Monday, September 11, 2017

Four Myths and Realities of Self-Publishing

Over the past several years, the publishing industry has changed radically, and it continues to do so. Unfortunately, bookstores are scaling back their inventory or going out of business. There are only six large houses left, and writers’ contracts are becoming less and less attractive.

As a result, many well-known writers, including J. K. Rowling and Steven King, have put e-book versions of their work up on the Internet themselves. In addition, some, like Rowling, have started their own companies, thereby cutting the agents and publishers out of the loop. Should unknown writers do the same?  

Why might a writer choose to produce their own books? There may be many reasons, such as

1) the book appeals to a niche market (and bigger houses look for ones that appeal to a wide market).

2) the writer feels that there is a built-in audience that he or she can reach and can therefore make money without selling through a major publisher.

3) the book is too short to appeal to large houses (it may be only 30-100 pages, for example).

4) writers are responsible for marketing their books, anyway, so they might as well keep control of pricing and receive all the profit.

Traditionally, whether large or small press, if all goes ideally, a writer submits a query to an agent or editor and he or she responded favorably and asks to see the manuscript. A contract is issued and the book begins the editorial process. With a large company, a year or two later, the book is published. This lengthy process is far from ideal for many writers, especially those with time-critical information.

So, if a writer chooses to self-publish, what challenges will be faced?

Let’s consider the four main myths and realities that apply to both print books and e-books:

1.          Myth or Reality? Self-publishing any book is worthwhile.
While it is technically true that anyone can publish anything these days, especially on the Internet, this is a myth when it comes to something that is salable and will develop a positive reputation for the author. If you value what your readers think of you, self-publish only books that are well-written and have quality content—the same level that a New York house would produce.

Consider your professional image. It is fatal to your career to put out a book that lacks compelling content, exhibits poor typesetting, has an amateurishly designed cover, and is full of grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. You will be hard-pressed to turn this negative reputation around, even if your writing improves over time.

For physical books, sales of which are on the rise, Bookscan reported that for the first quarter of 2017, adult nonfiction comprised 42.3% of the market, adult fiction 25.2% (this includes Young Adult fiction, since 80% of Y/A books are read by people over 25), juvenile/children’s fiction and nonfiction 7%, and “other,” such as calendars, audio, and journals 25.5%.

For e-books, adult fiction is 80% of the market (and most of those books are romance and bought by females), adult nonfiction is 20%, and juvenile books are 1%, but this latter is bound to increase as time goes on. Some reference and children’s titles are difficult to make into e-books because of the complex page formatting and illustrations. This may change as the technology improves.

If your book is nonfiction, remember the first rule of marketing: Find a need and fill it.
After publishing 10 books through traditional publishers, I had an idea for a book that was needed in the college market—a user-friendly edition of a required style manual for formatting research papers. The educational houses offered only a token advance and virtually no royalties. They felt I should be happy with the fact that my book would be out. I knew there were new students every semester who would need it ¾that there would be an evergreen market¾so I decided to start my own publishing company.

So far The World’s Easiest Guide to Using the APA has sold over 75,000 copies to college bookstores, college and public libraries, and students. My other title for college students is The World’s Easiest Guide to Using the MLA. Ideal nonfiction books are those that can have a long product lifespan by being updated as new editions. For example, The World’s Easiest Guide to Using the APA is now going into its sixth edition and The World’s Easiest Guide to Using the MLA is going into its second edition. My company has since expanded not only my own list but has also taken on other authors.

Another example is best-selling author Amanda Hocking, who started self-publishing her young-adult romance novels as e-books in April of 2010. By March of 2011, she had sold over a million copies of nine books and averaged 9,000 sales a day. She has earned millions to date and is now with St. Martin’s Press.

You CAN be successful self-publishing your book if you put in the effort. The caveat is to do so only with books that:
         are high quality.
         are in demand.
         have been professionally edited and proofread.
         have a professional page layout and cover.
         include an ISBN and Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), and Library of Congress Publication Data (so your book can be sold to libraries)

There is another element, however, a critical one. Your book must be marketed properly. Marketing is a topic in itself and requires a lot of research and study. A terrific resource is 1001 Ways to Market Your Book by John Kremer (Kindle Edition, $7.97).   
2.  Myth or Reality? Self-publishing is the same as vanity press.
Self-publishing is definitely not the same thing as vanity press. Vanity presses charge hundreds or thousands of dollars and will print anything you send them—as is. You will get a pile of books that you then don’t know what to do with. The vanity press generally has control of the cover design and the page layout.

