Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Actual Self-Publishing Experience

I see a lot of rubbish about self-publishing on the Internet, most of which comes down to some sort of get-rich-quick schemes. There are hundreds of supposedly successful self-published authors offering to sell you their (self-published) secret to their success—which won't actually apply to anyone else because they were either (1) an early adopter who used this or that social media technique (trick), which won't now work for you, the too-late adopter, because consumers are wise to that one now; or (2) they were already well known authors or bloggers or Youtubers or etc with an established readership who simply carried that reputation/readership with them as they cut out the middlemen (i.e., dropped the publisher(s) who invested to made that author's reputations in the first place). Most new writers won't be able to duplicate their success, but nevertheless fork over $$ for books or courses from these self-appointed gurus, and then end up selling maybe 100 copies of their novel, no matter how slaveishly they adhered to the suggested formula.

It is therefore extremely refreshing to come across actual facts about the actual experience of an actual author....for free.

Arthur Slade is a successful Canadian YA author: he has won major awards (e.g., the prestigious TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature) and sold a lot of books (i.e., makes a living at it). My oldest read a number of his books (e.g., The Hunchback Assignments series and ,Jolted) during the crucial period when she was deciding whether reading was really worth the effort and I credit Arthur for being one of several authors who pushed her over the edge to 'yes'. And I've used his novel about high school cliques ,Tribes, as an assigned reading in my course for student teachers.

Now Arthur is experimenting with self-publishing, and what's of potential interest to readers here, is that he is documenting what he has done, step by step, what it cost, and how the whole process has gone (so far):

  • Why I am Self-Publishing in which Arthur talks about his reasons for self publishing his vampire novel(s); arranging for editing and book design and so on.
  • Part 2 where Arthur discusses how it all went a month after the book's launch (complete with charts!)

It's all pretty useful information, and gives one a real feel for costs and income—though one month is still pretty early and we can assume the book will continue to earn for some time to come.

[Arthur has also previously talked about self-publishing his backlist as ebooks if that could apply to you.]

You will note that even though Arthur is a critically acclaimed writer (see awards above) such that we can assume the quality of the manuscript is high (reader reviews would seem to confirm this); and even though he has an established readership ready and willing to buy his books, and he is pretty savvey about social media and so on, he didn't exactly sell a billion-zillion copies. I'm guessing that he did about as well in terms of sales the first month as if he had gone to a small press (which would have covered the expenses, but then taken half the net income) so those figures look pretty reasonable to me.

The question then becomes, what are the implications for a new writer?

Well, the most obvious moral is: don't quit your day job. If someone tells you can write a book and make your fortune, and you buy their book or take their course or etc, expecting that to happen, then I'd like to introduce you to my cousin from Nigeria who has this really interesting proposition for you.

The second, perhaps less obvious moral, is that if you're going to do self-publishing right, then you have to be the publisher, and hire the editor, cover artist, and book designer etc for which the publisher normally pays.

I note that Arthur says he paid an absurdly small amount for editing, but that just means that Arthur's manuscript didn't require much actual editing. (I mentioned that he is an award-winning author, right?) New author's can expect to pay more for editing because their manuscripts are likely to require more work, and perhaps several iterations, to get to publishable standards, which therefore requires more hours of editing.

[Professional editors charge between $40- $60/hour, but one can often find colleagues with whom to swap edits, or qualified friends to do some of the initial editing for free, so that the professional editors are not starting from scratch, as it were. Going to a small press is another way to avoid paying out for expensive editing, since editing and cover art and book design and distribution are what the publisher brings to the table—and distribution of ebooks is probably about as easy for you as for them,'s just really about the editing/art/design. (Oh, and publishers may add a layer of branding, assuming they are a credible publisher (like, say, CZP).]

Realistically—which is to say—statistically, most self-published books only sell 5-200 copies, depending how big one's family and circle of friends is, and how aggressively one is prepared to push the book on neighbours and one's church congregation. I'm considering self-publishing my collected short stories, once I have enough published stories to fill a book. I have a bit of a reputation among fans, and people seem to like my stories, so I can allow my ego to daydream about such a collection eventually making sales into the 50 copy range, but I'm no Arthur Slade, so I do not expect to ever match his self-published sales figures. So...we're talking chapbook, we're talking souvenir, we're talking self-fulfillment, but we're not talking about making a living, let alone making one's fortune. You've seen Arthur's figures... feel free to extrapolate that experience to your own situation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Staying Out of Bookstores

[This was written in response to Paul Cipywnyk's "Where the Ink Meets the Road: Insights from Working in a Bookstore" posted in The Editor's Weekly the official blog of Editors Canada, Canada's national association of editors, Nov 15, 2016.]

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I used to love going into bookstores; now I mostly find them depressing.

