Taking Sides—Self-Published Authors: Amateurs or Professionals?
Recorded March 22, 2014 at IBPA Publishing University
Christine Munroe, Kobo Writing Life
Brooke Warner, Publisher, She Writes Press
Dana Beth Weinberg, Professor of Sociology
Ted Weinstein, Ted Weinstein Literary Agency
For podcast release Monday, April 14, 2014
KENNEALLY: About a year ago, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, unveiled an upgrade to the Flickr photo storage service that that Internet company owns. With the upgrade, Flickr offered a terabyte of storage for free. A terabyte is one trillion bytes. That’s rather a lot of computing power, and it’s available to each and every person in this room, and everyone staying in this hotel, and everyone living in this city, and so on and so on. For some perspective, bear in mind that the Apollo moon mission operated on far less computer processing power than in your cell phone.
At her press conference, Mayer said the company was at the same time taking down the Flickr premium service, geared mainly to professional photographers. Here’s how she explained the move. “There’s no such thing as Flickr Pro today, because with so many people taking photographs, there’s really no such thing as professional photographers anymore.” As you can imagine, this did not endear Marissa Mayer to the professional photographers. They took to Twitter in a fast-moving fire of condemnation. Rather quickly, she was forced to call her remarks a misstatement.
What do we think she really meant? Giving her the benefit of the doubt, we can believe that Mayer had noted what we all understand is true. The ubiquity of cameras and access to nearly unlimited online storage has dissolved the distinction between photographers – call them professionals – and non-photographers, that is, the rest of us. Is the same true today for writing and publishing? If so, does it matter?
Everywhere we look, the line dividing amateurs and professionals is fading, dissolving, blurring, and even disappearing. If you’re like me, you probably wouldn’t want medical treatment from an amateur physician. I certainly wouldn’t drive across the Bay Bridge, just beyond this hotel, if it were designed by an amateur engineer.
But the comet streaking through our solar system is no different for having been discovered by an amateur astronomer. Every day, I follow reporting and commentary from a growing number of amateur journalists. These citizen journalists, or bloggers, as they’re sometimes called, make a difference in the politics not only of our own country, but many around the world. In Vietnam, Russia, and Zimbabwe, the amateurs often end up in the same prison cells as the professionals. I’m sure the distinction hardly matters to them or their loved ones.
Amateurs may only write or paint or play tennis when they are motivated to. But if you’re motivated to write or paint or swing a racket every day at 8:00 AM, then are you a professional? The novelist Richard Bach said that a professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. In the latest IBPA Independent that I’ve seen, board member Davida Breyer speaks of four passion publishers. What’s the ROI on passion? You tell me, and I have no doubt your probably will.
With that as an introduction, I want to turn to our panel. I want to introduce everyone. Moving from my left out to the wall, we have Dana Beth Weinberg. Dana, welcome.
WEINBERG: Thank you.
KENNEALLY: Dana received her doctorate from Harvard University and is a professor of sociology at Queens College – CUNY, where she directs the MA program in data analytics and applied social research. Her research focuses on organizational behavior, work, and occupations. Inspired by her own personal experiences as a novelist – she writes and has self-published fiction as D.B. Shuster – her current research examines the way that digitization is changing the book industry. This year, she co-authored the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest author survey.
At her left is Brooke Warner. Brooke, welcome. Brooke is publisher of She Writes Press, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of What’s Your Book? and How to Sell Your Memoir. Her expertise is in traditional and new publishing, and she’s an equal advocate for publishing with a traditional house and a self-publisher. Something of a fence-sitter there. Her website, warnercoaching.com, was selected by The Write Life as one of the top 100 best websites for writers in 2014.
To her left, Christine Munroe. Christine, welcome. Christine is US manager for Kobo Writing Life, a leading self-publishing platform that is part of global e-book retailer Kobo Inc. She works directly with authors, agents, and small publishers to help them sell their e-books on kobo.com, and she organizes events with local independent bookstores to build on Kobo’s partnership with the American Booksellers Association.
Finally, at the far end, Ted Weinstein. Ted, welcome. Ted is a literary agent who has broad experience in both the business and editorial sides of publishing. He represents a wide range of nonfiction authors, including two-time New York Times bestseller Austin Kleon, who wrote Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work, as well as bestseller Leander Kahney, who is the author of The Cult of Mac, Inside Steve’s Brain, and so forth. In addition to his many traditional book deals, Ted has helped clients directly publish their work and has sold many subsidiary rights on such projects. More information about his agency and his clients can be found at twliterary.com.
Dana Weinberg, I want to start with you, because so much of the discussion that we hear about self-publishing and its impact on publishers and authors is, frankly, anecdotal. What fascinated me was the work that you’ve done to really ground this in some serious research. I want to ask you, first of all, to talk about your own notion as a sociologist that you are a professional outsider. What does that mean, and what does that mean to this crowd, when we’re talking about amateurs and professionals?
WEINBERG: As we talk about amateurs and professionals, Chris started out talking about my credentials. Clearly I’m making a statement that I’m a professional expert when it comes to data analysis and research. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily know more about the publishing industry than others. It just means that if you put some numbers in front of me, I’m very skilled with them, and probably have a better idea about things that we can do with them than the average person might.
