Traditional Publishing, Self Publishing, Indie Publishing, Hybrid Publishing: I’ve done them all in the last 15 years.
I recently spoke at the St Louis Publishers Association (SLPA) on my experience as an author in the world of publishing. It has been a long strange trip; along the way I’ve made a lot of mistakes and a couple of good decisions. I didn’t have time to answer all of the questions the other evening, so I thought I’d write a quick article for aspiring Authors and Publishers. Hopefully, it will save you time and money, mostly time.
I’m a Fighter Pilot by training and nature so I come straight to the point with no bull shit; if you want sunshine blown up your skirt (or kilt) I suggest skipping the rest of this article. If you want my unvarnished experience here it comes in a face to face, high speed pass.
First– if an Agent, Reviewer or Writing Award Nominator wants to be paid…DON’T. The biz has a shady side, a very large and profitable shady side. Don’t be a sucker.
Second– heeding the above warning, you still must spend money, EVEN if you go Traditional.
Third– you get what you pay for.
a. Writing: it has to be your best effort and complete; period.
b. Editing: you simply must get and pay for a good Editor, even if going traditional. An Agent or Publisher will not look at an unedited manuscript. Check the potential Editor’s work and sit down with them and talk.
c. Formatting/Cover: If going Traditional the Publisher will handle this, I will discuss more on each other type of publishing below and what the Author/Publisher is responsible for.
d. Marketing: I really don’t like it, but if you want to sell books you have to market aggressively. That includes a Traditionally Published Author (unless you are writing about Wizards and are from London). More on marketing later.
Traditional Publishing– or as I like to subtitle it; Kiss control, ownership and royalties good-bye.
a. Quality control: excellent for editing/formatting/printing/cover.
b. Cost: Only for the original manuscript editing and prep (oh yes, also the 10,000 copies you mailed world wide).
c. Royalties: pretty much none; the vast majority of Authors never break even with the advance. Long short, don’t count on any (8-10% for a first time Author who does write about Wizards and lives in London).
d. Ownership: you give it up in the deal for that advance and 8-10% of probably…zero.
The hyper link takes you to my first novel (second edition) that was Traditionally Published. I will admit, being Traditionally Published does massage the ego and give you bragging rights as an Author forever. However it is tough to make a living from it in this day and age. We all dream about the New York Times best sellers list. %99.999 of Published Authors will never get close.
My experience– I had no control over the cover, pricing, even the title. Project 7 Alpha is a novel; you certainly can’t tell that by the cover…and what do most people judge a book by? You guessed it, the cover. In my case I believe the cover, sub-title and cost of my first novel guaranteed I’d be in the %99.999.
My biggest mistake? Not getting an advance, that meant the Publisher didn’t have much at risk. Nothing motivates like money, or fear of losing it.
One last note on Traditional: you can’t get a Publisher with out an Agent…you can’t get an Agent unless you have been Published…..
Self Publishing– Companies that advertise they will publish your book sight unseen, crap in…crap out.
a. Quality control: wildly divergent, but for the vast majority it is wanting, unless you come with a well prepared package. Covers tend to be what I consider unacceptable. Think of this style of publisher as the mercenary; they will do or publish anything for the money.
b. Cost: high, they are a middle man who adds their profit to the printers cost thus raising the book cost. There are also associated upfront fees.
c. Royalties: You must price your book competitively with those in its genre’; due to the middleman addition to the unit cost you will either price yourself out of the market or have a greatly reduced royalty.
d. Ownership: That depends on the company and ISBN (book serial number), if you provide one and the contract allows it you can maintain ownership rights. Each deal is different, be careful.
My experience– again, strangely enough no real control over the cover. The designer I paid extra for, was rude and very hard to work with. The big positive (and only) I picked a great Editor (LaVonne Ellis) from the provided list (blind luck) and we went on to do the entire series together. Click on the hyperlink to see my first novel (first edition). The cover; well, sucks. And here is verification that it matters; the content is virtually unchanged from the Self to the Traditional. Only a couple of slang terms where changed in the manuscript and only because it was published in London (different meanings).
My biggest mistake? Probably doing it to begin with. It was great to finally hold a completed book, but it was ineffective and sold fewer copies than I have toes. Also, as you can see above, it is out there forever. Like I tell my kids; if you put it on the internet it is archived and accessible, FOREVER!
Last note: don’t!
Totally Indie– you are own your own…don’t screw it up.
a. Quality control: totally up to you, to a point. The formatting and cover must “fit” into the printer’s template, but quality is completely up to you as Author/Publisher. Printers are just that, printers. I used Lightening Source. They are used to dealing with publishers who do it daily. NOT user friendly, very hard work.
b. Cost: again, totally up to you and out of your pocket. As a minimum you need an editor/formatter/cover designer and printer. Generally, for an average size book of approximately 350 pages, the cost per unit is around $5.00. A rough guesstimate for pricing is 3 times cost. However you don’t keep that difference; the bookstore gets a hug discount off of the book, %55 is normal.
c. Royalties: as noted above, %55 of $14.95 is $8.22, subtract the unit cost of $5.00 and the Author/Publisher gets $3.22.
d. Ownership: It’s all yours, if you have your own ISBN. Bowker sells them singly or in a block.
