The Shatzkin Files


When an author should self-publish and how that might change


There is a question that every agent and publisher is dealing with, because authors surely are. And that’s this: when should an author self- (or indie-) publish?

The answer is certainly not “never”, and if there is anybody left in a publishing house who thinks it is, they should think a little harder.

For a number of reasons, the belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. It’s good to get an advance that is partially in your pocket before the manuscript is even finished and assured once it is. It’s good to have a team of capable professionals doing marketing work that authors are seldom equipped to do well themselves and which can be expensive to buy freelance, particularly if you don’t know how. It’s good to have a coordinated effort to sell print and ebooks, online and offline, and it’s good to have the supply chain ready for your book, with inventory in place where it can help stimulate sales, when you fire the starting gun for publicity and marketing. And it’s great to have an organization turning your present book into more dollars while you as an author focus on generating the next one, and start pocketing the next advance.

Publishers have heretofore really had only one model for working with authors. They acquire the rights, usually paying an advance-against-royalties, and own and control the entire process of publishing. It is generally understood that all efforts to make the book known can show benefits in all the commercial channels it exploits. So publishers have generally insisted on, and authors have generally accepted, controlling all the rights to a book when they pay that advance. The two pretty standard, time-honored exceptions have been cinematic (Hollywood) rights, which are rarely controlled by the publisher, and foreign territory and language rights, which are only sometimes controlled by the publisher.

Since publishers until very recently effectively monopolized the path to market, they could effectively make the rules about what an author could publish. That usually has meant no more than a book a year. It has also usually eliminated anything that isn’t “book-length” or that needed to reach the market very quickly upon completion of the writing. And in a practice that ultimately has had painful consequences for publishers, it meant backlists went out of circulation when a title wasn’t worth printing in bulk.

And these make up a very good starter list of when even an established author might want to consider an alternative to the conventional publishing arrangement. (It goes without saying that a fledgling author with a completed manuscript might choose self-publishing as a way to start their commercial career in preference to canvassing for an agent and then, if that quest is successful, waiting for the agent to find a publishing deal and the publisher to get the book out. Self-publishing could conceivably speed up the whole process of finding a publisher!)

Although most of the Sturm and Drang around how digital changes the publisher-author relationship have been about the royalty rate — publishers tend to want contracts that specify a royalty of 25 percent of revenue on ebook sales, various upstarts and digital-first publishers pay 50 percent and an author going directly to the retailers can get even more — that is, for most authors, less of a problem than it might first appear. For authors who don’t earn out advances, it isn’t a real number and the effective royalty is higher than what the contract says. And whatever the difference is in dollars, it doesn’t come without the requirement of work and sometimes costs — like a copy-editor or a cover designer or a marketing advisor — that would otherwise be borne by a publisher.

Where royalty rate is most consequential is for authors with a substantial reverted backlist. Since they begin their self-publishing efforts with equity built at least partly on a publisher’s back, they have a decided advantage over a fledgling self-publisher. Several authors have done very well for themselves building out from the platform of personal name recognition and titles somewhat established in the marketplace. The first of the obviously successful self-publishing authors was Joe Konrath several years ago and that’s how he started. Others have followed in his wake. And although the work required to self-publish and market yourself effectively is not trivial even if some readers know you and some of your work, it is also considerably more likely to result in a useful financial reward than trying to self-publish from a standing start. And certain chores, like editorial development and copy-editing, are eliminated by starting with already-published material.

In these cases, the loss of inventory-in-place at stores is less of a handicap to discovery than it would be for a new book and the additional margin on ebook sales could well leave the author making much more money, even without a promotional print sale.

But, for many authors, the frustration with publishing the conventional way might not be about money at all. Writers often write just because they have something to say, or a story to tell, and they want both to express it and have people read and react to it. That’s where the “shorter than a normal printed book” or “must get this published in weeks, if not days” barriers publishers have always presented become mere annoyances that anybody with a modicum of initiative would simply brush aside.

