Enterprise Authors: Rethinking the E-Book Revolution

There is something happening in the publishing industry right now. Something seismic. Regular men and women – children even! – are beginning to self-publish. The internet has given them the keys to a once gated empire – and the gatekeepers are not happy. There is a system in place for writers, a proven process that filters “the talentless hacks” from the Stephen Kings, JK Rowlings, and Stephanie Meyers of the world. And by sidestepping it, so-called ‘vanity’ authors are essentially flooding the market with a deluge of sub par fiction and nonfiction alike. This attitude has created an enormous tide of hostility towards would be authors, but like all anger, it is rooted in fear, a fear which has absolutely no basis in merit whatsoever.

Before I go any further, allow me to first redefine the ‘self-published’ author. She is a person who has invested time, energy, and hard work into cultivating a product that should ultimately generate a sustainable income. She is, in effect, what I call an enterprise author. When I wrote my book, I didn’t do it on a whim. I decided to take a massive financial risk because I believe that I can run a successful business writing books. If a child selling lemonade is not representative of all businessman, let’s not confuse someone publishing his unedited manuscript with genuine entrepreneurs.

We are businessmen. Not only that, but we are businessmen faced with one of two choices: capitulate to a dated and self-destructive business model, or adapt and succeed. I am surrounded by people who do not understand who and what we are, and why we are choosing this path. Yesterday, Shaun Duke, from The World in a Satin Bag, wrote a point by point argument against all the ‘hype’ surrounding enterprise-publishing. Guess what? It isn’t hype. E-publishing is not easy. Starting a business is not easy. But with diligence, hard work, and good old-fashioned tenacity, it can be successful. His argument:

All major traditional publishers will pay you an advance in the thousands of dollars. Average advances are 3K to 5K, depending on the genre, your agent (if you have one), and your book’s potential (based on the publisher’s knowledge of the market). That’s money you didn’t have before, and considering all the other things you will get from the publisher, it’s not a bad deal to have to market yourself. A sucky deal, but that’ll come later in this whole response.

Let’s take a look at the journey that leads to this magical five thousand dollar benchmark. The filtering process to which I alluded is known as the agent/query search. It is common knowledge among writers that this is a special kind of torture. We are met with rejection, which we are then expected to accept gracefully as we await an invitation not for publication, but for an agent to merely look at our work. If and only if she likes it, we must once again wait until she can pitch it to a publisher. If I made 100,000 dollars off The Dead Don’t Cry right now, that would currently put me in at just over minimum wage. Searching for agents would devalue that number even further. And for what? Five thousand dollars? Max? I’m sorry, but it would take a lot more than three months rent to justify diluting my book’s net worth.

It’s also a lie when someone says that publishers are no longer marketing books; they are, they’re just not paying for expensive flights and the like. Sending out review copies, ad copy, and other things like that are part of marketing and pretty much every legitimate publisher does those things at no charge to the author. Publishers want you to sell books. A failed author is not good news for them or for their editors.

This point begs the question: What is the publisher doing for me that I can’t already do for myself? The internet has irrevocably bridged the gap that once made writing a solitary profession. Any ambitious professional can now reach out to and collaborate with peers in his industry for a cost no greater than selflessness. As I write this post, people I have never personally met are reading and critiquing my book simply because we share a vested interest in cooperative competitiveness. These communities of support have successfully nationalized peer review. And ad copy? We’re writers. Producing copy may be an art – but after writing a book, it’s not exactly an insurmountable task.

Publishers will get your book in bookstores. Not just online. Not just on the Kindle or Nook or iPhone. But in B&N, on the actual shelves, rather than the online system, or Borders or other brick and mortar, chain and indie, stores. Self-publishing can get you into all the online places, in time, but the chances of your SPed book ever appearing in anything but a local indie bookstore are smaller than the chances of a poor person winning to lotto and going to the moon tomorrow.

A logical fallacy. Royalties, on average, for traditionally published books range from 10-15%. For e-books? Upwards to 70%. Even if I couldn’t break into ‘actual shelves,’ why would I ever need to? Selling roughly 67,000 books traditionally is equivalent to about 14,000 e-books. With numbers like that, I don’t care that my book isn’t ubiquitous – it doesn’t have to be for my business to succeed. Nor should it. With limited releases, companies like Disney have proven that by avoiding the pitfalls of market saturation, they can generate both profit and demand.

It’s not as simple as just putting your stuff out there and saying “hey, let the market decide.” The market has to know your product exists. Unless you are an Internet guru, chances are you’re going to have to spend a considerable amount of money more than would be needed for a traditionally published precisely because your book isn’t in stores. SPed authors have to work harder than anyone else for that reason and because you’re up against a mountain of hacks and wannabes who think they are as good as anyone else. Self-publishing doesn’t, as of yet, have a filtering system to let consumers know what’s good and what’s bad, just in terms of the writing itself.

This is the single greatest and weakest argument on behalf of traditional publishing. Its strength is in its proliferation, its weakness is its fabrication. I am a 27-year-old male living in the suburbs of North Jersey – yet I literally have limitless resources at my fingertips. And I am not alone. I have reached more people than I have ever thought possible – without spending a penny more than what it costs for access to the internet. Twitter, WordPress (the blogosphere), Facebook, and countless other networking tools have limitless potential, and are absolutely FREE. It hardly takes a guru to maximize their potential. Anyone who has invested the time to write a book can set aside a few hours to learn how to e-market him or herself. And it is as simple as saying “let the market decide,” because up until the last few years, the market has never had a voice. Companies like SmashWords and Amazon are changing that. Amazon Encore, for example, monitors sales and reader submitted reviews, using them as a litmus test for quality. Should they like what they see, they are likely to offer a competitive publishing deal. Throughout all that time ‘spent waiting’ to be noticed – there is a constant potential for sales. If that isn’t free market capitalism at its best, I don’t know what is.

