Living Through Interesting Times

Sep 26, 2012 | Contracts & copyright, News & Articles

It has become more a mantra than even a cliché, but “we’re living in interesting times” is repeatedly chanted by book industry insiders. And aren’t we just! There are more opportunities for writers than ever before. That is, there are more opportunities to write, connect and publish, but realistically, probably no more actual opportunities to earn a sustainable income.

And there’s the rub- more opportunities for you to publish, means more opportunity for *every* author to publish, and how someone will find you among the millions is one of the biggest questions authors need to grapple with.

I should admit that in many cases I am still an advocate of working within the traditional publishing model – if you can break into it. Established commercial publishers are often the best way for a writer to start their career. Traditional publishers have the expertise and connections to get your book out to readers. They already have the editors, cover designers, typesetters, distribution channels, and contracts, already organised, and most of the time, they pay you. However, there are many flaws with traditional publishing. Established publishers are not always able to innovate as quickly as individuals, and often cannot properly reward the efforts of very savvy self promoting authors who may benefit most from remaining independent.

Saying that, self-publishing is hard work. Unlike traditional publishing, you don’t have someone in your corner who loves your manuscript and has a vested financial interest in its success. Sometimes, authors need tough love to ensure the manuscript is the best it can be. The editorial process can be brutal to both the author and the editor, but a stronger work will invariably emerge. If you are going it alone, GET AN EDITOR. You will need both a structural editor and a copy editor. These lovely and professional book-loving people do different and valuable things. Both are worth it.

It is also incredibly important to go into self-publishing with realistic goals. For every success story, there are thousands who have barely sold a book. It is hard to get firm statistics on the actual income derived from digital self-publishing, but the vast majority of authors will receive less than $10 in total per book they self-publish. Author R. Scot Johns crunched some numbers over on his blog, and from this Lulu infograph, calculated that if there was a total of $36million earned and the top 5 earned $1.3million, the remaining 1.44million+ books earned less than $25 each. (Lulu are a self-publishing platform that helps authors make their books available via Amazon and Apple)

There is also a recent report called Not A Gold Rush based on a survey of 1007 self-published authors. If this small sample is indicative of the industry, 10% of authors earned 75% of the royalties. If this is then applied to Lulu’s infograph, the top 10% would earn $187 per title with everyone else earning less than $7. If your goal as a writer is to have your work available, then self-publishing is a great way to go. If you want to reach more people and try to build a career as an author, working with a traditional publisher is still the best option, or else prepare yourself for an uphill battle.

When signing a traditional publishing contract, as a general rule of thumb, you should expect print royalties of 10% of the recommended retail price, ebook royalties of 25% of net receipts, and an advance of approximately half the royalties you would earn on the first print run. Some publishers, particularly independent publishers, may not offer an advance, but if they have a solid reputation and do good work, this shouldn’t necessarily stand in the way. Watch out for fine print that means the publisher can reduce the royalty if they offer discounts 50% or lower, and make sure there is a reversion clause that allows you to reclaim the rights if your book is no longer selling (and not just “out of print”).

If you are print self-publishing, carefully consider how many copies you should print. While the price-per-book may be cheaper if you print 3000 copies from overseas, to avoid having 2961 copies in your garage for the next decade, consider a smaller print run of 50 -500 from companies such as Lightning Source. Be very careful of any company that calls itself a publisher but asks you for money. Most of these are vastly overpriced, and you are left with a large bill and a mediocre product. Do your research on any company before handing over your credit card.

If you are digital self-publishing, you are faced with the same issues of discoverability. Remember to look at all the eRetailing options, and do not only sign with the biggest game in town (*ahem*, Amazon). A good option is to also use an aggregator company, like Smashwords, that will help get your ebook into a number of channels.

When publishing ebook only, you should also be receiving a much higher royalty. Digital only publishers pay 40%+, Amazon offers 70% for sales in the US/UK (but only 35% for sales in Australia), and Smashwords offers 60%+ depending on which channel the sale goes through. In any event, the more sites you have your ebook available through, the better your chances that readers will find you. Word of mouth is important (this is where Twitter and Facebook come into their own) and a good review from a trusted source is worth its weight in gold.

When signing a contract, no matter how bad the terms, if there is no better option, no room for negotiating and you are benefiting in some way from the deal, then (with many caveats) it is not necessarily a problem to experiment and see how it goes. The most important thing to watch out for is an exit clause! Most contracts should allow you to terminate on 30 days notice. Do not sign any agreement that locks you in forever.

Despite the gloom facing the publishing industry at the moment, I believe the future is bright. The seismic shift in balance has already seen some publishers open the gates to unsolicited manuscripts, and start innovating with digital only imprints. In a few years, the industry will stabilise. Some publishers will fall or downsize, and some will thrive. I particularly see the future of Australian publishing being with the indie publishers who are small and nimble, picking up Australian stories they are passionate about, but able to promote them to the world stage. Authors will continue to beaver away for little or no income, and many publishers for not much more.

The most vulnerable members of the industry are the bookshops, and I cannot stress enough the importance of bookshops to emerging authors. For almost every bestseller, the author had their start being championed by indie booksellers. If you care about discovering exciting original authors, or are an exciting original author yourself, support your local bookstores. To abuse them as a mere display case to then order online devalues their passion, expertise and importance to the industry. Many booksellers now sell ebooks as well, so please think twice before buying from overseas.

Despite the brave new world, obscurity and penury continue to plague most authors. And yet, authors remain optimistic and dedicated to their calling. Perhaps the largest benefit for writers is the new community building options at their finger tips. No longer is a writer alone in a garret (unless they want to be) and, wherever they may be in the real world, they can still be part of a writing group that spans the world, or debating on twitter or playing around on Facebook. I would highly recommend all authors tap into this invaluable community resource. For advice, critique and support, the technology has opened up human interactions like never before.

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