All of these motivations — monetizing previously dead backlist and getting to the public with material even a successful author would have difficulty getting a publisher to do — are behind the fact that the big literary agencies are staffing themselves to help authors navigate the digital world. In different ways, we have seen this emerge at Writers House, Trident, and Curtis Brown, among others. And another way this can work is demonstrated by the Waxman-Leavell Agency, which has spawned a new ebook publisher called Diversion. Diversion followed a path blazed more than a decade before when agent Richard Curtis started EReads (recently sold to Open Road) and lawyer-agent Arthur Klebanoff founded the still-operating Rosetta Books.

In other words, the gap between pure self-publishing and traditional publisher-author deals grew wide enough that the agents saw the need to fill it.

The strength of the traditional publishers and the traditional deals is directly related to the amount of the market that is served by inventory in stores. When that proportion was “nearly all”, the power allocation was “nearly all” to the traditional publishers. During the period when this was shifting quickly and the online share was rapidly depleting the in-store share — a few years ending a year or two ago — there was what felt like a rush to self-publishing combined with the growth of digital-first publishers, the reigning giant among them being Open Road.

The traditional publishers are starting digital-first imprints now that can do deals with different splits and handle both shorter books and faster publishing than the classic model. The upstarts like Open Road, Rosetta, and Diversion have built lists and businesses on the gap — in business jargon, “the delta” — between the traditional deal and pure self-publishing. The hunch here is that gap is going to get progressively smaller. The big guys will figure out commercial models to do shorter books and get to market faster. They’ll raise royalties (or unearned advances, which amounts to the same thing) to keep proven writers in the fold. Eventually, houses will give their acquisition editors the suite of deal templates they need to keep diminishing the incentive for an author to step away from the house to get something done.

And while there will always be an opportunity for a known author to make a bit more per copy if s/he takes on many of the functions of publishing her/himself, the amount of backlist available to be capitalized on in that way will shrink inexorably over time.

Self-publishing and new-style digital-first publishing can grow more to the extent that the book-in-store share of the market shrinks more. But while that’s happening, the big publishers are also adding to their capabilities: building their databases and understanding of individual consumers (something that all the big houses are doing and which the upstarts seem not to believe is happening, or at least not happening effectively), distributing and marketing with increasing effectiveness in offshore markets, and controlling more and more of the global delivery in all languages of the books in which they invest.

It will compound the pressure on the alternative players if Amazon continues to grow its global market share for ebooks. The bigger the percentage of the market that can be reached by self-publishers with one stop at Amazon, the less interest they’ll have in picking up smaller chunks of the market with additional deals and the more powerful will be any incentives Amazon cares to offer for making the title exclusive to them.

There has always been — and will always be — a great diversity of publishers. But the commercial concentration will continue to be in a small number of big English-language houses for many years to come even if the number of self-publishers appears to continue to grow.

We are really excited at the enthusiastic response we’ve been getting to our new Logical Marketing Agency business. If you have anything to do with marketing books (or brands) online, you’ll want to know about what we’re offering.

  Back to blog

  • http://www.PeteNikolai.com/ Pete Nikolai

    I can understand the appeal of self-publishing on one platform being higher if the platform commands the majority of the sales for the category, but those categories are few and far between. For most categories, local stores still provide the majority of sales so partnering with a provider that can get books in those stores and drive readers into those stores remains important.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Oh, you’re right in what you say, Pete, but it is also true that most of the most *successful *self-published titles fall into the genre categories where a large percentage of the sales are ebooks. But I share your opinion most of the time, which is why I said I think an author who can get a publishing deal should take it!

    • Marc Cabot

      The thing is… we don’t know for which categories that is true even now, and whatever the ratio is, it is only going to get better for e-distribution.

      No, we do not know, before anybody says it. Amazon doesn’t disclose those numbers. Anybody who says they know the ratio is at best a very, very educated guesser, and at worst is deluding themselves.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Marc, Amazon doesn’t *disclose *those numbers at least partly because Amazon doesn’t *know *those numbers. The entity that knows those numbers is the publisher. Nobody else.

