TRADITIONAL TO INDEPENDENT
ONE YEAR LATER.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
An author is—a writer does.
On April 1st, 2014, I made the final decision to switch from traditional publishing, where somebody else made the decisions, to independent or self-publishing, where I was in control. My first task before the move was to gain control of my publishing rights, which took two years of negotiation with one earlier publisher.
I had a good working relationship with the last publisher. We did four novels together and likely they would have continued to publish whatever I sent them. Our royalty rate was at a 50/50 split, and they offered to send free copies to anyone for reviews. They were local. Each time I signed a contract I was treated to a free lunch. A sweet deal, right? I had two objections with them. I didn’t like their covers—to me covers sell books—and, they would have nothing to do with printed books. Sure, they’d bring out the books via Create Space POD, and sell them to me at cost. But they’d have nothing to do with retail of the books and refused to be a source of purchase for them. Like many, they were in the eBook business.
Previous publishers were worse. A mid-list publisher did nothing toward marketing. The one novel I had with them sat in the catalog, never mentioned, never promoted. For that they took 65% of whatever sold. When a producer offered a film option, on twelve of their books, including mine, my take was $100, plus renewal of another $100 each year for five years until the producers made up their minds. The contract was non-negotiable. It improved if they moved on the option to make a movie. Then the money happened, still with my cut little more than corner mouth drool. What I mean by non-negotiable, any writers who questioned the terms of the contract automatically had their book pulled and was dropped from the option. Then the second year that contract was modified to keep me chained to the publisher for seven years. I refused to sign and my poor little novel dribbled into oblivion.
Another past publishers refused to offer the novel as print until I had sold a minimum of 500 eBook copies. This was after I had a six month war with their editor over content. Those who actually read the final version, and were familiar with my work, could hardly believe I wrote it. I had lost the war.
After fifty years in the ever-changing writing racket, much of what has happened to writers, happened to me, including decades ago Paramount offering a $5,000 option on one of my earlier novels, and my agent at the time blew the whole deal through greed. Paramount walked. The agent received nothing. I received nothing. Less than a year later, she was out of business. Going out of business happens a lot with agents. Why do you think?
So much for agents and traditional publishers.
I feel I must qualify what I mean by publishers in my blue collar writing world. To me there are four types of publishers. The term traditional publisher is tossed around at random, as if you’re not doing it yourself, you are publishing traditional.
Let me preface that with: A traditional publisher worth the name pays the writer an advance against royalties. No other way around it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a few hundred dollars. To actually work to promote your book, they must have a financial investment. You gotta be in their shorts. They need their money back. So off we go.
Type One: High mucky-muck traditional publisher. Guys like Doubleday, Simon and Schuster, Harper-Collins, Penguin, Random House, MacMillan, Little Brown & Co. and Hachette, etc. What sets them apart? They give nice fat advances against royalties, like $40,000 up to the millions. Their eBooks sell for a penny under ten bucks, or more. They are really into hard books. Their control, over your novel is absolute. They’ll even change the title if it suits them. They have their favorites and you have a zip-zero chance of selling them. All they can offer is lots and lots of money. You got to love them. There are mid-list, lesser publishers included in the traditional mix, who give $5,000 to $10,000 advances and maybe are a little more flexible with wants of the writer. Maybe. A true traditional publisher offers an advance against royalties. Those are the only publishers recognized as acceptable by MWOA (in case you want to join), and other top drawer writer’s associations. Few books earn much beyond the advance. Some publishers may be like Amazon and their popularity contest, the Kindle Scout scheme that only offers $1,500 but it’s something. And if your book is selected, they guarantee $25,000 over five years. Self-nominated, so-called publishers offer no advance, ever. The only really successful writer I know personally is my beer drinking pal, Ralph. A famous guy as a military consultant, so I won’t use his full name. He has given up on books and writes articles plus his consultant military work. He came to my writers critique group because he said he wanted to write crime novels like me. Don’t ask if it was for the money.
