Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Rules of Self-Publishing

My former (distant) colleague Joe Wikert linked to an in-depth article about self-publishing today, from CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy.

Carnoy is clearly not a publishing newbie -- he's been reporting on various kind of electronics for a decade, as well as editing and overseeing other writers. But I don't think he's been immersed in the world of book publishing until recently, when he wrote a medical thriller, Knife Music, and tried to get it published. Carnoy got an agent, and he got some interest, but, in the end, that all fizzled. His book was too mainstream for the smaller presses -- he doesn't say it quite that way, but apparently he's a decent writer rather than a fine one -- and, in the end, the book was completely unsold. But it certainly sounds like he's nearly there: he wrote a book that both a serious agent and several editors thought was quite commercial, and nearly made it over the top. It's not quite success, but it's very close to it.

(Along the way, Carnoy mentions that "many small publishers were being wiped out by the 'self-publishing revolution'," which doesn't mesh with what I've observed over the last decade. Maybe the SFF world is vastly different from the more literary small presses, but I think there have been more new small presses cropping up, precisely because self- and small-publishing tools are becoming more and more accessible.)

Carnoy, against the advice of his agent, decided to self-publish, and the bulk of the article details the twenty-five lessons he learned from self-publishing through Amazon's BookSurge program. (I suspect he strongly downplays just how vehemently his agent was against this -- the advice of any agent with a client in this situation would be for the author to put this novel in a drawer and write another one. If Carnoy's first agented manuscript got that close to publication by a major house, another book -- particularly if he got better, which is likely -- would have a much better shot. I can't be sure if it's true, but Carnoy, as he presents himself, has certain typical characteristics of the scribbler who writes one book and falls in love with it, rather than the professional writer.)

Again, Carnoy is a good reporter, so he researched the various options before he made the plunge into self-publishing with BookSurge. He makes a lot of good points, as well as a few points that I wanted to hone in on for various reasons, so I'll start with some heavy-duty quoting-and-commenting:
Royalties [in self-publishing] are better than what "real" publishers offer
There's a terminology issue here: I'd say that any operation that claims it's offering help to authors to self-publish, but refers to those authors receiving "royalties," is trying to sell a bridge to Brooklyn. If you self-publish, you don't make royalties -- which are essentially licensing fees for allowing another entity to exploit your intellectual property in particular ways -- you make profits from your own publishing efforts. (Or, in the vast majority of cases, you make a loss on same.)

This could be Carnoy speaking loosely, so I'll let it go. But if anyone out there is thinking about self-publishing: be clear on that distinction. If you are the publisher, you don't get royalties. And if you get royalties, you're not the publisher.
1. Self-publishing is easy.
Let me rephrase this: getting a book printed is easy. Far too many people, though, think printing is publishing. Printing a book is the simple part; publishing it entails far more than that.

3. Some of the more successful self-published books are about self-publishing.

I don't know what this says about the industry, but it's probably not a good thing. I didn't read any books because I was busy scouring the Internet, but there are a few that appear to have some useful information..... I'd like to see this stuff on a free website rather than a book.
I'd agree with Carnoy that an industry whose best successes are about how to succeed in that industry is not a healthy one. But also note the disconnect: this is a guy who hopes other people will pay to read his book -- but, when he's looking for useful information himself, he wishes that he didn't have to pay for it. When it comes right down to it, wouldn't we all rather see "this stuff" -- whatever stuff it is we need or want right now -- "on a free website"?

9. Niche books do best.

This seems to be the mantra of self-publishing. Nonfiction books with a well-defined topic and a nice hook to them can do well, especially if they have a target audience that you can focus on. Religious books are a perfect case in point. And fiction? Well, it's next to impossible. But then again, the majority of fiction books--even ones from "real" publishers--struggle in the marketplace.
He's absolutely right: fiction is a tough sell for anyone, anywhere. There are already more people who want to write a novel than read one. And, if you want to self-publish, you really should have a book about something very specific and a clearly defined plan to reach the (also clearly defined) audience for that thing. If you can drive your car to an event and sell the book out of your trunk, that's a self-publishing topic.

