Home » Big Publishing, Contracts, Mike Shatzkin, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » When an author should self-publish and how that might change

When an author should self-publish and how that might change

30 April 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?

The answer is certainly not “never”, and if there is anybody left in a publishing house who thinks it is, they should think a little harder.

For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is. It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing. And it’s great to have an organization turning your present book into more dollars while you as an author focus on generating the next one, and start pocketing the next advance.

Publishers have heretofore really had only one model for working with authors. They acquire the rights, usually paying an advance-against-royalties, and own and control the entire process of publishing. It is generally understood that all efforts to make the book known can show benefits in all the commercial channels it exploits. So publishers have generally insisted on, and authors have generally accepted, controlling all the rights to a book when they pay that advance.

. . . .

 Since publishers until very recently effectively monopolized the path to market, they could effectively make the rules about what an author could publish. That usually has meant no more than a book a year. It has also usually eliminated anything that isn’t “book-length” or that needed to reach the market very quickly upon completion of the writing. And in a practice that ultimately has had painful consequences for publishers, it meant backlists went out of circulation when a title wasn’t worth printing in bulk.

. . . .

 Although most of the Strum and Drang around how digital changes the publisher-author relationship have been about the royalty rate — publishers tend to want contracts that specify a royalty of 25 percent of revenue on ebook sales, various upstarts and digital-first publishers pay 50 percent and an author going directly to the retailers can get even more — that is, for most authors, less of a problem than it might first appear.

. . . .

 Where royalty rate is most consequential is for authors with a substantial reverted backlist. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher. Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started. Others have followed in his wake. And although the work required to self-publish and market yourself effectively is not trivial even if some readers know you and some of your work, it is also considerably more likely to result in a useful financial reward than trying to self-publish from a standing start. And certain chores, like editorial development and copy-editing, are eliminated by starting with already-published material.

. . . .

 All of these motivations — monetizing previously dead backlist and getting to the public with material even a successful author would have difficulty getting a publisher to do — are behind the fact that the big literary agencies are staffing themselves to help authors navigate the digital world. In different ways, we have seen this emerge at Writers House, Trident, and Curtis Brown, among others.

. . . .

 In other words, the gap between pure self-publishing and traditional publisher-author deals grew wide enough that the agents saw the need to fill it.

. . . .

 It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to David for the tip.

As PG has mentioned before, he generally regards Mike’s thoughts as representative of the more advanced executives in Big Publishing. If this theory is correct, Big Publishing appears to be moving beyond denial when it comes to the future of physical bookstores and the reality of successful indie authors.

However, grabbing all rights to a book forever in exchange for an advance is just not a very attractive publishing offer for a rising indie author any more. Especially if the contract includes a non-compete clause.

If an indie author has 3-5 self-pubbed books that are selling well enough to quit the day job, that author has probably cracked the code for reaching a group of readers that will buy more books that he/she writes in the future. This author has a reasonable idea of how much three more books written for the same audience will generate in royalties.

A $150K 3-book deal spread over three years that would have formerly looked wonderful isn’t that impressive for an indie author who is already earning $50K per year with no limitations on how fast he/she can publish new books and no agent to pay. Particularly if such a deal comes wrapped in a Paleolithic publishing contract that is impossible to understand. (Hint from PG: The parts of a contract that are difficult to understand are prime locations to hide nasty terms.)

Aside from the unimpressive money, there’s the whole complex process of dealing with a traditional publisher.

Having a publisher and an agent and telling all your friends you have a publisher sounds really cool to an author who hasn’t done it before. However, if you gather a group of traditionally-published authors for frank discussions, you’ll often hear experiences ranging from aggravating (nobody ever responds to emails) to horrifying (totally screwed-up royalty statements) arising from their relationships with publishers.

For a traditional publisher, the customer is always the book buyer and never the author. Once the publishing contract is signed, the honeymoon can end in a hurry.

Big Publishing, Contracts, Mike Shatzkin, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

72 Comments to “When an author should self-publish and how that might change”

  1. I’ll be frank. My reaction was: Is he nuts? Has he been asleep for the last three years? Then I saw that he is offering marketing services to self-pubs and I laughed. First tell us we basically don’t exist (except for Joe Konrath) and then try to make money off us. Right. I’m handing my money right over.

