Over at the SFFWorld.com forums, an author looking at different ways of proceeding in fiction book publishing asked for information regarding a number of basic questions about book publishing. You can check out that discussion thread here, and the conversation is not necessarily done as I’m sure more questions may come up, but I am also going to reprint my responses to various questions here. While many may find the info basic, it ended up being a decent foundational outline of things authors have to understand and consider in business decisions in fiction publishing. And so it may be of some interest to writers navigating the waters or those simply curious about how the odd industry of fiction publishing operates. Part 1 below:
LOL, well I did ask for that, didn’t I? Okay, let’s do some word vomit, but I’m going to have to do this in stages over the weekend. I’ll tackle self-publishing set-up first:
The biggest problem is that most authors, even some very successful authors, have mistaken understandings of what they are and how they are actually operating. They look at it wrong, essentially. Authors who are trying to sell creative work are not people — they are businesses. They are sole proprietorships, although some authors actually incorporate themselves for tax purposes. (Most authors starting off don’t have to do that, though.) As a business, the product of the author is a creative intellectual property in the form of written texts. This intellectual property can then be made into a variety of products — print books, e-books, audio books, plays, movies, games, etc. The author business has to decide how it’s going to turn its creative property into salable products, which type of products, how it’s going to handle the labor and time involved in producing products, how widely it will attempt to distribute the products, and the costs involved in the raw materials and labor in producing, distributing and marketing the products to produce hopefully sufficient profit, or, if profit is not the main goal which is an unusual aspect of some author businesses, sufficient dispersal into the world for other goals.
In self-publishing, authors add a second business to their creative property business. They become both an author creating property and a publisher producing product from that property. The author takes on all the labor of that second business and all the costs of doing that labor and hiring others to do the labor if that can be afforded in initial investment outlay. The author is responsible for production, distribution, and all marketing. The author’s second business, the publishing business, becomes the equivalent of a small press with only one author on the list and only one staff member (the author) and maybe some free-lancers. So the author does have all the control over not just the creative property (first business,) but the products that are made from it that are not licensed out (second business.) And the author like a publisher gets profits after all the labor and other costs have been deducted. But the author has to pay all that labor and costs, including up-front costs, and taxes. The author has to find vendors and distribution channels, etc. Authors self-publishing, since they are often doing the work themselves, tend to discount their own labor as free. But it’s not free because the labor spent in the second business cuts into the ability to do labor in the first business (writing,) and to do other labor (such as a day job,) that provides income that provides capital for the second business (publishing.) That labor has a cost, mainly in time but often also in income terms.
So the assessment isn’t really about partner publishing versus self-publishing, which is really about how the product is getting to market. It’s about whether an author starting a first business (writing,) wants and is able to take on the labor, costs, time and market factors of being a small publisher (second business) with only one offering, or not. For some authors, because of their natural inclinations, work experience and current life considerations, self-publishing is ideal. These authors make excellent small presses that sometimes even become medium presses of just one author or take on other authors in licensing. For other authors, it’s a nightmare they aren’t really capable of exploiting very well. And life circumstances change, so an author may be able to do it sometimes and not others. And it is possible to run both a small self-press for some properties turned into products and do license publishing on other properties (hybrid authors.)
So we have authors who were license published setting up self-presses for some or all of their properties. And we have self-press authors who close down their self-press business and switch to license publishing reprint and original because the costs and labor involved with running the self-press cut into their first business too much and/or does not achieve the business goals they want for their first business. I should also point out here that technically, Mike Sullivan is not entirely a self-publisher. His wife created a small press that carried more than just him as an author. He was involved in the operations of that small press, but he had more labor help by that set-up than most self-publishing authors do. Likewise, the author of Eragon was published not by himself but through a small press operated by his parents, who then did the labor of a small press for him. So there are half-way set-ups here also available that people have done. Self-publishing thus offers many options but also involves a great deal of work. How much work an author can invest (or hire as outside labor,) varies greatly and that’s the big deciding factor in how you proceed — what are you going to spend your non-writing time on and how grand a scope are you going to attempt.
