I’ve been having the conversation around publishing vs self-publishing with a lot of different people recently. To those who aren’t au fait with the publishing world there’s often real surprise, especially around the earnings details, so I thought I’d put together a post about my current thinking in case it helps anyone else and to explain my current quandary.
First a bit of background. In total, so far, I’ve published three books. Two of those – the Not Going to Uni Guide and the MAN v FAT Weight Loss Manual were published in conventional ways i.e. with a publisher (Pearson and then Headline) who paid me an advance to write the book and then I negotiated a percentage of future book royalties for when I’d “earned out” my advance. So in theory when you’ve earned beyond your advance you start receiving a percentage of the retail price per book. Typically, this can be anywhere from 5%-15% depending on the skills of your agent and how much clout you have at the negotiation phase. The publisher receives the rest.
The other book that I did was the Staggered Groom Guide. That was self-published. We paid to have about 5,000 copies printed (which cost around £3k) and then listed them on Amazon, through the I Am Staggered site and via affiliates. We held all the stock and then posted them out whenever an order came through. The finances for that were simpler, we had production costs (design, copy, printing, postage) and anything that was left over from the retail price was revenue. I think typically it ended up being about a fiver per book. In the end I think we had a box or two left, so we more or less sold out. We considered doing a second print run but by that point we’d started to think about selling Staggered so it wasn’t really on the cards.
On the plus side of working with a publisher there is undoubtedly the consideration of ego. Being published, getting an advance, working with an agent all sounds incredible, especially to anyone who has always dreamed of being a writer – it’s the way it’s supposed to happen. Plus, saying “I’ve got a meeting with my publisher on Monday” is never not going to sound cool. Conversely, you mention self-publishing and your mind drifts towards people writing endless fantasy epics that merge the worlds of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. There has been some improvement in recent years with the breakout success of self-published efforts like The Martian, but it still has the stigma of vanity project to it.
In theory, publishers also have a PR network going for them that will boost the sales of your book and give you insights into getting the biggest readership for your book. There’s also the simple fact that they’re taking the risk. If your book doesn’t sell then you’re sat on the advance and the publisher is out of pocket.
On the negative side of working with a publisher is pretty much everything else. I was surprised on both occasions just how little the publisher actually did compared to my expectations. Once the book was agreed it pretty much came back to being my responsibility. Because they want as much time as possible to look at marketing the book, they want the finished manuscript as soon as possible. I think I had four weeks for the Not Going To Uni book (around 50k words) and 7 weeks for the MAN v FAT book (60k words). I’m not sure why but I always thought that the actual process of completing the book would be more of a collaborative process where I would bring ideas/chapters/suggestions and the publisher would use their experience to help shape things. As it was, more or less everything was left to me. That’s great in one way, but I’d expected more.
The other real surprise was my misconception that the publishers would take the lead on the marketing of the books. Not so. You’ll notice that the majority of books published these days are connected to authors or organisations who have a significant online following, whether it’s Mrs Hinch, A.N. Other YouTuber or MAN v FAT – publishers essentially bank on you being able to sell your book to your existing readership. They use that as the break-even audience and if your book expands beyond that, then great. If not, then they’ve not risked too much. To be fair, that makes sense. As stated, they’re taking the risk by putting up the advance, so naturally they want to ameliorate that risk by going for someone with an existing readership.
Since I self-published the Staggered Groom Guide by printing it and posting them out to purchasers another player has entered the arena: Kindle Direct Publishing. Essentially, self-publishing onto KDP means that your book can be on Amazon and available as a print-on-demand product (i.e. they don’t print a load of books, they just print a physical copy every time someone orders one) for free. Yep, free.
The real eye-opener with KDP is that depending on what the price of your book is then you would make around 70% of the retail price. A typical Kindle book price would be around £3, which means you’d take just over £2 of that. The book also lists on Amazon and makes it easy for anyone around the world to buy your book. Of course, it does potentially lock out anyone who reads on other e-readers (kobo, etc), but there are options within KDP where you can also sell via your own site and through other e-tailers. I’ll hold my hands up here and say that’s something I need to look into a bit more.
I think the crux of the question is that if the majority of work falls on your shoulders when working with a traditional publisher, and you receive a commensurately smaller slice of the pie – why would you bother? Does my fragile ego really need that much underpinning? I should issue a hearty disclaimer here and say that that your mileage may vary with a publisher. It could be that I should have been better informed of the expectations with previous books. Or it could be that publishers do a lot more work with other authors, I don’t know. However, that’s my experience in a nutshell.
So for now, the quandary I have is whether I should even bother to approach publishers at all for Before and After? After a lot of reflection I think I’m going to ignore them entirely and just focus on self-publishing. Hopefully, I’m going to be writing a lot more books in the future and I think the joy of getting a book out to readers in the way that I want to, marketed in the way I think it should be is just too tempting. I have a real advantage in that I already have a brilliant team to work with who can help me design and create the best possible version of this book that I can. Plus, if I can retain a greater percentage of the retail price then over time it makes more business sense.
The clincher is the fact that if the book’s out there and gets a good reception then there’s nothing to stop me approaching a traditional publisher (shortly after amending this blog post to say how much I love working with publishers) and seeing if I can get a deal on the basis of the success of the self-publishing. So, onwards, to researching how to make self-publishing work!