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An Argument Against Self-Publishing

This post about self-publishing is from February, but new to me.  It makes a persuasive case against self-publishing.

Professional editors of the level I work with now make money. Grown-up money that I cannot pay them, because I am not a rich person and never will be. Let alone copyediting, typsetting, and cover art (which is vastly important, don’t be fooled). I have zero interest in paying out $7000-$15000 before the book gets published, and almost certainly seeing minimal profit (especially since that 70% Amazon deal everyone’s so sweet on has a whole lot of strings attached). I like it when someone else does that. Publishers are risk-assesors, and they assume the risk, which is not insignificant, while I create the book. The “hire your own editor” handwaving strikes me as the strangest of this whole memescape. Really? Hire my own? With what money, without an advance?…

Publishers also, very importantly, pay me an advance. This is how I live and eat. I like advances. I don’t get big ones, but I still get them, and that’s damn important. I do not like paying the equivalent of an advance to others in order to publish my book. Because then I wouldn’t have any money with which to live while I write the book, see? Banks do not write checks to under-30 chicks who want to write about fairy tales. The idea that writers are going to make more money by getting Amazon’s royalty rate, when most ebooks a. sell a tiny fraction of what print books sell, and b. sell fewer than a hundred copies, when not backed by a publisher, is sort of hilarious. We are not even there technologically yet. Most people can’t afford a $300 machine on which to read books. And we’ll probably never be there culturally, where reading is held at such a premium that there’s millions to be made for everyone.

She makes some bad points too – “why isn’t publishing already dead, when ebooks have been available and viable for more than a decade.”  Ebooks have been viable for about five minutes. The talk about self-publishing is about the future when ereaders are cheaper/most readers have one.  This is going to happen.  Yesterday, Amazon revealed that ebooks are now outselling hardcovers.

But I get her main point: money is nice.  No argument there.  And there’s no argument about having to foot the bill for editing/cover art/promotion etc. etc. is a drain.  Anyone who argues that paying out of pocket is better than someone else paying the bill is pretty deluded – especially if the former means selling fewer books overall.

But that’s not the argument for self-publishing – at least for me.  Everyone should acknowledge that self-publishing is difficult and has risks, but in this climate it is increasingly necessary.  While it would be great for publishers to foot the bill, they are increasingly overlooking books that are worth publishing.  I don’t delight in traditional publishing dying.  It’s an awesome tool if done well.  It’s just not done very well.  This isn’t just a result of my own ego-bruising from stupid rejection letters, but seeing how many other writers are treated as well.

She says: “There’s a lot of kind of nasty subtext out there to the tune of: if the publishing industry doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work at all.”  There’s also a subtext of: if it works for me, then it should work for everyone.

I don’t want traditional publishing to die.  I want it to thrive.  It’s a vital part of culture.  But so is self-publishing.  Is it easy?  No.  Is it sometimes necessary?  Yes.  Will it get a hell of a lot easier in the future?  Definitely.  The investment writers make will have a greater chance of being made back, so it’ll be less of a risk.  The ability to do that won’t kill traditional publishing because they still offer valid services, but it will kill the argument that self-publishing isn’t viable.

  • http://ipadtest.wordpress.com Mike Cane

    >>>I like advances. I don’t get big ones, but I still get them

    And for how long? And what do you do when they stop? And when your latest manuscript is rejected EVERYWHERE? There you are, a proven professional writer who has attracted an audience — and because of some dope in a Suit, you’ve had that connection severed. The audience didn’t abandon you!

    Yeah, once those advances stop, you’ll get the Self-Pub religion.

    Or you should have never been writing to begin with.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/erichammel/ Eric Hammel

    Show of hands: Is there anyone here who, month in and month out, =nets= enough to live on from self-publishing alone?

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/kelindk/ James Ashman

    I do think advances are pretty much the only way to make traditional publishing (as we currently know it) really work as a business. But conversely, to counter both the article writers point and to Eric’s question:

    How many traditionally published books earn back their advance?

    How many books make enough money by themselves, to let their author live on?

    Without advances it’s a different world. Isn’t the number of books that don’t earn back their advance around 70% or some large number around there?

    Not to say they aren’t worth publishing, but it really makes you wonder what kind of paradigm shift is needed to make non-advance publishing viable.

