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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Publishing Myths Part 10: Realistic Expectations, Anyone?

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett

(Update at the bottom.)

After all the ranting about Harlequin Horizons* I did earlier in the week, I thought it would be a good idea to take a couple of steps back and talk about expectations.

Through this blog and the SF conventions I attend I encounter quite a few writers who are either self-published or vanity-published. Or vanity-pubbed who think they've self-published. I also meet many people who are with legitimate small presses. Most of them - thanks to their publishers being up-front with things - have realistic expectations. A few do not - sometimes because their publisher isn't forthcoming, but more often because the publisher is and the author isn't listening.

So, let's talk about that, shall we?

What are your goals? Do you want a best seller? Do you want a few copies to hand out to family and friends? Do you want to sell primarily from your web site or at speaking engagements? Do you have other goals?

While I don't generally talk about non-fiction in this series, this is a good time to bring it into the mix. Non-fiction authors are generally selling their expertise, while fiction authors are selling a cracking good read. The audience - and distribution channels - are different. One of my hobbies is quilting. I've bought quilting books at shows that were cranked out on a copy machine and comb-bound, some that were privately printed and perfect bound, some that came from a mainstream publisher. I buy all for their expertise. A comb-bound, photocopied book is of use to me if the author is teaching me a particular technique. I'll put up with the layout problems, the 12 point Times New Roman or Courier, widows and orphans and the whole bit because I know I'm getting some useful information.

Generally, I won't get my fiction in that format. The exception for me is fanzines. That's how I started writing all those years ago when dinosaurs stomped the planet with their ray guns. Or something like that. These were amateur publications, and we did our best to make them easy to read we didn't have the technology or budget to do it as well as the big boys. As a reader, my expectations were that I would not be getting pro quality work or production values. As a zine publisher, one of my goals was to lose as little money as possible. I knew I wasn't going to make scads of money, and it was more important for me to keep the publication affordable so more people could read it. I'd like to think I met my goals, modest as they were.

If you're publishing your own fiction, you need to understand your audience, and how they buy the type of fiction you write. Most readers aren't keen to spend their money on an unknown author without the opportunity to preview the content. Reviews and word of mouth help, too. But you can only go so far on your own. How much are you willing to invest for the success of your book? How much are you willing to lose? Are you looking at the shiny dream or the reality?

The lure of self-publishing is strong. As I've said many times before, there's absolutely nothing wrong with true self-publishing, as long as you have reasonable expectations. Self-publishing, in my opinion, is more successful for niche non-fiction books. If you're selling your expertise at lectures and seminars, you have an audience that you've cultivated in person. This is called a platform. You may not be interested in bookstore sales. The money is there at your speaking engagements. You want to get 'em while they're interested.

Self-publishing success is not so easy for fiction authors. Where does your audience come from? Your blog? Your friends and family? People who hear you on a panel at a genre convention? It's difficult - though not impossible - to get a self-published book out to a wide audience. I'm not saying it can't or shouldn't be done, but you can't go into it on the strength of the hype you read on web sites.

The big wrinkle now is "assisted self-publishing." Really, it's vanity publishing. What's the difference? Here's a handy-dandy table. I've also included commercial publishing for comparison:

Part of the service! You'll get as much editing as the publisher deems necessary, then a final round of line and copy edits.
You pay - prices vary. Or you do it yourself or swap editing services with a friend.
You pay - often a high-priced service provided by the publisher.
Included, and the copyright is in your name.
Register online for $35.The copyright is in your name.
Depends on the service. Some include registration, others charge an extra fee - generally much higher than $35. The copyright should be in your name.
They'll hire an artist or do it in-house. Many times you get final approval.
DIY or hire an artist.
They're happy to do it for you. A standard cover design is generally included in the fee you pay up front - but there may be extra fees for using your own art or doing something beyond their standard templates.
Author copies
Yep. Depends on the house. Many will send you a box o' books.
You're paying for it all, so you need to figure that in your calculations.
A set number of copies are included in most packages.
The publisher sends books out to reviewers.
You have to send books out.
The publisher may - for a price. Otherwise, you send books out.
Bookstore placement
The publisher makes money by selling books to readers. So whether they get the books in stores through a distributor, sell e-books online or sell at regional conventions, they're committed to getting books into the hands of readers.
DIY, unless you contract with a distributor.
The books are generally for sale on the publisher's site and through online venues. Generally you have to talk to bookstore managers to get placement. And if the publisher doesn't take returns you may have to buy them up front and sell them on consignment to bookstores.
Commercial publishers generally offer an advance against sales and a royalty. Small publishers may not be able to offer and advance or they may offer a very small one, but you will get royalties. Royalties should be based on cover price.
The profit is all yours. Muhaha!
Royalties are generally a percentage of the net profit, not the cover price. Don't be afraid to ask how they calculate the net.
ISBN assignment
Your publisher does that, and the ISBN identifies them as the publisher.
You take care of that, but the ISBN will identify YOU as the publisher.
That's generally included, but you need to ask if the ISBN identifies THEM or YOU as the publisher. If they hold the ISBN, you're not self-published.
Cost to print
Nothing. They write YOU a check.
Depends on whether you go POD or offset, hard or softcover, the number of pages in your book, and the number of copies
Depends as with self, but with vanity, you don't contract with the printer directly. You have to accept their cost per book.
Most commercial book publishers do an offset run, though some smaller publishers may do POD. Ebooks are part of the deal.
Up to you, but the cost per book is less and the quality generally better if you can afford an offset run.

