There’s a power shift happening in publishing, from the establishment to the people. With highly publicised successes of self-publishing stars becoming more common, it’s no wonder aspiring writers are flocking to e-publishing to replicate the results. But is self-publishing as lucrative as it seems?
Who could have predicted that the first Kiwi book in ages (ever?) to storm the international literary scene would be an “unfashionably ambitious” – as the New York Times described it – tome of historical fiction and Dickensian prose set in gold rush-era Hokitika? The Luminaries goes against almost everything we thought we knew about what makes a modern book marketable and its status despite this is no small testament to Eleanor Catton’s prowess as a writer.
The Luminaries arrived at success along a well-travelled road, via traditional publishing and old school accolades – and perhaps that says something about the power traditional publishing still holds.
But it’s not the only route open to authors today. We live in a time where, in an increasing number of fields, financial and critical rewards are no longer bestowed purely and solely with the blessing of the establishment.
Thanks to the rise of e-readers such as the Kindle and Kobo – and the marketplaces developed to support them – the public’s appetite for e-books has surged and self- published authors have flooded in to meet the demand.
Some of these authors have found self- publishing to be extremely lucrative; in 2011 then-26-year-old Amanda Hocking sold over a million copies of her teen fantasy romance e-books, helping her rake in the revenue and a traditional publishing deal along the way. In 2012, the big story was Hugh Howey and his sci-fi serial Wool, which likewise sold like hotcakes and subsequently nabbed him a Random House deal to later release a hardback edition.
Media stories of runaway self-publishing successes like these help keep the pipelines full with the unfashionable ambitions of other authors.
With the successes of these writers in the self-publishing world, not to mention a certain amount of critical acclaim (Wool has been optioned for film by Ridley Scott), self- publishing is losing the tarnish it once had.
“As more and more indies achieve commercial success on their own terms, the stigma of self-publishing is evaporating,” wrote Mark Coker, chief executive officer of self-publishing company Smashwords in Publishers Weekly.
“Indie authors have become the cool kids club. It’s a movement where its members self-identify as indie. It’s a worldwide cultural movement among writers. Today, the myth of traditional publishing is unraveling. The stigma of traditional publishing is on the rise.”
And why wouldn’t writers flock to self- publishing? Fans of the model point to myriad benefits over legacy publishing: greater creative and commercial control, fewer gatekeepers, global market access, a closer relationship with fans and a higher share of royalties.
Carolyn Enting, an Auckland-based magazine editor who just published her first book, The Medallion of Auratus, says her experience of traditional publishing has been that it’s dictated by the trends – and she didn’t want to have to wait for her material to come into vogue.
“My book didn’t fit into those [trending] categories, so independently publishing it gives me a chance to get my book out there anyway, and to grab the interest of people,” she says.
“And who knows, it might become the next trend.”
Amazon’s e-book sales have been surpassing print sales since 2011 when it said it sold 105 e-books for every 100 print books, and its e-book bestseller lists are peppered with self-published successes. And while Hocking and Howey turned popularity into traditional publishing deals (despite the indie-pub evangelism of the latter), other traditionally published authors have turned their backs on their own deals in favour of independence.
Barry Eisler is one of the most notable examples, having taken back the rights to his Tom Clancy-esque thriller series in 2011 and walked away from a US$500,000 two-book deal with his publisher. Two years later, he told the Four Hour Work Week blog he was making US$300,000 a year through self publishing. It would seem to validate his decision.
The promise of big bucks for self-publishers is contained in the way Amazon, Smashwords, and other e-book marketplaces break down royalties. The services vary in the percentages offered but Amazon sells the highest volume of e-books, so let’s use them as an example.
There are two basic tiers: 35 percent and 70 percent. Caveats and fine print aside, self-published authors essentially get 70 percent of retail if they agree to price books between AU$3.99 and AU$11.99 on the Amazon.com.au marketplace, or US$2.99 and US$9.99 through the .com side. The 35-percent tier catches the rest of the sales.
In comparison, the standard royalty for an e-book published through ‘tradpubs’ such as Penguin or Simon & Schuster, regardless of where it’s sold and for how much, is 25 percent net. That author portion tends to be pretty fixed according to Jeff Atkinson, Penguin New Zealand’s general manager of production and new media, unlike print publishing where variation can be built into authors’ deals.
In part, he says, that’s because e-books are still such a new and emerging market – especially in this part of the world. With physical publishing the standard author royalty is around 10 percent of retail price, and in some cases 20 percent of net.
