Monday, August 15, 2011

How I learned to stop worrying and love the e-book


I know my friends mean well when they tell me that an agent and a book deal are right around the corner. Every writer wants to be traditionally published, right? Every writer wants to see his or her book with a Random House or Simon & Schuster logo on the spine, right? And that’s what I’ve been working toward these last nine years. That’s the reason I’ve written seven middle-grade and YA novels, the reason I attended all those writers conferences, the reason I’ve entered contests, and the reason I’ve submitted my manuscripts to agents. I’m getting so close. Why would I want to give up all I’ve worked so hard for when I’m so close to getting it?  


The assumption is that traditional publishing is the real deal and self-publishing is for writers who couldn’t make it any other way. But I’m not a big fan of assumptions. I like to examine things more closely and from different perspectives. So let’s take a closer look at how traditional publishing stacks up against indie publishing today.

Traditional Publishing
Indie E-Publishing
How long does it take?
According to a survey conducted by SF writer Jim C. Hines, it takes the average writer ten years to get a first novel published. http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/survey-results/
This works according to Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the amount of time allotted to it. Three months to a year is about right.

How much does it cost?
That depends on how much you want to invest. There are the basic expenses of mailing dozens of query packages over ten years, but most successful writers also invest in conferences, which cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some writers also take MFAs, which generally cost over $10,000.
Again, it depends on how much an author wants to invest. Basic expenses include books on writing and publishing, copyright registration, an editor, and a professionally designed cover. Total expenses usually run $200-$1,000.

How big of an advance can a writer expect to get?
According to a survey conducted by SF writer Tobias S. Buckell, the median first-time author advance is about $5,000. Combine that with the above survey, and that means the average writer earns $500 a year for the first ten years of his career: http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2005/10/05/author-advance-survey-version-20/

Indie Publishers don’t get an advance, and they do have to spend money to publish their books.
What about royalties?
A traditionally published author earns royalties once his or her book has earned out its advance. That doesn't sound too bad...except when one considers the majority of books by first-time authors don't earn back their advance. What's even more alarming, is that, according to research conducted by writer Kris Rusch, publishers--including some of the big six--are under-reporting ebook sales. So even if your book is selling enough to earn back your advance, you might never know it: http://kriswrites.com/2011/04/20/the-business-rusch-royalty-statements-update/
This depends on the writer’s abilities as a writer and as a marketer, but consider this: in ten years, an indie publisher can easily produce five ebooks, and if he sells them at $2.99 each (which would earn $2 for every copy sold), he only needs to sell 500 copies on average per book over a ten year period to make up the money he didn’t get from an advance.

What about a second book?
According to editor Alan Rinzler, 80-90% of books don’t earn out their advance, which means that’s all an author gets--and it means an author will have a doubly hard time finding a publisher for a second book: http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2011/06/05/good-day-sunshine-for-writers/
Indie publishers usually build an audience, which means they generally make more money the more books they have out. One unsuccessful book doesn’t put an end to an indie publisher’s career. He can always try, try again--with a different book or even the same book.

What about editing?
According to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, “first-time authors are being printed rather than published—assuming they’re fortunate enough to get a publishing contract in the first place.... An acquisitions editor who signs up fifteen or twenty books a year couldn’t possibly edit them all...”
Most smart indie publishers hire editors. This costs money, but at least indies can shop around. They choose who they’re going to work with, and they have the final say. You can’t fire your editor at a traditional publishing house, but you can fire a freelance editor who works for you.

What about cover and interior design?
The publishing house chooses your cover based on their knowledge of the market and sometimes other factors (including a cheaper royalty-free cover). Authors may or may not be happy with the results, but they have no say. Brunettes have been turned into blondes. African-American protagonists have been portrayed on covers as white. Sometimes writers have had to rewrite scenes to fit cover images.
The cover is perhaps the most important thing an indie publisher can invest in. Some designers sell halfway decent covers for under $50, but most good ones go for $300 and up. It’s a good idea to start with something cheaper and then change it when you’ve made enough to justify the expense. Again, if you’re self-publishing, the choice is yours.

What about marketing?
Most publishers today expect most first-time novelists to do their own publicity. Those big advertising budgets are for writers who have already made the bestseller lists. You get a book launch, maybe a book signing or two, and a dozen or so review copies to mail out. Otherwise you’re basically on your own.

