In 1993, when most writers considered traditional publishing the best choice, I ignored conventional wisdom and took the indie route. The result was a self-published niche gardening book on growing strawberries in Southern California that sold steadily over the next two decades.
Since last spring, when I simultaneously released a second edition of the strawberry book and a new traditionally-published gardening book that quickly became a bestseller, I’ve been able to compare both publishing platforms from the trenches. While “Fairy Gardening” was produced by a stellar publisher (Skyhorse Publishing), more money has landed in my bank account from the second edition of “The Strawberry Story.”
That may seem surprising, but receiving a much bigger chunk of the financial pie is one of the reasons an increasing number of established authors are shifting to self-publishing, says Fern Reiss, who advises authors on traditional and self-publishing and has written three books on the subject, including “The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days.”
“I call it the cash versus cachet factor,” says Reiss. “You get more cachet with a traditional publisher, but more cash with self-publishing. Independent publishing also gives authors more control over their products in terms of design and timing, and the two reasons most authors used to prefer traditional publishers — publicity and distribution — no longer apply. Big publishers don’t provide much in the way of publicity, and self-publishers can now navigate distribution to bookstores and libraries.”
Taking the self-publishing leap
Bestselling author Barbara Freethy writes contemporary romance, romantic suspense and women’s fiction, including “On A Night Like This,” the first of eight books in her Callaway Series. She started her career traditionally publishing but began self-publishing her out-of-print titles in January 2011 and found they sold better than her traditionally-published books.
“The first book that took off was ‘Summer Secrets’,” says Freethy, who notes that it initially sold slowly and then experienced an explosion in sales. “The book wound up hitting #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, spending several weeks there, and the next few titles also did well.” Within a year, she sold over one million books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and now three years later, she’s had 15 bestsellers and recently hit four million in e-book sales.
“Indie publishing is the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Freethy. “I love the freedom and control self-publishing gives me. I can publish more frequently and write in between the lines of a genre, and with a 70-percent royalty rate, I make a ton more money than from a traditional-publishing contract.”
Freethy’s marketing efforts haven’t changed since her traditional-publishing days. “There is no difference between what I do as a self-published author and what I was expected to do working with a publishing house,” she says. “My experience as an upper mid-list author in traditional publishing is that there is little the publishers can do to influence digital numbers, and the only way they can influence print sales is to put out a lot of money, which they only do for a few top authors.”
As a result, at least 90 percent of all authors find themselves marketing. “One of the biggest ironies is that traditional publishers forced authors to learn social media and blog promoting, and now we know how to do it without them,” she says.
In addition to blogging and interacting with her following on Facebook and Twitter, Freethy has gained digital readers through a newsletter she has built via her website and links in her books. She also spent a lot of time crafting her covers and book descriptions in order to develop a salable brand.
Beverly Gray, who writes about Hollywood, movies and movie-making, ventured into self-publishing in 2010 at the advice of her agent. He suggested she “make money for herself for a change” by republishing her out-of-print book, “Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers,” about the Indie filmmaking pioneer for whom she worked for many years.
Gray enjoyed the creative freedom of the self-publishing process. “I added some material that squeamish editors had cut before and wrote an epilogue about what Roger Corman thought of my book,” she says. “I also like how I can keep tabs on how many copies have sold as opposed to wondering about the truthfulness of a publisher’s mysterious royalty statement.”
The cons of self-publishing
Self-publishing requires that you attend to myriad details. “You are running a publishing business, and the publishing side is just as important as the writing side,” says Freethy. “This means taking on tasks such as hiring editors, cover artists and proofreaders and interfacing with retailers and other middlemen.”
While there are many resources available nowadays for self-publishers, it still takes time away from writing to tend to details such as obtaining ISBN numbers, placing books in bookstores and nontraditional sales locations, sending out review copies, and fretting over details like pagination.
For Freethy, the biggest drawback of self-publishing is limited print distribution. “I miss having my books in stores across the country,” she says. “I can do a print-on-demand version but that doesn’t equal massive distribution. The number of digital readers I’ve picked up is 20 times the numbers I had in print, though, so I keep it in perspective.”
The romance genre does well in the e-book format, but not every book is a good choice for self-publishing.
“If you know where to find your niche audience for your book and can reach those readers, you might do much better with self-publishing,” says Reiss. “On the other hand, if it’s a ‘big book’ and you don’t know how to find the audience, you might be better off with a traditional publisher.”
Ultimately, you need to examine your book and determine if you’re up for the self-publishing challenge. It can pay off.
Image via AdirondackUK / Flickr.com