    Or maybe, we all can just learn to edit. :)

    • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/erichammel/ Eric Hammel

      Until quite recently, the common wisdom argued that authors or their agents needed to fight for the largest advance possible, because “it’s the only money you’re sure to get.” Publishers countered (and accepted new realities) by offering lower and lower advances. Part of the reason for that is the corporatist argument that places executive salaries and stockholders ahead of everything else, part of it is increasing (and increasingly reckless) advances at the high end, part of it was the increasing reliance on discounting, part of it is the demise of the traditional bookstote, and part of it was =us=! We’re wrecking the plantation system on which even the stretched out, pimped out publishing system relied until, well, until the past year, to be exact.

      We’re living through a protracted interregnum, which is invariably a time of instability and danger. People or institutions often die during an interregnum, and that is indeed happening as events snowball out of control. We won’t know how it turns out until a new day magically dawns. But we do know that, whatever it looks like, we are–right now–pushing the old ways out and making room for new ways. It remains to be seen if we’ve made things better or worse for all parties, or any of them.

  • lindareedgardner@yahoo.com

    Hoo boy, how to cut this piece of cheese? Justin Cronin sells his vampire trilogy and movie rights and gets enough of an advance to buy his freedom for life and write whatever he wishes after he hands in the next two books. Sweet.
    Karen McQuestion SPs after “ten years” of rejection slips and quickly finds a movie deal and an agreement to let Amazon Encore publish all of her previous work. She seems completely happy with this arrangement. It’s not 5.5 million, but must be enough so that she can go forward with her writing.
    In this economy when so many are working 2-3 dead-end jobs just to keep the lights on while they consume a cheap meal, it’s difficult to fault either deal.
    Such a fuss was made in the media over Cronin’s “graduation” from the the Iowa Workshops, and his MFA, that I can’t help but wonder if it would be worth it to play the game, give up two years of your life, and crank out the work for the MFA, solely in order to have serious access to grants and fellowships and face time with agent-friends of the faculty. I see a whole ‘nother group of writers created through the university systems. Since almost no one can actually make a living from writing, it would seem the next best thing to get paid for teaching it to younger people who also will not be able to make a living from writing. “Hire me. I’m a novelist.”
    I have a sinking feeling that one must now have an MFA in order to be taken seriously anywhere in the business. More & more agents are asking routinely, “Where did you receive your MFA?” Opinions on all this, anyone?

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/ronfritsch/ Ron Fritsch

    What if you don’t give a damn whether you make any money off your writing? What if you just want to get your writing out where anybody in the world can read it, and you know you’ll never do that through the traditional publishing system? Wouldn’t you be grateful you live at time when technology allows you to self-publish — using whatever amount of your money, time and effort you choose to do it — and see what happens?

    • klcrumley

      exactly! I write for passion first and foremost. Profit comes second. When I receive a profit it is an added blessing.

      That’s how it should be.

    • http://www.RYAN101.com Ryan

      Bravo!

  • http://www.independent-authors.org Melanie Walsh

    A couple of articles worth noting:

    This sad tale of a traditionally published author, a successful one at that, who had to resort to getting a ‘real’ job since her agent could not find a publisher for her 5th book
    http://dir.salon.com/story/books/feature/2004/03/22/midlist/print.html

    A best-selling NYT author who earned net $26,000 from selling 65,000+ books (correct, there is not a zero missing). According to the author, this was a “very good” result compared to other traditionally-published authors. See http://www.genreality.net/the-reality-of-a-times-bestseller

    If this is the holy grail, given the years of waiting for a traditional publisher and getting your book onto a shelf, then I’m dazed and confused. And of course, the whole notion of an advance is disappearing other than for the celebrity author or the big names.

    Regards
    Mel

  • klcrumley

    >>Publishers also, very importantly, pay me an advance. This is how I live and eat. I like advances. I don’t get big ones, but I still get them, and that’s damn important. I do not like paying the equivalent of an advance to others in order to publish my book. Because then I wouldn’t have any money with which to live while I write the book, see? Banks do not write checks to under-30 chicks who want to write about fairy tales.<> The idea that writers are going to make more money by getting Amazon’s royalty rate, when most ebooks a. sell a tiny fraction of what print books sell, and b. sell fewer than a hundred copies, when not backed by a publisher, is sort of hilarious. We are not even there technologically yet. Most people can’t afford a $300 machine on which to read books. And we’ll probably never be there culturally, where reading is held at such a premium that there’s millions to be made for everyone.<>She says: “There’s a lot of kind of nasty subtext out there to the tune of: if the publishing industry doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work at all.” There’s also a subtext of: if it works for me, then it should work for everyone.<<

    Yeah, self-publishing is not for everybody. But traditional publishing isn't for everybody either.

