Mar 222011

I really do think I've heard every one of these.

Author John Scalzi posted this most excellent “Electronic Publishing Bingo” scorecard over on his blog, and, while it’s hilarious in its own right, I think it’s also worth a bit of closer discussion. (As with most humor, it has more than a grain of truth in it.)

While the scorecard includes some funny misconceptions and inconsistencies (“Stop Being Greedy and Also Where’s My Sequel?” is gold), it also includes several references to unbridled e-book success: “Everyone Will be as Successful as these Outliers;” “Amanda Hocking” and “J.A. Konrath” (the aforementioned outliers); “All You Need is 100,000 Readers;” “Anyone Will Read Anything if it’s 99 Cents;” and my favorite, “Publicity? Just Go Viral!” A number of squares also reference how easy it is to be a successful writer or publisher: “Crowd Source the Backend,” “Cover Art? You Can Just Photoshop That,” and “Spellcheck is Really Advanced These Days.”

I am certainly excited about the future (and the present!) of electronic publishing, and have written glowingly of it many times. I’ve even tried to help fellow authors on their path to self-publishing in both electronic and printed formats. And I do believe that authors today (whether first-time novelists or mega-bestsellers) should seriously consider self-publishing as an option — and that, in some cases, it may make more sense than publishing with a legacy publisher who is fighting instead of adopting electronic publishing.

But I’ve never promised easy riches or fame. I’ve never even promised very difficult riches or fame. At the end of the day, there are still way better ways to earn money, and even way better ways to take a gamble and strike it rich (practicing your jump shot or playing the lottery come to mind). Writing has never been a profession of easy riches (just of a very very tiny minority who make a lot of money, a fair number of authors who struggle to make a living, and countless authors who earn nothing or even lose money), and self-publishing is, in many ways, even tougher: part of self-publishing means that you have to do everything yourself (or pay to have it done). That means not only writing, but editing, proofreading, cover design, jacket blurb, author bio, print formatting, e-book formatting, marketing, social media, maintaining a website and blog, sales tracking, income taxes and expenses, etc.

As I’ve mentioned, there are more and more self-publishing authors who are doing well, some even very well, financially by self-publishing. But “more and more” is a relative term: there were exactly 0 people making good money in 2009 self-publishing, 1 or 2 in 2010, and maybe half a dozen so far in 2011. There are probably another few dozen making some kind of living at it. And this is out of about 1,000,000 books that were published last year, about 3/4 of them self-published. I’ve heard stats that claim the average self-pubbed title sells only 200 books. Considering it takes around a year to write and prepare a book, and might cost several hundred dollars or more for cover art, editing, and formatting, most books either lose money, break even, or earn their authors literally pennies per hour. I’m closing in on 10,000 sales, but I’m probably closing in on 10,000 hours spent (between writing 3 novels, all the other tasks I mentioned above, never-ending marketing, and all the research and blog posts I read and write on the publishing industry). So pennies an hour about covers it, and I’ve done better than most.

Even for the success stories, there’s no guarantee that their current sales trends will continue. I’ve seen my own books fluctuate from a few sales a day to 1,500 a month, and back down again. Same books, same covers, same hard work, same everything. I’m glad I wasn’t relying on the income to pay the rent. The electronic publishing future could change pretty drastically: publishers might get on board with low prices, Amazon might lower royalty rates or stop allowing self-publishing altogether, or there might be so many books out there that no one finds yours.

I say all this just to help temper expectations: as the Bingo board above illustrates, the Internet is alive with people touting self-publishing as a get-rich-quick scheme, an easy money-maker, and something you just have to get in on. Many of those shouting the loudest are companies looking to make money in publishing the same way it’s been made for decades: by preying on the dreams of aspiring authors and charging them for questionable editing, marketing, printing, or distribution services. Others are well-intentioned people or aspiring authors themselves who sincerely believe we’re in the midst of a “gold rush.” It is not my intention to throw cold water on anyone’s dreams, but I also don’t want to mislead anyone, and the reality isn’t necessarily as rosy as some would like to hope.

Even J.A. Konrath (arguably the first self-published author to start making good money) will tell you, over and over, that a whole lot of publishing (including self-publishing and electronic publishing) comes down to luck. Let’s face it, the big publishers, with 100 years’ experience and big marketing budgets, can’t predict what the next huge bestseller is — forget about home runs, they can’t even always hit singles, with about 80% of their releases losing money. Sometimes, things get hot, and go “viral” for no discernible reason; it’s just the right thing at the right time that was picked up by the right group of people.

That’s not to say that you can’t increase your odds by writing a good book, editing it until it shines, having a professional-looking cover, doing a good job with formatting, writing a compelling blurb, and pricing your work competitively (under $5, usually $0.99 or $2.99). But even doing all that, the odds of making a living at writing — let alone becoming rich or famous at it — are stacked firmly against you. Yes, electronic publishing offers some exciting new opportunities, and I’ve obviously taken on the challenge for myself. But the advice I’ve given authors all my life — and I still stand behind today — is to write a book only if you want to write it for yourself, and look at any future sales or income only as a secondary bonus, not a sure thing.

UPDATE: Some interesting specific numbers from Amazon here, showing just how few authors “strike it rich” self-publishing.

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© 2010 David Derrico