Type Two: The little publishers. No advance at any time. Most of those started out in eBooks, most still are in eBooks. A staff of less than five, mom and pop operations runs them. Covers come from a data base and are generally terrible. Most covers on store bookshelves, even from the big guys, are bad too. Apparently few publishers use artists anymore. Apparently few publishers think creative about covers. Better to have the author’s name smeared over the top half of the cover. The hottest covers out today come from independents. Except Hard Case Crime Publishers. Their covers come from an age when covers yanked readers to the book. Great stuff. Okay. The little guys bombarded us with their presence a few years ago and more keep adding to the mix. Make no mistake. These people don’t give a hoot in a hula hoop about the printed word. They are digital darlings through and through because digital production is cheap. They will pay lip service to print, and maybe offer Create Space POD as a sideline, but mainly to attract writers of eBooks. The entire process just costs them a little time. Apart from them are small publishers that do publish real books which don’t need an electronic device, and they may even offer a few hundred dollars as an advance. When compared to the eBook group, their number is tiny to the point of microscopic. Do not be fooled. Because the price is so low, eBooks are moneymakers only through sheer volume. The number of writers who make big bucks writing eBooks can be inscribed in Roman numerals on the head of a pin. Not many. But plenty of scribblers are writing them, more than any other type of book. Some are good to excellent, most are still terrible.
Type Three: Independent Publisher. I detest the term Self-Publisher because of all the nastiness and really bad writing that came along the trail in the beginning and some think still do. I tell people I moved from traditional to independent writing. I work hard to avoid the term self-publishing. During the Star-System in early Hollywood movies, the studio controlled everything. They had written contracts with actors and directors and screenplay writers. They owned the movie world, they forced people to write, direct and act in bad movies, real crap, terrible stuff. Then dropped them on a whim like a tossed empty beer can. Only when the actors, directors, and screen writers broke away, refused to sign contracts, became independent to choose the material they wanted, did they find true Hollywood happiness. So it is slowly happening to regular writers, even hacks like me, who some say produces quantity rather than quality. Independence is the way to go. Why? Glad you asked.
Type Four: Self or Ego Stroke Publishers, or, Print Mills: These are last because they deserve to be. Remembering the early days, I had already been the print mill route. These hucksters came on the writing scene a few decades ago. They have names like I-Universe, Xlibris, Outskirts, Dorrance, and maybe a dozen others by this time. These days one deserved-forgotten-name outfit owns most. I went with two of them on two early books—sorry experiences. A high fee, and not only no editing but nobody there even read the book. The quality of their product was adequate though one of my book runs began to come apart after two months. Sales people harass you with marketing schemes for years after. If you bite and pay, they only add your title to a long list of titles on a page. There is nothing offered specifically for your book, just the name. For sure the sales people never read your book either. Nobody even knows what your book is about. The book is irrelevant. It is a product like a kitchen scrubber. Amazingly, they are still in business, still finding suckers, still charging horrendous fees to stroke egos. Also interesting, a couple of popular writer magazines endorse them, no doubt due to the exchange of advertising greasy coins.
In my lifetime I’ve written more than forty books. One was non-fiction, a couple were memoirs, the rest are hardboiled crime novels, some stand alone, the rest with my three continuing characters: My tough gal PI, Makayla “Mac” Tuff; my wiseacre, troublemaker sailor, drifting through the world aboard his small sloop, Bay Rumble; my hard tough, ex-fighter, former Navy SEAL, killer PI, Logan Sand. About half my total production—the early writings—are long gone, out of print. They were screw and kill spy adventure novels I wrote for a flat price when I started out. The price at that time wasn’t bad, $1,000 to $1,500 a book, but I had to write them in six weeks. Some days I wouldn’t mind making that kind of loot today but I’d never be able to handle the schedule. I have about twenty of my books currently available at Amazon, in Kindle and print.
