By John Gilstrap
On Monday, my Killzone mate Clare Langley-Hawthorne asked how prolific a writer should be, to which a commenter responded, unprovoked, “. . . you can always just go indie/self pub yourself . . . Of course, then you wouldn’t be able to post about how self-pub writers are ruining it for the ‘real’ writers.”
On this, my penultimate post as a Killzone blogger, I want to dedicate my precious slice of cyberspace to a toxic trend that has really begun to bug me: the tyranny of self-righteous do-it-yourselfers. More specifically, I want to say my piece on why I continue to believe that self-publishing is an expensive road to frustration and failure, particularly for writers who do not have an established base of readers.
First, let’s define success. For me, that means thousands of books sold. If a few dozen to a few hundred is your ultimate goal, then self-publishing is your only option. No traditional publisher is going to invest their cash in such a tiny career.
Second, let’s establish the parameters of my argument: For my purposes here, my argument does not apply to anyone who has previously published books through traditional publishing. The sagas of Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler and others with established readerships have no relevance.
Charlatans Prey On Dreams
With the birth of the cheap-n-easy eBook, charlatans with dreams to sell are rising like weeds to capitalize on the desires of under-cooked writers to see their words in print(ish).
They’re all over the Internet, and they remind me of carnival barkers: “It’ll only cost you a few hundred dollars here, and a thousand there, but ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll follow my blog and buy my book and hire the editors I recommend, I guarantee that your book will be on a cyber shelf where millions of people can see it if they know to look for it. Don’t be fooled by those predatory publishers who take the lion’s share of your money! Come with me, and I’ll only take 30% for doing nothing and taking no risk.”
Deals don’t come sweeter than that. For the self-pub conduit.
Here it is for the record: 1. Not all self published books are crap. In fact, some of them are very good. Of those that are very good, the vast, vast majority are written by journeyman writers who have had experience in the traditionally-published world. 2. Not all proponents of self-publishing are hucksters, and neither are all freelance editors. Though some kind of warning label would be helpful.
I get all of that. I really do. But none of these factors make self-published freelancers any more courageous, noble or dedicated to their craft than those who do things the old fashioned way.
Desire Does Not Equal Talent and Persistence
I respect anyone who can squeeze some coin out of any corner of the entertainment business. There’s a guy outside the parking garage at the Vienna Metro Station in Northern Virginia who seems to enjoy the daylights out of playing hymns on his saxophone to greet customers on their way home after a long day. More times than not, there are a few bucks in his open case, so I concede that he is a professional musician. He may well be the best musician his family has seen in generations.
But he will never get a recording contract, no matter how much he really wanted one. It’s a talent thing. Or maybe it’s a training thing. Either way, I wager that traditionally-compensated musicians lose no sleep worrying that this guy and his subway-playing buddies might “ruin” the business for them.
As has been demonstrated in this very blog many times over the years we’ve done our First Page Critiques, a solid proportion of works whose authors felt confident enough to submit them are nowhere near ready for prime time. Like it or not, folks, writers like these represent most of what sits on self-published shelves. I say this with confidence because they represent the bulk of work proudly submitted to every amateur writing contest I have ever judged.
Yes, there are exceptions, and it you’re one of them, you deserve better company. But every time a reader takes a chance on a free download or views a free sample and learns how awful most of the choices are, the odds are stacked even more heavily against every other independently published author.
Self-published authors don’t threaten to ruin anything for the traditionally-published authors. They threaten to ruin each other by association. It has been that way since the very early days of vanity presses, only now the barriers to entry are lower. That means there’s more awfulness in play than ever before.
Freelance Editors Can Only Help A Little
Big Publishing editors reject authors who just don’t have the chops. Freelance editors adopt them as cash cows. Big Publishing editors stake their reputations and their mortgages on quality. Freelance editors live on process and improvement. I’m not suggesting malfeasance—ethics are tied to individuals, not to professions—but the difference in motivations is significant. There’s a world of difference between making a work better and making it publishable.
And how many freelance editors will reject a project outright?
Commonly Accepted Falsehoods
All too often, the debate about the merits of self-publishing are driven specious assumptions. Among them:
Standard eBook royalties dwell in the neighborhood of 17%. Not so, if you have an agent who is worth her salt. The true number is (or at least can be) much, much higher.
Agents are a thing of the past. Also false. (See above.)
Traditional publishers are irrelevant at best, dying at worst. This is simply not true. Their business model may be shaken, but every single one of them is adapting. When the dust settles, the public will be hungry for anti-dreck gatekeepers, and the keys will be in the hands of publishers. There might be different names on the doors, but the route to success will still be guided by professionals who know what they’re doing.
A 70% self-pubbed royalty is the route to riches. This is the most specious argument of all. Sure, at that rate, a book priced at $2.99 earns the author $2.09 for every sale. That’s a significant sum until you throw in the recent data that the average self-published eBook earns its author less than $500. That translates to fewer than 240 books sold, despite all the blogging and the book trailers and the social media stuff the author put into selling them. Seventy percent of very little is even less.
Think Value, Not Cash
Time has value, too. One of the reasons why publishers give smaller royalties is because they’ve already paid the author cash up front in the form of an advance that is going to be far north of $500. And that’s money the author never has to give back. Meanwhile, the publisher also pays for the cover art, layout, marketing, advance readers copies, catalogue copy, and the million other moving parts that give a book a chance at life.
Yes, publicity departments are shrinking and the pressure is increasing for authors to do more of their own publicity, but by working through a publisher, that work by the author is launched from a platform that is orders of magnitude more expansive than anything a first-timer could launch on his own.
I’m Not Trying to Run Any Author’s Life
Let me be clear: My point is not to rain on people’s parades. Everybody has a right to spend their money however they want, and everyone gets to define “writer” and “published” by their personal favorite lexicon. My opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s.
But if you’re a writer who has faith in your talent, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to exhaust all the traditional routes before you even consider the self-publishing dream that for so many has become a self-publishing nightmare.