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True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare

8 November 2011

From Mike Shatzkin:

[T]he Hocking-Konrath-Locke story — an author managing all the pieces of their publishing program and and achieving a totally private success — is a Dodo bird. Unless we consolidate down to an only-Amazon ebook world, which, despite Amazon’s best efforts, doesn’t seem likely anytime soon but would undoubtedly create a whole new rule book if it ever arrived, the work and expertise required for successful publishing will lead inexorably to one of two results.

Either an author will get help to publish their own material — a distributor like Constellation or Ingram or a publisher — or they’ll find what they built to serve themselves would be better and less-expensively maintained with the work of additional authors to go along with their own. There’s enough work and expertise involved in what had first seemed to many such a simple process that it requires building a bit of a machine to do it. And once a machine is built, it is just wasteful to leave it idling between the works generated by any one writer.

This point was made by [self-published author Bob] Mayer when he told me that he is now recruiting other authors to publish. He started out by finding a partner to handle the technology component and mechanics of his efforts. In his already-substantial experience in less than a year, he has learned that proper editing is essential, as are eye-catching covers, as is the right metadata. He told me and our audience that a single complaint from a reader to Amazon about a typo in one’s book can result in the ebook being taken down for a required correction. He has learned, as others have, that maximizing revenue requires changing and re-changing your prices, which is more work.

Bob says he has even fixed plot errors that were pointed out by Kindle readers.

. . . .

Bob says books can disappear from major retail sites for no apparent reason as well. He says that anybody who believes that ebook publishing is like “sending the book to a printer, after which you can forget about working on it” is mistaken.

And he believes that any author whose work is good and wants to take a self-publishing route would be wise to cede a percentage of sales to him, or somebody else, who has learned what he has and equipped themselves to prepare books properly for sale and manage them after they’re launched.

This is establishing ever so much more clearly that publishers are right when they say there’s a role for them in an ebook world. Amazon itself makes that clear by the difference in the deals it offers self-published authors and authors it signs for its imprints. Although authors will continue to self-publish, the debate that matters in the future is what the basket of services will be that authors require and what will be the right price for them. The lines are drawn for that discussion and the opinions are really all over the lot.

. . . .

Amazon’s rules offer some insight on this. If you work with them through their KDP service, you get 70% (if you set your price within their accepted bands). But, as Mayer and others at our conference made clear, through KDP you can’t even purchase any special merchandising or promotion. But if you are published by Amazon’s imprints, the take is cut in half and the author gets 35% of retail, but you get lots of promotion by positioning. (Deals are private, and the details of Eisler’s deal have not been revealed, but the presumption would be that he earned out his rumored six-figure advance from Amazon at the 35% rate.) Thirty-five percent matches what a 50-50 publisher could deliver if they had an agency-like deal with the retailer.

. . . .

The comparisons get complicated, but, if a conventional publisher is providing the full range of services that our speakers said is needed to maximize sales: good covers, changing covers, dynamic pricing, constantly improved metadata, monitoring to catch glitch take-downs, as well as developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, the author wouldn’t be doing badly at all to get 35% of the consumer’s dollar for an ebook. Throw in real print book distribution and sales and the royalties and marketing from that, plus a publisher’s core marketing effort (being part of a “legitimate” list gets attention from reviewers, bloggers, library collection development, and other places that matter), and, perhaps, some dedicated marketing as well, and it can be a relatively profitable exercise for an author to be with a publisher for even less than that.

When agency publishers pay 25% royalties, they are giving the author 17.5% of the paying customer’s dollar. Everybody will draw their own lines, deal by deal, but that doesn’t strike me as totally crazy as long as print sales remain more than half the total and the publisher is paying an advance that carries with it some risk that the actual royalty paid will be higher than what the contract stipulates.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Mike is a smart guy and knows the publishing business inside and out, but Passive Guy thinks he’s coming to conclusions about where indie authors and Amazon and traditional publishers will end up much too early.

PG doesn’t think anyone can draw big-picture straight-line projections of the present conditions very far into the future. What worked six months ago probably doesn’t work today because the market has changed. What works today in indieworld in the face of traditional publishing’s current competitive advantages will be different a year from now when ebook use goes another 20-25 percentage points higher.

The biggest problem traditional publishing faces is that cheaper is king in a technology or industry being disrupted and traditional publishing is anything but cheap. Perhaps the Big Six can figure out a way to get cheap, but PG wouldn’t bet on it.

An indie author does have to undertake a lot more jobs than a traditional author does, but the indie author has far more freedom to experiment and isn’t just a passenger on big publishing’s bus. An indie author wants to drive the bus. The indie author wants to own the bus.

