A week or so ago a chap called Hugh Howey, a successful novelist who also decided to self-publish with great effect, published a report that analysed the top 7000 ebooks on Amazon (or something like that- sorry if I’m not quite correct). The trick was – or is – that Amazon doesn’t make public any sales figures, only rankings, so it’s always been a bit of a mystery whether or not these top-sellers actually came with high sales. Like, how many books do you need to sell to be within the top 7000? Only Amazon knows.
Except Hugh had a mate, who wrote some software that crunched all the data, and it came back with some unexpected results. Mainly that self-published authors own a lion’s share of the ebook sales, rather than the “Big Five” publishers they’re supposedly, futilely competing against. It’s all being greeted as a bit of an epiphany – a watershed moment in publishing that proves so-called traditional publishing is dead, or at least dying, and dedicated writers no longer really need a “real” publisher to be successful themselves. A lot of high-profile, self-published writers are crowing a kind of “I told you so,” line and flipping a finger at the big publishing house. They’re saying that new writers should consider self-publishing first, before approaching established publishers and agents. It’s the true path to literary riches. The publishing revolution hasn’t just started – the battle is apparently already won according to some of these guys. I doubt the big publishers would agree. They were slow off the blocks when ebooks began getting serious, but they’ve already adapted very, very quickly and can only get better at it.
Among all the debate and rhetoric it’s rarely mentioned that you still need to write a really good book to find success either way. A really good book. The best thing you’ve ever read, let alone written. Ever.
But okay, for the record here’s my brief summary of the argument and you can make up your own mind.
First of all, there is no argument.
Aiming to self-publish a novel means you don’t have to feel obliged to conform to current, popular genres. You can write and publish anything you like, whereas traditional publishing is always trying to stick to the latest formula (e.g. Harry Potter or Twilight-like stories in recent times). You’re increasing the risk no one will ever read your book, but you’ll be writing with a passion and heart that doesn’t really happen when you’re trying to satisfy a market. That’s a good thing. Heaps of established writers – myself included – are self-publishing works that were originally rejected due to considerations of the market at the time, and even the whim of an editor in a commissioning meeting. However, writing the novel is just the start. You need it professionally edited or at least “read” by a pro editor who can give you objective feedback. A very good cover needs designing – standing out from the crowd on Amazon or Smashwords isn’t easy. Then you’ll need to promote the hell out of your book on social media, websites and such, because among many, many other problems you have to solve, your book will be pushed off the front page of the “latest releases” in about ten minutes flat. Here’s a warning, by the way. A lot of writer’s forums and blog sites are run and patronised by other “writers” who couldn’t string a decent sentence together to save their lives, and as soon as they get a whiff that you’re publicising a new, completed book your post will be deleted and your user name blocked. Pathetic, but true. This social media self-promotion bizzo is a lot more difficult than you’ll ever imagine.
If a traditional publisher makes you an offer (or even a smaller publisher or digital publisher like my own Momentum Books) just about all the above isn’t your problem, except for the promotional thing. You still have to promote yourself. In exchange for dealing with the difficult logistics of your novel (editing, cover design, etc) , the publisher exercises most of the control over your book and pays you a royalty less than you can give yourself as a self-publisher, depending on the self-published price structure you might have set and the distributors you sell through.
The truth is there isn’t any choice to be made. It’s not a case of one or the other. As a writer trying to successfully publish a book (anybody can whack it up on Amazon and say they’re “published”) you need a business strategy that looks at both forms of publishing. If your novel is a bit “out there” and would struggle to fit into popular genres, then maybe self-publish and see if you can build a readership before showing the results to a publisher. If you’ve written a formulaic crime novel (with your own brilliant twist, of course) it may be worth approaching an agent or publisher straight away – these people are looking for new writers and books, don’t forget. That’s the business they’re in. They just might write you a big, fat cheque.
That’s if you’ve written a really, really good book, don’t forget. Did you forget that bit? Need I mention it again?
Yes, the publishing revolution has started and, according to Hugh Howey, we may be a lot further down that track than we’d realised prior to his clever mate and number-crunching report. My best advice is, don’t be sucked in by the vitriolic and sometimes petty spats you’ll find on the net. When you’ve finally written “The End” under your treasured manuscript (actually, haven’t seen that for years!) and start looking at publishing options, keep an open mind. You can investigate a lot of different possibilities without drawing a line in the sand between self-publishing and traditional publishers.
Ebooks and ebook publishing have certainly been rocking the boat a lot harder lately. We’re still all in that same boat, though.