I almost broke this post up into three parts, but I’m the kind of person who prefers all the information to be in one post. So here goes my very long post on this topic. :D
What burdens do self-published authors have?
1. Your books can be blocked at any time.
I just read a thread yesterday on the Kindleboards where this has happened on Amazon. It recently happened to someone who commented on this blog who was falsely accused of copyright infringement issues. (She was innocent, and the other party realized their mistake and contacted Amazon to make things right. Thankfully, her book is back up, but it was a huge pain for her to go through. That could happen to any one of us.) This isn’t just an Amazon issue. There was the PayPal thing earlier this year where books with certain taboo content were being forced off the Smashwords’ shelves. At any time for who knows what reason, our books can be blocked. Granted, this isn’t happening to every self-published author, but the point is, it could happen to any of us. I don’t recall hearing of books that are with publishers going through the same thing. If there is such a case, I’d love to hear it.
2. The stigma still exists.
It’s not like it was back in 2008-2009 when I started getting serious about self-publishing, but it’s there. Whether we like it or not, a reputable publisher builds credibility. If you make an editing error, people are more lenient on you if you have a publisher because they assume most self-published authors don’t have editors and proofreaders. You can go through the ringer polishing up your books with four or five others and still end up with something that slips through. No book (I don’t care how many times it’s been looked over or how it’s published) has something wrong with it. No book will ever please every single person who reads it. It’s impossible. But if you have a publisher to point to, guess what? Someone contacts you about something they didn’t like about the book, you can say, “Talk to my publisher.” A publisher offers a buffer to the complaints.
3. Stolen Books
I’ve had two incidences now where I’ve had to battle Amazon to remove seven of my books that someone else stole. It’s not a pleasant experience to go through, and had it not been for my copyright lawyer, I doubt one of those books would have ever been taken care of because it was never on Amazon to begin with. I haven’t heard of books by publishers having this problem, but I’m not the only self-published author who’s gone through the ordeal it takes to protect their books. Sometimes I think a publisher would act as a buffer against these thieves as well.
Then I think of things both self-published and traditionally published books have in common.
1. Review Games
This isn’t limited to self-published books. Anyone can go on to Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, Goodreads, etc to play games with reviews. It’s just noticed more on Amazon because Amazon is the giant when it comes to selling and buying books. I think that’s why the games are played more often there than anywhere else. But the thing to note is that any book can be targeted by a group of people who don’t like it for whatever reason. Any book can be given tons of fake glowing reviews, too. Authors, regardless of how they’re published, can sabotage others’ books or do everything they can to boost their own books up.
2. Sales or Lack of Sales
There will always be the normal distribution bell curve. A few authors will do really well at the top, most will hover somewhere along the mid-list (with most in the middle), and there will be those who barely sell anything at all. Now, the thing about the bell curve is that most authors (traditionally published or not) will get some money but not to the extent where people will be impressed. Authors who’ve been traditionally published and then self-publish seem to do the best, and I think they’re making more money self-publishing than they did with a publisher. But the publisher brought them credibility and taught them discipline. They had to query the publisher, work with the publisher’s schedule to get their books polished up and back to the editors at a certain time, and help market the books.
There are people (entrepreneurs at heart) who are disciplined already but not everyone is naturally like this. When you self-publish, you have to wear all the hats and handle all the details. I think self-published authors who are able to discipline themselves (make goals and stick with at last 80% of them) are more likely to have a better chance of selling more books. Why? Mostly because they will spend more time polishing their books before they get published, write more books (because most of writing is about setting aside a set time to write and this takes discipline since some days are easier to write than others), aim for great covers and descriptions, keep good records for their business, and loyally keep up-to-date on their promotional methods. Promotion doesn’t have to be “in someone’s face.” Most of the time slow and steady (while it often doesn’t make one reap tons of sales right away) is the best mindset to approach self-publishing with. Though I still believe self-published authors have a better chance of making money. I don’t see a publisher as a way to make money, unless you’re a very popular author like JK Rowling, Stephen King, Nora Roberts… But statistically? No.