No matter what others say and you might think, and despite its obesity, Amazon is the writer’s friend. I buy stuff besides books from them. Books only make up 30% of their business. I sell my books exclusively through them on the KDP Select program. When I made the move to go independent, I had many hard choices. Earlier books were available through Barnes & Noble (Nook) and Smashwords and Goodreads, but from prior experience their sales of my books were a trickle when compared to Amazon, which was probably a trickle compared to royalty advance paying publishers You get perks when you go exclusively with them. B&N would no more offer my books on their bookshelves than they’d offer upstairs hookers. Yet, it has been written that anybody can display books in a B&N window for $3,500 a week. In fact, their priority is not selling books, it is renting space. Publishers pay for those tables piled with books that block your path going through the store. But let us tread lightly on the last remaining chain bookstore going. I use their basement for my writers critique group meetings.
And this brings us to one of the biggest atrocities committed against writers—the obscene 45% to 50% discount taken by bookstores just to place the book on a shelf. Or worse, the small bookstore that will pay you nothing up front for your book but will sell it on consignment, after it has been pawed and mutilated, for the same 45% to 50% discount. Oversimplified example: let’s say your little book retails for $10. Your cost to buy the book is say $4. If you sell your book yourself you make $6. /Cool. /Even in a tavern when they buy you a few beers and let you win at pool, if you knock two bucks off the price, you still make $4./If somebody other than you buys direct from Amazon, you’re still docked the $4 cost. Cost is cost. If the bookstore buys the book and demands the 50% discount, that comes off the RETAIL price, or the ten bucks. You’re down the $4 cost, PLUS the $5 discount. Your total take is $1.Except it isn’t. You don’t get a 100% royalty. The publisher gets 65¢ of that if it’s paperback. Your cut won’t buy a pencil let alone a beer. Who needs whom the most? The writer sweats and bleeds to create the product. The seller places it on a shelf, counts it once a month, rings up the register when it sells. The writer has many outlets to sell the finished product. The seller only gets what it sells from the writer, maybe via the publisher. Flash. Nobody at any time is worth more than a 25% discount, ever. I know writers who not only do that, and make the seller buy the book up front for cash. I did that with a bookstore in San Diego. It got to the point that when he ran out, he called me and said he’d send a check for more. It can be done but writers have to do it. And, of course, publishers have to be on board. And they live in fear the stores will stop buying their product, then what? Especially now that bookstores are falling like a flock of butterflies hit with buckshot. So 25% will never happen on a big scale. But it can be done. I know it. Do we need bookstores? Maybe. But apparently not as much as everybody thought, look how many are folding? Do bookstores need us? Absolutely. Shout it from the rooftop, kids.
I went with Amazon exclusively, even with all their latest lending, freebee hopped-up schemes I’ll never understand. I’ve been in the program a year. Has it been worth the move?
First off, no more free ride. I always thought the way writing novels worked; the writer sweated his or her liver and bled his and her blood to write the thing. All the money flowed to the writer not from the writer. I mean the production of novels. We all know by now the writer must promote and market the stuff by himself or herself on his or her own dime. Nobody is going to financially help you. Well, maybe the sugar daddy or (if you’re a guy), the woman equivalent who recently became widowed. And her chauffer would drive. How much you pay usually depends on how much you have to steal from necessities like food and diapers and wheelchair grease and medication. With a traditional publisher you are relieved of cover choice, editing, formatting, and pricing—and sometimes marketing. You are also relieved of choices in those areas. They do most of that stuff. How well they do it depends on how good they are at it, and how much intellectual, financial, emotional investment they have in your book. When you go independent, you do all that stuff. You have the control but boy-howdy do you pay for it. Be prepared for little return on your investment. It has been rightly said, that 90% of independent or self-published books sell less than one-hundred copies. Believe me, publishers who do not offer a good cash advance against royalties do no better.
My first move after getting the rights back for previously published books was to rewrite, edit, and get new covers for selected books. Some had been released as only paperback, before the eBook explosion. Others had been released only as an eBook. I wanted all of them to have both. I attach equal importance to the paperback as I do the digital. The process took me the entire year. Plus I wrote four new books. Now the final completed previously published book has just been released in both Kindle and print.
