Writer Wednesday on Saturday! Welcome Winston Emerson!
How’s your November? Sweet, I hope.
Welcome today a recent LouisvilleKY.com guest, Kentucky author Winston Emerson with a Writer Wednesday guest post on Saturday.
Self-Publishing: They’re All Gonna Laugh at You?
The line in the title originates from Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, which went to DoubleDay for a $2,500 advance against royalties, an amount Mr. King was thrilled to receive, near the equivalent of his salary as a teacher. Carrie was released in 1974, ten years before I was born, back when many authors began building careers by writing and submitting short stories to literary publications and magazines. Francis Ford Coppola caught the tail end of this era with Zoetrope, an online writer’s workshop associated with a literary journal, where writers could potentially be published. Unfortunately, the demand for short fiction has shriveled up, leaving writers with no method of building publication credits and earning supplemental income.
Then along came social media and the ebook, hand in hand.
In August, blockbuster author Sue Grafton caused quite a stir when she gave this advice to aspiring authors in an interview for LouisvilleKY.com: “Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.”
My fellow self-published authors were furious. They felt demeaned and belittled. Of course they did. Self-publishing takes a lot of hard work, countless hours of writing, promoting, and studying the market. All Sue has to do is write a book, while we have to be writers, editors, publicists, site administrators, accountants, and secretaries all on our own. Turn the tables and Grafton would have responded the same way.
But face it, fellow indie writers, it’s not the personal opinion of a big-name author unaware of our market’s recent advances that sticks in your craw. Yes, Sue Grafton didn’t know about us. Most people don’t, and this is what her comment reminds us of. This is what stings.
You shouldn’t be angry at Sue Grafton for making an honest mistake. You should be happy to learn you’re being defended in a Forbes article. We’re breaking through left and right. Over 20 of us are currently sitting on Amazon’s Bestseller List. More and more of us are getting good, respectable contracts with major publishers. People are buying, reading, and loving our books without even knowing we’re self-published. They didn’t invite us through the front door so we snuck in the back, and the party rages on.
In other words, calm down, guys, and let’s continue doing what we’ve been doing all along: letting readers decide our value.
Readers, let me tell you a little about the self-publishing world. I may be able to alleviate some of your concerns and possibly dispel a rumor or two. In the end, you’re going to find that self-publishing and traditional publishing are two converging markets, and soon they’ll be so integrated with one another, this article will become the very definition of obsolete.
Personally, I can’t wait.
Self-Publishing: Then and Now
In the past, the term self-publishing walked right alongside phrases like “vanity press” and “scam artists.” And rightly so. Every writer and publisher who knows anything about the history of self-publishing is familiar with companies like Publish America who earn a profit by duping hopeful young writers into paying for a publishing contract and then selling those writers copies of their own books at ridiculous mark-up so they can in turn sell them at an even higher mark-up to their friends and family. These companies are print-on-demand services that use language to trick authors into thinking they’re getting a traditional publishing deal. A total scam, yes, but this is old news.
Self-publishing is different now. Sites like Createspace and Lulu offer the same print-on-demand service to writers, but the difference is you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars up front. You simply upload your book, purchase a proof copy at a fair author discount, approve it, and five to seven days later it appears in sales channels. No financial investment whatsoever, unless you want to pay a small fee ($25 to Createspace) for expanded distribution, which makes your book available at more retailers.
With ebook sales now trumping mass market paperback sales, authors have a new opportunity to earn income through digital publishing programs like Smashwords and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, both completely free to the author. If you want to go exclusive with Amazon through KDP Select, you have the advantage of giving your book away free for five days of the 90 day enrollment period. This might sound crazy to some, but Amazon’s algorithm is structured so that free downloads lead to paid sales later. In March of this year, I gave away 20,000 copies of my novel A Circle in the Woods over a two-day period and saw a significant sales boost the following month, earning me enough money to pay my rent and buy a used car.
A Real Writer?
Okay, so what? My book climbed to #293 on Amazon’s Bestseller List, but I’m not famous, I don’t own a mansion, and film agents aren’t cluttering up my inbox with movie deal offers. I’ve sold about 5,000 books in the past eight months. That’s not riches. It’s not even a living. I’m definitely not a real writer yet.
Well, if I’m not then most traditionally published authors aren’t either. There are very few Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings in the world and lots of authors with Big Six contracts and books collecting dust on a shelf, if they’re lucky enough to still be in a few bookstores. You just don’t hear about these authors because, well, their books aren’t selling. Even a lot of New York Times Bestsellers aren’t rich. Check out Lynn Viehl’s article “The Reality of a Times Bestseller” to get an idea of how much money authors who didn’t write Twilight really make.
