Thinking About Self Publishing

Draft eBook Cover

My first novel is a queer, science fiction piece that I wrote for my thesis.  I’ve had it with a publisher for almost two years now and I haven’t heard anything back other than that the editor liked what he saw.  Given how short the shelf life is for paper books, I’ve been thinking about self publishing the novel electronically instead of waiting for a publisher to go through the year or two process from acceptance to market, only to have the book off the market in a few weeks.  I may add a POD version if I make enough from the ebook to pay for the small ($39) setup fee that Amazon/CreateSpace charges for improved royalties.

Joe Konrath is a big proponent of self-publishing.  Some of his posts read like a late night infomercial, but they are still helpful in getting a sense of what’s happening in the market.  A good balance is the Writer Beware section of the SFWA website.

So why would I choose to do self-publishing if I’ve been through an MA program in creative writing, I know that self-publishing doesn’t give me professional credit, and that it’s probably a matter of time before I either get my novel accepted or I give up and write a new novel?  If I can’t find an editor who thinks my novel is worth a few thousand dollars investment, then what makes me think my novel is good enough to sell for $0.99 or $2.99?  Isn’t this dangerously close to vanity publishing?

First, there’s Yog’s Law.  Simply put, money flows to the author, never from the author (except for incidentals paid by the author such as postage, paper, or ink bought by the author for the author’s use).  So the first rule of self-publishing should be that the author doesn’t pay for anything unless royalties can cover the cost.  Money flows to the author, but if a little has to be siphoned off along the way, that’s okay.  That’s how traditional publishing does it, but a lot of the siphoning is hidden behind the royalty check from the publisher.

Second, I’m not in this for a career.  I already have a career as a software architect in digital humanities.  My writing is on the side and won’t impact my ability to find a job.  Having a list of fiction writing credits on my CV doesn’t get me a job in software development.

It could be that self-published novels are seen as unprofessional in the fan community, but I suspect that a fan is a fan is a fan.  The SFWA might not accept such novels for membership, but that’s okay.  There are other avenues for membership if I really want it.  Besides, fan conventions are more about the fans than about the CV.

So if I want to self-publish and don’t want to pay anything up front to someone else, what can I do?  Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble allow self-publication without any payment.  If you can do everything for your book (editing, formatting, cover design, etc.), then you can go from manuscript to e-market without any up-front costs.  If I go through Smashwords, I can distribute to Apple’s iBook as well as Sony and Borders, again at no cost to me.

One thing to watch out for though is the need for an ISBN.  ISBNs are used to make accounting easier for publishers, distributors, and sellers.  If you get an ISBN, you have to go through your country’s or region’s ISBN seller.  ISBNs are not cheap if you only need a couple.  They start at $125 for one in the US, but can get as cheap as $1 if you buy a thousand at a time.  In my opinion, knowing what I do about computers, these prices are too high.  Numbers are cheap and limitless (just count the integers), so we don’t have scarcity driving up the price.  Instead, we have the traditional book industry protecting their business model through a monopoly on 13-digit numbers.

Unless I can get an ISBN for free, I won’t have one.  I’m writing for the reader, not the publisher.  If publishers or libraries want an ISBN, they can buy one.  I might consider producing an ISBN edition of my novel that costs a couple dollars more to cover the cost of the ISBN.  My preference though would be not to have an ISBN since having one validates the monopoly.

Since Sony and Apple require an ISBN, I’ll wait on entering those markets until the Kindle and Nook generate enough revenue to make an ISBN an expense that can be paid from royalties.

I can get my book onto several ebook readers without any problem, but what about readers who don’t want to read my novel electronically?  I can do a POD edition through CreateSpace with Amazon.  It doesn’t cost anything unless I want better royalties.  This puts it half-way between respectable (as respectable such a business can be) and vanity.  If I pay the $39 out-of-pocket, then it’s a vanity press.  If I wait until my ebooks have generated $39 in royalties, then I can pay from my royalties and everything’s okay.

How long will it take to generate $39 from the Kindle?  If I price my novel at $0.99, then I will receive $0.34 from each sale.  That requires 115 sales.  If I price it at $2.99, then I can get about $2.05 from each sale and only require 19 sales before putting out the paper version.

I’ve rambled around a bit about what goes into self-publishing and where money goes, so here are the results in bullet points:

  • Only publish in formats that require no payment from the author
  • As royalties allow, publish in formats that require small payments to maximize market coverage
  • Only get an ISBN if a market requires it AND royalties are sufficient to cover the expense

Of course, to make all of this work, there’s marketing and mindshare.  I’ll need to blog more, participate in communities, write more novels, and perhaps try to attend some conventions as an author.

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James is a software developer and self-published author. He received his B.S. in Math and Physics and his M.A. in English from Texas A&M University. After spending almost two decades in academia, he now works in the Washington, DC, start up world.

One thought on “Thinking About Self Publishing”

  1. You make some very good points about pricing and going with an ebook format first. I agree with this. There are many perks to self-publishing: control, ease, sales, no need to write query letters... :-) I blogged about my experiences with self-publishing here and here Of course the flip side to all of this is the author is responsible for everything... Ev.rey.thing!

    Since Oct of 2009 I've sold over 15,000 copies of my ebook. Some authors have done much, much better. I think it's a great option.

    ~ Jenna

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