Why Writers Must Self-Publish Their Books

by Joel Friedlander on December 2, 2013 · 47 comments

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In yesterday’s New York Times there was an opinion piece by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s a quote:

“Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able (to) earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others—poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists—must either have a partner whose income supports them or a ‘day job’ to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.”—New York Times, The Real Humanities Crisis

You know this is true as well as I do, and it speaks to several larger truths:

  • the low regard most creative artists who are not “superstars” generally command in our society
  • the lack of leverage most creatives have in dealing with corporations who license their work
  • the disempowerment of writers who are not “bestsellers” and who, by and large, are poorly compensated for their work

Stable jobs with dependable income involve helping the wheels of commerce keep turning, or unavoidable occupations like road building and health care.

But try making a living as a poet, a writer of histories, a novelist, a short story writer, a playwright, or any kind of writer whose work isn’t essential to making a living, and you better not give up that day job.

We don’t need to comment on the values this reality expresses, but we do have to deal with the consequences.

Now, with all the new tools of publishing, we can take a bigger role in our own publishing careers than ever before.

Self-Publishing Today

Talking to authors—and especially authors who have already been published by big traditional publishers—you can see the excitement and anticipation when this subject comes up.

The chance to publish what you want, when you want to, in the way you think best. The return of power and influence to the actual creators of the content. That’s exciting.

Earning 100% of net royalties doesn’t hurt either.

Meanwhile, we’ve learned that many authors have made very little money from their books, and that’s awakened a lot of writers to the harsh realities of this line of work.

More Authors, More Books

One of the reasons there are so many self-published books is that there are a lot more books than corporate publishers can handle.

Just think about all the books that don’t fit the traditional model and you’ll see what I mean, books:

  • with topics that have a very small potential market
  • unusual formats or experimental writing for which an audience has to be created
  • works of odd lengths that don’t fit into the production necessities of publishers
  • by authors who don’t have a “platform” or established audience

Books have to show a profit. They have to fit on a particular shelf, cost a specific amount, and appeal to a targeted audience.

But the business model of an individual author is completely different from the business model of a large corporation. That’s where self-publishing comes in.

Self-Publishing and Social Media

It has been our good fortune that social media and self-publishing are developing at the same time.

Social media, including blogging and the connections available in the social web, is powerful. Combined with tools (like keyword analysis, trending topics, and others) that allow us to gain insight into readers, it’s revolutionary.

Now authors have the ability to identify, locate, and engage with their readers on a mass scale, immediately and directly for the first time in history.

I’ve often said that for a solo entrepreneur, a blog is the most powerful marketing tool ever invented.

Even more so for authors. If the web is largely text, and what people do on the web, outside of playing games and shopping, involves reading text, then it just makes sense that authors have a huge advantage in this new world.

Today’s savvy authors understand that studying social media is, in its own way, just as important to their careers as studying their writing craft.

This doesn’t mean we let go of other ways to promote our books. But the ability of a solo author to learn to promote her books in social media levels the playing field in a very powerful way.

Ebooks and print on demand technologies allow us to escape the need for corporate-level financing, and social media gives us an inside edge in marketing our books.

Publish Today, Publish Tomorrow, Publish Forever

At this point, for many authors, self-publishing really is the best alternative for some, if not all, of their books. Smartly managed, with a clear understanding of how to move toward your goals, indie authors are creating their own publishing models.

To be a self-publisher, you have to be willing to take on the study and work necessary to learn the basics of getting your book to market. For many of you, the most difficult lessons are behind you.

There are lots of ways to do this, and every one is right for some people:

  • You can hire publishing professionals to help you create, produce, and market your book.
  • You can learn the parts that really appeal to you and do them yourself.
  • You can call on a book shepherd or book designer to handle your entire project in consultation with you.
  • You can partner with an established publisher to co-produce your book.

The options for how to get a book to market continue to expand. That’s a good thing.

Every book you publish now will add to your “list,” increase your professionalism, create more points of engagement for your readers, and help create real assets that can support you for years to come.

And that’s why today, for many writers, self-publishing and social media marketing really are the change we have been waiting for. And why writers really need to know how to publish their own books.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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    { 33 comments… read them below or add one }

    David Hooper December 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Like being signed to a major record label, a major book publishing deal has its advantages, but as you mentioned in the comments, the reality for many authors isn’t the fantasy they had when they signed on. Still, self-publishing has its own issues to work around. Yes, you can keep 100% of the money, but 100% of zero is still zero.

    With that said, if you’ve already got a following and marketing knowledge, I think self-publishing is the way to go.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 4, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Cool post, Michael. Let me suggest that your “battle” might turn to “occupation” by seeing ebooks not as a complication, but a simplification. :-)

    I really like your comment on Ives and will file it away. I hadn’t thought of it before, but self-publishing is the realization of writers of the “auteur” theory of film-making. Giving us the ability to take charge of all the elements from creation right down to production and pricing.

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry December 4, 2013 at 8:37 am

    For the last couple of years, I’ve had a battle going on in my mind over self-publishing, particularly all the additional complications introduced by digital books.

    One part of me has wanted to focus solely on content. It would love to be a G. K. Chesterton, doing articles in papers and magazines that can then be collected into books. All I would do is write the words and let others mess with their appearance and distribution. Life would be simple.