On the other side of it, I’m also doing my own self-publishing venture. I’m sitting here as an insider, along with many of you, on what that feels like. There’s that front-row seat to having the passion, having the dream, and trying to get out there with it and get it in front of readers and what that struggle is like, and it is a struggle.
Having that inside experience, I can then step back and say, well, what does it mean if we look at this in a larger context? If we think about it from the social sciences, what questions should we be asking, and what kind of data are out there that can make sense of this different kind of world that writers and publishers live in that’s really exotic to everyone else outside of us?
When I started self-publishing, I had been trying to get traditionally published for a while. I got to what I call the point of the big but letters. We love your dialogue, we love your stories, but this project just won’t work for us, or we don’t think there’s a big enough market, or whatever it was. Very nice letters, but. I had gone to the Romance Writers of America – I’m a member of the Romance Writers of America – last summer. I was very lucky to meet some very, very successful authors who were talking about very large income numbers, the kind of income where you can easily quit your job, and if you’re married, your husband could also retire on that kind of money. I thought, why not me? But that’s where the data comes in.
KENNEALLY: (laughter) The data is always troubling, isn’t it?
WEINBERG: This is where there’s this balance. We talk on the one hand about the business models, and being realistic about what we can expect, and thinking about what kinds of returns we should have and how to budget for cover art or for PR or whatever it is. On the other side of it, we have these huge passions and dreams. I don’t want anyone to take my remarks as in a way thinking that they shouldn’t go forward with what they want to do. But it is a dose of reality that most writers do not make money. Most books do not sell a lot. If you’re hoping that this is your golden ticket out, it might not be. My advice is don’t quit your day job, and we can talk about the numbers.
KENNEALLY: Right. But your advice also is not quit writing. It’s something to take on as fact and to reckon with it and to change your course. We had a presentation just prior to this one talking about pedaling across all those oceans. You have to keep on course so you can pedal and pedal and pedal and not get anywhere.
WEINBERG: Right. You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t keep paddling. But if you do keep pedaling, you still might not get anywhere. That’s the really hard part about this business. There’s no guarantee of success, no matter how good your work is, and no matter how hard you’re working at it. There’s a lot of luck involved. It’s hitting the market at the right time. It’s finding the readers. Venues like this, you learn best practices, but a lot of people are out there doing best practices. There were 300,000 new self-published titles published last year.
I was telling Chris earlier that if you look at the consumer expenditure survey for the US, and we think about how many consumers we have buying books and how much they’re spending, it turns out that the average consumer unit, according to the US Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you can see these tables there, spends $109 a year – it was 2012 data, so we’re a little behind now – on books and reading. That includes magazine subscriptions, includes newspaper subscriptions, and it includes books and book clubs. There’s a limited pie out there for all of these people who are entering the market. We can be savvy, and we can be smart, and we can find our way in. But this isn’t one of those things where everybody’s going to be a winner.
KENNEALLY: I encourage everybody to take a look at Dana’s blog, which is at danabethweinberg.com. There’s a number of postings around the findings of the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest survey. Some 9,000 authors responded. It’s a significant number – not 300,000, not all those authors who were publishing books this past year. What did you find that surprised you and pointed to something larger? Because what’s happening in the publishing world, the changing relationship between authors and publishers, is reflective of the larger society as well.
WEINBERG: There’s so many things. But the one sweet spot in the data, I think really there’s two parts of it – the hybrid authors and the self-published authors.
KENNEALLY: The hybrid author is –
WEINBERG: Hybrid authors are people who have done both traditional publishing and self-publishing. This is the second year that Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest have done their survey. This is the first year that I’ve been involved with them. But in both years, there’s a very clear trend that the hybrid authors are the ones who are the most successful in terms of income.
I want to be clear. I’ve been talking about income, because that’s what people are interested in. There are other payoffs to being an author. Many authors will write for a variety of reasons. It’s not all about the money is what we’re seeing when you ask people why they’re writing. It’s a lot about what we talk about at conferences like this, where we’re trying to gain some purchase on success of that kind. But people write because they want to tell their stories, or because they love what they’re doing.
Even for myself, last year I thought my life would be so much easier if I could give up writing. I’d have all these extra hours. I could be a better mother. Maybe I’d go to the gym more often. And I would feel physically ill thinking about giving up this creative process for myself. So people write for a lot of different reasons. It’s reflected in the survey.
But the other thing that’s really interesting when we look at our numbers is that there’s been a large rise, if you look at the Bowker data on different kinds of publishers, in the small and independent presses. There’s been a huge explosion just in that. Those would be considered traditional publishers the way we’re talking about this, if we were to divide the lines between indie and traditional. Yet they’re putting out a lot more books than ever before, in large part because with print on demand and digital, it’s actually less expensive to do so. There’s fewer barriers to entry.
On the one hand, we’re seeing more people traditionally published, probably, than ever before. At the same time, we see more people who are self-publishing. What’s really interesting when you look at the self-published authors is that these are people who might not have been able to enter the market otherwise. When we look at the reasons that people are self-publishing, some of it is because they were rejected by publishers, and some of it is because they’re telling stories that are too short for what the traditional press might want. There’s a lot of novellas and things like that coming out. Or they have – I love when you go to writer’s conferences and they say, well, the genre is dead now. They’re writing in that dead genre, but it turns out that there’s readers for it.