When you self-publish, you retain control. You have the book typeset and the cover designed. While this process will definitely require money if you don’t know how to do them yourself, it will be very inexpensive if you use someone listed on a site like The person may be located out of the country, but, as a result, he or she will work for a low fee.

Once your book is typeset and the cover has been designed, you can upload it onto CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s self-publishing platform. Small presses also use this service. This has tremendous advantages in that your book will have its own page on Amazon. In addition, the books are print-on-demand (POD). This means that as someone orders one, Createspace will print it and ship it out. They will also track your sales and send you a check each month for any copies sold.

While you won’t have a box loads of books to deal with or have to turn your house into a fulfillment center, you will still have to market your work so that people know it’s available.

You can also create e-books through Amazon’s Kindle programs. These, in addition to audio versions, can be listed on your Amazon page. Your work should be in at least these three formats (print, e-book, and audio) in order to reach all audiences.
3.  Myth or Reality? Books can be sold only through bookstores.
Myth! There are significant costs to traditional houses associated with printing and storing books. Once the publisher has inventory in the distributor’s warehouse, they sell copies to wholesalers who ship to bookstores.

Books are easily damaged in this process, and those are returned. Titles may sit on the bookstore shelves for only 2-3 months, after which they are shipped back to the publisher and may soon go out of print.

If you have a subject that can constantly sell, though, why should your book die an early death? Why not self-publish it and if it’s nonfiction, update it every few years to take advantage of the recurring market?

Because of returns, wholesalers refuse to deal directly with authors, and most bookstores won’t, either. In addition, wholesalers and distributors expect a 45-55% discount, and bookstores expect at least a 30% discount.

An alternative to the printing and storing costs is POD, but bookstores usually won’t take POD books, because there is no place to return them. The same discount schedule applies. It seems clear that all books eventually will be printed POD, because the old model of printing and shipping is inefficient and expensive and also destructive to the books themselves.
Instead, forget the major bookstore chains.

1001 Ways to Market Your Books explains exactly that. Not one of Kremer’s suggestions is a bookstore. In fact, bookstores are the WORST place to sell books for the reasons already mentioned. “Special Sales” is the term used for types of sales outside the traditional bookstore channels. Also check out Brian Jud’s book, Beyond the Bookstore: How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets (ISBN: 978-1-59429-002-2, $10.00). He discusses all aspects of Special Sales. While it has a 2003 copyright date, the information is still relevant.

Another downside if you self-publish without setting yourself up as a small press is that your book may not be reviewed in major publications like Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers’ Weekly. The author cannot submit books to most of these publications. There is a specific process involved with getting reviews. This is another area for major study.
4.  Myth or Reality? If you build it, they will come.
While this philosophy worked well for novice Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella in attracting Shoeless Joe Jackson and the outcast members of 1919 Chicago White Sox, it works only for famous authors with a large fan base. In that case, it’s easy to get the media to report that a new book is available. This scenario does not apply to new or unknown writers, so this is definitely a myth. You can have your work on Amazon and other online bookstores, but who will see it?

The Internet is the best place to market any product. If you plan to self-publish, you must build a platform—an online community. Ideally, this is in place BEFORE your book comes out. Amanda Hocking had a terrific fan base before she self-published hers. A platform includes the following:
  • Website
  • Blog
  • Social media (such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linked In; pick the one(s) where your audience hangs out)
  • Article marketing
  • Videos
Post comments on the blogs of people in your target market and “friend” them on your social media accounts. Keep your profiles professional and don’t allow anyone to post to your accounts who isn’t a colleague or potential colleague. That is, don’t post party photos or family photos and don’t allow others to, either. Put samples of your work on your website for others to read. When your book comes out, you will have a nice audience to which to market it.

Traditional publishers, editors, and agents expect you to have a platform and will look for it. If you can build a track record with your sales, you can approach these channels from a much stronger position; however, if your Internet presence is negative or amateurish, though, you are almost guaranteed a rejection slip. No matter how you publish, you need a positive online presence.
The Bottom Line
If you feel that in spite of the challenges involved with self-publishing that you want to pursue this avenue, you may find it to be very lucrative if you do it right. Let’s review the steps:

  1. Establish a positive online presence.
  2. Learn everything you can about self-publishing.
  3. Self-publish only quality work.
  4. Sell outside the traditional bookstore channels.
Good luck and have fun!