Likewise, as much as digital publishing is exploding, it still accounts for a very small portion of all books sales; it’s not there yet. Maybe 5 years at the earliest. 10 is a more reasonable figure.

Translation: A huge market awaits.

Books are not like movies or music. The industries are similar in design, yes, but the mediums are not. The way we consume books is not the same as how we consume movies or music. Even the way we find out about movies and music is different than books. We can see a movie preview and get a sense of the visual quality of the film, even the story, and know in less than a minute whether we want to see it. Same with music. I can pop on to Amazon and listen to a sample and in a few seconds know if the song is something I’d like. That’s not the case with books. Maybe the first page is good. Maybe the second is. Maybe the first 15 are, but it falls apart after that. Maybe the writing is good, but the plot is idiotic and you won’t know that until page 100. That’s hours of work for most people. That point is important to note when you try to make the connection between music/movies and reading.

The argument here is that indie artists and independent film makers are somehow not related to enterprising authors. I disagree. Regardless of the methods of consumption, each are producing intellectual properties that engage the emotions as much as the intellect. If someone reads something they love, they will spread the word. It is precisely because they invest so much into a book that they are more likely to share that experience with others. Money can’t buy that kind of marketing.

The sales for book publishing are down right now because of the recession. Ironically enough, the Huffington Post, as if anyone should be shocked by this from a news outlet, grossly misrepresented the facts about sales. The first quarter following the recession actually showed sales going up for books. After that, it dropped a little. Before that: book sales had been steadily increasing since the late 90s and only saw a dip recently. And that’s a global thing. If you look at Europe: increasing, and then a dip. China: increasing. And so on and so on. The only place that sales are noticeably dropping, and steadily for the last few years, is in Japan, and it should be pretty obvious why: technology. I suspect they’ll go up again with all these tablets and ebook readers.

This is fantastic. I’m happy to know there’s an audience ravenous for my product.

The reality of self-publishing is far more sobering when you get off the hype produced by those who don’t want to tell you the truth of it and start to look deeper into the issue. If you want to succeed as a self-publisher, you have to be better than traditional publishers, not just as a writer and producer, but as a marketer too. And that’s not that easy to do. It can be done, and it’s worked for some, but the picture is not as pretty as people are trying to say (and traditional publishing certainly isn’t as dark as some folks keep trying to say it is…for a dinosaur, TPs sure are doing a lot of stuff…).

The reality is that writing is a business like any other, and if you want to succeed, you have to be willing utilize every resource available. Not surprisingly, some do cost money:

Self-publishing in a way that will give you the best chance (though still a small chance) will cost you a lot of money. You have to pay to market your book, pay for good artwork for your cover, a professional design, professional editing (very few people can edit themselves to great effect), and so on. Very expensive and the chances of you getting that money back are slim.

In his article, Spending money (to make/lose) money, the brilliant Seth Godin writes:

When I was hiring researchers to find great leads for my first internet company, I loved to spend money. Every penny we spent made us four pennies, so I spent as many pennies as I possibly could.”

This is not a detriment to e-publishing (as some would argue), it’s just good business. Besides, countless resources exist online to engage free-lance editors/artists/designers who would happily work for competitive fees and/or the opportunity for exposure. The notion that they are prohibitively expensive simply does not hold water. I have yet to read a single article on enterprise publishing that suggests it’s a get rich quick solution for aspiring authors. On the contrary, they paint the picture of a frontier ripe with possibility, but equally fraught with risk. Shaun Duke writes:

Most self-publishers don’t even break even. Only a handful of them make money, and an even smaller amount make enough money to live on.

Let me ask you this: What percentage of new businesses actually succeed? Should this number be held against all entrepreneurs?

I think not.

  • Mark, I enjoyed reading your view of the independent-versus-traditional argument as an “enterprise” thing.

    You nicely demolished Shaun Duke’s points quoted in your post. I thank you for picking an opponent who appears to be intelligent and thoughtful — and will probably some day be our ally.

    I think independent writers who hope to achieve financial success have to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, taking risks with their money, time, and effort. And, oh, the sacrifices they have to make when they believe in themselves and what they can accomplish.

    You’re right. They should see that as an investment. (The last I heard, the IRS lets taxpayers write off $5,000 of startup expenses during the first year of the existence of their businesses, one of which might be publishing.)

    I would only add to your insightful post, Mark, that some of us might not want or need to see a short-term profit for our efforts but might be willing to place our bet on longer-term recognition.

    In any event, though, we should heed your advice on what we should be doing now.

    As for Stephen King, JK Rowlings, and Stephanie Meyers, I’ve never wished to be known for what they’ve written. That’s not a criticism of them (as if they’d care). It’s just that I want to be known for what I’ve written.

  • Loved your article and the idea that self publishing is like starting your own business. Most writers have it in their blood to write- you just have to do it regardless of the monetary outcome. Although the money is a brilliant bonus especially if it allows you to write full time! However authors often dont have the inclination or the know how to give their novel the hard sell, use all forms of the internet as a tool for promotion etc.- All they want to do is write. I recently published my first novel, Goa Traffic and have spent much time and effort on promoting it. It is a slow process but exactly as you say – if you treat it like a business and have patience it will pay off. Many authors want a quick payout but it does take time. Self publishing is very satisfying and your article really explored the crux of it – I think as long as self pubbers go in with their eyes open and know what to expect – it can be a very rewarding career and business!

    • Marissa, I love your comment: “All they want to do is write.” Count me in with that crowd. I think you and Mark understand how we independent writers should view our opportunities in the new literary world we’ve freely entered. Nobody has guaranteed any of us fame and fortune in it. And yet, why not work as damned hard as we can, and dream?