When the range of tasks an indie author has to perform in order to successfully run his/her business becomes better understood and at least a little stable, somebody will write a web application to do a lot of those tasks. Somebody else will set up a flat-fee business to do a lot of those tasks. Somebody else will set up a percentage-based business to do a lot of those tasks.

Allow PG to illustrate.

Twitter launched in July, 2006, and has grown to the point that a successful Twitter strategy is important for a variety of businesses, sports and entertainment celebrities and (PG believes) indie authors. Twitter is a big-time disruptive technology. Just ask the dictators on the receiving end of the Arab Spring rebellions.

What sorts of tools have popped up to make Twitter more efficient for serious users?

For one thing, PG thinks most power users don’t use the basic Twitter interface, the one you find if you go to Twitter.com.  Tweetdeck became so popular, Twitter bought it. PG uses Hootsuite. He’s blogged about free tools to help you see how well you’re doing on Twitter. Here is a list of a gazillion different Twitter applications designed to help people use Twitter more effectively.

Serious Twitter users who PG watches and reads include author Elizabeth S. Craig and book designer Joel Friedlander who use a program called Social Oomph to help manage their tweets.

But Wait! There’s More!

Go to eBay and search for Twitter followers. You can buy them, usually by the thousand. One offer is for 4,000 new followers in 3-9 days for $88.99. PG will caution you that these may not be very useful followers for promoting your books, but your follower number will increase.

Maybe you need to hire a social media manager.

PG has gotten way too carried away with his disruption demonstration, but his bottom line is that indie authors are just getting started in the online world and smart people are barely beginning to figure out ways to help them be successful.

A few tools already exist for authors. If you’re an indie author, you should be using NovelRank to keep track of your Amazon sales, whether they are indie or trad-published. If you have a competitor you want to watch, you can put those books on NovelRank and watch their sales as well.

Ebook Borrowing/Lending, Ebooks, Joe Konrath, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing

15 Comments to “True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare”

  1. Hi PG. My first comment, so I want to say thanks for the blog. Always a lot of fascinating stuff on here.

    I think Mr. Shatzkin, and a lot of people closely associated with big publishers, are making a classical straw man argument here: “the business is becoming too complex and competitive, we’ll see fewer and fewer succesful indie publishers, like Konrath, Hocking, and Locke.” Well, that may be true, but aren’t we seeing more an more succesful writers in what we might call the “new midlist,” self-pubbing and making a decent living?

    Honestly, I don’t need to be Konrath or Hocking. If I can one day make $45000-50000 a year from my (as yet unpublished) wriitng, I’ll be thrilled.

  2. PG,

    I’ve been thinking about Shatzkin’s post since reading it yesterday, so I appreciated your response to it.

    Your point about indies wanting to drive or own the bus is key. I’m a big fan of Shatzkin’s blog, but my sense was that he might have been overstating the work involved in self-publishing, or at least the hassle that it presents to many authors. It certainly is more involved, and it does help to rely on the expertise of others. But I don’t believe that most indie authors will go looking for a kind of publisher substitute who can take all of this off their shoulders for a fee. Some might. But for many, I think, the chance to drive the bus will be one of the main rewards.

    Also not sure Bob Mayer was the ideal model to use as a window onto indie-publishing. Bob himself has made clear on many occasions that his example is unique. How many authors are starting their indie journey with 40+ books to publish pretty much all at once?

    • Good points, Robert.

      There is also the quality issue regarding the services an author receives from a publisher.

      JK gets great services and her publishers will hire top outside talent to launch her books. In her publisher’s stable of authors, however, she’s the exception.

      The majority of traditionally-published authors who are not big stars don’t get many services other than editing of varying quality, warehousing and shipping printed books from their publishers.

      As far as promotion is concerned, the book is listed in the publisher’s catalog, but the author is supposed to blog/tweet/Facebook like crazy to promote the book.

  3. I think this is a situation where everybody is right, but for different reasons. All commercial, creative endeavors are joint efforts, more or less. I think the smart writer in today’s climate should test their own limits and be open to experimentation. See what happens when you attempt to take a book from concept to distribution all on your own. Who knows? Maybe you’re one of those Renaissance types who’s as adept at editing, cover design, formatting, marketing and accounting as you are at writing. If so, then you can comfortably be a true indie. Most will find they have areas where they are weak or disinterested. There’s no shame in admitting you need an editor or cover designer. Some might find they are pretty good at something, but with a partner, they’re great.

    The real opportunity is that we aren’t locked in to one way of getting our work into the world. We can do it all ourselves, or hire editors and designers, or license our rights to publishers, form our own publishing companies, or form co-ops. We can go the traditional route, but armed with information about the way the publishing world actually works.

