Sunday, October 30, 2011

The self-publishing conundrum

In 2002, when I was running a home video distributor, the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was a huge success. The movie cost $5 million to produce and was distributed by IFC Films, an independent distributor owned by the AMC cable channel. It grossed almost $370 million (U.S. dollars) worldwide. That film, along with "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999 and "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004, led movie producers worldwide to conclude that inexpensive, independently-distributed films could make a lot of money. The problem was that all three films were outliers--totally unrepresentative of the fate of the vast majority of inexpensive, independently-produced files, most of which never even make it into movie theaters.

A lot of money was lost by independent producers and distributors in that period, as they tried to duplicate the success of those three films. The producers of "The Blair Witch Project" even made a sequel with a much bigger budget, but it grossed only a tiny fraction of what the original film took in. A second sequel was planned but never made.

History is repeating itself in the world of self-publishing. Amanda Hocking and John Locke are both said to have sold more than a million copies of their self-published works. As a result of their success, many other authors have decided to go the self-publishing route. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of self-publishing success stories to point to beyond Hocking and Locke. There are some self-publishers who make a nice living from a series of titles, or who have one particular title that does well, but the vast majority of self-published titles sell few, or even no, copies.

Self publishers start with several strikes against them:
  • They have to bear the expense of hiring an editor and designer or do the tasks themselves and risk releasing a book with typos, an amateurish cover and poor layout.
  • They also have to pay for a book publicist or do the work themselves.
  • Self-publishers also have to get (and pay for) ISBN numbers in order to sell their books through most retailers.
  • If they're selling print books as well as eBooks, self-publishers have very limited ways of selling to retail bookstores, and they don't have salespeople who are regularly calling on bookstore buyers.
Self-publishers can almost always make much more money "off the top" for each copy of their books sold than if they work with a publisher, but they have a lot of costs to bear that they have to pay upfront. On the other hand, self-published authors and authors working with a publisher are fairly equal when it comes to promotion. Most publishers offer little or no promotional support for new authors beyond including them in their catalogs and listing them in Bowker's databases. If you want a book tour or want to get press interviews, you're either going to have to hire a publicist or do the work yourself.

I'm a fan of self-publishing, and I don't want to discourage you from considering it. However, keep in mind that you'll have to bear a lot of costs and do a lot of work that a publisher would do for you (albeit at a high cost, especially if your book is very successful). One final point: Both Amanda Hocking and John Locke are now working with publishers: Hocking with St. Martin's Press, and Locke with Simon & Schuster.
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