    But there’s another part of me that likes the level of control that self-publishing gives and the added benefits that digital brings. In some cases, it may take me less time to do something myself than it’d take to convince a publisher to pay an illustrator to do it. And in the case of self-publishing, what I want always happens.

    My hospital books began the tilt toward the second option when I realized that stories about sick children were much more powerful when a chapter opened with a picture of a child much like the one I was describing. Pictures add power to words, so maybe I should not be so focused on the words.

    An almost-done book has driven that point home. It’s called Lily’s Ride and is a novel about the 1870s struggle between the good people of North Carolina, both black and white, and the Ku Klux Klan along with the wealthy planters who supported the Klan and wanted to keep the poor of both races kept poor, dependent and uneducated so they could be exploited as cheap agricultural laborers.

    The story itself describes that struggle, but I’m opening many of the chapters with pictures of poor children of both races to drive home the point that this struggle was about the sort of world those children would grow up in.

    One picture I’m using shows three poor white children and I’m able to say in essence, “See the marks on the face and legs of the little girl on the right. That’s one of the signs of a nutritional deficiency called pellagra. She has it because her family is forced to eat a diet that’s almost all corn.” I can then challenge the claims, then and now, that poor whites somehow benefited from segregation and white supremacy. They didn’t. They were often as poor, malnourished, ill-housed and ill-clothed as their black counterparts. The real beneficiaries were elsewhere.

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, then having the freedom to add those pictures to my books is worth much as a writer, editor and publisher rolled up into one. It’s worth the added bother of self-publishing.

    And if I understand them right, that was one of the points of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. They didn’t just want to be the industrial design director at a giant firm much like Jonathan Ives at Apple. They wanted to control every aspect of what they were creating.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    Reply

    SUZANNE WHITE December 4, 2013 at 3:20 am

    Thanks Joel,
    We don’t know each other. But I am one of your biggest fans. I like you because you help so many writers.

    In my experience, what impacts writers (and laypeople) the most about publishing is that legacy publishers take 90% and give authors max. 10% of sales revenues. Moreover, publishers pay us twice a year. We can never change anything in our publisher books because it costs them money. We have no control over our work. Bad cover? It stays that way. High price? Can’t change it. Too complicated. Mistakes in the text? Let the reader worry about them.

    Amazon gives us 70% and keeps 30%, pays us every month and gives us a daily running accounting of what is selling and what is not. And we can go in and change things when we want to. Not selling well? Try a new cover. Typos? Go in and fix them. Price too high or too low? We can change those too. Whenever we choose. We are in complete control. If we decide we hate that book. We simply remove it from sale.

    Not many people are aware of the vast gap between the outcome of “legacy” publishing and self publishing. And it is true. Most authors (and I have been published by classic publishers: St Martins, Macmillan, Pan, Harper etc. for 30 years) cannot live on what they make from book sales. Often we are obliged to write a book we don’t even want to write because the publisher will give us an advance on that book (the subject of which which they think up) and we need to eat.

    I will read that article in the Times. The more writers know about self-(indie) publishing and how easy and fruitful it is, the better.

    Cheers, Suzanne White

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry December 3, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Some of these remarks brought to mind what I studied several years ago when I published four William Morris books that influenced J. R. R. Tolkien. I began with a lucky break. To distinguish two of my Morris novels from other editions on the market, I based them on copies of vellum editions from Morris’s Klemscott Press that were in the special collection at the University of Washington. Luck it was, because only a dozen of so copies of those books were ever printed. As one librarian told me, the library couldn’t begin to afford to complete their collection today. What they did have was there because a librarian in the 1950s had seen an opportunity to pick them up at bargain prices.

    Reading through those texts wearing gloves and in a special book holder was a real treat. The books, published by Morris’s Klemscott Press, were utterly gorgeous. You can read a bit about that here:

    http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/morris/kelmscott.html

    What Morris was doing was part of an Arts and Crafts Movement that you can read about here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arts_and_Crafts_movement

    It was a noble attempt to bring old-fashioned craftsmanship back into a world dominated by cheap, look-alike mass production. The big hitch was, while the movement tried to raise the status of creative manual workers, the cost of production was so high that their products could only be afforded by the very well-to-do. It could influence the appearance of homes, wallpaper, stained glass, books and like items that were mass produced, but there could be no direct link between the craftsmen in the movement and most of the public.

    I’m wondering if what’s happening with publishing has the potential, with print and digital books, to restore the sort of craftsmanship as illustrated by Klemscott Press. Can individuals and small groups of people create books that aren’t simply cluttered with ugly multi-media as some seem to want, but that are actually attractive and a joy to read. It’s something the major publishers could do by hiring talent but that they aren’t likely to do given their profit is king motivation. For them, good enough is good enough.

    The idea is interesting because modern technology does provide an escape that Morris and others in the Arts and Crafts Movement never had, the ability to design a book (or other object using other technologies) with great attention to detail and to have machines that could recreate that design in great detail at a reasonable cost.

    Morris and those like him wanted a one person or few people working alone to create objects that were both beautiful and functional. It does seem to me that the new technologies offer the potential to do that and do it at a cost that almost anyone could afford.