Not everybody’s making money. That was one of the big findings that was put out there. Yet we find that there’s more people entering this space than have been able to in the past. Even thinking about the consumer numbers – yes, consumers may not be spending that much money. But because in the beginning, the e-books were coming out less expensive, especially from the indie authors, more people were able to get in and claim a little piece of that not-so-expanding pie. I think that’s the really interesting thing, that there really is this new frontier that’s been opened, that’s allowing more and more people to come in.
I think also when you look at what’s happening with traditional publishing, the argument for why authors need traditional publishers is not being made as strongly as it could. When you look at the numbers of how people are doing with their sales, the fact of the matter is that discoverability is going to be the hardest mountain that we all have to climb. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether you’ve come through a press, or through your own press, or whatever it is. You still have to fight that battle. The big five have advantages because of their budgets for PR and advertising, but they also don’t expend those across the board.
When we look at people’s experiences with publishing, whether it’s self-published or traditional, we find that there’s not that great of a difference, and that authors in particular are not extremely satisfied, whichever way they go. From my own experience with self-publishing, I think in large part that’s because while we have this creative control, and we feel really good about the things that we’re doing, there’s a very depressing moment when you put your book out to market, and nobody can find it. It’s that moment of what do I do about this?
KENNEALLY: Dissatisfied authors. Ted Weinstein, I don’t know if you know any of those. Do you have a few for clients, maybe?
WEINSTEIN: No, my clients are all happy. (laughter) What I say at every workshop I teach, at every one of these panels, any time I talk one on one with any author, is my first goal is to try to talk you out of it. Because if I was able to talk you out of it, you weren’t going to succeed anyway, just because the mountains are so high. It’s a great narrative arc, but the odds against you are really steep.
The folks who do continue, though, have always thought like self-publishers. Whether or not they’re going to a traditional publisher for the actual publication or not, you need to be saying this is my book, my project, and every step along the way, I’m in charge.
Chris was kind enough to mention a client of mine whose new book just came out, called Show Your Work. Which for many reasons I recommend, but it’s by Austin Kleon, who’s become an Internet sensation and a creative guru to a lot of folks. One of his edicts is don’t quit your day job. It took him many years after he was a New York Times bestseller before he did quit his day job, and he’s got a wife who’s got a job. Even great success, you still need to be understanding that the financial odds are long. Even if you’ve done well this year, next year’s no guarantee.
The other point that I will reiterate – he’s always thought like a self-publisher. These books were published beautifully by Workman, and yet he’s the one who’s saying, hey, wait a second. We’ve got a problem with this event, or we’ve got a problem with this color matching, or we’ve got a problem with this layout. He is kind and sweet, and I’m the bear in the room. But the two of us are always pushing the publisher, and they’re one of the best, to make sure that everything is done right. Because they’re publishing 30 or 40 titles a year. This is his one title for this two-year period. Whether you’re going down the route on your own, or whether you’re doing it with a major publisher, it’s always got to be that sense of self-publishing.
KENNEALLY: Ted, what’s interesting about the question of amateurs and professionals is this notion that all this self-publishing is flooding the market. How do you feel about that particular question? I know Dana’s got some data on that question, but is that potential flood or this change in the seas having an impact on the relationship that publishers have with you and with their authors?
WEINSTEIN: No question there’s a flood of books being released. Dana had great numbers – 300,000, wow, that’s even bigger than it was the year before. It’s insane. But from my perspective in evaluating prospective clients, or taking on a self-published author to represent their foreign rights, for example – in all of that, the book itself is not where somebody makes their name, and it’s not where somebody makes their success.
Austin’s – just because these are here, I’ll use this as an example – this first book came out of a blog post. The blog post had 1.6 million visits before we even pitched it as a book deal. So the notion that there’s lots of books out there – anything that you should be publishing, anything that the major publishers are publishing, you shouldn’t be worried about, hey, we’re one of 300,000 or one of 500,000. It’s that we’ve already got a presence in the world, so the publication is a ratification and a monetization of what has already been success.
KENNEALLY: Brooke Warner, I know that that’s a problem for you, isn’t it, that there’s a requirement in traditional publishing today for a platform. An author has to have the platform that Ted is speaking about. Certainly it makes sense from an investment perspective. But your concern is that self-publishing is rescuing us from a kind of deterioration of the cultural discussion. Talk about that. Why is this demand for a platform having a negative impact not only on publishing, but on the culture?
WARNER: There’s a lot of layers to that question. It’s interesting because you posed it as I see it as a problem. Yet my business, which is She Writes Press, is actually founded almost in reaction to that.
KENNEALLY: As an answer to the problem.
WARNER: As an answer to it. It’s actually an opportunity for us, of course, that all of these self-published authors who want a voice, who have something to say – I should say that they’re writers who want to get published who can’t get traditionally published. The thing that I talk a lot about is this catch-22 that people face of publishing. Because they want to get traditionally published, they go out to a traditional publisher, they can’t get a book deal. Not because the book isn’t great. All the time, there are beautifully-written books that are rejected.
I come out of the traditional world. For eight years, I was the executive editor at Seal Press, which is a local women’s press over in Berkeley owned by Perseus. Not one of the big five, but a major player. I would get these projects and not be able to acquire them, simply because the author didn’t have a platform. It started to be very painful, actually, to read wonderful, beautiful content, and then to go flip straight to the marketing plan, straight to the author bios, and say I’m not even going to take it to ed board. I’m not even going to bother.