      • Marc Cabot

        The point being, where Amazon is the publisher or, much more importantly, the title is published through KDP, Amazon does know, and nobody else does.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        C’mon Mark. When Amazon is the publisher, there is NO distribution to speak of outside Amazon. The other players boycott their books. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that!

      • Guest

        That’s not entirely true, but I’ll grant you that it cuts the odds of outside distribution way, way down.

        However, when the entity which sells the majority (how large a majority we don’t know, but if you can say with a straight face that Amazon doesn’t sell the majority of e-books, I think we’ll have to cite irreconcilable differences) of e-books doesn’t tell us how many of what kind of e-books they sell, I think it’s safe to say we don’t know the ratios which were the subject of my original comment.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Marc, publishers know the ratios. What is entirely a black box is what Amazon publishes. The rest of it is not so entirely obscure. And to tie together what I would have thought was disparate but which seems now to be joined in the same argument, what we don’t know about the ratio of ebook sales for various types and genres of books is far greater than the amount of distribution Amazon gets for its self-published titles outside of Amazon.

  • Massim0Marin0

    I disagree with “an author who can get a publishing deal should take it.” It depends.

    As contracts currently are—and I was offered a “generous offer” as a debut author—there’s nothing in there for a moderately successful Indie writer to make him sign such contracts. The “generous offer” falls in the ‘too little, too late’ category.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Impossible to respond intelligently without the details, but if you factor in the cost (or value) of the labor to do the work and the odds of success either way, I think that IF you are right in your case, it is the exception not the rule.

      • Massim0Marin0

        Well, of course every case is a case per se, that’s why I said “it depends”, but I’ve already verified that if I had signed the contract I would have lost money, and I hire professional services for proofreading, editing, and book covers!

        The discussion fell short because the publisher wanted me to do all the marketing I already do. Their budget? close to zero.

        In the end, their added value would have been publishing my novels and remove the indie-pen-dent stigma. Marketing? Only a splash launch effort then nothing else.

        I can’t see the value of a 10% royalty share and a $2000 advance in something that doesn’t open me new marketing channels in addition to the ones I already use in order to be discovered by more readers.

        What happens in most cases is described in this testimonial: http://massimomarinoauthor.com/average-traditionally-published-authors-pay/

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        A $2,000 advance is pretty penurious and if 10% is what you’re getting for a hardcover, that’s pretty tight too. Of course, chances are good that the way you’ll go you won’t do the hardcover at all, and you certainly won’t have any in stores. Still, you may be an exception to my generalization. Generalizations almost always have exceptions.

      • Massim0Marin0

        Indeed, but I suspect exceptions, for decent storytellers, will become more and more common. My novels are available as ebooks, paperback, and audiobooks. These last with a 50% royalty share contract with an audiobook Indie publisher.

        Having a book on the shelves, with the advent of POD in-store, will loose its original meaning and for as long as your books are listed in the digital catalogue of the bookstore, as mines are, your physical books are ‘virtually’ on every physical shelve ;)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        What you say makes sense except for the POD-in-store part. That ain’t going anywhere. But it doesn’t really matter because the stores have access to POD at Lightning so they can get the books. And, frankly, if it isn’t on the shelf it loses a lot of its sales potential, whether it could be printed in the store or printed at Lightning for delivery tomorrow. But it is true that stores are diminishing, those sales are declining, and, in general, the sacrifice involved in giving up that sale is less each day.

      • Massim0Marin0

        And yet, I think in-store POD would save the bookstores. Infinite catalogue, a few minutes to get a freshly printed edition, no distribution costs, no delivery costs, no returns.

        Correct about being in store, greater sales “potential” but the book needs to be visible right away. Just for being on the shelves somewhere per se means very little. The books that are ‘seen’ in stores glancing around are in the front window, or exposed in presenters. The others are stuck in the back shelves and aren’t seen if not already searched for, and the shopper will have to ask for them anyway. So, what’s the point? ;)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        We’ll agree to disagree on both points. In-store POD doesn’t deliver anything *like *a full catalog because most current books aren’t set up for it. But, it won’t work, especially if it appears to work. It takes 5 minutes or more to make a book. That’s great if you’re next on line. But if there are 5 or 10 people in front of you (which there would be if this “worked”), then you aren’t going to wait. Considering the cost of the machine, this isn’t a profitable solution for stores compared to just ordering those books from Lightning (and getting better printed versions and being able to get color and hardcovers too.)

