Friday, June 13, 2008

The Siren Song of Self-Publishing

On May 16th, Forbes had a commentary on the publishing industry by Sramana Mitra, a self-proclaimed "technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant." The title of the piece was "How Amazon Could Change Publishing." Read it here.

I actually agree with the first line of Ms. Mitra's article:
Technology has disrupted every industry. Now, it's book publishing's turn.

Having said that, the real drag on the industry has nothing to do with technology. The problem that both publishers and booksellers face is the reluctance on all sides to address the problem of book returns. See my post here for more information on that subject.

It was obvious from Ms. Mitra's comments that her knowledge of publishing is lopsided, coming primarily from the self-publishing side of the industry. Among the more blatant errors the article includes was this quote:

"On a book that costs $24.95, the author gets at most $1 to $1.50," says Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, an online print-on-demand publisher of photography books.

The typical royalty on a hardcover book is 15% or $3.74 of that $24.95, not between 4% and 6% as Eileen Gittins' comment indicates. The author's agent takes 15% of that 15% royalty, not 15% to 20% of the gross that Ms. Mitra implies in her introductory paragraphs.

Ms. Mitra's airy disregard of facts suggests that she came into the industry through the self-publishing portal where most of the writers I've encountered (although not all) are characterized by their impatience to be published.

Because they don't take the time to do their homework on the publishing industry, these writers confuse producing a physical copy of their book with being "published." They are drawn by the self-publishing industry's siren song, which goes something like this:
  • You can wait a decade to find an agent or a traditional publisher, or you can shortcut the process by publishing your book yourself
  • Instead of settling for the low royalties of traditional publishing, you can keep a much larger percentage of your book's revenue by publishing it yourself
  • You can sell your book through and your own website
  • ALL authors have to market their work. Even traditionally published authors must market. There's no difference between being self-published and traditionally published

Of course, this siren song neglects to mention a few truths:

  • Self-publishing has a terrible reputation in the industry
  • The two largest markets (bookstores and libraries) will be reluctant to put your book on their shelves (although a few bookstores will accept payment for placement in their stores)
  • Although you may offer your book for sale on and on your website, you still need a way to drive traffic to the book. Placement alone is no guarantee of sales

Note: I've repeatedly said on this blog that there are a few times when self-publishing makes sense. See my post here for more on this.

Probably the most obvious example of Ms. Mitra's naiveity was in a comment she made in the comment thread following the Forbes' article:
As for authors choosing to work with Amazon - well, if Amazon can guarantee that using their recommendation/
co-branding/merchandising system, they can sell a million copies of my book, why wouldn't I work with them exclusively? I don't know about you, but I certainly would.

Ignoring for the moment the fact that Amazon is NEVER going to "guarantee" a specific number of sales, Ms. Mitra's lack of awareness of the tiny number of books that actually reach the heady heights of a million copies sold speaks volumes.

I'm surprised that Forbes gave someone with Ms. Mitra's limited understanding a bully pulpit from which to speak. I wonder if this was in response to the dramatic increase in the number of print-on-demand titles produced in 2007. I can't think of another reason that makes any sense.

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