The fallacy of making a fortune out of self-publishing

E L James has made a reported US$50M from her Fifty Shades Of Grey series of books, so is self-publishing now the new money making goldmine for aspiring wealth hunters?  As a first time self-published author, I can safely conclude that it’s not.

It’s a fairly safe bet that in any guide to the top ten ways of making money self-publishing wouldn’t be one of them.  It wouldn’t even make a list of the top 100 ways.  For every E L James there are a million frustrated self-published authors wondering ‘when am I going to be discovered?’  I know.  I’m one of them, having just self-published my first novel, A Matter of Life and Death.

Of course, like many self-published authors I can claim that my writing is inspired by the need to create and inspire – art for art’s sake – rather than earning a good financial payback from it, but who am I kidding?  At least I’ve had my first royalty cheque, which shall we say was ‘modest’ (and that’s ignoring what it cost me to get my novel on to the market in the first place).  At the current rate of sale I calculate I should break even around 2017.

So why self-publish?

Producing your own book used to be called vanity publishing, and with good reason. You’d have been considered rather self-regarding to fund the printing of your own works when a publisher wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. So what’s changed?

The digital age is what.  Now, any self-professed writer can knock out anything they like and stick it online – hey presto, they’ve written a book.  It may not matter that the book isn’t very good, is derivative, is badly spelled and pays no heed to the normal rules of grammar.  It’s a book, and that’s what counts.  To the ‘author’ at least.

As for needing deep pockets to bring a literary baby into the world, you can effectively publish an e-novel for less than £100 these days.  Just process your copy through a proprietary software package, and within minutes it’s online.  It’s so easy, why not?  But does anyone want to read it?  A cursory glance at the best seller lists reveals that a lot of self-published books, only available as e-versions and not in paperback, can be acquired by the experimental reader for as much as 1p.  Or for no cost at all.  In many cases that’s just about what the book is worth.

Other self-published authors, myself included, aim a little higher and opt for a paperback version, more on the grounds of authenticity than anything else.  This approach brings a higher price tag, as the author not only has to pay for the typesetting, cover design and printing, he or she will also have to fund distribution via book wholesalers, and then become a marketing expert overnight in order to promote the work (unless, of course, they pay extra for someone else to do it for them).

I calculate that to print a thousand copies of a paperback, generate an e-version of the book, and secure distribution via the usual online channels costs around £4 per book.  If the book sells at say, an £8 cover price, the author can expect to net around £2 per book.  You don’t have to be a genius at maths to work out that’s not exactly a brilliant business return.  The commission on an e-book sale is more attractive to the author, and if you make print run number two then unit costs will reduce significantly.

Will a typical self-published author sell a thousand copies?  Will he or she ever need to sign that ‘reprint’ order form?  As a rule of thumb, I’d suggest counting the names in your address book to forecast sales, because the self-published author is going to inveigle everyone he or she knows to buy a copy.  Do you have a thousand friends in your address book?  How do you get beyond that to people who’ve never heard of you, who may like to try your book if they knew about it?

Much was made of E L James’ mastery of social media in the success of Fifty Shades, but it’s a crowded space, and you need to know what you’re doing.  The key to sales is good critical reviews, and to get those you need to get to the reviewers, naturally. Who has the better chance of that?  A first time author no-one has ever heard of or a publisher who can use their established contacts to say ‘you should read this…’?

For most self-publishing authors, writing the actual book is about half of the process  - they have to then take on all of the duties an agent and publisher would normally have responsibility for – and with no previous experience or expertise to hand.  But self-published authors are not short on passion or self-belief – he or she will convince themselves that the world has been waiting for their opus and, with a lucky break, it will get discovered and the film rights snapped up before the ink on the first print run dries.  But, E L James and a small handful of others apart, it’s not going to happen.

But hang on; I’m a self-published author, so why am I being less than reverential about the whole process?  I think my novel is great and would hope you think so too if you took the time to read it.  So, why did I self-publish?

The answer to that is easy – I couldn’t find a literary agent who’d take on my book.  Now it’s easy to say that literary agents wouldn’t recognise talent if they fell over it, and that my manuscript represents pure gold to them if only they could see it, but let’s face it, they probably can’t move for all of the other manuscripts they’re receiving on a daily basis.  And an author needs a literary agent because publishers don’t deal with authors directly in 99 per cent of cases.

So, in my view, the real aim of self-publishing is for an author to raise his or her book to a place where it more easily attracts the attention of literary agents and publishers, creating a sales or critical spike that elevates their book above the rest.  Look at a number of recent first time authors, E L James included, who’ve been signed up by publishers after self-publishing first, and you’ll discern this contemporary pattern and route to respectability.

Perhaps an even more compelling example of self-publishing success than James is that of American author Hugh Howey.  Howey is a name you may not have heard of but his Wool post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel currently sits atop the New York Times bestsellers list.  As Howey’s self-generated sales came to attention he was inundated with publishers desperate to sign him, and he declined all overtures – after all, he was doing very well by himself, so what did he need one for?  Eventually he did sign a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster, but only after negotiating to retain his own highly lucrative e-publishing rights in a breakthrough agreement for the literary world.

While the James and Howey examples – exceptions – demonstrate how self-publishing can act as a launch pad for aspiring authors to make a breakthrough, in the majority of cases to be a serious player an author still needs the support of an agent and publisher, bringing their books to the market in the traditional time honoured way.

Once signed up, they’ll receive the full backing of their agent and publisher throughout the process from feedback on story development to editing, from sales and distribution expertise to marketing support – unlike the self-published author who has to depend on their own judgement time and again.  After all, writing a book in the first place is hard enough for authors without them having to sell it as well.

Harper Lee, author of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird (sales of over 30M) probably had it right when she said ‘People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing.  They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers.’ It’s hard to disagree with her, particularly as she only wrote that one novel in her lifetime.  Lee, incidentally, was full of praise for her editor who mentored her through two years of rewriting until the novel was ready.

Apart from the odd author, does anyone make money out of self-publishing?  The answer is yes, because now there is a whole superstructure of support, available at a price, to get you into print.  Self-publishing companies vie with each other to turn your manuscript into the finished product.  Surprisingly they don’t bother to actually read the manuscripts – they’ll print anything if the author pays.  Then they’ll sell you marketing support, cover design and proofreading services.  If you’re minded, there’s a plethora of ‘how to become a better writer’ courses and workshops available, or perhaps you’d like to buy a book on ‘how to get published’?  The self-publishing author is the market being sold to – not the one who’s selling.

Will self-publishers displace the traditional publishing market in the near future?  I doubt it. Publishing is a quality game by and large, and in the end, quality will out.  Self-publishing will continue to flourish, but it will be a largely self-indulgent and financially unrewarding pursuit for the majority.  A bit like blogging.

Is A Matter of Life and Death a self-indulgent and financially unrewarding exercise for me?  It certainly is the latter.  I’ll still continue to knock on the doors of literary agents in a bid to seek a deal, and in any event I’m already halfway though my next novel.  Maybe that will be my breakthrough into the big time?  In the meantime I’ll content myself with Harper Lee’s wise words – ‘Any writer worth his salt writes for himself’.

An edit of this feature first appeared in Gafencu Men’s magazine, Hong Kong, May 2013

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