general lack of expertise involved in bringing them to publication.


Dan Holloway said...

No comments? Wowsers.

It’s true there is a huge amount of what can only be described as detritus floating around the self-published market. I think one needs to be careful about generalising from that, though. Certainly, it is most definitely not the case that self-publishing means no editorial or marketing input – or any of the other constituents that make up “publishing”. It just means the author hasn’t had this done by the same company that prints her or his book. Of course many people don’t have this kind of input, but many is not all – and it certainly isn’t the case that the self-publishing author has these forms of support cut off from them. In fact, one of the advantages of doing things yourself is you can handpick the professionals you work with. It might seem a flippant comment, but if I could pick one person to market my book, it wouldn’t be a marketer at Random House or any other publisher – it would be Max Clifford. It’s actually a serious point. Publishers know about marketing BOOKS, but PR companies know about MARKETING books, if you get what I mean, and the self-published author is free to choose their own PR, rather than being tied in to the house system.

Likewise, the self-pubber isn’t necessarily a person with no reputation for producing good books – it’s possible to build a following without selling books – musicians do it all the time.
It’s certainly true that the person who does self-publishing badly will sell very few books. It’s also true that the person who does self-publishing very well won’t sell a million copies. Neither of which mean there isn’t a place for someone with a niche market to do their self-publishing extremely well, and, once they’ve written 8 or so books, to make as much money out of it as they do out of their current badly-paid office job. Which is certainly all I ask.

Kristen said...

The only comment I have, really, is the consistently negative approach to self-publishers, self-publishing.

Realism, I understand. And there is a certain reality check all who self-publish should do before they get into it.

But coming down on it doesn't really seem necessary, as it's clearly not a threat to mainstream publishing, nor is it that stupid of an idea IF the self-publisher doesn't expect to get rich.

People whose books publish through mainstream publishers can't necessarily quit their day jobs, either.

If you write something you want people to read, and you're able to get it to those people yourself after agents turn you away, why NOT self-publish?

DanielB said...

After 8 or so self-published books? That really would be impressive. I've been published and agented for more than a decade, have eight books with Proper Publishers (plus overseas editions), with #9 and #10 on the way, and I still don't earn (from writing alone) quite what I did in my previous dull office job.

[Word verification: heidine. n, chemical compound made out of little Swiss girls and goats.]

Jane Smith said...

Kristin, I do hope you don't think I'm being negative about the people who choose to self-publish: so long as they are properly prepared for it, and realise what they're really getting into, that's great.

What I object to is the amount of misinformation that's out there about the whole process: there are so many "publishing is changing" articles around right now which imply that it's an easy road to fame and fortune, and it just isn't (not that mainstream publishing is either, but it is usually a better bet for those of us who have to earn a living).

You ask, "why NOT self-publish?"

If you know where your readers are, can reach them, and are a good sales person and so on then self-publishing can be an excellent way to proceed: but if you don't (and most people who think they do find out that they don't when put to the test), then I have to reply with, "WHY self-publish?" What do you hope to achieve by doing so? Because if you want readers, then blogging or starting a website (or any of the many other ways there are to distribute text on the internet)is probably a more effective way to reach them, and far cheaper besides.

Oh, and Dan--if you want to be able to make a good living as a writer, you need to find yourself a clever husband with his own business. It works very well for me!

BuffySquirrel said...

Max Clifford? Ew.

Kristen said...

if you want to be able to make a good living as a writer, you need to find yourself a clever husband with his own business. It works very well for me!And me!

(Agreed - there is some misinformation. Or, at the very least, not enough truth-telling about how NOT easy it is for someone who isn't famous.)

Jane said...

Max Clifford costs £5000 per month. Just to keep him on retainer. He also takes a hefty cut of any deal you might make.

Helen P said...

