Self-Publish and Prosper or Mainstream Publish and Perish?

Getting your writing published in book form has long been the penultimate goal of authors across the world.  I’ve made my fair share of money in the publishing marketplace and one thing I can confirm is how much the industry has changed over the last 20 years.

Fifteen years or so ago, you could easily get a $15,000.00USD book royalty advance from a major computer book publisher.  You knew going into the job that, at the end of 90 days, you’d be fifteen large richer.  It was a great way to earn a quick living.  Once you had a book or two, the major computer magazine publishers would come calling, and you could write a 10,000 word essay and make $5,000.00USD for that weekend effort.  It was a rich and rewarding life, but then the chain came off the sprocket with the rise of the interwebs, the internets, the web.  Many book publishers were consolidated with other houses, or entirely demolished in bankruptcy, and all the great computer magazines are as dead now as the tree pulp they were printed on.

Five years or so ago, you were lucky to get $6,000.00USD from a major, mainstream book publisher.  The effort was the not the same as just writing a computer book 20 years ago.  You had to help format the book, create a DVD, and also edit and customize the images.  All the specialized book building work was pushed over to the author instead of the in-house book machine at the publishing house.

Today, many mainstream publishers want authors to basically work for free as work-for-hire with no royalty paid — ever!  They want authors to now share in the jeopardy of the book not selling.  Publishers want to pay authors nothing up front in exchange for, perhaps, a tiny backend royalty that might never arrive as something to be deposited in a bank account.

Authors are now gilded in an odd cage of writing, and not getting paid, but being published by a brand that might historically be slightly more famous than the author — as if all of that is enough to make a mortgage payment.  Sure, there are odd anomalies as millions are paid to star authors, but for the everyday workaholic book writer, the whole game has changed against them from the publisher point-of-view, and that is a fantastic thing for the entrepreneurial author.

As the publisher of Boles Books and this beloved Boles Blogs website, I am often approached by authors looking to get their books published.  They want me to take them on and get their work out there.  I tell them that I would likely just take their work and publish it on Amazon as a Kindle book and pay them a small amount of money if their work sells.  I also tell them everything I’d do for them — they can do for themselves — and keep all the money I’d take as the publisher’s cut!

When mainstream publishers began pushing professional authors into financial hardship — by wanting to to create a whole new business scheme for “zero royalty, work-for-hire” books — the real result, in the end, was that the keen authors figured out that if you had to work for free, for no guaranteed profit, it was wholly better to bet solely on yourself, go your own way, cut loose your contracts and agents and managers and punishing boilerplate language and become your own publisher. That’s the only smart move left for the new author on the horizon and that is fast becoming the only avenue available for any sort of profit participation for the currently working published author.

There’s an old saying in theatre and film that has stood with me over the years when it comes to adapting books to movies and musicals:  “Make sure you own the underlying rights to the original work by actually writing it yourself.”  That means, if you are going to spend all your time adapting something, make sure you are adapting your own work and not that of someone else.  One person shared the advice this way, “Why spend all your time polishing a car that isn’t yours to sell?”

All authors must now become publishers of their own work.  That way they own and control their writing from word one — and isn’t that the way it should have always been?

12 comments

  • It’s important to note that you not only become your own publisher, but your own PR person as well! With the number of books published for the Kindle every day, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of e-books — so you have to take care of the marketing as well as the writing! :)

    • The big publishers also expect you to be their PR department for you. “Platform” is a big buzz word for them. They do very little to help you unless you’re costing them millions in advance money.

  • I’ve pondered this very topic and it’s true; publishers and others who seek out writers want us to write for free with the hope of gaining something at sometime in the unforeseeable future. I think it’s important to be your own PR, marketing, and publishing firm. Social media engagement has made it easier to find an audience but what I find invaluable is the inevitability of finding your true voice. Thanks Michael.

  • Which is why I chose to self publish/indy publish. A lot of authors push “small press”, but in the end with a small press you’re doing everything yourself except uploading it (many even make you supply your own covers) and then they take a cut of your sales… I think not. Am I making millions? No, but i haven’t invested millions either. Like anything else, unless you’re touched by the golden hand of fate, you get out of it what you put in. I always find it amusing when articles will say that every indy authors dream is a “traditional” contract because mine isn’t. As you say in the final paragraph, make sure you own the rights, and that’s the first thing you lose with those.

    Great article!

    • Hi Joleene!

      I have been a longtime secret admirer of your talent and website! You put everything out there and you promote and teach and you fill a niche you created. Excellent in all examples!

      The “Small Press” folk, when I was coming of age, were the university presses. Their college prestige gave you a stamp of importance and authority and they could make your career. You made no money, but you gave that up in exchange for being “famous” in the academic community. I was never into that sort of publishing as an author.

      You must always be writing to a proper, moral, end — and not one that just has to do with people knowing your name. The university presses are still around, but they’re living the hard page life of the dinosaur on the way to total extinction in the online tar pit.

      Owning the original rights is everything. If you write it first, and others take it and make a movie or a musical or a play with it — that’s fine! You will get paid forever if the show finds success. A single Broadway musical — even if it’s a flop — becomes your lifetime annuity because the “As Seen on Broadway” brand is valuable in the hinterlands and that fame will outlive you.

  • I think writers have always been self-employed no matter what the big publishing places try to tell you. The publishers work for authors. But the authors don’t realize that and give everything away for the chance at one little opportunity.

    • Authors are the beginning and the ending — and yet they really don’t understand how much power they have. Without people writing books, there’s no book publishing industry!

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