What a crazy, confusing and possibly wonderful world publishing is today. The traditional publishing world is under duress and their business model depends more and more on writers who are already selling a zillion books. While they may still be looking for the next big thing, just like in other mediums, the next big thing must hit quickly or it’s discarded. The continuing niche for a mid-list writer with respectable sales is disappearing. Many traditional publishers are getting into digital publishing to compete with the e-publishers who established themselves while New York wasn’t looking. And it has become really easy to publish yourself. The number of self-published titles is growing exponentially, but many of those books are not of professional quality. Readers are becoming wary of spending money on what I’ve heard one reader call “books only the author could love.”
What all this means is a lot of choices for an author, which should be a good thing. But since when has having a lot of choices made things easier? In the recent Romance Writers Report, there was an excellent piece by Marliss Melton on the pros and cons of self-publishing. Everyone writer should read it. But I thought I’d put a personal spin on those pros and cons, because just recently I had to make that choice.
I was at an interesting time in my life. I was burned out on writing because I’d had both a hefty day job and deadlines from my publisher for almost twelve years. After seventeen novels, frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write anymore. But I did have an idea I liked for a series (The Children of Merlin) so I sent it in to my lovely editor at St. Martin’s Press. I knew something had to change though. I did the numbers, and found that I could finally retire from the day job.
Here’s where it gets tricky. St. Martin’s passed on my series. My agent thought he could sell it elsewhere, but I told him to hold sending it out. I had to find out whether I still wanted to write. It took a while, but the joy came back. I completed the first novel in the series, DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? I gave my agent the go ahead to try and sell the series.
But the changes in publishing were becoming more evident. I had writer friend who was doing very well publishing herself, and loved the fact that she could choose her own covers, write her own copy and set her own deadlines. She was producing lots of quirky cozy mysteries that sold well. She encouraged me to strike out on my own. Choose your cover? Write your copy? I found that intimidating. (If you want to check her out, her name is Melanie Jackson and her newest series is Miss Henry Mysteries)
As my proposal ran through the levels at some print houses, and digital first presses expressed immediate interest, I felt like a deer in the headlights. What did I want to do?
The moment of clarity for me came when Angela James, editor at Carina Press, Harlequin’s digital division, spoke at the Orange County Romance Writers of America meeting. She did a great job answering the question, “Why you should write for Carina rather than self-publish?” Here’s my recollection of her checklist:
1) Write for Carina if you aren’t familiar with the editing and publishing process to gain experience.
2) You can get an advance at Carina and some digital presses like it (though not a large one.)
3) You have the backing of a big publisher.
4) Publishing your book in the various formats requires time and skill.
I think that afternoon in January was the point where I truly considered publishing my series myself.
1) I had twelve years of experience publishing with NY and felt I knew the process pretty well. I could hire copy-editing, cover art, and even content editing if I wanted.
2) I was at the time of my life where advances weren’t as important. Would I make more money with a NY contract? Or a small press contract? Unclear. NY gives (usually) 10% royalties and 25% on e-books. Carina gave 40% royalties but didn’t do print. Self-publishing yields 70% royalties, though with very few exceptions you will sell far fewer books. I know authors who are doing financially very well publishing themselves, and authors who aren’t. However, if ever I was going to take the risk, it was when I was no longer dependent on advances.
3) Publishing houses have provided little support for authors for years, except if you happen to be Nora Roberts or Charlaine Harris. You are expected to promote your books, manage contests and websites, etc., for yourself. I had a healthy mailing list, of 37,000 names and was willing to take time to promote the book.
4) I had friends that said that publishing yourself wasn’t that hard. And if I couldn’t do it myself, I could hire it done very cheaply.
So what would I be losing, making a leap to self publishing? Well, I’d be saying goodbye to contest wins. No Rita in my future. My work would not be reviewed by the mainstream press. I wouldn’t be getting the respect of writing for a NY house. And that was the final decider. I actually started to laugh.
Was THAT why I was writing?
For contests and reviews and respect? Or was I writing to give people a good ride, to tell the stories I had inside me, to progress in my craft and have the satisfaction of earning money for my work? Besides, I’d done all that.
Suddenly it was all clear. It was time to take a risk and go into business for myself. So I had my agent retract the work from consideration at both print and digital-first publishers. Publishing my book turned out to be very doable, with a little coaching from my friends who had already figured it out. I published DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? in April. And I’m two- thirds through writing the second book in the series. Sales are coming in, and I feel good about my decision.
Now, here’s the million-dollar question. Would I have wanted to self-publish if I hadn’t already been published in print by NY houses? No. I have to say I would have tried as hard as I could to get published in traditional print. Here’s why:
1) I think it’s much harder to have significant sales if you are currently unpublished, and I wanted my books to have as wide an audience as possible.
3) I needed an editor, and experience, and time to build that mailing list, and learn how to promote.
4) I needed to demonstrate to myself that I could produce on time, on a deadline, and be sure that I was motivated enough to make writing a career.
5) Though I hate to admit it, I needed the validation of people telling me that I was writing at a professional level. I’m not especially proud that I needed that, but it’s no use in denying that psychological factor.
My risky venture may not pay off. But I’ll never be sorry I tried. I’m just glad that the confluence of burnout, rejection, and a turning point my life combined to help me decide to give it a shot.
So, have you made a choice yet? What did you choose, and why? Your logic may help others in their decision!
Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.
Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.