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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Why I Choose To Self Publish

(Yeah, this post is long, but it's worth it, I promise.)

Before I tell you why I choose to self-publish my books, let me first give some back story....

I've been writing since the late 1990s. Back in those primitive times, when the internet was new, publishing wasn't what it is now. Back then, if you wanted to get a book published, you had to buy a massive print book called Writer's Market. This annual tome is still published every year (for about $21, and the Kindle version is only a couple dollars cheaper), and last November had its 100th edition printed. It advertises on Amazon with the following quote:

Want to get published and paid for your writing? Let Writer's Market, 100th edition guide you through the process. It's the ultimate reference with thousands of publishing opportunities for writers, listings for book publishers, consumer and trade magazines, contests and awards, and literary agents—as well as new playwriting and screenwriting sections, along with contact and submission information.

Did you catch that first sentence? Read it again. They literally still say that you can't get published or paid for your writing unless you buy that "bible" of writing and go through the "process" of getting published. (never mind that almost anything in that book is also free online these days, but I digress).

What is that arcane process, you ask? Well, their process is the same as it was in the 90s... First, you buy that book. Then you pore over it, cross-referencing all the publishers and agents with your book's genre. And if your book crosses genres or is some sort of niche topic, too bad, there's no room for you. They aren't going to take the chance at marketing it, particularly if you are a first-time author, which is another chance they aren't likely to accept.

But since all the big publishing houses won't accept unsolicited manuscripts, you have to first get an agent. So you send out query letters (back then, it was by snail mail) with whatever it is they want from you, such as a one-page synopsis and the first 10 pages of your manuscript. Or maybe the first chapter. Or maybe the first three chapters. And then you wait... and you wait... and you wait... And if they don't blow you off entirely, you might hear from them in, say, three months. (I've waited for as long as 10 months) until they reply to you. Usually it's a form letter. If you're lucky, it might add a sentence about why they rejected it. In any case, the language is usually something along the lines of "I'm sorry, but this isn't right for us right now. Thank you for submitting and good luck." 

In my day job I work directly with a wide variety of professionals, sometimes including large data files to examine. If I waited months to get back to them, I'd lose my job. But somehow in the literary agent world this is normal practice.

If, by some miracle, the agent actually requests a full manuscript, you feel overjoyed. After all, by this point you've submitted and been rejected at least many dozens of times. So you submit it to them (again, back in those days, it was by snail mail, and expensive to mail). And then you wait... and wait... and wait... and after many months they will most likely reject you with a similar form letter, and, perhaps, the courtesy of maybe a couple sentences as to why they rejected it. 

Oh the number of times I've seen writers on Twitter expressing how happy they are with their rejections because the agent or editor actually deigned to leave a few words beyond the form letter, as if it were an achievement to get it. Such wisdom! Such luck! Nevermind that it's yet another rejection to add to an overflowing pile of them. Oh well, that's just part of the process, right?

HERE is one of an endless number of author Twitter threads expressing angst about this process.

Some editors and agents request that you don't submit to others while they are considering your query letter or manuscript... because they are just that special, apparently.

Can you see how you can waste YEARS getting to this next step?

Oh, and these days an agent likely won't give you the time of day unless you already have a large "platform" (= an online presence that includes all the social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, with thousands of followers, a blog, and a professional website and newsletter). They want to make sure YOU can do marketing of a potential book, you see. Don't have all that? Oh well. Rejected.

If, by yet another miracle, the agent likes what you've sent them and you have a great platform, and she decides to accept it (congratulations!), then begins the next step where the agent markets your book to publishing houses. And you wait... and wait... and wait. 

And if by (you guessed it) yet another miracle a publisher accepts it, then begins the year or two process of moving it through various editors in the publishing house, and where THEY decide what cover it has, and ask for you to re-edit the book to fit their needs or topics, and you have to do it on their timeline (I've even heard horror stories where the publishing house decided at this point to just drop the book entirely and never let it go further, despite how you clawed your way to that point, and the book is stuck in publishing limbo, perhaps forever. But again, I digress.).

At last, your book is released and you get paid a nice tidy advance of maybe $2000 or $3000, before taxes. Congratulations!! Mazel tov! You are in the less than 1% of writers who actually get published by the "traditional" route. Pop the champagne! Now you can bask in the glow of validation and your book will go to all those hungry readers. 

But the publishing game doesn't end there, does it? The great thing about traditional publishers is that they are IN with distributors, and your book will be sent out to lots and lots of book stores and outlets. But they will only do so much of the publicity. YOU still have to do a lot of it. And you aren't going to see a dime of royalties until your book profits by at least the advance that they paid you, if ever. And IF it turns a profit, you will only see perhaps 10% in royalties. Your agent will also take a 15-20% cut of that (and of your advance, too). And ALL of the decisions about things like the cover, the distribution, the sale price, and how it is marketed, is THEIR choice, not yours. They have creative control, and they own the rights to your book, not you. And if your book isn't profitable, they will drop you like a stone. After all, they are a corporation and need to make profit. Your creativity is not important. They still own the rights, which means that your book isn't going to sell anywhere at all unless they decide to print more of it - which they aren't going to do unless you or your agent convinces them that it will be profitable again. If your book is profitable, then you still have to wait months for the check to be sent to you.

I should apologize if I sound jaded. But I spent the better part of two decades playing, and failing, the traditional publishing game. 

Enough of the backstory. Now getting to my point...

Things have changed in the last decade. What's changed is that self-publishing has become SOOOOO much easier, thanks in largest part to Amazon. 