In self-publishing, the development of a viable regular e-fiction market that was not just niche allowed self-presses way easier distribution and the ability to low price products and do short property products. But the reality is that individual self-publishing authors with just one property creator don’t have a lot of business leverage in that market and much less exposure. And unfortunately, Amazon squelched competition from other e-vendors as much as they could to hold a monopoly, especially with small presses and self-presses. So the e-market has gotten backed up and limited, though there are hopes that it can expand vendors in future. And for a lot of self-pub authors, Amazon alone can be sufficient distribution, depending on their circumstances. Once established, Amazon and some of the other bigger vendors pressured self-pubs to raise their product prices or face bigger marketing fees from the vendors (their “cut”.) They offered options that were helpful to some authors but also bound those authors more to just working with Amazon.
This combination of few e-vendors in the English language market, consequently slowing the building of marketing infrastructure such as review media outlets, and price/cost pressures, has caused many self-press authors to also go into short-run and POD print editions to one degree or another. It is difficult to get such print products into bookstores and stores because a lone author can’t necessarily offer the marketing and distribution terms the booksellers want. But the self-pub authors can do fairly well with selling print through online channels, and so we’re going to see more of this going on, as well I expect as collectives where several self-pub authors band together as a small press offering several authors and being able to get good distributors for them and more into stores. That was happening in print self-pub even before the e-book market was opened up.
In electronic self-publishing distribution, the self-press makes distribution and sales contracts with e-book vendors such as Amazon. These are not the same as contracts with publishers at all. They are vendor contracts. E-book vendors are under no obligations except to produce workable formats for their platforms and letting self-press authors sell through those platforms for cost fees (their “cut,”) and do accounting of sales, same as is done with small presses. They have no exclusive production rights over the author’s creative property or exploitation of such as products. They can demand marketing requirements for selling through their platform, but that gives them no real claim to license rights. The e-book vendors deduct their fees from the sales and then pass on the gross sales to the self-press, which then deducts further labor, production and marketing costs and gets net profits that go to the author.
The problem the e-book market has had is that e-book vendors like Amazon are misrepresenting and lying about these sales contracts, pretending when convenient to self-pub authors that they are like publishing license contracts. Instead of calling the money they give to the authors gross sales, they call them royalties, as if they had been given a license of rights by the author. Consequently, thousands of authors in the U.S. alone are filing their taxes for their sole proprietorships incorrectly, not taking the business tax deductions they could take because they are filing the sales as royalties. This pisses me off and I’d like to see the big self-pub authors pressure Amazon and e-book vendors to cut it out, but I do understand that they don’t want to piss off Amazon by trying it. Amazon gets a lot of PR out of playing that game, so they won’t stop doing it. So we have a lot of self-pub authors who keep comparing Amazon to Macmillan or Random House as if they were the same companies with the same relationships, which becomes faulty data for decisions about how to conduct their self-press business. It causes a lot of problems and if you self-pub, you really need to be aware of what it is you are actually doing, so that financially you can alleviate your costs as much as possible and produce more profit on your unit sales, and make smart choices about how you do business with e-book vendors like Amazon or iBooks.
The strategy that Mike mentioned is one that a lot of self-pub authors attempt and which publishers also sometimes use in print as well in wrangling with booksellers (serial publishing.) The idea is two-fold: 1) create a mass of property products which tricks potential readers into believing the author is bigger with a bigger fan base than they have (like a bird puffing out plumage) and 2) in SFF and fields like romance, to satisfy core fan readers who tend to be voracious readers and if they like your stuff, will plow through it at whatever speed you can throw it at them. These core readers are then great at spreading word of mouth, which is why we have category markets in the first place.
So that’s the self-pub business side, or the first part of it anyway.