On Monday, Kensington Publishing Corp. CEO Steven Zacharius blogged over at Huffington Post about "Self-Publishing: The Myth and the Reality." Zacharius's post raised so many issues for me, I feel the need to respond. You may also like to read Bob Mayer's response on his blog here.
First, about me and self-publishing: I did not start out as a self-published author, which makes my need to respond all the more interesting. I shouldn't have a pony in this race, but, dude, when certain things happen in your industry, you have to speak out whether it's about you specifically or not. Despite the rather widespread belief that my book Hearts in Darkness was indie from the beginning, it was not. It was originally published by the small romance e-publisher, The Wild Rose Press. I have twelve books currently published - some with a NY publisher, some with a NY publisher's digital-first line, some with an up-and-coming boutique publisher, and one with an e-publisher. Since I received the rights back on my two Wild Rose Press titles, Hearts in Darkness and Forever Freed, I self-published both books earlier in 2013. This range of publishing experience makes me a "hybrid author," meaning I use a variety of publishing formats and distributors at the same time to reach readers.
About me and traditional publishing: I agree with a lot of the benefits and advantages that Zacharius attributed to working with publishers. My covers have been amazing, my editors have been wonderful to work with, I've had marketing support (to varying degrees), and have seen a few of my books in brick-and-mortars stores, in one case extensively. I've also had three titles hit the USA Today list and one the NY Times (none self-published). I am thrilled and fortunate to be working with my publishers.
My response to Mr. Zacharius:
1) Starting out with a discussion of vanity publishing in a discussion of self-publishing automatically colors the conversation in a negative light. Most of the self-published authors that I know - and it's not a small number - are businesswomen selling good to great numbers of books. To compare all self-publishing to vanity publishing reveals a lot about what Zacharius thinks of self-publishing. I find this to be a shame since hybrid authors like myself are more and more common, and are also working with New York, so why the need to denigrate such authors right out of the box?
2) Zacharius says, "Today, self-publishing has become a billion-dollar juggernaut. But don't quit your day job. Yet." Most self-published authors I know do not assume they will be wealthy enough from their work to quit their day jobs, so the condescension in this comment is kinda stunning. However, I do in fact know more than a few self-published authors who make a comfortable living from self-publishing alone. Whether authors do so or self-publish on the side of another job, this comment paints self-published authors as pie-in-the-sky dreamers rather than the business people I know most of them to be.
3) FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY, CAN PEOPLE STOP SAYING THAT E.L. JAMES SELF-PUBLISHED???? The Writers' Coffee Shop, a small e-publisher, was the publisher of the Fifty Shades books before they sold to Random House. Why those in the media and apparently in the industry too can't get this basic fact straight - one which James points out on her own website - I'll never understand.
4) Zacharius's statement that there have been a "handful of success stories" is misleading. Are the super success stories common? No. Are they as rare as he characterizes? No. He managed to come up with four people: E.L. James (NOT SELF-PUBLISHED, as we've already established), Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, and Bella Andre. Um. Marie Force, Barbara Freethy, Courtney Milan, Hugh Howie, Eliza Knight, Rebecca York, Carrie Ann Ryan, Ann Mayburn, Tammara Webber, Jamie McGuire, Jay Crownover, J. Lynn, Abbi Glines, Colleen Hoover, Samantha Towle, Monica Murphy, Molly McAdams, Cora Carmack, Mimi Jean Pamfiloff, Lara Adrian, Laura Wright, Alexandra Ivy, Cynthia Eden, Jodi Ellen Malpas, Michelle Valentine, Kristen Ashley, Katie Ashley, Amy Bartol, Nicole Williams, M. Leighton, Georgia Cates, Gail McHugh, C.J. Roberts, Skye Warren, J.A. Redmerski, Jessica Sorensen, Madeline Sheehan, R.K. Lilley, Raine Miller, Kitty French, K. Bromberg, S.C. Stephens, Alethea Romig, Samantha Young, K.A. Linde, J.C. Reed, Kristen Proby. Anyone else getting tired of this laundry list of names? Actually, I'm not. I think it's more than a little awesome. [edited to add: see a great deal many more listed in the comments, some of whom are sharing sales and income figures]
These authors are mostly in the romance/erotic romance/New Adult/erotica genres. True. Many of these authors were discovered in part through the use of the .99 price point. True. But just as true: many of them have the titles New York Times or USA Today bestselling author in front of their name, and many of them - not a handful - were picked up by New York publishers. In these cases, the use of the .99 price point to achieve discoverability - by readers and agents/editors - can make business sense for authors.
