Transcript: Self-Publishing Gets Respect

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Interview with Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World

For podcast release Monday, December 10, 2012

Q: We’re in the offices of F+W Media, joined by Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of Digital Book World. Jeremy, great to see you.

A: Good seeing you too, Chris.

Q: We wanted to chat today about what we’re calling the year of self-publishing. It really seems to be the dominant story in publishing, led of course by the tremendous success of 50 Shades of Grey, but so much more has been going on when it comes to self-publishing. It’s an area you’ve been covering a lot this year. So, tell us about what you feel are the high points on that subject?

A: Well, I think that the biggest thing to note for both the industry and people, in general, is that we are going through a golden age, a renaissance for writers and authors. Never before have they been able to have so much access to distributing their stuff to such a wide audience. And I think for people who have something inside of them that needs to come out that they want to bring to the world, or who want to make a living off of their writing, this is really a wonderful time for them to be working.

On the flipside, I think what this means is that for the publishing industry, there’s new competition. There’s new competition from these self-published authors to sell their books to readers. I think most publishers are looking at what’s happening in self-publishing as more of an opportunity, though, than a challenge. I gather that we’ll get into that later, how publishers are capitalizing on the opportunity.

But for me, the dominant message is, is that it’s a great time to be a writer. It’s a great time to be an author. And depending on how much you like some of the self-published work, it might be one of the greatest times to be a reader now with more stuff out there than ever before.

Q: Well, you know, I actually agree with you. I think the fact that people are able to write and express themselves in a way that they never have been able to before. They needed to get somebody to accept it. They don’t need that. They just need to go to their audience directly and find out what they think of it. That’s tremendous.

And the numbers that are out suggest that something like 300,000 self-published titles came out last year. And if you do the math, in the time we’re talking maybe a dozen or maybe two dozen titles will appear in the world. That’s a great thing. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

But it is certainly a disturbing moment in the business. And it’s not only disturbing for publishers. There are a lot of other players who are finding this a challenge. Let’s take it apart, though.

Let’s continue first on the point about authors. The advantage to authors isn’t simply that they can rid of those pesky publishers. It’s a better business deal for authors.

A: I think yes and no. If you’re someone who’s doing the math and saying do I want to get 70% of the purchase price of the book or do I want to get 25% or 15%, or whatever, then yes, it seems obvious that it would be better to go alone, but most authors would benefit, I would argue, from the editorial and production and marketing that a larger publisher can provide. And say, for a book like 50 Shades, that book started off as fan fiction on a blog. And it really took a large publisher in Random House to take it to the 65 million-plus sales that it’s seen so far this year. It’s the fastest selling book in history.

So, I would argue that for some self-published authors, yes, you’re right. The choices between do I publish something by myself or not publish at all, or maybe I take a small advance or I work with a smaller publisher and I could get more money by publishing myself.

But for some authors there is a legitimate choice between do I go with the large publisher – maybe I take some money upfront for a smaller cut of the earnings – or do I go it alone and get a higher percentage of the royalties.

I think it’s about risk. How are much are you willing to risk? Because if you get money upfront that’s not as much risk. And I think it’s also about what you think the potential of the book is.

If it can be published in 15 languages, and go to dozens of countries, and be sold in multiple editions, and maybe there’s a movie in it, you might be better off with a publisher, even though the royalties on the book sales will be lower because the publisher already knows how to translate things into different languages, and sell rights to the books overseas, and to help license it for other ways for it to be exploited, like in a movie or a TV series or a video game.

So, I think that it’s really up in the air whether it’s better or not to go it alone. And I really think it’s case to case.

Q: And certainly going with the self-publishing route first and then, if you will, allowing yourself to fall into the arms of a publisher has worked for a lot of authors – Amanda Hocking as you mentioned, E.L. James. There are many other examples. And you’ve written recently in a blog post for Forbes about self-published e-books that become bestsellers.

The potential – I don’t want to let this go – is tremendous. If you are successful, if you really do enjoy the marketing piece and the sales piece as an author, you can make a million dollars. You’ve written about people who do.

A: Yeah. Bella Andre is a really good example of somebody who had been published in a traditional publishing environment and with, I think, three of the big six publishers, and decided when e-books began their rise, to go it alone. Her publisher had told her at one point that one of her pennames had sort of run out of gas and she disagreed. So, she decided to continue that penname and was able to be very successful with it. And she told Time Magazine recently that she’s making $2.4 million this year doing that. It really needs to be said that she is very much the exception to the rule.