    And yes, the ability to do so isn’t yet there. We don’t, for instance, have the ability to finely manipulate how a digital text looks like we do a printed text via PDF. But the potential is there.

    And yes, I realize I’m going against the ‘content is king’ mindset behind most self-publishing. But there’s no reason why, ten years from now, the content of an engaging novel cannot be coupled with an appearance that looks as marvelously attractive as those Klemscott editions I studied.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 3, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Michael, thanks for that. I’m quite familiar with the Kelmscott books and others of the Arts & Crafts movement. It was a remarkable moment in time. Many years ago I assembled a private library on the history of printing and books on books.

    A friend and I even tried to duplicate the roman face of Nicolas Jenson, without much luck, trying to get the same kind of color to the page as Jenson had. Getting a chance to look at the originals in the Huntington Library was really a treat.

    I’m often impressed by just how many different kinds of books authors take on and publish themselves, or with help from freelancers. Authors who have only published one kind of book really can’t appreciate the incredible variety of book publishing in terms of content, but also in production methods, price points, and “editorial intent.”

    And publishing itself is changing underneath us, sometimes in places most people don’t see. The reason content is king is that everything else is simply a container. Text itself is the essential component, and I think that’s what we’re going to see play out over the next few years.

    Reply

    Mick Rooney December 3, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Wow, Joel. I don’t often disagree with your advice, but this is a bridge too far.

    I agree with Linton, and I do recall an online conversation I had with him some time back and the subject was about advice given by self-publishing experts. I think this was the article the discussion arose from.

    Sure, there are some musts when it comes to self-publishing:

    *Writers ‘must’ have their work professionally edited, whether published through self or traditional channels.

    *And if ‘self’ then writers ‘must’ contract out tasks and services in the areas they have no professional competency in – whether it’s marketing, design, PR repping or proper distribution.

    Sure, ‘authors’ must at some stage in their writing life give self-publishing serious consideration (particularly if changing genres, the work potentially commands a low audience threshold, or the author is concerned their editor at a publishing house will reject the book), but to even suggest in an article that self-publishing is a must is ridiculous. I’m not sure Joel thought this one fully through or really delivered his point well.

    ***”At this point, for many authors, self-publishing really is the best alternative for some, if not all, of their books. Smartly managed, with a clear understanding of how to move toward your goals, indie authors are creating their own publishing models.”***

    Indie authors ARE NOT creating their own publication models! What they ARE doing is using recent digital and print technology, as well as new distribution platforms and print methods, to make the job of independently publishing more affordable and realisable.

    What indie authors are not doing is reinventing the publishing wheel. Publishing is still publishing, and what indie authors are learning is that they must be effective and inventive about how to reach readers and keep costs down, while still working within the set standards of the industry.

    Here is the reality:

    ***The majority of self-published authors DON’T use their own ISBNs and imprint and project manage a book right through from conception, writing, production to distribution. The majority use some kind of self-publishing service (company), good or bad, to carry out the job.

    I’m sure Joel and Linton, wish they didn’t – but they do! That’s the hard and fast reality I experience as a publishing consultant. Often, when authors come to me, they’ve already made that particular choice and contractual commitment. (And more often are trying to find a way to extract themselves from it)

    Whatever way you publish – self or trad – you ARE beholden to someone or some company and their policies and terms (LSI/CS/KOBO/SMASHWORDS/YOUR LOCAL PRINTER/BOOKSTOTE ETC). That goes for the authors who publish with Random House , as much as it does to the ones who publish with Amazon Kindle. Unless you own print equipment, do literally everything yourself and hand sell directly to readers – there is a middleman you are beholden to.

    I think Bob Mayer summed it up best (I’m paraphrasing) – if someone is between the author and reader relationship, and not adding real end value, get rid of them!

    That’s easier said than done.

    Most books sold today are PHYSICAL books, not e-books, despite what you might hear to the contrary. Even Amazon will concede that fact!

    ***”And that’s why today, for many writers, self-publishing and social media marketing really are the change we have been waiting for. And why writers really need to know how to publish their own books.”***

    Most writers might need to ‘know’ how to publish their books, but most writers also don’t want to publish their own books! They want to write – not to be publishing businesses. And even the most successful self-publishers will concede that what they have taken on significantly eats into their crucial writing time.

    Here is another myth that comes from this article – that marketing through social media for self-published authors is potentially enough. It isn’t! The best social media marketing carried out by an author helps a great deal, but social media works best when combined with traditional marketing methods. Social media marketing is an enhancement, not a replacement for marketing totally. And that’s if an author has the resources and time!

    ***”◾you can learn the parts that really appeal to you and do them yourself.”***

    This is the single biggest sin committed by self-published authors which often leads to poorly designed, formatted and even self-edited books. NO! Unless you are an author and also a professional book cover designer, e-book formatter, marketer etc. No, you can’t do it yourself because you ‘think’ you know enough of the ins and outs.

    Linton alludes to self-publishing experts. I felt the article actually gives ‘us’ so-called self-publishing experts a bad reputation.

    I think it feeds on the misconception that self-publishing – as a path to publication – will ultimately become the primary or sole path to publishing.

