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Friday, November 4, 2011

The Truth About Publishing – 15

Lesson 14: Putting your money where your manuscript is

Despite what the hucksters say, it’s better for a publisher to publish your novel than for you to do it yourself. Why? Because publishers have a vast knowledge of the market and what it takes to succeed in it. You don’t, and this knowledge of book editing, cover design, placement and marketing for any particular niche of the fiction market isn’t easily or cheaply acquired. Yes, you can buy these services, but how do you know you’re getting something worthwhile. More critically, how do you know it’s going to be right for your particular book?

Several new authors have achieved fame and fortune in recent years by publishing their own novels and promoting them relentlessly. Now it’s widely believed that this is the best option for all authors – a 70% royalty on Amazon and iBookstore is far better than the 10% royalty on a printed book, or 25% on a publisher’s eBook, isn’t it?

That depends on how many books you can sell by your own efforts. The authors who have succeeded spend a lot more time promoting their books than they do writing them – they’re professional promoters who write books rather than professional authors who are good at promoting. If you’re a professional promoter, maybe you can succeed too. But if you just want to write great books, and looking on promoting as a painful chore, you’re better off with a publisher.

One exception – if you’re a published writer with a backlist and a strong writer’s platform (e.g. popular blog, website, Facebook page, identity as an expert or public speaker, etc). If you can no longer get your books published with a traditional publisher, publish them yourself and you might do well. But it’s getting harder.

Explosion of EBooks
The barriers to self-publishing both print books and eBooks have fallen dramatically over the past decade. Has this made it easier to succeed? Not on your life. It’s made it much, much more difficult. Why?

Because the size of the book market (the number of books sold a year) hasn’t changed significantly, but the number of new titles published has exploded – in the US from 215,000 in 2002 to 2.7 million in 2010.

Average Sales Falling Every Year
Most of those titles are self-published eBooks, and probably only sell a handful of copies, but since there’s millions of them, they’re taking a sizeable slice of the pie. Every year it becomes harder to make your book stand out.

And it gets worse. Books used to go out of print when they stopped selling, but many eBooks stay in print forever. Every year it gets harder for you to sell the number of books you sold last year, and since the price of books isn’t going up, but your cost of living is, if you can’t sell more you’re going to be worse off.

Of course, most of those titles aren't fiction. Matt Wilkens estimates that there were about 100,000 unique, novel-length fiction titles published worldwide in English in 2007. With the ease of self-publishing eBooks that number has probably risen greatly in the past few years, though currently no one seems to know what the true number of fiction titles is.

If you can’t get a traditional publisher, and you’re really sure you’ve written a good book, you can publish it yourself.

Print Self-Publishing
This isn’t easy, and it definitely isn’t cheap, but if you’ve got months to spare and $10,000 lying around with nothing to spend it on, you could consider self-publishing a printed book. Several of Australia’s best selling novelists began that way, and many other writers have in other countries. There are many options, Lulu being one of the biggest.

But the vast majority of self-publishers do their dough, so if you are going to do it, do it right, and get the right advice. Otherwise, you might as well tear your money up and flush it down the toilet. You must employ a professional editor, a professional cover designer and have the book typeset. This will cost you several thousand dollars, or more if your book is long and requires a lot of editing. Printing will cost you several thousand more dollars, or even more if it’s long or you have a lot of copies printed. For instance, 500 copies of a 400 page paperback at Lulu will cost $US 4,375, i.e. $8.75 each. Shipping will be extra. But paperbacks sell on Amazon for less than that price, so you’re already uncompetitive.

Don’t print more than 500. The biggest problem of all is distribution, which is why publishers have invested millions in it. It takes the most monumental effort for an individual to sell more than 300 - 400 copies, even if you get some good publicity and a few bookshops stock your books. Print too many and they’ll still be rotting in your garage in a decade.

Print On Demand
Margaret has pointed out, in the comments, that it may be cheaper to use a print on demand publisher. Here are some recent articles:,

EBook Self-Publishing
Publishing an eBook solves both the printing and distribution problems, but you still have to spend the money on editing and cover design. The following article tells you how to do it, and what you get.

And you still have to promote it, but that’s another article – or ten. To get you started, you can download this free marketing eBook from Smashwords: You’ll also find lots of useful advice and guides here:
Being a published writer is a great and perilous adventure. Good luck!

Next, in PART 2 of this series, I'll be talking about Surviving Publication.

Disagree with what I've said? Or would like more information? Please post a comment.

4 comments: said...

Ian, I find your figures on self publishing a bit off my own experience. You did not describe the option of Print on Demand. This greatly reduces the outlay. As an example, a novel published in paperback through Trafford cost me around $2000, including 30 free copies. Selling, as you say, is truly hard work. By onselling the book to a large print firm I received $1600; profit from sales I made myself meant I probably broke even. Today's options through createspace mean publishing one's book is much cheaper again. I would gladly go with a decent publisher but sometimes self publishing is the only choice in today's difficult market, especially as I don't fit a genre niche.

Ian Irvine said...

Thanks, Margaret. Yes, there are all kinds of options, and they're changing all the time. It makes it all the more important to do your homework and find out what the situation is when you're ready.

Ian Irvine said...

This comment, by Rosanne, hasn't gone in for some unknown reason, so I'm posting it.

There are painters of all kinds - those who exhibit with the big galleries, those who sell to their local gift shops, and those who cover their and their friends' walls with brilliant paintings.

The same can be said for writers. It would be ridiculous for a hobbyist to emulate the production and marketing strategies of the big publishers.

The word 'publishing' has multiple meanings and is widely misused. Putting stuff on a blog is publishing, and so is a contract with Random House - and lots of other ways and methods in between. Publishing is easier than it's ever been - selling is harder than ever before.

For some authors, it's definitely NOT the best way to seek a contract with a big publisher. For others, it might be the only way to go. The best way for one of the several million new authors, the best way is probably to seek an audience or fan base of whatever size before even thinking of submitting a manuscript to a Big Six publisher. Independent publishing - which is very easy and very close to being free with Kindle and Createspace - is the reasonable alternative for those whose understanding of 'publishing' is slim. It might even work to a certain extent... we all must figure out our extents, and how logical and practical and feasible they are.

I have two (soon to be three) novels with the largest small publisher in the world, and am unagented. I have published my entire backlist, and more , on my own, which has cost next to nothing. It took no time at all to break even on money... time is another matter, but it's so enjoyable I'd do this for nothing.

I make a reasonable living helping others to edit, format and publish their own work, and most clients enjoy a realistic level of realizing dreams without inflating their expectations.

The truth about publishing is manifold - there are as many truths as there are writers, markets, readers and platforms. It's possible to move from one to another, and back - it's much, much less rigid or subject to pressure from above than it has ever been.

The possibilities are much wider than your article suggests, so I hope you will proceed with another, because it's well done and informative - so tell us more.

Posted by Rosanne Dingli to Ian Irvine on The Business of Writing at November 7, 2011 2:05 PM

Ian Irvine said...

Thanks for that very useful comment, Rosanne. I must admit, as a professional novelist, I tend to see publishing from that viewpoint. But in fact there are all kinds of reasons why someone wants to be published, and many ways to do it.