The odds are not as bad as say, winning the lottery, but they’re in that same theater. There are tens of thousands of self-published authors out there. It is thought that the vast majority of them don’t make any money or make very, very little money on what they do. Some very, very small group makes a small amount of money and some infinitesimally small group makes a lot of money.

We’ll actually be discussing all of this at Digital Book World 2013. In January, we’re doing a survey of published authors, self-published authors and aspiring authors about how much money they make and what their attitudes toward publishing and self-publishing are, and which self-publishing services they favor, and how they go to market, how they use social media and blogging to get their message out there. So, we’ll learn a lot more in the next few months about what’s really happening with that community, but I think that people like Bella Andre who have had that kind of success are definitely the exception to the rule.

That said, there are probably hundreds and hundreds of authors out there who are in a similar position who need to make that decision. Should I go it alone and self-publish, or should I could continue on with the publisher, or should I try to be published initially?

There’s a woman just like you mentioned. One path for authors is now to self-publish and then get picked up by a larger publisher. Tammara Webber who just recently had her book sold to Penguin, I believe, for a seven-figure sum after self-publishing and seeing success there. Obviously, Penguin believes that it can pay that money up front and then recoup its costs by bringing the book to an even wider audience and selling it as a print book perhaps, or selling it in multiple countries. So, it’s a very interesting time out there for authors.

Q: And we should specify that the kinds of authors who have seen the most success, as rare as it may be, are the authors of the genre fiction. This is very much a fiction story. Not so much for nonfiction. Unless you know of others who do write nonfiction who have done well with that. Can you talk about that?

A: Yes. When it comes to the self-published bestsellers, to my knowledge, it’s all fiction. I think there are a couple of obvious reasons for that. It’s a little bit, I think, easier to put together a cogent, comprehensive, cohesive piece of fiction versus the same for nonfiction, but people are using self-publishing outside of what we would consider trade publishing for a lot of nonfiction and for a lot of business purposes that may not necessarily involve selling a tremendous number of copies for their books.

A lot of “experts” and consultants will publish several e-books and use those e-books as a way to promote their own brand of expertise, as a way to get speaking engagements and other sorts of work. So, even though they’re not necessarily making money on book sales, they are making money through their e-books. But to my knowledge, there haven’t been any massively successful self-published nonfiction e-books.

Q: Certainly, the point you make is a good one, that, as an author alone, putting together that cogent novel with a reasonably engaging plot is possible, but to produce a biography of Abraham Lincoln or Steve Jobs or anything like that requires a tremendous amount of research, time, the assistance of editors, even perhaps, research assistants. So, it’s a project far more daunting than coming up with a Regency romance.

A: Yeah. I’m not going to say it’s not possible. I’m sure there are people that are capable of doing it or maybe already have done it, but it would strike me as harder for all the reason that you mentioned. Think about someone like Robert Caro writing about Lyndon Johnson now over several volumes over a decade. That doesn’t strike me as something that’s going to come out of the self-publishing world. That’s something that required investment and time and money to really put together and to bring to market.

Q: Well, let’s turn then to the way that publishers are responding to all this. And they have done a couple of different things. Certainly, they’ve defended themselves. They’ve tried to tell their story better. Earlier this year, Random House put out a video that documented what it is that a publisher actually does. Talk about that and how well you think the publishers are telling their story.

A: Yeah. I think the key question here for a lot of people who are considering self-publishing, certainly people who are in that self-publishing world, might ask themselves what do publishing companies do in a world where anyone can publish a book. And I think there’s a lot to unpack there.

For instance, what’s the definition of the word publish? Some people would say that publish is just pressing a button that puts your book on Kindle. Some would say that it involves editorial production, design, other kinds of distribution, exploitation of different rights, the protection of copyright. I probably would agree with the latter, that the publishing process is all of those things.

I wouldn’t say necessarily that self-publishing is a misnomer. There are people like Bella Andre, like people are a lot less successful than Bella Andre that do all of those in the publishing process. And they are self-publishing or publishing by any definition.

So, that’s the first thing that I would say to people who wonder what publishing companies do. They do all of those things.

