The Once and Future Self-Publisher
A question from e-mail:
You originally published Old Man’s War and Agent to the Stars on your Web site, and you just recently put up a short story as shareware. Do you think you’ll publish another novel this way?
Well, in the short term, definitely not. I have two more novels under contract to Tor (The High Castle and a novel unrelated either to the Old Man’s War or Android’s Dream universes) and those should keep me busy, writing-wise, though the rest of 2008 at least.
But let’s suppose I deliver the second of my books to Tor, and I get it in my head to write another novel in the Old Man’s War universe, say, Zoe’s Tale 2: The Quickening. Tor doesn’t have ZT2 (or indeed any subsequent potential OMW novel after Zoe’s Tale) under contract, so I am free, as it turns out and if I so chose, to write it up and post it here, or otherwise self-publish it. And let’s suppose that if I do self-publish, I decide to take it seriously — i.e., make a real attempt to make money on it, not just put up something on a lark. Should I do it? Let’s weigh the advantages and disadvantages.
1. I can publish on my own schedule, so when ZT2 (or whatever) is finished, I don’t have to wait months and months for it to snake through a production queue; I can just put it out.
2. Any income I derive from it goes 100% to me, rather than the 8 to 15 percent which is the standard contractual royalty range across the various formats in which I publish (I think I get more for eBooks, but I would have to check).
3. I don’t have to worry about external forces, like an editor who wants changes or needs to have a manuscript at a certain time to fit it into a production schedule, or a publisher who has to prioritize which novels to promote at which time (and that novel might not be mine), or marketers who might not know how to promote my book, or booksellers who don’t know the best way to sell it.
Add to this the fact that at this point I am sufficiently well-known that I might actually have a chance of making some money off of publishing it myself. So there’s that. But now, the flip side of the coin:
1. Well, here’s where I ask myself: Do I want to put out a professional product or not? If I don’t want to, then I can just post a largely unedited text file and see who pays for it. I suspect some folks will, but in the end, not as many as I would want. The fact is at this point all my other books have now had professional presentations, so to maintain established quality I’ll need to pay for a professional-looking product. If I want to, then I have to pay for:
Artwork (original or licensed)
Printing (for folks who must have a physical copy)
Shipping (both of printed books to me and then from me to the customer)
The costs here are somewhat fungible (I could, for example, forgo printing and rely on a print-on-demand service, although that means limiting the amount I could make for each copy) but no matter how you slice it a professional presentation for the novel will cost at a minimum about $4,000 and probably rather more from there (I checked this math with a publisher friend of mine; it’s in the ballpark). Point is: It’s not free to present a product that’s of professional quality, and that’s all coming out of my pocket.
2. I have a well-visited site and lots of fans, but, you know, I’m not Trent Reznor. If I want anyone other than the Whatever reader base to know about it, I need to promote myself. Despite my reputation as a tireless self-promoter, the fact is my self-promotion is almost entirely limited to this site, and the “self-promotion” is largely me just writing about stuff I want to write about, which naturally sometimes includes what’s going on with my books. Actual self-promotion (to people and media entities who have no clue who I am) is a pain in the ass — trust me — and I don’t want to have to do it. A publisher has publicists on staff, but if I want one for a self-published thing, I’d have to pay for one. Is this cheap? Guess again! There’s also the very pronounced tendency of traditional and high-end online media to totally ignore self-published work. Again, trust me on this one. So there’s a question of how useful all this promotion would be in the end.
3. No access to bookstores or other retail outlets, because most bookstores won’t take non-returnable items, which my printed books would be. This further limits the chance that people who don’t already know me will find my work. This is a problem because I do in fact get a lot of my readers from people taking a chance on my books in the bookstores (for that I can thank my book and cover designers, who help draw their eyes in the first place). There are ways to get around this, but they take lots of time and effort.
4. In fact, all of the above takes lots of time. Lots and lots of time and effort and psychic energy and so on and so forth, which is time and effort and psychic energy not applied to writing. Unless I pay someone else to handle all that stuff for me.
Which is ultimately the thing, isn’t it: If I end up having to pay someone else to handle all this stuff for me, or pay to make it happen, then in reality, 100% of the income of any of this won’t actually go to me; lots will go to all the folks I am paying to make it all happen. And as long as I’m paying people to make this all happen, why not have professionals who already know how to do all this stuff do it for me? Like, say, actual publishers, with their editors and copy editors and art directors and book designers and publicists and marketers and bookstore reps? I mean, as long as they’re willing to publish me, it certainly makes my life easier.
And this is why I think I’ll continue being published with publishers as long as it’s an option, because when it comes down to it, I want to write, not be responsible for every other damn thing that’s required to get novels to as many people as possible.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t post something novel length here if the mood struck me. But if I did, it would essentially be for the fun of it, and for extra cash, as opposed to doing it as a serious attempt to make actual pay-my-mortgage income off it. This position might change over time, of course, as the world changes. But right here and right now, I can say you’re far more likely to see my novels published by someone else, rather than by me, here. Really, I’m okay with that.