11. Create a unique title.

Your book should be easy to find in a search on Amazon. It should come up in the first couple of search results. Unfortunately, many authors make the mistake of using a title that has too many other products associated it with it--and it gets buried in search results. Not good. Basically, you want to get the maximum SEO (search engine optimization) for your title, so if and when somebody's actually looking to buy it they'll find the link for your book--not an older one with an identical title.

I quoted this one end-to-end, because every writer -- particularly fiction writers -- should know this. (Even those with "real" publishers.) Google your working title, and search for it on Amazon. If there are already three books with decent sales figures with that title, change your title.

14. Buy as little as possible from your publishing company.

Self-publishing outfits are in the game to make money. And since they're probably not going to sell a lot of your books, they make money by selling you services with nice margins. That's OK. Some of the services are worth it--or at least may be worth it. In an experiment, I've invested in BookSurge's Buy X, Get Y program that pairs your book with an Amazon bestseller. While it's pricey--it's normally $1,000 a month, but during a special sale, I bought 3 months for the price of two--and may not help you sell all that many books, it does put your thumbnail image in front of a lot of people.
First point: he's absolutely correct, and very astute, to see that companies that help "self-publishers" mostly make their money not by selling books, but by selling services to authors.

Second point: It's actually Amazon's "Buy X, Get Y" program -- I'm not sure if every single publisher can or does use it, but I wouldn't be surprised if they could. It's very widely used.

Third point: without getting into details and trade secrets and whatnot, spending $2,000 for three months of co-op advertising -- which is what "Buy X, Get Y" is, a preferred placement in Amazons virtual "store" -- is one of the very, very cheapest deals that I've ever heard of. Co-op, for larger publishers -- and for larger placements for any size publisher -- is typically much more expensive than this. (Of course, there's always arguments in the industry, and within any particular publishing house, as to which co-op placements are worthwhile and which aren't -- some people love BXGY, some think it's useless.)
The biggest mistake people make when it comes to self-publishing is that they expect to just put out a book and have it magically sell. They might even hire a publicist and expect something to happen. It's just not so. You have to be a relentless self-promoter. Unfortunately, a lot people just don't have the stomach or time for it[.]
Carnoy could delete the prefix "self-" from the first sentence and it would be just as true. It is even more important when there's no publishing company out there supporting a book, but any book's best advocate and most committed promoter is its author.

In every field or genre, there are things an author can do that move books, and it's up to the author to find out what those are (from her agent/editor/publisher, if she has them) and do them as well as she can. Sometimes those things just aren't possible -- in cookbooks, by far the best thing an author can do is "already be on Food Network," but telling an author this is not precisely helpful.

20. Self-published books don't get reviewed.

...eventually that will change. ...reputable book reviewers such as Kirkus are offering special reviews services geared toward self-published authors. The author pays a fee.... I expect more companies to go this route to expand revenue streams.
I'm less hopeful that the abomination of the paid "unbiased" review will grow and expand; the reaction from the publishing field to Kirkus's program was uniformly negative. I expect self-published books will continue to be not reviewed in great numbers.

So books whose sales aren't driven by reviews -- again, niche non-fiction -- will continue to have the best chance of success as self-published works.
22. If you're selling online, make the most out of your Amazon page.
I think I mention this in every single author call I have; it's as important to conventionally published writers as it is to the self-published. Unless you have a major web presence on the Neil Gaiman level, the Amazon page for your new book is its de facto homepage to the entire world. Learn what you can do to make that page stronger, and remember that more content is always better. Join Amazon Connect. Syndicate your blog there. Mention your readings and speaking engagements. Post a video, if you have something that isn't just you talking about your book. Encourage readers to write reviews. Add to your book's tags. (And do any of those things you can on other on-line booksellers, like BN.com -- but Amazon is the bigfoot in that market right now, so focus on Amazon first.)

I did quibble a bit with some of Carnoy's points, but I agree with 99% of what he wrote -- if you're thinking about self-publishing anything, you should read his article first.

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