Melinda Szymanik is an Auckland-based children’s book author with a number of traditionally published books including picture books, fiction, and the NZ Post Children’s Book Award-winning The Were-Nana. Coupled with an increased difficulty in securing traditional publishing and experience gained in taking over the digital conversion of a previous title from its publisher, Szymanik felt encouraged to self-publish her latest as somewhat of an experiment and learning experience. But she says it’s hard to draw meaningful comparisons between the relative successes of her titles across publishers and platforms.
“It’s a bit like apples and oranges,” she says. For one thing, traditionally published books are limited to certain territories whereas the self-published e-books are available worldwide.
“So far the best source of income has been from print books, but I haven’t done a print book for Sally Bangle,” says Szymanik. “It’s very hard to make any kind of definitive statements because it’s a long game. I don’t expect overnight success.”
One of the typical arguments in favour of tradition relies on the fact that print still vastly outsells e-books. In North America, e-book sales take up roughly 25-30 percent of the total market, with the remaining 75 percent in print. That number comes via self-reported figures from publishers.
Locally, e-books make up just five percent of Penguin New Zealand’s business, which Atkinson says fairly accurately reflects the print market for Kiwi fiction, the genre most commonly converted to digital. According to Nielsen, New Zealand print fiction generally accounts for three percent of all fiction value sales, but in 2013 – largely off the back of The Luminaries – it reached eight percent.
“New Zealand is a massively illustrated and colour book market,” says Atkinson. “It’s all cookbooks, sports bios with lots of photos, scenic titles and four colour children’s picture books – and those are the titles that do not convert easily to e-ink reading devices or even tablets.”
But what does this all mean for authors deciding which route is best? It comes down, really, to how much you think you can sell. The Luminaries, an outlier to be sure, gives us a high-water mark. Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman told the New Zealand Herald in January that Catton’s book sold about 75,000 print copies in New Zealand alone last year (Nielsen Bookscan verifies about 41,000 of those sales but doesn’t include sales from Whitcoulls), and about 7,000 e-book copies. As a more realistic benchmark, Atkinson says the standard first print run in New Zealand is 3,000 copies and “a successful book would sell that out and reprint”.
If, as Smashwords research suggest, the optimal price for an e-book is US$2.99 – and many are priced lower – does self-publishing really make financial sense for authors who might otherwise be earning a lower royalty but higher raw dollar value on traditionally published titles?
Assuming the same 10:1 print to e-book ratio as The Luminaries achieved, a Kiwi bestseller with 6,000 print sales at $30 (excluding GST) and 600 at the e-book price of $9.99 would bag its author roughly $19,500.
If a self-published author were able to pull off marketing magic and achieve the same volume worldwide at $2.99, their haul would be around $13,800. Neither is anything to quit the day job over.
Another data point: Patrick Wensick, an American, had his traditionally published book shoot to number six on the Amazon bestseller list. He wrote later on Slate.com that his deal, more generous than most, split the net at 50 percent on the 4,000 copies sold, for a grand total of US$12,000.
There’s a lot of debate about the earning potential for authors in either stream. On the one side, a Digital Book World ‘non-scientific’ sample suggests only 1.8 percent of self- published writers earn more than $100,000 a year from writing, compared to 8.8 percent of traditionally published.
But Howey has been stirring trouble over at his Author Earnings site, where he and an unnamed “author with advanced coding skills” have trawled Amazon’s publicly available data on the top 50,000 best selling books for what they say is a more accurate picture of author earnings by publisher type.
He claims more self-published authors are earning a living from writing in the mid-tier, and that they outnumber traditionally published authors in almost every earnings bracket. The raw data is available for download at authorearnings.com if spreadsheets are your thing.
That being said, sales parity with traditionally published titles is – at least for the moment – extremely difficult to achieve for the vast majority of Kiwi e-book authors. And that’s because authors are entering an extremely crowded marketplace with little but social media and their own marketing moxie to distinguish themselves.
As Peter King, self-published author of the young adult sci-fi series Changels says of his experience, “you can write around a job, but marketing around a day job is a hell of a lot harder”.
There are ways to increase the odds in your favour. The more you write, the more you earn is a self-publishing rule of thumb. If someone On the other hand, a common gripe is that traditional publishing doesn’t exempt writers from the hard work of marketing themselves – and besides, it just isn’t a route that’s open to everyone.
As Szymanik’s experience proves, even established authors don’t necessarily find a publisher for every title they write.
If New Zealand, with its reliance on sports biographies and cookbooks is, as King says, “particularly thin” on publishing, then it’s not surprising Kiwis are drawn to the DIY way. Self-publishing and its democratisation of access to market is inherently attractive.
