Thursday, September 4, 2014

So you want to self-publish...

So you want to publish your own book? That’s good news. Sort of. Why only sort of? Because it’s never been easier to do so. That’s the 'good news' part. The 'sort of' part is because it’s never been easier for you, it’s also the same for every other aspiring author out there. As we learned in the previous post, last year there were as many self-published titles as there were traditionally published titles. About 400,000 for each. Also consider that according to a recent survey it was estimated that 75% of self-published authors make less than $500 for their efforts. And yet, the number of self-published authors continues to rise. Up almost 60% between 2011 and 2012 and up 422% from 2007 (when the Amazon Kindle first appeared).

But why be discouraged. After all, E.L. James, known for the 50 Shades of Grey 'mommy porn' trilogy, started out as self-published author of eBooks. Last year she topped the revenue charts with $95 million, making her the world's most successful author. And she didn’t even try her hand at writing until 2009. There’s also Amanda Hocking, from smalltown Minnesota, who tried for years to get her work published and had all but given up. Without much faith at all she decided to take a what-the-hell approach and self-publish an eBook back in 2010. Since that time she has sold several million copies and banked over 3 million dollars. And for Exhibit C we have Bella Andre, who, after years with major publishers --  Hachette, Random House, Simon & Schuster --  decided to try doing things on her own and self-publish. Using tools like search engine optimization and test marketing covers and themes, she's been able to sell close to 2 million books on her own and achieve annual earnings of between 1 and 3 million for the last few years.

Could you be the next E.L. James, Amanda Hocking, or Bella Andre? Sure, somebody has to be. Will it be you? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t arm yourself with the cascade of information about self-publishing about to come down in this post. If you’ve been following this series on book publishing in these digital times you’ll have a reasonable grasp of the eBook market. Today we move on to look at some of the new platforms and models. When we get beyond a system based on few market entrants and a ‘big 5’ (the handful of companies that dominate an industry), what do things look like?

First, a quick refresher of the traditional value chain in the book business:


You see many links in the chain, each providing a service that adds value in the book’s journey from author to reader. Now, if this illustration was completely accurate, it would show throngs of authors on the left hand side of the picture, with a infinitesimal number actually advancing beyond the dotted line in the upper left hand corner, and in turn getting the chance to play this game. You would also see some visual representation of rights usually being signed away to publishers, as a kind of collateral in return for the publishers’ sizable investment in a product they have no way of knowing the viability of, which provides some insight into why publishers turn a profit only about a single digit percentage of the time, as explained in this earlier blog post. But, bearing those things in mind that’s the general picture of how the book industry has worked for several decades.

Now, options for publishing abound. You don’t have to deal with agents, publishers, printers, wholesalers, et al -- if you don’t want to. But of course there are new risks, costs, and skills associated with self-publishing and taking the direct-to-reader route. As one industry insider put it: “The most successful self-publishers don’t view themselves as writers only, but as business owners…They invest in their businesses, hiring experts to fill skill gaps and that’s building a thriving new service infrastructure in publishing.”

What follows is a quick, and certainly not exhaustive, overview of some of the services available to self-publishing authors in today’s digitally enabled landscape, where the basic configuration goes from the flowchart above to to something like this:

We may as well start with the biggest players in eBook publishing and eBook distribution and work down from there. Most of these companies don’t require up front payment for basic services and then have an a la carte model where you can additional services, like cover design, marketing and publicity, and analytics for additional fees. 

First up is Lulu. It’s an eBook/self-publishing pioneer that launched in 2002. Since that time they’ve published 1.5 million books and are adding to their catalog at a rate of 20,000 new items per month. On Lulu, anyone can publish. For free. That’s just the basic hitting the button and making your document available. You also have the option to cherrypick additional services from a menu  or bundle them into packages.