    The only unacceptable option is for writers to remain ignorant and gullible, making themselves targets for opportunists to exploit.

  4. I’ve self-published several titles this year under a couple pennames. When I read older (anyone born before me, of course) people talking about how hard self-pubbing is technically, I’m reminded of having to teach my boss how to use a mouse back in 1995. Back then, she was the type to believe she needed Support Staff (like lowly me) to handle that sort of thing (using a computer).

    This was not a good long-term assumption on her part. That entire department expired soon after.

    The format-upload-distribution aspect of self-pubbing is not hard. Any writer who has Scrivener, for instance, can export their novel to Kindle in five seconds, pausing only to open a second window and log on to KDP.

    This is not worth 35%.

    Editing, cover design, and having Amazon promote for you… maybe. But I’d hate to sign a contract in advance assuming I’d get those things… when in fact they only give them to the cherry-picked bestsellers that were already on top.

    And the only way to become a bestseller who garners the perks of Amazon deals and promotion… is to have sold lots of books on your own.

    Which is why I still think the path for all of us (in genre fiction, at least), regardless of our goal, winds through self-publishing.

    • Gretchen – Agreed that the mechanics of self-pubbing an ebook are pretty simple. There is a little learning curve, but not much.

      As far as a publishing contract, you’re in a much, much better negotiating position if you’re already successfully self-published. Being an indie author gives you the luxury of being able to say no to a contract you don’t like. If you’re working off a query letter and nobody has bought your book yet, you’re much more likely to agree to a lousy deal.

  5. I also think Shatzkin seems to be assuming that all book deals mean equally magnificent “marketing” plans. And they don’t.

    Yes, perhaps after an indie writer has found success, a publisher will see the positive return in spending marketing dollars (built in numbers to show sellers proven success). But for an unknown new writer, few big publishers are willing to take the riskier path; they spend much more conservatively if they spend at all.

    Assuming a successful indie writer is offered a lucrative Big publisher contract–what’s the advantage for the writer? If the indie writer already has a working relationship with a designer (freelance), editor (freelance), a fulfillment house (Lightning Source), and a distributor (Amazon, Smashwords) which also serves as marketing, plus a blog, Twitter, Facebook or any other social networking site (marketing/advertising), what exactly is a Big Publisher offering that isn’t already making the writer money?

    We are talking, of course, of those DiY-minded independent writers. We’re not addressing those gazibillion writers who have no interest in becoming indie writers, have no interest in doing it themselves. They want to go the traditional route and “just write”.

    So perhaps there is a need for both channels–the indie Direct-to-Consumer way and the Traditional Way. It may serve two different markets of writers, and the measure of success pertains only to the one holding the yardstick.

    • Jenni – It doesn’t occur to most new trad-pubbed authors that they are in a sink-or-swim situation just as much as an indie author is.

  6. I agree with you PV: Shatzkin is seriously underestimating what people will do to save money. I worked in the encyclopedia industry around the time of its collapse, and people didn’t care that the CDs that came with their computer were just copies of an older, poor-quality title, and they didn’t care that Wikipedia (especially in its early days) was really odd and unreliable. What they cared about was that our product cost $1,000, and those other options were free. End of story.

    • Lovely example, Mary, although it’s no fun to be in a collapsing industry.

      When there is an accepted way of doing things in a mature industry, nobody really knows how many expensive features can be removed from a product and still have the product salable at a lower price.

      Free is always a very powerful price.

      • Oh, it sucked immensely, and I really feel for these people. I mean, you do your job, and you do it well, and it just doesn’t matter–it’s extremely frustrating and there was a lot of denial. Encyclopedias couldn’t just go away, right? I mean, how would the world cope without them?

  7. Funny, the title (i.e. “true do-it-yourself publishing”) made me think instantly of a beautiful, hand-bound Arts and Crafts book we used to own.

    A lot of things about the indie publishing world reminds me of the Arts and Crafts Movement — in particular that publishing is no longer just an industry. It’s a field. The problem, for me, with Shatzkin’s post is not whether he’s right or wrong, but that he is looking at such a tiny narrow slice of the picture (best sellers) that he misses any real definition of success.

    • I agree, Camille. And I think that part of Shatzkin missing the whole “making a decent living is also success” piece is that in NY publishing, it’s gone to such an all-or-nothing model over the several years.

      In 2009, the publishing house I was with decided to not renew my contract – even before my second book had gone to pre-order – due to ‘low sales’ of the first book. Used to be, authors were given at least 5 books to establish themselves and find their readers. Now, it’s either make big sales right away, or be cut.

      Nice that now there IS another way, whether Shatzkin can see it or not~

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