The publishing landscape has changed in large part because of self-publishing technology and opportunities; however, the proverbial “fly in the ointment” is whether a book is able to reach its audience—marketing is the obstacle. There are thousands of people that make the comment, “I want to write a book,” or “I have a great idea for a book.” The truth is that very few of these people ever publish a work, and if they do, even fewer make money from their books. The largest obstacle in terms of making a living as a writer is reaching your audience, and marketing is the key to that palatial doorway. No matter how easy the technology may become, in terms of producing a book, the bottom line will always be whether that book reaches an audience and is purchased.
For writers, the only viable avenue to the reader—in the past—was through a traditional publishing house. These large publishing houses could make or break the author, and his or her work. These houses could take a manuscript, with their large marketing budgets, and make a good book a great success. Once authors had established themselves, publishers would often advance large sums of money to the author with positive anticipation of future sales. One of the most recent examples of such an act was a book by Hilary Clinton. The book—slated for released this year by Simon & Schuster—is rumored to have contracted a fourteen million dollar advance; Clinton also received an estimated eight million for her book “Living History,” (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Some might question whether this was a book advance or a political donation; however, these numbers are rare and inexplicable (Falcone, 2013).
Another example of unusual success in terms of literature and genres was the 2003 release of Madonna`s “The English Roses,” (Callaway Editions). The children`s literature genre is often a hard sell because of publication expenses for illustrations and pictures. Moreover, the customer is the parent rather than the child, and topics of interest in this market change with the wind. In spite of these publication headwinds, Madonna`s book was released in some 50,000 book stores in over 100 countries and 30 languages. The book remained at number one in its genre on the New York Times Best Sellers List for 18 months (McKinley, 2003).
These are extreme examples of success in the publishing industry; however, many an aspiring author sees these stories in the news and believes them to be the norm. They are not. These are examples of high profile authors that come to the table with a commanding audience that will buy whatever the author sells—from ice-cream to T-shirts. In reality, the above-mentioned examples point to the facts—marketing is the key to any book`s success. Again, these two high profile public figures have an audience that the publishing house knows exists prior to signing a deal. This is a huge advantage for the publisher and often leads to bidding wars between the large publishers.
There are examples of unknown authors that have experienced sweeping success, but these cases are the rare exception. The vanity publishing industry uses the examples of bestselling authors in manipulative ways to entice uneducated or naïve authors to think they can “hit the lottery” with their first published work. In a moment, we will look at the real numbers and see the brutal realities of publishing a successful book. For now, we will explore some rare examples of self-publishing (and hybrid-publishing) success. In a recent Huffington Post article writer, and author, Peter Winkler (2013) had this to say regarding vanity publishers and an irresponsible (in his view) article about self-publishing:
Associating self-publishing with the most respected and commercially successful authors is a favorite ploy used by vanity presses and other self-publishing hucksters to suck in credulous customers for their services. Implicit in Kremer’s list [reference to another article] is the contention that you can join his pantheon of literary immortals and share their success just by publishing yourself (para. 5).
Hybrid publishing refers to those authors that have previously published a work through traditional publishing houses and then decided to self-publish. This is a very lucrative choice if the author retains a loyal following. If an author has sold a best seller at a regional or national level, the choice to self-publish can lead to more freedom, retention of rights, and far more profit per book than traditional models. That being said, once again we see that the marketing is already in place in terms of the author`s prior successes and audience.
One example of a hybrid publishing success story is in author Hugh C. Howey, best known for his series “Wool.” The series started as a short story in 2011 and was picked up by a small press. The short story was a success. Howey then decided to take advantage of the possibilities that existed through “digital publishing” with Amazon`s Creatspace.com and Kindle. In the end, he is now one of the most successful hybrid authors in the business. He recently signed a movie deal with 20th Century Fox. If we take a close look at his story, once again we see that the marketing was in place first—not the other way around (Anderson, 2013).
As more attention falls on the lucrative aspects of digital publishing, industry analysts expect to see other previously published and successful authors choose the self-publishing route as a smart business decision. These authors have the market (audience) in place, the funds to do some promotion, and the means through Publishing on Demand (POD) technology to produce one book, or a thousand books at a time. This makes the decision to self-publish a virtual no-brainer. However, the aspiring author should approach the POD industry with caution. They should work first to promote a story, build an audience, and then work to release their book. The old saying, “there are no get rich quick schemes” will rear its ugly head for the author that jumps into a market already flooded with the no-name-poor-works of the self-publishing graveyard.
