Why self publish?

Self publishing

I made the decision about mid-way through writing my first novel The Wave at Hanging Rock to self publish using the Amazon platform. Since a few people have asked why, I’ve decided to explain.

Before Amazon came along self-publishing was the last chance for authors to get into print after everyone else had turned down their book, usually because it was terrible. Instead of being paid for all their hard work, they’d pay to have it printed, and then, usually, they would get to store boxes and boxes of it in their garage forever, because no shops would stock it, no one would know it existed, and no one would ever buy it. Self publishing used to be the sad slow death of the dream for hopeful writers. It’s different now.

Today authors can write a book and publish it themselves as an ebook. They don’t have to pay anyone to print it, and they can gain access to a market of millions around the world who own Kindles, or Ipads, or even just phones.

And plenty of well known names have basically done just this. E. L. James (who has now outsold even J.K. Rowling with her Fifty Shades books) started off self published. Andy Weir who wrote The Martian started off self published. And there are hundreds of other success stories.

But, naturally, the mega success stories are the exception. Most unknown authors who self-publish to Amazon (i.e. people in my position) stay very much unknown. Once friends and family have downloaded their book, perhaps given it five stars out of loyalty (come on guys, I’m counting on you), sales trickle onwards for a few months as a few people stumble upon the book and give it a go, and then quietly vow never to make that mistake again. But there’s a middle layer as well. There are a reasonable number of not that well-known authors who sell a reasonable number of copies. Enough to contribute a little to the household income. Enough so they afford to write another book and start the cycle again. And each time they go around that cycle, they can learn from the experience, take on board the feedback, get a bit better at the writing, and gradually build a readership. That’s kind of what I’m aiming for.

Now obviously the same is true in the world of traditional publishing. You still get the superstars, the total flops, and the people in the middle. But here’s the key to it. From what I can gather, the mid-level author can do considerably better financially if they self publish. Before I explain, a disclaimer. Writing is clearly a rubbish way of making money. The odds against an unknown author even making a living whether self published or traditionally published are frighteningly low. If you’re hoping to get rich from writing (like me) you’re an idiot. And just to clarify, I don’t mean get rich like I’m rich, I mean I’m an idiot.

But bear with me, I’m still at the start of my self publishing journey, where hope hasn’t yet descended into the crushing disappointment of reality. So let’s do some sums.

A standard contract for a traditionally published author will see them getting just 7.5% of the cover price of their book each time it’s sold. So if you sell one book at £6.99 you’ll make about 50p. Sell one thousand copies and you’ll net £500 pounds. Ten thousand copies gets you £5000. To make a living from the book which took a year to write you need to be selling closer to the hundreds of thousands. Actually that means you’d earn 50K which is quite a good living, but a hundred thousand copies means you’ve written a best seller. The writerly equivalent of a lottery win. Fun to dream about, best not to count on.

But, if you self publish on Amazon and keep the cover price below a certain level, you get to keep 70% of that cover price. It makes an enormous difference.

Imagine that same author, but this time selling their book on Amazon, at a cover price of, say, £2.99 which by coincidence is the price for The Wave at Hanging Rock (and did I mention it’s available to pre-order now?) Each sale gets you (or in this case, me) a bit over two quid. Sell one thousand copies? That’s two thousand pounds. Sell ten thousand copies and you’re already looking at something you might be able to live off. Get anywhere near the hundred thousand mark and you’re already into big money.

There’s more to it than that. Obviously a traditional publisher offers some additional value to justify their 93% share of the cover price. They edit the book, they proof read it, they design a professional cover. They send it for reviews. They print it so people who don’t like e-books can read it. They get it in the shops. They market it... actually hold that thought. But they certainly do lots of stuff which means you’re very likely to sell many more copies with a traditional publisher. But on the other hand there’s nothing stopping the self-published author choosing to spend some of the (hoped for) additional income on a freelance editor, proof reader, cover designer. All that stuff.

