Anyone can write a book. Some people will tell you that’s not true; forever adamant about their belief that only “professionals” or those who have studied the craft for years are capable of such feats. I say forget the naysayers and look at the facts. The resources we have in today’s world courtesy of 21st Century technology simply cannot be beaten. Anything we want to know or learn how to do is available to us by a click of the mouse, and maybe typing a few keywords into a search bar beforehand. With such a vast amount of information at our fingertips, the possibilities are endless as long as we have a clear vision of our goals. Hell, if we can talk to friends face to face via programs like Skype who don’t even live in the same time zone, we can certainly use these same resources to produce quality products and cut the corporate suits out of the picture.
Here’s the fact of the matter when it comes to the traditional entertainment industry versus the independent route: the overpaid bigwigs are scared. And why shouldn’t they be? The number of people making names for themselves by throwing traditional methods out the window and rewiring the system to their benefit is on the rise while those who succumb to the allure of mainstream fame are quickly finding out that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Even revered household names throughout Tinseltown and beyond are realizing they could retain more profit and creative control if they work for themselves rather than their managers and studio/label/publishing heads. I could easily slip into a wild tirade about what continues to go wrong with the corporate mentality and call out the entire Hollywood system in general, but pointing fingers is child’s play and the models for traditional publishing versus non-traditional, or self-publishing, can be applied to almost any type of artistic or creative endeavor. In the interest of staying on topic then, here are some of the things I’ve learned so far from choosing to self-publish my novel Population: One.
First, and perhaps most important, self-publishing costs money. I’m not talking mere chump change here. Unless you set up a budget for yourself from the start and determine what types of a la carte services you do and don’t need, getting your book out to the masses could quickly become an ordeal that ends up setting you back several thousand dollars. That’s not to say one would be better off opting for the cheapest distribution possible, but there are a couple of things any aspiring self-sufficient author should take into consideration. Make sure the publishing house you’re considering doing business with offers a wide range of distribution and marketing channels. When I was searching for the publisher to help me with my book, I came across plenty of places promising to get my work into the hands of my ideal demographic, but they each offered a different way of doing it. Some companies claimed the complete manuscript-to-book process, including the various production phases, could be accomplished for just a few hundred dollars. Be aware of these tactics. Yes, you will indeed have a book on the market for the lowest cost possible, but what kind of help or marketing advice do companies like this offer their authors after publication? What kind of reputation do they have in terms of their customer service and how they interact with their clients on a personal level? Like the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.
On the flip side however, fancier and more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. I realize saying both yes and no to costly services is a bit of a contradiction, but I can tell you from experience that there is some sort of middle ground as long as you’re willing to find it. Everyone has their own definition of the term “expensive,” so find what works for you, what the publisher offers, and whenever possible, I highly recommend reading testimonials or looking up feedback concerning the particular company you’re interested in pursuing. If you find a publisher that sounds great and offers everything you’re looking for in a book distributor but the majority of the authors who have already done business with the place don’t have a single positive thing to say about it, that’s probably a sign you should move on and look elsewhere. An abundant amount of dissatisfied authors can’t be wrong.
Next, how many places do you actually want carrying your book for sale? Are you interested in catering to physical bookstores or would you be happy with sales coming exclusively from online? You’re also going to need to decide between paperback or hardback. Hardback editions are usually more expensive to produce and as such, the price tag on your book will go up. Some publishers offer the opportunity to have both for an additional fee, you’ll just need to try and determine what your readers would prefer. Personally, I decided to stick with paperback because it came standard with the publishing package I ordered through the place I chose to do business with, Outskirts Press, and since it didn’t cost them any more to produce what they already offered, I don’t have to charge my readers any more than is necessary to recoup the costs of the product itself.
An interesting part of the publishing world I had never given any thought to before I became an author is the royalties versus book availability model. Right before my book went into production and was sent to print, I found I was able to choose the percentage discount retailers received off the original price to better entice them to order it for their store and place it in front of their customers. The higher the discount offered to stores for purchasing copies of my work in bulk, the higher the likelihood they would order it. Chain bookstores like Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble, in addition to other retail chains ordering books for their inventory, usually receive a 55% trade discount from publishers so that they can mark-up the price and make a profit off of the title as well. Depending on the final price of one’s work, authors can make anywhere from small change to a couple of dollars per title sold once every other entity involved takes their due share.