Still, for writers, a traditional contract comes with a sense of accomplishment and validation. The experts high up in their New York towers have legitimized you. You’ve finally made it. Next stop is the history books.
Getting a contract doesn’t mean you’re going to get rich and famous. This is the point that seems to be lost on Sue Grafton, who backed up her statement about self-publishing with this: “Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception.”
But in the brilliant Forbes article that quotes Grafton, David Vinjamuri points out, “Just like A-list actors, writers like Grafton and Thor are superstars – the exception rather than the rule. But exceptions exist on both sides of the publishing divide these days.”
Talk to some mid-list authors and you’ll find the feeling of validation you’ll gain from a traditional contract dissolves quickly as you see your tiny advance against royalties disappear in mortgage payments and you realize your contract didn’t come with a marketing plan. That’s why so many mid-list authors are leaving their publishers and self-publishing their backlists. They actually gain readers. They actually make money. It’s amazing how much more visibility you have with Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords than when you’re cowering in the shadow of a Big Six contract like an entertainer kidnapped by a king, waiting in a dungeon to be brought to the throne and told to dance.
Forgive the romanticism. I have great sympathy for all the unknown writers out there right now who still believe querying agents and perfecting book proposals is the only method of getting your book on people’s nightstands and coffee tables across the world. If you have a manuscript you believe in and you can’t imagine spending your life doing anything else, I want to say to you I know the feeling deeply, and I urge you to take a more proactive approach to your potential career.
The water is warm, my friend.
The self-publishing world has become an open market where writers can slam their books down on the table and let readers, not publishers, decide what should succeed and what should fail. With websites like Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink, and The Kindle Book Review, readers can now browse titles from independent authors and small presses to find great books the world doesn’t know about yet. At the beginning of the year, an unknown writer from Texas named Colleen Hoover decided to self-publish her first novel, Slammed. With no publishing experience and no marketing plan, her book quickly became a Top Ten Amazon Bestseller, then a New York Times Bestseller. Soon she signed with Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. A few weeks ago, both Slammed and its sequel, Point of Retreat, were optioned for film.
How did this happen? Readers bought it, loved it, and recommended it to their friends. It’s that simple. Back in June, I interviewed Colleen Hoover on my blog, whatistheobject.com. Here’s what she had to say about how Slammed succeeded:
"When I first published Slammed, I used the free days from the KDP Select program and told everyone I knew about the book being free. Over a three day period Slammed was downloaded over 4,000 times for free. After the free period the first week, I had a few downloads a day for the first three months. What I think the kicker was for Slammed was word of mouth. I didn’t submit to bloggers, but readers would recommend my book to bloggers. In return, I noticed when a blogger would blog about the books, I would see an increase in sales.”
In a follow-up post at LouisvilleKY.com, Grafton clarified that she had spoken with the assumption that self-publishing was the same as it had been years ago. She went on to say, “When I’m asked for advice I warn many writers about the charlatans lurking out there. I warn about the risk of being taken in by those who promise more than they actually deliver and do so at a writer’s expense.”
Are there charlatans lurking in the self-publishing market? Of course there are. Lots of them. This always happens when a new market opens up. Innovators rush to take advantage of it, some ethically, some not so ethically. Publishing as a whole sits on unstable ground, and as the two markets merge, pitfalls will appear on both sides of the line.
Right now you’re seeing small independent presses popping up all over the place. Some of these are legitimate attempts by experienced professionals to get in on the ground floor of a growing market. Others have questionable motives and management.
In an interview for my blog last July, author J. Eric Laing expressed concern regarding his experience with Night Publishing, owned by Tim Roux, who recently closed the company and launched two others, Taylor Street and That Right:
"To say that the editing was poor would be kind. It was virtually non-existent. I went through the book again and cleaned it up before putting it back out myself. Emails often had to be repeated not twice, but three or four times to get a response. After my very positive Kirkus review, I asked and then pleaded with Tim to post it on the Amazon page. Nothing. It’s there now because I put [it] there when I put the book back out. And, lastly, and far and away most damning, I never received one word of my sales record and I have yet to see one thin penny of my royalties from my stint with Night." (It should be noted that following this interview, Mr. Laing was paid his earned royalties.)
