Recently there’s been a lot of hoo-ra about self-publishing in e-book form because some people (Amanda Hocking) have been successful at it and some successful people (Barry Eisler) are trying it. There’s even a contingent shrieking that traditional publishing is dead and that unpublished writers should stop going through the hell of submitting to “the Big Six” and just do it themselves, thus getting all the money. (“Big Six” is almost always said with a sneer, along with that other Fox-News-worthy term, “legacy publishing.”) That smelled distinctly of fish to me, so I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts and articles, trying to come to a conclusion and what I’ve decided is this: I think e-publishing is going to be a huge part of publishing in the future, but it’s not going to be all of publishing (anybody who banks on the Big Six going belly-up while writers become their own publishing houses is deficient in his or her understanding of the marketplace) so the decision to try self-e-publishing is like everything else in the world: it depends on the situation. To be more specific:
1. Anybody gloating about the fall of “Big Publishing,” talking trash about “the Big Six”, or sneering about “legacy publishing” is too emotionally involved in the discussion to be seeing the situation clearly. These are angry people who are not thinking things through because they’re angry. Anger about publishing is not new–we’ve all thrown foaming fits in the privacy of our own homes–but it’s usually about a specific publisher who has done a specific thing. Demonizing the entire traditional publishing industry while evangelizing for e-publishing because “you’ll make more money that way” is not only short-sighted, it’s kneecapping yourself. The smartest people I’ve read on this are Nathan Bransford and Amanda Hocking. They are clear-eyed and far-sighted and they have the numbers to back up what they’re saying which is pretty much that there are two roads to publishing at the moment and each has its own rewards.
2. Most of the people who are trumpeting their success as self-publishers started in traditional publishing which means that their experiences are not going to be applicable to most other writers. Their names are established. Most of the hard work of publishing has been done for them. They can put “New York Times Bestselling” author on their covers; they have review quotes and blurbs from other well-known writers ready to go. For them to say, “Hey, you newbie unpublished writer, this is working for me, so this is the way to go for you” borders on cruelty. And even beyond that, I think they’re short-sighted in their evaluation of what traditional publishing does for them, even at their levels of success. Unless they really like designing bookcovers, arranging their own PR, and doing their own marketing, they’re coasting on the legacy bequeathed them by their legacy publishers while they’re gloating about leaving them. That’s a little like a divorced spouse bragging about how well he or she is doing while living on alimony.
But even so, they’re making a lot more money, right? Maybe, but depending on their situations they may be losing a lot more in intangibles than they’re gaining in short-term cash. I’m moderately successful so their plan should fit me perfectly, and yet I wouldn’t dream of publishing my new fiction myself. SMP’s marketing and PR, their distribution, their sheer ability to sell books trumps anything I could do, especially in a market where the projected percentage of e-books at the end of 2011 is still only 35%. (That’s a huge leap from last year, and that percentage can only grow, but that means that even if the projected growth figures are correct, you’re still ignoring 65% of possible sales.) SMP still excels at the one thing I’d have to work full time to do half as well as they do: Tell people my book is out there. But okay, let’s say I could market my own book riding on the coattails of everything my publisher has already established for me. SMP still holds one trump card: Jennifer Enderlin. I don’t want to write a book without Jen. She makes me a better writer. Yes, I can hire an outside editor (nobody can edit her own work well), but who knows if she’ll be as good as Jen (she won’t be) and there goes more of that “pure profit” everybody keeps talking about because a good editor who takes the time my manuscript needs is not going to cost me a couple of hundred bucks. So even if there was a profit there, I’d still go with SMP because what Jen does for my books is worth more than extra money. I understand that all writers can’t work with Jen at SMP, but there are a lot of good, smart editors out there working for good, smart publishers, and I think that’s still that’s the best way to go for most traditional books.
3. Self-e-publishing works, but only if you know what you’re getting into. Let’s say you’re a multi-published author with a big backlist that you’ve regained the rights to. Should you self-publish your backlist? It depends. Is there a publisher who’s willing to give you a great deal with guarantees to promote the hell out of it? Then I’d go with that. If not, then you don’t have a lot to lose by self-publishing and you have a lot to gain if you do it right. But doing it right means getting somebody who knows what they’re doing to do your covers (since your old cover art is owned by the publisher, not you), pricing your books decently so you don’t devalue your brand, and spending enough time and money to market the books so people know they’re there. If you’re still published by a traditional publisher, you’re in luck because they’ll promote your latest book and when readers go to see what else you’ve written that’s available in e-format, they’ll see your self-pubbed stuff.
A second good reason to self-e-publish is alternative publishing. If you have a book that has such a small, focused audience that traditional publishing can’t afford to take it, or a novel whose subject matter/protagonists/setting/all of the above are deemed unpublishable by traditional means, or if you’re doing something that’s so far off your usual brand that print publishing the title might hurt your career, then self-e-publishing may be a good option. In other words, if print publishing is not possible for this work, and the reason is not that it’s a lousy book that’s going to destroy your career, then self-e-publishing may be the way to go.
I say “may be” because I believe strongly that the way you are published establishes your professional reputation. If you’re published in e-format with a beautiful cover, great production values, and solid marketing that reinforces your brand, that’s better than being published in a lousy mass market paperback format with a cover that’s all wrong and a binding that falls apart. But it’s not easy to do quality publishing and most of the self-published e-books I’ve seen are not something I’d want my name on.
I’ve talked before about the idea Mollie had to put all the first chapters of all my novels in e-book form with introductions explaining how I came to write them. Nobody would want to publish that; for one thing it’s basically a promo catalog and for another it’s going to be about 150,000 words which is too large to be feasible in print. But as a free e-book, the fact that it’s promotional doesn’t matter (it’s FREE!) and the fact that it’s a doorstop doesn’t count in a place where all the doors are made of ether. That’s a perfect self-e-publishing project for me. But this is not something I would ever do by myself. I’m a fiend about cover art but I don’t kid myself that I can design it by myself. I’ve been working on marketing and PR for twenty years but there’s no way I have the skills or knowledge to plan a marketing program on my own. So this free catalog we’re putting out will have a professionally designed cover and a marketing plan designed by an internet marketing consulting firm Simple Progress. (Not trying to sell you anything there; they take clients by referral only). Without that professional support, I wouldn’t put anything out there with my name on it even if it is promotional and free. That’s my identity out there, I can’t afford to do anything that looks cheesy or amateurish.
If you want to read more on e-publishing, the smartest people I’ve found have been Bransford, who is always smart on publishing, and Hocking, who is very clear-sighted, knows exactly what she’s doing, and doesn’t attach anything personal to the transaction. These are people who see self-e-publishing for what it is, a business that provides a service that may or may not be appropriate for an author. They know that, like everything else in the world, your e-publishing decision comes down to your situation and your personality: who you are, what you need, and how you are best suited to get it.
Now, what do you guys think?
I’ve had some private correspondence since this was posted, and although I truly thought I was being clear, I’m going to try again:
I think self-e-publishing is a good decision in some cases. I think traditional print publishing is a good decision in some cases. I think that writers who have been successful in print publishing and who are telling other writers who haven’t that self-e-publishing is the smart thing to do are doing a disservice to those writers by not mentioning the tremendous amount of work they’re going to have to do just to get to the place where those print-published writers were when they began self-e-publishing, if they ever get there, so self-e-publishing should not be seen as the One Right Way or even The Wave of the Future. It’s another publishing option, not the Grail.
And what I didn’t say but should have (Nathan Bransford said it better) is that you really need both print and e-publishing, whether you go to a publisher or self-publish in either format. But that’s another blog post.