Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Moving From Self-Publishing To Mainstream

I've heard a lot of self-published writers insist that self-publication is a good route to mainstream publication. But is that really the case? Probably not.

Literary agent David Fugate of LaunchBooks Literary Agency has written,
looking back at my PublishersMarketplace search, I noted that 29 deals were listed where the book had been previously self-published. That sounds like a decent number until you realize that more than 30,000 deals have been reported there over the last 2 years.
So out of every thousand deals reported by Publishers' Marketplace over the last two years, only one concerned a book which had previously been self-published: a statistic which effectively flattens the argument that self-publishing provides a good route to mainstream success.

I'd really like to find out how many books were self-published in that same time-frame, and how many of them went on to be published by mainstream publishers: but it's proved impossible to find anything verifiable and hype-free (if anyone knows where I can get such statistics for free, I'd love to have them). Because if we had those figures we'd be able to see just how likely it is for books to cross over from self-publishing to mainstream, and possibly how fast this trend is increasing.

None of this is meant to imply that self-published books can't be successful without making that transition: of course they can, under the right circumstances. Mr Fugate goes on to write,
Does that mean I think you shouldn’t self-publish your book? Not necessarily. There are circumstances where self-publishing - especially when taking advantage of the speed and ease of print on demand - makes a great deal of sense (generally when speed to market is very important and where the author has a significant marketing platform to draw upon).

Bolding mine. If you're going to self-publish, you're going to have to do a lot of marketing and promotion in order to see any significant sales; and unless you go on to make those significant sales, you're no more likely to find yourself a mainstream publisher than anyone else who has written a book. Unless your book is stonkingly good, which is, of course, a whole different discussion.


Paul said...

Of those 29, how many would have been published if they had not carefully prepared a manuscript, did it up in Lulu somehow. It's still a manuscript. It's just the writers doing a bit more of the work to try to help the publishers out. Instead of a sheaf of papers, they get a nice looking book that's closer to the end product. And you can say, I have showed it to blah blah who said blah blah. The reason resistance remains is because it undermines the roles of the gatekeepers, the ones who decide what is good. They don't like it. Oh well, that's my last word on the subject. Oh and yes there are great writers who will never get a publishing deal cos they hate doing the marketing so they might as well selfpublish. Have a fantabulous day,

SleepyJohn said...

I have no idea of the sort of figures we need to bandy about, but if a writer writes and markets a book well enough for it to come to the attention of calculating mainstream publishers, just how much benefit will he get, I wonder, from handing control of it to them?

none said...

It's a fact almost universally acknowledged that agents and editors prefer the sheaf of papers. Almost.

Philip Sington said...

Agents and editors do indeed prefer the traditional sheaf of papers. It's not about gatekeeping, although it might seem that way. It's about discovering something that looks and feels new (and not, by implication, already seen and passed over by loads of other people).
That said, e-submissions are increasingly common. Why ask for 'partials' and all that rigmarole when you can be e-mailed the whole book and print out as many pages as you like?

PS - Jane, just in case you're having any e-mail problems, you can always post something on my blog. That seems a pretty reliable method, from past epxerience.

Anonymous said...

Jane, one of the most disconcerting things I see is that many self-published authors use this format because they believe it's an effective launching pad to getting the attention of a commercial publisher.

Unless a book has big sales, a commercial publisher will RARELY take on a self published book because most aren't ready for prime time.

I can't give you any industry statistics, but I can say that out of 3,000 submissions, there were 52 that were self-pubbed. Out of those, I signed two. The last one I signed was two years ago - and I regret it because the author didn't know anything about the industry - or that she needed to promote.

Bradley Robb said...

Stand back! I'm about to do math.

According to a less-than-neutral article by Motoko Rich in the New York Times from January , the iUniverse family published 19,000 titles in 2008, which is a double digit growth on the previous year, and about six times more titles than Random House.

Doing some number crunching, that's 29 over two years, or about fifteen per year...even if we were to assume that all of those books were published through the iUniverse family, that would mean 15 out of 19000, or 1 in 1266, or a 0.078% chance.