    • Of course. You always, always, always have to follow the money. The minute someone who clearly held disdain for self-publishers starts to talk favorably about them, it’s time to see where they’re investing their money and who is paying them.

      Mike Shatzkin probably saw the writing on the wall. I doubt he is a very ethical guy. He just wants to continue to make a living and he’s probably realizing he bet on the wrong horse.

  2. The more I read PG’s wise words, the more I know the road to go is to hire and pay subcontractors to do what you can’t do for yourself, keep a tight rein on what they do and how much they cost (because you could do most of what they do if you took the time and learned), and do your due diligence and look everything up many times online before you make decisions.

    The more of these articles by professionals in publishing I see, the more I see traps for the unwary.

    $150K sounded nice until PG took it apart. And he didn’t even remove the agent’s 15% – the self-published author who could make $50K a year would make it sooner, and would only need to earn $42.5K without the agent.

    I hear typical advances are more like $3K than 150K. And with publishing royalties on top of that, well, you can retire to Tahiti, live in a grass shack, and work your tail off to serve the tourists.

    • “$150K sounded nice until PG took it apart. And he didn’t even remove the agent’s 15%…”

      The industry standard accounting and payout practices behind these “great” six-figure, multi-book deals have been parsed, dismantled and fisked many time by the likes of Konrath, KKR and others. Unless you write, or your BPH manages to engineer, a breakout bestseller you’re often faced with equal or less than a minimum wage during the years from book #1 acceptance to book #3-5 publication.
      Brenna Aubrey, as an example, knew this.

      Of course, a $999,999.00 advance is a differet story, but the more common $100-150K advance, spread over several years minus agent cut, works out to be very little per year. Much less than many mid-list indies with good sales are making.

    • The payment schedule for even a huge advance is really sad. I think Courtney Milan famously broke it down.

  3. [T]he belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. (And then describing the benefits of what an established and competent house provides.)

    Yeah, well, that’s great Mike, but the thing is, all of those things, to the extent they existed for midlisters in times past, are going the way of all flesh.

    Living advances, real publicity and marketing, significant print runs… yeah, they’d be wonderful, if you were assured of getting them. You are not. So you’re not weighing the chance of getting picked up and getting those benefits, you’re weighing the chance of getting picked up and then the chance of getting those benefits. Each has a probability < 1. Whereas the probabilities that if you do submit you'll take months to hear, months to years to hit the shelves, and sign over your rights more or less forever, are all on the close order of 1.

    Here’s some scary simple math: Suppose you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting picked up if you submit, and a fifty-fifty chance of getting real benefits like Mike describes, and a five percent chance of the publisher doing something to screw you.

    Your chances of getting to market with real benefits and not getting screwed are:

    0.5 x 0.5 x 0.95 = 0.2375, or 23.75 percent.

    So even if we give you odds which are literally laughably optimistic, your odds of making it to market with real benefits from the publisher – and remember, this is just what needs to happen to get your book to market, we haven’t even talked about the odds that it will sell – are worse than one in four. In exchange for that sub-quarter chance, you are giving up copyright essentially forever, likely giving up a lot of control over everything else you publish which is remotely similar, and putting yourself at the mercy of everyone who ever has any authority over your book at that publisher, or any entity which acquires that publisher.

    Publishers need to start sweetening the deal, or more and more people are going to learn to do this math. And note I also didn’t even talk about royalties above. As has been pointed out, that’s just insult. The topics above are the real injury.

    • Wow, Marc, when you put it that way I don’t see how anyone with a minimal understanding of statistics and a clue as to the actual chances (because, as you said, those you assigned are laughably optimistic) could ever consider trad publishing.

      I’m also eagerly awaiting Konrath’s reaction to this. 🙂

    • This, this, totally this. That was my first thought on reading what he said, too. Although I mostly thought it was nice to see Mike being more realistic about his assessment of publishing culture and authors’ choices (and it probably does indicate that publishers everywhere are finally — FINALLY — waking up to this), I scoffed pretty hard at his assumption that most or even many authors get this kind of treatment.