Rewriting was hard and slow. A sharp Midwestern gal with a journalism degree who does my book for less than fifty dollars did my editing. She’s done them all. She works through an outfit called: fiverr.com
You have to buy your own cover. In two versions, one for Kindle and one for Create Space POD. The outfit I use has covers for $69 on up to thousands for original creative choices. Most of my titles are the $69 variety, though I have paid as much as $120. Did I mention, covers sell books? The business started out with a melding of artists and writers serving each other. You get both Kindle and Create Space versions for one price. They will do the back cover but the price is ridiculous. Create Space will do it too but their price is also ridiculous. My format gal in New Zealand (fiverr.com) includes the back cover in her format price. Forget her. She’s far too busy to take on anyone new. Lucky me, I’m one of her original customers. One good thing about the cover people, once you buy the cover it is not ever available again, to anybody. I use selfpublishcovers.com
Computer nerds, of course will do their own formatting. I’m too dumb for that kind of action. I happily hire it out and pay my $25 for each book.
Once formatted, the Kindle is for sale in a day or two. Print is ready a couple weeks after proof. I do the proof before it is released to Amazon. My gal can make whatever changes needed.
The Amazon royalty system sucks. The graphs and charts are so complicated a simple single-lane mind like mine cannot grasp it. How tough would it be just to list this many books sold, this is what the royalty is, this is how many dollars you get this month? Kindle never shows you exactly how many dollars will be deposited. Create Space does. Aren’t they on the same planet? Are they like KFC franchises? Another cute gimmick. I’m supposed to get a 70% royalty on my books (one big reason for the switch). Kindle advertises 70% on a list price of $2.99 or higher, otherwise the royalty is 35%. Okay. I noticed that my $2.99 books were only giving me 35%. I said, How come? They told me that the $2.99 for 70% is the net price. Domestic Amazon charges a 15¢ handling fee on all books sold. That brings the price under $2.99 and therefore it is paid the 35% royalty not the 70%. I immediately raised all my Kindle prices to $3.25.
Another glitch I’ve had with three of my books. When the proof is approved and the book is released, it is available here and there at various Amazon outlets. I have a profile page at Amazon. There, all my available books are supposed to be shown. On three occasions, my book never made the trip. It went on a detour to the black hole. I had to write them an email asking, How come? They apologized and wrote back that I must notify their Author Control Division if I want my book shown on my profile page. Yet another nuisance step. Now my latest is not there. I notified the division and am waiting. More non-writing nonsense.
Many other twists and turns about Amazon go beyond my understanding. I’ve read books on how their best seller racket works and still don’t have a clue. The lesson for me was, just because Amazon says it’s a best seller, doesn’t mean it is. It could be a dud that shines through list juggling. I realize, today the writer has to be involved in order to be successful. At this stage in the game, success is something that barreled by like a runaway downhill big rig, the devil driver laughing as he lays on the horn. I’m making a little money writing, and what’s important is getting on with the next one. The years are sifting through and my biggest fear is that I’ll check out before I get everything done. Though I should be chasing down where my books are on the many lists out there, I need time to write books and I work at it five hours a day, seven days a week. If they sell, they sell. If not then I’m doing it badly and it’s time for another notch in the belt.
I did learn early that when you go independent, those writers who want to sell books better have a lot of books to sell. Volume brings in dollars. Uh huh. You spent three to five years on your magnificent opus and nobody showed much interest (agents and publishers). You’re determined the world must read your masterpiece. What you’ll do is go independent. While your one contribution to greatness saturates the market, you will prepare for another three to five years for your next. If you are a one or two book author instead of a working writer, and you want to go independent, the row you hoe is lumpy with boulders. Keep your other source of income.
