I’ve been seeing a lot of new authors worrying about the prospect of going indie, or self-publishing. (A terminology note: “indie” used to mean “not part of the Big Five conglomerates.” Now it’s rapidly becoming identical to being a self-pubber.) I keep telling authors who go for SF&F that they should be prepared to self-publish; and part of that preparation is to understand the cost of everything that a publisher would provide.
Publishers pay the author; they do not charge the author for anything. They do not recoup publication costs from your royalties; if you see that in a contract, that is a vanity press. Vanity presses are useless, because it’s cheaper for you to just self-publish, and you retain full control over your work to boot. In the traditional publishing model, you give up some control in exchange for the publisher providing you with an editor, a cover, distribution, and branding. You have to provide all of that if you self-publish.
(No, that doesn’t include marketing. Publishing has never included marketing per se; they’ve marketed their own product, but unless you’re a pretty big seller they don’t make special effort to separate you from the rest of their line-up. You’re selling your book; they’re selling their catalog. So don’t bother with people who say “Oh, these days, publishers require you to market your own book.” That’s always been the case.)
Self-publishing, therefore, means you have higher costs. You have to find an artist, rather than have someone who is used for multiple titles. You have to pay an editor. You have to pay higher costs per book for printing than a big press might just because of the decreased volume; bulk discounts matter.
On the other hand, you also aren’t paying for overhead; so while you have a higher up-front cost, over time those costs get paid off and you can continue with paying just yourself. If you go with a press, you’ll be absurdly lucky to get 20% in royalties; self-publication regularly nets you 50%.
That doesn’t mean that indie is going to get you more. It just means that of the pie in front of you, that’s what you might expect to get. A press can provide a bigger pie for that 10-20% through higher brand visibility and better distribution deals, as well as volume discounts on printing. A smaller percentage of a bigger pie can still result in a bigger payoff.
So why do I advise SF&F authors to go for self-publication, or at least consider it likely? Wouldn’t it be better to shoot for that bigger market?
Well, the answer’s a bit complex, so I’ll try to summarize. Sales of SF&F have been declining, but they’re declining mostly on the big-publisher side. The indie market, by contrast, is exploding. With few slots available (perhaps forty new titles a year per major publisher), a lot of people get left out, and those books are chosen in order to appeal to the widest market possible. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that niche markets are, by necessity, ignored. Not everyone can be a Jim Butcher or a Larry Correia or a Mercedes Lackey. And those audiences that really want to see those niche genres might be searching hard for something good.
For example, I love a good SF&F mystery. They’re really hard to pull off, because you have to establish the rules and explain why you can’t just use magic or super-tech to instantly solve the case, all while making the obstacles seem both non-arbitrary and non-trivial. That sort of story is hard to find, and really good ones are even rarer. And that is, in large part, because there just isn’t a big enough market out there for a book that takes that much careful planning; the mystery lovers and SF&F fans can easily cross genres, but few of them bother with the genre-benders. Meanwhile, I get delighted with anything that promises to be like Lord Darcy, even to the point of going for admittedly sub-standard fare.
But with indies, you can pull out those more unusual stories, the ones that might not make it into the big publishers’ lists, and get your big slice of a small pie. It might take some extra work, but there is no advertising stronger than one friend saying to another “Read this, you’ll thank me later.”
And it’s entirely possible that you can get together with other authors who write something similar, and work together on cross-promotion. After all, they might be in the same business, but they’re not actually competitors. Not in the way you might find with other industries. You might even join with other indies in an author co-op, sharing a brand to increase your visibility; a bit tricky, but with excellent rewards if you work at it together.
But there’s also another reason to look at niche markets, and it ties back into how sales are declining among big publishers. There are many factors there, but a good chunk of it is that the macro picture is great and all; but it’s not to be taken without a look at the micro. That is, big-picture data means you lose sight of what makes something personal. What drives someone to buy a particular product?
I give the same advice on complexity for writing as I do for parenting: whether it’s an adult reader or a carefree child playing in the yard, your audience might be smarter than you give them credit for. Kids might not understand innuendo, for example (which is precisely why adults use it), but they can tell that there’s something going on; and if you try to explain complicated topics to them, they can usually grasp it if you phrase it in context of their own experience. And if your adult audience wants to be lead around by the nose, they’ll watch a reality show.
A lot of big publishers, at least of late, have been trying to respond to the pressures of instant-gratification by going for material that satisfies standards independent of the quality of the story. No matter which side of the Hugo debate you’re on, for example, you prefer a good story to one that merely checkboxes its way through a plot. (The Hugo debate is about books that depend on acceptance of those checked boxes, but I’ve covered this before.)
That means that, if an indie author can get an editor and cover approximately equal in quality to what a publisher can provide, your unusual book has a chance to stand up to that publisher’s fare on equal measure. Maybe your audience won’t actually like your avante-garde masterpiece; but you have the choice to publish it. The large presses will always err on the side of caution, trying to follow the wind rather than check for new paths.
And even though your physical books are going to be more expensive than something from Baen or Macmillan, your ebooks are going to be cheaper. If you’re publishing SF&F, then you’re also talking about an audience that’s not only very comfortable with tech solutions, but also typically plugged into a word-of-mouth network that gives disproportionate exposure to sub-genres compared to other kinds of books.
For another example of the same concept, listen to someone explain why listening to big trends nearly drove Lego out of business.
(EDIT: Interestingly enough, Sara Hoyt put up her own tale today of how she discovered that indie publishing pays more and gives greater creative freedom, and why.)
So yeah, indie publishing almost certainly means small pies; but with the way the market is expanding to allow for unusual story combinations while remaining competitive in quality to large presses, you’re talking about a lot of pies.