Should collaborative writers self-publish?

There’s a lot of information out there about the pros and cons of self-publishing your novel versus taking your novel to publication through the traditional route. I would, however, like to discuss it here and then reflect on the implications it specifically has for the collaborative writer.

Money, money, money

Advantages of self-publishing

1. Control

This is the biggie. If you self-publish your novel then you retain total ownership of it. You get to decide what rights are sold and to who. You have editorial control so that the novel still remains the novel you wrote. You get to decide what the title of your novel is and what the cover artwork looks like and how it is presented to the reading public. JRR Tolkien was incensed when he saw that the original paperback cover art for Lord of the Rings by Barbara Remington featured ostriches, pumpkins and ‘what the hell is that?’ creatures. He wouldn’t have had that problem if he’d self-published.

2. Money

Self-publishing cuts out the middle man. A self-published author does not have to give most of their profits to the publisher. You are the publisher. Rather than taking away royalties as low as 5%, you can award yourself royalties of up to 70% i.e. you can make up to 14 times more money per book that you would if you published through a traditional publisher. On top of that, given that print on demand and electronic publishing can dramatically reduce the costs of publishing then those self-awarded royalties can come all the quicker and be that much bigger. Furthermore, a self-publisher is less likely to need an agent (although they do still have their uses) and there won’t be a need to pass on that 10% fee.

3. Speed

Electronic publishing allows authors to put their work into public view very rapidly. An author could theoretically have finished writing a book one day and made it available on Amazon, Kobo, etc the following day (by the way, don’t do this). The same applies to print on demand services. Compare this to traditional publishing, where the journey time from acceptance to publication is likely to be somewhere between a year and eighteen months. Furthermore, this speed allows you to make necessary changes to your book if need be. Got extra up-to-date information to put in your non-fiction book? Spotted a glaring plot error that needs resolving? Want to tinker with the story to reflect real-world current affairs? You don’t have to wait months (if not years) for the next edition of your book to come out; you can make those changes now.

4. New markets

Travel back in time more than a few years and self-publishing was barely distinguishable from vanity publishing. It meant hiring a printer to print up a run of books that you would then have to personally sell through the few avenues open to you. Now, with print on demand and electronic publishing, both electronic and paper publishing are not only much more affordable to the self-publisher but the markets have been made open to all. Smashwords, Amazon, Lulu, Kobo, etc, etc have all created markets that the self-publisher can exploit.

5. Niche markets

Some books almost demand to be self-published. If you have written a book about open-water kayaking and are an active member of the Open-Water Kayaking Federation (which I’ve just made up) then chances are you will stand a better chance shifting copies of your book yourself than relying on traditional publishers who know nothing of the political and technical ins and outs of kayaking. Or what if you’ve written a book that is just so darn edgy, niche and experimental that no traditional publisher will touch it? Self-publishing could you be your best route to success. There are (as in all areas of life) people who find themselves excluded from the publishing mainstream. Be it lifestyle choices or personal background, if there is no hope for you to find a traditional publisher because of who you are then self-publishing may be the way. Let’s face it, if you’ve written a volume of Cornish folk tales written in Kernewek Kemmyn, a critically endangered language, then it is sadly unlikely that Penguin, Harper Collins or Bloomsbury are going to publish it for you.

6. Passion and attention

As self-publisher, you’ve got to pretty much do everything yourself. But that’s a good thing. No one is ever going to put as much passion, time and attention into your novel as you are. If you go through a traditional publisher, your book is just one of dozens they are processing that year. They don’t care about it like you do.

Disadvantages of self-publishing

1. Money

If you self-publish then you are the publisher and publishers have to invest some serious wonga. Cover art needs to be commissioned or bought from somewhere. Editors and printers need to be engaged and employed. ISBN numbers must be bought. Proof copies of any print versions need to be paid for and checked. Distributing flyers at conventions and literary festivals? Launch party? Promotional materials to be sent to reviewers, magazines, bookshops, etc? It all costs money. And it needs to come out of your pocket.

2. Loneliness

Okay, maybe not loneliness in the emotional sense. You still have your cat for company, don’t you? But the self-publisher pretty much works alone. Everything rests on your shoulders. You are the writer, editor, proof-reader, artist(!), book formatter, publisher, distributor, marketer, promoter and publicist. Unless you are a true renaissance man or woman then you are not necessarily going to be brilliant at all of those roles. Furthermore, the risks you take are all yours and, if it goes horribly wrong, there’s possibly no one to turn to for support.

3. Time

If you’re going to be doing everything yourself and taking on the roles of several people then you will need to invest a lot more of your own time in a novel than a traditional author. You may indeed spend far more time wearing your publisher-promoter hat than your writing hat. This will then of course impact on how much of your life you’re going to spend writing.

4. Power

As a self-publisher, you are indeed a publisher but that doesn’t mean you are anything like Random House or HarperCollins. They are corporate giants and you are one person. You do not have anything like their power or reach. You are not going to get a distribution deal with a national book chain. You are not going to be selected for Richard and Judy’s book club. You are not going to be entered into (let alone win) the Booker Prize. No matter how brilliant your novel is, you are unlikely to sell as many copies as the mediocre efforts made by some traditionally published authors.