    What we need is for traditional publishing to adapt and be flexible enough to adopt what authors like about self-publishing, and likewise, self-publishing to rise to the industry standards of traditional publishing in it’s execution.

    The two can exist with equal relevance, whatever the needs and wishes of authors.

    Just my thoughts…
    – See more at: http://www.theindependentpublishingmagazine.com/2013/12/when-self-publishing-advice-should.html

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 3, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Good post, Mick.
    I know that of the “self-publishing experts” you have the sunniest attitude towards the “subsidy press” side of things: and your resources in sorting out the bad from the less bad in that sector is very useful.

    Hard to say what percentage of indie books come through “vanity” presses, I’d think. But a lot do. And it’s very often a shame. Every day I read posts from some writer bewailing having gone with xLibris or Author House instead of just doing it himself.

    Your point on having middlemen involved is really important: discussions of publishing often generate more heat than light, but it’s hard to get around the concept that the more middlemen involved, the less profit and control to the principal.

    One nit I’d pick at–the oft-cited “majority of books sold are print” doesn’t really mean anything to us. It includes millions of legal books, yearbooks, coffeetable art, decorator books, obligatory college texts, hymnals, etc. Not to mention vast numbers of books from best-selling authors.
    Indie writers are really not in that pool at all. None of that matters. An ebook on amazon is our daily bread.

    Whether or not the traditional industry (possibly the single most flawed and dysfunctional industry in the developed world) will “always” be the big factor is hard to predict. A lot depends on the survival of print as the main way people read for pleasure–returns not in on that–their ability to replace the declining number of living best-selling monsters, and their ability to adapt to the new models indie writers use so easily.
    But that’s not important to us, either. Any more than somebody doing Windjammer tours of the Caribbean cares that most tourist money goes to big cruise ship companies. He might well be making more money at it than any given Princess Cruises employee or stockholder. And definitely having a better time at it.

    Reply

    Allison Hawkins December 2, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    In 2005, I returned to seriously pursuing writing. I completed two online courses that gave me my confidence back. One practical aspect of the course was supplying information on how to submit both non fiction and short fiction articles. Self publishing was just taking off. Non fiction sp did well, but it took 50 Shades oh Gray and a few others to wake up the (now) big 4 in New York City.

    I truly believe we are at the beginning of a writer’s renaisance. In May I read an article in The Writer which profiled four current agents. The two women under 45 regularly go to Amazon’s self published book page and see what’s selling. If they like what they see, they’ll download and read the book. And if they really like the book, they go courting the author.
    It’s a new dawn and age for writers and it’s looking quite fine.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski December 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    You say: “Meanwhile, we’ve learned that many authors have made very little money from their books, and that’s awakened a lot of writers to the harsh realities of this line of work.”

    I often tell wannabe best-selling authors that they have to be 1 percenters. If they are not motivated enough to do better than 99 percent of writers, they should give up if they want to make a good living at self-publishing.

    I do not want to discourage everyone, however. I started writing when I had no job and my net worth was minus $30,000. My first self-published book (1989) sold 5,000 copies over the first two years. My second self-published book (The Joy of Not Working) was published in 1991. It will still make me $18,000 this year 22 years later.

    My self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” has made me a great income for the last 10 years and will soon be my first million-dollar book (pretax profits after printing costs).

    I am far from having a “New York Times” bestseller but I have had three books that are home runs (at least 100,000 copies sold).

    In short, it is possible to end up making a good living as a self-published writer, even starting out when one is broke and jobless.

    One must always keep this in mind about the book business:

    Content Is King — But Promotion Is the Supreme Ruler!

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 195,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Bruce Triggs December 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    I was struck with the thought that publishing professionals and companies have traditionally done the indispensable but boring part of the creative project, the “road-building and health-care” jobs that got books into people’s hands, and they got paid regularly. Writers today can do our own road-building (and we may be able to pay for health-care!) If we get books to customers more directly, there’s less boring people between us and readers (and their financial support).

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry December 2, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Quote: “Another great post. I would add that self-publishing also enables writers to learn the details of the business in a way that being traditionally published does not.”

    An excellent point Jennifer! You’ve touched on something that Malcolm Gladwell mentions in one of his books, although I forget if it was The Tipping Point or Outliers.

    As I recall, he contrasts two groups of immigrants near the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The Polish and Hungarians typically took jobs in the coalfields of Pennsylvania. East European Jews sold goods, including clothing, out of carts in New York City. The former remained stuck in mine shafts while the latter soon formed successful businesses and saw either themselves or their children do well.

    Why? Because working in a mine teaches you almost nothing about the coal industry as a whole. Selling aprons off a cart teachers you almost everything you need to know about starting and running a clothing company. You have to buy the raw materials. You have to hire workers and create a quality product. You have to set a retail price. You have to market. Almost the only difference between a clothing peddler and a textile magnate is scale.

    Self-publishing is precisely the same, as you note. And yes, having to do it all yourself means you may do some things badly. But that’s an opportunity to learn. If you’re going through a traditional publisher, you make get stuck with the poor choices it makes with no way to learn how to do better yourself.