For some authors, it’s not a matter of can I publish myself and distribute my book myself. It’s a matter of do I want to. Maybe I just want to concentrate on writing and I want to leave marketing and production and such to the experts. So, that’s one kind of author who would be amenable to going with the publishing company even though royalties might be lower, for instance.

But publishing companies also are doing things for books that most self-published authors can’t do. Most obviously, get them into bookstores. There are some self-publishing sites. I think FastPencil might be the best example that does have some limited in-bookstore print distribution. Obviously, print on demand is an option for self-published authors, but it’s very hard to get your book into 1500 bookstores across the country if you don’t have a publisher behind you, let alone exploit that book internationally.

Q: We’re talking with Jeremy Greenfield in his office at F+W Media. He’s the editorial director for Digital Book World. And we’re looking forward to being a part of the Digital Book World conference coming up in January here in New York City.

I wonder how you think publishers respond to the subject of self-publishing being a part of this discussion about publishing. It must feel a bit, not quite as an invasion, but at least a kind of an intrusion into a world that is very much a long-standing business.

A: Yeah. I think there’s definitely a reaction to it, in that publishers might say to themselves internally and it was said in a Hachette manifesto about what publishers do. Self-publishing isn’t publishing.

I think that we’re having a little bit of a semantics argument here. I think if a self-publisher does all those things we’re talking about, that that does equal publishing. If a self-publisher just presses a button and puts their work up on say, Amazon or Barnes and Noble, that’s distribution, which is one important part of publishing, but maybe not the whole package.

But publishers are also shrewd business people. At least they have been over the past five or 10 years, and they see the growth of self-publishing, and I think that many of them don’t see so much a challenge as an opportunity.

Q: Well, to that point, we’ve got a couple of examples already where publishers have brought in self-publishing, they’ve bought self-publishers, or they’ve done deals with self-publishing companies and have tried to make that an extension of what they do. Tell us about that.

A: Absolutely. I think the deal recently with Simon & Schuster and Author Solutions is a fantastic example. Author Solutions offers this sort of white-labeling, self-publishing imprint service. And Simon & Schuster is not the first publishing company to take advantage of it. Harlequin is another. I believe Harper Collins maybe also has one, although, correct if I’m wrong.

F+W Media, my own company as a very large book publisher has an imprint called Abbot Press that’s powered by Author Solutions. So, that’s one way in which traditional publishers have tried to get in on the act. Another way is by cultivating these author communities, and then in the case of Book Country, which is owned by Penguin, building a self-publishing platform off of that.

But I think probably the most significant way that publishers are getting involved in the self-publishing game is through looking at some of those books that have been self-published, for whatever reason. Maybe they were overlooked previously, or the author saw fit just to go right to the self-publishing distribution. And they’re seeing which ones are selling well and they’re buying them. And they’re offering them wider distribution and they’re offering them upfront money.

So, Tammara Weber with Easy is a really good example. Colleen Hoover recently sold several of her books, Slammed and Point of No Return, I believe is what the other one’s called, though I could be wrong.

Publishers are in the business of taking their capital, their money and giving it to an author and saying, I’m going to give you $100,000, $200,000, $500,000 as an advance on future earnings and you’re going to deliver to us a book. And these are gambles in the truest sense. Most of these gambles don’t pay off. Most advances don’t earn out. Some of them do and they do very well both for the publisher and for the author.

So, if you’re a self-published author and you have your book that’s climbing up the bestseller charts, and you’re making a decent living every month, and you get approached by a publisher who says, I’m going to give you half a million dollars right now and then we’re going to take this book and we’re going to republish it. We’re going to distribute it more widely. If you’ve already banked some money, and then you’re being offered this upfront money, that might be a pretty good deal.

Now, for the publisher, let’s think about this as the equivalent as a venture capital company that does, say, a seed round where they take a business that doesn’t exist at all and give it money versus let’s say a slightly more mature business, like a series A or a series B investment where they’ve already had investors put money in. The business has already been growing. It’s gotten to a certain point and now you’ve got this other investor coming along to add more money to sort of push it over the hump.

So, that’s how I look at publishers going into these self-publishing bestsellers lists and finding books they want to acquire and then acquiring them. They’ve already been proven in the marketplace. Some publishers are probably paying a little bit of a premium and getting a little bit of an alpha, but it’s more of a sure bet than seeding an unproven thing in the marketplace.