My experience– You are the general contractor, and it is a lot of hard work. You have to start a business (LLC) and run it. Additionally if your subs aren’t up to snuff YOUR book suffers. I liked the cover of my second book (first edition) Vengeance, but I was not happy with the formatting. I was very rushed and up against a hard deadline. It was a very large pain in the…my head. I did sell, and continue to sell a lot of copies. Mostly ebooks, more on that later.
My biggest mistake? I was up against that deadline and rushed it. The Oshkosh Airshow was scheduled for the last week in July and I had been invited to the Authors Corner. Vengeance had been out since February in ebook and was doing pretty well for an Indie. Obviously, for a book signing event I needed hard copy. That ultimately forced me to accept what I was given. After all the files were corrected, formatted, submitted, re-corrected, re-formatted and re-submitted; it was finally accepted and run. I said to the young man helping me: “You must think I’m an idiot?” He didn’t laugh, he simply said: “Not at all, most people give up.” The books showed up in Oshkosh 2 days into the week long event.
Last note: forget writing you will to busy doing everything else.
A couple of years went by; Indie Published Vengeance, my second novel was doing much better than my traditionally Published novel, Project Seven Alpha. Exponentially actually. LaVonne and I had finished the third in the Aviator Trilogy, ENDGAME, and I was looking at my options for publishing. I thought about giving Traditional another try, but the cold hard facts in front of me were undeniable. I made a lot more money Independently. I read an article in the Ladue Times written by a friend, Paul Brown. The article had talked about Hybrid Publishing, basically Indie melded with Traditional. From my point of view it took the best from both worlds. I contacted Paul and he put me together with Kristina Blank Makansi of Treehouse Publishing. Kristy is also a Traditional Publisher with Blank Slate Press, I decided to go Hybrid.
Hybrid Publishing– long/short, Author buys services from a bonafide Publisher, for me sympatico!
a. Quality Control: same as traditional.
b. Cost: by the time you add everything up, roughly the same as Indie.
c. Royalties: same as Indie.
d. Ownership: all yours.
My experience– Not only did I Hybrid Publish ENDGAME, I re-branded Vengeance with Treehouse. Sales have been the best I have ever experienced. As a bonus; I had finally talked my Traditional Publisher into releasing an ebook for Project Seven Alpha, after Vengeance and ENDGAME sales took off so did 7-Alpha’s. Hard cover, soft cover sales; what I had put so much work into as an Indie years before? Almost all of my sales have been ebook.
Last note: I am publishing my fourth book by hybrid.
IF YOU TAKE ANYTHING AWAY FROM THIS ARTICLE, MAKE IT THIS: AMAZON WON THE WAR.
Ebooks are the Scepter of Power and Amazon is the King that wields it. I read an article recently by Hugh Howie; he had cracked the code on Amazon sales. According to his article, in the genre’ he tracked (Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance), 86% of the units sold of the top 2,500 ranked books, were ebooks. That is all units including: paperback, hardback, e-book, and audiobook. 86% of what the titles sold were ebooks. Hardcover, soft and audio combined to sell 14% of total units sold.
It doesn’t take a “Rocket-Surgeon” to realize where you need to put the effort.
In my experience, each of my novels is running a ratio between 1:150-1:300. That is 150 or 300 ebooks moved per soft or hard cover sold. Eye-watering. Granted; book #2 and #3 did not have the support of a traditional publisher and all that comes with it. However book #1 did; and it is the laggert in sales of the three (paper+ebook).
Marketing- Quite obviously if most sales are electronic then so should your marketing. Website (put in your author name not first book title), Twitter, Facebook, and mostly…AMAZON. You must get reviews to sell books, and sell books to get reviews. To do that you have to get your work read; if its good, it will then sustain itself. It is up to you to get it “out there”. Scower the internet, read the Indie articles and do your research before you press the PUBLISH button. be ready to push hard and fast. Amazon will even advertise your books when you reach a certain point. Their algorithm changes and seems to work. They are even sniffing out the bogus and self reviewers now. Get into their programs; Kindle select, Free, and more.
I am an analog man trapped in a digital world!
It is what it is; in a few days I will transition to the Boeing 777 from the MD-80. From manual cables and “steam” gauges, to digital and fly by wire. I already made the transition in publishing; you don’t have to like it, for it to be the way it is, or the way of the future.
This was quick and dirty; if you have questions feel free to ask. Again, my opinions based on my experiences over the past 15 years.
Read more on airlines, Naval Aviation and air combat exploits in the Aviators Series: