Guest Post - Kate Allan: Why I'm not rushing to self-publish again

Snowbound on the Island by Kate Allan
          A recent survey of some 320 professional authors by literary consultancy The Writers Workshop published in The Bookseller last week demonstrated in statistics what many of us could have guessed; that many traditionally published authors are self-publishing or intend to seriously consider it. “The vast majority of authors are considering cutting out their publishers altogether in order to self-publish direct,” Tom Tivnan writes in The Bookseller (25 May 2012). But in fact the survey paints a more mixed picture and suggests that traditionally published authors are still uncertain and hesitant about self-publishing. Only 48% of the traditionally published authors who took the survey said that they thought it was “most likely” that they would have a traditional publisher in 10 years time. They are not rushing into the open arms of self-publishing just yet. 38% said it was “impossible to say”  whether they would still be with a traditional publisher and only 14% said “most likely not”. 
          It seems to be me that self-publishing's challenge to traditional publishing models are more complicated than a direct challenge. Traditionally published authors are not flocking wholeheartedly to self-publishing, while many writers who start by self-publishing still aspire to traditional publishing deals. 
          My own experience puts me very much in the camp of the former. I'm a traditionally published author whose first novel was out in 2005. I write in the romance genre, one of the genres doing especially well out of the ebook revolution. A few of my early books I was fortunate enough to have the ebook rights which I gave to a specialist genre ebook publisher in the US in 2007 and so I've had a while to watch their continuing steady sales with interest. I've been published now with four different traditional publishers, all independents so the money's not been great, and critically my main publisher I'm writing for now still does not do ebooks so I'm free to sell those rights elsewhere. 
          Last autumn I got a spark of an idea for a novella. I knew it wouldn't be a long story and indeed it was perfect at only 10,000 words. The length meant it wasn't suitable for any of my existing publishers so I thought I would have a go at self-publishing it on Kindle, figuring the experience would be educational and I had little to lose.
          My expectations of the sales being modest I didn't want to spend money on the cover and so I did that myself. I was also fortunate in being an experienced author and editor myself and the story being so short that it didn't need an external edit. So I only had it professionally proof-read before publishing. 
          I did all the same things to promote it as I have for my other books, using social networking. Having a short blog tour and making sure it was reviewed by some popular sites. Conscious of no publisher behind me I probably did more than I would for one of my traditionally published books. And I was pleased with the sales in the first month – over 100 units. But once I'd stopped actively promoting it the sales have fallen back to the steady trickle. Some of this I do think because the story premise has a seasonal appeal – it's called Snowbound on the Island and so it's the sort of romance readers want to read on the sofa in front of the fire the winter, not on the beach. But I haven't got the time to be flogging Twitter 24/7/365, besides which I wouldn't want to bore my Twitter followers to death going on and on about my latest book as I see some self-published authors do. Most importantly I need my author time for writing my next book – for a traditional publisher.
          Another recent survey, this time by Australian publisher and authors services business Taleist, of over 1,000 self-published authors found that less than 10% made enough to live exclusively off their earnings and that 75% of self-publishing revenue was earned by a small group of “top earners”.
          Unless you're lucky enough (or skilful enough?) to break into that top tier, then being traditionally published may still be the better option for professional authors looking to try and at least make a modest living from their writing.
          I'll be pleased when I get my cheque from Amazon for Snowbound on the Island but the effort involved in self-publishing and the relatively modest sales I've seen can't match what I can get from my traditional publisher who print my book, get it into Tescos, let me keep the ebook rights and also sell on other rights, for example to large print and audio. I'm delighted I can self-publish if I want to – especially being daft enough to write a story unsuitable for my existing publishers - but I can't replace the income I receive from traditional publishers with that from self-publishing, and that income is what allows me to continue to write.
          I have a couple of backlist titles I may self-publish, when I can find the time, but my frontlist is staying with traditional publishers for the foreseeable future.

Kate Allan tweets at @kate_allan


Kate, I'm one of those writers who find it "impossible to say"! After ten years as an award-winning children's author, I'm very much on the side of traditional publishing, but recent years have been tough on deals. So if it came down to a choice in future between not being published at all and self-publishing my work, then I would go the indie route without hesitation.