    Cover designs are particularly critical in a new era where people often buy without seeing more than that cover and perhaps a small sample of the text. I’ve been self-publishing for fourteen years now and I’ve only just reached the point where I actually like the covers of my books. Before that, the covers were little more than wild guesses. I stumbled around until I come up with something that didn’t seem too awful. And doing covers right is an art that takes time to learn.

    Now I not only know out to create a good cover, I’m branching out into adding, when it makes sense, a relevant picture at the start of each chapter. That adds more life to books.

    My latest, a novel about life in 1870s North Carolina, opens chapters with pictures of poor black and white children. That lets me hammer home the point that the underlying conflict in the story is about the sort of world those children would grow up in.

    And for a book with the title Lily’s Ride: Saving her Father from the Ku Klux Klan I’ve found a near perfect cover:

    http://www.bigstockphoto.com/image-50321354/

    With this picture, suitably cropped, on the back:

    http://www.bigstockphoto.com/image-45531907

    For those looking for good cover images, I strongly recommend stock photo houses. Look through enough photos, and you can often find the perfect one, professionally done, and at a reasonable price.

    ——
    There is something more that I’d love to see–an exchange of services website for authors. Points would be awarded for services rendered, such as critiquing the plot of a book, and those points could be exchanged for receiving similar services from others.

    The one major flaw with doing everything yourself is that we all have blind spots where we can’t see flaws and most of us don’t have the money to pay to have those blind spots exposed.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 2, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Cool post, Michael. I really like that bit about the two different immigrant approaches and will keep it in mind.

    Reply

    Julia Barrett December 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

    One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time – both this piece and the NYT’s op-ed. Hit the nail on the proverbial head.

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    Jennifer Ellis December 2, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Another great post. I would add that self-publishing also enables writers to learn the details of the business in a way that being traditionally published does not. In order to make intelligent decisions for my upcoming novel A Pair of Docks, I had to analyze and understand trim size, spend a day measuring margins in books, research typography, and learn more about grammar than I ever though possible – because it was me making the final decisions. You also get to make choices about your own product that are not possible in the traditional publishing world. I got to select my own cover designer and as a result was able to get exactly what I wanted. In order to do this, I had to spend time understanding what makes a good cover. The knowledge I have gained is empowering and has allowed me to develop insight into how books are produced that I would not have otherwise had. I can only hope that knowledge will help me moving forward.

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    Linton Robinson December 2, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Really good point that’s often overlooked, not only in discussions of publishing your work, but in the pressure to pay “professionals” to do the work for you. In addition to saddling your book with debt, it keeps you from learning what has become an essential part of the process of expressing yourself in writing.
    A writer saying they don’t want to bother to learn how to put a book out is like a musician who wants to play, but not to tune up or record. It’s become part of what we do, and we’re so lucky to be able to have the opportunity to do it–and to control our own outreach, pricing, presentation, etc.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    That’s awesome, Jennifer. A lot of these tasks take a considerable investment in time and learning, but will pay off down the line, as each book will build on what you’ve already learned, and you’ll have a proven production method and trusted vendors already in place.

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    Michael W. Perry December 2, 2013 at 7:28 am

    I’ll add this as a separate remark since it’s a different topic.

    I once attended a meeting of medical writers in Seattle and it the two speakers combined was a real eye-opener. They were exact opposites.

    One was in it for the money and offered his key for success. Find someone with name/credentials, he said, and a topic that’s a hot one. His latest has been a fad diet by a physician with a knack for self-promotion. There was nothing in his talk to indicate any concern over whether the diet was healthy or if it even worked. The book would sell and that was all that mattered. He told us that he was making a lot of money doing that.

    The other wrote articles for science magazines. He chose what he wrote and what he said, focusing on topics that he felt really mattered. He also freely admitted that he’d starve but for the income from his wife, a librarian.

    They’re the extremes but they do indicate a pattern. You can write to get rich or you can write to accomplish something that matters to you.

    How you write also matters. I saw that recently when I decided to read one of the country’s best-paid writers, someone who writes international intrigue. I gave up after about four chapters in disgust over the grotesques inaccuracies in the book. He had, for instance, spy satellites buzzing like bees above a Middle-eastern country. That’s utter nonsense, I thought, satellites have to follow fixed orbits. Can’t a guy this rich afford to have fact-checkers?

    When I calmed down, I realized that he may have fact-checkers but they don’t have much influence over his content. He’s not writing a plausible account for knowledgable people. He’s writing for a large but woefully uninformed audience–bored, middle-aged women with nothing much to do but read. They think that spy satellites can buzz about like bees, so his tale doesn’t confuse them with contrary facts. The same was true of his characters. The characters may have been stiff, cardboard figures, but that’s how his readers viewed ‘important’ people.

    My latest book, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer, involved that sort of choice making. I knew that I could write a simple, sentimental tale about the kids I cared for or I could describe what actually happened in all its complexity and frustration.

    The sentimental tales are there because they actually happened. But a lot of what I write about is unsettling for my readers. I have inexperienced residents and new nurses making stupid blunders, blunders that could kill our children. I have cold, uncaring, incompetent head nurses and destructive administrative policies that were destroying the morale of the hospital staff. All that happened. Just after I left, there was a mass exodus of nurses that left the hospital 20% understaffed.

