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Self-Publishing: Pro’s and Cons

A good ole’ friend of mine, an IT dude with a liberal arts degree and a career in education behind him, has reinvented himself as an e-book formatter. He loves it. And in the course of loving it, he’s decided that The Future Is Self-Publishing. Print is dead, he tells us, as are brick-and-mortar bookstores and conventional publishing houses.

Well, I’m not so sure about that. Self-publishing certainly presents itself in a better light than it used to, when only suckers and incompetent writers paid someone else to publish their books. Today there are some circumstances in which it makes sense to self-publish a book and market it on Kindle, Nook, and iBooks.

And there are some circumstances in which it does not.

This morning I gave a presentation to a business group on the pro’s and cons of self publishing. This is how it came down…

Pro: No Gatekeepers

When you market a book to a mainline publisher, you have to faze your way past not one but a whole string of gatekeepers.

First your (or your agent’s) proposal hits the desk of a low-paid underling — possibly even an unpaid intern. This person’s job is to winnow the wheat from the chaff, rejecting about 90 percent of the queries that arrive in the e-mail or the snail-mail. She or he forwards the 10 percent (or less) of incoming proposals that she thinks might interest the press to her boss, an acquisitions editor.

The acquisitions editor tosses most of these, recognizing through experience which are likely to make a profit for the press and which will not. Maybe one in a hundred, then, will meet this editor’s provisional approval.

However, she or he is not in a position to send you an acceptance letter — not  yet, anyway. First, she has to persuade a committee of fellow editors and marketing executives that your proposed book is a good fit for their publishing house.

Most to the point: she has to convince the marketing department that your book will sell. If she can’t, it gets rejected no matter how much she loves your idea.

Got the picture? Your chances of selling a book to a mainstream publishing house are very low, no matter how many New York editors your agent takes to lunch each week.

Con: No Gatekeepers

Now, it’s true that when you trick out an e-book or a print-on-demand book for Amazon, no one tells you that Amazon won’t buy it because it’s not “good” enough or not “salable” enough. And that’s nice for you: it means you can self-publish darn near anything.

Therein lies the problem: you can self-publish darn near anything. But… can you sell it?

By way of selling it, one crucial — maybe even indispensable — marketing tool is the book review. And not just any book review: reviews that appear in large, mainstream media such as the New York Times or Library Journal or even your local metropolitan newspaper (if your city still has such a thing). These periodicals, which indeed are staples of people who read, do not review self-published books. The reason: no gatekeepers.

Newspaper columnists and reporters are busy people. They don’t have time to plow through mountains of amateur productions. They direct their attention to works that have already been filtered through the selective eye of a mainstream publisher’s acquisitions editor. So when you send a press release or a “free” book, the first thing that reviewer is going to do is find out who published it. If the publisher is “Joe Doakes and Friends” or some obscure name that doesn’t appear and never will appear in LMP, she’s not going to give it a second look.

To get an interview on, say, NPR or Good Morning America, most authors will need at least a few reviews in mainstream media. No recognizable reviews, no interview. No interview, no marketing opportunity. No marketing, no sales.

Meanwhile, librarians, who form an important segment of any publisher’s market, are swamped with products coming at them from all directions. They also have no time for amateur productions whose authors could not or never even tried to get the attention of a mainstream publisher. If your book isn’t reviewed in Library Journal, it’s unlikely ever to land on a library shelf.

Acceptance by a traditional publisher gives you an imprimatur that gets you into some very important doors.

Pro: You retain control over all aspects of publishing, sale, and distribution (assuming you buy your own ISBN).

This is nice. You own the book. You own its copyright. When you publish through a mainstream publishing house, the publisher typically buys all copyrights (unless your agent negotiates a better deal for you). You’re paid for your rights in the reproduction and distribution in certain markets, but…if a movie producer comes along and wants to option rights for a film, he does business with your publisher, not with you.

And of course, if you’re the publisher because you self-published, you negotiate movie rights, play rights, or whatever yourself. And you get a bigger cut of revenues from any such uses.

Con: You have to handle all aspects of publishing, sales, and distribution.

