We all know that adventurous types like Joe Konrath, and established types like Kris Rusch, and insanely successful types like J.K. Rowling have been having a ball publishing ebooks on their own–and we know that weirdos like me are going to do it because we’re maverick by nature and like tickling the envelope in ways that could get you arrested for molesting post office property, but what about other authors? What’s in it for them?
Why on earth would a youngish author (less than 20 years publishing) with ongoing publishing contracts ever even think about cheating on their publisher with Amazon, Smashwords, PubIt, et. al.? After all, isn’t it a lot of work? Who’s going to do the marketing? And if he’s getting checks from the big boys, why bother with the small-potatoes in ebookland? Why not just leave that stuff to the old guys with a backlist, and the newbies who aren’t good enough to land a New York Deal?
If you recognize yourself in the above questions, I’ve got four reasons you should consider cultivating an active indie sideline (i.e. you should be self-pubbing even if you have to write new material particularly for the ebook marketplace in addition to your existing contracts):
As a writer, you have something in common with actors, musicians, and other freelancers: the money you have in hand right now is all you can count on. You write a book, get an advance, and going by averages, the advance is all you ever get out of it. This amounts, basically, to doing day-labor (and not very well paid day labor, even if it is satisfying and occasionally glamorous).
And with advance levels falling, shelf space shrinking, and sales of 3 of the 4 major formats continuing to decline, the “advance is all you get” situation is likely to become more common. And if you’ve signed a contract with a poor out-of-print reversion clause, you’re not going to have the opportunity to re-sell that book or publish it as backlist for 35 years (which is the statutory limit).
This is why people are starting to wonder if authors will ever be able to make a living again–and particularly if writers will ever be able to provide for themselves in their retirement years. The people who are wondering this have not been looking carefully at what the percentages are in the indie marketplace.
Long story short (and I can do a post on the math of this if you want me to–just say so in the notes), when you put a book or short story up in the e-markets yourself, it earns forever. Even if it earns almost nothing, you can build up your retirement by putting up a handful of books and stories every year over the course of a couple decades. If all of them sell pitiably, you’ll still wind up making an aggregate monthly income that will serve as a cushion, or a dependable baseline (and, of course, if one or more breaks out, you’ll be doing very handsomely indeed).
This is called a “passive income stream.” You do the work once, and it pays out forever without a further investment of work. This is what pension plans used to do, when the economy was experiencing long-term growth. This is the kind of income that retired entrepeneurs and inventors live on.
Going indie builds your passive income, and if you do it as a sideline to a traditional publishing career, then in the long run you’ll wind up effectively taking a slight loss on your traditional books in order to raise your profile and drive people to your indie books (i.e. your traditional career becomes your advertising budget, in the long run). Meanwhile, in the short run, the up-front advance money will help you swing from book-to-book in the same way you’ve grown accustomed to.
A basic principle of investment is “diversification,” which we all learned as kids when we heard the parable “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Having titles available on your own insulates you from publishing industry volatility, puts you in a position of power when interpersonal conflicts arise (for example, if your editor kills your next contract because you wouldn’t sleep with him/her or pissed off a more powerful writer at the same publisher. Don’t laugh, this is not unusual. It’s killed or maimed a lot of artist’s careers over the years, like those of B5 actress Patricia Tallman and of my midlister friend Stephen Goldin).
When you are in thrall to a single customer (i.e. one publishing house), you’re vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, tumult, and leverage. When you have books with multiple houses, and particularly when you have your own titles out through your own indie imprint, you are less vulnerable. It doesn’t mean no one can hurt you, but it does mean that things that might once have killed you would only hurt for a little while now–like getting shot with a bullet-proof vest, rather than without.
Having that kind of back-stop puts you in a better negotiating position when you hash out your next contract or film option.
One of the dangers of success is the “golden handcuff” problem. When you do well writing one kind of story, publishers want you to write more of that kind of story, and they can be willing to pay very well for it. They can also be unwilling to look at anything you do that isn’t an obvious riff on what’s given you success before.
It’s made a lot of writers (like Conan Doyle and Piers Anthony) completely miserable. Everyone’s got their price, and if you’re lucky enough to be successful with one of your series, you may wind up with a pair of golden handcuffs and a lot of creative frustration.
Unless, that is, you’re also cultivating an indie sideline. You can take projects indie that don’t fit with your publisher’s concept of your “brand,” (see what Scott Sigler has done with his GFL series, for this very reason), and diversifying yourself creatively will help keep your golden handcuff books fresh as well. Different projects teach you different things, and working in breadth is not only more satisfying, it makes you a better writer.
Now, with self-pub, you can write those other books you want to write, but that you wouldn’t be able to justify if you were dependent upon selling them to a publisher.
Publishers (in every entertainment industry) have always cooked the books. There are a lot of historical reasons for this beyond mere opportunity and greed that are too here, but take it for granted: If you’re doing business in New York or LA, you’re getting ripped off. Most people who’ve been in the game for several decades accept a certain amount of skim as the cost of doing business, because audits are expensive. That “certain amount” is normally considered to be ~10% or less.
Some of you get angry with me for mentioning this–you find it threatening, or you think it’s sour grapes, or you accuse me of libel. But it’s really none of these things, it’s just common industry knowledge and has been for decades. Publishers (in all entertainment industries) rip off artists because they can–because there is no transparency in the supply chain, and because artists let them, for reasons described in this clip from the 1980s crime drama Wiseguy:
Until last year, excepting the occasional scandal where publishers were revealed to be skimming too much (such as the Ace Doubles scandal), that’s how it rode. Publishers stole, but not too much, so no one made a big deal about it. As I said before, publishing is not a transparent industry, and it’s always been very difficult to get an accurate picture of what goes on.
That was then.
Now, authors have a very good transparency lever: they can use their self-published books as yardstick for their royalty reports. How? Easy:
You compare your indie numbers numbers to the ebook numbers on your royalty statements. Authors have been doing this–and they’ve been finding that their indie books are selling more (by a factor of ten) than their hot-new-sexy books from a big press. This is why there are now half a dozen lawsuits in process against major presses, as well as a number of audits.
Self-publishing authors can also get access to Bookscan, which tracks ~50-70% of the paper book sales in the country, and you can check the numbers of your traditionally published books against what’s on your royalty statements (your “sold” books on the statement should be greater than the number that Bookscan reports, by a substantial percentage).
With these two tools in your toolbelt, you may not be able to tell how honest your publisher is, but you will be able to tell how honest your publisher isn’t. Once the numbers cross certain thresholds, the discrepancies between your Bookscan and self-pub numbers vs the numbers on your royalty statements take on a character that shows you it’s time for an audit, or a lawsuit. Using your self-pub work like this is kind of like putting a dog in your house–he might not alert you if someone breaks into your yard to steal your bicycle, but he will tell you if someone breaks into your house to steal your jewelry.
Wrapping It Up
There are other reasons as well, but these are the biggies. If you’re a traditionally published author, you owe it to yourself–for the sake of your creative freedom, for your artistic satisfaction, for your career longevity, for your bargaining position, and for your financial security–to put a little extra work in to build up a sideline of self-pub work.