    Back to the money issue: Poets and short story writers benefit more from self-publishing their own collections, than from traditional publishing.

    • klcrumley

      Well this is the part of my reply that disappeared: LOL

      A) believe it or not some of us are not in it for the money. I am in it for the enjoyment, and for the passion of writing and having my stories read and enjoyed is its own reward. NO writer (whether SP or TP ) should go into publishing as a “get rich quick” scheme. If you are, then you’re writing for the wrong reasons, IMHO.

      b) thrifty self-publishers like myself do not have to shell out huge $$$ for editors, proofreaders, etc. We find out how to do it affordably.

      c) The “only 100 copies sold” argument may fly for print books (and it doesn’t even then) but not ebooks. If you don’t believe me, check out JA Konrath’s list of 20 successful Self=publishers on Kindle. Look at the stats of Zoe, RJ Keller, or anybody else who has broken the top 100.

      besides, Kindle’s do not cost $300 any more. The price has dropped to $180 last I checked. ANd, you do not have to even own a kindle to read kindle books. The downloadable app is free.

      Self-publishing is like going into business for yourself. Yes, you invest your time and your money. But, with hard work and perseverance you can succeed if you have what it takes.

      It’s no different than the baker who choses to open up his own bakeshop rather than working for a large retail chain bakery.

  • klcrumley

    eek how did my reply get all screwed up?

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    How strange of an argument that seems to me coming from Cat Valente, who self-published online her novel The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. True, it’s been picked up by a traditional publisher and I’m sure she’s made much more money since it was picked up, but she didn’t wait for an advance before she wrote the book or made it available. She even made it available for free.

    I know she’s a member of the crowdfunding LJ community; I wonder if she’s seen this post by MeiLin Miranda on crowdfunding the production of her novel. MeiLin has paid an editor and people to format the book for print and ebook out of the money that fans of the book (originally posted as a serial on her website) gave for that purpose. Yes, she paid that professional editor grown-up money!

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/erin-stropes/ Erin Stropes

    I’m not so sure this is an argument against self publishing as much as just a very sensible cry of frustration against the difficulty of putting out a quality book that has any kind of real chance in the market.

  • http://vickihopkinsauthor.blogspot.com Vicki Hopkins

    Her statement, “I have zero interest in paying out $7000-$15000 before the book gets published…” is a little far fetched! I mean my last book cost me $400, and right now I have a huge interest in the book from the isle of Malta where I set the story.

    I agree too that money isn’t always the necessary drive behind writing. That is not my measure of success, frankly, though it may be for others. As far as advances, they are dwindling. In fact, many of the smaller traditional publishers don’t even give advances any longer. I’ve even heard from a traditional publisher it took her five years on the market before her sales finally met the advance figure. I had another traditional author tell me about someone else who received a $30,000 advance, and he spent the entire amount marketing. The book was a flop.

    I still think there is so much ignorance about self-publishing, that most arguments against it aren’t worth replying too. It’s that “us” – “them” mentality. If they can discredit the self-published vanity, they feel superior. It’s becoming tiresome, frankly. :yawns:

  • http://www.iolanthewoulff.com Iolanthe Woulff

    If the TP crowd didn’t regard SP as an existential threat, they wouldn’t expend so much energy disparaging it.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/erichammel/ Eric Hammel

    Their existential threat isn’t so much us as them, the way they operate from their high citadels.

  • http://www.thegodpatent.com Ransom Stephens

    When royalties are paid in full and on time, advances will be a red herring.
    In the course of an author’s career, whether they are paid before or after a title earns money only matters for their first title. The new model follows a more logical chain. The author must finance the first title, but then the first title royalties finances the second, the second finances the third, and so forth. The advance is coveted by authors, but it is ultimately used against them.
    New order publishers, like mine, pay royalties on time and in full every month. I recently broke minimum wage!