Interestingly, of course, in the culture, what Ted is saying is absolutely true. You have to have proven success before a publisher will take your book. You have to have a successful blog, a TED Talk, whatever the thing is – a major platform. We used to take things sometimes to our distributor – we were distributed by PGW, and now She Writes Press is distributed by IPS, Ingram Publisher Services, who’s here.
But they sometimes would say to us, why did you acquire this book? This author has no platform. The platform would be decent, but it wasn’t great. They would start to say things to us like this person needs to go figure out who their audience is, get a bigger audience. Then we’d be in this shameful position with them. There’s a lot of pressure on acquiring editors and publishers that the average writer doesn’t see.
KENNEALLY: What’s the answer, then? What’s the answer that you’re giving at She Writes Press?
WARNER: The answer that we’re giving – at She Writes Press, the whole model that we have is about good writing. The author does not have to have a platform to publish with us, but they have to have a beautifully-written book. We are vetting and curating, the idea being that you can build a platform with a book. Probably a lot of you here understand that, that that’s the catch-22. You have to have a platform to get a book deal, but really in order to build a platform well, you have to have a book. We want to be that solution, and oftentimes self-publishing is that solution.
But as Dana has been saying here, the numbers don’t always shake out. There’s so many other things involved in building a platform. Sometimes simply visibility, exposure – one of the things that has not been said here is that a book leads to speaking events. A book leads to a TED Talk. A book leads to the opportunity to teach online. A book leads to other opportunities to make an income for yourself. But without a book, it’s very difficult to have the legitimacy that says that you’re capable or should be the person to do that.
KENNEALLY: But Brooke, I think an important point that you want to make is one that’s echoed in the IBPA code of ethics, which is professionalism matters. This platform – if we’re out in the ocean, and the craft is rickety, and it’s not very well built, and it’s springing a leak, it’s not much of a platform. For you, it’s essential that if the author does set sail in that book, that it be as professional as it can be. What does that mean?
WARNER: Yeah. That’s the thing. She Writes Press is built off of a traditional model. I basically took Seal’s model, I stole their art, and said, I’m just going to replicate this, but do it differently in terms of the model because the author pays. It’s a very much middle – we’re calling it a third way, and there’s tons of these kinds of companies popping up. We’re hardly unique. But it’s this hybrid, in-between space, the point being that we know publishing.
What you’re saying about amateur authors, I think, is very interesting. If you are an amateur – maybe you don’t consider yourself that, or maybe you do, but amateurs need to partner with experts, because there’s a lot of things that authors don’t know that they don’t know. Many, many, many, many things. I’ve been in the position of having to rescue those authors from themselves sometimes, because most people don’t have an art background. I have a lot of authors who are beautiful writers. They don’t necessarily have good taste when it comes to book covers. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert across the board on all the many things from the point of platform, pre-publication, all the way through marketing your book. The notion that you would do that all by yourself is ludicrous.
KENNEALLY: I think that’s a point that’s being made throughout IBPA University, is that doing it alone is a really unrealizable goal. You have to work with others. You’re suggesting find the right people to work with. I know, Ted, you had a response to this notion of platform as a negative thing.
WEINSTEIN: I was going to disagree with Brooke, but she kicked me under the table. Then I realized I wasn’t disagreeing. Her point about being able to succeed –
KENNEALLY: Oh, go ahead. Disagree, come on.
WARNER: He loves to do this.
WEINSTEIN: The notion that a book can be its own platform, and you start with that, and that becomes the tool, is more true in fiction than in nonfiction. It’s harder to develop a platform as a first-time fiction author. Maybe short stories.
WARNER: And memoirists.
WEINSTEIN: Memoir is that middle ground. Whereas for nonfiction, you have to prove that either you’re a subject matter expert, or you have a platform you’ve already built and something out there. I just wanted to leave that distinction. It varies between fiction and nonfiction.
KENNEALLY: It’s a very important one, absolutely. Christine Munroe, I want to bring you in, because Kobo has a lot of visibility into this marketplace. In the Kobo Writing Life program, you’re working with, by definition, self-publishers. Tell us what you have learned and what you know from being a global platform. You’re a retail platform, but this is one with a global perspective. Kobo publishes and is available in countries around the world, has actually more of a presence, more of a footprint, if you will, outside North America than it does inside North America. Tell us what you’ve learned about self-publishing and whether or not this debate really matters to the readers around the world.
MUNROE: Many layers to that question, too. (laughter)
KENNEALLY: They’re not supposed to be easy questions.
MUNROE: I guess I’ll start with the global side. Just to clarify, the presence is actually strongest in Canada. Kobo is headquartered in Toronto. But then globally, we’re available in 190 countries and adding more seemingly every week, which is more than any of the other retailers added together, just to give you an idea of global footprint. That’s really where our focus is.
Then to get into the amateur versus professional, in terms of what I’ve learned, Kobo Writing Life is open to anybody to use, but we see the full gamut from first-time authors to small publishing houses, because Kobo Writing Life is a tool that we encourage anyone publishing basically less than 40 titles a year – it’s the easier way to go. We have a different publisher track, where we set up a vendor account. They have actually less tools than the indie authors do, so small publishers love that.
To us, Kobo Writing Life is this huge range of first-time authors, small publishers, and agents – some agents are now starting to self-publish their own clients’ titles – to everywhere in between. You see individual self-published authors who really are professionals and have their own marketing expert who is their employee, an assistant, maybe. They’re really building up basically their own individual press for their own titles.