      All of the authors I know who work with Big Five publishers have received ZERO effective publicity, if they’ve received any at all — most have received none. A few have had prominent placement in some catalogs and had their ARCs offered up on Netgalley, but I’m not sure that helped their sales at all. Every tradpub author’s actual treatment by publishers has been dismal, out of the authors I know well and have had the opportunity to discuss such things with privately. Definitely not worth the freedom and flexibility they gave up, and absolutely not worth the non-compete clauses. Ugh.

      Some tradpub or hybrid authors I know have had good publicity from small presses, but those presses are so small that they can’t offer good advances. The sales they are able to generate with limited resources aren’t really comparable to indie sales within the same genres.

      It’s really time this myth that all tradpubbed authors, or even most tradpubbed authors, receive equal treatment from the publicity department was put to bed.

      • “It’s really time this myth that all tradpubbed authors, or even most tradpubbed authors, receive equal treatment from the publicity department was put to bed.”

        Yes. This.

        While I like some of what Shatzkin says (mostly regarding what’s going on in BigPub, and almost never his take in Indieverse) he does seem to STILL be speaking from that base mentality that the choices for writer’s are…

        A – Self Pub and pray you become the next Howey.

        or

        B – Submit to a BPH and immediately get wisked away to this magical world of flawless collaborative and tireless promotion where that which is impossible for any SP’er to accomplish is routine for the “real pro’s”.

        It’s getting tiresome.

        • Yeah, and it’s just so weird. Does he (and other writers like him) really believe that? Or is it wishful thinking, that they might be able to change things back to they way they were before?

          Maybe we’re all sitting in an echo chamber here (probably) and we’re unaware of how little the rest of the publishing world sees of the real indie thing…? I don’t know. But there is such a HUGE swath of fertile land between “sell nothing” and “Hugh Howey-o-rama.” There’s room for people to build entire successful careers in all that space. How can they not see it?

          And that assertion that it’s obviously just soooo much easier to build success off a TP backlist…what? I certainly didn’t build any kind of success on tradpubbed stuff, but I’d estimate that I probably earn more than the majority of SP or TP historical novelists. Based on tracking Amazon rankings of a large number of authors in my genre (indie and not) over about two years, I’m assuming I’m in the top 20% of my genre. It’s not a mega-bucks genre like romance or thrillers by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely not chump change, either. I don’t get why he thinks that quit-your-day-job success is such a rare bird for indies who have no history with TP. It just seems so…I don’t know, willfully ignorant?

          Maybe it’s just so easy for us to see our side of things because of who we hang out with. 🙂 Maybe the Shatzkins of the world really are honestly unaware of how incorrect they are, because the “shadow industry” is still so damn shadowy.

          • I suspect he just doesn’t know many (or any) people who have done it so he assumes it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen often. He’s probably worked with several writers who have managed to do well in the traditional publishing system despite how unbelievably screwed up it is for *most* writers.

        • Submit to a BPH and immediately get wisked away to this magical world of flawless collaborative and tireless promotion where that which is impossible for any SP’er to accomplish is routine for the “real pro’s”.

          Yes, and if you are not a mega success, is your own fault, you bad author you. The book wasn’t good enough, you weren’t good enough and you haven’t spent enough of your big advance on promotion of it.

        • It has gotten tiresome. And it’s the core of the “choice” fallacy that gets propagated by those who are part of the corporate system. You know, the “There are so many options! Authors can choose! They can get agents and work with corporate publishers, and they can self-publish their smaller more experimental projects like novellas and listicles that really aren’t that commercial. They should make the right choice for themselves.”

          It’s such an annoying mindset that in general can’t see beyond its own privilege.

          • Will, sometimes you have to mouth the false platitude of “choice” to keep from being stabbed with pitchforks and burned with torches.

  4. I followed the link just to check, and yep: he has it as “Strum” and Drang.

    It has a certain twang to it, I suppose…

  5. “It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work…”

    I made it all the way to line six this time before laughing.

    That’s about average.

  6. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher.