    I explain, at the very start, that treating leukemia means taking children that don’t seem that sick, and transforming them into children who look like survivors of some dreadful concentration camp. My book’s front cover, I tell readers, is what a new admission looks like. The back cover, I then tell them, is what that child will look like a month later. Both are actual pictures.

    Childhood leukemia was once 100% fatal. Pediatricians who suspected a child had it would rule out every other option before checking for it. Once that was the diagnosis, there was no hope. It was that bad a disease. To have any chance of curing those children, medicine has had to risk killing them. But because of that constantly refined treatment, cure rates are now in the 80% range, amazingly good for a disease that serious.

    I wrote for nursing students, nurses and the more strong-minded parents of children with cancer. I’m hoping it will do well with those groups. But I didn’t write it to sell a million copies by providing a pleasant and uplifting experience. I wrote to describe the reality of coming to work each evening knowing that, by the statistics, perhaps two of the seven children I was caring for would die and that, if I wasn’t extremely vigilant, I might be the cause of one of those deaths.

    I wrote because that was the reality, knowing that reality isn’t always the path to becoming bestselling. And self-publishing meant I need not fret over whether I could convince a publisher that what I was doing made economic sense.

    Reply

    Roxanne Snopek February 6, 2014 at 9:27 am

    “…bored, middle-aged women with nothing much to do but read.”

    Really, Michael? You want to piss off the largest portion of the book-buying market? The one your book is most likely to appeal to?

    Commercial mass-market fiction isn’t even in the same ball-park as prescriptive non-fiction or memoir. Readers of escapist fiction enter into the experience knowing that their part of the contract is the willing suspension of disbelief.

    Craft and story-telling are two separate aspects of successful writing.

    Successful commercial fiction – even with what we may see as sloppy *craft* – finds its particular readership because of *story.* Readers will forgive almost anything, if the STORY is strong enough.

    Few readers, however, forgive an author who talks down to them.

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry February 6, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Quote: “…bored, middle-aged women with nothing much to do but read.” Really, Michael? You want to piss off the largest portion of the book-buying market? The one your book is most likely to appeal to?

    Hey, it’s you that’s saying that the “largest portion of the book-buying market” are “bored, middle-aged women with nothing much to do but read.” Not me.

    I’m just recognizing reality. Real-life stories about children battling cancer aren’t going to appeal to people who read to escape from unpleasant realities, even though that unpleasantness is mostly boredom and perhaps kids with small illnesses.

    For many of them, my book is simply too much reality. It’s not that they have a child with leukemia or a friend that does. It’s something that could happen and hence terrifying rather than a safely escapist illusion. And to their credit, that’s because they love kids and don’t like to read about them suffering.

    A romance with someone who turns out to be a vampire, a wild fling in the woods with Big Foot, and even a passionate affair with a billionaire software developer simply aren’t going to happen. Therefore a book filled with those sorts of risks is safe. It’s like the reason I was told kids like dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are big and scary but not longer exist. Therefore being afraid of them is safe and fun.

    Yes, the same is true with men who read thrillers on war and the military while worrying and fretting mostly about the tiny details of their job keeping books for a company that sells tea. Escapism only works when it really is an escape, when you’re never going to be dropped into the wilds of Afghanistan.

    I touch on a similar idea in the second chapter of My Nights when I compare working on Hem-Onc with mountain climbing. In both, death was a every present reality. Having experienced both, most books and movies about each began to lose their appeal. No movie can capture the reality of knowing that a moment’s inattention can leave you plunging 2,000 feet to your death. No movie can capture what it’s like to know that a moment’s inattention on duty means a child dies.

    It is possible to read wanting not escape but inspiration. At the moment, I’m reading a biography of Anne Frank that covers her family in detail. I’ve been impressed with what her father, Otto, is doing to keep his family together and protect it. When the Nazis demand that Jews registered their bikes, they hide there’s with friends. In a pinch, that bike might be their only chance to move quickly.

    He’s also almost finished their hiding place when an letter arrives ordering a member of his family to report for work in Germany. He’d thought it’d be him. It turned out to be Ann’s older sister. But because he’d prepared, the very next day they disappear into that annex, having already dropped hints that they might have found a way to get to Switzerland. Otto also worked hard to be a good friend and a good employer, so there were numerous people willing to help them, even at the risk of their own lives.

    That’s the opposite of reading for escape. It’s reading thinking that, if something like this happened to me, what would I do? And that’s who My Nights is written for, particularly those who go into medicine or nursing and may suddenly find themselves being asked to cope with something far greater than they expected. That’s why that chapter closes with these words:

    —–
    That, in a nutshell, is the special world I’ll be describing in this book. I will be telling you what it was like to spend nights with children who were dying or almost certainly could die. I will be showing you a world in which suffering and death came mixed with beauty and a special humanity. It was a world in which I found I could do things I never thought possible.

    I hope this book will inspire you to do something similar with your life. Perhaps it will help you cope with a tragedy or illness you cannot avoid. Perhaps it will motivate you to accept the challenges that come your way and to believe that you can do what you must do.
    ——–

    Escapism or inspiration–that’s the difference. In the book, I don’t ‘talk down’ to anyone. I ‘talk up’ to some and hope that includes everyone who must face a crisis like childhood leukemia.

