Is the Risk of Self Publishing Worth It?
I’m a scientist by training. And I want to open this post with the caveat that 21 days isn’t a great data sample in the whole scheme of things, but I wanted to share some things I’ve learned in the last 2/3 month about self-publishing as an encouragement to those considering going indie after traditionally publishing.
If you’re asking yourself:
Am I willing to take on the risk and expense of self-publishing?
Will the expense be worth it?
Can I trust myself to put out a product as high-quality as my publisher did?
Will I fall flat on my butt if I try this?
Then read on. This post is for you.
I am a traditionally published author who chose the self-publishing path
As you know if you’ve been following my blog, my former publisher, Lyrical Press, has been acquired by Kensington as a digital-first imprint. This is a great step forward for Lyrical. They’re gaining in marketing reach by moving up from small independent press to imprint with a good-sized New York publisher.
But was it going to be a great step forward for me? That’s the real question for a serious author.
For me, the answer was: No. After crunching some numbers and doing my homework, I decided that moving to a bigger, well-established publisher wasn’t necessarily going to be a good career move for me. Here’s the story of how I made that decision and what the results have been 3 weeks later.
My origins as an author
As I grew as a writer and added works to my portfolio, the responses I was getting from literary agents shifted from form rejections to personalized notes like, “I like this, but I don’t think I can sell it” and “This is good, but there’s no market for it right now.”
I took responses like this to mean I was getting closer to having publishable-quality work, but maybe I wasn’t quite there yet.
With the encouragement of these friends, who also happen to be awesome authors in their own right (Amy Raby and Julie Brannagh), I decided that maybe the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t ready to publish, but maybe traditional NY publishers weren’t ready for me.
A lot of you are/were in the same boat when you began considering self-publishing. You wanted the validity of going the traditional route, but the traditional route wasn’t working for you. Doors weren’t opening. You were tired of being told no. You just wanted to SHARE YOUR WORK with people.
I considered SP at this point, but craved the validity of having a gatekeeper say “yes” to me. I kept trying, but with a different strategy. I sent my work to small e-first presses. You know the names: Samhain, Entangled, Resplendence. It was one of these small presses, Lyrical, that gave me my first shot.
It started with a tweet I read where a Lyrical editor was taking tweet-length pitches. She requested WISHING FOR A HIGHLANDER based on a tweet pitch, and requested a partial manuscript. Not a full, like she was requesting for a lot of other tweeps. A partial. I didn’t get my hopes up. I’d been here before. But guess what?
She loved the partial and asked for the full. Soon after, I received a Lyrical contract in my inbox. I’d gotten my “yes”! And I didn’t look back. I signed that contract knowing this would be the start of something big for me. And it has been, just not in the exact way I had planned.
My experience with Lyrical
It took about a year to see WISHING FOR A HIGHLANDER finally in e-stores. Once that day came, I hit the promo hard and reaped the rewards. My book was selling! By the third month, I was selling 100 books per week and had hit the time-travel bestseller list on Amazon. I stayed on that bestselling list for 8 months.
Lyrical’s royalty rate (40%) was the most generous I’d heard of in the e-first world. NO other publisher was giving their authors that much. It was more generous by FAR than the 25% common with NY publishers. It’s one of the reasons I was so proud to be publishing with them. They understood that authors were the key to publishing, not publishing the key for authors. There were many, MANY other things I loved about working with Lyrical, including stellar editing, high quality, prompt responses to my questions, and a great network of fellow-authors to cross-promote with.
Six months after publishing WISHING FOR A HIGHLANDER with Lyrical, my contemporary romance ROAD RAGE came out. This one didn’t do as well as WISHING. It had a pretty different author voice. It was a totally different genre. It too got some good reviews, but it was only selling about 10 to 20 copies per month. Even that rate tapered off to maybe 5 copies per month by the time it came off sale when Lyrical sold to Kensington.
