Aaahhhhh! Spider Invasion! (I’m thinking that’ s the next big thing after zombies.) While I am blowing away the cobwebs yet again from my poor blog, here are some posts I did in a discussion at SFFWorld about the factors involved in partner publishing with a publisher, large or small, and self-publishing. I’m essentially giving a basic grounding on the two types. There’s a fair amount to it, so I’m doing it in several posts here:
Eighty percent of the fiction market is still print and publishers have the best distribution to reach that market, as well as use the two markets, e and print together. However, not every title on their list will receive maximum distribution. There are many medium and smaller publishers that operate very successfully but have a different set of factors than larger publishers. The print market has a consignment sales set-up that creates a lot of problems but also makes it much easier for publishers to advance you money against estimated royalties and if the publisher guess wrong, you keep the advance. You also may not need the print market to sell a decent number of books. A good sales rate relies on many factors and circumstances, including luck, whether it’s publisher or self-pub. Publisher offerings still have an easier time getting reviews and media coverage that may then help people find the book and spread word of mouth. Larger publishers are also in a better position to pay for display promotions in bookstores, online bookstores and electronic vendors, and while the bulk of such promotion is reserved for bestsellers for whom it will be most effective, publishers also take flyers on debuts they think will do well and can do a lot more of that sort of thing on the Internet more cheaply. An author who is self-pubbing can also take advantage of a lot of free Internet marketing and display promotions (Amazon, for instance, will give self-pubbed authors free promotion — the sort they would charge publishers for — if the self-pub authors are selling well, because it helps them sell other products like the Kindle itself.) But more extensive promotions cost money. Whether you work with a publisher or self-pub, the bulk of publicity efforts will be on you the author. This has always been the case. Again, many things you can do on the Internet (giveaways, podcasts, etc.) and in real life (bookstore readings, local media and radio interviews,) are free, though they require time and effort and sometimes costs — travel, production equipment, postage.
If you work with a publisher, you have to co-ordinate your publicity efforts with a publisher. If you sell large enough, a publisher may tour you and pay for most of it, but tours are less extensive in the last two decades for fiction authors, even for bestsellers. In-industry promotion — advance reading copies for reviews, libraries and booksellers — are easier for a publisher to do and they pay the cost of them. Libraries are helpful both as sales and as word of mouth venues and libraries are still mainly publisher based because the mass of self-pub doesn’t work for them most of the time. A self-pub who is only doing electronic is not in a good position to make foreign sales outside their initial publishing territory, a significant source of income, unless the self-pub sells well enough to attract publishers wanting to do a print translation edition in France, Poland, etc.
Each author is a business, a micro-brand and must operate as a business, including publicity for their products. An author/business that partners up with a publisher, large or small, is defraying costs and gaining labor and resources (including very importantly accounting and money retrieval,) that the author doesn’t have to pay for or attempt to do by having the partner publisher invest in his product through means of a production and sales license, and wide access to the market of varying degrees. But the author has little control in that partnership over the product in terms of production, sales distribution, etc. A partner publish author has no say over the cover whatsoever. Only a handful of top bestsellers get any approval over a cover. Otherwise, any imput the author has on the cover is because the publisher is being nice. Smaller presses tend to give the author more input. But the author has no control over the pricing, and the marketing, production factors, publicity efforts, etc. that the publisher decides to do because the author gave the publisher the license to produce the product in the form that the publisher thinks will work best in return for the publisher’s capital and labor investment.
A self-pub author is essentially going for a targeted sales campaign and acting as the publisher and author both. How elaborate that campaign and the production of the product is, how widely it is sold, depends on the author’s financial resources, time availability, and ability to get sales venues. As the publisher, a self-pub author has more control over the production and sales terms of the product. But not total control — Amazon has a set of rules you have to agree to in order to do business with them. They get money from you even if you sell 0 books, and if you do sell, they not only get a large 30% cut for comparatively little labor as a specialized production printer/sales vendor, but dock you an extra admin fee for each transaction as well. But that’s still potentially profitable. By doing a targeted campaign that’s only going to reach a section of buyers — say an electronic edition only on Amazon — the self-pub author also reduces costs and time and gambles that he’ll be able to reach enough buyers in what is still a crowded market. It’s worth noting that some of the most successful (largely e-only to start) self-pub authors are also partner publisher authors who have an established fan base and name recognition through that form of publishing and are bringing new works out on their own or reprinting older ones they have the license rights back for. The combination of self-pub and partner pub may be the most effective strategy and is becoming quite common. But they are not the only self-pub authors to be very successful.
It is worth noting that a number of the most successful, non-established self-pubs have then sold foreign print rights to publishers and then sold print only or print and e-book rights to publishers in their home territory. Hugh Howey, Mike Sullivan and Amanda Hocking have all done this, for instance, and it has its upsides and downsides. The reasons given for these sales tend to fall in that they want to have to do less work as a publisher to concentrate on writing as an author and for less direct cost to them, and that the partner publisher gives them access to or wider access to the substantial print market and further visibility. But it also means giving up control of pricing, production and some avenues of publicity, as well as different revenue set-ups.
It is also worth noting, as Mike Sullivan brought up, that the issue of e-production rights gets rather tricky for a self-pub author then partnering up with a publisher, and that there is an e-books/out of print issue for all authors that will be critical. Essentially, licensing contracts with publishers say that if a book goes out of print (unavailable for sale, no reprint planned,) from the publisher that the author can then request the licensing rights he gave the publisher back. If the publisher cannot or does not want to reprint a new edition of the work within a time period set in the contract, the publisher reverts the rights back to the author who can then self-pub or license the rights to another publisher. But e-books don’t go out of print (sale) because they are not dependent on stock, merely template. It is possible that the e-edition template would not be available for sale, but there is a big fat grey mist there in terms of the author’s ability to get the license back to monetize their properties when a publisher is no longer utilizing them in the electronic age. One advantage self-pub has, then, is that the author keeps control of the rights at all times. However, it’s more complicated because electronic vendors like Amazon make specialized templates for your work and let you use their platform and accounting to sell. So if Amazon doesn’t want you selling a Kindle version, you’re not going to get to sell a Kindle version, even though Amazon has not contracted any license with you. And Amazon has control of your pricing on their site and sometimes to a wider extent. The language in their vendor contract (and other electronic sellers’ contracts,) is vague and wide and more rights grabby then what they do with publishers. And that’s an issue with electronic vendors.
Self-pub is obviously faster, especially electronic only. It takes a lot of time to find a publisher to invest in your work. Self-pub is smaller in scope and quieter. Once you partner with a publisher, assuming the publisher performs decently, you will have much less work during the production phase and costs and if there is an advance, you have money up front to help you while you prep the book and regardless of sales. But you also don’t have a lot of say in the look and business factors of your product. You get potentially much wider distribution, visibility and access to sellers. But you can acquire those things potentially in self-pub. Promotional costs are a big issue in self-pub, but they are not absent with partner publishing and there are free avenues open to both, at least for now.
The issues are complicated, personal and there is no one right path. It depends a lot on your goals, your time availability, etc. Neither course of action necessarily precludes the other. If you self-pub, you might sell well enough to interest a publisher in your work, or your next work. If you go the search for a partner publisher route first, that doesn’t prevent you from then self-pubbing the work later if you can’t find an interested publisher. So you have to decide what is going to work for you and what would be the best strategy for the particular product. (There is a new market in short fiction and novellas self-pubbed and e-only for instance.)