However, is grossly misleading. Why? Because it assumes that publishers are choosing at random. A more interesting statistic from the article that Jane linked to is the statistics the author has for iUniverse in 2004 - out of the 18,000+ titles sold in that year, only 83 sold more than 500 copies. Of all the authors at iUniverse, 99.54% do not possess the skills to write, edit, a market a book which could sell more than 500 copies.

If we make a few more assumptions - that the rate of self published books picked up by publishers has remained relatively constant at 15 books per year (probably hasn't), that the rate of successfully selling more than 500 self-published books is around 0.46% (probably has), and most or all of the self-published books which are picked up for publishing by a traditional press are from the iUniverse family (which they aren't) - that means a self published title which can sell over 500 copies a year has about a 1 in 6 or (16.6%) chance of landing a traditional book deal.

The real kicker here is that these numbers are all making assumptions that are kind towards the self published author, assuming they would want to move to a traditional publisher. Including other self-publishers, vanity presses, and new PoD technologies would make the number of annually self-published books skyrocket, driving that percentage of even closer to zero. Using actual numbers of book deals would give us an even smaller success window for years past, again, hurting the end percentage.

That makes the 5% acceptance rate at Literary Agents seem huge.

Bradley Robb said...

Yikes, and the grammar in my last comment is exactly why you don't surf blogs before coffee in the morning.

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Jane,
My favourite topic :-) I must say I have to agree with you. Self-publishing is not a good way to get a mainstream publisher, and conversely getting a mainstream publisher is a very bad reason for self-publishing.

There's a simple reason for this. mainstream publishers, in the current climate, can only afford to take on newbies whom they are fairly sure will recoup an advance and marketing budget. That means sales. Quite a lot of them. Almost certainly they would want to see a sure-fire 5-figure sales and then some.

So in order for your self-published book to get a mainstream contract it'll have to be the kind of book that sells 10,000+. Which means its readership will have to be drawn from more than one segment of society. Which means you, as a self-publisher will have to market the book far and wide and goodness knows where.

The books that work for self-publishing are books where the readership is drawn from a single segment (the dreaded word, "niche"), and you need to know that readership well. If you do, the chances are you'll be able to reach them effectively. With some nous and a bit of flair, you may be able to reach as many of them as a publisher could. but none of THAT will make your book anything other than a niche book - it still won't appeal to a publisher.

Self-publishing is NOT a means to an end. It is a perfectly legitimate end in itself for people who have marketing know-how, and a book with a small but concentrated readership. And if you can write such books frequently enough and well enough there is no reason why you can't make a modest living from them. But self-publishing really isn't right for mainstream books - you just have to spread yourself too thin. sure there will be the odd black swan that comes along and makes it, but these can't be tne basis of a business plan. A mainstream book needs to go the mainstream route.

And that from someone who's an ardent believer in self-publishing. who, in fact, has just done so as part of the Year Zero Writers collective (lots of people working the same niche for you always helps). But like everything else, you need to do your research, and you need to do it right - and as Jane's article so wisely points out - you need to be very clear what you want to get out of it. What I want is to sell 2-5,000 units in the year of release, with a steady 1-2,000 thereafter, and I want to write a book every nine months. And my books are written for a market I know very well, because I'm part of it - I know exactly where the people who are my readers go for recommnedations. If any of the above were different, self-publishing wouldn't be for me.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I wonder from this point how much easier or more difficult it would be to get an agent or a publisher for a new manuscript. If you self-published or went with a small press, would the lack of large sale numbers hurt your chance at moving onto mainstream publishing or would it be just like starting back at the beginning like the rest of the newbies out there? Just curious.

Philip Sington said...

Cindy, I think it would make little difference whether a previous work had been self-published. But as soon as you publish through a recognised press of any size your sales record will be a factor inn any calculation about your sales potential. This is especially true in the US market, where sales records are given undue weight.
That said, if an editor really likes a book and has confidence in it, they will fight the necessary internal battles to get the book into print, and for most agents it would be the same. They are all, in the end, looking for good books, wherever they come from.

Sally Zigmond said...

Let's not lose sight of the basic facts here.

The vast majority of self-published FICTION won't attract an agent or mainstream publisher because they're badly (some appallingly) written.

Sorry. But it's true.

catdownunder said...