Example of services available on a la carte basis at

And as they say right on their site, research shows that authors who use the additional services go on to sell twice as many books as those who totally DIY’d it. This makes perfect sense to me as a document uploaded to a web platform, without the benefits of design, editing, marketing, etc has precious little chance of getting noticed.
Lulu’s biggest competitor is Smashwords, which started in 2008 and now has over 300,000 books published by approximately 100,000 authors. The company reports that it’s been profitable since 2010 so, while one would think it’s hard to make money with businesses that have so many no-to-low sellers, they have obviously figured out a formula. Smashwords is the world’s largest independent eBook distributor, and like Lulu, they offer the full menu of services for authors. Just follow their step-by-step guide and you then decide if you want to do a little by yourself, do it all by yourself, or something in between. As much as 85% of net proceeds are paid to the author, net being revenue from the sale minus fees taken by payment systems such as PayPal and percentage taken by Smashwords, which is only taken when actual books are sold. The percentage paid to authors drops to between 60% and 70% when affiliate marketers and/or retailers are involved, such as Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, or third party bloggers or aggregators who agree to promote your book in exchange for a fee or commission. 
Pro tip #1: A comparison of Smashwords and Lulu and Createspace, another self-publishing platform (acquired by Amazon in 2005), can be found here.

And how do the dollars of self-publishing generally compare with the dollars of traditional publishing model? I broke down the numbers in an earlier post on this blog but if you're too lazy or pressed for time the broad strokes are that if you’re self-publishing your royalty rate is going to be 10-15x of what it would be with a traditional publisher. But -- don’t start thinking about that vacation property yet. As Smashwords’ founder says right in the ‘about’ tab of the site:

Lulu, Smashwords, and Createspace are just a few of the companies that make self-publishing easy. There is also a whole raft of companies, with ‘book’ in their name, e.g. Booktango, BookbabyBooklocker, and if you’re wondering about how they stack up you can see a comparison here.

Pro Tip #2: For the full list of the top platforms for ebook self-publishing click here.

Now you have the basics for getting your self-published project from idea to eReader. With so much uncertainty in the industry innovation is emerging in the form of small companies specializing in small pieces of the pie that authors can now buy in as standalone services. And, at the same time many publishers are getting increasingly comfortable with experimentation and trying out new models in house. Here’s what some of the major publishers doing to dip their toes, or more, in the digital pond.

HarperCollins has Authonomy, which bills itself as an online community where writers become authors and great books get published.

Macmillan has Swoon Reads, an imprint that focuses on the “YA” (young adult) market and uses the community’s votes, not editors’ calls, to decide what gets published.

Simon & Schuster has partnered with a company called Author Solutions to get in on the self-publishing game

...And recognizing that increasingly publishers aren’t just in the business of selling books but of curating and communicating ideas, Random House Canada has the online magazine and associated imprint Hazlitt  They say they have two conditions for those wanting to get involved: Write well and don’t bore us.

Screenshot of Random House Canada's online magazine and publishing portal Hazlitt

There are also new experiments taking place that are outside the traditional publishing industry and gaining traction with writers ranging from aspiring to emerging to established. Wattpad is perhaps the most notable example. Some describe it as Instagram for authors, some see it as a way of crowdsourcing the usually individualistic activity of writing, others see it as social media meets the world of the word.

Wattpad: Bringing the community element to the world of books

And where does this all leave you, the aspiring author? Worse off, or better off, as a result of the opening up of publishing via digital processes and platforms? Only you can make that determination for yourself, but remember that stat from earlier in this post, that 75% of self-published authors earn less than $500? Well, the accompanying stat would be that 25%, or around 100,000 self-published authors make more than $500. And this figure of 100,000 authors earning at least $500 would have pretty much been zero a few years ago, because the systems and technologies that enabled direct routes between author and reader simply did not exist. So while you will probably not become the next E.L. James by going the self-publishing route, the ability to give it a shot has never been better. We are all only limited by our own excuses, and I guess that's the double-edged sword that is the good news and the bad news.

Blog Bonus section: All this talk about 'free' eBook publishing...But what does it really cost to do your own eBook?  Click here and here for more.

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