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Publetariat Dispatch: Why DIY Publishing Is NOT A Dead End

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!
In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author M. Louisa Locke rebuts a post written by Anderson Porter.

This morning I read a post by Anderson Porter about a four-piece article written a few weeks in the Boston Phoenix by Eugenia Williamson, entitled The dead end of DIY publishing.  I had read the Williams piece earlier, and the more than fifty  comments, which in my opinion had done a more than adequate job of  pointing out its problems. But when Anderson seemed to accept much of  her analysis, and labeled the comments as “the usual pitchfork-waving,  spittoon-dinging dismissals, I found myself spending the rest of the  morning writing a reply. When I finished, I thought I ought to expand  abit, and post what I had to say as a blog, thereby at least justifying a  morning lost to writing on my next book. So here goes:

I am a DIY self-published author, who  found Williamson’s piece upsetting because it did what so many other  pieces have done, alternated between describing self-published authors  as a group in dismissive terms and using some of the most  unrepresentative examples to prove its points. I am not going to argue  that traditional publishing is dead, or that self-publishing is the best  or only route for every author to take, but what I am going to do is  give you my reasons why I don’t believe that self-publishing is a dead  end.

Williams is making 3 points: That  publishing is not profitable, that when it is, it is not because of  merit, and that it can not provide “the equivalent of research and  development: the nurturing of young writers with a first book of short  stories as well as critically worthy mid-list authors provide the  equivalent of research and best sellers paid for.”

For example, in Williamson’s article she  has as a heading the statement: SELF-PUBLISHING ISN’T PROFITABLE, OR  MERITOCRATIC. I don’t know how you would interpret this, but I read it  to mean that if you self-publish you won’t make money, and if you are  successful it isn’t because of the value of the work you produce. As a  self-published author who is successful (in this my 3rd year as an  author the income I am making per month in sales is well over what I  made as a full time history professor), I naturally found the first part  of the statement inaccurate and the second point insulting.

Her proof of the first statement is that  for every Konrath there are thousands who don’t make any money. This is  a meaningless statement since, while I am sure it is true, it is  equally true that for every Steven King there are perhaps hundreds of  thousands of traditionally published authors who make no money. Writing,  at least until now, is not profitable for the vast majority of the  people who engage in this activity. If she really wanted to make a  statement that added to the discussion, she should have said that  self-publishing was less profitable than traditional publishing for the  majority of authors. But she can’t say this, not just because the  systematic data comparing the two doesn’t exist, but because the  increased number of traditional authors who are choosing to self-publish  would argue that the statement was untrue.

Since she can’t prove her statement that  self-publishing is unprofitable, she instead feels the need to insult  those people who do it by suggesting that the authors don’t care if they  make money because they “wouldn’t make a dime because no publisher  would take them,” or that if they make money, it was only because they  had the money to invest in the process because the “truth is  self-publishing costs money.”

Then she picks one of the least  representative examples of a self-published author she could find–De La  Pava to prove this point. Here is an author who published a book and  “forgot about it.” How unrepresentative is that! And she mentions that  he spent thousands of dollars, which sounds like he used an “authors  services” package. If she had either done her research or wanted to  paint a balanced view of self-publishing surely she would have taken the  time to interview one of the hundreds of self-published authors she  could find on the internet (we blog incessantly about our experiences),  and mentioned that Smashwords, Amazon’s KDP, and Barnes and Noble’s  PubIt, and Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightening Source have made it  possible for authors to publish without that large initial investment.

But no, she doesn’t do that, instead she  tries to use this author to make the point that there is no meritocracy  in self-publishing because this particular author was successful  because he had good luck. The implication is that success has nothing to  do with the work an author puts into the writing of the book, or the  marketing of the book, or the judgment of the readers, hence the idea  that those who are successful don’t “merit” the success. If Williamson  had spent just a few hours reading the blogs of self-published authors  she would see how much time is being spent on the craft of writing, on  learning how to design better book, inside and out, on how to most  effectively promote, on actual promotion, and she might have been able  to see how little luck has to do with it.

Finally there is her third point that  self-publishing lacks the nurturing of young authors through that  advances provide or the research and development possibilities of  traditional publishing. Porter (and many of the authors who commented on  the article) pointed out the problem with her assumption that  traditional publishing uses its bestseller profits to nurture their  midlist authors, so I won’t belabor this point. What I will argue is,  that if we are discussing fiction, which Williamson seemed to be doing,  the nurturing that authors need the most is a steady predictable income  so that they don’t have to work full time at something else, and the  research and development they need is marketing data that they can then  use to develop new strategies for getting their work to the reader and  getting that reader to buy their work.

