Self-publishing: Pros and Cons
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th October, 2016
As I had 14 books published by a variety of “traditional” publishers, I was quite surprised when my literary agent suggested that I should self-publish my latest book, the childhood memoir Eccles Cakes. It was so different from anything that I had written before that it did not sit neatly with my back catalogue (six of which books had in 2014 been reissued as paperbacks and ebooks by Thistle). He wasn’t sure there was a ready market for the memoir, but added cheerily that I would have complete control of the content and the cover, if I wished to go down the self-publishing route — and would earn proportionately more money if the book took off. It is worth pointing out that the days of generous publishers’ advances are over, unless one happens to be the latest hot new thing (preferably a young and attractive, and therefore promotable, female novelist). And as one gets 10% royalties at best on mainstream books, writing really does not make one rich, unless one is extremely lucky. In fact, according to a survey of writers’ earnings published last year by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), on whose Board I sit, average writers’ earnings have fallen sharply in recent years to a measly £11,000 a year. That’s nearly 30% down on a decade earlier. Moreover, publishers’ and media contracts are getting more and more tricky, often asking writers to surrender all their rights for a pittance — or even for nothing at all.
So, is self-publishing the answer? Like many people, I had been wary of the so-called Vanity presses, which charge authors thousands of pounds for producing a set number of copies of a book which may be nicely bound and printed on glossy paper, but won’t have been edited, and may well for the most part sit in boxes in the writer’s garage until he or she leaves this life. But, I was assured, as I made enquiries, things aren’t like that anymore. And indeed they are not. Of course, there are still some shady operators out there who are ready to fleece a lot of money off poor sods who are desperate to see their thoughts in print. But these days there are other, less expensive and more attractive options. As I am not confident in my technological skills I decided to plump for a company in England, PublishNation, that, for a set fee of £235 would format Eccles Cakes from a Word document and design a cover using a photo that I supplied. In a surprisingly short period of time I had a proof copy to correct, from the printer Lulu (who physically produce a lot of self-published books), and once I had OK’d some small changes (mainly typos; we all make them), I was then able to order as many or few copies of the paperback as I wish — and can continue to do so. The orders are fulfilled in a matter of days, with delivery to my door. The cost ensures that I get a respectable margin when I sell copies personally to readers. Others can buy online from Amazon, which also did a kindle version of the book (all part of the original PublishNation package). The kindle version is particularly attractive to authors as one gets 70% royalties as long as the book is priced over a certain limit (mine is, at £3.99). The biggest surprise of all, though, was that these royalties start straight away, on a monthly basis, as people buy one’s book. So although I only “published” in mid-July, I got my first payment direct into my bank account from Amazon at the end of August and another one just now.
Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, of course there are certain disadvantages. One needs to be a competent editor and proof-reader, or else be ready to employ someone to do that, otherwise your book is likely to be full of errors (though these can be corrected in all future copies). The biggest problem, though, is distribution and marketing. Mainstream publishers often still have reps, who tour the bookshops, promoting their wares. As a self-published author one has to do that oneself. Be brave, is what I say; I was delighted when I approached one bookshop that had stocked some of my earlier books when they came out and they agreed on the spot to take six copies. But particularly with memoirs, one needs to target people who know you or know about you. In my case, that meant Liberal Democrat activists (I did a signing at the Brighton autumn conference last month) and both my old school and university college, as well as my freshly-located birth family and close friends. A couple of reviews have appeared in linked publications, as well as diary items. Significantly, good reviews have appeared on Amazon and Goodreads; authors are well-advised to join and engage with the latter; the more such reviews you get, the better your book is likely to do. But the real challenge is to master social media: to let people out there know your book is available — and why they might be interested to read it. I mention it quite frequently on twitter (with a link to the Amazon order page) and I have created a dedicated Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/eccles.cakes.2016 (which has a shopping button). It’s still early days, but even if I have not yet made a fortune from self-publishing, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive to date, and I did have total control of both cover and content.