    –Mike

    Reply

    Mick Rooney December 2, 2013 at 7:08 am

    Wow, Joel. I don’t often disagree with your advice, but this is a bridge too far.

    I agree with Linton, and I do recall an online conversation I had with him some time back and the subject was about advice given by self-publishing experts. I think this was the article the discussion arose from. http://www.theindependentpublishingmagazine.com/2012/11/the-rise-of-self-publishing-experts.html

    Sure, there are some musts when it comes to self-publishing:

    *Writers ‘must’ have their work professionally edited, whether published through self or traditional channels.

    *And if ‘self’ then writers ‘must’ contract out tasks and services in the areas they have no professional competency in – whether it’s marketing, design, PR repping or proper distribution.

    Sure, ‘authors’ must at some stage in their writing life give self-publishing serious consideration (particularly if changing genres, the work potentially commands a low audience threshold, or the author is concerned their editor at a publishing house will reject the book), but to even suggest in an article that self-publishing is a must is ridiculous. I’m not sure Joel thought this one fully through or really delivered his point well.

    ***”At this point, for many authors, self-publishing really is the best alternative for some, if not all, of their books. Smartly managed, with a clear understanding of how to move toward your goals, indie authors are creating their own publishing models.”***

    Indie authors ARE NOT creating their own publication models! What they ARE doing is using recent digital and print technology, as well as new distribution platforms and print methods, to make the job of independently publishing more affordable and realisable.

    What indie authors are not doing is reinventing the publishing wheel. Publishing is still publishing, and what indie authors are learning is that they must be effective and inventive about how to reach readers and keep costs down, while still working within the set standards of the industry.

    Here is the reality:

    ***The majority of self-published authors DON’T use their own ISBNs and imprint and project manage a book right through from conception, writing, production to distribution. The majority use some kind of self-publishing service (company), good or bad, to carry out the job.

    I’m sure Joel and Linton, wish they didn’t – but they do! That’s the hard and fast reality I experience as a publishing consultant. Often, when authors come to me, they’ve already made that particular choice and contractual commitment. (And more often are trying to find a way to extract themselves from it)

    Whatever way you publish – self or trad – you ARE beholden to someone or some company and their policies and terms (LSI/CS/KOBO/SMASHWORDS/YOUR LOCAL PRINTER/BOOKSTOTE ETC). That goes for the authors who publish with Random House , as much as it does to the ones who publish with Amazon Kindle. Unless you own print equipment, do literally everything yourself and hand sell directly to readers – there is a middleman you are beholden to.

    I think Bob Mayer summed it up best (I’m paraphrasing) – if someone is between the author and reader relationship, and not adding real end value, get rid of them!

    That’s easier said than done.

    Most books sold today are PHYSICAL books, not e-books, despite what you might hear to the contrary. Even Amazon will concede that fact!

    ***”And that’s why today, for many writers, self-publishing and social media marketing really are the change we have been waiting for. And why writers really need to know how to publish their own books.”***

    Most writers might need to ‘know’ how to publish their books, but most writers also don’t want to publish their own books! They want to write – not to be publishing businesses. And even the most successful self-publishers will concede that what they have taken on significantly eats into their crucial writing time.

    Here is another myth that comes from this article – that marketing through social media for self-published authors is potentially enough. It isn’t! The best social media marketing carried out by an author helps a great deal, but social media works best when combined with traditional marketing methods. Social media marketing is an enhancement, not a replacement for marketing totally. And that’s if an author has the resources and time!

    ***”◾you can learn the parts that really appeal to you and do them yourself.”***

    This is the single biggest sin committed by self-published authors which often leads to poorly designed, formatted and even self-edited books. NO! Unless you are an author and also a professional book cover designer, e-book formatter, marketer etc. No, you can’t do it yourself because you ‘think’ you know enough of the ins and outs.

    Linton alludes to self-publishing experts. I felt the article actually gives ‘us’ so-called self-publishing experts a bad reputation.

    I think it feeds on the misconception that self-publishing – as a path to publication – will ultimately become the primary or sole path to publishing.

    What we need is for traditional publishing to adapt and be flexible enough to adopt what authors like about self-publishing, and likewise, self-publishing to rise to the industry standards of traditional publishing in it’s execution.

    The two can exist with equal relevance, whatever the needs and wishes of authors.

    Just my thoughts…

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Hi Mick,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I see this article more as a call to action, rather than as a blow by blow prescription for authors.

    It’s very true that most authors do not want to take on the project of publishing their own books, but I’m not addressing them here.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe that “publishing is publishing” any longer. It seems to me that we have much bigger changes coming. And part of this is the new business models that entrepreneurial authors are devising.

    I’ve said many times over the years here that there’s no reason to think every book should be self-published, that you have to decide on a book by book basis.

    I also advise people to use social media in addition to other forms of promotion, but you know, there are people who do just fine in social media alone, if they are skillful enough. A lot of my publishing, in fact, comes right off the platform of this blog.

