Walkthrough of Lost and Found
Interview with Louisa Gaille
Taming the RSS
Self PublishingWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So there was a dust-up recently when Harlequin -- yes, the romance publishers -- got into the vanity publishing business.
You can read all about it on the internet, and the quick and dirty version is that they were including rather predatory links to their vanity arm in their rejection letters, which is pretty damn shady and certainly preys on authors in their darkest hours. For this, they deserve to be censured and excoriated and slapped upside t' head with a fat stack of Harlequins. (They have since made amends for some of the more egregious violations of ethics, but not all of them.)
However, the discussion of this got us into the discussions of traditional vs. self-publishing, which is something that a lot of people know about, but a great many don't, and it's worth talking about for a bit.
Now, in traditional publishing, the author spends not a dime. I have had nine books published by presses ranging from passionate small presses to big New York publishing houses with budgets with more zeroes on the end than I can easily comprehend. (Honestly, the quality difference between the two is minimal -- it's mostly distribution.) There are, at the time of this writing, over forty thousand copies of various books of mine wandering around out there. Cost to me = $0. (Advances and royalties to me = a fair bit.)
Anybody who tells you that regular authors are paying for those big print runs is at best misinformed, and at worst is about to try to sell you on a vanity publishing scheme that will drain your wallet into the sewer.
However, in this day and age, there is also self-publishing. And self-publishing is something else again, and it's very good for some things and terrible for others, and most of the problems arise when you're trying to shoehorn the one into the other, so let's look at that for a bit.
If you are self-publishing a book, then yes, you are paying for the costs of having it printed and put between bits of cardstock. You own the book. It's all yours, start to finish, editing to ISBN. That is self-publishing. It is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and there are a number of contexts in which it is absolutely the best thing to do -- i.e., stuff where demand is sufficiently low that there is no chance of viable commercial publishing, but in which having the volume available is useful for a very small audience.
If you haven't thought about this a lot and are scratching your head trying to come up with examples, think specialty cookbooks, family memoirs, local interest volumes, etc. There is not bookstore shelf space worldwide for 1001 Great Haggis Recipes or Best Walking Trails Around Pittsboro, North Carolina but the people who want those really want them, and you might sell a coupla dozen copies over the years.
(It's also, incidentally, quite good for webcomics. You've got a small group of dedicated fans who really want a print version, which is practically the definition of a good fit for self-publishing. So you do a very small print run, and you sell them on the internet and at cons. It's almost more like merchandising than publishing, though -- you're selling a book at the table the same way you sell T-shirts. I myself have work in a self-published little anthology that our local comics group puts out every year, as a print-on-demand thing. You can buy it on Lulu, it's got some nice stuff in it, a couple of the members sell the occasional copy at conventions. I didn't buy any of the wholesale copies because I don't have table space in my usual con kit. Cost to me = $0. Profit if I HAD sold them at the table = maybe a buck or two. It's a neat little thing to have, but none of us are making money on it, and it's not a publishing credit I'd take seriously. I could talk about this longer, but we're already running long.)
Webcomics aside, self-publishing doesn't work well for fiction in the traditional sense. There are exceptions -- a number of podcasters who release a book as a serial and then offer a print version, for example, do okay. If you're a reasonably well-known author already, you can move a lot of copies of something. Much like webcomics, it works great if you're already famous. (The industry term for this is "Have a platform.") If you're not, then... well... I don't know about you guys, but when I go to a con, and somebody I've never heard of has their own self-published book at the table and a hopeful expression, I don't buy it. I suspect miss a few good books that way, but I KNOW I miss a lot of crap. This probably makes me a bad and judgmental person, but I've made my peace with that.
Self-publishing works best when it's offering a product that the audience is already partly familiar with. They have a reason to buy it. It doesn't work well at all if nobody's heard of you and you're trying to sell cold, in which case you're pushing uphill against the fact that so much self-published work is crap.
Also, it probably won't go in bookstores. Chain bookstores generally do not want self-published books, again, because so much of it is crap. Many people become sadly disillusioned at this stage, when they call the bookstore to ask if it'll carry their book and they get either howling laughter or a weary lecture on the realities of book distribution. You may have luck with local-interest bookstores and local-interest topics, but it's not gonna be the sales numbers you'd get at a chain.
Now, at this point somebody always trots out "The Shack" or whatever, where Dedicated Artist Refused By Blind Traditional Houses Self Publishes, Makes Millions, and I can't say it doesn't happen, but that's like lightning striking, and I am of the opinion that promoting self-publishing as a viable model for the unknown fiction author because of those successes is like promoting the lottery as a form of retirement planning -- it's far-fetched at best, and misleading as worst. Self-publishing is a GREAT model for the stuff that it's good at, but if the sales pitch to self-publish includes somebody saying "And look! So-and-so made the jump to published author and made millions!" then you're likely talking to somebody who really wants to part you from your money.
Self-publishing is fabulous for what it is. You pay the costs, you control the print run size, you control what happens to them, you pay all the price and you make all the profits. If Sofawolf hadn't offered to publish my comic Digger, I would have probably self-published it eventually, because it's exactly the right model -- small fan base, small print runs, small profit, but enough to make me happy. I have nothing but good to say about self-publishing for the stuff it's good at.
It's not fabulous if you want to make the bestseller list and see your books in stores and makes lots of money. If that's the sort of writer you want to be, self-publishing is not at all a good route to it at this point in time. I can't swear it won't change at some point in the future, but stop and think about it -- when was the last time you bought a self-published book cold, compared to something in a bookstore?
If the absolutely only way you can publish your book is to do it yourself, before you mortgage the house to dedicate yourself to printing and promotion, I would generally suggest writing another book. Lots of stuff that's only borderline publishable at the beginning of a career can be sold once you're established. You'd be surprised. And also you might find the first book looks a little different when you've written another one.
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