And what benefits do self-published authors have?
1. Control Over The Book.
Not to the point where they can control where it sells (in cases like blocked books which I mentioned above). But you get to say what the title is, what the cover looks like, and what the content in your book is. A publisher isn’t going to come in and suggest changes. Even if the suggestions are good ones, they might not fit the author’s vision for the book. Say you want to put something a publisher might find controversial (and when I say controversial, I don’t mean “wrong”).
For example, I want to have a scene where my characters go to church, but since it has sex in it, it’s the wrong fit for the Christian market and a publisher would probably want me to remove the scene with church in case I upset their target market. That is what I mean by controversial. It’s something that has the potential to put the publisher in the hot seat, which is where the publisher doesn’t want to be. And with the way I am, I’d want to keep the church scene in the book. Every author should decide ahead of time what they will or will not compromise on. If the publisher wants something you’re comfortable with, fine. If not, then you have to decide how important it is to be with a publisher vs. going it alone. (And I am aware that Amazon and other places have policies where they can eventually block books with what they consider questionable content, so self-publishing is not a sure thing in this area. It could be that you have a better chance of reaching people with that book.)
As for price, the truth is while you can set a price, but you can’t control if places like Amazon, Kobo, etc will stick by it. Also, it’s the market that ultimately decides the price. If you can’t sell your book at a certain price, you might have to adjust it to see if it makes any difference in terms of sales. However, the nice thing is you can adjust it.
2. Control of Deadlines
This is up to the author who self-publishes. I do think deadlines are important because they keep you focused on what you need to do. However, sometimes the story doesn’t cooperate. Sometimes you stall out and need to work on another story. For whatever reason this block occurs, the worst thing an author can do is keep writing a book when you know it’s not on the right track. But if you have a publisher and contracted out the book ahead of time, you’re bound to finish it no matter how bad you think it is. I guess you could get a ghostwriter and have them do the job, but what fun is it in having your name on a book you never actually wrote?
So the story you’re writing starts going in the wrong direction, you have the ability to stop for as long as you need to in order to make sure your story is the best it can be. To me, the most important thing a book needs is an outstanding story. The second is to polish it up the best you can. (No matter how much you polish a book, if the story sucks, you’re doomed.)
3. You keep the rights to your characters/series/world.
If you don’t sign those rights away in a contract to a publisher, you can keep the rights to your characters that are featured in your book(s) but sometimes publishers want to keep the rights to a certain series. So let’s say, for one reason or another, a publisher drops you. If they have the rights to the characters you created in a series, they can have someone else continue that series. Or let’s say you’d like to merge characters in two different series (or “worlds”) you created with your books. For example, I am currently working on a new series which takes place in Montana. I’d like to eventually take a character from the Montana series and connect him up with a woman from a series of books I’ve already started that takes place in Nebraska.
This is a form of cross-promotion between series. If people care about the world you’ve established with one series and you put a character they want to read more about into another series, you might help boost sales in the other series. This isn’t something I’ll be able to do this year, but I’m looking at about two years from now in this working to my advantage. See what I mean about slow and steady? It takes patience sometimes to get where you want to be, and if you have a plan, it’s easier to set goals and deadlines to get there. What I’m saying that when you keep the rights to your characters, your “world,” and/or your series, you have more options available in what you can do.
In conclusion, there are advantages and disadvantages to self-publishing. I’d say the biggest headache is knowing everything rests on your shoulders. It can be stressful, but it can also be rewarding when you realize how much you’re able to do with your vision for your work. Whether or not self-publishing is right for you or even if you want to be a hybrid author (self-publish and traditionally publish), there are no right or wrong paths.
I wrote this post because I thought this blog needed a breakdown post on the pros and cons of self-publishing. If anyone has any pros or cons to add, feel free to in the comments below.