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Self-Publishing Takeaway Game!

“My royalty cheque from (insert Traditional Publisher Name) was only $X00! Why, if I’d self-published, it would have been $X000 for the same number of books sold! Clearly, self-publishing is better!”

I hear this frequently, and it always irks the bejesus out of me. What annoys me is not the assumption that self-publishing is better. For some writers and some books (Chuck Wendig’s and Laura Anne Gilman‘s writing advice books spring to mind) it IS the best path. And it is awesome. No, that’s not why, when I hear any of the hundred versions of this hoary chestnut, I immediately start taking EVERYTHING the speaker says 300% less seriously.

Take the number of books sold on that royalty statement. Now we’re going to play a game of takeaway!

* Take away the sales to people turned off by a low-cost self-pubbed cover. Even the worst of Big Six covers is preferable to a Poser monstrosity.
* Take away the sales to people buying in stores serviced by the distribution companies the trad publisher has good agreements with. Consider the ease of returns and the likelihood of a buyer taking a chance on a book from the known quantity of a trad publisher vs., let’s say, Greenlight or nonreturnable items from a POD (or God forbid, a vanity) press.
* Take away sales to people who have been priced out on, say, a $20 trade paperback of middling quality from a self-pubber using a POD press. Now, you could say, “But I’ll price my book at $.99!” Great. You get a slice of a miniscule price from miniscule sales.
* Take away sales to people who are turned off by indifferent editing/copyediting. Oh, but you’ll pay to have that done? News flash, cupcake: that’s an out-of-pocket expense you need to balance against that royalty check. Either way, that $X000 takes a huge hit.
* Take away the sales the trad publisher gained through marketing/publicity of any type. Now, rare and fortunate is the author whose publisher gets them all sorts of good, high-cost publicity. Most authors get bundled together in catalogs and on lists, but guess what? Those catalogs and lists are invisible publicity that ups the chance of your book being on the shelf somewhere people can see it. Self-pubbing doesn’t have the “invisible” publicity a lot of readers don’t see but feel the effects of, which then reflects on the royalty statement.

These are just five things wrong with a one-to-one comparison. There are at least fifty on my list. (We could be here all fucking day, but I don’t have the patience.) Most of the time, when I bring one or more of them up, the response is a blank stare shading into immediate hostility. (It could be that I lack patience the umpteenth million time I hear this shit spouted, granted.) Self-publishing is not a replacement for trad publishing. It’s a different tool.

“My book is awesome but I can’t get an acceptance from an agent or publisher!” Well, look at why. Do you have a problem with following submissions guidelines? Is your craft–grammar, punctuation, etc.–spotty? Is your book impossibly niche–like, say the vampiric flatworms that live only in the urethras of one tribe of the Antarctic Red-Jacketed Tundra Sparrow? (If so, drop me an email, there’s an academic press that might be interested.) Have you not polished your query letter since you first submitted *mumblemumble* years ago? Writing well requires a time investment, are you investing? Are you using the hard sell and stinking of desperation? Are you just not targeting your queries or networking attempts at people who might be interested? Have you revised your finished work and figured out where it would be shelved in a bookstore (its genre, if you will,) and hence, who in the industry might handle it to bring it to market? Do you know who the publishers and editors in your chosen genre(s) are? If you can’t answer those questions, well, your chances of acceptance are not maximized as well as they could be. Knowing this shit gives you an edge, both in trad and in self-publishing.

I’m going to reiterate, because I can just tell there are going to be a lot of comments on the “But you get a bigger percentage with self-pub, you elitist gatekeeper, you!” I LIKE SELF-PUBLISHING. It’s a good choice for some writers. It is a great choice for other writers. The problem is, it’s a kumquat and trad publishing is a tomato. They are both fruits, yes. But they are not the same thing, and they don’t behave the same way when you cook them. You will not get the same results, and comparing them inappropriately will only bring you grief. A bigger percentage of a tiny number is…still a tiny number. Self-publishing is not the get-rich-or-famous scheme a lot of people unconsciously think it is. And that “bigger percentage” has to be balanced against the sales you can reasonably expect AND the out-of-pocket initial outlay you’re going to spend. Less outlay, less professionalism, less sales; more outlay, more professionalism, bigger sales but a bigger debit in your ledger to begin with, too.

Speaking of not getting the same results, let’s please skip the “But so-and-so was a HYOOOGE SELF-PUBLISHING SUCCESS!” That’s great, and I’m happy for them. But those successes should come with that same disclaimer you see in the fine print of infomercials: Results not typical. There’s the self-pubber who had a huge web presence and parlayed that into profitable self-publishing. There’s the odd raw talent who was lucky and marketing savvy and could spend tons of time growing their “overnight success.” There’s the Big Names In Trad Publishing who use that name recognition and their financial gains from said recognition to springboard self-pub projects–and that’s another thing, a professional writer with connections to editing and experience with the publishing process and what makes a quality project is NOT going to have “typical” results. They have experience they have invested in it, and it shows. Results. Not. Typical. Okay?

Muddy, uncritical thinking is not your friend when it comes to writing or business, or the business of writing and publishing. And, frankly, these are the kinds of discussions and numbers I’d love to see more of when it comes to talking about self-pub, instead of the usual round of Internet hateration and shaking pitchforks at mythical “gatekeepers”.

Speaking of hateration on the Net, tune in next time for my reprise on the hidden costs of ebooks. I did a series of tweets yesterday on the subject and have been convinced that I should put them in a blog post for ease of reading.

See, occasionally I can be bribed. Or swayed.

Over and out.

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