SELF-PUBLISHING: Maybe You're Not So Vain After All?

A lot of writers—even established ones—are taking a second look at self-publishing right now.

Only a couple of years ago, self-publishing—especially for memoir and fiction—was equated with the grumpy-geezer rants and bored-housewife fantasies of "vanity publishing.".

Serious writers were told self-publishing was the direct route to a dead-on-arrival career. Predatory outfits like PublishAmerica and AuthorHouse produced such heaping piles of unedited, overpriced crapola that most bookstores wouldn’t touch anything that gave off a whiff of “P.O.D,” no matter what the author's credentials. Reviewers tossed copies in the shredder without a second look, and most self-published books sold under 150 copies. 

But along came Amazon’s Kindle, igniting what's being called the biggest change in publishing since Gutenberg. And as Eric at Pimp my Novel says, “words of caution against unscrupulous self-publishing companies (read: vanity publishers) don't apply to the world of e-books.” 

Suddenly anybody who can convert a Word file to .pdf can throw a book on Amazon and have an ebook for sale within minutes—at no cost. AND—here’s the really seductive part—there's actual money to be made. Amazon pays a 70% royalty on Kindle books priced from $2.99-$9.99.

A few months ago, while big publishing companies battled with Amazon about ebook pricing and squabbled with their authors about ebook rights and royalties, a few savvy writers quietly slipped their Kindle-formatted books onto Amazon—for very low prices. Instead of getting paid maybe a few pennies in royalties on the sale of a traditionally published paperback, they started getting $2.10 for a $2.99 ebook.

Kinda awesome, since the low prices snagged a lot of customers eager to load their shiny new Kindles. These self-pubbed bargain ebooks didn’t just sell to the author’s sisters and his cousins and his aunts like the old expensive P.O.D. stuff—they sold BIG. Everybody loves a bargain.

Thriller writer J. A. Konrath—the guru of the DYI ebook movement—started making serious bucks (six-figures-a-year serious) off his out-of-print backlist, as well as manuscripts his publisher had rejected. Yes, you read that right: rejected manuscripts making money. You can read his amazing saga and advice on how to follow in his footsteps on his blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

But—and this is a big but—Konrath is an established thriller author with a solid readership (and an agent.) Can a mere unpublished novelist match his success?  

In spite of all the caveats from industry professionals, some writers seem to be doing just that. Author Karen McQuestion, unknown and unpublished as a fiction writer, put six novels on Amazon  last fall, and shot to the top of the Kindle Bestseller list within weeks. Since then, one of those six, A Scattered Life, has been optioned for film and is being issued by Amazon Encore in paperback this summer. She sold 30,000 ebooks on Amazon in the space of five months.

A fellow survivor of my UK publisher’s crash-and-burn, retired Chicago Tribune columnist Terry Galanoy is so impressed with these success stories, he has just published his thriller, BLOODGOLD in a Kindle edition this week. I’m rooting for him and watching his progress with an eye to doing the same with my out-of-print books.

Literary Lab’s Michelle Davidson Argyle is going the same route. She has decided to self-publish her literary novella Cinders, which will be coming out next month. A couple of days ago, Michelle posted a hilarious video by another self-publisher, Zoe Winters, illustrating the argument for going the non-traditional route.

So who should consider hitting self-pub e-book trail?

1)     Traditionally published writers with an out-of-print backlist. Novelists like Konrath who have an established following plus name recognition are in a no-lose situation here. Some are even dumping their print publishers altogether.
2)     Professional writers with platform and a strong writing background. McQuestion and Galanoy are working writers with solid sales in nonfiction. Galanoy has two NYT bestselling nonfiction books and McQuestion is a regular contributor to major newspapers.
3)     Marketing geniuses. Writers like clever YouTube marketer Zoe Winters will probably go far. If you can compete on her level, go for it.
4)     Writers with a strong online following. Michelle Davidson Argyle (who also blogs as Lady Glamis) has spent years establishing an online presence. She has edited anthologies and judged contests. She’s got a niche book to sell to a niche market where she has platform.

But for everybody else, I’d say… probably not so much. Sigh.

Here's the thing: as news of Konrath’s success spreads, we’re about to be inundated with a flood of self-pubbed ebooks. We have every reason to expect them to be like self-pubbed treeware books—mostly unoriginal, unedited, schlocky first drafts. Readers will need some way to pick out the good ones. That means the books will have to be vetted by somebody. Those somebodies will probably continue to be traditional publishers. 

If you do decide to go the e-route, you’ll need to follow some guidelines:

1)     If your book is not a reprint, get it edited by a professional. Not your retired librarian aunt. Not your boyfriend who dropped out of an MFA program. A professional editor who knows the business.
2)     Get professional help in formatting if you’re not super-savvy in book design. This is a relatively new field, so I’ll give you Mr. Galanoy’s recommendation: Rob Siders Kindle Services. Specialized tech services like his can help you get on Kindle as well as other ebook sources for a few hundred bucks.
3)     Design your cover to work as a thumbnail. Your sales will be almost entirely based on a thumbnail of your cover, so make sure it looks good in miniature.
4)     Make sure all rights have reverted to you if this is a reprint. (If you went with PublishAmerica, they own all rights for seven years. Sorry.) And remember—cover art is the property of the original publisher. If you want to use the original cover, you’ll probably have to pay for permission to use it.
5)     Develop superb online marketing skills. Everything about Kindle and its iPad-y, Nook-y cousins is going to be happening online. Join the Kindle forums now and start making friends. Follow Joe Konrath’s blog and start commenting.

For some great recent blogposts on the subject, I recommend Scott Nicholson at the Blood-Red Pencil on pros and cons, and Funds for Writers’ Hope C. Clark on novelists who are ditching their traditional publishers for epublishing.

Me, I’m still mulling over cover ideas as I consider taking the plunge with my out-of-print books. Any of you out there planning to Kindle your backlist or take a chance with new manuscripts?

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