You can publish your own ebooks for free or very cheap, but you'll need to learn the ropes so your book looks good across different devices.
Almost always POD. Books generally priced higher than comparably-sized paperbacks.

You may be charged for getting your work into ebook format.

As you can see by the above table, there may be advantages to either of the models - depending on your goals. Let's take a closer look at self-publishing and vanity-publishing, shall we?

Self-publishing: YOU control the costs. As the publisher, you have to research printing, contract with a printer, hire a cover artiest, hire someone to do the layout, and so on. Of course, you may have some of the necessary skills yourself, but unless you have a print shop you'll be contracting that part out. You should think of it as a business, because it is. You'll need to learn how to effectively communicate with the printer and designer, how to compare and price services, and so on. You will be responsible for sales. All of the profits are yours. It's not easy, and not many people make a profit at it, but at least you know where the money goes to and where it comes from.

Vanity: Or, "assisted self-publishing," if you wish. Doing it yourself sounds daunting - and expensive. How do you decide if this is the right path? Keep in mind the New York Times article about self-publishing earlier this year. Someone with Author Solutions (Harlequin is partnering with them) estimated that the typical title they publish sells about 150 copies. Falconesse does the math in a very detailed blog post that you really ought to read. If you're spending $500, how many copies do you have to sell to break even? What about if you're spending $1,000? Or more?

One item I didn't mention in the table above is marketing and promotion. These are two different things. These days most authors are expected to do some form of promotion on their own. It can be as simple as a blog or a Twitter account. You may make materials to distribute at bookstores or genre conventions. You may arrange for your own signings at bookstores or appearances at genre conventions (or your publisher may supply you with bookmarks and other materials). No matter what you do, it has to be backed up with books. If you're commercially published, your publisher should be able to get books in the hands of readers, which is done through marketing and distribution. They should work with a distributor to get books on shelves of bookstores, or at least get you some sort of regional exposure. They'll make sure reviewers get a copy of your book. Small presses have lower budgets which may present more challenges, but they're still focused on getting their products to readers. That's how they make their money.

With self-publishing, it's all up to you. Your business plan (you did work up one, didn't you?) should include a budget and plan for marketing your book. You'll have to talk local stores into putting it on the shelves. As the publisher and distributor, you can offer a return program. If you have money you may want to secure some distribution, although that's not cheap. As the publisher, you know that you don't make money until readers buy your book.

If you're vanity or subsidy-published, you're responsible for the lion's share of marketing. The publisher will get your books in all the databases and bookstores should be able to order through Ingram and possibly Baker and Taylor. But that doesn't get your book into bookstores. Like the self-published author, you have to talk bookstores into stocking the book. The bookstore may refuse to order if the book isn't returnable. That means you'll have to provide copies yourself, which you buy from the publisher. The discount off of the cover price depends on the publisher. I've seen anywhere from 30-60% off of the cover price. However, the bookseller may want 40% of the cover price as their commission. This figure can vary depending on the publisher, the quantity your order, and the type of deal a bookseller is willing to do with you.

I would be lying through my teeth if I said that self-published and vanity-published authors are never successful. Some people have made decent money. Some have had their books picked up by commercial publishers. The percentage is small, though.

It all comes back to what I asked up top: What are your goals? You can't adequately explore any publishing option without first knowing what you want. Next, research your markets. What is the best method to get your book into the hands of your readers? Ignore the hype on the web sites and spend time researching the various options.

What would I do? Well, I have this thing about getting paid for my work. If no commercial publisher would take it or if I feel it's not right for a commercial publisher, I would self-publish. I'm enough of a control freak that I can't see doing it any other way. I'm also looking at self-publishing some of my backlist. I'm not sure I can find reprint markets for some of the stories, so why not?

(Update 3/12/2015: Harlequin Horizons changed its name to Dellarte Press, and that imprint closed in February, 2015. Also updated the last line of the table to include ebooks.)

Check out the previous Publishing Myths posts:

Part 1: Background and Ground Rules
Part 2: Definitions
Part 3: Self-Publishing is Great! (Except When it Isn't)
Part 4: My Book Deserves Publication
Part 5: The Publishing Industry is Broken
Part 6: If I Could Just Get My Name Out There...
Part 7: My Publisher Has Distribution!
Part 8: You Can't Tell A Book by its Cover
Part 9: Everyone Has to Start Somewhere

Tags: Publishing Publishing Myths

Filed under: Publishing Myths   Publishing         
11/23/2009 4:30:40 PM
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