It’s all very well being creative and writing well, but if you’re not plugged into the networks of people who can make things happen for you, it’s for naught. Self-publishing is an opportunity for people to make it happen for themselves.
It’s certainly been a backdoor route to a traditional publishing deal for some writers. Atkinson isn’t aware of a similar deal in New Zealand, although Penguin does keep an eye on the market.
Though given the non-fiction drivers of our market, he says the focus tends to be on blogs more than fiction.
“You do see New Zealand authors successfully publishing digitally, some self-published authors – specifically in [romance and crime genres]. You don’t see a straight-up adult New Zealand fiction title being successful going that route. Not to say that it won’t happen, but we haven’t seen it happen yet.”
In all this focus on the financials, there’s one gap left to address, and that’s the fact that not everyone writes for the money. And after doing the numbers, no-one should be writing for the money. It’s worthwhile to dispel the myth of untold riches because anyone investing the amount of time it takes to write a book, let alone the time it takes to query publishers or to self-publish and market, should know it’s not likely to be a highly compensated effort at the outset. Szymanik reckons it works out to less than minimum wage for her time.
But writers write. And the promise of sharing work with the public through an unmediated outlet, with no one to say you can’t tell the story you want in the way you want, is incredibly appealing.
“Self-publishing is not a goldrush,” Howey says. “Success at writing requires, in addition to long hours and hard work, a lot of luck. You have to write because you love it.”
DIY: What you might not know about self-publishing
If wrItIng a book takes one set of skills, publishing it takes another set entirely.
“You run through the whole gamut of what a publisher brings to any product and that runs right from your editing and design and management of the process through to the distribution and marketing,” says Jeff Atkinson, Penguin New Zealand’s general manager of production and new media.
“I know people question where in the model the publisher is and what value they do add, but I think it’s reasonably obvious that the whole – it’s a horrible word, but curation – that whole management of the process and bringing the professionalism and knowledge base to that process is what the publisher adds to it.”
Indie publishers are responsible for all that on their own. The editing, the design, the formatting, proofing, cover art, pricing strategies and marketing. There are several basic pieces you’ll need. A manuscript, ISBN, cover art, front and back matter. Conventional wisdom on the matter is to fork out for professional editing, formatting, and cover art to bring the book up to snuff. Otherwise readers will pick up on basic errors of formatting and grammar quickly, dismiss the book as substandard, and sales will suffer.
“You’ve got to approach it from a traditional perspective in terms of the standard of work,” says author Carolyn Enting.
“You’ve got to plan at least three to four months out before you even consider putting your book up online,” she says. “You want everything to be done correctly, from having the right formatting to cover art through to launch strategy.”
When it comes to covers, they need to work at a much smaller size than physical counterparts.
Says Dexter Fry, senior designer at the Auckland studio of Book Design: “The last thing you want is not to be able to read the title or the author’s name or subtitle. Often that happens with an e-book cover that’s just reduced down from the print size.”
The back matter is also an opportunity to drive readers to other titles you’ve written, in the precise moment readers are looking for more from you.
Pricing strategies vary. Smashwords says books priced at US$2.99 outsell those priced at $10 and above by 6.2 times as much. That said, free books are a great way to introduce readers to your work if you have several books available, especially a series. Kindle Select members can trade an exclusivity period with Amazon for three free days and a number of other promotional boosts. Get enough traction with a free day, and your book could end up on a top-10 list.
There are thousands of free and cheap resources out there for self-publishers, but here are a few worth mentioning.
Amazon’s central knowledge-base for all things Kindle is a treasure trove of free and useful information. Free pdfs and e-books on everything from formatting your e-book in Microsoft Word to merchandising tips, pricing breakdowns, and frequently asked questions. Research Kindle Select, which makes your book exclusive to Amazon for 90 days but includes promotional benefits within that time.
The independent answer to Kindle. Publishing through Smashwords allows you to format your e-book and publish to a number of major platforms, including Amazon, Apple’s iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Oyster.
Every e-book you publish needs its own ISBN, which you can get from the National Library.
A word processor that saves natively to epub file formats and tests the formatting for you. The first 30 days are free. After that, it’s US$35.
Another word processor, but this one allows you to structure and write for a number of mediums including e-publishing, screenwriting, research papers and more. You can get a 30-day free trial or pay US$45.
There’s no handy URL for this but other authors are invariably a great resource for first-timers. “I certainly gained a lot by joining author networks,” says author Peter King. “Do join a group and join it early. Don’t try to be a lone writer in the garage. It doesn’t work.”