    I think the lawyers call that assuming facts not in evidence. Every publisher negotiates to get the perceived value of that backlist before reverting it. It’s pretty clear that Konrath made more out of his backlist than the publisher thought it was worth, so I would say that calls into question how much of the equity was built on the publisher’s back.

    • This quote totally made me roll my eyes. My pen name, which has never been associated with a traditional publisher, has made me far more money that the stuff I’ve published under my real name. My success is my own and has nothing to do with my former publisher, but publishers don’t get this, all they think is that most people only have self-publishing success if they’ve had a publisher ‘build it for them’ first.

    • He seems to make a lot of assumptions in this piece. Assumptions that are based on little more than the fact that he said them. I find it disturbing that people pay this man money for his “expertise.”

  7. I think the Jean Craighead George situation was very instructive. Fast forward yourself to her age when she got into that legal hassle. Do you want to be fighting with your publisher over your intellectual property or do you want to be reaping the benefits of a long self-publishing career with many books available world-wide, Amazon still sending you a payment to your bank account right on time every month?

    I’ll take betting on myself for 1000, Alex!

  8. Shatzkin seems to think that writing the book is the easy part, and getting it to market is the hard part. He’s got it exactly backward.

    Writing the book takes a lot of skill and sweat. Formatting it and uploading it to Amazon? Fairly simple.

    • But… but self-publishing is hard, that’s why so many authors will need Mr. Shatzkin’s services.

      • Yes, that’s why I sent him my checking account number with routing number too, just in case. Bring the nurturing.

        • STOP…I promise to beat any Legacy Pro’s nurturing rates!!!

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      • Elka, LOL! Mr. Shatzkin drew a perfect circle there, didn’t he. (g)

    • Suburbanbanshee

      Actually, formatting hundreds of footnotes is a huge pain in the butt, and takes a lot longer than writing the book. And every freaking format, you have to do a total redo.

      I hate footnotes, btw.

  9. There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?

    First of all, if an author should or shouldn’t self-publish (aka should he/she self-publish or submit his/her work to agents and publishers), is totally up to him/her and it has nothing to do with agents and publishers, except in a case when author with agent decides that he/she wants to hear his/her agent’s opinion on the matter. The question that every agent and publisher is dealing with is, should I accept the submitted manuscript; shouldn’t Mr. Shatzkin as a veteran publishing consultant be aware of that?

    It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing.

    I agree it’s good to have all this, but unfortunately, this is something that according to the stories of traditionally published authors is not guaranteed, something that Mr. Shatzkin as a veteran publishing consultant should also know. So this gives me a question; is Mr. Shatzkin so naïve to believe all the above, or is he adjusting the truth to his needs and the needs of his clients?

    Oh, and I really like the

    Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back

    I heard how much they did for Joe Konrath many, many times on Konrath’s blog. I’m sure that he would have something to say about that. Can’t wait.

    • KKR stories of how her series were mismanaged are very cautionary, too.

      • So true. Whenever I read a piece on how great everything in Tradpub works, how wonderfully all writer’s are treated and how silly one must be to turn down an offer I go and read some old KKR posts.

    • Mike is just trying to find a reason to justify why you should pay him and people he likes. His problem is that his arguments are less and less convincing as time goes by. The way I see it, his only real value is to self-publishers who probably wouldn’t have the energy or competence to self-publish anyway–people who want to self-publish and be done with it and have other people manage the actual business. Those people are the types that often got ripped off by traditional publishing in the past. Mike’s now looking for those types in the self-publishing world so he can continue to “earn” a paycheck. In my experience, self-publishers–the ones who take this stuff seriously and do their research–are a lot savvier than that. He’s going to have a hard time establishing a foothold in this new world.

  10. The best decision I made in my life was to self-publish, and that was without anything except a short story published traditionally. And frankly, I’m a nobody next to all these amazing self-published success stories.

    This article is so full of crap, all I can say is to do the exact opposite of what Shatkin recommends and you’ll probably do much better than if you’d followed his advice.

    • Funny and true! His advice makes sense for such a small number of (hypothetical) people that it’s not worth the long-winded article.

  11. I see “Shatkin” and skip to PG’s comments and the replies. I don’t read the original article.

  12. Shatzkin’s discussion of the amount of the market served by inventory in stores is right on. But the “best choice” conclusion doesn’t seem to follow.