5. The totally justified poor reputation that self-publishing has

Anyone can self-publish. Let me repeat that: anyone can self-publish. I could bash my face against a keyboard and then publish the results electronically at virtually no personal cost. Most self-published work is better than this. Some of it is not much better. People often turn to self-publishing because the traditional publishing industry has turned its back on them. The traditional publishing industry is a wily and canny beast that has survived for centuries. It knows a thing or two. If it has turned its back on an author there is possibly a good reason for that. Let me be clear, there are some excellent self-published books but there is also a hell of a lot of dross. Your self-published novel needs to rise through the dross and find its audience. That’s not necessarily an easy thing.

Advantages of traditional publishing

1. Prestige

There is a kudos to being published by a traditional publisher. Anyone can self-publish. Not everyone can get a publishing contract with a proper publisher. To get published in the traditional manner is to have reached a certain bar, to have succeeded where others have failed. The publishing industry, the prize givers and the opinion makers recognise this.

2. Expert help

You are a writer. It’s what you do best. You started out on this novel-writing road because you like writing. What do you know about editing? Or book formatting? Or artwork? Or printing? Or book distribution? Or sales? That’s right, you know nothing. Go down the traditional publishing road and the experts employed by the publishing house will do all of those things for you.

3. Distribution

If you are published with a traditional publisher, your book will appear in bookshops. Perhaps across the land. Perhaps in other countries too. Traditional publishing will give you a breadth of coverage that you really can’t hope to emulate through self-publishing.

4. Money

Traditional publishers can and do offer writers advances. That means money, up front, to pay for the bills while you continue to practise your craft. True, advances are few and far between and not as large as they used to be (unless you are The Next Big Thing) but a wad of cash, paid in recognition for your skills is not to be sniffed at.

Disadvantages of traditional publishing

1. Money

I know money’s not everything but you would like to make some sort of living from writing. Traditional publishing involves a lot of people who all want their cut. The kind of royalties paid out to writers by publishers aren’t exactly generous and then your agent will want their 10% of whatever you make. In terms of the amount of profit you make per book, self-publishing pays more. It really does.

2. Loss of control

Contracts made with traditional publishers are not signed in blood but it might feel like that. A publishing contract is not an agreement between equal partners. You sign with a publishing house and they will call the shots for pretty much everything from your book’s title to whether it gets that all-important Spanish-language imprint. To sign a deal with a traditional publisher is to sell something i.e. to give something up in return for cold hard cash.

3. Electronic book pricing

Look at the price of Stephen King’s novels on Kindle. Or Robert Ludlum’s. Or Lee Child’s. Now compare that with the Kindle price of a best-selling self-published author. Can you see it? Traditional publishers sell prestige titles and charge prestige prices. If your publisher sells your book electronically for twice the price of a quality self-published book, expect that to impact on your sales figures.

4. Getting your foot in the door

It is harder than ever to break into traditional publishing. The industry sometimes seems to be in crisis, facing its own Gotterdammerung at the hands of electronic publishing, self-publishing and the fact that some sections of society just don’t buy books anymore. Publishers flail about, hoping to pick up that next Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Gray and stave off their own financial doom. That desperation does not mean that they’ll publish anything on the off-chance it sells. No, it means they will regard all new ventures with a caution and cynicism that verges on the mentally ill. To break into that madhouse, you will almost certainly need two things: 1) an agent and 2) a bloody brilliant agent. Unfortunately, agents feed off the publishing industry and some of that paranoia and frenzy has filtered down into the literary agencies. They too are looking for their own Dan Brown or JK Rowling and they can be extraordinarily cagey about adding anyone new to their client lists. Good luck.

Specific issues for collaborative writers

1. Many hands make light work

Given the extra time and attention that the self-publishing option demands, you can at least rely on the fact that, in a collaborative partnership, there are more of you to get the work done. Activities such as editing, proof-reading and promotions can be shared.

2. Divide and conquer

Hopefully everyone in your collaborative writing team is, first and foremost, a writer. But, beyond that, your skill sets are going to be different. If you are going to self-publish your work, maybe one of you is significantly better at the IT side of things (book formatting, website design). Maybe one of you is a gifted PR person, a brilliant mingler and promoter at trade fairs, literary festivals and conventions. Whatever your individual strengths, you can play to them as self-publishers.

3. Agents

Agents exist primarily (but not exclusively) to negotiate between the writer and the publisher. In a collaboration, you are going to have two or more writers and therefore, potentially, two or more agents, each trying to get the best deal for their client. This is a messy situation. Go down the self-publishing route and the collaborators can, in the nicest possible sense, tell their agents that they are not needed.

4. Prestige or cash?

Self-publishers can make a small number of very quick sales. There’s nothing quick about traditional publishing but the potential returns are higher. What do you want as a collaborative partnerships? Do you want the instant pocket money that comes from self-publishing or the prestige and possibly higher dividends of traditional publishing? You will need to make that decision and make it together.

5. Costs

If you are at all serious about it, self-publishing will cost you, the author, some money. It will cost you hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds/dollars/shekels/bazingas/whatever. Are you going to contribute an equal amount? Can you afford to? If you put in different amounts, should you take different levels of profit? Is it fair that one person is taking the greater financial risk but not reaping greater rewards? There is nothing that can destroy a friendship so rapidly and so thoroughly as a disagreement over money. Perhaps, if you are not going to see eye to eye on money matters then it might be better to go for the option of relatively cost-free traditional publishing.

Posted in 2012, Writing Tagged with: , , , , ,