I hear from authors everyday—Facebook friends, writers who read my blogs or novels, people I meet at conferences. They often ask about my e-book publishing experience, then many close the exchange by saying, “But I’m still holding out for a traditional publisher.” I politely make no comment.
On one level, I understand this. A publishing contract is a writer’s dream and it’s hard to let go of. But as the industry goes through a major upheaval, writers need to ask themselves: What is more important? Having a traditional publisher or making money? Being one of the chosen or having thousands of people read your book? Some authors seem to have it all, but most midlist writers are already facing these choices.
Just how long should you hold out for a publisher?
After twenty years of having major publishers (and film producers) say “I love this story, but I’m not going to buy it,” I finally self-published my first novel, a police procedural called The Sex Club. I released it in a traditional way and many people, including reviewers, never knew it was self-published. After the book gained traction, I found a small press to pick up the series. That was late 2008 and I still thought I needed a publisher for respectability. I soon came to realize that having a small publisher was more of a liability than an asset.
1.) There is nothing a small publisher can or will do for writers that they can’t do better for themselves. I don’t mean literally do each thing yourself, but authors can contract for production services as well as a publisher can. Small presses are often run by a few dedicated, but overworked individuals, who typically contract out most services and pay bottom dollar. As an author, you can shop around and find the best editor/graphic designer/e-book formatter that you can afford.
2.) A small publisher will not have a sales staff and or a distribution network (no bookstores) and is not likely to spend any money promoting your book. What a small publisher will do is keep most of the profit of the few hundred books you manage to sell on your own.
There may still be some advantages to signing with a large press. An advance can buy time to write another book, and the Big 6 can get your novel into bookstores. But as the author, you have to sell the book no matter who publishes it. Meanwhile, chain bookstores are closing and Borders is going bankrupt, so the distribution network is crumbling. So that advantage won’t mean much in a few years, especially since e-books are capturing more and more of the market.
What’s left for the author is the label of being traditionally published and the convenience of having someone else contract the production work. Giving up most of the profit for those small advantages is a crappy bargain I finally decided I was done with.
Early last year after being laid off my job, I realized something had to change and I took a hard look at my own situation. No matter which way I looked at it, I kept coming back to the idea that self-publishing e-books was the only way to save my career and my house.
So I left my publisher and released all of my completed stories as e-books. In January, I had one book on Kindle and sold 31 copies. In December, I had six books on Kindle and sold more than 10,000. I also worked like a maniac at production and promotion for eight months to make it happen. I had set a goal of making a living from e-books by mid 2011, and I got there considerably faster than I dreamed.
So far, the numbers and the reviews keep getting better. In April, I’ll release my fifth Detective Jackson novel, and for the first time, thousands of readers are eagerly waiting for it. For me, that is significantly more rewarding than industry approval.