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Want to Publish a Book? Consider Self-publishing

book machine

Espresso Book Machine at the
Tattered Cover bookstore.
Photo by Lee Ridley

By Lee Ridley

Aspiring writers spend months or years hammering away at their keyboards, crafting a potential bestseller. The vast majority of those beloved works sit forever unread by anyone other than the writer’s friends and family. Writers send countless query letters to agents and publishers, only to receive a slew of rejections. Most publishers are not interested in gambling on an unknown writer for what could be fantastic work. 

Writers no longer have to swallow the bitter pill of rejection as they open yet another “thanks, but no thanks” letter. The book publishing industry is following the music industry, where content creators are now in the driver’s seat instead of gatekeepers.  

With digital technology, writers can see their work published almost immediately as an e-book, an electronic copy that can be read on a computer or downloaded to a Kindle, Nook or other e-reader device. Another option is print on demand. Writers no longer have to cough up a bundle of cash to print a batch of books that may or may not sell and must be stored somewhere. 

Self-publishing is not a new concept. However, the method has had negative connotations and many assumed it meant the work was inferior. Until recently, consumers and book critics did not take self-published work seriously. 

Within the last few years, that attitude has changed radically. Self-published books are no longer automatically considered substandard work. Many writers are choosing to self-publish instead of pursuing the traditional route.  

 “I can’t think of a single case where I would go traditional first,” said self-published writer Hugh Howey, who wrote the award-winning “Molly Fyde” saga and bestselling “Wool” series. “If your book is one of the top 1 percent of books out there, you’re better off self-publishing. You’re going to make a lot more money and own your future and own your work. If you’re not in the top 1 percent, it’s never going to make it out of the slush pile and you’re going to waste your time trying to go the traditional route.”

Howey emphasized self-publishing allows writers to retain the rights to their work, which gives them control over how it is marketed and more profits. Traditional publishers pay writers roughly 6 to 15 percent of a book’s cover price, according to Rachelle Gardner of Books and Such Literary Agency. Self-published writers can earn 70 percent or more, although cover prices tend to be lower than traditionally published books.

All writers, self and traditionally published, must market their own books. Many writers see no benefit to the traditional route if they have to market their work. Writers market via blogs, social media, word-of-mouth and book signings.

“Only a handful of traditionally published authors will get a book tour, co-op space, heavy marketing or front list catalog placement. I was giving up lifetime rights, lifetime earnings for one-time benefits, which was editing and perhaps cover art, and those are things you can hire out,” Howey said about his first book, which was traditionally published. He later bought the rights back for the book and said he has earned a lot more money since.

Michelle Prince, a bestselling writer, motivational speaker and owner of Prince Publishing in Dallas, echoed Howey’s sentiments. She said prior to publishing her first book, she investigated the traditional route.

“A traditional publishing company owns the rights to your story, and they take so much of the profit, I felt like that just wasn’t a good fit for me,” Prince said. “If I could figure out a way to hire my own editors, hire my own printers and then keep 100 percent of the profits and also retain rights to my story, to me that was a much better option.”

In addition to bypassing gatekeepers, earning higher profits and maintaining control, self-publishing offers some other advantages for writers. The explosive growth of e-readers and tablets has vastly expanded the market for e-books. Writers can also begin earning money right away.

“Indie e-book authors can transform their fully edited manuscript into a professionally published e-book in a matter of minutes, and in a matter of hours or days achieve worldwide distribution at major retailers,” wrote Mark Coker in a Feb. 13, 2013, Huffington Post article. Coker is the founder of Smashwords, an e-book publisher of primarily indie books.

This speed has worked well for self-publishers of series books – readers no longer have to wait as long for the next installment. Some writers will offer the first book in a series for free, hoping to attract an audience willing to pay for future installments.

Retailers are embracing self-published books as well, according to Coker. In the same article Coker wrote: “The job of the retailer is to connect readers with books they’ll enjoy reading. The most successful self-published e-books often match or exceed the quality and desirability of traditionally published e-books.”

Low prices and diversity also encourage retailers to support self-published work, according to Coker. Readers buy more books at the lower prices, which earns the retailer more profit. Retailers also can offer books to satisfy both large mainstream markets as well as thousands of smaller micro-markets.

Other benefits to retailers and readers include the unlimited shelf space and eternal availability. Traditionally published books were given a window of time to sell and if they didn’t, retailers shipped them back to the publisher and eventually the books were no longer printed.