So far I've only tried indie with my backlist books, because my original publishers had let them go out of print and had no immediate plans to bring them back. So I reverted the rights and republished them as ebooks. I never expected to sell more copies than they did as backlist titles with my publishers towards the end of their run, and have been pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, I couldn't live off those ebook royalties by any means. So new work published traditionally is still the way to go.

I'm impressed you persuaded your publisher to let you keep the ebook rights, though.
CallyPhillips said…
Very interesting blog, Kate. I'm not surprised you are not 'rushing' to do it again - because you show up a lot of the things that many people forget when they embark upon indie/self ebook publishing and if you have ANOTHER way of earning a crust from your writing then that's got to be better. However, for those of us who for whatever reason have never 'made it' or have 'lost our appeal' to traditional publishers, those of us who write 'out of genre' or who just don't 'fit' into the mainstream/traditional mode, epublishing offers a way to gain visibility and yes, some income. BUT as your post points out - doing so is really running a publishing business oneself (or in a group) and there's a lot more work than simply writing. However, as one who is building up a 'portfolio' of work on ebooks I have to say that in the last 4 months I've had a lot more 'exposure' and its translated into sales (although yes, a lot of promotional work involved) and while it's taken lots of time it's much less costly than my former life of having to chase agents/producers, go to meetings, get the brush off, wait for months on end and have creative work gathering dust on shelves for years. (and I've read and written a lot more too. And had a better sense of self) For me, epublishing gives me some control over my own destiny. No, it's not getting a book into Tesco's but it's living a life which is substantially more satisfying than constantly kicking at the traditional door and never being let in.
So, for those of us who are 'not' invited to the party, I'd say - ebook publishing can be for you if you go in with your eyes open and a clear idea of what you want to achieve. If you are involved with (or chasing the dream) of tradtional mainstream publishing then it may not be worth the effort. However, its horses for courses and some of us would do good to leave that door alone and open a new one. But stumbling into rooms with eyes closed is never advised. Thankfully through AE and other writer co-op type engagments its possible to engage with others in a way that is collaborative, cooperative and supportive and THAT is a really positive experience as well. Much nicer than publishers/agents/producers telling you how much they LOOOVE your work but because there's a y in the day of the week, the moon isn't made of blue cheese and/or the economic downturn means that women in their 50s are actually going to be privatised..... JUMPING SHIP can be a smart move. But yeah, biting the hand that feeds is never a really smart idea. And trying to serve two different masters usually ends up in farce at the least! But thanks so much for your view - there's lots we can reflect on and learn and you make points which help people work out what's involved and what the stakes in the game are!

I'm happy both ways: traditional and self-pubbing. The latter has brought in royalties better than expected. It was for my part an experiment in seeing how well books could sell at Amazon without publisher backup. As it stands, publisher backup these days tends less and less and more on the shoulders of authors to promote themselves, which in turn promotes the publisher. I think it's a case of go with what suits in a personal sense. Re Twitter. I'm happy seeing book promotion and useful links posted as opposed to mundane chatter between specific people that I'm not and most other tweeters are not party to...Such is akin to crossed line on the telephone = meaningless snippets. :) So yeah,promote your book on Twitter, that's where I'm more likely to see it mentioned bar for RFO. I've discovered great books via twitter, books I wouldn't have come across ordinarily.

Anonymous said…
That's an interesting article because I'm seriously considering self publishing one of my historical novels even though I have an agent and have been traditionally published. Readers keep asking about my next book and I'm worried that they will forget about me and drift away if I don't provide one soon.
Great article Kate and not just concerning the choices for already published writers. I think there are a lot of first timers out there who are also torn between the two key options - i expect that many will at least try the traditional route before self-pubbing but the length of time that people will try for seems to have dropped considerably and i know several writers now who are just plumping straight for the self-pub route.

