There was a thread on Slashdot on Friday about self-publishing, the result of a review of a self-published novel. I found it pretty interesting.
People complained about the price of the book. I looked at Xlibris’ pricing. Had they published Optimizing Windows, it would have sold for about $4 less than it did.
People talked about self-publishing as a sign of poor quality. Unfortunately, anything is a sign of poor quality. If it’s published by a publishing house, marketing is paramount, rather than quality. Don’t listen to the publishers who claim they think about quality and nothing else. It’s a lie. Some publishers are worse than others. There are a lot of publishers I just won’t buy a book from, period. There are a lot of authors I won’t buy a book from, period. (And don’t bother trying to give their books to me either; I don’t want the other books on my bookshelves to look bad by association.)
The author of the book complained about Xlibris’ pricing being designed to make money off the author rather than the readers. That’s true of every self-publishing company. To a degree that’s true of the big publishing houses too. The terms of places like iUniverse and Wildside may be more favorable.
The author of the book complained that he made $2 per copy of the book. If I remember right, my royalties for Optimizing Windows, had everything gone well, would have worked out to about $1.75 per copy. And that’s actually not bad. Some of the authors of Dummies books make 25 cents per copy. The hope is that they can make it up in volume. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. If your name is Andy Rathbone and your book is titled Windows [whatever] for Dummies, you’re going to sell a million copies so even if you only get 25 cents per book it’s worth your while to do it. Though I’m pretty sure Andy Rathbone gets better terms than that.
While Optimizing Windows didn’t sell terribly well, it outsold some of the Dummies books, including some written by authors who were more established than me.
There’s a misconception out there that writers are rich. Writing books isn’t like big-league baseball, where the minimum salary is more than $200,000 and you get a minimum of three months off (and that’s assuming you’re a pitcher or a catcher and went to the World Series). You get an advance and you write your manuscript. Hopefully the advance is enough to pay your bills while you write, or you have money from somewhere else. The advance is taxable income. You’re self-employed. So the government’s going to take half of it. Some creative financing and tax planning can soften that blow a little.
Authors pay that advance back in the form of deferred royalties. Once a book sells enough copies that royalties cover the advance, the author starts getting checks every quarter. But when you pay $25 for a book, the author’s getting a small percentage of it. It might be as low as 25 cents. If it’s five bucks, that’s really high. Paper isn’t cheap and presses aren’t cheap, so most of what you’re paying for is the printing cost. The publisher and retailer make a few bucks and the author makes a couple of bucks.
I met an author last month who’s sold more than half a million books. He drives a Hyundai.
An awful lot of authors could make more money doing something else for a living. Those who choose to make a living writing are doing it for prestige or independece or enjoyment, much more so than for the money.
So I’m not convinced that self-publishing–especially print-on-demand self-publishing with little or no up-front cost–is a bad idea. Now that’s not to say I’m going to run out and self-publish immediately. But the thought’s crossed my mind a few times, yes. And if I had enough material already written for one reason or another to make up about half of a book (the half-book I wrote two years ago about Linux doesn’t qualify–I’d have to buy back the rights to parts of it), I’d probably write the other half and do it, for exactly the same reason that some musicians choose to self-publish.