Being a cat of Scots heritage I would much prefer that someone else risked their money on the value of my work!
Once you have self-published a book there is another little problem. If it sells at all then you have already used up some of your potential market. I imagine any self respecting publisher would expect the previously self-published author to work that much harder at selling the book. That detracts from the time you can spend on your next book.
I would much rather have my paws on the keyboard than a pen at a book signing!

Dan Holloway said...

Sally's point is an interesting one and, alas as a self-publishng denizen, a true one. What's so interesting about it, of course, is that - rather like the discussion of the chance of getting through the slush over at Pitch Parlour, it actually puts a heartening slant on the stats.

If most self-published books are appalling, and yours isn't, then your chances of getting a mainstream publisher aren't nearly so bad as Bradley's number-crunching suggests.

The problem is, if that sniffs of Bad Science, so it should. Because the awfulness of other self-published books is beyond the scope of the argument we need to have (probably, if you are reading this, your book isn't quite so awful, anyway). We need to look at the isues for those who have produced a flawlessly edited manuscript, a great cover, and a story that holds its own in its genre. If that book is "mainstream" it will never really be right to self-publish as a business plan because you just can't cover the marketing bases without a huge slice of luck (happening to be seen somewhere by Someone Who Counts [that's not to say don't do it - black swans and all - just it's a bad business plan]. And if that book is the kind of real niche product that will do well self-published if you market it properly, then no matter how much better done it is than otehrs in its genre, the chances of being published don't increase, because it still isn't commercially viable.

I have to say, cat, I love being hands on with marketing. I know the kind of people who will read my book, and I love talking to them - and I'd far rather I talked to them than a PR company did it on my behalf. It's more authentic, and with the emo/urban indie reader authenticity is paramount.

BTW, cdu, I just blogged on present tense writing at :-)

Derek said...

Jane -- for statistics, the only industry-wide source I know of is Bowker (Books in Print).

They say that 275,000 regular titles were published last year, along with 285,000 print-on-demand titles.

Now, some of those print-on-demand titles will be specialized academic and technical titles. Equally, the better-capitalized self-publishers may have used conventional offset printing.

Even so, I wouldn't be surprised if 200,000 of last year's titles were the work of self-publishers.

Word verification: detocoa (cleansing one's system after excessive consumption of bedtime cocoa).

miss pitch said...

Many authors who self-publish subsequently send their books to agents in hopes of representation. Most agents just feel a bit sad for people who have spent their smarties on these books, because they're almost always risible.

Dan Holloway said...

Miss P, surely anyone who sends a book to an agent is an automatic #queryfail for blatently disregarding the agent's submission criteria? Which goes to show, as so often, it is the people with least to shout about who often shout the loudest and the most (and the most inappropriately). At the risk of being ridiculed for my musical taste, and my libertarian politics, to quote Jon McClure (not such a daft literary citation as the man cites his hero as John Cooper Clark) "because you shout loudest, don't mean that you're right"

And on the wider question of numbers in this debate - I'm not sure if both the quality of manuscripts and the use of statistics isn't altogether verging on #BadScience - adducing such evidence suggests the debtae is a quantitative one, whereas if my analysis given above twice is right, it is actually a qualitative one (and to reiterate with a slightly different slant - the fact most self-published books are poorly put together [and sadly it IS a fact, you are right] is not relevant to whether self-publishing is a good way to get a mainstream publisher if you have a good book, and is slightly misleading because it may lead people with said good book to believe the argument doesn't apply to them. The point I'm making is that self-pubbig is NEVER a good way to get a publisher.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Sleepyjohn asks "just how much benefit will he get, I wonder, from handing control of it to them?" (them being publishers) - my answer to that is "time to write", because self-publishing (or self-publishing successfully anyway, which I suspect SJ does, because I've sneaky-peeked at his rather cute website) is incredibly all-time-consuming. I'm a writer, and want to write - the other stuff is best done by my agents and publishers. OK, of course I run myself ragged doing promotion around publication, but the rrest of the time any time selling/distributing/editing/marketing etc is time in which I am not writing, and therefore time which is not properly being devoted to my career and my raison d'ecrire.

Talking of which ...

