Aloha, everyone. When Charlie gave me this opportunity to guest-blog, I asked him if it'd be okay if I did a counter-post to his March 21 entry Why I Don't Self-Publish. Charlie readily agreed.
First, it feels necessary to say that there is no best path in this business of writing fiction and every author's career is different. I started in the usual way, with traditional publishing, and had six science fiction novels published by New York houses between '95 and 2003. My work garnered good reviews and there were a couple of awards, but despite my best efforts no meaningful amount of money was going into the family coffers. Economically, I was wasting my time. Emotionally I was inhabited by a deep, dark sense of failure, with no viable means to turn things around. So circa 2000 I more or less walked away from the field for almost ten years. I did not stop writing entirely, but it was close.
In 2009 I woke up to the ebook revolution.
My background and situation let me jump right into self-publishing. I'd worked in web development for nine years, so I knew how to handle the HTML behind ebooks, I was familiar with Photoshop, I'd learned the basics of InDesign, I had the rights back to all my novels, and I had time to devote, since the recession had ended my programming job. So I became my own publisher and reissued the novels, first as ebooks and then in print-on-demand editions.
I found that I loved this new business, because I was in control.
In traditional publishing, after a book is sold, the important decisions are made by the publisher--format, cover art, cover copy, sales date, pricing, promotional budget (if any)--and once those decisions are made they can rarely be changed. So my near-future bio-thriller Limit of Vision was released with a pulp cover featuring giant bugs, while my far-future novel, Memory, was released with a back cover description that got the basic facts of the story world wrong.
As my own publisher, I make mistakes too, but because my business model--low upfront costs and no warehoused inventory--is radically different from that of traditional publishing, I'm in a position to correct those mistakes. I can--and I have--changed cover art, cover copy, and pricing after publishing a book.
Of course these days, self-publishing out-of-print backlist isn't controversial. The question writers debate is what to do with original fiction. I looked at it from a business perspective, asking What's best for me? And I couldn't justify trying New York again.
Charlie cites time as a major reason for sticking with traditional publishing. His time is best invested in writing books, not publishing them. This is how he makes a living, and the figures add up for him. He sells a lot of books.
For me, the equation is different, in large part because I'm operating on a very different scale. If I try to market a manuscript, I can expect to wait months (years?) on a response, more months to negotiate a contract, and no doubt the advance would be low. Suppose I accepted $10,000. Fifteen-percent would go to the agent, my home state of Hawaii would take 4%, and I would be left with only $8,100, stretched out in multiple payments. Going by past experience the advance is all I'd ever see. Traditional publishing, even when done well, is no guarantee of success.
Of course financial success with self-publishing is unlikely too.
There. I said it. Self-publishing is not a magic solution, and still the odds of success look better to me because my profit per unit sold is much higher than it would be for a traditionally published book, and the potential exists to generate that profit for the life of the copyright (subject to the risks of piracy, irrelevance, or the end of the world, of course).
As I mentioned, my business model includes low upfront costs. The biggest cost for me is the time it takes to write and revise a novel, but that's the same regardless of how I publish. Less than a month ago I released a new novel, a near-future military thriller called The Red: First Light. I wrote it last summer, beginning in early June and finishing a first draft at the end of September. After incorporating suggestions from beta readers, I sent the manuscript to a professional editor and then spent the month of January rewriting it. This is the same process used in traditional publishing except that I paid out-of-pocket for the editor (and it got done much faster).
Copyediting was next. I solicited an estimate from a professional and was told $2000-$3000. Ahem. I couldn't justify the amount, so I had a fellow member of the writers cooperative Book View Café copyedit the manuscript for me.
To this point, the time I'd invested in The Red: First Light went to writing and revision. Next came the time required to publish. Here's how that worked out: It took me two or three days to process the copy edits, less than a day to hand-code the ebook, and two to three days to do the interior layout of the print book.
Did I do a professional job? You can see the result for yourself. Go look up the book on Amazon and grab a free ebook sample, or use the "Look Inside the Book" feature to see the layout of the print book. In either case, is the work comparable to that of a traditional book? I like to think it is.
In my experience, cover art is the most challenging part of the publishing process. For The Red: First Light, the cover art was done by my daughter and I'm very pleased with it. The title text was added by me and I wrote the back cover copy.
So if I can write the book, hire an editor, get the favor of a copyeditor, coerce an artist, create the ebook, and do the print layout--with the whole process taking less than ten months--what benefit is a traditional publisher to me?
Well, discovery, maybe. Readers can't buy books they've never seen from writers they've never heard of.
Most readers are turned on to a new book by word of mouth--someone they know or follow online tells them a book is good, so they look for it. Another common method of discovery is bookstore browsing--and here traditional publishers win, at least for now. Because of the way the distribution system works, you will not find The Red:First Light in chain bookstores. Of course, not every traditional book makes it into physical stores either, and those that do tend to stay for a very short time.
Would I have benefitted from discovery in stores? I'm sure I would have made a few more sales, but enough to make it worth giving up my independence? Unlikely, especially given the declining number of bookstores.
In the end, it's the total revenue that matters. Ten thousand copies sold of an original novel is not going to impress a traditional publisher or lead to meaningfully higher income for me. But working on my own gives me a bigger cut of the list price. So if I manage to sell online ten thousand copies of TR:FL at list ($7.99 ebook/$16 trade USD) in 2013, I'll have made a nice (but not spectacular) annual income.
So for me--and every writer is different--traditional publishing does not have much to offer anymore. If I'm going to gamble my time, my art, my potential, then I want a large share of the potential profits. Indie publishing gives me that. So far, I am not an indie success story, but my work is mine. I control it. I can do what I want with it. I can try new things. I like that. A lot.