“You no longer have six months to a year to try to make all your money on a book. You now have 80 years,” Howey said.

Writers can choose from many options in self-publishing services, from low cost basic to higher-priced extensive. Assisted self-publishing companies offer services such as editing, proofing, marketing, public relations and access to social media, according to Alan Finder in an Aug. 15, 2012, article in The New York Times.

Lulu and CreateSpace, a division of Amazon, offer printing services for relatively little cost. Both print the books as they sell and keep a portion of the profit to cover the printing costs. For basic editing, formatting and cover designs, writers can expect to pay about $500 to $1,000. For more extensive services that can run as high as $5,000, writers receive comprehensive editing, cover and interior design, promotion and publicity assistance, according to Finder.

Prince advises her clients to hire reputable freelancers instead of relying on self-publishing companies’ resources. She recommends finding editors who work in the same genre, reading books they have edited and asking for references.

“If you have more time than money, do the legwork, do the research and find good people that you can contract,” Prince said. “If you have more money than time, then that’s when you come to a company like mine, or online self-publishing companies that can do it all for you. But just know, they’re hiring all these people individually themselves. Either you do it or they do it. You pay more if they do it. You pay less if you do it.”

Local bookstores are jumping aboard the self-publishing train too. The Tattered Cover, a Denver bookstore chain, offers an in-house paperback book printing service with the Espresso Book Machine. Packages to prepare books for printing range from $35 to $299, with optional add-on services such as file formatting and jacket design. The packages do not include editing services but some include in-store and online placement. None of the packages include printing, which is calculated by the number of pages. A 250-page book costs about $10 per book to print.

“At one time our goal was to provide a wide variety of editing services,” said John Zeck, Tattered Cover’s business development director. He said they realized in-house editing services weren’t the best fit, so now they refer authors to editors and graphic designers when they need help. Print jobs run from a single copy up to 150 or more. Roughly a third of the books printed on their machine are memoirs, Zeck said. Other books include fiction and nonfiction written by professionals such as psychiatrists.

Writers who publish e-books instead of printed versions can have their books in readers’ hands for little or no cost. Smashwords is one of many websites that publishes only e-books. Writers can publish a digital book for free on Smashwords, and then sell it at online retailers such as Apple’s iBookstore and Barnes & Noble, according to Finder. Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo also provide platforms for publishing e-books and selling them at their stores. Amazon offers a Kindle Direct Publishing service, which allows writers to upload their books and then sell them in Amazon’s Kindle store.

The self-publishing trend shows great promise for writers, readers and retailers. Some self-published books end up being picked up by traditional publishers. The bestseller, “50 Shades of Grey,” got its start as a self-published book. However, writers should know what to expect, according to David Carnoy in a June 13, 2012, article he wrote for CNET.com.

“One of the unfortunate drawbacks of having a low barrier of entry into a suddenly hot market is that now everybody and their brother and sister is an author,” Carnoy wrote. “That means you’re dealing with a ton of competition, some of which is made up of hustlers, charlatans and a bunch of people in between.”

Carnoy also warned writers that even if a book is great, it might not sell. Most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies, mostly to the writer’s friends and family.

“A tiny fraction become monster success stories, but every few months, you’ll hear about someone hitting it big,” Carnoy wrote.

Prince also cautioned writers not to expect too much or write a book just to make money. For nonfiction writers like herself, she said writing a book can enhance credibility, which is worth more in the long run than book profits.

“The hardest part of getting a book done is marketing it,” Prince said. “Nobody, even if you do have a name, nobody is looking for your book. Unless you are good at marketing ‘you’ as a brand, because as an author, it’s about you, not about the book, you will fail. You have to get comfortable with the fact that you have to sell yourself.”

Howey also admitted that marketing takes up a lot of his time. He said he works on average 14 hours per day but only about three to five are spent writing. The rest is spent promoting his books. However, both Prince and Howey said they see no reason any writer should choose traditional publishing over self-publishing.

“I can’t imagine selling lifetime rights to a work of art that can earn money for 50, a 100 years,” Howey said.

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Lee Ridley

About Lee Ridley

Lee Ridley is a journalism student at Metropolitan State University. She writes for The Metropolitan, the school newspaper. She also has a B.A in English from the University of Florida.

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