With this sales feedback, I decided to devote myself to writing more Highlander books. Time-travel was selling, so that’s what I decided to write. And since I like writing it, it wasn’t a sacrifice. I kept writing contemporaries too, because I can’t NOT write what’s on my heart to write, but I made sure I was still producing Highlander stuff for my growing fan base.
In 2013, Lyrical contracted another Highlander book and another contemporary from me. I had 2 books on sale and 2 in the pipeline. I was on the rise as a career romance author happily publishing with a generous, well-run small press. Sure I was selling 95% in ebook and only a handful of POD hard-copies, but I didn’t care what format my books were in. I was earning royalties, and they were good. Things were good.
January 2014, everything changed. Lyrical sold to Kensington and became a digital first imprint for the NY publisher. I blog about it here.
Kensington offered all Lyrical authors the chance to sign with them for back-list titles and titles currently contracted but not-yet-published. I had 2 books published (one doing pretty good, even a year after pub date) and 2 more (another time-travel and another contemporary) in the pipeline.
Suddenly, I had an opportunity to sign with a NY publisher for a whopping 4 books! My dream realized! Great, right?
The reality was not so great. While Lyrical negotiated a generous royalty rate with Kensington that is unheard of in NY (Kensington should be commended for this), the Kensington contracts included some clauses and that would have limited me as an author and tied up my rights for longer than I was willing to part with them. Furthermore, there was no print deal guaranteed. And the advance for print if your book sells well enough to make print, was nothing to write home about.
I could either sign the contracts and become a NY published author or I’d get my rights back on all my titles, and my published books would come off of sale.
So what did I decide?
After doing a LOT of homework (Courtney Milan’s blog, reading lots of posts, some involving Steve Z, the CEO of Kensington, joining self-publishing Yahoo groups, etc), I decided to hold onto my rights with a death grip.
Well, WISHING FOR A HIGHLANDER was still selling around 200 e-copies a month on Amazon under Lyrical’s management. This is 10 to 11 months after initial publication! I was getting a decent little paycheck each month.
But, I did some calculations, and here’s what I found.
If I self-published and managed to sell on my own even half of what I was selling with a small publisher’s marketing machine behind me, I estimated I would make just as much. Because by self-publishing, I’d get 70% of the royalty from Amazon versus 40% of the publisher’s 70%. I could even set the list price for $2 cheaper and STILL make twice as much per book as I was making with Lyrical.
Before I continue, I must say this: PUBLISHERS DESERVE TO GET PAID. Just like authors do.
Publishers work hard to acquire what will sell, to polish books so they will appeal to readers, to promote books through partnerships with high-impact publications and review sites. All of this costs money.
The desire to take revenue out of my publisher’s pocket was in no way a motivating factor in my decision making. In fact, that is the part that pained me most. I value loyalty, and if things hadn’t changed, I would still be happily publishing with Lyrical. They did good by me.
Amazon (and other retailers) took their 30-40% cut of the pie. Lyrical took their 60% of whatever was left. And I got the remainder (40% of Lyrical’s take). Everyone who worked on the book got paid, and that is fair in my book. I was happy with this arrangement, and it was one of the most generous in the publishing industry, if not THE most generous to authors.
But through research and talking to a LOT of authors published through varied means, I learned that the larger the publisher, the more hands touch a book. Every hand has to get paid. Guess what that means for the author? A smaller slice of pie.
Though this wouldn’t have necessarily have been the case with Kensington, who seems to be trying more than any other NY publisher I have heard of to be fair to authors, it’s a general truth of the publishing industry. The larger the machine is, the more expensive it is to operate (in general).
If the large machine (I’m speaking generally here, not about Kensington specifically) can provide to authors benefits that out-weigh the cost to the author in terms of royalty percentages and advances, then I say GO FOR IT. Publish big. Let NY put the power of its machine behind your books and your author name and watch your books sell, sell, sell.
Why I worried I wouldn’t thrive with a NY publisher
Remember all those rejections I had been getting?
Those rejections were for the same books I had contracted with Lyrical. I went with a small press because I believe readers go to small presses looking for the quirky, the unusual, the boundary-pushing diamond in the rough. I know I do. I get some duds when I shop small presses, for sure, but I find some amazing gems as well. Some of my favorite authors are small press authors (or they were before they went indie…).