KENNEALLY: On that notion, what are the kinds of things that Kobo Writing Life sees in your work that are common faults, sort of lack of professionalism? What are the kinds of things that if you could tell this room or anyone that you work with, please don’t do that, and you’ll be so much more successful?
MUNROE: That’s a great question. I would say there are two layers to that. The first would be issues with metadata, where people just really don’t understand where they’re entering –
KENNEALLY: They’re probably people that don’t understand that term, too.
MUNROE: What metadata is. Let’s say you look at a website where you’re buying a product, and it has the cover, the title, author name, ISBN, if you have one, and the description. All of that is metadata – all of the information that makes up what a customer sees when they decide to buy or not buy a book.
KENNEALLY: It’s what we used to see in the library card catalog, too.
MUNROE: Sure, well said. But we see authors of novels using descriptors for nonfiction books. They’ll say nonfiction adventure story when it’s a novel. Those confusing things, where people just don’t understand what the metadata means and really need to do their research, but they’re misrepresenting themselves to potential consumers.
The other side would just be a lack of professionalism in terms of not hiring a professional cover designer, not getting a copyeditor, having your mom edit your book, and not getting those early reads from a group of people that you trust to help you make your book the best it can be before you self-publish it. We’re seeing a great shift, though, away from using self-publishing as an experiment, and then fixing it up as you go, to really creating a professional product and coming out on to market as a professional, even if you’re technically an amateur.
KENNEALLY: Great point. Because when I worked at NASA, we learned one thing. You can only launch once. That platform gets launched, gets put out into the seas. If it’s rickety, again, it’s not going very far at all. You’ve also learned something, I think, at Kobo that’s important for this audience to hear, which is about pricing. Things have changed. This e-book market we’re in is a very dynamic one. When things busted out of the doors a couple of years ago, it was a great thing to do to make everything available for free or for a very low price indeed. That is changing. Tell us about what you found.
MUNROE: Sure. I think that worked right when self-publishing became the huge boom that it is now in 2008-2009, where there were books priced at free and 99 cents and they stood out, because those were the few and far between standing in contrast to the $9.99 that traditional publishers were pricing at. But now there’s this glut of millions of titles in that price space. So when self-published authors price their books higher, that actually makes them stand out more. I’m seeing authors who are indie pushing their prices up to $5.99, $6.99, and there are consumers willing to pay those prices, the benefit also being that they get the higher royalty rate. At all the retailers now, if you price your book at $2.99 or higher, you get 70%, and it’s a lower rate if you price it below that.
And then the other side is that with self-publishing, you can play with prices. You can do a reduced price, for example, right when you launch, and then increase it. You could do a promo, merchandising. If you think a price isn’t working, change it. The only thing I suggest is that you do those things consciously and you track them. If you change your price, see how that does across all platforms, maybe adjust. But you have that flexibility and agility to make those changes. Authors never had those tools before.
KENNEALLY: Dana Weinberg, you began by telling us that status matters. Having that Harvard degree, the professorship, and so forth matters in the field of sociology. What used to matter in publishing was the art, was the craft. Is there a shift now, keying on what Christine was just saying, that what matters now is the entrepreneurial aspect of it, the financial success?
WEINBERG: This is another complicated question. If you look at research on the publishing industry through the 1970s onward, commentators will say that there’s been in a shift in the logic in the way organizations operate, it’s in the publishing space as well as in other spaces, that we’ve really moved toward this kind of idea – you’ve heard these words – data-driven decision-making, accountability, bottom line. When I was studying hospitals, the favored saying was no margin, no mission. You saw that in the publishing houses as well, especially through the late ’80s into the ’90s, that there’s been this shift, even before we started talking about self-publishing, about what’s going to be profitable and what’s not.
Now, it was always true that the publishers cared a lot about books, and that in the beginning, a lot of this was about curation and putting out great books for people, thinking about literature and art. But those pet projects were often funded by things that were much more consumer, commercial success. As the focus has shifted to thinking about commercial success, in some cases that’s become the strongest focus. Some people would argue it’s the only focus, depending on where you’re standing in this space.
Editorial decisions are beyond what’s a good book. They’ve moved to these questions about what’s going to be marketable, what’s going to distribute, what are the stores going to buy, what are the readers going to buy? That market pressure has changed a lot of the ways that traditional publishers think about what projects they’re going to take on.
In the self-publishing space, that doesn’t have to be the driving force. You can put out the story that you want to put out, and depending on what services you use, you can do it very inexpensively. That’s a whole other discussion. But you can put it out very inexpensively, and so this question about how much should I spend, and how much is it going to cost, and what’s the bottom line, isn’t quite as strong. You can do it for other reasons.
But at the middle of this, if you go to any kind of writers’ event, there’s always this sort of posturing. This is the sociologist now speaking about what it’s like to be in a room like that. People come in, and there’s always this human comparison – which press did you publish with? Did you get reviewed in the New York Times? Are you in the bookstores and the libraries?
We ask each other those questions, and there’s sort of this puffing up for the people who can answer in the affirmative, and the other ones kind of – you know. It used to be that if you said you were self-published, it was, oh, well, vanity press, or he was self-published, and that’s not as good. There was a lot of stigma around it. And that’s really starting to change. But one of the reasons it’s changing is because there are people who are finding so much commercial success self-publishing, and in many cases more than the traditional publishers.
