To Self-publish or not Self-pub? That is the Question!

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Is self-publishing a viable alternative to publishing with a big publisher, say, one of the Big Six? For unpublished writers, otherwise known as newbies, that's the big question.

Any new writer worth his salt dreams of publishing in New York with one of the Big Six. But Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing wonder who's suddenly made it big in one single year winning a $4 million deal with St Martin's Press, has changed that dream forever.

Self-publishing has just about lost most of the stigma it ever had, and Barry Eisler, who walked away from a $500,000 deal with a legacy publisher to follow down the path of self-publishing has put the last nail on the coffin.

So self-publishing has become an acceptable option even for published authors, particularly mid-list authors (those that never made it big on the New York Times list of bestsellers but have reasonably satisfactory sales). Also big authors might (and do) find the idea of self-publishing their back list (all that stuff out of print) as rather appealing. Especially since they can get a lot more out of their royalties than from their publisher (Amazon gives them 70% if they keep their book price below $10 as opposed to 30% at the very best from their publisher - but usually a lot less than that). There's still the problem that the NY Times does not list self-published e-books, but no doubt that will change (especially after Amanda Hocking's splash that was so big that she outsold NYT bestsellers!).

Add the fact that publishers stubbornly stick to pricing models for e-books that are guaranteed to slow down sales. Consumers have heard that it's cheap to produce digital versions of books and can't understand why a Kindle version can cost as much and sometimes more than a paperback. In fact, everybody expects e-books to cost less than $10. And we all marvel at how Amanda Hocking made her fortune selling her books at 99 cents - an experience comforted by J.A.Konrath's clever "List experiment" (updates on his sales after each change in price).

Add also the fact that publishers' traditional distribution channels are fast disappearing - I mean the bookstores. With Border's bankruptcy, the writing is on the wall for all those bookstores that haven't gone digital. Of course, books are still distributed elsewhere, like Wal Mart and airports, but undeniably the channels are fewer. And surely lots of bookstores will rally and rise up to the challenge - but the downward trend is here.

Then, last but not least, a bizarre bit of news that has lately emerged: publishers, it seems, don't give fully reliable reports on royalty returns. That leaves one very, very uneasy. What, they keep money against the advance, and that's normal but they don't tell you exactly how much they make on e-sales? And apparently only use estimates? Could that really be so? One wonders and begins to lose trust. Who's lying and why? Who's telling the truth? Whatever the answer, it doesn't help the case for traditional publishers!

That's it, folks, self-publishing - particularly ebooks - is in, traditional publishing - mostly printed books - is out! But is that a reasonable conclusion? Does it mean that self-publishing is a viable option?

Let's count the ways.

Pro: You, the author, are in charge, you can publish right away, you don't have to wait all that ghastly time: one year to get an agent (if you're lucky - it can take a lot more!) plus two years for the agent to sell your book to a publisher (again if you're lucky) plus at least one more year to polish it up and get it out there in the bookstores, published at last! Add it up: 4 years on average. With e-books, you can get it out there in a matter of weeks or less - a little longer if you aim for a printed version of your book, but still out there a long, long time before you'll ever manage it going down the traditional publishing road.

Con:  being in charge of the actual publishing process, means you have to dip your hand (and be good at it!) into all sorts of demanding (and often boring!) procedures: (1) proof-reading, (2) editing, (3) cover design, (4) preparation of your docs for uploading on the various e-book publishing platforms (Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad etc) and printed versions (from Lulu to Smashwords); (5) keeping track of your activities as a publisher, including accounting files, tax files etc.

Yep, it's going to cost you time and money (not much if you're careful and do a lot yourself - but you have to be very, very careful or else you look like...a newbie!). All this turns you into a small business and that eats into your writing/creative time...Yikes, you didn't get into writing to become a businessman!

Pro: You are in charge of your own marketing too. Not distribution (thank God!): that's the business of Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc. But marketing is a tall order and only if you're particularly internet-savvy will this work out for you. You need a good online presence, a website cum blog, a Facebook page, lots of tweets on Twitters and lots of followers everywhere on the Internet. If you're comfortable with that, great. If not...But don't think that if you're published traditionally, the publisher will do this work for you. They don't and won't. They (and literary agents too) expect you to have an online presence and that means you need to have started your blog, FB comments and tweets etc long before you published your book.

Con: Don't count traditional publishers out quite yet. They have a major card to play: they are the gatekeepers of literary taste. In terms of marketing, they might do a lot less for you than they used to do in the past, before the digital revolution and before the (still on-going) recession: less book presentation in prestigious locations, less book signing events, less conferences etc But they still can give you something an indie/self-published author is at pains to get: critiques from top-notch reviewers and support in major prize-winning competitions.

That's at the heart of traditional publishers' literary gatekeeper role. That's what helps readers distinguish the "good reads" from the bad. Indeed, publishers are well aware of this and at least three of the Big Six have recently tried to regain the upper hand in this area: they've established Bookish, a new website that sounds a little like it's out to compete against Amazon et al. This has drawn guffaws from bloggers who know how foolhardy it would be for an upstart to compete against Amazon's distribution power - and surely it would be if the sole purpose was to sell their books through that site. But my reading of Bookish is that it's main purpose is to inform readers about authors and their books and even direct them to distribution/sales channels.

In other words, publishers are back into their gatekeeping role, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. And expect them to keep doing this, it's their one big chance to survive the digital revolution! Don't think good reviews make no difference, they certainly do! Remember that when you go on, say Kindle, your book is competing against million titles! And that could easily double over the next couple of years, if not sooner. A day will come when there will be more titles out there than readers (I hope not!)...

So what should a writer do? For published authors with a good following, there is no question that it makes economic sense to self-publish their back list. For a newbie? I'm not so sure. What do you think?

Personally, I've opted for a Solomonic solution: a little bit of both, hedging my bets.

I'll keep looking to publish my latest book (it's women's fiction) with a traditional publisher, while I'll try the self-publishing road with a trilogy that is totally different, aimed at Yound Adults. Based on a romance I wrote a few years ago (which came out in Italian, Un Amore Dimenticato), it's called Fear of the Past. It's about Tony, an American computer whiz kid who travels on a self-quest to Sicily, the homeland of his father, and runs into the ghosts of his ancestors waiting for Judgment Day in an abandoned palazzo. In book One, Forget the Past, Tony learns about love when he meets the Duchess of Floridia (a real historical character who married the King of Naples in 1814). In Book Two, Reclaim the Present, he learns how his family's fortune collapsed, after centuries of prosperity. In Book Three, Remember the Future, he tries his hand at making his own money against all odds, including a group of ruthless Russian hackers.

How about you? If you have come up with ideas and solutions to this conundrum we are all facing as writers, I would love to hear about it! And get your advice!

QuestionsImage by elycefeliz via Flickr

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