Not so very long ago, many print authors were up in arms at the digital revolution. “Readers will buy these electronically published books and realize they suck and the respect the genre has worked so hard to earn will go down the tubes and these sales will cut into ours.” Now many authors, published in print and electronic format, are up in arms at the digital self-publishing revolution being driven by authors evaluating their options in the current industry climate. “Readers will buy these self-published books and realize they suck and the respect the genre has worked so hard to earn will go down the tubes and these sales will cut into ours.” (And, yes, I’ve heard all of these things first hand.)
Change, progress . . . they come with panic and denial on one hand, with acceptance and embracement on the other. Authors successful in mass market paperback are touting their low digital sales numbers as proof that the surge isn’t the tsunami some are predicting. Others are citing AAP reports showing the gap in sales between electronic books and those those published in mass market format is tightening each month. Digital first published authors are sharing their income numbers to prove the format is just as viable as print.
As this new world of self-publishing is born (and when I say new, I mean self-publishing done primarily by authors already published by reputable print and digi-first publishers striking out on their own), it’s good to take a deep breath and consider a few things.
1) Not everyone is Joe Konrath
Joe may be the exception to the rule, but he may also be responsible in a large part for the revolution. He’s providing numbers, facts and figures. One of the only other people I’ve seen do that (besides myself) is Lynn Viehl. Numbers, facts and figures allow authors to make informed choices. But though his blog is called “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing,” Joe has a platform. He’s been published by NY in hardcover. He has a blog with a huge following. He’s done cross-country book signing tours on his own dime. He’s put more effort into his career than most of us can imagine having time for. And because of that he’s savvy enough to know digital self-publishing does not come with a built-in audience. He has worked to find an online readership by experimenting with cover art, pricing, giving away freebies, writing novels as well as novellas, etc. And he’s writing original work, not digitizing a backlist that many readers will have already read. As he says about his success,
This isn’t a case of JA Konrath fans buying my cheap ebooks. It’s a case of readers buying my cheap ebooks, then becoming JA Konrath fans.
That doesn’t mean other authors can’t be equally successful. What it does mean is that those taking this path needs to have realistic expectations. Don’t automatically assume digitizing your print backlist (or even publishing original work online) is going to bring you a certain amount of money each month. One author may see $30. Another may see $3000. 70% Amazon royalties are awesome, but 70% of five copies sold ain’t much to write home about. Don’t go into digital self-publishing assuming you’ll have the same success as Joe. You might, but don’t count on it. Because anyone who’s been in the biz any length of time knows …
2) There is no guarantee in publishing, whether print or electronic.
One of the smartest things I heard reported from the recent NINC conference is that writers are the ones who most need the muscle behind a publishing machine, that “brand names” are the ones who have a good chance going it solo. Konrath is a brand name. Any author with an established readership is a brand name. Readers who may not hang out online or ever even visit an author’s Website, may still go searching for a favorite author’s digital backlist or newly self-published original work when that Kindle shows up under the Christmas tree. An author going the self-publishing route without that reader base, that mailing list of 7K subscribers, that Facebook account with 2700 followers or those 1700 Twitter friends? That author isn’t going to have such an easy time of it. Not to say that author can’t be a huge success, but brand names have an initial advantage.
New writers in digital publishing are starting out at the same place as new writers in print. At the bottom of a very large heap o’ fiction to read. Except in digital publishing, there are no imprints to tell a reader what s/he’s getting. There is no Harlequin Blaze or Berkley Heat in self-publishing. Readers have only author names to buy, which puts a monstrous onus on the author because . . .
3) Self-publishing requires an author to be a jack of all trades
That thing above about writers vs brand names? Yeah, this is where having a publisher comes in REALLY handy. A publisher handles cover art, handles cover copy. A publisher handles distribution. A publisher handles editing. A publisher SHOULD handle marketing, though this usually only happens in the case of the big stars. My True Vows publisher bought the RT Book Reviews centerfold. My True Vows publisher provided store dumps for the books to be displayed in. My True Vows publisher bought ads, arranged blog tours, all the things most publishers do not do for midlist authors.
Now, think about the electronically self-published author. S/he writes the book, arranges for the book to be edited (and this don’t come cheap!), commissions cover art (a median price tag? $200), writes a cover blurb, and then has to market the ever loving bejeezus out of the book because . . . guess what? It’s not going to be on store shelves. A reader browsing through the local indie or BAMM is not going to come across that book. Without a publishing machine behind it, the success of that book and the author’s career is entirely in his/her hands. There is no publicity department to work with, no editor to lean on. There’s the author. That’s it.
I have rights to three of my backlist titles. I am in the process of scanning the two books for which I don’t have the manuscript files, reading through all three stories and editing as necessary, creating new cover art, writing new cover blurbs, considering what sort of promo I can do for electronic books since everything else I’ve dealt with has been print. This is a new business for me, but I’m being smart about it. I’m listening to readers, learning their pet peeves in digital editions, paying attention to what the industry insiders say, seeing what works for other authors in terms of art, marketing, etc.
But at the same time, I’m continuing to write for NY (or Toronto, as the case may be). I want to write. I do not want to edit. I enjoy designing covers, but it gets in the way of the writing. I can’t even put decent titles on my books, forgetting cover copy. And marketing? I’m cheap. I don’t like paying for ads. I blog. I hang out on Facebook. I tweet random nonsense. Occasionally, I give away books and stuff.
I’m an author. I don’t want to be a publisher. If it’s the only way I can get my work to readers, then I’ll embrace the crazy. But I’ll do so knowing exactly the monstrous task ahead of me, and I won’t expect to become an overnight millionaire sensation.