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Take pride in being a self-published author

“Take pride in being a self-published author” by Leigh K. Cunningham, author and Executive Director of the Association of Independent Authors (AiA).

A lot has changed in the publishing landscape in a very short period of time. Just five years ago, we would not have expected to hear about big-name authors and celebrities - who are in a position to choose a publishing house - deciding to self-publish. Jim Carey announced his intention to self-publish his “metaphysical” children’s book about a wave saying, “I’m going to self-publish because that’s just the world right now and I think it’s cool.” Others choosing this path include Jackie Collins, JK Rowling (Pottermore), Ian Fleming’s Estate (the James Bond 007 series), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/author David Mamet, and Eric Van Lustbader (author of the Jason Bourne series).

And a novel originally self-published by a Manhattan public defender recently won the Robert W. Bingham Prize at the PEN Literary Awards, a prestigious award program not known for recognizing titles that came to life as a self-published title. This is a perfect example of how publishing has turned 180-degrees so that self-publishing now is the platform for authors to showcase their work, rather than the traditional query process and slush pile. Possibly the most famous and most successful example however is EL James whose trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey was originally published by the author as Twilight fan fiction.

Some diehard authors persist with the time-consuming and mostly futile path of finding an agent in order to find a publisher. A lot of that persistence is based on an outdated notion that securing a publishing contract means instant success, fame and fortune, and credibility. It does not, and for 8 out of 10 authors who do secure a traditional publishing contract, their joy will be short-lived as their book, which may take up to two years to make it onto physical bookshelves (not including years in the query process), is relegated to the back lists to gather dust.

In the golden days of publishing, it was a worthy pursuit – authors would receive often sizeable advances, and publishers provided marketing support for debut and mid-list authors. That is no longer the case. The advance is almost non-existent unless you are a celebrity. Authors are expected to undertake most, if not all, of the marketing themselves, and before a publisher will even consider offering a contract, they want to see the platform and social network you’ve established. Does it make sense to invest so much time and money to earn 10% of net sales less the 15-20% you need to pay your agent? On that criteria alone, probably not, especially since eBooks are now the dominant format in adult fiction accounting for 40% of sales. You don’t need a publisher to pay you a 25% royalty on eBook sales when you can upload to the Kindle Store and Smashwords for free to access an expansive global distribution network while earning 70% in royalties.

The Big 5 Publishers in New York never expected a time when they would be questioned on royalties, the value they add to an author, and whether bookstores are the best way to spend marketing dollars given the historical non-commercial ‘returns’ policy, which hits authors hard when 12 months later they discover that sales to bookstores weren’t actually sales after all.

Up until 2012, readers tended to discover their next book by visiting bricks-and-mortar bookstores, but with the demise globally of big chain stores like Borders in the USA, Hughes & Hughes in Ireland, Angus & Robertson in Australia, and profit slumps for must UK book retailers, this is no longer the case. Now only 17% of books are discovered by readers in bookstores. Word-of-mouth, online retailers and searches, and book communities like Goodreads are the primary source for discovery.

Some publishers still prefer to believe nothing much has changed – they’re still in charge of what readers read - but those who have accepted and are embracing the new way, have realized that self-publishing resolves a time-consuming and rather hit-and-miss aspect of their new author program ie the query process. This can be abandoned in favor of monitoring eBook bestseller and latest releases lists. The work has been done for them – the former query letter is now the online book description and author bio; the first three chapters request is now ‘search inside’, assessing commerciality is now the book’s ranking and reviews. But while many of those on these lists have no desire to surrender control, creative and royalties to a publisher, there are many who are happy to do so for valid reasons, eg Amanda Hocking earned millions as a self-published author, but she became overwhelmed with the demands on her time.

More than 391,000 books were self-published in 2012, an increase of 59% since 2011 and a 422% increase since 2007 (75,000 books). 2008 was a milestone year when, for the first time in history more books were self-published than published traditionally, and just a year later, 76% of all books published were from independent (self-published) authors. More and more of those diehard authors, and formerly traditionally published authors are forging these numbers in one direction.

