A while ago I wrote one of my usual tirades and this time directed it against the publishing world. Really sort of a “bites the hand that feeds me” type thing since I hope to someday get my work published. A friend of mine reassured me that I shouldn’t worry since they are so full of themselves they wouldn’t notice anyway. I hope he’s right.
Anyway, in one of the comments left about that article a gentleman extolled the virtues of self-publishing, saying that it was the future and it allowed authors to by pass the publishers and speak directly to the public. Now while it’s true that self-publishing allows people the chance to put their work on the market without having to go through the process of agents and publishers, is it really the future of publishing?
The answer as far as I can see is the usual, unequivocal, maybe. I think the best way for me to talk about this is to work by example. So since I’m hooked up with one of the self publishing groups, Lulu.com, I’ll describe my experiences there and compare it as best as I can to what I know about the official publishing world. I know a couple of people who are published by major houses so I have a little bit of second hand knowledge, and having tried to publish things at various stages in my life, I have some personal experience as well.
The world of self-publishing can be divided into two parts: the vanity presses and the publish on demand presses. Since Lulu.com falls into the second of the two and that’s whom I am affiliated with I have the most familiarity with how that system operates. From what I understand though a vanity publisher is someone you send a manuscript to, pay them a set fee, and they bind and print X number of books for you to try and distribute.
You make the investment in your work and take the chance that you are going to sell it. Just like the band that independently produces its own CD you are responsible for all the marketing, selling and distribution. You work out all your deals, and keep every penny that every copy of the book makes.
Publish on demand, at least the way Lulu.com operates, works quite differently. Everything is done online and digitally. (They do more than just books but the rest isn’t relevant to what I’m talking about) Once you’ve created an account, you are free to start uploading your completed product to the site. They give you space to create a store front and you sell your material from there using PayPal or similar online transaction methods.
You are able to choose how you want to sell your book; hard copy or download, coil bound or stitched, full colour or black and white, you can either use one of their generic cover generators or upload your own covers. When you upload they reformat your document into the appropriate size and voila, you’re done.
You set your price; they tack on their set-up fee on top of that, and take a small percentage as a royalty as well. If you want to make $2.00 for an article or a chapter of a book, I believe the price ends up being $3.50 for a printed version, and less for a download. You can also use Lulu as a vanity press, and order bulk copies of your own work to distribute. Normally the price would be the same as if you were a regular customer, but they sometimes cut you a bulk deal.
Okay, so now you’ve either uploaded your work to your storefront at Lulu, or you have a couple hundred copies of you major opus sitting in boxes around your house: you now have to convince people to buy them. With Lulu at least you haven’t committed any money to the project, they only print when someone wants to buy, but it sure would be nice if someone actually read the stuff you’ve sweated over.
If you want to have any hope of selling this stuff, and you haven’t been able to land a distribution deal with anyone, it means that you have to become a full time public relations/marketing person. One of the first things you’ll probably want to do is invest in at least an isbn number so that your book will be listed as being for sale in the great list of books in print. You may even want to consider getting an Amazon equivalent, so that your book is available on the Amazon network worldwide.
This doesn’t guarantee any sales but it does assert your right as the author of the work, and if someone walks into a store and asks about it, when it’s typed into the computer, it will show up on the database as in print. (I can see myself walking into bookstores periodically and asking them to look up my work just to prove to myself it actually exists) If you want to place your book in some local independent bookstores the isbn step is essential; it costs between thirty and forty dollars American to have done so it’s not that horrible a cost to incur.
The real killer is how much time and energy you’re going to have to expend to get your book out to the public. Letting them know is a full time job that you will have to work at on a daily basis. Sending out press releases, offering review copies to newspapers, magazines, freelancers, on line magazines; then, if people want them, you have to pay for shipping the items to them and putting together a promotional package to go with it.
Most reviewers and entertainment editors at the major newspapers already have enough on their plate dealing with the offerings of the big houses. So unless you’re prepared to continually harass them with phone calls and emails you won’t have much chance of garnering any coverage.
Go to any one of the self-publishing sites and see how many authors there are: thousands. Most have the same dreams and ambitions of people reading their books and loving them that the rest of us have. They are all competing for the same limited amount of attention that’s available.
If you used a vanity press and paid for a bunch of books to be printed, you are probably looking at having to spend the equivalent again for the promotion, and that’s just in mailing costs, phone calls and some minor printing expenses. We’re not even talking about taking out advertisements in papers, and that’s where costs really start to add up.
Even an ad in an online magazine can end up costing a pretty penny. What happens if you don’t know how to use that graphics program to lay out an ad? That means you need to hire someone to do it for you, or you might get lucky and have a friend who knows about that stuff. But even than it’s a commitment of time and energy that you could have putting to better use; like writing the sequel.
That’s the thing you see, if you’re going to self publish and seriously try and sell what you wrote you’re going to have to stop writing and focus all your energy on promotion. Believe me I have done enough publicity work in my time to know that it is a full time job, not something you can just do for a couple of hours everyday. You’ll have to expand all the creative energy that you normally would have used on writing to come up with ideas to get your book noticed
Those are the things a publishing house takes care of for you. All of them; of course they charge you for that privilege, and if you’re a new writer you won’t nearly get the amount of money allocated as the more established authors. But at least it’s something. More importantly is the fact that you don’t have to do the work.
Oh sure if you’re a big name you may have to go on a book sighing tour; do the daytime talk show circuit, and radio interviews, but for the most part the publishers want you writing. Not for any altruistic motives to be sure, but they want a return on their investment; the more you write the more chances they have of making money from you.
In writing, almost more than any other art form, name recognition plays a huge role in how much you sell. When you go into a bookstore and see a bunch of new books on display, are you more likely to buy the work of the author you’ve heard of or the one you’ve never seen before? The majority aren’t as perverse as me so they usually tend to go the safe route and buy something by the person they’ve heard of.
Of course getting picked up by publisher involves almost as much work as writing your novel or promoting your self published work. Even getting your first novel or series of novels picked up is no guarantee of continual contracts. There’s also the matter of potentially surrendering some creative control. Publishers will inevitably have suggestions on how a story could be “improved on” to suit the needs of the market.
Is self publishing the future of the written word? Not in its present format. The amount of work required to market a work so that it sells sufficient copies for a writer to live off the proceeds is such that he or she will no longer be able to write. That sort of defeats the purpose.
What’s needed is for some sort of melding of the two worlds. Ideally it would be set up like the film industry, where independent producers are picked up by a distributor who becomes responsible for the marketing and selling of the work for a percentage of the royalties. Obviously there are exceptions, but generally speaking until that happens self publishing as it stands is not the solution or the way of the future for authors. It’s a step in the right direction, but the process needs to evolve so that the writer is able to be a writer who does a little promotion. Not a publicity person who does a little writing.
If you want to check out an example of a Lulu.com storefront here’s mine