Self-Publish and Watch the Dollars Flow In?

My column on Jan 25 stated that “self-publishing will remain hot, but it still won’t make people any money.” The column got picked up and disseminated around the blogosphere, with some people torching me for claiming I’m biased against self-publishing.

Rot. Self-publishing is a great idea, and I’m helping several authors do it. Your e-book with a traditional publisher these days will earn you a 25% royalty. Your e-book with a self-publisher will earn you a 70% royalty. On paper that looks like an easy decision for an author. 

In fact, a couple days ago thriller author Barry Eisler made headlines for turning down a half-million dollar deal with St Martins in order to self-publish. Maybe you’re thinking you’re going to follow his lead, self-publish your book, and start watching the dollars flow in.

Um… don’t put any money down on that Maserati just yet. I work with authors full-time, have for years, and while the percentages look great, the numbers don’t always work out. You see, self-publishing is still PUBLISHING, and the keys to success are still (1) write a great book, (2) market it exceptionally well, and (3) know how to sells large quantities. Unfortunately, most self-publishing authors are not doing any of those three. They’re frequently taking a manuscript that’s been rejected everywhere. I know this sounds elitist, but it’s just possible all those agents and editors who rejected that book know something that you don’t know. 

Maybe (just maybe) if everyone has rejected your manuscript, it’s not because “the system is stacked against you.” It could be you could use some editing. In addition, if you don’t know how to market your book, you’re dead in the water. You could produce a great book and people may not flock to it – there’s too much competition, and if readers don’t know about it, they can’t buy it. You’ve got to know how to reach readers and get them to buy your book or self-publishing won’t make you any money.

I’ve been spending time talking with self-published novelists, and you’ve got to work to find people who are making more than a couple hundred bucks per month. Many are making $20 per month – including one author who turned down a $5000 offer because she was convinced she could do better. 

So, frankly, I think Barry Eisler got taken. Somebody convinced him he could do better than to cash that $500,000 check and let a great company like St Martins market and sell his book. They’re probably wrong. Eisler is good, but does he have enough of a following to sell that many books? I don’t think so. AND he now has to be a full-time marketing and sales guy, rather than a writer.

So yes, I think self-pubbing is great. But it’s not a miracle solution for your career. And yes, there’s still some wisdom in listening to all those experienced publishing people who know something about the business.

Chip MacGregor is President of MacGregor Literary Inc., a literary agency that works in both the CBA and general markets.