Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress

Kevin Larimer

I also have several authors who started out in the traditional-publishing realm, Jana DeLeon and Courtney Milan. Last year, Jana was doing so well digitally publishing her backlist as well as her new frontlist titles that she was able to quit her day job for the first time in a decade of writing. She even hit the USA Today best-seller list on her own—something her previous publisher could never do for her. Courtney is having good success as well. She makes four times what she made with her traditional publisher and she even hit the New York Times best-seller list on her own. I’d say these gals are “making a splash” even if they aren’t household names. Even today, I could probably rattle off the names of fifteen self-published writers who are making it big this year. It’s becoming quite common, actually. Most of it is happening in the genre of romance, but Hugh and other rising stars are not writing in that arena and [are] finding success.

For an agent, the tough part is determining how a traditional publisher and a self-published author can work together. Some of these independent authors are making so much money on their own, traditional publishers literally can’t offer enough money to make it tempting to partner. If a self-published author is making a hundred fifty thousand dollars a month, it’s hard to seriously consider a traditional offer for, say, half a million dollars for two books—for all rights, including digital. Is having the print component or bookstore distribution worth it? Probably not. However, many independent authors would seriously consider it in exchange for something more reasonable, such as a finite term of license or a truly reasonable sales threshold…. Independent authors don’t want to give up all rights with no hope of getting their work back at some point if a publisher loses interest. It would then be lost income for them.

Now self-published authors have made the leap to traditional publishing and love it. But many are regretting it. These days, part of my job is to make sure that I routinely have conversations with publishers, and to keep the door open to any possibilities that make sense as my independent clients become even more successful.

Nash: I think it is important to look at this in the larger context. Given the dramatic increase in the total amount of content available, and the velocity at which it travels, we’re seeing a shift from a world of a few handfuls of million-copy sellers and tens of thousands that sell four figures in units, to one where there is one series every two years that will sell ten million–plus, and millions that sell hundreds, or tens, or ones.

In other words, the distribution of success has become even more skewed. This also means that publishers have to focus on “tentpole properties,” a term they stole from the film business. Now, self-publishing is actually a pretty good purveyor of tentpoles because [tentpoles are created] by consumer response. They’re memes. Gangnam Style. Although we see that for those numbers to be maxed out, you want the infrastructure of a media company. Is that necessarily a publisher? Not purely, no; it could be a movie studio. What exactly happens there is less about abstracting the attributes of publishing or self-publishing and favoring one over the other, and more a function of the specific personality of the writer and the specific cultural and economic context of the books.

In terms of the ones selling a degree or two below—say, steadily in the range of fifty thousand to five hundred thousand books—that is largely the province of institutional publishing. That’s not a stable place for a solo enterprise because velocity is critical: Sales at that stage happen because of consumer buzz, people want to eat in the Chinese restaurant that everyone else is eating in. Self-published authors either zoom through that fifty thousand to five hundred thousand unit number, or they don’t even come close to it.

Now, all the forgoing has to do with sales. There are authors publishing for reasons other than sales, so the question becomes what type of splash, what impact do they want to have on the world. And there you face a very fundamental fact that, all other things being equal, it is typically easier for a team to make a splash than a person. So whether your self-publishing goal is to raise visibility for yourself as a nutritionist or as a 
human-resources consultant or as a poet, having a team of experienced people supporting you makes it easier. At that point, then, you’re starting to make a series of judgments—appraising your own skills, ascertaining skills to which you have ready access via love or money, determining your precise goals, deciding how you want to monetize (i.e., it need not be through selling books), and so forth. These things simply aren’t binary, even though the media, and some tweets and some panel discussions, can make them seem that way.

Ciotta: I agree with Kristin and Richard. Coming from a self-published author’s point of view, there’s the terrifying BookScan that traditionally published authors must contend with. To be blunt, if you’re not selling the way a publishing house wants you to, you’re out. Even great writers are under the gun. It’s all about profit-and-loss margins.

As I discuss in my self-publishing guide, if you want to be a successful self-published or traditionally published author in today’s market, your mind-set should be: “It’s all about the money, honey.” You have to be the businessperson and the author. Your job is to write a great book and sell it. And if you’re a self-published author, it’s heightened big-time.

Since independent authors are becoming so business savvy—and, as Kristin noted, many are making much more money using print-on-demand services, other print services, and being digitally published than being traditionally published—self-
publishing is only going to keep flourishing. Are more than three to four self-published books making a splash in a year? Absolutely!

If, as Richard says, it’s easier for a team to make a splash than a person—and Jennifer, you discuss in your e-book the various people and services you employed during the publishing of I, Putin—then what would you say to a writer who is starting out, alone, on the path to self-publishing a book?

Ciotta: Always start with this in mind: Write a good book. Make sure the book is professionally edited, preferably by an editor who has knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style. With regard to the technical side of self-publishing, if you can do it yourself and do it well then go for it. For example, I’m a book-manuscript editor by day, thus I edited my own books. However, I’m not a book-cover designer at all, nor am I a formatter. So I paid for professionals to do these tasks for me.