Back in the 90s and before, there was this concept that self-published books were dreck. The reputation was that they were published by the author themselves at some small press, at a loss, for the sake of their own vanity. It was looked down upon. It was said that such books were low-quality, badly edited, and likely was some rich or egotistical person wanting to claim the title of "author" so they could boast to friends. At least, that was what you were told as a young author just starting in the field. To be respected, you had to follow the traditional publishing route that I described above.

There's still this attitude out there. People still look down on self-published writers, believing their books are full of typos, poor writing, and awful plots, without even trying to read them for themselves. In fact, it's still so prevalent even among writers that the Writer's Market is still high in the Amazon ratings and agents are overwhelmed with hundreds of query letters. Pitch events on Twitter are swamped with entries. Agents and publishers have no shortage of writers to pick from. HERE is a good example of a writer who totally looks down on self-published authors, going so far as to say they "act like fools", look like "amateurs", do it for their "ego", and could never make a living at it (even though he admits "traditional publishing means living in poverty", lol).

In fact, I have writer friends who have had completed manuscripts sitting in a drawer for as much a two decades because they couldn't get it accepted for traditional publication anywhere and just gave up. I've read some of them. They're genius manuscripts. When I pointed out that they could just self-publish it and could have been making money on it all this time, they poo-poo'ed the idea. It just wouldn't be a valid choice, right?

To be fair, I have read a couple self-published books that were badly edited or had plot holes, etc. The traditional publishing houses require a manuscript to go through several editors before it is published, and those editors will most likely catch the typos, weak verbs, or plot issues. But anyone who has read lots of traditionally published fiction books can still tell you about the books that were awful anyhow. And let's face it, having a few typos or cliches in them doesn't mean the book isn't entertaining. I've also read amazing self-published books that had no editing problems or typos and were amazing and entertaining reads. In fact, NEARLY ALL of the self-published books I've read were just as entertaining as traditionally published books I've read.

Amazon's KDP site (which stands for Kindle Direct Publishing, but is no longer just Kindle because they merged with CreateSpace, the leading print self-publishing site) has made the process of getting self-published so much easier. It is now the leading way that books get published. 

Back in 2014, the "big 5 publishing houses" owned around 45% of the publishing market. By 2016, that number had fallen to only about 20%, while self-published books had grown to nearly 50%! In other words, their percentages had flipped. In 2018 alone, more than 1.67 million books were self-published. I don't know the numbers for 2022, but I am certain that the percentage of traditionally published books are far lower now than they were back then.

All of this has traditional publishers running scared.

I've now self-published four books in the past three years, with more coming along. I don't even bother with agents, submissions, or the rest of the traditional route anymore. 

Why? Let me count the ways...
  • I have complete creative control with no "gatekeepers"
  • I work on my own timeline
  • If I need to change the book and release a new version, I can do it immediately
  • I control all rights to the book
  • I control how it is marketed
  • The book is available to readers at any time, and forever, unless I should make the decision to unpublish it
  • I get around 70% royalties with ebooks and about 60% for print books
You'll notice the word "I" used in there a lot. It is about keeping my freedom, control, and profits to myself.

But it's not all icing, you know. Here are some major drawbacks to self-publishing:
  • You have to fight the stereotype that you are not a "real" author
  • Traditional publishers still own the major print book distribution networks... for now
  • You have to be your own publishing business
Don't underestimate that last point. There's a LOT wrapped up in that single sentence. As a self-published author, YOU have to do all the work. I'm not just talking about the writing. It doesn't end when you write "The End" on the last page. There's still the editing. The formatting. The cover image. Advertising. Marketing. Promoting. You can try to do all these things yourself, or you can pay knowledgeable freelance people to do these things for you. Regardless, it's a long road with a steep learning process.

For me, it's a mix. I've been in the writing biz for quite a long time. I have a great editor who doesn't cost a lot, as well as a writer's group (HERE is my editing process). Out of my four books, I've made my own cover image for one book using a photographers image that I purchased, used an Amazon tool to make another for free, and purchased two pre-made cover images from freelance artists. I did the book formatting myself, which is made very easy using tutorials on the Amazon KDP pages, for both print and Kindle versions. Advertising, marketing, and promoting are mostly self-taught and made by me, though I have utilized some services. Most notably I use Amazon ads reasonably successfully, and I have become very savvy (in my humble opinion) with promoting my book with a mix of social media postings, some inexpensive services, and plugs by various websites, blogs, and podcasts. But regardless of how much you do yourself, you will not make a profit at first. Like most any other form of self-employment, you have to spend money to make money, and it may take a long while before you start to make a profit. If you are serious about self-publishing, you have to play the long game. In fact, three of my books haven't quite turned a profit yet. But they soon will, and over the rest of my lifetime will make me far more in royalties than the tiny fraction I would likely get if I managed to publish them with traditional publishing, even including the advance I could have gotten.

Will I ever be able to quit my day job and write full time? It's the dream of every serious author, isn't it?

There are more and more authors out there who make a living at self-publishing, and do so full-time. From what I can tell, it takes something like 10 books published before you can make it full time. And most of those authors have income streams from their writing outside of just their royalties, just like most any other self-employed person out there. In addition to royalties, we can also offer editing services, review services, merchandise for our fans, Ko-Fi or Patreon page income, and teaching courses on how to do all those things I mentioned above to other authors.

The bottom line: Self-publishing is a valid form of publishing, a potentially profitable way to make money in the long run, and an increasingly common and easy way to get your book out there while retaining all the rights and creativity. But to do it right, it requires a LOT of work, a daunting amount of up-front spending, and a lot of learning about marketing and promoting yourself.

Cheers and happy reading (and self-publishing)!

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