        And you’re simply mistaken about books on the shelf not being useful to create sales. A reader who browses the fiction or biography section is primarily choosing from what they see in the section. If your book isn’t on that shelf — even one copy spine-out — you’re losing sales opportunities.
        The trade-off might well be worth it; I’m not trying to say you made the wrong choice to skip the paltry advance and low royalty rate you were offered. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re getting all the unit sales you’d have gotten with printed books on store shelves. You aren’t. And you aren’t getting the boost to discovery and word-of-mouth from them either.

      • Massim0Marin0

        In due time, especially if BAM experiment works with POD printers in-store, there will be little to no difference in quality from those and from Lightning.

        I’m not saying having a book on a shelf is not useful (black and white doesn’t exist anywhere) but having spent sometime in bookstores, the one who gets in to browse and make a choice from spending time in the aisle are getting rarer and rarer. What I see is people getting in, approaching the first sales representative and asking for a specific title.

        The small bookstores have faithful buyers but what percentage they do represent wrt to those who order on amazon, are on social networks or buy the books they see from the Bookbub newsletters?

        What I’m saying is that unless my book is on a presenter with its cover well shown and visible at a glance, the number of sales lost because of a rarer and rarer reader who spends time browsing the shelves are a small percentage of the readers that find me on social network of through online marketing.

        I don’t think we can compare the word-of-mouth out of a bookstore sale, with the word of mouth out of 3000 sales on one single Bookbub promo ;)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Bookbub and bookstores are not either-or propositions. You can do both.
        And the word-of-mouth from bookstores is not just about people who buy the book but also about people made aware by seeing it there. That’s true of Bookbub too, of course.

        But the BAM print-in-store thing will only “work” to generate a local self-publishing business, not to boost sales of other commercial offerings, unless their experience is entirely different from that of the stores that went before them.

      • Massim0Marin0

        I agree with that, but ‘seeing it there’ happens for a tiny fraction of the books in a bookstore, the ones on the front windows and prominently positioned to be seen.

        The others… maybe they’re seen once every long while. The average book buyer stays only a few minutes in store with a title in mind. Asks for it, gets it, pays and leaves.

        The ones who spend time there, discovering new things, searching for the unseen gem are an extinct (or about to) species.

        I compare with sales of fellow writers who are in the mid/low list of their publishers. They’re all waiting to recover their rights. I wonder why :)

  • Pingback: Will Self-Pub Dwindle When There's Less Backlist for Authors to Exploit? | Jane Friedman()

  • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com/ Claude Nougat

    For some reason, I missed this post (never turned up in my email box!) so my comment is coming late. I find your exposé quite illuminating and one thing you said has explained something that has puzzled me from the moment I started to self-publish (back in 2011): the tsunami of ebooks on Amazon, growing at an amazing rate each month. At first, I thought it was fed by new writers like myself then I realized that a lot of the titles came from the backlist of traditionally published authors. I argued with Konrath that such authors had an easy time of it compared to new ones like myself: they already had a name on the marketplace and a fan base. He disagreed with me pointing to several new authors, chief among them Amanda Hocking (that exchange was before Hugh Howey appeared). I lost out the argument of course but remained convinced that authors like Hocking were the exceptions that confirmed the rule.

    Self-publishing makes a lot of sense if you’re an established author. If not, not so much. The marketing effort is huge and useful advertisers like BookBub won’t take you on in most cases. So you’re left standing alone watching a rising tide of backlist titles displacing your own little newborn baby. I do think that authors who encourage others to self-publish their debut novel should refrain from doing so or at least point out the risks for newcomers.

    But you mention something interesting that I have begun to notice too: that most trad-pubbed authors have now exhausted their backlist. At this point, many of them have to jump in and publish new titles fast, at the rate of more than one book per year, as their readers have come to expect that from them; 3 or 4 books a year has been of late the “average” in the digital market precisely because authors published their backlist.

