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2011 Replay: What the Dream Looks Like or, Why This Self-Publisher is Still Pursuing Trad Publication

1 Dec

Between now and the end of the year I’m going to be using Tuesdays and Thursdays to replay some popular posts from 2011, in case some of the people who’ve discovered my blog in the meantime missed it first time round. Think of it as a “year in review” kind of thing. This post was first published last March. I’d just decided to turn my self-publishing from an isolated experiment into a permanent sideline, but was getting annoyed by the “I Can’t Afford to Get Traditionally Published Even Though No One Has Asked To Publish Me” brigade who seemed to spend their blog posts comparing money that doesn’t exist with other money that doesn’t exist, and making getting published sound like a fate worse than death. Seven months later, nothing’s changed on that front, although I did self-publish Backpacked and Results Not Typical since. But what’s my number 1 goal for 2012? The same as it’s been for the last ten years: get published.

In Friday’s post, Self-Printing: My Biggest Mistake, I talked about how I was trying to shift my thinking away from self-publishing non-fiction as something to do while I pursue a traditional book deal, and towards self-publishing being a parallel to a traditional book deal and one that could, in the future, be profitable enough to ensure that I could be a full-time writer regardless of whether or not someone else ever gives me that magic deal. I figured out, for instance, that if I were to double my current e-book sales, i.e. release another book that sells just as well, and either maintain or increase those sales, I could be making 50% more a month than the wage I was making working 9-5.

Which begs the question: why I am still pursuing traditional publication at all? Why don’t I just go with self-publishing? Why don’t I release the novel I’ve already written as an e-book, this afternoon, and start earning money from it instead of leaving it in a drawer (or my computer, to be specific) and waiting for someone else to publish it? Why don’t I forget about traditional publishing?

The arguments for doing that go something like this:

  • Going by average advances and the standard cut of 10% of the list price, I could make more money releasing it as an e-book and keeping up to 70% of the profits for myself
  • I could make more money in the long run, because if I do it myself my book will always be in print or at least always available as an e-book
  • If I do it myself, it can happen now and so I can start earning money now. No waiting a year or two for the book to come out, or spending years of my life submitting to agents and publishers and waiting to hear back from them.

The common denominator in all those is money. Now while I like money as much the next person, that’s not what this is about – or all about, anyway – for me. And so I still want to get “properly” published because that’s what my dream looks like.

I have spent more than a decade daydreaming about being a published author. In those daydreams, there is the excitement of being offered and then signing a book deal. I have the input of an editor who has a vested interest in the success of my book, an editor who says that in her professional opinion, my book is good enough. I get to work with a publishing house, staffed with people whose job it is to edit, design and sell books. In the meantime, I get a phone call to say my book has been sold abroad, and is going to be translated into other languages. I have a beautiful, physical book – one that looks and feels like all the other books, and has both my name and the logo of a major publishing house on the spine. I have a publicist who knows newspaper editors well enough to be able to get my book reviewed, or a story about me written. And when people read that story or hear me on the radio, they can walk into almost any bookshop and find my book on the shelf. I have achieved a lifelong dream.

Self-publishing – even if you work with an editor, produce a beautiful book, hire a publicist, find a distributor to take on your book so it can be in stores and get nothing but rave reviews – is not the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It’s great and it’s an achievement and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I haven’t ticked a dream off my list with it. And I know there will be traditionally published authors reading this whose experience of getting a book published will not be anything like the one described above (which would be the ideal) and they’ll tell me things like, “Stick with self-publishing – getting traditionally published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” I don’t care; I want to discover whether or not that’s the case for myself. I want to be traditionally published because that is my dream. My self-publishing success is irrelevant. I could sell 1,000,000 e-books and it still wouldn’t even begin to compare. It certainly wouldn’t “do.”

And the self-publishing evangelists may start to sharpen their stakes upon hearing this, but traditional publishing done right is done better. If I leave illustrated children’s books out of the equation, I can honestly say I have never seen a self-published book that looks as good or better than a “properly” published one, my own included. It is possible to make one? Surely. Hopefully. But does the average or even above average self-publisher have the time, knowledge and resources to do it? No. Not even close. Even Amanda Hocking (who I like a little bit more every time I read one of her down to earth, tell it like it is blog posts) has admitted that the time it takes just to produce her books is staggering, and that even after going through them with editors time and time again, she still finds errors in the finished product. It takes a village – or the staff of a publishing house – to produce a perfect or almost perfect book, and I’m just one person. And I want to write.

But while marketing and promotion isn’t as much fun for me as writing the book in the first place, I still really enjoy it. I love blogging, tweeting and Facebooking and I don’t even mind talking on the radio or to rooms full of people. (Once it’s over and done with, anyway!) I have managed, after all, to sell a few thousand copies of a book that has a perceived super-niche readership and isn’t available in bookstores. What could I do if it was a mainstream, commercial book, and it was available in bookstores? And not just here in Ireland, but wherever you live as well. What could I manage to do then? And so that’s another reason I’m still chasing traditional publication: because I would love to be let loose promoting a book of mine that was widely available. That would be the ultimate challenge. And I love me a (non-physical type of!) challenge.