There are stories of those unknown authors that realized the need for an audience prior to releasing their work. Young adult novelist Brittany Geragotelis found her pathway to success on the website “Wattpad.com” with her book “Life’s a Witch.” Wattpad gives writers an opportunity to build a virtual book, chapter by chapter, online and build an audience in the process (if their work is good enough). The user interface is very easy to operate and install new chapters, short stories, or poems. The site does not pay anything—it`s not a pay-per-click content mill—however, it`s very popular with the YA crowd (over five million unique hits per day) and certainly has potential for the aspiring writer to use as a publicity platform. Brittany began writing as a youngster. Her first attempt at publicizing her work was through Wattpad.com, and her success was quite amazing. In the end, she had over 15 million readers and she decided it was time take advantage of this enormous audience. She first decided to self-publish, but ultimately ended up in the midst of a bid war between three major publishing houses and a movie deal. She truly became an overnight millionaire (Ebooksinternational, 2012).
Clearly Brittany Geragotelis used the advantage of Wattpad to create an audience prior to releasing her full novel. One other author, Dianne Greenlay, was able to accomplish similar success with her novel “Quintspinner – A Pirate’s Quest.” Greenlay realized that her protagonist was a teen and yet she had no real access to or following from the YA crowd. She read about Wattpad on a blog and decided to give the site a go. She set up an account with Wattpad in the spring of 2012. Within days of her first chapter posting, she received multiple requests for additional chapters to be posted in the forum. Wattpad.com has several promotional partnerships available for those writers who develop large followings to become featured authors on the site, and finally, possible publication offers. After her book received over 500,000 reads, Greenlay was well on her way to success (The Alliance of independent authors & Greenlay, 2013).
In each of the above stories, there is one common thread that exists—the authors had an audience of some sort in place prior to their success. Whether they chose traditional publication, hybrid-publication, or self-publication, each had to do the work to find their audience and do the marketing in one form or another. The sad truth, and facts are such stubborn things, is that many an aspiring author believes he or she can simply produce a book, self-publish it on Amazon (or other formats) and the readers will find them. There is generally a small amount of sales reported (in the neighborhood of $500 to $5000) that may result from simply publishing a work with no real marketing. Occasionally a book is good enough that a reader that takes a chance on the book, buys it, and helps to sell a copy or two by word of mouth. This can lead to other sales as well; however, it will never lead to the NYT best sellers list.
In the final analysis, an aspiring author would do well to try traditional publishing. Then, if they fail to procure a contract, try a site like Wattpad, or others, to build an audience for the book. If aspiring authors follow this proven pathway they will have a much greater chance for success. Here is a chart that reveals some startling numbers concerning the publishing industry from every angle.
[Figure 1] (Digital Book World & Weinberg, 2014)
These numbers comprised from a 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey don`t lie. They lay out the case that authors who simply choose to self-publish and take the “If I build it they will come” approach, end up in the lower percentile of income earners. The big red line over the $1-$4,999 category is a wakeup call for any aspiring author who wishes to approach their work in a serious manor.
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The Alliance of independent authors , & Greenlay, D. (2013, August). Indie Author Dianne Greenlay Shares Wattpad Success Story | Self-Publishing Advice. Retrieved from http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/how-wattpad-gained-my-self-published-novel-500000-reads/
Anderson , P. (2013, September 9). Hybrid Author Hugh Howey on Self vs. Traditional Publishing | Publishing Perspectives. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/09/hybrid-author-hugh-howey-on-self-vs-traditional-publishing/
Digital Book World, & Weinberg , D. B. (2014, December 4). Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction | Digital Book World. Retrieved December 4, 2014, from http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/self-publishing-debate-part3/
Ebooksinternational (2012, January 30). 15 Million Reads Before Her Book Was Even Published | Savvy Writers & e-Books online. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from http://savvybookwriters.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/15-million-readers-before-her-book-was-even-published/
Falcone, M. (2013, April 4). Hillary Clinton Book to Hit Shelves in 2014 – ABC News. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/04/hillary-clinton-book-to-hit-shelves-in-2014/
McKinley , J. (2003, September 15). New Material, Girl: Madonna, a Mama, Starts Writing Books for Children – New York Times. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/15/books/new-material-girl-madonna-a-mama-starts-writing-books-for-children.html
Winkler, P. (2013, November 21). Famous Writers Who Self-Published: Busting a Self-Publishing Myth | Peter Winkler. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-winkler/famous-writers-who-selfpu_b_4303994.html