As Stuart mentioned yesterday, he and I had lunch earlier this week and were comparing notes. It turns out that we’re both looking at publication of collections of short stories, but that he’s going exclusively with a ebook version that he’s publishing himself, while I have an arrangement with a small (very small) publisher to do a print version of my collection. I did retain the e-rights to the book and will do the e-version of the book myself (why not; it’s tragically simple to do), but I also really like the idea of having a print version from a small press.
Why? Numerous reasons, most of which have little to do with money (in the short-term).
First of all, no one’s collections of short stories make any real money; even the Stephen Kings of the world see considerable drop-offs in sales when they release short story collections. Writers do them anyway—why not make some more money off of the stories you got paid so painfully little for the first time around?—but as much as anything else, short stories are about marketing, about maintaining name recognition. Studies have shown that all other factors being equal, given a choice between an author whose name they recognize and an author whose name they do not, readers will invariably go with the known name. And the better they know your name, the quicker they will be to pick your book up off the shelf. Having a short story collection published is simply one more way to keep your name in front of readers.
Second, it’s nice to be able to hold a copy of your book in your hands. I do have an ereader (and enjoy it), but to me the experience isn’t the same as holding a book. I also know a lot more people who don’t have an ereader than who do have one, and I’d like my book to be accessible to as many people as possible.
Now that’s nice and cozy and happy and all that, but I can already hear several voices in the audience echoing the same point Stuart made over lunch the other day: Yeah, that’s great, but you can have all that—the marketing/name-recognition, the warm, fuzzy feeling of holding your precious little book, the money that it will generate—but you can have all that, plus MORE of the money the book will earn, if you’ll just publish it yourself. Technology is to a point where POD books look just as good as traditionally printed books (the vast, vast majority of small presses are using POD themselves), and they’re not terribly hard to produce, either.
Those are all valid arguments (up to a point). The do look just as good as most other books, they’re not that hard to produce, and self-publishing will make you more money (assuming an equal number of sales, which, frankly, is a reasonable expectation (though it doesn’t take into account all the upfront expenses you’ll have to cover first, which I’ll get to later)).
So the question remains, why go with a small press over self-publishing? Will it make it easier to get into books stores? Maybe a little, depending on who you sign with, but in the big picture, not significantly so. Will it sell books to people the author might not be able to reach themselves? Maybe a few, but more and more (even with the big publishers), the author has to do the lion’s share of the marketing him- or herself, so, again, not significantly so.
At this point you’re probably asking yourself, Good grief, Edmund, who’s side of this argument are you on?
Quite simply: I’m still on the side that, given the option, goes with a small press over self-published books. Why? Time, Money, Credibility, and The Experience.
Let’s talk about Time first. I make my money editing, but long before I was an editor, I was a struggling writer like everybody else. And I’m doing everything in my power to spend more time dedicated to the novel I’m currently writing, so the idea of taking the time to self-publish a book (a book I’d really like to see published even though I know it isn’t going to make a whole lot of money (no matter how I publish it or who I publish it with)) doesn’t make me feel as warm and fuzzy as does the idea of holding the book in my hands. My time is precious and I don’t want to give any more of it away that I absolutely have to.
As I mentioned when commenting on Mindy’s post on Wed., I was as involved in the creation of the look of the book as possible and loved every minute of it (see the cover, below). But I didn’t have to go out and find a graphic designer all on my own, I didn’t have to acquire an ISBN (you can’t even buy those individually as was once possible; last I heard you have to buy them in blocks of ten (though that info may be dated; it’s been years I talked to anyone about ISBNs—all of which brings me full circle to my original point perfectly: I didn’t have to worry about a lot of those kinds of things, which meant I could spend my time writing instead of figuring out how to do all that’s necessary to publish a book)).
The second issue—Money—is closely related to the first. Time and Money go hand-in-hand, and if you go the self-publishing route, in addition to all the time you’re going to have to spend on these things, you’ll either have to spend the money to get the necessary computer programs to lay out your interior and design your cover, or else you have to hire a graphic artist. You’ll have to hire (at minimum) a good copy editor to clean up the text. You’ll have to find someone with a block of ISBN numbers who will give or sell one to you. You’ll have to pay the printing company whatever their fees are for set up, and then you’ll have to pay them again for however many copies of the book you want them to print for you—all before you ever make a penny from selling the book.
It may be easier to self-publish than it ever was before, but it’s not free. And those extra profits the self-publishing advocates like to talk about? That’s all based on the assumption that you sell enough copies of your book to cover all of those expenses. The self-publishing advocates don’t talk about all the people out there with cases of books in their closets or garages, gathering dust instead of profit. And the one person I know who did sell several thousand copies of her self-published book? She ate up all her time and money on gas, hotels, and meals, living on the road doing speaking gigs at libraries and book-clubs. Most of her “profits” vanished as quickly as they appeared while she worked her ass off trying to generate the sales in the first place.
The third issue is Credibility. I honestly don’t know a lot of people who pay attention to who publishes a book, but at the same time, people still make a big distinction between self-published books and self-published ebooks. A self-published ebook? No one seems to care. It’s new technology, so there are no rules, no expectations. But a print book? With print books there are rules that have been around for a long time. People still do not look nearly as kindly upon self-pubbed books as they do books that are published through a traditional publishing arrangement; the want a sense that the material has been vetted somehow.
And lastly is The Experience. By that, I don’t mean the experience that a publisher has in putting a book together that the average writer does not. No. By The Experience I mean this (and I’m going to use my novel as my example, because I think more of you are interested in publishing a novel than in publishing a collection of short stories): when Dreaming Creek was published, it also went through a small press. I had had several agents speak in very complimentary terms about my writing, but the problem, they said, was that Dreaming Creek crossed too many genre lines. It had elements of mystery, paranormal, romance, and comedy: the marketing people just weren’t going to know what to do with it, and if the marketing people don’t know what to do, the deal is dead on the doorstep. But, these same agents suggested, because of the way the small press business model works, they are in a better position to take chances on something unusual like DC.
Was I going to make a lot of money dealing with a small press? No. But I did it anyway instead of shelving the thing or publishing it myself because I wanted The Experience. The Experience of negotiating and signing a contract, The Experience of working with various editors to improve the book (editors I might not see eye-to-eye with), The Experience of having the publisher come back later and say ‘Let’s talk about foreign rights.’ As sadistic as it may sound, I even wanted The Experience of waiting for royalty statements and checks to arrive and The Experience of having a lot of the process be outside of my control.
Was it necessarily fun? Not so much. But I viewed it all as good practice for when I do sign with a major publisher (for a book of my own: I had an IGMS anthology published by Tor, but I have no illusions that that book was published for any reason besides the magazine’s association with Orson Scott Card (though I also learned a lot from that process, too)). The bottom line for me personally is that I’m viewing a big part of what I’m doing with these small presses as paying my dues, learning the ins and the outs of the business. Every time I go through this process—like I did with Dreaming Creek, like I did with the Magical Words book, etc. etc.—I get better and better at it, so that when New York does come calling for one of my novels, I’ll be in a better position to do everything I need to do, and do it well.
In short, it’s an investment in my long-term career, and to me that’s worth a whole lot more than whatever extra couple of dollars I might make by self-publishing a book.