22 Apr Self-Publishing – Not Second Best, but First Choice
I recently ran a seminar at which I asked participants to tell me what they thought were the common perceptions of self-publishing. Here’s what they said:
- The editing can be total crap
- The covers can be embarrassing
- Making money? Forget about it!
- Self-publishers can become millionaires
- It’s vanity publishing
- We are the rejects (of the traditional publishing world)
- Marketing and distribution are big challenges
- It’s only for certain genres – romance, crime, poetry, education
These are common perceptions, for sure. And some of them ring true to me.
Quality, for instance, has proven a challenge for self-publishers, but it doesn’t need to be, and this is changing. Self-publishing as we currently understand it has been facilitated by huge advances in technology that allow authors to publishing on digital platforms quickly, easily and cheaply. This ‘cheap, easy, quick’ philosophy is in contrast to the ‘expensive, difficult, slow’ approach taken by traditional publishers, and one of its consequences has been lower-quality books. The publishing tools offered by the likes of Amazon and Smashwords encourage this approach. Those companies want product to sell, and arguably they care more about that than the quality of the books they sell. Traditional publishers, on the other hand, stake their reputations on quality.
But quality standards are improving for self-publishers. There are now many more experienced professionals with a background in traditional publishing ready to support self-publishers. These professionals offer editorial, design, marketing, and other services to self-published authors.
Producing a book of decent quality is a non-negotiable for self-publishers, in my opinion. Writing is tough, time-consuming, absorbing work. Selling, marketing and promoting can be relentless and challenging for some authors. To justify your investment in both, you need to have a decent product. But it’s not hard. That’s the good news.
Ah, money. ‘You might as well forget about it’ or ‘you could become a millionaire’ as a self-publisher. Both are true, but I subscribe to the former thinking. Interestingly, it’s really not that different in the world of traditional publishing: a small number of authors sell a huge amount of books, generating revenue that supports the rest of the company’s publishing activities. Most books are lucky to break even, let alone make a profit. But for those outside the industry this truth is obscured by the apparent glamour and success of the industry, a perception that is enabled by just a small number of authors.
It strikes me as very similar in the self-publishing world. Take Amazon, for instance. On this channel, self-published authors are the single biggest cohort in terms of book sales (combined they sell more books than any other group, including the Big Five). There are millions of self-published authors on Amazon, and yet only a small number make any significant revenue from it. That’s why I advise authors to hope for the best but plan for the worst in terms of money: set aside what you are prepared to invest and let go of that money. Then build a great sales and marketing plan and implement it. You’ll get the return you deserve.
Many think that only genre fiction (romance, crime, science fiction and fantasy) authors can be successful self-publishers. The first mistake in this assumption is to presuppose that self-publishing means an ebook sold on digital channels (where fans of genre fiction find out about and access their reading). But many self-publishers don’t publish an ebook at all, or it’s just one element in a mix of print book, print-on-demand and ebook. The second mistake is to assume that only genre fiction sells on Amazon. This isn’t true either, and for informed statistics on this I point to you to this excellent website.
Among many other revelatory insights, on this website you’ll find a graph (‘one of the most important we have ever published’) which clearly demonstrates the share that self-published authors have across genres other than romance and crime. Self-publishers also give the Big Five a run for their money in the non-fiction category. Yes, it’s true that literary fiction authors struggle on Amazon, but guess what: they struggle outside of Amazon too. It’s a difficult part of the market for traditional publishers and self-publishers alike but, even still, according to that graph self-publishers own around 13% of the market for literary fiction on Amazon and 26% of the market for non-fiction (those figures are from 2014).
Marketing and distribution are big challenges for self-published authors – that’s a fact. I could say that sales and marketing are also big challenges in traditional publishing companies, and that would be true, but the relationships, commercial terms and infrastructure exist to support these activities and that makes all the difference.
It’s hard for self-publishers to know where to start. In their minds eye, many imagine their book having a profile similar to books that they read, perhaps published by a traditional house. They imagine their book in bookshops. They imagine a book launch, reviews in the broadsheets or other literary-inclined media. This profile only suits a certain type of book (commercial and literary fiction mainly) and currently it is hard for a self-published author to have meaningful presence in bookstores nationally, and certainly it is hard to get review coverage in the literary establishment.
But the reality is that this profile doesn’t even suit most self-published books. Genre fiction will sell to established communities of readers online and offline. Coffee table or cookbooks may perform well in the gift trade or via direct sales from the author. Memoir may sell to the author’s personal network (which can sometimes be extensive) to online readers or to communities of people interested in the topic of the memoir. Non-fiction titles will always be ‘about something’, whether that something is a business strategy, an approach to healthy-eating, a spiritual journey, a fitness craze, an historical event or person – the list of topics is of course endless – and a sales and marketing plan should be created to meet the individual market for a given book.
This is where self-publishers can take heart. Not only is it possible to build an audience profile and sales and marketing plan for your book, but you have strategies available to you that the traditional publishers simply don’t have. I’m talking of course about digital marketing. A Big Five company will have a social media strategy, a website, a mailing list and enewsletter, perhaps a blog, but all of their activities across these channels will be designed to promote the company and its full range of titles. However, as a self-published author, you can develop, own, and drive all of this activity yourself – for your book.
Self-publishers can also take heart that changes in the retail environment work in their favour. It’s a well-known fact that bricks and mortar bookshops are declining – so there are fewer opportunities there for authors across the board – and that etailing is booming. Booktopia, for instance. But it is not only online bookstores that provide opportunities to self-published authors.
There are online gift stores that do good business with books and online stores associated with specialist websites of all stripes. There is ample opportunity there for self-publishers to seek out appropriate websites to partner with and retail from. An additional benefit is that commercial terms are often much more appealing than in the book trade. An online gift retailer, for instance, might charge a 20% commission on each sale made. This contrasts with an average 50% on consignment taken by a bricks and mortar bookshop. Likewise, as a self-publisher you have the opportunity to sell books directly from your website. In this case, you’ll be able to retain the full retail price, less the costs of postage and packing. To do this successfully, you will obviously need a website, and traffic to your website.
Self-publishing has a fine history, an honourable tradition of incredible authors – from Charles Dickens to Walt Whitman and Jane Austen – chose to self-publish their work. It’s only in the past fifty years or so, as publishing has become a commercial activity and a sophisticated industry has been built around it, that a distinction has emerged between the ‘worthy’ (traditionally-published) and the ‘vain’ (self-published). The associated role of traditional publishers as gatekeepers of quality and curators of what is made available to read has been much discussed in this context.
Self-publishing challenges this status quo. It’s radical. Take this obvious example. Self-publishing is disproportionately a female activity – 65% of self published authors are women – and yet traditional publishers’ lists are disproportionately dominated by male authors. In this simple way, we can see the revolutionary potential of self-publishing: it gives women writers a voice, it helps them crash through the low glass ceiling of the publishing industry.
Some self-publishers are ‘rejects’, frustrated and disappointed at not securing a spot on a traditional publishers’ list, but most aren’t. Self-publishers have many and varied motivations for doing what they do. For some, it’s simply about making it happen at all. It’s their chance. For others, it’s making it happen in their timeframe or in the way that they want. It’s their decision. For others still, it’s about using their book and its content to promote their business or creative endeavour. It’s their expertise and their knowledge. For others, it’s about owning their content and promoting it creatively across channels. It’s their stories. For all of these authors, self-publishing is not second best, it’s their first choice.