For my first novel, i have decided to make a determined attempt at the traditional route, although, for me, this is more about validation than money. More than the money??? well the truth is that unless i am 'the next big thing' and land an eye popping advance, i won't be able to quit my job. I also have very little confidence that with the time i have available i could, regardless of the quality of my writing, social network and sell myself into that top group of earners who share out the 75% of revenue. So realistically traditional route is far and away my best hope for the time being as i simply don't have the time to market enough to make self-pub sales meaningful. That said, i do believe that my current ms is (or could be) 'good enough' and so, if i can't get picked up by the traditional route, i may well stick it on kindle and see what happens ;-)
Yeah, it's a big issue to be facing right now, especially for those with the choice. I will say though, that there isn't much of a choice for the vast majority.
Quite a lot of self-published authors went down that path because they'd exhausted the other possibilities - not for the financial advantage, or the creative control, but because it gave them the only opportunity to get their work out there. Of course they aspire to a traditional publishing deal - it's what a lot of them wanted in the first place!

I would imagine that in terms of monetary reward, the comparison between the two publishing models is similar - there will always be a tiny percentage of mega-earners and a vast group struggling to cover their expenses at the opposite end of the spectrum.

There will naturally be traditionally published authors considering going it alone, much as there will always be self-publishers in search of a contract. Not because of any landslide shift in the industry, but simply because the grass is always greener.
Jane Lovering said…
This is interesting. At present, securely writing for an Indpendent Publisher, with whom I am winning awards, I can say that I'm not interested in self-pubbing. However, a few years down the line, when I may have become less commercial but am still filled with ideas I want to get out there - who can say? I think the 'agnostic' approach may serve well here...
Deb said…
Very interesting post, Kate and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said a traditional publisher can get you in to Tesco (other supermarkets are available:)
I personally think that authors should be doing what you are doing and trying all avenues. I too am a traditionally published author and have 11 books published by four different traditional publishers. However, when my agent couldn't find a place for my novel, Oh Great, Now I Can Hear Dead People, I decided to publish it on Kindle. Deep down I still wanted to see my novel as a printed book and because sales were doing well on Kindle, I decided to contact a traditional publisher, show them the figures and see if they would take it on for paperback rights. They did and it will be available as a paperback in December. I asked if I could retain my digital rights and they agreed.
As a digital book, I can’t sign copies and the publishers have more power at getting it in to the High Street shops than I could ever have, had I got a printer to do a paperback version.
I think authors need to combine both digital and print options so that they can reach as wide an audience as possible. At the end of the day the readers will tell you if they love a book or not, but the tricky bit is getting your book out to those readers and sometimes publishers have more power to do that than an independent author.
Well done on you success, Kate.
Linda Gillard said…
Sorry you haven't had a very happy indy experience, Kate, but you aren't comparing like with like. It isn't fair to compare a modestly selling indy ebook with a trad-published novel that has a publisher's full support and a marketing budget behind it.

I had a traditional publisher who didn't manage to get my award-winning romantic novel into WHS, let alone Tesco. Almost all the promotion for that novel was done by me. It was exactly the same with my previous publisher who failed to get my books into any chain other than Waterstones (in the good old days when there were chains other than Waterstones.)

But anyone expecting to make a living out of writing is surely being unrealistic. (The Society of Authors says the average author's salary is £4000.) The point about indy publishing is creative freedom and direct access to readers (who are much more open-minded than the most powerful person in publishing, the head book-buyer at Tesco's.)

I'm one of the 10% who, thanks to Kindle, is now making enough to live off my writing (and I don't tweet. I don't even have a blog.) But I'm not in it for the money. I'm indy because it allows me to write what I want and sell it how it want. It just so happens that doing it my way now pays.
Lee said…
Just to add a note to Linda's comment: just about everything in our modern lives has been commodified - including our very lives - but that's no reason to assume - or even to desire - that we make a living from writing. I appreciate the independence of giving my fiction away. In fact, I have promised myself and my readers (occasionally someone emails me to ask) that a free version of everything I publish will always be available. It's important to me.
Dan Holloway said…
What Linda and Lee said with bells on!

