Self-Publishing: The Myth and the Reality

There was a time--and not all that long ago--when self-publishing was considered nothing short of blasphemy. So-called "vanity houses" would, for a price, produce your book. The costs varied, depending on the length, whether the work had photos or illustrations.
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There was a time--and not all that long ago--when self-publishing was considered nothing short of blasphemy. So-called "vanity houses" would, for a price, produce your book. The costs varied, depending on the length, whether the work had photos or illustrations; a book of poetry or a novel would run about $5,000--$7,500. For that, an author got his work edited, copy edited, proofread, designed, and cover artwork was supplied. The author got, for his investment, 100 complimentary copies and promises of promotion, advertising, and marketing. Review copies were duly sent out to print and all media outlets for consideration. Sounded great, looked good on paper. Authors had dreams of fame and glory and riches and of being on Oprah. Sure, a small percentage of vanity house authors who just wanted a book to give out to friends and relatives and had no illusions. Which was fine. Unfortunately, 99% of these self-published authors either didn't read or didn't understand the small print and few, if any, understood how the publishing business worked.

Well, that was then. Today, self-publishing has become a billion-dollar juggernaut. But don't quit your day job. Yet.

We've all read about the handful of success stories about writers who have self-published such as Amanda Hocking, E. L. James, Bella Andre, and Joe Konrath, among others. But for the few who have scored big in self-publishing, there are thousands who end up selling 10 copies, often to themselves. The constant media attention given to these very rare success stories vastly inflates the true value of self-publishing sales.

Most of the companies that offer self-publishing platforms make their money on offering services such as editing, design, and marketing. Authors spend $1000 or more on these services. You can also just elect to put your title up on Kindle, iBooks, and Nook. The competition boils down, in most cases, to price. Many are put up for free in the hopes of building a readership. Most are $.99; people are willing to take a gamble on a $.99 book, especially in popular genres like romance, where readership is especially huge.

From what I've read, some e-books are quite good but, for every one of these are many more that aren't. Also, please keep in mind how many books a writer must sell to make any money at these low prices.

Publishers still exist for many reasons, the most important being the editorial relationship that develops between the editor and the author. Writing can be a very lonely business. A good editor works closely with the author to help shape the story, serve as a sounding board, pep the author up when necessary and pull him down if the author goes too over the top. During the writing process, an editor serves as a father-confessor and cheerleader. Once the book is ready to go, the publisher gets behind it with marketing and publicity efforts, and has already given the book the best cover and cover copy that money can buy. The publisher's money, not the author's.

As a publisher, my biggest concern is the clutter of the books being put out by the major publishing houses along with those that are just put up directly by authors. The established publishers have to charge more money because they have paid the author an advance (for bestselling authors, a heck of a lot). Publishers couldn't possibly afford to sell the book away for $ .99. If this were the business model and publishers were making greatly reduced revenue on the sales of these titles, the publishing industry would go belly-up. There would be no way for the publishing company to recoup their author advances and as a result, these advances would drop substantially. Free or reduced price books is not a viable business model for publishers.

In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B& for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites. I truly believe that it would help the reader distinguish the books as well. Readers don't purchase books based on who the publisher is and don't necessarily care. As a result, they might not even know if they're buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published. Publishers are devaluing their own content as well by even adding to the confusion. All publishers will discount the first title in a series, and these get mixed in with the other less expensive books and just add to the clutter.

But to date, price has been the most effective marketing tool. True, some self-published books do climb the bestseller lists because of the low price; several self-pubbed authors have been snatched up by the big houses. It remains to be seen how they perform, when the publisher then has to pay out a six-figure advance and raise the price of the book. So far those that have made the leap to traditional publishing have not proven to be very profitable ventures.

Now don't get me wrong. If I thought I had a story in me that I felt strongly about, I wouldn't hesitate to self-publish it either. In fact, Kensington and all major publishers looks to e-book originals to find new talent. We have a handful of 2014 releases written by authors whose work impressed us enough to offer them contracts for new books. But these are the exception and not the rule.

Aspiring authors just need a dose of reality. The media makes a big deal about those who have scored by self-publishing and have gotten million-dollar contracts from the big houses. Let's see how well these authors--and their publishers--fare in the next couple of years.

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