Monday, December 1, 2014

For Our Self-Publishing Heroes

I read an interesting statistic this morning. The average number of books sold by someone who has self-published his or her work is--wait for it--a measly 279 copies.

Think of that. Say the book took you two years to research and write, then revise, then edit/proofread. Say it's a paperback, as self-published books tend to be, and sells for the usual $12 or thereabouts. You sell 279 copies, so what you get back for your effort is $3,348. But wait! This doesn't include the cost you shouldered to actually publish it (I have no idea how much money that actually is--printing will always cost money. But even an ebook, which is merely a downloadable file of work you already word-processed, doesn't come without costs. I just checked the cost of publishing an ebook for the Kindle on Amazon, and Amazon takes anywhere from 30% to 65% of your proceeds, depending on how you price the book.) Deduct from this the taxes you'll pay on whatever income you get. Also, any marketing costs are totally shouldered by you. Finally, being self-published, your book is not going to be reviewed by any major publications; libraries, large chain bookstores, in fact most bookstores, aren't going to distribute it either (because you don't have a distributor). The bottom line is, people who self-publish typically don't make much money and may even lose money--unless a miracle happens.

You have to wonder why some people choose, then, to self-publish. Well, unless you're pretty good at making a pitch to a publisher on your own behalf, you have to find an agent. And, an agent will NOT take a book the agent thinks won't sell enough copies to be worth the effort. Or, the book has to be so well-written, so astonishing, so unique, or strike the agent in the heart so hard that he or she decides to stake her reputation on it. And then that agent has to persuade a publishing house of the same. I guess we've all heard the story of how all the major publishing houses in Britain turned down Harry Potter, even though J.K. Rowling had an agent who believed in the book. Teeny, tiny Bloomsbury Publishing finally took the book. The first print run was a mere 500 copies. Even the press didn't think it would sell.

J.K. Rowling's story became one of those miracle stories. She got lucky. Had Bloomsbury not picked up her book, who knows? She may have given up and gone ahead and self-published. Then Harry Potter might've been doomed to oblivion because, unfortunately, very few self-published books get taken seriously. Self-publishing, to way too many people, is like stamping the words "This book is such a piece of shit no publisher would take it" on the back cover.

I got lucky. Roundfire Press picked up my new book, but I'm betting the first print run is no more than 500 copies unless there are tons of pre-orders, which I can dream about, but which I know better than to count on. Frankly, I'm pleased that, to date, about 80 viewers have bothered to watch the book trailer, and the book doesn't even have a set publication date yet. Right now I'm sending around emails to certain people whose opinion holds some weight and asking them if they'd like a review copy sent to them when those are ready. It's like beating the bushes. But so far, one has sent back a very courteous, "Yes! This looks interesting." So, always, I have hope--but I rein in expectations. I'm also glad this imprint, which publishes for a niche market, already knows whom to market to. I'll be overjoyed if the book gets a second printing.

But all of this got me thinking about how tough it is to sell a first novel. Query after query; rejection after rejection. It's like Sisyphus forever rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to go back down and push it up again. A person tires of heaving at a big rock against gravity. Therefore I have to admire people who work so hard and believe so much in their work that they'll risk self-publishing just to get their pages out there. These people are willing to hitch their work to a star and pray, and they are brave souls, for nothing hurts more than seeing your labor go ignored.

So today I'm thinking, let's do these folks a favor. If you ever read a self-published work and like it, don't keep that information to yourself. Go on Amazon, go on, and put up a review of the book. More than anything, it's reviews, along with word of mouth, that sells books when some huge publishing house isn't behind you throwing tons of money into marketing. I'm sure there are hundreds of unknown gems out there waiting to be read. And even just one positive review can make a writer's day: they know someone liked their book enough to take the time to compliment it. Even if they don't make much money for their work, at least knowing it's been read and touched somebody can make the effort worth it. Because more than anything, writers write to be read.

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