    I believe that such an “average” is a little unnatural: there is a reason why trad publishers have always expected one book/year from their authors (it takes time to “mature” a really good story). Of course, you’ve got prolific best-selling writers like Patterson who manage to publish several books per year on a regular basis but they are fairly rare (and I’m told Patterson does this with the help of assistants).

    It would be nice if the digital market would slow down a little (and give everyone a chance to mature their books at a natural pace)…Do you think that it is in fact the case that authors have begun to exhaust their backlist?

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Claude, I really have no way to really measure whether the reservoir of backlist controlled by authors has been mostly tapped. But it is a finite pool and if it isn’t tapped out now, it surely will be before long as more and more authors understand what’s possible and more and more services develop to help them.

      It is really hard to understand how Konrath can deny the reality of what you spelled out here. He’s succeeded very well and was a pioneer; trying to deny that being published previously contributed to his success would seem easy enough to do. And that is true regardless of the success of authors that have done it from a standing start. I believe that will get increasingly difficult to accomplish and I believe I wrote that in a prior post some time ago.

      • Massim0Marin0

        Agree with that. Having an already established readership removes the hardest hurdle of any Indie writer: build a readership. It really is a no-brainer.

        Besides, from various report available online, only 20% of all titles in Amazon earn more than $1000 a year (!`) — year, not month — so yes, the majority of Indie writers only sell a few ebooks every month but they don’t care for as long as it happens. Most don’t even pursue a ‘real’ career but write as a hobby and don’t approach writing in order to provide a publishable product.

        Of course this is hurtful for all other independent writers because makes it difficult for readers to find those books that rival and even surpass what the traditional publishing corrals produce. It’s a continuous battle to emerge to the surface and float above it more and more.

        I sell ten times more than last year and the trend continues. I keep working and studying my craft, learning more about what resonates with readers and what doesn’t, readership is building up and if I can come back next year and say again “I sell ten times more than last year” you will ask me for a guest post :)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Or maybe a speaking slot at Digital Book World…

      • Massim0Marin0

        Deal :)

  • http://francistapon.com/ Francis Tapon

    Mike, what does your crystal ball tell you when you look out to 2050? Will agents still be around (as significantly are they are today)? Will publishers be around (or will they shrink like the horse industry shrank over 100 years)? Will authors be around (or will they be overtaken by artificial intelligence that writes better stories and non-fiction than humans? ;)

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Francis, I think 2050 is a bit too far away to predict. In general, I think the role of agents as business advisors to authors and the role of publishers turning intellectual property into money will still need to be filled. But if the other part of things you are imagining transpires as you envision it — that computers can be programmed to “write” better stuff than humans do — then the agents and publishers will be working for machines, so maybe they’ll be machines too. If the machines can *read *the stuff, then we won’t be needed at all!

      • http://francistapon.com/ Francis Tapon

        OK, then let’s all enjoy the bit of utility that’s left in our species. :)
        Congrats on fixing your comment system – now I get notifications on your replies.

  • Marc Cabot

    [T]he belief here is that most of the time for most authors who can get a deal with an established and competent house, their best choice is to take it. (And then describing the benefits of what an established and competent house provides.)

    Yeah, well, that’s great in theory but the thing is, all of those things, to the extent they existed for midlisters in times past, are going the way of all flesh.

    Living advances, real publicity and marketing, significant print runs… yeah, they’d be wonderful, if you were assured of getting them. You are not. So you’re not weighing the chance of getting picked up and getting those benefits, you’re weighing the chance of getting picked up and then the chance of getting those benefits. Each has a probability <1. Whereas the probabilities that if you do submit you'll take months to hear, months to years to hit the shelves, and sign over your rights more or less forever, are all on the close order of 1.

    Here's some scary simple math: Suppose you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting picked up if you submit, and a fifty-fifty chance of getting real benefits as described, and a five percent chance of the publisher doing something to screw you.