I have no personal experience with Night Publishing, so I can’t attest to its legitimacy. However, Tim did start commenting on the interview, and I came to learn that he enrolls some of the books he publishes in Amazon’s KDP Select program. Later Tim offered me an article to publish entitled, “The Publishing Market”. In it, he said, “In terms of promotion, Kindle Select is your best bet by miles at the moment. It costs nothing and it can generate massive sales… . All other modes of promotion are much more suspect in terms of return on investment.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Amazon’s KDP Select program, it’s basically an agreement authors make with Amazon to publish the digital version of a book exclusively for the Kindle. In return, Amazon allows the author to make his or her book available free for up to five days. Authors submit their free books to sites like Ereader News Today and Pixel of Ink, gain thousands of downloads from the subscribers of those sites, and subsequently enjoy a nice surge in sales that can generate a respectable income. ENT and POI do not guarantee listings, but at least with ENT I’ve seen about a 50-75% rate of being picked up. This is something any author can do to make a little money. How much money you make depends on how well your book is received. If good reviews pour in, you’ll continue to sell books. If you rack up bad reviews, it’s time to think about revising.
However, there’s a potential problem with publishers utilizing this program. A free KDP Select promotion coupled with an Ereader News Today listing is a free and easy promotional technique any author can take advantage of. Well, not all authors know this, and it would be very easy for someone to form a publishing company, talk a couple dozen writers into signing a contract with a 50/50 royalty split, enroll their books in KDP Select, and, using only Ereader News Today listings, generate a substantial income for the publisher, while the author, unbeknownst, assumes these sales generate from real marketing while only receiving half the royalties he or she could have made independently.
I’m not saying this was how Night Publishing operated. All I’m saying is that Amazon’s KDP Select program does open the door for authors to be taken advantage of by unethical people who are ahead of the curve.
Part of my point with this article is to urge authors to research any company that puts a contract in front of you. In this day and age, you have to be wary of everyone, even traditional publishers.
Let me tell you a little story. In 2009, I joined an online writer’s community called Authonomy, founded by HarperCollins. Authors uploaded their manuscripts, read and reviewed others’ books, and “backed” their favorites by placing them on a virtual shelf with only five spaces. When someone “backs” your book on Authonomy, it starts accruing points every 24 hours. The points you earn determine your rank, and at the end of every month, the Top Five ranked books are given a gold medal and taken out of the ranks to be reviewed by a HarperCollins editor. All reviewed books are considered for publication.
Last year Authonomy launched its own digital imprint with the goal of publishing one book a month in digital format and taking the bestselling of these to print. They’ve released a few titles this way, but so far no print runs are pending.
This year Authonomy partnered with Authoright, the self-professed “leading provider of marketing and PR services for authors and publishers today.” Now Authonomy administrators are encouraging their members to self-publish and then maybe purchase an Authoright promotional package.
Suspicious yet? I am, and so are many other members.
I started to look into what Authoright had to offer and came across their Successes page, where they showcase some of the authors who have benefited from their services.
One such author is Anna Caltabiano, who purchased a Social Media Campaign and subsequently gained “200,000 followers on Twitter and 28,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook.”
I was blown away when I read that. It doesn’t matter what fee Authoright charged to gain Ms. Caltabiano 200,000 new fans. Whatever she paid had to be well worth it, right?
When I ventured a little deeper, I wasn’t so sure. I clicked on Anna’s Facebook page and found that her following of 28,000 had dropped to a little over 26,500. That’s a lot of new fans who quickly changed their minds about her book. I also noticed the lack of activity on her fan page. If you check out Colleen Hoover’s fan page, you’ll find she has a little over 7,000 likes, and every time she posts a status update, it gets hundreds of “likes” and dozens of comments. With 26,500 fans, Caltabiano only gets a comment or two per post.
The reason is because her “likers” aren’t fans who purchased her book and then sought out her page. You can go to Fiverr.com and pay about $30 to get that many unengaged, non-participating Facebook fans, and typically when you do, you start to lose fans at the rate Caltabiano’s page is losing them.
I’m not accusing Authoright of unethical behavior any more than I am Night Publishing. I can’t say that Authoright is charging money for a service that doesn’t lead to sales, and I can’t say that Night Publishing didn’t make authors more money than they would have independently. Again, I reiterate the point that you should never trust what any company tells you. A good publisher or marketing service will be more than happy to show you proof of its abilities. It will be upfront about the terms of any contract. It will communicate with you openly. It will be willing to negotiate. And it will reject you if your book is not ready.
