Are Writers Better Off Self-Publishing?

New authors often seek guidance on writers’ sites on whether one is better off self-publishing or going through a traditional publisher. For most new authors, the question is an academic one (whether they realize it or not) because most writers have a better chance of being struck by lightning than they do obtaining a book contract from a traditional publishing house (read: not a small press, vanity press by any other name, or print on demand publisher) for their first or second novel, and a greater chance of being struck by an asteroid than of obtaining a book contract for a poetry or short story collection. Most publishers no longer accept novel submissions from unagented authors, and agents are unlikely to take on an author on spec for a traditional royalty split contract of representation unless the author has either already established herself through past book sales or shows exceptional promise.

Nevertheless, some authors do face the happy choice of signing with a traditional publisher or going it alone. The question of whether independent authors are better off signing a contract with a traditional publisher or independently publish their work through a print-on-demand publisher like Create Space or a no-cost eBook publisher like Kindle Direct Publishing depends on a variety of factors, not least of which is whether the author is willing to make the marketing and promotion of their book(s) their full time job. The simple fact is that regardless of quality, books by unknown or little known authors will not sell in significant numbers without an effective (time consuming and often also expensive) marketing plan.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. Authors who write in narrow niche markets (erotica, zombie novels, etc.) may find a loyal following with little marketing efforts if they can develop a fan base that will seek out their work. Social media alone may work fairly well for these authors. Not so for the average novelist, poet or nonfiction author.

Authors who have not published through traditional channels may look with contempt at the typical contract offered by traditional publishers which are decidedly not author friendly, and scoff at the “low” royalty rates they offer. There is no question in my experience with both textbooks and trade books (Richard Irwin/Mirror Press/McGraw-Hill/Prentice Hall,  McFarland & Co./Textbook Media Publishing), the contracts offered by traditional publishers are far more restrictive than POD and eBook publishers. There is no comparison. And the royalty rates are a fraction of those that indie authors can obtain through self-publishing.

Freedom comes at a very high price, however, and appearances can most decidedly be very deceptive. A relatively meager royalty of, say, 12.5 percent seems almost offensive when compared with a 70 percent share for a Kindle book in the $2.99 – $9.99 list price range. But comparing apples to rocks is not very helpful. Indie authors are left to their own devices in marketing their books and the overwhelming majority of self-published titles will simply not sell in any reasonable numbers without the author spending a great deal of time (and/or money) marketing and promoting each book.

As with any entrepreneurial venture involving legal substances, there is no magic formula other than hard work and a rational business plan. The New York Lottery promises that all you need is “a dollar and a dream.” Posting a self published book by a little known author on 20 sites (or 200 sites) is less likely to yield a satisfying result than playing Lotto.

The good news today is that everyone can be an author these days. The bad news is that getting people to actually buy what indie authors produce in significant numbers requires a great deal of hard work. That is why most rational authors jump at the chance to sign a 12.5 percent royalty contract with any of the traditional well-established houses that is about as friendly as the average unconditional surrender agreement. Yes some indie authors do sell an extraordinary number of books as indie publishers. And yes, some people who play the New York lottery do get rich too. Each has about the same odds of success in my view.

An indie author who sells well makes news. The millions of indie authors who post their books in multiple places and scratch their heads in wonder as to why no one finds or buys them (unless they give them away–and too often not even then) does not. The latter is in the decidedly “dog bites man” rather than “man bites dog” category and is no more newsworthy than the sun rising every morning in the East.

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