    Your chances of getting to market with real benefits and not getting screwed are:

    0.5 x 0.5 x 0.95 = 0.2375, or 23.75 percent.

    So even if we give you odds which are literally laughably optimistic, your odds of making it to market with real benefits from the publisher – and remember, this is just what needs to happen to get your book to market, we haven’t even talked about the odds that it will sell – are worse than one in four. In exchange for that sub-quarter chance, you are giving up copyright essentially forever, likely giving up a lot of control over everything else you write which is remotely similar, and putting yourself at the mercy of everyone who ever has any authority over your book at that publisher, or any entity which acquires that publisher.

    Publishers need to start sweetening the deal, or more and more people are going to learn to do this math. And note I also didn’t even talk about royalties above. As has been pointed out, that’s just insult. The topics above are the real injury.

    • Massim0Marin0

      Alleluia :) Well said.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      The advantage of being the man doing the math is that you get to be the man who creates the assumptions. You left out some.

      One is that whatever you get for an advance is a) IN advance (before the public gets a vote), b) NOT a gamble to the author, and c) has no “costs” against it except the time writing.

      Another is that the preponderant majority (no stats are reliable, but 99% would probably be a reasonable estimate) of self-published authors get nowhere. They sell to a few friends and family, and that’s it.

      Another is that doing it yourself is neither cost- nor labor-free.

      Your abstract math is interesting, but overcomplicated. I suspect the author being offered an advance weighs one thing: whether that advance constitutes reasonable compensation for the work of the writing. If it does, everything else is secondary. If it doesn’t, *some *calculation is called for, but it has to include the additional risks on the do-it-yourself side which is a component totally missing from your calculus.
      This is a dynamic situation, though. Things are getting harder for publishers, so paying advances will get harder too. The right answer in 2014 might not be the right answer in 2016.

      Mike

      • Massim0Marin0

        Good points, Mike, but there’s also a weakness in all this reasoning taking into account those self-published writers who get nowhere. They will NEVER get a publishing contract nor being offered one. So, including them into any discussion is a moot point.

        Taking now ONLY into considerations those authors who do sell via author-publishing, I do not see how a publisher could convince today anyone to sign; not even 1% of those Indie writers who do a simple math would sign their contracts :)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Nice try, but no dice. That an author fails entirely at self-publishing does *not *prove that they couldn’t have sold their manuscript to a publisher, nor does it prove that a publisher would have failed as miserably as they did.

        And whatever the *logic* says to you, what the *facts* say to me is that *very *few authors who can get deals turn them down. It may happen someday, but as we speak right now — on April 30, 2014 — established publishers do *not *often have the problem that the authors to whom they offer advances turn them down and self-publish instead. I won’t say it never happens, but it surely is rare. When the day comes that it isn’t rare, publishers may change the parameters of their offer. That they haven’t suggests that what you think is logically compelling isn’t matched by facts on the ground.

      • Massim0Marin0

        Not exactly. It proves they are in denial.

        Mike, we can’t hold the candle at both ends. Either the self-authors are bad, their work is riddled with typos, inconsistencies, and only friends and family could read them, or they are good, readers appreciated them and they do sell. The crude fact of self-publishing, and we shouldn’t shy away from it, is that the slush-pile is self-published.

        True, it looks like only 20% of self-published authors make $1000 a year. These authors would do better with a $2000 advance but I bet they’ll never be offered that. So, where to raise the bar to compare author-published work and traditionally published book? I’d put the bar where an author makes something like $5000 a year. Where would be a self-published author who makes that with a 70% royalty if instead he received 10%?

        Nowhere.

        It is a myth that the publishing houses push all authors with their marketing juggernaut engine behind to become best sellers.