Q: Right. And, definitely, safer bets is a good thing in the world we live in today, at least as far as publishing goes.

Well, finally, let’s talk about the subject that everybody cares about, in the public at least, and that’s the bestsellers. And we chatted earlier this year about DBW’s own bestseller list, and you’ve been tracking what’s selling. I wonder if you can share with us any insights around the self-published titles that appear in any of those lists. Are there certain price points? Are there certain genres? What have you learned in tracking bestsellers that you want to share with this audience of potentially self-published authors, as well, as people working in publishing? Are you seeing things that show us some new directions or really a kind of redux of where we’ve been before in trade publishing?

A: We have learned a lot of really interesting stuff about what’s happening with e-book sales when it comes to pricing, when it comes to promotions, the way that books increase their sales due to changes in those things. We haven’t learned a tremendous amount in the three months we’ve been doing this about self-published best sellers. I’ll give you what we know.

There have been a few that have made our top 25 overall list. Most notably, this week, I think we had a 99-cent self-published bestseller hit number six on our overall list, which is the highest any self-published book, I believe, has gone in the three months that we’ve been tracking them.

Q: And what’s the title of that bestseller?

A: It’s Stop the Wedding by Stephanie Bond. Stephanie Bond is an author who was traditionally published. She’s had three or four or five major publishers publish her books. She’s published something like 60 titles and now she is self-publishing under the name Need to Read Books.

This book is priced at 99 cents, which makes it very strange for our top 10. Most of the top 10 best selling e-books are priced in the $10 and above range. And it’s only been on sale for a couple of weeks and it’s just rocketed up the list. I think she definitely has a hit on her hands with this one.

But in terms of self-published bestsellers, one thing that we’ve learned is that there’s this thought that self-published bestsellers are all 99-cents, or they’re free, or they’re just a $1.99 or even $2.99. Most of the self-published bestsellers that we’ve seen have been in the $3.99, $4.99, $5.99 range. So, there’s this thought that these self-published books are getting to where they are because they’re so much cheaper. And yes, they are cheaper than most of the big, big bestsellers, but they are still selling at a pretty good clip, something close to maybe what we’d consider paperback price ranges or mass market paperback price ranges. So, that’s one thing that we’ve learned.

I think overall the big message here is that, yes, it’s possible for a self-published author to have a hit, to make a bestseller like Stephanie Bond has right now. It’s very rare. The vast majority of the books on our bestseller list are big six publishers. Smaller publishers sneak on there occasionally. You’ve got a group of other publishers, like Scholastic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Harlequin that break onto the list from time to time and have great success on the list, actually, especially with Scholastic with The Hunger Games. HMH has a number of books on the list right now. But for the most part, it’s big publishers with big marketing budgets and big spends that are dominating this list.

Self-published authors do make it on. I think in the first two-and-a-half months of our list, we had seven instances of self-published works making the top 25 overall. And that’s very impressive. I mean, that’s something that you never would have seen five years ago. You never would have seen it.

So, I think it’s definitely making a huge impact, but if you’re an author out there and you’re thinking to yourself, should I take this advance and a smaller royalty or should I try to go it alone, consider the odds. In both cases, you’re probably not going to be very successful just because that’s the nature of most book projects. But it may be better to take upfront money as opposed to a higher percentage of royalties, or it may not benefit you that much to work with a publisher. So, I’d really consider very strongly what all of the variables are before making that kind of decision.

Q: Well, Jeremy Greenfield, thank you so much for your thoughtful perspective on the year of self-publishing. We’ve been talking with Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of Digital Book World here in his office in New York City. Thanks again.

A: Thanks, Chris. I’d just like to say that I hope to see as many people as possible come out to digital book world in January in New York City. Chris, the Copyright Clearance Center has been generous to do a workshop for us on copyrights the first day of Digital Book World. That day is packed with some incredible workshops. And then if you want to know about what self-published authors and what authors are doing and thinking right now, the main days of Digital Book World, we have a presentation on that, plus a report that we’ll be releasing. We’ll also be talking bestsellers during the main days of Digital Book World. So, I hope to see everybody there.

Q: Well, we will see you there. We look forward to it. Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of Digital Book World. This is Chris Kenneally for Beyond the Book.