In the sea of how many people are out there, it’s a small percentage. But we’re hearing the stories, and so those anecdotes, or the one token writer in 100 that you’ve met who’s done it – that’s only 1%, and yet you know that person, or you’ve heard about that person, and so it shapes the whole perception. So when you’re sitting at these tables, and it’s, well, I’m with the big five, and I’ve done this, and I’ve done that, and someone walks in and says I made $250,000 last year, it changes the whole tenor of it and where the status has gone.
KENNEALLY: They look really smart.
WEINBERG: They do. They look smarter than everyone else. That’s given a lot of pause to writers thinking about – now you find traditionally published authors starting to question, did I make the right choice? The other thing that I’ll sometimes hear from traditionally published authors is that while they are content to stay with their publishers, they’re very happy that there are so many people out there self-publishing, because it’s made the publishers treat them better, because they know there’s another option.
KENNEALLY: Ted, I saw you sort of rise in your chair at this notion that self-publishing is a really smart move, at least financially.
WEINSTEIN: No, it can be phenomenally so. But there’s a phrase from The Economist that’s important to engrave on your mirror, on the inside of your eyelids. It’s called selection bias. Dana talked about that as she started today, which was great, that we see the examples of success. We don’t see the 299,999 who are not Hugh Howey.
WEINBERG: Right. I’m not going to tell you I only sold to my friends and family.
WEINSTEIN: That’s important. But to Chris’s second point, hugely important. I just did an enormous book deal for a client of mine who’d had success with her first book. Second book, we were negotiating with the same publisher. They had an option, so they definitely wanted to publish this new book. I did a little spreadsheet, which is actually available on my website, and I’ll make the URL available.
I ran the numbers. If she had done this second book only letting me sell foreign rights, not giving those rights to the publisher, and if all we did was an e-book through Kobo and Amazon, at the much higher royalty rates, she would have made over $1.5 million. That’s assuming not a single print book was out on the market. Now, she didn’t want to do that for lots of reasons. But having that spreadsheet, and I literally sent the spreadsheet verbatim to the publisher and said, now, let’s sit down and talk. That makes for a much more productive conversation.
KENNEALLY: I’m sure it does. Brooke Warner, the point that Dana and Ted have been making about the importance of financial success and how that’s driving – you started by telling us that the importance of financial success for publishers was driving you out of publishing. Are you concerned now that the people getting into publishing, these amateurs, have kind of picked up the same disease?
WARNER: (laughter) Yeah, the whole conversation around financial success is interesting. We get this question all the time at She Writes Press about the numbers. What kind of sales figures can we talk about? Because there are no advances, and instead the author is paying for their production and editorial costs, for us, success equals earning out, which in this case means breaking zero. In the case of a traditional house, earning out your advance is a success. You get that advance, but that advance might be $5,000, or $10,000, or $100,000, whatever it looks like.
I don’t know if self-publishers – it’s comparing apples and oranges, of course, because you’re investing in yourself. I think it is important to go – we’ve been looking at this all weekend, the importance of looking at this from an entrepreneurial lens. A lot of people go into self-publishing, they’re not good businesspeople. They don’t think about it. They don’t ask the right questions. I’m shocked by the questions that the authors who work with us don’t ask. Really. It’s amazing to me. So I try to be transparent.
KENNEALLY: Such as?
WARNER: Just no questions. No questions about the contract. No question about the money. No questions about what are your costs?
KENNEALLY: I think in the past, in traditional publishing, an author was so happy to have a contract that it stopped them right there.
WARNER: That’s true. I think in our case, I’m very pleased that our reputation is such that people feel excited to be accepted by She Writes Press. But the truth is they’re still paying, and so they still should be asking entrepreneurial questions and be thinking about – I have to tell them, consider all the things that you have to earn out before you even start making $1. For anyone who is self-publishing or running their own publishing company, that should be the first.
For me as myself, I published my own book on She Writes Press, I did the numbers to figure out, at what point am I going to break even? That, for me, was going to be the success. But you see I made $0. We’re talking about financial, but that wasn’t my primary motivation. For most authors that we work with, it’s really not about the money.
KENNEALLY: It’s an old line – if you want to make a million dollars in publishing, start with $2 million. I also hear if you want to make a million dollars in the airline business, Richard Branson says you start with a billion dollars. But Christine Munroe at Kobo, you have this Writing Life community that’s come up through the ranks, if you will. People are corresponding with you. You like to say that the people at Kobo Writing Life aren’t just a machine, that they’re names and they’re e-mail addresses. In that interaction that you have with them, are you responding, in a way, like Brooke is suggesting? Are you prodding them to think harder and deeper about these questions?
MUNROE: Absolutely. I wanted to add to your point in terms of being entrepreneurial and asking the right questions – a problem with self-publishing is that you’re kind of out in the Wild Wild West. There are so many awful, predatory companies out there wanting to take advantage of self-publishing. I was on a panel with Mark Coker, who I see there, recently. There was a woman in the audience who had spend $25,000 on services that just made her nothing. It’s stories that make you want to cry.
KENNEALLY: That’s that notion of amateur as naïve.
MUNROE: Right. Naïve, and companies taking advantage of that in really professional ways that could fool anybody.