        PS
        I speak from experience. I’ve read the contract I was offered. Unsignable! (neologism for the current times)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        No insult intended, but this is a bit of a silly discussion because there aren’t any facts. We have some mythical notion that 20% of self-published authors make $1,000 or more a year (I don’t believe it, personally) and then we don’t have any distribution above that. You talk about authors who make $5,000 a year. What percentage is *that *of the total? Well, if the 20% number is right, I’d guess it is like 2% of the total and no more than 10% of those above $1,000. And when you get to $10,000, you’ve had another big dropoff. So how many people are we talking about here? Not very many.
        And although it is, indeed, a “myth” (if anybody believes it) that all authors published by a house get a marketing juggernaut behind them (I’d actually call this your straw horse rather than somebody else’s myth), it is also true that mere cataloging by a major publisher gets any book more discovery and distribution than a huge percentage (90? 95?) of the self-published authors get, even if they work hard to get it. And let’s not forget that part of the equation: working hard to get it. Working hard at something that it is *not *writing.

        Yes, self-publishing works for a handful of the people who try it. And you’re right that most people can’t get a deal, and then self-publishing makes all the sense in the world. But I stick to my original point. For those authors who *can *get a deal, chances are the smartest thing they can do is take it. There are exceptions, but that seems to me clearly to be the rule.

      • Massim0Marin0

        No insult taken, Mike. Far from it. The data come from the analysis presented by Hugh Howey on Amazon records.

        Then we need to make a difference between publishing houses. One of the Big 5 or any other. Sure, If I were to get an advance at 6 digits, with what that implies in terms of marketing, Big Name publishers, etc, I’d probably sign it. But those deals are like the 2% you mention for self-published reverted on the traditionally published authors camp.

        The reality for the 90%, 95% (using your same numbers) is this: http://massimomarinoauthor.com/best-selling-authors-arent-making-minimum-wage/

        and it is nothing to be happy with.

        My point is that those who “can” get a deal do sell already nicely via author-publishing. The majority of the deals they would get—doing a simple math—is against sign the contract.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        All interesting, and all not relevant to the original discussion.

        Yes, it is hard to make money as a writer. That’s true whether you’re published or whether you do it yourself. It has always been true. It will never change.

        The question is what’s the best choice for a writer who has an offer from a publisher for an advance against royalties.

        Nothing you or Hugh (whom I like a lot, and whom I put on the DBW program long before he was well known, but not before he’d achieved great success very much on his own) say or have said contradicts my unproveable contention that taking the advance is the wiser course. There are almost certainly individuals for whom, for a variety of reasons, this advice would not apply: they’re great marketers, they’re do-it-yourselfers, they have real knowledge of how to work the web, they have a brand established some other way. But everybody else is taking a bigger risk of product failure by doing it themselves AND they’re costing themselves money twice: what they didn’t take and what they’ll have to spend on their own.

      • Massim0Marin0

        On your last points I agree with you, Mike. Author-publishing IS difficult and it is not enough to write a good book that readers appreciate. Far from it… If only it was that simple.

        If an author doesn’t have additional skills, on top of being a good storyteller and providing good reading experience to the readers, being discovered doesn’t happen naturally. It IS hard work. Saying the opposite would be simplistic.

        But from what I’ve seen, publishers — at large — are not making the choice complicated for those who can learn a few things more :)

        And self-publishing is a misnomer, really. It is team publishing, the author, the beta-readers, the proofreader, the editor, and the graphic designer for the cover. It’s a self that implies a team ;)

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Well, we’re narrowing the area of disagreement. I’d just say that the percentage of good writers that meet the requirements you yourself spell out for successful self-publishing is a fraction of the total. In other words, the “good advice” to “do it yourself” only really applies to a pretty small percentage of the total candidates with a manuscript in their computer. To be clear: “those who can learn a few more things” makes it sound easy for most people. That isn’t the case. And even for those who can, the work is not trivial.

      • Massim0Marin0

        We closed the gap here, Mike. :)

        I agree 100% with this. It’s not easy, it’s doable, but not easy.

      • Marc Cabot

        And now we’re back to the single apple, crate of oranges problem: you’re counting all self-published authors against the traditionally
        published authors who’ve already made the first cut. That math has been done elsewhere, far better than I could do it in a blog comment.