In other words, I heard over and over again from agents (who are the gatekeepers to NY publishing) that my work was a square and there were only round holes in NY. Now I had a chance to get these rejected books into a NY publisher’s hands, a NY publisher with no guaranteed print deal, industry-standard (aka kinda small) royalties on print if you’re books sell well enough to justify a run, and an advance if you make it to that stage that wouldn’t even pay my kid’s private school tuition for a quarter.
I wasn’t convinced a larger machine would translate to higher sales for me and therefore justify the potential sacrifices I’d be making (more hands touching my books and needing to get paid). As I did my homework, I became more and more willing to gamble that I could do for myself (or outsource at my discretion) most of what a small press did for me and some of what a large press could do for me and keep a larger piece of the pie.
I took the self-publishing plunge
I went for it. I borrowed a little money so I could purchase ISBNs, and a new cover for both my books that Lyrical had published and so I could publish these two books plus the two others that had been in Lyrical’s pipeline on my own this year. I calculated I could do all four books for under $3000, including 2 rounds of professional editing for the two in the pipeline.
Last year, I made just over $4k on WISHING with Lyrical. Remember my calculation that I could make the same amount even if I sold only half the books? Well, the income from WISHING alone could conceivably cover my self-publishing costs for four books, with enough left over to pay taxes next April. I went into the decision knowing this wasn’t a guarantee, but willing to take the risk. For ME it was worth it, because I had confidence WISHING would continue to sell well, and I had the support of my family.
RECKLESS (Blue Collar Boyfriends #1) will be out March 1st (retitled from ROAD RAGE)
THE WOLF AND THE HIGHLANDER (Highland Wishes #2) will be out May 1st
VIRGIN’S SACRIFICE (Blue Collar Boyfriends #2) will be out August 1st
COLE IN MY STOCKING (Blue Collar Boyfriends #3) will be out November 1st
This is a packed release schedule, possible because two of the books are technically backlist books and two others were already written before the start of 2014. Don’t expect 5 books from me every year. I would have a heart attack if I wrote that much! LOL!
Also note, it’s a release schedule that most likely wouldn’t have been possible with a large NY press. It certainly wouldn’t be in my control. I wouldn’t be able to state these dates with such confidence so early in the game. Another benefit to SP.
Fast-forward 22 days
With just my own power behind the marketing, a new website ($72/year with Godaddy), new cover ($135, a phenomenal value and wonderful work by Kim Killion of The Killion Group), new blurb, and the support of the SP community, I have sold over 300 copies of WISHING in 21 days. WISHING is currently ranked in the top 5000 books for sale on Amazon and is on the first page (top 20) of the time-travel best seller list.
So, I’m a bestselling self-published author! Again! Pinch me; I must be dreaming.
I’m pleased as punch that WISHING is still doing so well even after being out a whole year. I’m also pleased because my sales numbers this February are looking to be comparable with my numbers from my first release month, January 2013. So a comparison by a scientific-minded person was inevitable.
Lets look at some numbers
Following the trend set by many brave authors who have reported earnings, I’m going to post a comparison between what I made with a small press my release month (Jan 2013)and what I’m making as an indie author this February.
With a few caveats:
1. We’re going on 21 days here, people. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen down the road. Maybe I’ll do another post like this in a year, after I have a year’s worth of data on indie publishing to compare with a year’s worth of small-press publishing.
2. Lyrical is/was a very generous small press to authors. And let me be clear and state again, they earned every cent of their portion of the pie.
3. Keeping this caveat to digital only, my earnings with Lyrical were likely nearly twice what NY-published midlist authors made on the same number of digital sales because of Lyrical’s generous royalty rate. (I’m not taking advances for print sales into account since I have no experience with author advances outside of dreaming of one day getting a five-figure one of those;-)).
