to self-publish or not to self-publish?
I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about how to write a book and I thought I would follow it with one addressing the question of how to publish the book once it has been written. The quick answer if it is best seller material is to give it to me.
But of course, who knows whether a book is a best seller or not until it is actually out there in the marketplace? That is the ultimate magic of a book. You just don’t know what its potential and impact is going to be. Maybe it dies with nobody, not even the author’s mother, buying it, or maybe it suddenly streaks to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and we all make huge amounts of money. Publishing a book has the same value as anticipation, by which I mean that anything can happen up to the point where you throw it out into the market and leave it to the gods to determine its fate.
So practically, what are the options available to an author that has written a book that they view as being ready for publication? The first and best option, for sure, is to get it published by a major publisher in New York or London who have the marketing capability and clout to get the book mentioned on the big news shows, the contacts that will elicit an invitation to be interviewed by Stephen Colbert and the power to get the book onto one of the tables at the front of Barnes & Noble in New York’s Union Square or Foyles in London. The top publishers do not speak to authors directly and if you aspire to a quick flight to the very top of the publishing business then you need an agent who will take 15 to 20% of whatever accrues from the deal in return for representing you and pushing your book. But the agents that have the ability to do this are few and far between and they are almost as inaccessible as the major publishers, and they are very, very picky.
At the other end of the scale is self-publishing. In the old days, there was no way that an author could publish a book by themselves, beyond using a photocopier and distributing copies to your friends, you had to use a publisher because they had access to the printing works and the bookshops, and there was no other channel available. Today, there is a channel, and that is digital publishing, which is of course dominated by Amazon and its Kindle empire. There are authors who have made an enormous amount of money off self-publishing and with the right title and the right manipulation of the system, sales can be very good indeed. An example is an American author who lives in Hong Kong who I have known for many years called Larry Feign. He wrote a book with the word fart in the title multiple times, which has sold, he told me, an obscene number of copies. I have another friend who used to do very well off the historical romances that she has been writing for years, but she told me recently that the KDP-Kindle system is not working as effectively for independent authors as it used to and her revenues have fallen off significantly. The problem, I think, is that there is absolutely no barrier to entry and there is a growing ocean of book titles out there, while the number of readers is not growing, and is almost certainly shrinking as older book readers die off, with fewer and fewer younger people taking it up as a hobby. Also, as manipulation techniques of the system become more and more widely known, the advantages that are derived from using them are neutralized.
So, what is the alternative?
The alternative is independent publishers such as Earnshaw Books. While major publishers throw away manuscripts and e-mails from authors without even opening them, I, as the operator of Earnshaw Books, open every single e-mail and at least scan every single manuscript that we receive. That, in terms of the first step of being noticed, is an advantage for an author. The other advantage of using an independent publisher is that they have the means of getting the book out there in terms of distribution channels in a way that looks far more professional and less desperate than self-publishing. The systems today allow an independent publisher to provide distribution to anywhere in the world in both paper or digital form, with that special logo on the book indicating that it has been accepted by a credible publisher as being worthy of publication.
What authors who make use of independent publishers such as Earnshaw Books must be aware of, however, is that we lack the marketing oompf of the big publishers. I pretty much certainly cannot get a book onto the front table at Union Square Barnes & Noble or Foyles in London, for instance. And authors need to play a much more active role in marketing than would be the case if they were published by a major publisher. But on the positive side, there is also much greater flexibility with independent publishers and much greater opportunity for authors to participate in the process of finalizing the manuscript and, crucially, the cover design.
From a financial perspective, I have hilariously been asked by two authors over the years if the publication of their book means they can give up their day job. And no, we do not do advances. But the publication of a book by an author can bring in some cash, and can also be used as a rung to achieve other goals. The market value of a person increases if you can put after your name, “the author of …”. One of the reasons for that is that the ability to conceive of and finish a book is in itself an intellectual challenge, and if you can do it, you are already a member of a select minority. If you can be published by a credible publishing house, then you get extra marks. How you make use of that is up to you, but don’t expect to make millions off it and you won’t be disappointed.