Thursday, January 29, 2009

Self-publishing and success

The New York Times has an article about self-publishing's minor boom here. What is clear from the article is that you are more likely to see your self-published offering succeed if you write a non-fiction book.
Michelle L. Long, an accountant who advises small businesses, published Successful QuickBooks Consulting, a guide for others who want to help businesses use a software package made by Intuit through CreateSpace a little more than a year ago. She said she had earned 45 to 55 percent of the cover price on each sale and had made $22,000 in royalties on the sale of more than 2,000 copies.

During an economic downturn, books tailored to such narrow audiences may fare better than titles from traditional publishers that depend on a more general appeal.
It would seem that there are plenty of narrow audience markets out there. Market being the keyword here. Who is likely to be interested in a book? This question seems to be the one that is often ignored by self-published authors.
Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, who said she had been inundated by requests from self-published authors to sell their books. “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”
Not everyone can write a non-fiction book, of course. For one thing, such a book requires an enormous investment of time and effort that research for such a book requires. You need to be able to conduct such research. One pitfall of non-fiction is copyright infringement. Then there is the problem of presenting some entity in a way that the entity will find objectionable. Another problem with non-fiction is that if your facts are wrong, you could be sued, if someone relies to their detriment on what you wrote.

Fiction can be less problematic.
When Lisa Genova, a former consultant to pharmaceutical companies, wrote her first novel, Still Alice, a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease, she was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents.

Ms. Genova paid $450 to iUniverse to publish the book and sold copies to independent bookstores. A fellow author discovered the book and introduced Ms. Genova to an agent, and she eventually sold Still Alice for a mid-six-figure advance to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which released a new edition this month. It had its debut on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list on Sunday, at No. 5.
Whatever the case may be, fiction or non-fiction, it is also clear that all of the self-publishing "success" stories like Still Alice and the mega-selling fantasy saga Eragon were discovered by someone with inside track in the mainstream publishing world and brought to the attention of an agent or editor. These books were appropriated by the mainstream. This is not a good omen and I place success in parentheses because it is not really a self-publishing success--the book did not become a NYT bestseller selling directly as a self-published book. The distinction is crucial. The book started as a self-published book, but then became a mainstream book. Sort of like emerging from a slush pile.

Sadly, there is yet to be a self-published book that had broken out on its own, selling over 100,000 or more copies through or's Create Space. Will such a thing happen or will self-publishing become a kind of slush pile out of which emerge, for time to time, some gems?

What really makes you think is the question, could Still Alice or Eragon or some other book that started out in the self-published slushpile have broken out as a bestseller on its own? And if not, then the only reason why it broke out was the marketing muscle of the mainstream publisher. For, unless such a book was heavily edited or essentially rewritten, what is the difference between Eragon or Still Alice appearing on a self-published site and the one appearing in a bookstore? publishes a biting response to the NYT article. The saddest part of it all is that is self-published, too.

1 comment:

Susan Wenger said...

What counts as success? Most people aren't going to be James Redfield, who sold something like a hundred thousand copies of The Celestine Prophecy before a traditional publisher picked it up. Some will only sell to friends and family. But what about those who sell 150, or 500? Would it be worth the author's while to publish then?

The answer depends on the writer.