None of these are simple, easy endeavors. All three of them are difficult, complex, and often expensive jobs.

Can you learn how to do them? Sure. But fools step in where angels fear to tread…

Pro: Fast turn-around

At Amazon, you can get published in as little time as it takes to slap a manuscript together and convert it to a .mobi file. When you peddle your book to a mainstream publisher, it may be a year or more before you see your golden words in print.

Con: It’s easy to put together a substandard product when you get in a hurry.

Publishing a piece of schlock is not in your best interest. What is in your best interest is to publish a book that’s as good as can be. And you don’t accomplish that overnight.

A traditional publisher may indeed take a year to bring your product to light, but in that year the book goes through a couple of editors (neither of whom you have to pay out of pocket), a professional designer, a graphic artist, a marketer, and often a number of other professionals, such as indexers and lawyers.

Would you rather get something out there right this instant, or would you rather wait to build a truly high-quality product?

Pro: You get the lion’s share of sales revenues.

With a traditional publisher, you may (or may not) get an advance against sales. After your book has sold enough copies to reimburse the advance to your publisher, then you get a royalty, which these days is around 7 percent.

At Amazon, you get most of the book’s sale price, and that is one heck of a lot more than 7 percent.

Con: Amazon is about your only retailer, except for the much smaller iBooks and Nook and, for some works, special-interest sellers.

Amazon is vast, of course. It has a killer marketing scheme. And it shares a lot more revenue with you than traditional publishers do. However, it’s not the only game in town. And some distinct potential disadvantages arise when a gigantic monopoly takes over any business.

A monolithic seller like Amazon can block readers’ access to any book. We saw that when Amazon picked a fight with Hachette: if you were one of Hachette’s authors, your would-be readers were told your book wasn’t available, or that it couldn’t be shipped for weeks. You were, in a word, screwed.

Amazon also can remove any e-book you purchase from your device at its pleasure. Or at the government’s. We saw that in 2009, when Amazon elected to remove (ironically) copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindle devices of users who had purchased the the books in electronic format.

What if your book appeared only in Kindle’s .mobi format? What if Amazon decided to take it off the market and remove it from your paid customers’ devices? Your book would simply go away.

A print book printed through mainstream publishers and distributed through a national or international network of diverse retailers cannot so easily be censored.

Pro: The book remains on the virtual “bookshelf” forever.

The shelf life of a book sold in brick-&-mortar stores can be very limited – a matter of weeks or months. But once you have your book on Amazon (or iBook or Nook), it’s likely to stay available to readers for a very, very long time.

Con: An electronic book’s longevity will be limited by the technology’s longevity.

Is .mobi format going to last forever? Unlikely. What happens when .mobi becomes tomorrow’s Betamax or tomorrow’s Zip disk? How much will it cost you to convert your book to whatever the new format is? Will it even be possible to do so?

A hard-copy print book will remain readable no matter how much or how often digital products evolve.

Pro: Some people make a fair amount of money on self-published books marketed through Internet retailers.

If you’re a great marketer and you have a book that hits the market at the right time, yes, you can make some money on it. But…you could win the lottery, too…

Con: As a practical matter, sales revenues are likely to be minuscule.

A mainstream publisher doesn’t pay authors royalties based on what someone thinks a book will earn. It pays for what experience shows a book will earn.

As an amateur self-publisher, you have no practical way to gauge how well your book will sell. Your self-publication is a pig in a poke: sure, it may make a ton of money…but it may not. Matter of fact, it probably will not.

Pro: You have full control over marketing strategies.

If you’re an effective marketer or can afford to hire an effective marketing company, this is good. Very good.

But “full control” over something that you know nothing about? Maybe not so good.

Con: As a self-publisher, you have to market your book yourself. A full-service publishing company has a professional blogsite, newsletters, and catalogues that help market your book, plus it has a direct line to library buyers and book reviewers nationally and internationally.

Marketing is neither easy nor cheap. To sell your book effectively, you’ll need to learn a trade that many people go to college for four years to learn. You do not have the resources of a large operating business, either in terms of money or in terms of manpower. Marketing for most self-publishers ranges from “nil” to “weak.”