        Further, I set forth some of the things you’re trading for your advance, and the time writing is only one of them. Fine, it took you a year to write the book, and they’re offering you twenty grand. Sounds pretty nice. But let’s take me for an instance. I’ve got, actuarially, twenty to forty
        years left in me. Let’s split the difference and call it thirty. They take the book, it goes nowhere, never earns out, but they don’t want to give it back so they go Mystery Date on me and sell six copies a year to their Costa Rican distributor to keep it from reverting. Now I’ve gotten twenty grand for the year of writing… and the thirty years of copyright they got as well. Doesn’t look like such a good deal now. Granted, maybe I wouldn’t have sold twenty grand worth of books in thirty years… but if the book is any good at all, there’s a pretty good chance I could get at least that much out of the long tail, whereas once they decide it’s done, it goes in Warehouse 13 for the rest of time and never ever gets another shot.

        Add on the decades of copyright they took from my heirs, and it starts to look like the worst deal since Cain and Abel.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Marc, if the deal looks that bad to you, you won’t take it. But, for whatever reason, and there could be many, the problem you describe is not one publishers feel they face. The deals aren’t being turned down in favor of self-publishing. Except maybe by you and a few others. It is *not *a generic problem for publishers.

      • Massim0Marin0

        Give it time :) In my little circle I know 2 others (3 with Marc above, I believe) who have refused to sign contracts.

        I would bet it is not so *rare* as publishers wish to believe.

        Also IBM believed nothing could topple it, then came Open Source software and Windows PCs.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        I’m talking about *now*. Any careful reading of what I write makes it clear that I *know *things will change over time. I am not arguing that the equation won’t ever change. I am arguing that an author turning down an advance today is without doubt taking a major risk and very likely making a bad choice.

      • Massim0Marin0

        I know, but the same author should ask around with other Indie writers who do sell, what needs to be done and learned to do a proper job at author-publishing before taking any decision. If s/he’s a debut author, and lacks this information s/he’s very likely to make a bad choice in any case.

      • Marc Cabot

        But the reason I picked the copyright thing to make an example – there are MANY other things I could additionally cite – is that it is *happening* now. Yes, now, today, you are giving away decades of IP for your “safe” choice. And it’s *already* crystal clear that in those decades things are going to change, indiepublishing is going to get more accepted not less, publishers are going to get smaller not bigger, etc. Just looking at that if you are seriously considering tradpub when you don’t already have an in and/or aren’t willing to fight for a reversion clause with teeth, you are demonstrating mathematical illiteracy. Now.

      • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

        Marc, don’t get too carried away with your projections for the future. There will be more content in the marketplace, the prices of it will be lower, and there is no guarantee of any particular level of revenue attributable to any piece of IP based on what it is doing now. You make it sound like this is “obvious” to anybody with a brain and the ability to look forward. The 10- or 20- or 50-year value of a 2014 copyright is anything *but *obvious.

  • John Brown

    Mike,

    Your discussion of the amount of the market served by inventory in stores is right on. But the “best choice” conclusion doesn’t seem to follow.

    Why?

    Because the question for each author has to be which stores will I be in, what kind of floor space will I have, and how long will I be there? And in many cases the answers to those questions do not compete well with indie options.

    For example, a lot of in-store sales come from the drug store, grocery store, airport, Walmart, Costco type venues. But it’s rare than an author getting an average deal will see the light of day in those places. Those are reserved for bigger sellers. And not very many of those. So unless you’re getting a big deal, you can’t count that floor space.

    Poof. Tens of thousands of venues are now no longer part of the equation.

    I’ve detailed more about the numbers of venues left, placement in those stores, and duration here: http://johndbrown.com/2014/04/when-an-author-should-self-publish-and-how-that-might-change/

    I agree that there are certainly cases when licensing to a publisher makes sense. But it’s certainly not going to be a stand out option all the time, even with well-established and competent publishers.

  • Sandi

    Please correct “strum and drang.” The error stopped me cold in an otherwise well-written and interesting blog. Yes, as a reader and writer, I am a snob about this sort of thing. Auto correction is a bitch.

    • http://idealog.com/blog Mike Shatzkin

      Done, Sandi. Nice catch. It’s nice to have sharp-eyed readers.