I’m seeing a lot of advice lately to ditch the traditional marketing scheme and self-publish through places like Amazon CreateSpace. Writers avoid all the middle men like publishers, printers, distributors, and retailers, and they get to take a bigger cut of the royalties.
This is all well and good, but there’s one question writers always seem to miss: do I want to spend most of my time writing or marketing?
Take this Los Angeles Times article for example. It talks about the number of authors who are taking their work to digital self-publishing, guys like J.A. Konrath, Neal Stephenson, and David Morrell. Konrath is a huge proponent of self-publishing through the Kindle, and he talks about it frequently on his blog. The Times article and many like it suggest this is the next big wave of publishing (newsflash: print on demand was the next big wave ten years ago, and nothing changed), and writers can make a living on digital self-publishing.
Yes, they can, but I call it the Konrath Anomaly, primarily because he is such a vocal proponent. Joe can make the shift to digital self-publishing because he already has a following built on several years in traditional publishing. You don’t have a series of novels published in hardcover without having a fanbase. Stephenson and Greg Bear can team up to try a new, digital subscription model because they, too, have substantial fanbases. There’s a good chance it will be successful for them because they certainly have fans who will pay them to read the new story they’re building, and I’ll bet they have more than a few hardcore fans who will pay the $1000 to become patrons. Writers like Morrell (the creator of Rambo, folks!) can take their backlist and put it back into print with the click of a button, letting them reconnect with fans and generate income again on dormant work.
Is that to say the rest of us shouldn’t self-publish? Absolutely not. Understand, though, that it’s just one of many tools available to you. Yes, traditional publishers are going to take big chunk of that cover price because they have to cover all of the work they’re going to put into it, from the initial editing through marketing and distribution. (Notice we haven’t even discussed agents yet. They like to be paid, too.)
Let’s put aside editing and manuscript quality for a moment and talk about marketing, and let’s take a real-world example. Let’s pretend Bentley Little was about to get his start today. For those unfamiliar, Bentley Little is somewhat of a hermit. He doesn’t do blogging and social networking, he doesn’t do convention appearances, word is he’s not a fan of email, and there’s even a story out there about how he submitted a short story to an anthology in print via snail mail (complete with a self-addressed, stamped envelope in case of rejection). He’s successful on the strength of his writing and the marketing efforts of his publisher.
So here’s young Bentley ready to submit his first novel. We’re confident it’s good because he’s Bentley Little. He learns digital self-publishing will make him scads of money, so he uploads his manuscript to CreateSpace, sets a price, and sits back and waits for the cash to roll in. Now, keeping in mind he’s a hermit, this is all he does. He presses send and he starts typing his next novel.
Answer me honestly: is anyone going to buy that novel? Whatever you may think of Little’s work, no matter what kind of following he has now, I contend that if he just hit upload and ignored the rest the very first time he unleashed a novel on the world, he wouldn’t be a full-time writer today. How does anyone find it amongst all the other self-published books out there? Amongst all the other books out there, period? Maybe — maybe — if someone got a hold of that novel and started talking it up, he’d see some word of mouth traction. Would it amount to enough to make a living on? Now we’re talking some fairly significant word of mouth. Remember, reviews don’t make a bestseller. Success stories like Christopher Paolini’s are one in a million, at best.
Again, I’m not saying self-publishing is wrong. I bet Brian Keene has enough of a following it might be worth a shot, especially with some of his backlist. But he busted his ass the traditional way, too: he went to conventions, and he marketed the hell out of himself. He built the brand that is Brian Keene, and that brand now has value.
As for myself, I don’t think I could pull it off… yet. Sure, I might make a buck if I were to have posted The Pack: Winter Kill on CreateSpace, but I sure as hell wouldn’t make a living. I wouldn’t have the editing input I received from Mr Ommus at Evileye Books. I would have had to pay the cover artist. I would have talked up the book on my blog and other social platforms and online outlets, but I wouldn’t have had the banner campaign Evileye set up, or the PR people pushing releases and review copies out to places like The San Francisco Books Examiner. And so on.
Sure, some of those costs will come out of my royalties, but you know what? I’m okay with that. Their marketing people are a lot more savvy than I am, and that’s more time I can spend writing. I’d rather be waiting on royalty checks than paying off debt generated from paying for marketing. I also haven’t been able to make much time for writing or marketing the last few months, and I’d much rather put that scarce time into writing than begging people to buy my book.
Digital self-publishing is a tool, one of many available to you as a writer. Just take a good, long look at all of your options and at your following. Don’t expect it to be easy money, and don’t quit your day job.