    Why?

    Because the question for each author has to be which stores will I be in, what kind of floor space will I have, and how long will I be there? And in many cases the answers to those questions do not compete well with indie options.

    For example, a lot of in-store sales come from the drug store, grocery store, airport, Walmart, Costco type venues. But it’s rare than an author getting an average deal will see the light of day in those places. Those are reserved for bigger sellers. And not very many of those. So unless you’re getting a big deal, you can’t count that floor space.

    Poof. Tens of thousands of venues are now no longer part of the equation.

    Next you’ve got to factor in the numbers of venues left, placement in those stores, and duration. I’ve written more about that here: http://johndbrown.com/2014/04/when-an-author-should-self-publish-and-how-that-might-change/

    I agree with Shatzkin that there are certainly cases when licensing to a publisher makes sense. But it’s certainly not going to be a stand out option all of the time, even with well-established and competent publishers.

    For the short version of this comment see Joe Vasicek’s comment two upthread.

    • Next you’ve got to factor in the numbers of venues left, placement in those stores, and duration.

      Spine out amongst hundreds of others on a shelf at the back of the store for 3 weeks? 😉

  13. Mike also says: “It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is.”

    Which makes me think that he’s thinking NONFICTION here, in large part.

    A debut fiction author *always* has to have a completed manuscript for their first sale. Nobody buys fiction on spec. Maybe subsequent books, but never a first novel. So that kind of assumption right there is incorrect for a new author thinking about approaching traditional publishing. If you’re switching genres or moving to a new publishing house, most of the time the editors require a full, completed MS, too. So it’s not the kind of deal where you sell into tradpub and then it’s all smooth sailing from there. (haha, as if!)

    Genre fiction and nonfiction behave very differently, and it’s important to know which end of that stick you’re holding. And not conflate the two in order to support a bunch of flimsy arguments…

    • Right?! I would love to query a publisher as a complete unknown and say “hey here’s my story idea and a sample chapter, want to pay me to write it?”. Would that even warrant a form rejection?

      I actually don’t mind that he posed this question as one publishers and agents should ask themselves…it’s the first step toward empathy vis a vis the author’s mindset. It might eventually lead them to breaking down the awful terms that IMO no sane person would sign unless they were predicated on life-changing money. (Let me hasten to add…for some people maybe 3k is life-changing; I don’t know their lives. But for me it’s not life-changing until I get to pay off my mortgage and the second mortgage we essentially pay on student loan/car/credit card debts…aka mid-six-figures.) But I foresee the odds of getting published rising to 50% if you submit (bc no one is) happening before standard contract terms become less exploitive and draconian.

  14. The only time I’d sign a contract for a novel with Big Publishing would be if I were to write a media tie-in novel. That’s a matter of rights, nothing more.

    …the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it.

    But that is the point EVERYONE who comments from the POV of Big Publishing deliberately overlooks: most authors never get a chance at that deal. And we’re talking thousands of authors here, so you really can’t say they’re all “failing” to get that traditional deal because they’re lousy writers. Lousy writers with lousy books get traditional deals all the time; good writers with good books get turned down all the time. You can’t say that it’s only the quality writers who “make it”. Yet Big Publishing cannot and will not acknowledge that there just is not room in their tent for everyone, and there’s no stigma in pitching our own tents.

    • “But that is the point EVERYONE who comments from the POV of Big Publishing deliberately overlooks: most authors never get a chance at that deal. And we’re talking thousands of authors here, so you really can’t say they’re all “failing” to get that traditional deal because they’re lousy writers. Lousy writers with lousy books get traditional deals all the time; good writers with good books get turned down all the time. You can’t say that it’s only the quality writers who “make it”. Yet Big Publishing cannot and will not acknowledge that there just is not room in their tent for everyone, and there’s no stigma in pitching our own tents.”

      Thank you. Well said.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      You could even do a media tie-in novel on Kindle Worlds without dealing with anybody but Amazon and the licenser.

      • Unfortunately, for an established media property, there is generally a BPH that holds the exclusive licence, and only that house may publish tie-ins. Kindle Worlds only has a handful of licensed properties.