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'd agree with you, Nicola: I'm a writer, not a publisher or marketer or publicist or production manager or sales rep or warehouse manager or... One of the kinds of person for whom self-publishing works is someone who publishes books about their own line of work, (Dan, that sounds like you) so the market/publicity is already found, and the sales and distribution straightforward, and so on. But that doesn't really apply to fiction.

And perhaps it's unfair, because the text is the same, but because the mark of some wannabe writers is that they don't know the difference between being published and self-publishing, submitting an MS to an agent or publisher as a bound book just screams 'know-nothing', even if you've only done it because it makes it easier to read (which it does.)

Dan Holloway said...

"publishes books about their own line of work, (Dan, that sounds like you)" I was going to make a joke about my job as a Hungarian teenage girl, but avtually you're right (it IS fiction, though) - I work in a Chinese Studies department, in the same faculty as East European Studies, so I have access to people who help me with content.

When it comes to knowing my market, though, it's about me as a consumer with my fiction - my readers are the people who like what I like and hang out the places I hang out (or would like to if I wasn't so busy writing!). But I know them and I know their habits. I write literary fiction, but it's very niche literary fiction. Self-publishing also suits my personality - I love talking to readers about what they enjoy. I go to Indie gigs and chat about Indie culture with people there (and have recently started a sideline in rock journalism that's extremely satisfying); I go to modern art shows and chat to people there - and that IS marketing to my readers, part of getting to know them. I guess BECAUSE I'm looking to have a small but loyal readership, I really do like every aspect of building that readership one by one. I also love a microphone and camera (if I'm not appearing on a Channle 5 gameshow I'll be presenting a paper somewhere on something), so that angle suits me (it also means I'm used to dealing with the media and "celebs", so I'm not afraid to ask things - 90% of the time in my experience, if you ask nicely and act like you knowwhat you're doing, people say yes - but most people don't ask, or ask in the wrong way. All of that makes it easier getting a mention in the media). I have a feeling if any one of these factors was missing, I would have a lot lower chance of success as a self-publisher.

And still it might come to nothing - the proof copy of the book came today, and it will be on Amazon for September 1 - the proof of the pudding will be in what happens between then and Christmas. And whilst I will be the first to eat humble pie if it goes wrong, I will say that I honestly don't believe I would stand a hope of findnig a mainstream publisher for a magic realist coming of age tale of a gay Hungarian girl who divides her time between chatrooms, rock bands, and a 300 year-old wine cellar, all of which is written in a style that can only be described as "a prose-poem". Or, if I DID find a publisher willing to take it on, I think I would want to quote Groucho Marx back at them. And as I LIKE writing obscure, multi-layered magic realist prose-poems about identity, art,a nd cosmopolitanism (have you SEEN the synopsis for the next one!) it's self-publish or nothing.

miss pitch said...

Hi Dan,

Re #queryfail, well, not really. Agents don't sit in their ivory towers (complete with polystyrene roof tiles and chewy carpets), and word-count covering letters, synopses, or sample chapters. If the genre is not for them, they might think, no thanks, but they are much more on the look out for the good stuff than you might imagine. The trouble is, it doesn't come in nasty crayon-drawn fantasy covers courtesy of lulu. Or the worst books for children you have ever seen, ever (that read like bad translations from Swahili and have illustrations a Thai bar girl could improve upon with a magic marker and imagination). It bruises your faith in human nature, it really does. However, there is a place for self-publishing, and I think your ideas are valid. You are realistic in your aims and have a plan, which means you are likely to succeed.

Nicola Slade said...

A useful little book for self-publishers and mainstream alike is Mary Cavanagh's 'A Seriously Useful Author's Guide to Marketing & Publicising Books.'
I bought it with my own forthcoming ( book in mind and there are some useful nuggets in there.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

This is very interesting. I'm currently considering the self-publishing route, but for (I think) slightly unusual reasons.

I've written about it on my blog here, but here is some extra info to explain the background:

I am a published novelist. My first book was published in 2004 by a small (but well regarded) publisher who subsequently ceased trading. My second has just been published... in a foreign country (translated into their language), by Random House. A smallish deal, but better than my first. The advance for the 1st was £1,000, the print run 3,000. The advance for the 2nd was 5,000 Euros, the print run is about 10,000 (I think). I have no English-language deal for the second book. I have also lost my agent, for unconnected reasons (I'd love to gossip, but am determined to be professional).