As an acquisition editor, I am depressed knowing that the fabulous books I have acquired and edited are not even in the store, because the Indigo/Chapters/Smith/Coles monopoly chain made the decision not to carry independent publishers anymore, when it switched 50% of shelf space from books to cute stuff, because books weren't selling enough. Thankfully, the micro publisher (60 titles and growing!) I work for saw that coming and therefore survived that change when many other Canadian small presses folded overnight when they suddenly found themselves—not just effectively shut out of brick and mortar stores—but faced with six figure bills as their entire inventory was returned to them in one ruthless weekend.

As a critic and reviewer, I'm depressed when I see rows and rows of books in the SF/Fantasy section devoted to TV and movie series; to series written to a single formula; to the exact same book written by dozens of different authors all trying to catch the current fad by writing the predictable processed cheese designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator among consumers. It often feels like the big five publishers are so focused on predictable sell through that they have given up on taking risks, on caring about quality and innovation and promoting new authors. I know that perception isn't accurate, because I've met some of the editors at those big houses and they are fine upstanding individuals who love books as much as I do, and who are doing their best in a tough business. But I miss the days when presses were small and when the acquisition editor and the developmental editor were the same person and made the final decision based on their own tastes and gut feelings without having to worry about shareholders and the marketing department. When publishers were brands that readers could seek out to know that the editor shared their tastes and the reader could buy an unknown author or a new concept because they could trust the editor. Now the consumer can mostly trust that they won't be challenged by what they choose, won't have to think as they read, and will only feel what they've always felt reading the previus 80 Star Trek (or whatever) novels. As a writing coach, I am depressed because 95% of those who approach me for instruction want to know how they can become best sellers, how they can lose their voice and sound like every other author in the store. They want to know which of the current fads they can write to; or, better yet, can I tell them the secret of what the next fad will be. Or, how can they write like a 'gay person' (sic, I quoting here) or 'write black' or First Nations because so many writers guidelines these days say the publisher is open to/especially looking for LGBTQ/diverse authors, and these clients get upset with me when I raise about cultural appropriation. Or, I have to tell them to stop trying to be Margret Atwood (if they have graduated from university creative writing programs) or Robert Sawyer (if they are trying to write commercial genre fiction) because we already have Marget Atwood and Robert Sawyer and what we really need instead is their unique voice and their unique perspective and insight. And then we both get depressed when they ask me, 'Will I be able to make a living writing as myself' and I have to answer, 'Probably not, no'.

As an author, bookstores depress me because as I look around at the thousands of titles on the shelves—even ignoring all the processed cheese clogging the space and only looking at the authors I respect because they are pushing boundaries or allowing their uniquely Canadian voice to guide their writing—even if I just look at the books I love, there are so many more here (just today, not even talking about the turn over month to month—all those pallets of new books arriving each morning that Paul unpacks) l can never hope to read them all. If I cannot possibly buy and read all of their wonderful books, how I can I possibly expect anybody, anywhere, EVER to read my poor effort?

Not that my book is likely to ever end up in an actual brick and mortar store.

Most depressing of all, I can't remember the last time I actually went into a brick and mortar store. (To buy a book, I mean. I remember when I bought my daughter a leather bound notebook, and when I got the wife a coffee mug, and—well, you get the idea.) But I mostly read on my Kindle app or my Kobo, and when I finish a book, up pops a link to the next book by that author; or I take five minutes to search online for another title from CZP (the last great independent publisher in our genre) or from one of the small presses I follow because I know the editors, know the innovative fabulous work they are doing and know I won't find any of their books in the bookstore.

Don't get me wrong: "Where the Ink Hits the Road" is a great piece, and authors and editors should indeed occasionally visit bookstores to check out the real world of publishing. That there are still bookstores and readers at all is a positive thing! Not trying to argue that bookstores are out of date or that big publishers are evil or anything of that ilk. That would be nonsense. (I may be envious, but I'm not delusional, as some commentators on these issues appear to be.) Rather, just saying that we need to be careful when examining where the ink hits the pavement that we don't twist ourselves out of shape trying to figure out how to sell out to get a piece of that action. One should always start from one's own voice (or the client's voice, if you're the editor) and look for the market where that book belongs, and not start from the market and try to fit one's voice to it. The number of writers I've known over the years who've tried to write that Romance or SciFi novel to earn the big bucks, and failed miserably because they didn't even read romance themselves or know SF isn't not called scifi by anyone in the field, far exceeds the number (zero) who made that work for them. The authors I know who became successful all kept to their own voice and only became "overnight successes" after twenty years of nonstop effort to become the best writers they could become, ignoring fads and get quick rich schemes.

And who managed not to get so depressed about bookstores, and the economic realities of modern publishing/distribution, to give up writing completely.