If you compare the traditional to the  self-publishing model, the self-publishing model is anything but a dead  end. For the traditionally published author, small advances, spread over  3 or 4 payments, and royalties, that only come 2-4 times a year, mean  that most authors have a very insecure and spotty income. It is hard to  take the leap to leave your “day job” when your money comes in dribs and  drabs and you don’t know from year to year what you are going to make.

In contrast, as a self-published author I  see my sales daily, I get my checks monthly, I have sales data for 2  1/2 years and can tell you which months I will make the most money, and  which months the sales dip, so I can make my fiscal plans accordingly.  Within a year of publishing my first novel, I was making enough money  monthly to replace my part-time teaching salary (I was semi-retired),  and I retired completely to write full time. As with most small  businesses, it may take authors who self-publish years to grow their  business to the point of making a living, but I am hearing many more  stories of authors finding this sort of sustainable income than I ever  heard from mid-list authors in traditional publishing. And with more  income coming from ebooks, which don’t have the short life span of print  books, this income has a much longer impact on an author’s financial  security.

I have every reason to expect that the  two books I have published will continue to sell, and that as I publish  more books, my income will go up. My traditionally published friends  know that in most cases they will never make any money after the  advance, and they have no guarantee that the next book they write will  ever be published. Which vision of the future would you find more  nurturing?

Williams says that if traditional  publishing disappeared the only books published would be by those with  “the money and the time to publish and promote it.” But if she had done  adequate research she would have seen that the initial investments in  self-publishing are generally small (mine was $250 for a cover) and can  be recouped quickly, and only a small percentage of future profits need  to be plowed back into the business on a yearly basis (upgrade websites,  professional editing, etc.), and you don’t need to even do that to get  out another book, which can then double your earnings.

And for fiction, research and  development should mean researching the market and developing good  promotional strategies. But again, traditional publishing doesn’t do a  very good job of this for most authors. Traditional publishers are just  starting to talk about shifting their marketing focus from book sellers  to book readers, and most authors are still expected to come up with  their own marketing campaigns based on extremely limited data and often  years-out-of-date information about where and how their books are  selling. Even if they get direct feedback from their fans, they have  little control over covers, interior formatting, pricing or promotions.  So even if they did their own research, they don’t have authority or  mechanisms to use that information to improve the product.

In contrast, because I know every day  how many books sold, in what venue, I can mount a promotion, change a  price, upload a book into a new book store, and know instantly what the  effect of these actions are. I can change a book cover, go in and  correct formatting errors instantly, not wait until another edition is  printed (if ever). And, as I write my next book, I can take into  consideration what 100s of my readers have said in their reviews, not  what an editor says based on limited marketing analysis of my mid-list  genre.

Just three years ago when I started, it  was very difficult to get any information on how other authors were  doing with their sales. (Which is why Konrath’s willingness to publish  his sales data was so revolutionary!) While there might have been a top  down mentoring system among agents, editors and successful authors,  there wasn’t the vibrant community that now exists among authors that is  open to all. Self-published authors share information readily about  what promotions worked and what didn’t. We share information about sales  data, how to over come formatting difficulties, what covers work, what  fonts to use, and promotional strategies. We open up our blogs to guest  reviewers, form cooperatives for cross-promotional purposes.  Self-publishing welcomes writers of any age, any background, who write  about every subject in every form. Any time spent online looking in  Barnes and Noble or Amazon’s stores, or reading writers’ blogs  demonstrates that authors are experimenting more than ever before. Short  stories, novellas, graphic novels are being published and read that  would never have made it through the narrow gates of traditional  publishing, which tended to strain out anything that deviated from the  recent bestseller trend.

Will some authors fail, or be  disappointed? Of course. Will some of these experiments prove  unsuccessful, certainly. But, without self-publishing these authors  wouldn’t have gotten the chance to fail, and many others, like myself, a  former academic in her sixties, wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance to  succeed.

I would love to hear from those of you  who have had experience with both traditional and self-publishing and  examples of nurturing you found in both.


This is a reprint from M. Louisa Locke‘s blog.


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