Keep in mind however, that this model is only the traditional publishing profit margin and many authors who are traditionally published through the major players receive fairly large cash advances to make up for this. If pursuing chain stores is indeed your thing, you’ll need to make sure you purchase the Retail Returns Program. This lets retailers know that if for whatever reason someone purchases a copy of your book and needs to return it, they can do so without any hassle and it won’t cost the store that’s chosen to carry your book any additional fees to take it back. As a self-published author, I didn’t need to do this, but I chose to for the sole intention of having my work on par with and just as viable as everyone else’s. I could have easily chosen to skip the brick-and-mortar stores and put all of my focus into sales through Amazon and the like which would have given me a profit margin as high as 50%, but I wanted to see what kind of a draw my work would have in both the online and physical world. Would I self-publish a book using the traditional profit model again? Probably not, but I wouldn’t have known what I know now if I didn’t at least give it a shot.
Speaking of the physical world, while prepping your book for pre-production, you should take the digital world into account as well. Electronic reading devices like the Kindle, Nook, and now the iPad and iPhone are quickly setting the standards for the future. They’re convenient for both readers and publishers alike since it costs little to nothing to distribute a digital file from one machine to another, and readers enjoy the portability of carrying their favorite books with them and reading them anywhere. I myself have tapped into the market for the Kindle and Nook and strongly recommend other authors do the same. While the majority of those who purchase books still prefer holding a tangible object, myself included, the growing number of users for these devices is undeniable and definitely hard to ignore. The best part is that since production cost isn’t anywhere near as high as it is for physical books, new authors looking to get their name out there and start building their brand can offer their work for as low as $.99. I don’t know the figures for the Apple bookstore as I have yet to submit Population: One to them, but Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer a royalty rate of 35% if you price your work $2.98 or less, and 70% if you price it $2.99 or more. I chose the latter option for both devices.
Finally, make sure you have a plan to promote your book. This is where there are some pretty heavy pros and cons to chew on when it comes to choosing the self-publishing route. A traditional publisher invests hundreds of thousands of dollars on a project once they choose to acquire a manuscript and slap their logo on the book’s binding and as such, they’re going to make sure they do whatever they can to get it seen by the right people since their reputation is on the line. However, with all of the connections they have, the responsibility to get people excited about your work and let them know it exists still falls on you. In other words, the publisher will take care of the technical aspects, but you’re still expected to handle most of the marketing and promotion. Some people who are for traditional publishing all the way claim the professional expertise and level of experience mixed with the amount of resources authors receive should make choosing to go traditional a no-brainer. I beg to differ. While the kind of backing behind a book and the amount of extras a major publishing house brings to the table can’t be denied, if the author is responsible for the majority of the promotional ploys anyway, what’s the point? After they blow through the advance without anything of substance to show for it, they revert back to relying on royalty checks from those petty rates mentioned earlier; and that’s assuming the book’s sales surpass the initial retainer fee that the advance serves as. Wouldn’t an author rather have the full rights and royalties he or she is entitled to since promoting their work is up to them regardless?
When it comes to promoting a self-published work, today’s day and age gives authors a plethora of options to choose from. There are social media websites just waiting to help you tell the world about your book like Facebook and Twitter, video sites to create book trailers or even upload audio passages like YouTube and DailyMotion, and even companies that can customize t-shirts, book marks, bumper stickers, etc. with your book’s cover and website. But don’t stop there. Make sure to interact with your readers both through online accounts and in person. Call local bookstores in your area and see if they’d be interested in hosting an event where you discuss your book and sign copies for anyone who attends. Additionally, local radio stations are almost always looking for a good topic of discussion and calling them to try to schedule an interview for yourself is a great way to garner some extra publicity. I’m in the process of doing all of these things myself and I’d love to hear from other self-published authors who have tried similar promotional stunts to get an idea of what worked for them.
So those are some of my thoughts about self-publishing based on what I’ve experienced so far. Attempting to publish and distribute books on your own might have been considered a daunting or near impossible task several years ago, but with all of the technology available to assist independent artists whether their passion be writing, music, or film, it’s easier than ever to realize your dream. Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma associated with self-published authors since they don’t have as many filters to go through, but what kind of “filters” are we talking about exactly? Your work can’t be read and submitted to hundreds of people before being rejected because an agent may not believe it to be marketable or thinks it’s too risque? You aren’t giving away the money from your creativity to corporate suits who are afraid to take their chances on you unless you’ve written a story about vampires? Are these the type of “filters” people really want to make it through? The old business models in the industry are starting to show their age, and it’s time for a new generation to prove what the bigwigs refuse to believe: society yearns for newer, edgier content. A certain formula can only be used so many times before nobody cares about the answer anymore.