4. Every retailer keeps a different percentage for their “piece of the pie.” And some retailers (ahem, Amazon) alter the price and give a discount that entices readers to buy from them, but they still pay royalties on the list price, so you get a better purchase-price to royalty ratio at some retailers than others.
So how many copies of WISHING FOR A HIGHLANDER sold in its first month out with a small press (Jan 2013), and what did I get paid for those copies?
Lyrical’s online store: 4 ($4.79)
Kobo: 9 ($10.79)
Overdrive (e-distributor): 2 ($2.40)
AmazonUS: 158 ($217.32)
AmazonUK: 6 ($6.17)
Nook (B&N): 31 ($49.79)
iTunes: 120 ($201.60)
Total: 330 ($492.90)
In my first month of being published with a small press, I made $492 on 330 sales.
This works out to an average income per sale of $1.49 (list price was $5.99).
As an indie-published author, am I on track to make as much by selling at least half as many books, as I hoped?
Here’s what’s happening after 21 days of sales. I’m ONLY using Amazon numbers here, because that’s the data I have available. WISHING is up on other retailers as well, but Amazon represents the lion’s share of my sales, as in 90% or more if I can go by what other authors of similar works have reported to me.
For those sticklers out there, this isn’t a great example of a scientific study. I know. I’m just using the data I have available to try and understand whether it was a good or bad decision to go indie. I’m sharing what I’ve got for other authors out there grappling with this decision. If you want hard science, go to Courtney Milan’s blog.
In 21 days, I am up to 291 sales (301-10 refunds).
I’m selling WISHING for $3.99, $2 less than the its ebook list price last year.
Using the first 14-days of data across Amazon outlets (some, like AmazonUS & AmazonUK, offer the author 70% royalties. Others offer 35%), I estimate my earnings per unit sold will be $2.72.
For the 291 books I’ve sold so far this month, I should make $791.52.
Let me reiterate. That’s JUST for Amazon and only for 21 days of sales.
Note that 291 indie sales for 2/3 of Feb 2014 is comparable to the 330 sales I made across vendors as a small-press author in Jan 2013.
However, there aren’t many people who would call earnings of $492 comparable to earnings of $792.
In fact, by selling a comparable number of books, it’s fair to say, I’m earning nearly twice as much as an indie author as compared with when I was a small-press author. This is on par with my estimate that I could sell half-as many books as an indie author and make the same amount as when I was a small-press author.
Regardless of the number of units sold, I’m making almost twice as much per sale as an indie author than I was as a small-press author ($2.72 per sale versus $1.49 per sale).
Taking just WISHING FOR A HIGHLANDER into account, I will easily be able to cover publishing costs with my first royalty check.
This comparison is in no way meant to disparage small presses or Lyrical. I LOVED working with Lyrical, and I was happy to share the pie with them. Small presses take a piece of the pie, but they earn it.
Let me clear, by not signing with Kensington and by going indie instead, I wasn’t avoiding a big machine (NY publishing) in order to “go it alone”. Rather, I traded one big machine (NY publishing) for an even bigger, more efficient, more author-friendly machine (Amazon).
I’m a midlist author. I’m not the next Nora Roberts or Marie Force. I got on a bestseller list, yes, but not the NYT. It’s just a genre-specific, Amazon-specific bestseller list. For me and my unique situation, self publishing was the right decision. I knew it when I made the decision, but the numbers I report here help validate that decision.
Is it the right decision for you? Only you can answer that. Please don’t extrapolate from my data. But add it to the pool of information you’re gathering as you make this very important decision.
I hope some of you find this encouraging. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of work, and, dare I say, good judgment. For example, a new cover might be the thing that gets you better sales. It might also be a sales killer (amateur photoshop, anyone?). But if you’re open to critical feedback, have a good book to sell, and are willing to work hard, it could be a better deal in the long-run than going with a small publisher.
What do you think? Do you have any fears about SP? Do you have a story to share, positive or negative? I’d love to hear from you!
Thanks for stopping by and reading this longa$$ post!
NEW INFO ADDED AS OF 3/10/2014. Please continue on to my Writing Updates post where I give my final salary numbers for February 2014.