Friday, May 11, 2012

Donkey in the Derby – The Great Self-publishing Debate

Would you enter a Clydesdale in the Kentucky Derby? Why not? It’s just a bigger horse. How about a mule?

Clydesdales and mules are all in the horse family, but they fill very different niches. Have you seen the logo for Twenty Mule Team Borax? Borax is mined in Death Valley California, and, in the distant past, miners hooked up teams of twenty mules to pull heavy wagonloads of borax from quarries to processing plants. Why not harness twenty thoroughbreds to pull that wagon? I'll tell you why . . . they could not stand the heat or work load. This reality of specialization exists in the publishing business, too. Publishing and self-publishing are different “horses” for different tasks.

"Giddy-up, mule. They're gittin away!"

Not long ago, aspiring authors polished their writing to a fare-thee-well, slaved over query letter wording, and spent over $100 in mailing costs (that included a stamped, self-addressed reply envelope for that inevitable rejection note). Waiting for responses took months, occasionally even years, until the hopeful writer finally got that coveted request for a full manuscript. Then, another agonizing wait lasted months and usually ended with a “personal” form-letter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Around 2008, the internet publishing began. Mainstream publishers initially blacklisted “self-published” authors and touted the superiority of writers who survived their stringent endurance test and editing process. Despite this, the internet book sales exploded as dozens of small internet-only digital book publishers sprang up overnight. The traditional industry droned on about low standards and their threat that if a writer chose self-publishing, that person’s writing career was over.

I admit that I became one of the skeptics about the traditional publisher hysteria. As a thirty-five year self-employed entrepreneur, I decided to publish my own book and keep all the profits for myself. I did it--started the American Writers Publishing Company from scratch. Bought all the software, set up marketing contracts with Barnes and Noble, bought a book of ISBN numbers, contracted with a printer/book binder and hired a brilliant young graphic art designer in Denmark to produce my graphics. Then, I published my first book.

Cover art...SPACE CHRONICLES: The Last Human War

What a thrill that was! While the debate about self-publishing versus traditional publishing raged on, I was out there selling my story. It cost me about $4 to “build” a book. I thought I was going to get rich because the book, priced at $12.99, left me a lot of room for profit. My website offered a special price of $10, but I still expected to earn around $6 per book of profit on the discounted books.

What happened?

I sold a lot of books. I built a small fan base, and thrived on all the wonderful complements for my story. BUT, and here’s the important message, I did NOT make a lot of money. I discovered that chain bookstores take 45% of the face price for their cut. Wholesale distributors snip off another 10%, leaving me with a whopping $1.85 per book of net revenue. Net? Not quite. I also discovered that books are heavy. Even with discounted postage using USPS Media Mail rates or UPS, my “profit” dropped to less than $1 per book.

At this point, I realized I had one major advantage for all the “cuts” that everyone else took on my book—I had national distribution. “Whoopee,” I thought. “With ninety-six cents of profit per book, I can make almost $100,000 a year by selling 100,000 copies each year.” Yep, I was flying high on Pan-Fantasy Airlines. I rushed into my nearest Barnes and Noble to “see” my book among the other glossy offerings. It was not there. I checked several other B&N stores. Nada! It took calls to twelve stores before I found a copy on a shelf.

Of course, I made the two hour drive to that store, just to see how my book looked among the competition. By the way, the industry refers to all the books lining shelves in bookstores as “wallpaper,” and yes, it’s a derogatory term. There it was, The Last Human War, carefully camouflaged among dozens of equally glitzy bindings with my expensive cover art hidden from viewer eyes. I had bought a book on guerilla book-marketing, so I followed its overpriced advice and quietly moved my book onto a nearby shelf where all the book covers were facing browsers. The shelf, labeled “New Releases,” featured multiple copies by big name writers--and my one little book.

I managed to sell out most of my first printing, no thanks to the brick’n mortar stores. They were a waist of time and money. Books sold through private book signings, club visits, word of mouth, and website sales, all producing profits of around $4 per book. Would I recommend self-publishing? Absolutely. Lessons learned exceed anything I ever got in college or business classes. Those experiences made me a better writer, a better salesman and infinitely more patient with the publishing industry.

That said, I am tired of the ridiculous debate raging in recent years about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. It's a silly argument. There is a bona fide place for both, and each offers different benefits and weaknesses.

Just as you would not enter a mule in the Kentucky Derby, nor would you attempt to haul thousands of pounds of chemicals through 110 degree desert heat using thoroughbred horses. Each member of the horse family has a valuable niche. The same goes for publishing.

The internet threatened to end the reign of bookstores and legacy publishers as the sole interface between writers and readers. Soon, a proliferation of e-book readers like Kindle and Nook hammered the nail in the coffin, making dire predictions come true. Self-publishing options and direct-submission e-book publishers generated a whole new distribution system and countless outlets for author creations. Some quality writers who might never have had the chance to develop under the old system are now happily building fans, one book at a time. A few achieved extraordinary sales creating an inflated standard for what the average writer might expect.