5) Hitting the lists as an indie is nowhere near as rare as Zacharius makes it sound. As I write, 18 of Amazon's Top 100 Bestselling ebooks are self-published - not a majority, but not a "handful" of success, either. Let's also look at the number of self-published books hitting the USA Today list (these numbers don't count previously self-published authors who have now been picked up by New York and have books hitting lists):
12/12/13 - 2/150 (2/114 fiction titles; 36/150 were non-fiction)
12/5/13 - 8/150 (8/112 fiction titles; 38 were non-fiction)
11/28/13 - 11/150 (11/110 fiction titles; 40 were non-fiction)
11/21/13 - 9/150 (9/116 fiction titles; 34 were non-fiction)
11/14/13 - 11/150 (11/122 fiction titles; 28 were non-fiction)
11/7/13 - 9/150 (9/124 fiction titles; 26 were non-fiction)
10/31/13 - 13/150 (13/117 fiction titles; 33 were non-fiction)
10/24/13 - 9/150 (9/122 fiction titles; 28 were non-fiction)
It may not be a large percentage, but it's more than a handful and it's consistent. And, I expect if we go back into 2012 before a lot of the indie authors got picked up by Atria and Grand Central and Simon and Schuster, etc., the number week-to-week would be even higher.
6) Zacharius says, "Authors spend $1000 or more on these services (editing, design, and marketing). You can also just elect to put your title up on Kindle, iBooks, and Nook." Then he goes on to say some gobbledygook about how some self-published books are good but others aren't. (Just like, you know, some traditionally published books are good and some aren't. I found two copyediting mistakes in the first two pages of one of my favorite author's NY-published books.) Anyway. Most of the self-published authors pursuing publication of their books as a business are paying for professional editing, formatting, and cover art. So, yes, they're laying out money up front. But remember that those "low" royalty rates he cites are only true on ebooks priced below 2.99 (where you get 35% of cover on Amazon; 40% of cover on B&N).
Many authors are also pricing books in the sweet spot (as identified by Smashwords's Mark Coker) between 2.99 and 5.99 (see also Dear Author's useful analysis of price points). And you know what they get then? 70% of cover on Amazon and 65% of cover on B&N. Dude. That means I'm making $2.09 on every copy of Hearts in Darkness ($2.99) I sell, for example. When the book was with TWRP, at 35% of net - still higher than what New York publishers pay (typically, 25% of net), I made about 76 cents a book. So, yes, self-published authors must lay out costs up front that a publisher would pay, but the trade-off is higher royalties. And that's just considering the financial, not the control of cover, format, release date, promotions, etc.
For each book or series, authors need to run a cost-benefit analysis, decide what their goals are for the books, and choose the best publishing route for them. Sometimes that might be working with a traditional publisher, sometimes that might be working with a digital publisher, and sometimes that might be self-publishing. All are valid and play a useful role in today's market.
Traditional, e-, and self-publishing can and do compliment one another on an author's list. There are readers who will always want print, and readers who will always prefer digital, and some willing to read both. So the most savvy authors and publishers will cater to the totality of available readership. It doesn't have to be an adversarial relationship, not from the author's point of view, anyway. And, fortunately, not from the point of view of the publishers I'm most regularly working with right now.
7) On the side of the advantages of being with a publisher, Zacharius says, "Once the book is ready to go, the publisher gets behind it with marketing and publicity efforts, and has already given the book the best cover and cover copy that money can buy." There's definite truth in this. But he says it as if it's totally unproblematic. The truth is, of course, that publishers don't do this evenly for all authors. Some books and some authors are marketed more enthusiastically than others. And some covers receive every special treatment there is, and some get font slapped on a stockphoto image (and can still be good, but they're not the best money can buy, for sure). All of this is just business, and I get it. But not all authors get the top-shelf treatment Zacharius lays out as "reality", no matter how much the ideal might be otherwise. Self-published authors know going in that marketing is all their job, so they're not disappointed when their publisher doesn't do it for them. And traditionally published authors still do a ton of their own marketing and promotion. More than that, NY publishers expect it.