    And I don’t think self-publishing is going to become the dominant path for most authors, or that traditional publishing will disappear. But I do think that authors who are aware of what’s going on have a better chance to be educated about how to maximize these tools. That’s where I hope to be of most service.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 3, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    Well, of course the decision to self-publish can be made, but not the decision to have it published by anybody else. But wouldn’t you say that the majority of authors, certainly new authors are already in the self-published camp? There were many more books self-published than traditionally published last year. And when you cut out the deadwood books I mentioned earlier, it’s even more that way.
    So it already is the dominant path for most authors, and is getting more so at an almost exponential rate.
    But yeah, any amount of educating people writers about publishing will benefit everybody involved.

    Reply

    Michael W. Perry December 2, 2013 at 6:37 am

    Integrity as a writer is one of the best reasons to self-publish. I talked with Karen Wynn Fonstad, author of The Atlas of Middle-earth a couple of times before she died of cancer.

    She was getting a lot of flack from Tolkien fans–an often ill-tempered, critical, perfectionist group–because her atlas didn’t incorporate all the latest material in the long series of books in Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth. She couldn’t do that, she told me with a great deal of frustration, because her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, wasn’t interested in doing another edition. The one they had was selling well enough for them (as indeed it still is). She even had to fight them over changes to the 2001 revised edition. Not everything she wanted included got included.

    Publish it yourself, and you decide when and how it gets revised. Go through a traditional publisher and they decide that, often based on little more than, “But the existing edition still sells well.”

    I know. I’ve published five revisions to my Untangling Tolkien, a book similar to hers. It’s a complex, day-to-day chronology of The Lord of the Rings. As the first and only such book, it has taken me that many tries to iron out the mistakes. In contrast to my edition, the Polish edition, released through Tolkien’s authorized publisher there, has had only one edition. It still has those first mistakes.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Michael, your dedication is one of the hallmarks of an author truly dedicated to their field of study and to their readers. I’m sure people will recognize that over time.

    Reply

    Diane Tibert December 2, 2013 at 6:16 am

    I agree.

    The few times in the past two years when I considered going the traditional route, I stop myself and thought about a few authors I know who are traditionally published. One has more than a dozen books out but still must keep a ‘day job’. How can that be if he is selling so well? Who is getting the money?

    The answer is the publisher. The writer gets 10% which in the long run, unless you sell hundreds of thousands of books, doesn’t amount to enough to keep the household running. Until the publishing houses start offering more (30% sounds more reasonable) writers are better going the self-publishing route.

    My goal with Quarter Castle Publishing is to do just that: offer 30% when I start accepting manuscripts. Eventually I want to see that rise to 40%, but that will take a few years.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    I wish you the best of luck with Quarter Castle, sounds like a great idea Diane.

    Reply

    P. M. Steffen December 2, 2013 at 3:46 am

    Great piece! After I published on Amazon, and learned how to “read” the numbers, I was stunned to discover that traditionally published mid-list writers are making very little money. Wow. Who knew?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 2, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    It’s a whole new world, and many authors have started to talk openly about the reality of what they actually make, outsite the “glamour” of being published by a big house.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 2, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Good point. You’d have to say that if “craft beers” are in vogue, rather than factory beers, there should be a cachet for “craft publishing”.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 2, 2013 at 3:32 am

    “Must” is strong word. And peculiar in this context. We MUST?

    One concept here struck me as odd–but it’s an attitude I’ve seen creeping in to discussions now that self-publishing is not longer being scathed and belittled. Non-best-sellers are not being “disempowered”. Nothing is being taken away from them. It’s only that major sales “power” the writers who can command them.
    Writers are not “entitled” to sales, nor to making a living at their writing. Any more than painters or musicians or athletes are. There are many variables, including luck of the draw. And talent. Which is, frankly, luck of the draw.
    SP is a wonderful thing for a writer. We are very fortunate to live in the time when it became possible. But it doesn’t guarantee us anything, only a chance at it.
    I am a fan of publishing, BTW. I have done it since grade school, and often earn my living through the sales of my books.
    But it’s not something I “must” do, and it’s not some God-given power that anybody can take away.

    And what continues to be weird to me—here’s another self-publishing “expert” talking about using blogs and social media, with no mention of the more effective means of achieving discover that are discussed on writing groups.

    Reply

    Linda Bonney Olin December 2, 2013 at 5:36 am

    @Linton Robinson Which “more effective means” do you recommend? Thanks.

    Reply

    Hoot March 26, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Really I go to the library once a week so I have so many amnziag memories but one has always stuck with me. One time this young girl came in (11-13ish) and she was with her father and she just didn’t look happy at all. The father asked me if I knew any good YA horse books because he thought I worked there. I didn’t correct him but I showed her/them all these amnziag horse books that I read when i was younger and even some I was still finishing the series. I tried to upbeat and kind ( I am a Girl Scout ambassador so I know how to handle kids and -usually- get good responses from kids) but the girl was just blank. But I gave her some books and we went out separate ways. When she was checking out though I heard her say , Its not the same without mom. . I found out she had lost her mom to cancer 1 week ago and they use to read horse books together. I felt so horrible that just because she didn’t seem to appreciate me helping her that i kinda then blew her off. I know its a sad memory to keep and talk about but I have so many happy memories of my library that really th only one that stands out is this one sad one. Well good luck everyone !!! Some awesome booooks! ;D

    Reply

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