  15. I am so sick of this guy. Does he ever get anything right?

  16. Joe Konrath has recently been calling indie publishing a “shadow industry” and I think he’s right on.

    Part of Mike’s argument here runs on the subtext of “everything’s fine for Big Publishing, since authors are almost never turning down contracts.”

    There’s a *huge* invisible wave of authors who are not renewing their contracts (either by choice or by being cut) who are now going indie. Formerly tradpubbed authors leaving in droves – THAT is what NY publishing should be worried about. Some big names are starting to go, too.

    And then there’s all the talented folks who are completely bypassing the query-go-round and going straight to indie.

    But those folks are all “invisible” if you want to only look at authors signing new contracts. 😉

  17. The reaction here to the hypothetical $150,000 three book deal is, “Gee, any indie can/will beat that.”

    Tell it to indie author Mary Walters:

    http://maryww.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/my-writing-is-buried-in-the-junkheap-of-obscurity-only-you-can-save-it/

    I suspect that her experience is quite typical but you don’t hear it very often because it’s uncommon for an author to discuss their failure so openly.

    • I agree that not every indie can turn down $150k. However, I’ve seen lots of self published authors wonder why they aren’t selling. I’ve seen a few bashing Konrath on his blog but many more on bad book cover blogs/sites. A few on writing sites.

      Lots of them are writing for niche’s without realizing it though. For example, the short description Mary Walters gives in the blog post for her last book seems to morph from lesbian romance to western to possibly action/adventure. Nothing wrong with that but finding your audience is the indie challenge.

      The ones making $50k a year are still the outliers but there’s more each year. The fact that there’s a number of successful indie writers on this site distorts things sometimes. For good and bad.

    • The problem, Peter, is that you’re countering outliers with an outlier.

      The real story of indie publishing isn’t the Howeys (or Konraths or Andres or etc.), as all those authors maintain. The real story of indie publishing is the number of authors who are first supplementing, and then complementing, and then supplanting their incomes via clicking the Publish button.

      A great many of us–myself included–are at the supplementing stage. I’ve got a bunch of titles out (though only two novels), but so far sales have been slow yet steady. They have increased month over month, but not by the numbers many report.

      But that’s fine. It’s a long game.

      The further problem with your counter (and the overall argument) is this hypothetical advance. As I’ve heard it, average advance for a debut novel is between $5000 and $7500. Many authors aren’t signing away the copyrights of their work for six or seven figures; many are doing it for less than five, and that’s a damn shame. It’s exploitive.

      • I like your phrasing (it sums things up nicely):

        “first supplementing, and then complementing, and then supplanting their incomes”

    • Peter

      I looked at Ms. Walters offerings on Amazon. Some interesting stuff there.

      She has 2 SP novels published in the last 3 years and currently at $0. I’m guessing it’s a promo activity. Also, there’s a book on funding application writing (Kindle – $12.99) and 3 other, rather niche, books only available in paperback at (are you ready?) $37.98, $42.30 and $2420.43

      So, IMHO, it looks like she has only two books now that anyone could reasonably expect to perform well in indie/e-book world. I don’t know what sales expectations she has but I think it shouldn’t be much at this stage. Better covers couldn’t hurt.

      And if anything her case is a ding in one of Shatzkin’s views because she has an award winning Legacy past. That tradpub “equity” Shatzkin values doesn’t seem to be so beneficial here.

      • I looked at her stuff too, and agree with DL. From what I saw, I don’t think she understands what she needs to get traction.
        She thinks she knows, and blames her difficulties on the media and not getting reviews.
        This seems to be a common theme with early-career (ie less than 5 books) trad-published authors who are trying to transition, the whining about the reviews. I always get the feeling that if they could, those sorts would be back with trad-pub in a flash, horrid contracts and all.

    • Peter,

      Very very few people get a $150k three-book offer from publishers. Very few indeed.

      Here are some numbers for you: http://johndbrown.com/2013/06/news-the-man-is-going-all-indie-for-the-next-little-while/

      And here are some more: http://brendahiatt.com/show-me-the-money/

      And yet Shatzkin suggests:

      that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it.

      Why?