Like a traditionally published writer, this is mostly in your own hands. Your one advantage here is that you know it.
What about getting your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores? And what about Amazon?
A big publisher does have an easier time getting your book into brick-and-mortar stores, however...You might not have noticed, but brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing at an alarming rate. In addition, new books usually only stay on the shelf for a few months before they’re remaindered. After that, your book is the same boat as one that was self-published---unless your book goes out-of-print, in which case, it’s at a disadvantage. Your access to Amazon is pretty much the same, except that the publisher will probably act on your behalf. Again, it’s not in your hands.
For a small additional fee (about $50), most POD printers can make your book available to brick-and-mortar bookstores that ask for them, whenever they ask for them. It can never go out-of-print. You can sell your book through Amazon, and what goes on your book’s page (with the exception of reviews and comments) is in your hands.

What about reviews?
Big publishers usually have access to more print reviewers than indie publishers do, but that doesn’t guarantee your book will be reviewed in the New York Times. And even if it is, that doesn’t guarantee the review will be positive or that it will lead to sales. Print newspapers are fading even faster than brick-and-mortar bookstores. They still matter, but not as much as word of mouth and social media marketing.
When it comes to marketing, indie publishers usually focus on social media. A dozen glowing reviews from real people with real names on Amazon--or people saying nice things about your book on Twitter--will probably boost your book sales more than a great review from a print newspaper.

What about ebooks?
Traditional publishers usually charge $9.99 (the maximum Amazon allows in the 70% royalty range) for ebooks, because they don’t want ebooks to undercut their hardcover sales. Authors, however, usually only make about 15% of that. There is a very slim chance your publisher will invest heavily in marketing your ebook (they do that for bestsellers), so your $9.99 ebook will probably have to compete with similar indie-published books that cost a lot less than yours. In some categories, the indies are winning hands down. Recently, only one of the top ten Science-Fiction novels on Kindle was traditionally published--and it was a decades-old classic, Ender’s Game. In short, the competition is fierce, and this is one you're very unlikely to win. Amazon claims to sell more ebooks than books in any other format, so this is a major loss for the traditionally published writer who isn't a bestseller.
Indie publishers can charge less for ebooks and still make money, not only because their expenses are low and they can put out as many books as they can write in any given length of time, but because ebooks--when done right--should be their primary money maker. They can make $2 of pure profit for every ebook copy sold at $2.99. That’s 25% more than a traditionally published author whose ebook sells for $9.99.


So to all my friends, thank you for your kind words, but I didn’t give up my goal of finding an agent and a publisher because I lost faith in myself; I did it because I lost faith in the traditional publishing industry and because I truly believe in my work and my vision for it.

Thank you for believing in it too.

37 comments:

Dee White said...

Great post, Shevi,

You have clearly thought long and hard about this and are obviously making the decision that's right for you.

I believe in you too, and wish you all the best on your creative journey.

Dee:)

Shevi said...

Thanks, Dee! I know self-publishing isn't right for everyone, but I do think whatever choice a writer makes should be made with eyes wide open. Neither road is easy. Neither comes with any guaranties.

T. R. Graves said...

I've used Indie Publishing as an opportunity to control my destiny. I felt uncomfortable leaving something so important in someone else's hands. Once there, I found a network of awesome Indie authors willing to help me. I never encountered that level of camaraderie while pursuing traditional publishing. I’m not saying it didn’t exist. There was just no one who took me by the hand and helped me like Indie authors have done. It’s a great community to be a part of. Let me be the first to welcome you.

Good luck!

Kristen howe said...

Shevi, thanks for sharing your thoughts in this blog. If I had the money to go that route--or any route--I would. I believe in you, my friend, since we're writers and friends.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Very clear and so useful, thank you, Shevi! I'm reposting this on facebook.

Shevi said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, T.R.. I do appreciate it.

I have to admit that creative control was a part of the reason for my decision, although not a major factor. I've worked under editors at newspapers, so I can handle it. Still, you know how they say that too many cooks spoil the broth. I was a bit worried, particularly with one of my novels. I have a very specific vision for it, so I can understand where you're coming from.

Shevi said...

Thanks, Kristen. I'm sure you'll find someway to make your writing dreams come true.

Shevi said...

Thanks for reposting it, Conda! Glad you found it helpful.

Anthony J Langford said...

