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Barry Eisler: Self-Publishing is Not Just About the Money

26 March 2011

The Eisler/Konrath discussion was linked to and talked about all over the author/publisher web earlier this week.

Eisler spoke with The Daily Beast to clarify some misconceptions that arose about his earlier statements.

You’ve been pretty outspoken about some of the mistakes your publishers, and publishers in general, have made when it came to marketing your books. How much was creative control over both your books, and how they enter the marketplace, a factor in your decision to self-publish?

It was a very big factor for me, and maybe one that hasn’t been adequately understood in some of the public discussion of my decision. As I’ve said, financially I think it makes sense to take the long term into account, and I’m confident I can do better financially over the long term on my own. And if I don’t need the advance today, why take it if I believe it’ll cost me money tomorrow?

But it’s not just the destination that matters to me; it’s also important that I enjoy the trip. And ceding creative control over packaging, not to mention control over key decisions like pricing and timing, has never been comfortable for me. It might be okay if I thought my publishers were making all the right decisions, but when your publisher is doing something you think is stupid and that’s costing you money—something like, say, saddling your book with a closeup of an olive green garage door, or writing a bio that treats your date and place of birth as a key selling point, or misunderstanding the concepts of automatic resonance and acquired resonance, or otherwise blowing the book’s packaging—it can be pretty maddening (at least it can be for me).

. . . .

Being so accustomed to, and dependent on, the legacy model, it took a fair amount of work for what I knew intellectually to start to penetrate at a gut level. The timelines, for example. I’m used to thinking in terms of publishing contracts, so let’s take a hypothetical two-book, $100,000 offer… or, okay, let’s make it real: a two-book, $500,000 offer. My tendency has been to focus too much on that big, seductive number. But to understand what the number really represents, you have to break it down. Start by taking out your agent’s commission: your $500,000 is now $425,000. Then divide that $425,000 over the anticipated life of the contract, which is three years (execution, first hardback publication, second hardback publication, second paperback publication). That’s about $142,000 a year. This is a more realistic way of looking at that $500,000.

But there’s more. Some people have mistakenly argued that, for my move to make financial sense, I’ll have to earn $142,000 a year for three years. But this is one time when you don’t want to be comparing apples to apples. Because the question isn’t whether I can make $425,000 in three years in self-publishing; the question is what happens regardless of when I hit that number. What happens whenever I hit that point is that I’ll have “beaten” the contract, and then I’ll go on beating it for the rest of my life. If I don’t earn out the legacy contract, the only money I’ll ever see from it is $142,000 per year for three years. Even if I do earn out, I’ll only see 14.9% of each digital sale thereafter. But once I beat the contract in digital, even if it takes longer than three years, I go on earning 70% of each digital sale forever thereafter. And, as my friend Joe Konrath likes to point out, forever is a long time.

. . . .

Had you received a higher offer from St. Martin’s Press—or another publisher—would you have stuck with a traditional publisher? If so, what figure would it have taken for you to do so?

What’s that Winston Churchill line? “We’ve already established what you are, madam; now we are merely negotiating a price.” So sure, there’s always going to be a number—after all, legacy or indie, publishing is a business for me, not an ideology.  I don’t know what figure would have done the trick; I never gave it much thought because it wasn’t really relevant. But it would have had to be a good deal more than I expect I’ll be able to make myself over the course of say, ten years (present value of money vs. long-term value). It also would have had to be enough to act as an insurance policy against legacy publisher ineptitude; to be worth giving up the joy and excitement of finally being in charge of all the aspects of publishing I’ve always wanted to be in charge of; and to offset the discomfort of being part of a system that I think is fundamentally flawed and that in many ways has become punitive both to writers and readers.

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast

Big Publishing, Ebooks, Self-Publishing