Some might argue that it has been the take-up of self-publishing by the big-name authors and celebrities that has given it credibility, but the reverse is true. Authors and readers gave self-publishing credibility, with primary thanks to the introduction of online book retailers, like Amazon and eBooks. Suddenly, books that had been rejected endlessly in one sphere were accepted when the middleman (the publisher and determiner of who shall read what) was removed from the equation. While for decades publishers were considered the experts on what will be a bestseller and what is commercially unviable, recent history has shown that their guess is as good as anyone’s.


10 Reasons to Self-Publish

1. TIME: Your book can be ready for the market in a matter of weeks compared to years with the traditional publishing process. Before you can even approach a publishing house you’ll need an agent, and this query process alone can take months or years then publishers can take a further 18 months to two years before your book makes it onto bookshelves.

2. OPPORTUNITIES NOT MISSED: If you’ve written something that is currently popular, it will still be popular in a matter of weeks (the time it takes to self-publish), but may not be so in a couple of years when it would reach physical bookshelves via a publisher. This could explain why so many authors fail to earn out their advances—their book may have been popular when they wrote it, but due to the time delays, readers have moved on to something else.

3. CONTROL: You make all the decisions regarding the content and design of your book. When an author signs with a publisher, the publisher is in control, and is free to make whatever changes they like. This may result in elements of the story being changed in a way that is not desirable to the author, and in extreme circumstances, a publisher might make decisions that cause controversy and distress for an author for example, the cover of the US version of Justine Larbalestier’s, Liar featured a white girl while the story was about a black girl.

4. RIGHTS: You retain all rights including foreign-language rights, e-book rights, movie rights, television rights etc. When you sign with a publisher, they will ask for all rights to be signed over. This means that instead of the author earning 100% from the sale of movie rights, they’ll likely only receive 10% and the publisher will receive the rest.

5. INCOME: You earn higher royalties per book—30 to 70% of the retail price of an eBook compared to 25% or less from a publisher. For a print version, authors will receive 10% or perhaps a round sum like $1 per book whereas self-published authors, depending on their pricing model receive around 30% per printed book sale. Traditionally published authors also have to pay an agent 10-15% commission on all sales.

6. PAYMENT: Publishers only tally royalties once or twice a year, whereas, you will receive a check from, B&N and Smashwords every month. You can also check your sales results daily online.

7. NO BACKLIST: A publisher can backlist your book if your sales are inadequate, which means your book is no longer available for purchase. All of that time-intensive work writing your book, getting an agent and a publisher might result in your book being on bookshelves for a matter of months. The average life span of a book printed by a traditional publisher is approximately 18 months which is not sufficient time, for a debut author particularly, to build a platform and garner a fan base. I know of one author who was backlisted, unbeknown to him, after just six months. When you self-publish, your book will never be unavailable unless you decide to withdraw it from sale.

8. ISBN: You can obtain an ISBN (an industry standard number that identifies your book) online from an ISBN Registrar. You don’t need an ISBN for an eBook, but it is desirable. You should have a separate ISBN for each format of your book.

9. OUTSOURCING: There are numerous companies today offering a range of services for self-published authors with packages to suit any budget. These packages can include editing, marketing, press releases, video book trailers etc. Be wary though of companies that offer to upload your eBook for you under their account name. Insist on uploading it under your name so you can monitor your sales and you receive your royalty checks directly.

10. POD: As a self-published author, you no longer have to order large quantities of your book and store them in a corner of your living room. Print-on-demand (POD) technology means a book will be produced when someone buys it, and you can be satisfied with the quality of the end product. If you need books for an event eg a book signing, it is more economical to order the quantity you need for that event, albeit the cost per book is higher for smaller orders, but in the long run, you will spend much less than buying 1,000 books in bulk because a company has a “special deal for you.”