Great article Shevi. Very detailed. It must have taken you a long time.

Nine years huh? That's a long time. I feel your pain. I began writing seriously about 9 years ago, but only trying to get published for about five. I'm giving it a couple more years yet, or that was the plan until I read your article. you make it sound so attractive!

It is very frustrating finding potential readers and being unable to direct them to anything, especially when they're asking for it! Arrghh.

Though I did read a big article recently, I posted it on my Faccebook Author Page, that ebooks only account for 6% of sales, which is a little at odds what the article suggests Amazon sell.

Insecure times.
Looking forward to hearing how you're finding the self published route. (I assume your doing that?)

It's a brutal business and not very nice to senstive writer types, (like me.)

;)

Anthony J Langford said...

Great article Shevi. Very detailed. It must have taken you a long time.

Nine years huh? That's a long time. I feel your pain. I began writing seriously about 9 years ago, but only trying to get published for about five. I'm giving it a couple more years yet, or that was the plan until I read your article. you make it sound so attractive!

It is very frustrating finding potential readers and being unable to direct them to anything, especially when they're asking for it! Arrghh.

Though I did read a big article recently, I posted it on my Faccebook Author Page, that ebooks only account for 6% of sales, which is a little at odds what the article suggests Amazon sell.

Insecure times.
Looking forward to hearing how you're finding the self published route. (I assume your doing that?)

It's a brutal business and not very nice to senstive writer types, (like me.)

;)

Shevi said...

Thanks, Anthony. I hope you succeed.

The 6% figure regarding eBooks, by the way, is wrong. It comes from BookScan, which tracks book sales with ISBN numbers. The trouble is that Amazon uses it's own numbering system--not ISBNs--so only Amazon can track the numbers, not BookScan. And Amazon, which sells more books than anyone, claims to sell more ebooks than books in any other format. You can check this link for more information: http://www.weberbooks.com/2009/05/will-kindle-crash-nielsen-bookscan.html

Maureen Lynas said...

Love the post Shevi.
Great to have someone else self publishing for the same reasons as me (11 years of trying!) I've had interest from a big publisher but they didn't want the book they wanted the premise - would I write it with different characters, different world. Well, no.
As a business model traditional publishing doesn't work in the authors favour so it makes sense, now that we can, to try the epublishing route. Like you I have a backlog of stories and aim to edit, proof read and get them to the highest standard I can achieve. Then send them out into the world myself. It's a very exciting time for authors, we should embrace it.

Shevi said...

Thanks, Maureen. I heartily agree.

John McDonnell said...

I agree with everyone else, this is a great post. You have the numbers here, and I thank you for all the research you did. I tried the traditional publishing route years ago, got some nibbles, but no advance and no contract. I've fully embraced the e-book revolution now, and I have six e-books for sale, with more coming out soon. It's just a much more writer-friendly process than traditional publishing. I think it's got a great future, too.

Shevi said...

That's true, John. Writers who choose to e-publish hold most of the cards, and that makes e-publishing a lot more writer-friendly. Almost all the remaining cards are held by readers, so it's better for them too.

P.K. Witte said...

Shevi,

Wow! How much I would love to sit down and chat with you! I've had a crazy writer's journey and am seriously considering Indie Publishing. There is so much to learn. Thanks for taking the time to teach!

Krysten said...

Great post! Very thoughtful and lots of great info on indie publishing that I wasn't aware of. Thanks for sharing your writing journey.

Shevi said...

Thanks, P.K.!

Thanks, Krysten!

Susan Oloier said...

Great comparison chart, Shevi. I have been toying with the idea of indie publishing since I have been at it for almost 10 years; I'm soon coming up on six completed books.

Andy B said...

Awesome post Shevi,
I love the chart. I have this discussion with writer friends all the time, and even when they agree with me, they still want to go out and find an agent and go the traditional route. The big thing with them and the traditional route is they want someone in power to tell them that they are good writers. I explain that I want to sell books and make a bit of money, I don't care if folks in power like my stuff or not.

Shevi said...

I think you have the right attitude, Andy, although I do understand those who choose to go the traditional route. Indie publishing is the less traveled path, so it can be scary. I think I learned a lot from my years spent trying to get an agent, so I don't see it as time wasted. Still, I like being and indie author, and I am not turning back.

Good luck with your books!

Shevi said...