KENNEALLY: Professional criminals.
MUNROE : Exactly. This idea of building an author community and doing your research is so much more critically important that ever before, as authors are taking things into their own hands and financing projects as self-published authors.
KENNEALLY: Ted, you mentioned that in your relationship with self-published authors, they may have started out with a book for the North American marketplace, and then you work with them for foreign rights and other subsidiary rights, so you get a sense of how much they’ve learned in that first part of their career. Do they learn? Do they come to you and say my experience has been a rewarding one? Or are they relieved to finally have some professional help?
WEINSTEIN: There’s actually two interesting issues packed into that question. One is the notion of domestic versus foreign rights sales. You really do need a professional to sell foreign rights. I know there was a panel, I think it was yesterday or today here, talking about can you sell your own foreign rights? But to me, that’s like doing your own appendectomy. I don’t recommend it. It’s taken me a long time to develop a network of foreign rights agents all over the world. So when I have a client whose foreign rights we retain, they’re the ones who sell it. I’m not even doing it myself. And we split the take, and then give the rest to the author.
Separate is when I talk to folks who’ve had some success self-publishing, how many of them say, hey, this was great, and I’m going to continue down that path, but I need aspects handled by somebody else. Unfortunately, most of the folks who come to agents who have had success self-publishing – rather, that’s an oxymoron. They come to agents because they haven’t had success self-publishing. The question is how many do I need to have sold before an agent, and by implication, a major publisher, might be interested? The answer is 5,000-10,000 books.
What happens far too often is somebody says, hey, I sold 130 books, many to my friends and family. I’ve sort of proven it here in the local market. Can you help me go national? That’s actually, in some ways, the worst of both worlds. Because they’ve experimented, had a beta test which by any measure can’t be considered a success purely from a business perspective. I’m not talking artistic. So it leaves agents and publishers with very little to work with.
KENNEALLY: Dana Weinberg, I know that your survey looked at a number of aspects of the satisfaction factor. Your own sense is that satisfaction really matters more and more in the relationship that authors have with publishers, but also their own experiences as self-publishers. Talk about the importance of satisfaction, as least as you found it in the data.
WEINBERG: At the end of the day, most of us are here because we love our books. We love our stories. We have a dream, right? Putting the book out is something that you can control. Deciding whether you’re going to take a traditional publishing contract or whether you’re going to take it out to the market on your own is a decision that you have control over. Within self-publishing, there are so many aspects of it that we as the producers and the publishers ourselves control. You can control that. You can’t control what happens on the market. You don’t control whether other people buy your book or not. You just put your best foot forward and hope for the best.
Given that that’s something that’s not within your control – it’s not like when you were in grade school, that if you worked really hard, you knew you could get an A. You can try, and you don’t know where it’s going to go. So part of it really is about enjoying the journey. As an author, the most important thing to do is to keep writing. If you want to have success in this market, you can’t stop with just the one book. You’ve got to get up and keep coming back and putting your butt in the seat and working away at it.
How do you do that – I’m thinking about the first presentation we heard this morning – when you don’t know if you’re going to get there? You don’t know what’s going to happen along the way, and you don’t see the end in sight, and sometimes you’re pedaling and pedaling and pedaling and it feels like you’re getting nowhere or moving backwards. That’s where satisfaction becomes really important.
It’s not that we want to just say, oh, happy authors – if you’re happy, then it’s OK. But this is a really hard business. In order to stay in it, you need to be doing the things that are making it worthwhile to you. Given that the money is sort of this elusive goal – although we all hope for it, and any author or publisher who puts a book out to market has to believe at some base that this is going to go somewhere, it’s going to sell, I’m going to find my readers – you don’t control that, and you don’t see it. You might not even see it right away.
Now that we have all of these electronic places that books are stored, or that you’re buying print on demand, the launch doesn’t matter the way it used to. It’s not like you only have a month to prove the worth of your project. It stays out there. Your readers might not find you this month. They might find you a couple of years from now, when all of the terabytes of memory available on these different e-book sites make it possible for you to still be there, because there’s not this limit to storage space the way there is in the bookstores, right?
So you don’t know. You don’t know what’s going to happen when your next book comes out, or the one after that, and whether that’s going to start shaping all of these other sales. What is it that’s going to keep you coming back?
KENNEALLY: One of the things we don’t know, too, and it’s important to reflect on, is that the business is more and more and more dominated by the Internet giants, the Amazons and Apples and others. The terms that they offer to self-published authors can change tomorrow. I see Christine nodding. Why is that important? A lot of people are being drawn in – we’ve had a discussion already about the contrasting royalty arrangements. But this 70/30 split that Amazon does, that you do at a certain price level, is hardly a permanent fixture.
MUNROE: Absolutely. I think that’s why it’s so important to have your book everywhere you possibly can, to distribute widely and to spread the power, because that encourages people like Kobo and Amazon and iBooks and Smashwords to all try and match each other, and if anything, improve royalty rates. That’s my main problem with exclusive programs, like KDP Select, where authors opt in to giving all of their distribution to one place, and excluding all other options. Because if you give that power to one person, then that person can absolutely turn around tomorrow and say, well, today your rights are 50%, or 25%, or whatever they decide to do. That’s why I believe more than ever that distribution has to absolutely be as wide as you possibly can.
KENNEALLY: That seems like a really professional choice for anyone to make. I want to use that professional notion again. To sort of spread it around, to not be beholden to any one particular place.