I think self publishing is a very good idea for the businessman or woman (for example) who wants to tell a story that she or he thinks will interest others but which a mainstream publisher would not touch. I was commissioned by one such businessman based on newspaper articles I had written for national newspapers and copywriting work I undertook for his company. Rob Lloyd was on Secret Millionaire on Channel 4 on Sunday. He is a successful businessman and a fascinating storyteller but when he approached publishers their reaction was 'Who are you?'and I don't blame them. But that's why self publishing is an important part of the publishing world. Rob paid me less than a 'Max Clifford four month retainer' but it was more than enough to concentrate on his story to the exlusion of my other freelancing work. Rob got the book he wanted; I got the chance to have my first book published (albeit with my name in the acknowledgments rather than on the cover) and yes, he does have a PR machine kicking in as we speak! I guarantee he will recoup the cost of publishing; he mentioned so many friends and colleagues they will ALL buy a book. My fee was, for him, an affordable business expense.

Melinda Szymanik said...

I have a product (a sequel) agreed to by the publisher, but after insufficient sales of the first book over six months (although its earned out) they've changed their minds. The back cover blurb on the first book mentions the sequel and a cover picture features inside the back cover of the first. People keep asking me when the sequel is coming - (originally pencilled for May 09). Self-publishing (of course with professional editing) may be the only way for this book to have a life. It wouldn't be about sales so much as it being available at all.

Dan Holloway said...

Oh dear. A clever husband. My wife doesn't have a business, but she IS very clever. My Fsacebook username is my character, Sandrine Curtesz, which already causes confusion amongst her friends (I though you were married to Dan - wow, you never told us!)If I were to run off with a rich man no one would know whether they were coming or going!

Ron Morgans said...

Self publishing isn't always about your books being 'too bad for mainstream publishers'. I had a two book contract with The Friday Project. A month before publication TFP went bankrupt. My books were edited, copy edited and proof-read. They never got printed. Other agents shied away. TFP was 'tainted'. Now I must self-publish three of them.

Jane Smith said...

Ron, just yesterday I spoke to an author who was offered a contract with TFP just before they failed: that same novel was subsequently taken on by a major publisher, with no trouble at all (well, you know what I mean...).

I wonder if the taint that you perceived was because you were shopping around the version that TFP project edited? It's possible that they'd "own" those corrections, which might be why no one else would consider the work (although I am guessing a bit here). But I'd have thought that if your work was good enough to get you a two-book deal from TFP, then other publishers would be interested in seeing it--so long as you had the right agent. And I'm surprised that you now feel you have to self-publish.

Ron Morgans said...

As you know, Jane, we can't approach publishers anymore except through agents. So publishers never get to see them. It's the agents who won't take them on.

Jane Smith said...

Ron, most of the independent publishers will gladly accept unagented manuscripts, and several of them have extraordinarily good reputations: I'm thinking here of Snowbooks, Myrmidon, Salt, Bluechrome, etc. And there's also the Macmillan New Writing imprint. So there are plenty of publishing options open to the agentless writer, including at least one mainstream publisher.

As for agents, I still don't understand why they wouldn't consider you because you'd been offered a publishing contract by TFP before it shelved: the failure of TFP has nothing to do with the quality of your writing, and I'm amazed that agents rejected you simply because of that. Did they tell you point blank that that was the reason they were rejecting your work? And how many told you this? It sounds extraordinary to me!

(Not that I'm accusing you of lying, you understand: but what you've told me here just doesn't mesh with what I've heard from other writers, and seen happening myself, so I'm curious.)

Ron Morgans said...

Well, there it is, Jane. I don't want to be a bore about it. Thanks for the indie publishers names. They may be a new route for me. I've actually learned a lot by self publishing so it's not all down side. Now I publish them myself as downloads and produce them as paperbacks through Lightning Source and Mobipocket. I get nice reviews from nice people:
I just wanted to say that not all self publishers are losers.
ps. I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you.

Jane Smith said...

"I just wanted to say that not all self publishers are losers."I agree with you there, Ron: I think it takes a lot of courage and conviction to self-publish. I just want to do what I can to make sure that people who do self-publish know exactly what they're getting into before they go ahead, so that they have a realistic view of what they can achieve, and don't end up broke and/or disillusioned.