So it comes down to a careful weighing up of the options. Does an author want to take advantage of the traditional publisher’s experience and networks to potentially sell more printed copies, but maybe make less money overall? Or should they do more work themselves (and hire in experts where necessary) and likely sell fewer copies overall, but maybe make a better income? Oh isn’t life just full of tricky bloody choices?

But there’s something missing here. To present it as a choice is quite wrong. It isn’t. And this, (depending on how you view it) is either the traditional publisher’s ace up their sleeve, or their greatest failing. The thing is you can’t just command a traditional publisher to take on your book. They decide if they like it and if they think it will make them money. And for all the thousands of manuscripts sent to publishers, almost all get turned down. Actually it’s not even that. Almost all get ignored, not even read, not even sent back. Binned. Recycled? Probably not even that.

The idea is that traditional publishing acts as a quality filter to weed out the dross. The books littered with typos, with holes in the plot, with characters who come back from the dead because the writer forgot about killing them off in the first place. Only the very best can pass through the filter, the diamonds in the rough, to be turned into polished gems. In theory, great. In practice… Well. How does it work if they don’t read the manuscripts?

How often have you heard about a successful, popular author who was turned down time and time again by traditional publishers at the start of their career? J.K. Rowling. C.S Lewis, Agatha Christie, J.D. Salinger, Paulo Coelho, Stephen King, Beatrix Potter, William Golding, the list could go on and on and on. It does go on an on. Even Dan Brown (and I don’t know anyone who would argue his books are good, but he’s still sold over 80 million copies (by the way that’s 40 million pounds at 50p a book)). All these writers were turned down many many times. If the main purpose of traditional publishing is to act as a gateway, or quality filter, spotting the gems coming through in the stream of manuscripts - or at least the ones which will be popular and sell lots of copies - then arguably they’re not very good at it.

For a long time I really wanted to have a go at the traditional publishing route just to see if I could get through. If I could ‘make it’ so to speak. Even if I made less money this way, I’d be able to call myself a proper writer if I got a proper publisher. But after some thought I concluded that this, in a way was just me being vain. (It’s ironic that traditional publishing can now be argued as the vanity option given that another name for self publishing used to be vanity publishing.)

Are you still holding that thought about marketing? Good. I used to have a very nice daydream about how my relationship with a traditional publisher would go. I’d send them the book and then - over long lunches where I get forced to drink very good wine and no one stops me ordering the lobster - they explain to me their detailed, comprehensive and exhaustive marketing campaign. Adverts across the London underground, (favourable) reviews from all the newspapers, that sort of stuff. Nothing I actually need to do myself of course.

I never thought this would be literally how it went, but until recently I really believed that the big bonus of a traditional publisher was their teams of experts who handle all the marketing, so their authors don’t have to. It turns out that if this ever was true, it certainly isn’t anymore. Unless you’re selling millions of copies, the profits in publishing are no longer enough that a publishing contract includes much, or any, marketing for the regular, mid range author. Traditionally published writers these days are expected to do their own marketing. Just like self published authors have to.

Which all means it does boil down to a choice, but this choice:

Traditional publishing:
Beg and pray for several years that someone will take you on, giving you (real) credibility and status, but still insist you do the bulk of the marketing yourself, and probably require you to work a full time second job to pay the bills.

Self Publishing: Embrace the opportunity to project manage the editing, proof reading, design, marketing, accept a reduced status in life, and that some will look down on you, but potentially have a slightly reduced chance of needing a second job to make enough money to live off.

Either way the possibility (likelihood) of total abject failure with both options is kind of dispiriting given how long it takes to write a novel. But having come this far I’ve plumped for option two. If anyone reading this far would like to support a struggling self published author you can pre-order a copy of my debut novel The Wave at Hanging Rock from Amazon by clicking this link.

If any wealthy publishing houses would like to take me out to lunch, I’m available every day and I promise I don't even like lobster.