Susan, you're almost exactly where I was when I chose to go indie! Whatever choice you make, I'm sure it will be the right one for you.

Shevi said...

I think you have the right attitude, Andy, although I do understand those who choose to go the traditional route. Indie publishing is the less traveled path, so it can be scary. I think I learned a lot from my years spent trying to get an agent, so I don't see it as time wasted. Still, I like being and indie author, and I am not turning back.

Good luck with your books!

Laci Morgan said...

Great post! I recently finished illustrating and animating a children's ebook/app, and have been hearing all sorts of comments from family and friends like "you should focus on trying to get it into print, why waste your time on it being an app that only costs a few dollars...you'll make a lot of money when you get it into stores!" Riiigghht. I think they don't understand how traditional publishing actually works, and how hard it is to break in (never mind that I have zero budget)! I love the control I can get through publishing as an app on my own. Maybe I'll forward this article, haha!

Shevi said...

Thanks, Laci!

erica and christy said...

Thanks for this post. It comes at a perfect time for me. I've been writing for almost four years.(Four years=four manuscripts) I haven't queried very widely, but with every novel, dreamed of an agent or publishing house validating my writing...needing that to show friend and families writing wasn't just my hobby. But lately, the business side of indie publishing has gotten a hold of me and I can't stop thinking about it. I haven't given up on traditional publishing as I've barely tried to make that happen. The thing is I don't make much money as a teacher in a Catholic school and the thought of supplementing my income doing a dream job...well, it's something I'm researching a lot. So many indie authors are so open and helpful. I've been learning a lot. So thanks for giving me another informative post about going indie. :) Christy

Julie Musil said...

What a great breakdown! And I agree 100%. I made the decision a few months ago and I've been having a heck of a lot of fun with the process.

Nancy Kelley said...

Fantatstic post. I know the stereotype is that indie authors only self-publish because they don't have the patience or skill to make it in the traditional publishing world, but for most of my friends, it was a business decision. And yes, time does play into that because time is money. That doesn't mean we couldn't hack the constant rewrites necessary to catch an agent's eye and decided to skip that step and go straight to publishing. It means we didn't want to waste years waiting for a good book to be published.

Gigi Wolf said...

Such a well-written article, putting the pros and cons side by side. As a former teacher, I give it an A+. Especially since it coincides with my POV. I just don't have the stomach to keep sending out manuscripts. The book I'm working on now is a memoir, so if someone rejects it, they've rejected my life, in a manner of speaking. I use Kindle and Amazon only, and hope that I can get my book discovered by some intelligent, beautiful, insightful people. My blog, ChezGigi.com, doesn't really fit into a niche, either. I just write humor, and I may be the only one who thinks I'm funny. That alone is the story of my life...

kalinka1 said...

Shevi, thank you, thank you, thank you!! My broken heart is feeling so much better now, having read again my very own reasons why I self-published.

I run an indie publishing house with a (growing, almost too fast for me to handle) small stable of authors. One (only one, mind) of "my" authors has the gall to keep p*ing on my own self-published status. Yes, it does hurt every time someone steps on my head for having self-published (especially if they haven't even bothered to read my books first - and those who do, generally don't bash me).

Shevi Arnold said...

You're welcome,Kalinka1. I'm always glad to help.

Shevi Arnold said...

I don't know, Gigi. You made me laugh. I might have to check out your book. :D

Shevi Arnold said...

Thanks,Nancy.

Shevi Arnold said...

Thanks, Julie.I love the process, too.

Shevi Arnold said...

You're welcome,Christy. :)

Lissa Johnston said...

I'm just finding this post. It makes even more sense nearly five years on. IMO unpubbed writers holding out for the trad pub lottery are doing it for ego. Either that, or they're bad at math. They can't be doing it for the marketing or the editing services, which have devolved to slim and none. I get that some writers either don't enjoy or aren't good at those things. But both are easily available to self-pubbed writers at contract rates. When I see questions on social media about how to craft a query letter and how long to wait before contacting the gatekeepers AGAIN and all that stuff, I just shake my head. That's so 90s. In this glorious digital age, self-pub is the way to go.

A. Bernette said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. I have been grappling with this for months and keep coming back to whether or not there are enough benefits to traditional publishing to make up for what I would lose. You've given me the data.

Best wishes,
An Emerging Indie Author
www.Bernette.net