It's true that there's a (I think the authors of the Taleist report may have used the awful phrase "cognitive dissonance" gap between what many people expect when they self-publish and how it pans out, but most of us who've done even some homework would never expect to make a living from it. But like Linda and Lee, we wouldn't expect to if we were traditionally published either - so if "giving up the day job" is not an option, it is har to see why we would want to turn the thing we love most into a second day job by forcing our scribblings into a box in which they do not want to fit for someone else's good (personally I had enough of that with trying - and largely failing - to conform in order not to be bullied at school). Writing is rather like sport - if you're blessed to find that your talent and early-life opportunity lies in the way of football, maybe you have a one in a gazillion chance of earning a living as a footballer. If it turns out you're gifted above and beyond at BMX or kiteboarding, that just isn't going to happen. I tried my absolute damnedest to write something with broad appeal but I just can't do it - and more to the poit after a long while bashing away I wasn't enjoying trying. I love writing weird poems and novels patchworked together out of goodness knows what, though, and have discovered that in some areas I've some aptitude for it - but that will never earn me enough to write for a living, so the choice to self-publish feels like a no-brainer.
Pauline Conolly said…
Kate, your article and the follow-up comments were so interesting and well balanced at a time when everything is changing very rapidly in the publishing world. I am still trying to digest it all. I have two books being traditionally published at the moment (due out early 2013) so it will be interesting to see how I get on and what support I receive from my pubisher. I write narrative non-fiction, which does seem to be treated with a little more respect than other genres, however unfair this may be!
Linda Gillard said…
Can I just echo Dan's sentiments by adding that I also tried my damnedest to write what I thought would be a commercial novel - a paranormal love story, no less! This was pre-Kindle &d I felt like I was selling out, but I badly wanted to get back in the game after I was dropped by my publisher and had seen 2 good subsequent manuscripts universally rejected (one of which went on to become a Kindle bestseller.)

I wrote my paranormal but it came out differently from how I intended. The heroine wasn't remotely kick-ass, she was a rather reserved 42-year old horticulturalist. I couldn't manage to write extended passages of Olympian & gratuitoous sex. (I got bored.) Instead of being a grouchy-but-gorgeous alpha male, my ghost-hero came out vulnerable and rather weary of haunting.

Even as I was writing this novel, I could imagine the editorial grumblings, envisage the rejection emails pointing out that this book would be hard to market as it didn't conform to the genre. But I sent the finished book off to my agent to sell, knowing it was neither fish, flesh, fowl nor good red herring.

We heard nothing for 2 months. Not even an acknowledgement, despite my aforementioned Kindle bestseller. So I made a big decision. I told my agent to withdraw the book. In the unlikely event of a contract, I knew I wasn't prepared to rewrite and I certainly didn't see the point in spending a year collecting rejections.

I'd already tried to squeeze my square story into a round hole and I just couldn't do it. But if I put the book out myself I could not only tell my story in the way I wanted to tell it, I could actually find out if there was a market for a different sort of paranormal novel, sans vampires, sans werewolves.

THE GLASS GUARDIAN will be published on KIndle next week. It might not sell. It might get rotten reviews. No matter. It will be the book in which I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. No creative artist can expect or hope for more.

Thank you, KDP.
Unknown said…
Riveting , rounded debate - thanks to everyone who contributed their experiences. As a published author considering the Indie route it made compelling reading.
Enid Richemont said…
I put my Walker Y/A novel, WOLFSONG,into a recent KDP Select promotion during the Jubilee. When it was first published, it had brilliant reviews. To date, it has had one download. Depressing (and yes, I tweeted it). Is it worth even considering publishing new work on Kindle?
Leah Petersen said…
OK, this is in no way intended to insult or offend but I want to say it so you know that this element should be considered:

I think one reason this isn't comparing like-for-like is that, quite frankly, I take one look at that cover and I KNOW this is a book by a newbie who didn't invest in an editor, didn't take the time to perfect the story, etc. etc. The cover screams amateur and I've been burned quite enough that I'm never paying for one of those ever again. If it's that good, someone will pick it up who will design a decent cover for it.

Now, that may not be true of this story in the slightest, but it's been my experience so far with zero exception.

So I don't think you can compare the sales of this one with anything put out by a publisher who will make sure the first impression of the book to someone who comes to it cold, won't scream "I don't know what I'm doing and I don't care."

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