Self-Publishing is the best solution to low author earnings and it’s time this was more widely recognized in the literary and publishing industries. These days, authorship is a business, not a career says ALLi Director Orna Ross. But the literary, publishing and creative industries are failing to recognize this, and so failing to best support authors who want to make a living from writing.
Best Solution to Low Author Earnings: Follow The Money
There is an old business saying: follow the money to see the true story. If we follow the money in publishing, from the perspective of authors, what story does it tell us?
This is the typical money trail in trade publishing:
- Reader pays bookstore
- Bookstore pays wholesaler
- Wholesaler pays distributor (sometimes wholesaler and distributor are one)
- Distributor pays publisher
- Publisher pays agent
- Agent pays author many months after the sale (who, by the time everyone has had their cut, receives less than 10% of book retail price).
This business model of selling print books through bookstores is not commercially viable for most indie authors. Economies of scale means that few of us can compete with trade publishing in the print-book-to-bookstore model. And the economics of physical bookstore distribution, given the discounts retailers, wholesalers and distributors need to make their profits, are punishing, even for big publishers.
But digital publishing—e-books, audiobooks and POD—tells a different story. Digital delivers a global audience, relatively inexpensive production costs, a point-of purchase at the moment of discovery, the end to “out-of-print”, and a level playing field that any author can access.
In self-publishing the most common money chain looks like this:
- Reader pays online bookstore (the author’s website or a retailer such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo etc).
- Author gets paid immediately on own website (full cost of book, minus publishing expenses); or 90 days after transaction (up to 70% of book retail price) through the retailer or one of the aggregators who distribute to them (who will also take a cut).
And these online stores, with their global readership, 24/7, give far more access to readers than any physical store can provide.
Best Solution to Low Author Earnings: Follow The Rights
Self-Publishing is also advantageous from a rights perspective.
The days of needing to give an exclusive, all-territories, long-term, license to a publisher in order to see our books on sale, disappeared a decade ago.
Indie authors retain ownership of all publishing rights and the savvy author understands the value of that. Owning and creating value from our rights, today’s authors can adopt a variety of business models, produce a variety of book-related content, in text, video and audio and distribute it through a variety of outlets and platforms, not least our own websites.
The author who is stuck in a Cinderella complex, where Prince Publisher Charming is going to sweep in, fall in love with their book, and carry them off to fame and fortune, without them having to do the work, has failed to grasp the enormity of what gets handed over in such a transaction.
The most independent indie authors don’t put all their publishing eggs into one basket, whether that’s a trade publisher or self-publishing service. They understand, and retain, the value of their publishing rights, and license them selectively.
Best Solution to Low Author Earnings: Follow The Readers
What few authors know is that a publisher’s business model is built on failure for the majority of authors that they take on. Of every 20 authors who sign with them, probably two will do well enough to make a living from their writing (and pay the overheads of the publisher). The problem is they don’t know which two it will be.
They are fired out into the marketplace, to see what sticks. From the publisher’s perspective, that’s understandable. They know they only need that one or two to do well in order to recoup their investment in all.
The effect for the authors is devastating. They, and their “failed” books are dropped, but they have gained no publishing skills in the transaction. Any confidence they gained from signing the deal in the first place has probably been eroded. And if they seek another publisher they are doing so from a very weak bargaining position.
By contrast, those who self-publish, and combine self-publishing with selective, non-exclusive licensing, are building skills and confidence with each book, each sale, each negotiation, each deal. We are building an author business, step by step, book by book, reader by reader, collaboration by collaboration.
As an author, you may relish the creative challenges of self-publishing, or you may quail at them, but building those skills empowers you.
Self-publishing authors who are poor have not yet learned the skills of writing well and publishing well. Trade-published authors who are poor are writing well enough to attract commercial interest but the system works against them
Author poverty is not only accepted in traditional publishing, it’s expected. It’s the foundation on which publishing businesses are built, evident everywhere in mindsets, business practices, and contracts.
Poverty for skilled authors is not systemic in self-publishing, as it is in the traditional publishing system.
Best Solution to Low Author Earnings: Follow The Authors
Today, the tools of social media and digital advertising, allow authors to build reader followings that will purchase their work through their own websites, and donate and support their work as patrons.
This is Self-Publishing 3.0: authors building sustainable, profitable and scalable creative businesses.
New technologies like machine learning, translation and other AI, the blockchain, cryptocurrency and other tools are fast coming on track, with the power to further shift economies, businesses and behaviors all over again. But authors who have exclusively licensed all rights are bound by (often needlessly) circumscribed contracts. They cannot avail of any of this opportunity.
In addition, they have no control over their metadata or market positioning. They are powerless. And that’s why they are poor.
Becoming a good self-publisher restores this lost creative and commercial power.
It’s time the literary and publishing industries, and the ministries responsible for creative business, entrepreneurship, culture, intellectual property and the knowledge economy, recognized self-publishing and creative business skills as the best available answer to author poverty.
An author who has gained self-confidence from publishing–figured out who their readers are and what they want, understood the value they offer, created products and projects that generate money–becomes an unstoppable force. At the start, though, many need support. It can be overwhelming, learning everything you need to know and practice to become a good writer, and then a good publisher.
The literary and publishing industries that are supposed to provide that support are failing to recognize the needs of today’s author. It’s time to shift. Rather than clinging to a twentieth-century, pre-digital model, publishing and literary policy must be reframed around how author-publishers actually work, trade and negotiate today.
Around how today’s readers actually discover, buy and read books.
As authors, we need to take back our power, stop dreaming of unearned success, and start doing the work of writing and publishing well, getting to understand what our readers want and need from us, and meeting our publishing colleagues as equals.
The literary, publishing and creative industries need to stop wringing their hands about author poverty, while overseeing conservative, even entrenched, policies and practices.
It’s time we all got better at identifying, quantifying, talking to, tracking and supporting independent authors as creative, digital, micro-publishing businesses.Self-Publishing is the Best Solution to Low Author Income say @ornaross #indieauthor #selfpublishing #IARTG #ASMRG #writingcommunity Click To Tweet
OVER TO YOU
Do you think the literary industries are failing authors? Do you feel empowered as an indie author?
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