Should Authors Self-Publish?
My vote is yes. As an aspiring author, you have two choices: a) play the querying game, get an agent, wait for the agent to sell the book, land a contract, wait eighteen months for the book to come out, and then wait another year to receive a royalty check, or b) self-publish and start gaining readers and making money while you play the querying game.
Which sounds more appealing?
The question isn’t whether or not you should self-publish. The question is with whom do you self-publish? Amazon or Smashwords? Exclusivity with Kindle and the power of their free promotions or distribution to multiple channels with Smashwords? Founder of Smashwords, Mark Coker, published an article a couple weeks ago entitled, “Amazon is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns”. Should I quote it? Nah, you get the drift.
Is he right?
This is where I run out of steam. I’m no John Locke or Amanda Hocking. I’m just a lowly author whose biggest claim to fame is buying a ‘97 Cadillac with his best royalty check to date. I can’t tell you the secret to self-publishing success. I will say the secret doesn’t lie in the choice between one self-publishing platform and another.
If there is a secret, it’s this:
You have to have a good book, and you have to come up with an innovative idea for how to gain the attention of readers. With all the publishing, promotional, and social media tools available, there is great potential for creative minds to take advantage of the state of publishing and break through to the bestseller list with no money, no clout, no connections, and no experience.
I believe I’ve figured out an effective method, but if I share it with everyone, and everyone begins to implement it, it will become ineffective. That’s why I’m not going to write a How I Got Rich book if I do succeed, like other authors I could mention. I only want to entertain you. I don’t want to rob you by selling you information I know to be defunct.
Others do, however. When you’re researching the market, don’t pay for advice. All the right information is freely available. You just have to look for it, study it, understand it, and put it into context. Then you have to take what you’ve learned and do something bold with it.
If you’ve written a book that you believe can captivate an audience, you should consider the following: new author advances have dropped to as little as $1,000 at major publishing houses. A decent book, self-published, can make that or more in its first month.
Colleen Hoover Offers Her Perspective
In my preparation for this article, I emailed New York Times bestselling author Colleen Hoover and asked her a few questions on the state of self-publishing. She was kind enough to share her uniquely valuable perspective, as a recent success story in this business. I thought I’d close with her responses to some of these questions, because I love what she has to say:
Winston: What are some common misconceptions about the self-publishing market?
Colleen: I think people that have been avid readers and writers for a while now still look at self-publishing as a form of vanity publishing. The concept years ago was that if your book wasn’t good enough to be published, then that’s when you resorted to self-publishing. The difference nowadays is that a writer makes a much greater percentage if they self publish, so more and more authors who could get traditionally published are going this route. So there are more and more quality works of fiction through self-publishing than there used to be.
Winston: In her interview with LouisvilleKY.com, Sue Grafton gave this advice to young writers: “Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.” In her subsequent clarification message posted on the same site the following week, she explained that she was unaware of the recent changes in the self-publishing world. Do you think the publishing industry as a whole still looks down on indie authors?
Colleen: I do, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s incredibly easy to put your work out there now, so a lot of people are doing it, even if the work isn’t any good. So many people who have bad experiences with one of these books that aren’t edited and aren’t given the effort needed, then it leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths. But with the increase in quality services like cover design and editors, the self-published authors who are using these things to ensure they put out a piece of quality work, are going to see a lot more success.
Winston: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share regarding self-publishing or the market as a whole?
Colleen: I had a writer at a signing a few weeks ago offer to pay me if I told her my “secret” to self-publishing success. I assured her that I didn’t have a secret, and she thought I was lying to her. I worked and I worked hard. I spend no less than 12 hours a day writing, marketing, blogging, doing interviews, etc. It’s hard work, but if you put forth the effort and you have a story that readers connect to, then you might get lucky. And I say lucky, because that’s what I feel is responsible for half of my success. I’ve had tremendous luck, I won’t deny that, but I also work tremendously hard.
I also love what I do, and I think I got into this industry with the best frame of mind. I wasn’t looking to make a single dollar off of the story I wrote … I was simply trying to give people something they would enjoy reading. So whatever you do, don’t do it for the money. Do it for your love of writing.
To learn more about Colleen Hoover, visit www.colleenhoover.com.
About the Author
Winston Emerson is the self-published author of A Circle in the Woods and The Object: Book One. He lives with his wife and dog in Kentucky. To learn more about Winston and his free serial novel, The Object, visit www.whatistheobject.com.