A few independent publishing thoughts

The traditional publishing route is a sprint. Independent publishing is a marathon.

The traditional publishers will still be around for a long time, though they are going to take some major hits. Sorry, wrong tense. … are TAKING some major hits.

Their operations model is based on a limited distribution network with a very large fixed operating cost. There were, after all, limitations on physical presses of any quality. There were limits on warehouse space and shelf space. All steps required manpower, all the manpower costs added up, all for that very tiny window of sales opportunity.

Publishers couldn’t afford to let anything sit to eventually succeed. If it wasn’t paying the (large) bills, the next was needed.

As my inevitable digression I will point out this isn’t unique to publishers. Record companies and the film industry are facing similar problems. The underlying cause is also hitting things like libraries, and I think schools (primary, secondary, and post-secondary) are on the edge. Just to name a few examples.

One of the ways Publishers managed was that they printed a relatively large range of books. Even if one failed, the other dozen or so would cover the costs, especially since every effort was made to have best-sellers. In fact that was the basic criteria. If your book sold big, it stayed. While it was selling big other casts would be made. If they made it big, they stayed. If not, they were pulled and another was tried.

The independent doesn’t need one big sale. A slow but steady output brings in money. Writing and selling a dozen or two novels, each of which brings in a little money, will bring in plenty all together. I’ve run the math before, but let me do it again.

Assume each of your books sells a paltry 50 copies a month, each bringing you a measly $2 per book. Wahoo, $100. But wait, you’re selling a dozen books, and that’s $1200. You’re not rich, but you’ve got enough income to pay a surprising number of bills. And you can write another book or five a year, every year. You can expect sales to continue for at least a decade, though we don’t know how long it’ll remain at the ‘paltry’ level and when it’ll drop off. Even if you figure it falls in half at five years and then tapers, at two novels a year you’re going to be bringing in enough to live on.

That said, as an independent publisher you’ve got some decisions. Once more, the traditional publisher has a number of supporting professionals – well, they’re theoretically professionals – all of whom are supposed to be increasing the success of your book.

For what it’s worth I think we are going to see more and more people providing independent support of these roles. We, the independent publishers, are going to have to decide how much they’re providing and how much we’re going to pay them. I myself, as I have said a time or two, think paying them at the same slow rate we’re earning is better – pay them a slice of the gross instead of a lump payment. But that is a separate discussion.

Who are you going to pay?

Well, there’s your cover artist. There’s the marketing. There are layout artists. There’s the editor, about whom I have written extensively (and will again, more). There’s legal, at least your IP attorney. You have an accountant on tap (I hope). The list, needless to say, goes on.

For what it is worth, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new kind of publisher. In fact I’ve written about the job in somewhat clumsy fashion. The writer hires someone to ‘get the book out’. That person pays for all the little things current publishers do, and the writer sticks to writing.

Superficially it looks just like the current process: the book goes to the publisher, the publisher does the work and gives the author his/her share. The difference is that the relationship has changed.

The author hires the publisher.

It is no longer a case of the publisher deciding to carry the author.

Oh, sure, sometimes the publisher will turn down an author’s work. But with indi being a route and a near-infinite bookshelf via electronic press, the publisher can’t afford to turn down books that will sell; midlist or even bottomlist books.

I expect a lot of give and take on what the eventual pricing will be. I frankly have no real clue what the end result will be. The publisher has to pay the subcontractors, after all, either lump or share. And everyone involved is going to contribute to the success in some fashion.

You can do it all yourself. There are more than a few who do so and do so successfully. However, if you’re editing and doing cover work and marketing and so on and so forth you’re not writing. Some things you can do and do well, some you can’t.

If it takes you three months to write a novel, and the totality of getting it to all markets is three months, you produce a novel every six months. If, however, you can turn it over to the publisher to market it you can generate a novel every three months.

Let’s assume, for easy math, each novel generates $1000 per month. If you do it all yourself you get a year at 1000 and six months of another 1000 for 18,000 over the year.

If you get the publisher involved then the gross is 12000 + 9000 + 6000 + 3000 for 30,000. If you pay the publisher 1/3 your income increased to 20,000.

And that assumes you hired a publisher who is only as good as you. If you hired someone who is better at getting the right professionals and getting your book to all possible markets they’re going to do more – just as you might be a better writer. The synergy – a much-abused buzzword – becomes obvious. Instead of “only” selling 30,000, they may be able to push it to 36,000, or even higher. Of course they might want a better share…

It’s going to be interesting, actually.

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