8) Then there's his whole publishers can't compete paragraph - the 7th - that starts with, "As a publisher, my biggest concern is the clutter of the books being put out by the major publishing houses along with those that are just put up directly by authors," and ends with, "Free or reduced price books is not a viable business model for publishers." These it's not fair! concerns lead him to the stunning suggestion that, "In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B&N.com for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites." DUDE. He thinks this will help readers distinguish the "good" books from the "clutter," but if readers are showing some preference for lower-priced books now, what does he think would happen if all the lower-priced books were on one website, and all the higher-priced books on another? I suspect the answer to that question is not one New York really wants. Because, Zacharius is right, "Readers don't purchase books based on who the publisher is and don't necessarily care." They just want a good story, and if that comes at a lower price point, all the better.
Also, it's worth noting that NY could lower prices somewhat (and they are), even if they went nowhere near that 99-cent price point. The end of agency pricing opens up opportunities, and a recent blog/article argued that the more competitive NY publishers can become on price in the coming year or two, the more pressure it will put on self-published authors [thanks for that link, Eliza Knight]. So the landscape is shifting, changing, ever in motion - that is the challenge of the past few years, and the lesson is adaptability in the face of that change. Those who can adapt - traditional and self-publishers alike - will succeed. Those who can't, won't. Or it'll be harder at the very least.
9) Then there's this bit of half-truth analysis: "several self-pubbed authors have been snatched up by the big houses. It remains to be seen how they perform, when the publisher then has to pay out a six-figure advance and raise the price of the book. So far those that have made the leap to traditional publishing have not proven to be very profitable ventures." I've already dispensed with the "several" assertion, so I won't address that again. As to the latter assertions, there's more at work here than just the author's viability - which seems to Zacharius to be the determining factor to the success of those books. It's all the author's fault, natch. How about a situation where a publisher buys a bestselling ebook after 100K copies have sold, and then they raise the price and hope it will still do well. Or the case where a publisher prints the paperback of a bestselling self-published ebook six months after it was digitally released and after 300K people have read the ebook - what are the chances that paperback will see a resurgence? Those would be challenging situations for any author to be successful in. And the reality is, a lot of those self-published bestsellers that NY is offering six-figure advances to bring in-house? Yeah, they'd been rejected by NY publishers again and again. Had they been more open to those books in the first place, they'd have gotten them a lot cheaper to begin with. I can think of more than one case where this scenario is true. All the more power to the author for taking the risk herself and being successful.
10) Zacharius's repeated use of "six-figure advances" and "million-dollar contracts" creates a limited definition of success. Most of us can make a comfortable living on less than those amounts. If you can, congratulations, you're successful. Most traditionally published authors are not making those kinds of advances or that level of annual income. Define monetary success by what works for you and your career and your family.
And, finally, because I'm so riled up this turned into a long-ass post and I've got bronchitis and damnit I wanted to veg on the couch and read Shelly Thacker's self-published backlist title Forever His that I bought today (along with the other two books in the series) rather than sit here and be riled up and research all these, you know, bothersome facts, on which to base my arguments. I digress.
So, 11) finally, Zacharius ends with this: "Aspiring authors just need a dose of reality." Hey, I'm all for knowing the realities of the business in which you're engaged. That's just common sense and business savvy. But make sure the dose of reality you're choking down is based on a variety of perspectives and actual hard data. I'm afraid that wasn't what I saw from Mr. Zacharius at all. Instead, he lays out a landscape of either/ors and us/thems. Which is a shame because we're all in the same business of providing great content to readers, right? Why don't we see how we can work together to expand readership and get more books into readers' hands?
Did you make it to the end with me? LOL I'll be impressed if you did. *winks* What do you think???
Thanks for reading,