With 20 books for sale and four more ready to go, I’m a piker. Would you believe there are writers with more than a hundred novels on Amazon? The world record for most books written belongs to L. Ron Hubbard. From 1934 to 2006 he wrote 1,018 books. Most were in the science-fiction and western genre. They’ve won tons of awards. I only have one award. His estate is still worth over a billion dollars. He once said that one way to really get rich was to start a religion. Uh huh. You bet. At least a dozen writers have written more than 300 books. For me, a satisfying life’s work would be 100 books. That is my goal. If I count the 40 already done, that leaves me 60 to go. And not much time. But I’m greedy. I want the hundred to be in addition to the 40. Lofty leaps to maybe stay a hack. But my stuff is a lot better today than it was yesterday. It’ll be even better tomorrow.
I intend to write three or four books a year. Those who do make money being independent, deal in volume. That is an absolute fact. And usually a series. And in a well=known popular genre. Damn few have made a killing with one book. Not enough to make that a goal. You’re back to Roman numerals on the head of a pin.
The cost of going independent isn’t anywhere near what the print mills charge, but you have to pay something. For me, I’d say the bottom line—paying for editing, format for Kindle and Create Space, cover for Kindle and Create Space (including back cover), buying five hard copies and one Kindle copy—less than $100 a book. Most of that is for the cover. Feedback has told me my books have decent covers. Some have even called them great covers. What you do yourself shaves from cost. If you think an acceptable cover can only be custom designed by an artist, or you can only lure a decent editor for $600 or more, or you must have top line management to handle distribution, you better hope that oil well keeps pumping.
My cost isn’t a bad price. However, when you enter the world of promotion and marketing, the whiskey bottle goes over the rail, empty or not. Those paperbacks you give free to libraries, bookstores, bartenders (I’ve sold a lot of books in taverns), family, friends, women you’re trying to impress, agents you want to peddle your series for a fat advance—all that precious prose has to be paid for by guess who? Be content to know that even if you were with a traditional publisher, you’d likely still have to cough up that financial hairball. When film production finally began on The Firm, John Grisham was selling copies out of the trunk of his car. After the movie came out, he didn’t have to do that anymore. I sell paperbacks from the deck of my boat and at Farmers Markets. My sign reads: MAKE ME FAMOUS. BUY MY BOOKS. HERE. NOW.
Okay, so a year ago I made the decision to switch. As the flirty tail filly said to the proud cut stud, ‘let us at least give it a try.’ How did it work out? For me, being truthful, a year wasn’t long enough to judge. It took the full year to rewrite, edit, get new covers, and format those fourteen previously published books, besides the same stuff with the four new novels I wrote. My total promotion has been for Kindle. I blatantly make a pest of myself on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Sales began as a dribble but in the past two months have started to pick up. I have done nothing to promote my paperbacks. Now that the last prior published book is launched, my concentration will be to bookstores—the paperback push, and new books. Book signings, email and snail mail ads, personal visits. Since I’m an award winning writer, ahem, I’ll try to become a multiple award winning writer. I won’t ignore eBooks and will continue to make a pest of myself on social networks. Tough tomatoes.
Here is a reality I’ve had to face. For the past four years I’ve chaired a writers’ critique group every other week here in Long Beach. Total membership is over 175 now, though we have a core group of around fifteen. Except for me, not one member within my core group owns an electronic reader. None of my family owns an electronic reader. Damn few of my friends own an electronic reader. A third of my aunts don’t even own a computer. They’re too busy with Leisure World activities. When each new book is released, my friends and family are interested only in a free paperback. And less than half of those are actually read. I tell you, life is no starry-eyed honeymoon for the weary writer. I read books both ways. I like the electronic price. But when the eBook goes beyond $5, I lose interest. The dollar bookstore will give me a paperback for less.
Okay, that’s it so far. Going independent one year later. Too soon to know if it was worth it or not. In another year I’ll be deep into pushing my paperbacks and will have a better handle on the value of the move. Right now, I’m not getting rich. I’m not even making a lot of money. But I think I am doing better than I was a year ago. I’ll let you know how it goes a year from now.