What about the oft-ignored side of e-publishing? Some terrible publishing contracts are out there. False promises or inflated expectations seduce many hopeful writers. Incompetent editing is a real risk. Ineffective online promotions and overpriced POD books kill sales. Ultimately, the e-book industry’s inconsistent standards are beginning to force readers to be more careful, because not all small publishers or self-annointed authors measure up. Fortunately, the public is learning. Good quality small publishers, and strong writers, come to the top while the rest fade away.

Traditional publishers may be slow, but they are not stupid. They now fully embrace the electronic book market. Unlike most self-publishing companies and direct submission small publishers, selection of new authors by legacy publishers remains a vigorous test of stamina and writing standards. Whether a book comes out in dead-tree format or a collection of pixels on Kindle, books released by stalwart companies remain consistent in quality and promise. In addition, authors who successfully navigate the frustrating path to legacy publication gain credibility from the difficult accomplishment and recognition from important people who influence book buyers on a large scale—critics, reviewers, buyers for library systems, and other centers of influence.

What does all this tell us about the self-publishing versus traditional publishing debate?

1) Most claims offered in this foolish waste-of-words debate reflect a single, narrow piece of the publishing puzzle.

2) Can an author earn more money per book sold by self-publishing? Maybe. It depends on a bunch of factors such as distribution costs for physical books as mentioned above. Electronic book sales may favor self-publishing (per download), but greater volume of sales created by affiliation with a mainstream publisher may outperform the profit-per-book advantage in the long run.

3) Does a traditionally published author have better national exposure? Maybe. It depends on whether you’re talking about bookstore presence or internet offerings, or both.

4) What's in it for the reader? Which publishing method provides readers with the better chance of finding a quality story? Traditional publishers do a lot of screening on behalf of readers through their rigorous selection process and professional editing. On the other hand, readers who have taken the time to identify the good quality, small publishers can trust the goods they offer. This is especially true with boutique publishers that specialize in a genre and protect their reputation by being selective about authors.

So, before deciding whether to self-publish or try the traditional route, you must know yourself. What do you want to accomplish as an author? Big houses do things for authors that small houses cannot do. Vice versa is EQUALLY true. The final choice depends on what your goals are as a writer.

Remember, you can whip a mule until hell freezes over, but it ain’t gonna win the Kentucky Derby. Make sure you pick the right “horse” for the job that you want done.


  1. Wait, are you calling me a mule?

    I agree, this ongoing argument is just like arguing politics or religion-you can't make everyone agree. While I originally attempted to go the traditional route, I chose to self-publish in the end. I actually enjoy having more control over the marketing, sales, creative aspects, etc. It gives me the freedom to try anything and everything!

    1. Not at all, my dear. You are much too pretty to add a halter and lead rope!

      Your decision illustrates my point perfectly. You made the right decision for YOU. So many people get caught up in the silly argument about "what's best" that they lose sight of the rest of that question. "What is best for ME?"

      Thanks for your comment...Dean

  2. I especially agree in that there are inflated expectations with many self-published authors, but also with traditionally published ones as well.

    I know (insert correspond with) a handful of traditionally published authors. Most of those don't live off of their writing alone. And of those that do, they're not living the lavish limo and caviar lifestyle.

    Yep, know what to expect from that mule vs. quater horse--what job they can do, and how effective they can be at it.

    1. Ultimately, authors need to understand themselves and their goals for their writing before these silly arguments about which is "best" even begin to make sense. Then, then need to match up their goals with whatever publishing method will accomplish the desired result.

      My primary reason for going the traditional route for my current work is that I want/need access to the critics and reviewers that a legacy publisher can get. They can open doors for me. I'm willing to do all the work, but I need the entry ticket from them.

      As usual, your insights always add to the discussion. Thank you, Terry.

  3. I actually love this debate because the more passionate a person is the more I get to learn :) I love both sides but for me traditional seems the way to go...I guess ask me again in a couple years ;) Thanks for once again another interesting and informative blog post Dean!!

    1. Julia,

      I wrote this blog for people like you; folks who read all the controversy and may wonder what is best for their writing. Ironically, that question is not answered by the debate, rather, it comes from your own heart. Once you know what you want to accomplish as a writer, then the "best" publishing avenue FOR YOU becomes crystal clear.

      Good luck with your writing and future as an author...Dean

  4. There is no dispute about one issue! Because of your experiences in all things publishing, the business and the writing endeavors both, you remain a stalwart mentor of mine! I trust the knowledge you provide those of us still struggling through the miasma of vetting which type of horse to ride. If I jump mounts mid-steam, that doesn't mean I'm abandoning either or all. It just means I'm going to take advantage of everything out there and remain open-minded about the raging debate. It's not an either/or proposition. It's about what works for you as an individual and unique writer. Thank you, Dean! Again!

    1. Kat,

      I appreciate your support and compliment, but I am still navigating this publishing labyrinth too. My experiences to date are reflected in my opinions expressed, and I do not profess to be an expert in the matter...just opinionated! (My wife just looked over my shoulder when I wrote that and snickered, "So, what else is news!")

      Thank you for your thoughts. I am sure your creativity and story, Blood Clouds, will find the right home in the near future. Good luck...Dean


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