Finally, it’s not all about money but it is about money a little bit; I want to do nothing else but write or do writing-related things, and in order for that to happen the writing I do has to earn me some money. And while it’s easy to get carried away with the figures in the headlines, self-publishing is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not even a get slightly less poor slowly scheme. There are no guarantees. For every mega-selling e-book author, there are probably hundreds if not thousands if not millions of e-book authors who can count their sales to date on the fingers of one hand. They mightn’t even need all of them to do it.

I read about a couple of guys recently who released an e-book, as an experiment, to see if they could sell a million copies of it in six months. They did everything right, but they only sold a 1,000, because the most important factor in publishing success – be it e-book, print, self or traditionally published – is luck. And so you can’t say things like “By spending the next six months submitting my novel to agents, I’m losing money” or “By signing this publishing deal that will release my debut novel in 2013, I’m missing out on up to two years of earnings I would make if I self-published it” because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Money that doesn’t yet exist can’t be counted and money that does exist, however small the amount, is worth more than theoretical earnings.

Now I’m about to really over-simplify things but let’s say a traditional publishing house knock on my door and offer me €5,000 as an advance on a two-book deal. The first book won’t be published for a year, the second book will be published the year after that and I’ll earn 10% off its list price of €10.99. I’ll have sold 4,000 copies of Mousetrapped in a year so for the sake of argument let’s say I sell the same amount of these books, so that’s 4,000 sales in the first year and 8,000 in the second, because there’s two books. Because I have to wait a year to publish it, there’s no earnings in the first twelve months. An agent brokers the deal so all earnings are minus 15%. That means that in the next three years, I’d earn somewhere in the region of €11,118 from that deal.

If I released the first book right now as a $2.99 e-book (70% royalty), and then the second book as soon as it’s written in six month’s time, and they sold in the same amounts (4,000 each a year), I’d make €32,911 in the same period. (See calculations below for specifics.) And yet I would take the traditional deal because I’d be getting a €5,000 advance on those earnings, and there is no guarantee that I’ll ever sell a single copy of either book no matter what route I take. And money that exists is better than money that doesn’t.

BUT.

(You knew there was going to be a but, right?)

I’m not an idiot, and I’m not going to keep submitting forever. I have one novel written, a third of another and a basic synopsis and two chapters of another one after that. The first novel has been relegated, for the time being, to The Drawer, as its feedback was (Mousetrapped flashback) along the lines of, It’s funny and well-written, but I don’t think it’s suitable for the market here or worse again,  I love it but I don’t love it enough. (I know, I know – it could be so much worse.) And I can’t self-publish it for a variety of reasons but mainly because it’s tied, thematically, to the other two and while I’m trying to get my fiction published, I think it’s safer to stick with just non-fiction for my DIY publishing adventures. The second one has had some interest but I haven’t been offered a dotted line to sign on. (Yet - I hope.) And a girl can only take so much rejection, so I’m not going to let this go on forever more. There will come a point where I will stop this and self-publish the first novel, see how it goes. This time is not anytime soon, and in the meantime I have two non-fiction projects which will be getting the Mousetrapped treatment this side of Christmas. But if I can’t find a traditionally published home for those books, which while connected are not a series, I will self-publish them.

Hopefully they’ll sell, and I’ll start to earn some serious money. (And bribe someone for a US visa and move to Celebration, while I’m at it.) But do you know what I’d do then? Write a new novel about something totally different.

And try to get that traditionally published, but that has always been and always will be The Dream.

Click here to read more about Mousetrapped.

Calculations:

Traditional deal: earning 10% off €10.99, or €1.09 per book. 1st  year: no sales. 2nd year: 4,000 x 1.09 = €4,360. 3rd year: 8,000 (2 books each selling 4k) x 1.09 = €8,720. Combine all 3 years (€13,080) – 15% agent’s fee (€1,982) = €11,098. (The advance is just that – an advance – and so is not added but included.)

Self-published e-books: earning 70% off $2.99, or $2.09 per book. 1st year: 4,000 sales of book 1 and 2,000 sales of book 2 (released six months from now) = (4,000 x 2.09) + (2,000 x 2.09) = $12,540. 2nd year: 8,000 sales (2 books each selling 4k) x 2.09 = $16,720. 3rd year: 8,000 sales (2 books each selling 4k) x 2.09 = $16,720. Combine all 3 years ($45,980) and convert to euro where 1 EUR = 1.39709 USD = €32,911.37.

These calculators do not factor in tax or self-publishing costs such as cover design.

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