MUNROE: Absolutely. And you’re also appealing to all of the fans out there. Not everybody owns a Kindle, right? Many people own iPads, or they read on their phone, or on an Android device. You’re just appealing to as many fans as possible. There are many advantages to wide distribution, but I think spreading the power around is crucial in terms of royalty rates.
KENNEALLY: What about that, Brooke Warner? In your work as a coach and so forth, do you have to help people reckon with this notion that there are a few very dominant players, and they have to think beyond the obvious?
WARNER: Yeah, absolutely. This whole thing with Amazon, it’s a little hypey at times. There are so many people who have just totally drank the Kool-Aid on Amazon being the only thing that matters. Because lots of people want to have that conversation, it does dominate. But on the other hand, I absolutely agree with what Christine is saying. I read Mark’s work, pay attention to what Smashwords is doing, and I feel very strongly, absolutely, the importance of publishing across various platforms. But I think more and more, this conversation is being had.
I appreciate what Christine said, that there’s been a sea change in seeing more professionalism out there. I think it’s because people who want to publish are seeing that they can’t just put out whatever. Lots of people have gotten burned, and you see a lot of horror stories. People are being more vocal about having been taken advantage of, or not having done it well. For better or for worse, these failure stories are also permeating into the culture, and it is impacting professionalism. People like me, whose job it is to teach, help, coach, mentor people to publish well – I’m busier than ever. People seek out those services, and it’s very encouraging.
KENNEALLY: One further point before we go to a few questions in the audience, and this is for anybody on the panel that wants to take it. Apart from distributing as widely as possible, can we break beyond the notion that self-publishing is digital only? Is it important to have a print presence? Does anyone have some thoughts on that? Ted?
WEINSTEIN: I can just give anec-data.
WEINSTEIN: Dana knows much more in a systematic sense. But I’ll give an example. A client of mine is Keith Devlin, who you may know as the math guy on Saturday morning NPR. Hello, Keith Devlin here. He’s got this charming British accent. He’s a Stanford prof who taught one of the massive online courses, a MOOC. He had 70,000 students. He actually self-published, with some help from me, his own textbook, because he had all this material. He’s written 30 books over his career.
He wanted it as widely available as possible. Because it was an online course, he knew that most of the folks were going to read it digitally. But he did also have a POD version available, and was surprised at the number of copies that ended up being purchased. Some folks wanted that physical. Even though they’re looking at the video on the screen and interacting with the screen, they did want the physical option. It took some extra work. It was definitely not a freebie in a sense of, oh, it’s the same thing you tossed up to Kindle and Smashwords. But it was definitely worth doing.
WARNER: Can I say one thing about reviews? Just because I do primarily work in the fiction and memoir space, although we have nonfiction writers, as well. But where reviews are concerned, basically this question doesn’t even exist about reviewing e-books in the traditional sense. You have to have your ARCs. You have to go out early. Reviews matter so much to memoir writers and to fiction writers that where we’re concerned, the e-only question, it’s not really a question. In my opinion, the only reason to do an e-book is to make money or to build your platform. If you have this career that you’re building, or you’re a memoirist or a novelist who has many books in you, I will never advocate for e-only.
KENNEALLY: Christine, you have a thought?
MUNROE: Sure. At Digital Book World, this question of traditional versus indie came up quite a lot, obviously. One of the ways it was posed was why is an author like John Green still going traditionally published? He has the platform. It’s ginormous. Millions of people see every single thing he puts online. So if he wanted to go indie, he could absolutely do it. The question was if we can see what value is giving to John Green, then that might be the answer to the question of indie versus traditional publishing.
And this whole amazing Twitter conversation started happening, with John Green responding to the question. His main answer was the print distribution and the foreign rights. Those are the two big value-adds that traditional publishers are still bringing to the table.
WEINBERG: I would just add that print on demand is different that print distribution in some ways. Print on demand means that you have a book that’s available in print. We need to think about the demographics of our readership. There are large portions of the population that do not want to read their books on e-readers. Depending on what kind of book you’re publishing, this really matters. The higher ed market has been shocked by how these textbooks have not caught on the way that they thought they would in e-book form. Students still seem to want to actually be able to flip through pages.
Depending on what kind of book it is, there’s a real big question about print and about where that print is going to be sold. The e-book market really has eaten our mass-market paperbacks. The areas that were lucrative for mass-market paperback have done well in e-book. But even if you have an e-book version of a book – romance is one of the hottest-selling things, so I’ll talk about that for a second – you’re not in Walmart and CVS and the different grocery stores. Even if you have print on demand, you can only get that through having the right kind of distribution. Mostly it’s the biggest publishers who dominate that. Any question about what format you’re going to be in has to really think about who your readers are and where those books are going to be found.
KENNEALLY: Always important. Think about who your readers are. I think that’s something we can all take away. I want to thank, from the far end, Ted Weinstein, literary agent here in San Francisco, Christine Munroe from Kobo Writing Life, Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, and finally, Dana Beth Weinberg, professor at Queens College and self-published author as D.B. Shuster.
As a closing thought, and something you might want to tweet if you’ve been doing that, we have to recognize that not everyone is so crazy about all these books coming out. In fact, one traditional author put it this way. Times are bad, children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book. Cicero said that in the first century BC. Thank you very much.