      The strength of the traditional publishers and the traditional deals is directly related to the amount of the market that is served by inventory in stores.

      For the vast majority of folks getting offers from publishers they will not get into the vast majority of brick and mortar venues.

      They will not get into thousands and thousands of grocery stores, airport stores, drug stores, Walmarts, Costcos, etc.

      This means they’re left with book stores. There are about 12,700 book stores in the USA: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/57631-where-the-stores-are.html

      But that number includes the big-box stores which you’re not getting into. And other specialty stores: used, children’s, Christian, etc. that you’re probably not a fit for.

      You don’t then automatically get into all of what’s left. No. If you publisher sells to Barnes&Noble they might stock you in most of their stores, but they might not. Same with Hastings. Barnes&Noble (a max of 675 stores), Books-a-Million (max of 200 stores), Hastings (max of 149 stores). You get the idea. Same with all those independent stores. In fact, if you’re a genre writer, you probably won’t be in the independent stores.

      Do you see the numbers shrinking?

      The question is not which brick and mortar venues do publishers regularly get their books into? It’s which ones will I get my book into?

      And then it’s what type of display will I have? Will I be in a prominent position with my cover out? Or will I be in the back with two copies placed spine-out?

      And then the next question is how long will I be there? Most stores rotate their stock every 8-15 weeks. Only those books that have sold really well are “modeled” and stay. The rest are returned to make room for the new books.

      But that’s not all. Let’s say you do get 2 copies in a store. Will the store order more in that 8 week period if you sell both of them? Many times the answer is no way Jose.

      So now a publisher makes a $10k offer to an author. A big $10k. To earn that out with the publisher, which you’re not likely to do, you need to sell almost 14,000 paperbacks, or 3,700 hardbacks in that 8-15 week window. Or 6,700 ebooks.

      And the rights are tied up for a very long time. And you may have dumb non-compete clauses.

      How many stores are you in? If the publisher gets you 4 copies into 1,500 stores and you have an average return rate of 50%, then you’ve sold 3,000 copies. And you have not earned out your advance. But what if they only get 2 copies on average into the stores. That’s 1,500.

      Well, there are the library sales. Publishers often do a good job there. The libraries might make it up.

      Or they might not. And if they don’t, you might be looking at no more contracts.

      Or you can try to sell 3,500 ebooks for $3.99 to make that same $10,000. And keep your rights.

      It’s not a piece of cake to sell that many books indie. But going with a publisher isn’t a sure thing either. However, if you’re good enough for a publisher to want to license your work for $10k, then maybe you’re good enough to get the word of mouth going on your own. And maybe you can make that $10k in the two or three years it would take the publisher to purchase, slot you for publication, release your hardback, and then the paperback.

      Except wait. What if the publisher doesn’t do a hardback and paperback? What if they just go direct to ebook?

      Shatzkin makes a useless generalization. The question is what in-store venues will the publisher get my book into?

      With a bigger advance, they’re going to work harder at a wider distribution, which is good. But with the average advances, they are not.

  18. When should an author self-publish? When the chance of achieving their publishing goals by doing so is better than the chance of achieving them through trad-pub.

    So, fairly frequently.

    Trad-pub does provide wider exposure, if that’s important to you, though according to Hugh Howey’s figures that doesn’t translate well into income.

    It is not the easy option. Some people still think it is, because they don’t want to have to deal with finding an editor and a cover designer, but they apparently are OK with taking much longer to find an agent and a publisher and deal with their shenanigans. There is no easy option, but a lot of the time self-pub is easier, unless you’re lucky.

    It is also not the safe option. There is no safe option, but a lot of the time self-pub is safer, simply because you have the control.

    • Yeah, I’ve never really understood the argument about how it seems too hard to find the right freelancers to hire to get the self-pub job done right. Who wouldn’t rather do a month or two of really hard work than sit around for many more months, or perhaps years, waiting on others to make leisurely decisions and assign editors and designers over whom you have zero control? And then potentially have your contract cancelled because during this ridiculously long delay a new editor came in and didn’t want to work with your book.