Pro: You can make it look any way you please – to the extent you can afford.

As the publisher, you get to pick the cover image, choose cover stock and paper stock, select fonts and chapter heading designs, decide how many and what pictures and graphic elements should appear inside. You can, in theory, produce a very beautiful book.

Con: You have to hire editors, graphic designers, and illustrators.

You have to find them, assess their skills, hire, them, and pay them. A traditional publisher already has such artists on staff or on contract.

Producing a print-on-demand book is expensive. An original cover image can cost upwards of $400, and a quote of $1,000 to lay out two hundred print pages is not out of the ordinary.

Pro: Seeing your golden words in print is a nice ego trip.

Con: An ego trip does not reality make.

Books That Should NOT Be Self-Published

Quality nonfiction. Any book that is heavily researched and artfully written, any book that comes under the heading of “literary journalism” or “literary nonfiction” and really, truly is engagingly written, should seek a traditional publisher.

These works need the support of traditional book reviewers, librarians, and academics, none of whom will notice your book if you self-published it on Amazon.

Quality fiction. Books that are not pieces of genre fiction (i.e., not fantasies about ghosts, dragons, fairies, and zombies; science fiction; romance; formulaic detective stories; etc.) should be marketed to mainstream publishers. Reasons: same as above.

Any book whose credibility will be needed to help you get any kind of academic job. If you are applying for tenure-track positions, your work must be peer-reviewed and published by an academic press — and not the kind that charges you for the privilege.

Any book whose credibility will be needed to help you attain political office. Really. Would you vote for some fly-by-night soul who published his jeremiad through Amazon?

Any book that you need to market through mainstream media such as NPR, the Washington Post, The New York Times, Library Journal, The New York Review of Books, or Publisher’s Weekly

Ideal Candidates for a Self-Published Work

Any book whose primary purpose is to market a business or nonprofit. A book that is first and foremost a marketing tool may in fact best be published through Amazon or a print-on-demand outfit, for reasons mentioned above: you have full control over its marketing, you own all the copyrights in it, and no one interferes or acts as an intermediary in any way. Often such a book pays for itself with its first medical or chiropractic patient or with the first few sales of a product or service. And a pure marketing tool will not need to be advertised through mainstream book reviewers.

A how-to or self-help book with a sharply focused market. Some years ago I ran across a guy who bought an RV and took off into the wild blue yonder after he retired. Before long the RV developed some ailment and needed repair. Being a handy sort of fellow, he figured out how to fix it. And having nothing better to do in his retirement, he wrote a little guide on how to do this repair and published it on Amazon.

To his amazement, every RVer in the nation soon found out about his booklet. It sold madly and he soon turned a nice profit on the thing. Readers begged him to publish more advice along the same lines. He did, and before he knew it…well, he was no longer retired. He had himself a new career as a writer.

Books intended to educate customers broadly (as opposed to selling them on your product or service). Sometimes you would like to inform your customers or potential customers about some consumer issue. Your impulse to do so may be altruistic, or it may be that you hope informed potential customers eventually will walk in your shop’s front door. This is a reasonable candidate for self-publication.

Books with a narrow audience that is widely separated geographically or may grow over time. For example, one of my clients wrote and will self-publish a memoir intended to be read by members of a large extended family or by future children and grandchildren. No mainstream publisher could make a profit on such a thing — but if your goal is not to make a profit, it makes sense to self-publish.

A truly entertaining piece of genre fiction written by an author who has a strong social network and effective marketing skills. On the other hand, sometimes self-publishing makes sense if your goal is to make a profit. Genre fiction, especially the romance novel, lends itself to this, because it’s the sort of thing that readers will seek out once they know about a given author. I suspect that many genre authors may be best served by self-publishing; if your book sells itself, you have no reason to share profits with a middle-man.

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Print lives. Mainstream book publishers are still with us. But the Internet has changed the game of self-publishing. Before assuming that one or the other is best, consider the nature of your work, your goals and preferences, and your choices. They may be different than you expect.