The foreign edition seems not to be being pushed very heavily, and I think it's not doing particularly well. I could be wrong, but assuming I'm right, and given that I have no agent, it seems very unlikely that I'll get an English-language deal for this book.

So, what to do?

I'm considering self-publishing. But let me make some things clear. I'm NOT expecting it to lead to a proper publishing deal. I'm assuming that avenue is now closed. I'm also NOT expecting to sell lots of copies, and I'm certainly not expecting to make any money. I'm assuming I will make a significant loss. But I'm also no longer attempting to make a living out of writing (I'm starting a new, entirely separate, career). And I'm thinking... why is it so important to get high numbers of sales, if I'm not trying to make a living out of it? Wouldn't it be more rewarding to get quality feedback from a small number of people? And won't it be immensely frustrating if the book is never available for my peers to read (unless they speak a foreign language)?

I've also decided that if I do self-publish, I probably won't go for print on demand. Yes, it's relatively cheap and convenient, but with all the examples I've seen, the end product has been of frustratingly inferior quality. If I'm going to self-publish, I want to produce something satisfying, something lovely. So I'm currently investigating the possibililty of hiring a professional book designer (I've contacted the one who designed my favourite books by my favourite publisher, but also does freelance) and doing it properly. I won't have the time or the energy to go schlepping around the industry trying to find stockists, distributors etc, so it will have to be a small print run. I'll do some publicity and throw a big launch party, just cos I can and it'll be fun. My friends will review the book on their sites. But this is not a route to success. This is pure indulgence. This is me having a publishable product, but nobody to publish it and a lot of frustration.

Am I insane? Should I be plugging away again, starting from scratch, trying to find a new agent and then a UK publisher? I don't know. It's such a time-consuming and depressing process. Before I lost my current agent he submitted it to every UK publisher. He worked hard. They all said no. I don't want to go through that again.

But will I be ruining my career forever if I do this? I don't know, but at the moment it seems by far the most attractive option.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Well... after being spurred on by this post, I decided I really ought to give the conventional route another proper go before effectively admitting defeat by going the self-pubbing route... so I've submitted to some agents. Here we go again (this would be my third agent, but I promise it isn't my fault)...

Lorix said...

Don't forget that the print on demand publishers are great for people who just want to see a copy of their work in true book format and not as an ms tucked away in a drawer or locked away on a computer file. I have gone the lulu route with my first novel, not in anyway to try and get a mainstream publisher but just because I hated to see all that hardwork be confined to a drawer. It has helped in that I can see more easily where my weaknesses are. Also in the fact that the few people who have read it have given me some great feedback. I in no way intend to try and get tthis novel mainstream published but I am extremely happy to see my book on my bookshelf - self published or not!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, this was a really helpful post.

I've been considering self-publication because fans of the podcast have become very demanding (I reach over 1000 people a week with my books using this medium). They want to see the book and read it.

However, I've kept getting the feeling that self-publishing isn't the right move. People make a lot of fuss about the very small number of huge successes through self-publication, and as your figures suggest, it's important not to get blown away by one success story out of hundreds of thousands. The odds aren't wonderful, and I'd always wanted a traditional deal.

Thank you again for giving me a good impression of the arguments for and against.

LaValkyrie said...

As a writer who had 2 novels published by one of the top publishers in the UK, (good advance - decent sales) I, like 'beleagured squirrel" am thinking of trying another route. I suspect that books may be going the way of CDs. I was also intrigued by a talk I attended at the ICA by film-maker Mike Figgis. See my blog
I think a lot of what he has to say about movies, applies to books. However, as the Canadian film-maker in my blogpost says, we humans are locked into seeking approval from "the producer/distributer/agents/parental guide (mental state) God that even the most ardent atheists and agnostics bow and pray to. " This was once a necessary process - removing the dross and 'cleaning' what remained. But given the garbage put out by Hollywood and the shameful addiction of many UK publishers to celebrity" authors "etc, a lot of editors, agents etc are pimping themselves out of a job. Five years from now, I'm guessing that a few more 'real' writers might go it alone. It's uncharted territory, bears no relation to old-fashioned 'vanity publishing' and requires time, imagination and energy.