      I think the argument of “All that hard work just isn’t for me!” is just a more (supposedly) polite way of saying “Self-publishing is for lewzers, and I imagine myself to be the cream of the crop! Therefore, I’d rather wait to see my fantasy of being catered to come true, the way tradpub tells me it does for authors who are just patient and persistent enough.”

      Personally, I think allowing some corporation to screw you, and missing out on income to boot, is for lewzers and making fat stacks is for the cream of the crop. But what do I know? My obvious indie bias has clearly clouded my judgment.

      • And, in fact, I found my cover artist through a fellow indie (who knows him IRL, and got him to do a cover for her which made me think, “I got to get me one of them!”). And I found my editor through social media, and she turned out to be a great fit and we work really well together. So, in fact, no drama.

        Now, I’m not exactly making fat stacks, but at least I don’t have to deal with people in the publishing industry who control aspects of my book and keep getting them wrong.

        I used to work in trad pub about 20 years ago, by the way, so I started out cynical about it.

  19. For most of us who have taken the self-pub road from the starting gate, this subject is a no-brainer. But there could be a lot of established trad-writers and beginners who torment with this issue. Which road should I take? Trad, self or both/hybrid? If you’re a trad-author you’ll jump ship if you get screwed by the publisher or think you can make more money on your own, otherwise why let a bird in hand go for two in the bush? If you’re self-pub why go to the trad-pubs or agents and get rejected? If you’re new at it, that’s the audience Mike is addressing I hope, then you do have those choices to make. Except they are not choices. Trad-pubs and agents will reject you. Start learning how to self-pub.
    As for those writers who can do both trad and self pub, very few have that choice.
    The non-compete clause in the contract prohibits you from moonlighting. Trad-pub only.
    Now the authors who were once trad-pub and they either jump ship because they had enough, or they were invited ashore and not be trad-pub again (no disrespect here, they achieved something I for one did not) they had no choice but self-pub and in many cases they’re doing better than before, we’re told. These author are not hybrid either, they once did trad, now they do self, but not both at the same time, even if they got their rights back.
    Only, if you are so good that after you sold very very well the trad-pubs will offer you a deal. That’s when you would have the hybrid option. Just be careful, with one hand they offer you gold with the other they shackle you. Luckily or unfortunately they are very few of us who have to make that decision.
    The short road to success is as follows:
    New—————> self-publish
    Old—————-> stay with trad-publishers
    Old and Tired–> self-publish
    Undetermined–> good luck

  20. “(Hint from PG: The parts of a contract that are difficult to understand are prime locations to hide nasty terms.)”

    The firm I worked for valued clear writing. So I was surprised when a response to a motion for summary judgment came back to me for rewrite. I went to the senior lawyer who ordered the rewrite to ask for clarification.

    Me. “What’s wrong with it?”

    Senior Lawyer. “It’s too clear. You need to lengthen it and muddy up the issues.”

    Me. Blink, blink. “I thought I was supposed to write clear.”

    SL. “Let me ask you. You know the issues and the facts and the law in this case, right? What would you do with the MSJ?”

    Me. “I’d grant it.”

    SL. “Exactly. Which means our client loses. Which means we lose. But if you write a long and muddy response, maybe the judge will think there is an issue here and deny the MSJ. Then we can settle and get something. Now go write.”

    The MSJ was denied. We settled.

    The moral: Sometimes when you do not understand it, it is because there is nothing there to understand.

  21. “Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started.”

    Joe is going to have a fit over this.

    “Joe Konrath succeeded because we built his brand first.”

    That old meme again…

    Also, I thought it was funny how Mike referred to the advance as “partially in the pocket”. In other words, it could be yanked back out again, and if you were, you know, living off of it, you’re financially screwed. Oh, and then there’s the fun of paying taxes on earnings that aren’t actually guaranteed…

    • Been waiting to see if J.A. has any commentary. I figure either he and Eisler are working on another fisk opus or he doesn’t care about what Shatzkin says anymore and would rather spend his word count elsewhere.

  22. My take on getting publisher:

    I have fun writing. I don’t need a publisher sucking the life out of it. I’ll put my stuff online with passable covers and avoid the reviews. Maybe I’ll sell a few. Not sure why I’d need the hassle of a publisher.

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