The Freedom of Choice

By Jon F. Merz

One of the best things about being an author in the 21st century is the freedom of choice. For years, writers have been forced to accept whatever terms NYC publishing houses deemed generous in order to get our books out to the masses. Since NYC houses had a monopoly on the distribution system (unless an author could afford to print and distribute their own work) authors, if they had any hope at all of achieving their goals of being published, had to accept those terms as part of doing business.

No more.

With the advent of ebooks and both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, authors now have the freedom to choose how they get their work to readers. They can opt to stay with NYC houses or they can go the indie route. Both options have their pros and cons. Let’s look at them:

Traditional or Legacy Publishing Route – PROS

  • Public Perception: the reading public still tends to think that self-published work is of lesser quality. (This, of course, is erroneous and the perception is changing albeit slowly.) A book “vetted” by NYC still looks better to consumers than an indie one.
  • Paper Distribution: your book is available in major chains like Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Powell’s, and a few others. Indie bookstores might order it or they might not.
  • Marketing: this is a BIG MAYBE. There’s always a chance your book is gifted with marketing dollars and the publisher actually puts some muscle behind you in order to move copies.

Traditional or Legacy Publishing Route – CONS

  • Advances: the average advance for a debut novelist AND a midlister with experience is now just $5,000 bucks. That’s it.
  • Royalty Rates: digital is becoming king but publishers still try to take as much as they can. The ebook royalty rate is 25% NET, which equals a measly 17.5% after your agent takes a cut.
  • Accounting: Ever seen a royalty statement? They’re virtually impenetrable unless you know what you’re looking at. You get two of them each year. If your book is selling well, that means you get paid TWICE each year. That’s it.
  • Reserves Against Returns: since publishing uses this bizarre business model that should have been abolished eons ago, they hold back a large chunk of any money you made in case bookstores return unsold copies of your book for credit. Your royalty statement might show that you earned our your advance and are due say, $3500, but since your publisher think stores might ship back unsold copies of your book they’re just going to hang on to that $3500 for now. They *might* release *some* of it in the next statement, or they might hang on to it a little while longer. That means they’re earning interest off of your money.
  • Reversion Clauses: your print book might go the way of the dinosaurs, but that doesn’t mean it’s out-of-print anymore. Nowadays, your ebook will be available pretty much forever. That means any hope you have of getting your rights back one day is about as likely to happen as you suddenly tripping over a spaceship.
  • EBook Price: most NYC ebooks are horribly overpriced. No one should be paying $16.99 for an ebook. No one.
  • Editing: if you have any hope of being edited by some prestigious editor, think again. Editors don’t edit anymore. Of the 30 novels I’ve published – exactly ONE of them got any edits at all.
  • Time: publishers can take up to TWO YEARS from the time you sign the contract until the book actually makes it out into stores. That sort of time span might have worked before the dawn of the Internet, but things move MUCH faster these days.
  • Cover Art: You don’t have any say over cover art. Get rid of this fantasy right now. When St. Martin’s picked up THE KENSEI and I talked to them about the branding we were doing with the TV show and how it would make perfect sense to have brand continuity between the book and TV show to help build an audience, my suggestions were completely shot down and overruled. They presented me with a cover I hated and I demanded changes. They made a few slight changes. But the point here is that if they couldn’t even see the rationale behind building brand continuity for a series heading to TV, there’s no chance in hell they’re going to listen to you.
  • Attitude: The publishing industry is full of people who *think* they know what the reading public wants. And they like to prattle on endlessly about their skill in picking new bestsellers and all that related horse crap. The fact is, NYC editors have no greater understanding about consumer mentality than you or I do. After all, these are the same wizards who brought you novels by Snooki. When my novel THE NINJA APPRENTICE was making the rounds in NYC for eighteen months, my agent heard all manner of astoundingly stupid comments like “boys don’t read,” “this would be great if the hero was a girl,” and “this doesn’t have any commercial appeal.” THE NINJA APPRENTICE, since its debut on May 8, 2012, has gone on to sell over 1300 copies, garnered nothing but 5-star reviews, and been selected as summer reading choices for several high schools and literacy groups.

Indie Publishing – PROS

  • Complete Control: Over everything. Cover art, layout, editing, copyediting, price, everything. You get to write what you want, when you want, knowing you can always publish it. Want to write a novel about brain-eating pixies from the alterna-Earth Paleolithic Era space twinkies? You can. And even if you only sell a few copies, you can still make pizza money writing it.
  • FREE to publish: It doesn’t cost you a damned thing to sell your work. There are no upfront fees with Amazon or Barnes & Noble. You *should* invest in a good cover design and ebook formatting, but in terms of actually publishing fees, there are none.
  • Monthly Paycheck: This is huge. 60 days after you start selling your book, you will start getting paid every single month via direct deposit into your bank account. March sales show up in your account at the end of May.
  • Royalty: If you price your book between $2.99-$9.99 on Amazon, you earn a 70% royalty rate. That’s a better rate than ANYONE who has ever been traditionally published.
  • Changes: Spot an error in the book? Open the file, make the changes, and re-upload it. That’s it fixed.
  • Time: Your book enters the upload pipeline and is available within 48 hours – as compared to up to TWO YEARS with traditional publishers.
  • Distribution: your book is available all over the world, depending on the platform. You now have global reach. With traditional publishers, you’d need to wait until you sell foreign rights in order to get that same distribution.

Indie Publishing – CONS

  • Public Perception: consumers might think your book quality is not good enough without a stamp of approval of NYC publishing. This sentiment is changing, however, and you can help further that change by ensuring that your cover looks as good or better than what NYC covers look like, your book is as error-free as you can get it, and your price point is reasonable.
  • Distribution: you don’t get a presence in stores that carry print books.
  • Many Jobs: You do it all: write it, edit it, promote it, check sales, etc. It can be overwhelming if you don’t discipline yourself on how to make time for all the tasks.
  • Stupid Commentary from the Entrenched: Clueless authors who have gotten wealthy from the old way of doing things are some of the most vociferous defenders of a failed system. They don’t want these changes because it represents a threat to their way of life (hmm, sorta sounds like the political landscape in this country right now…) They know that the digital revolution levels the playing field and they’ll no longer be at the top of the heap. So they write dumb letters (Scott Turow, president of the Author’s Guild, wrote a stunningly stupid piece defending the old publishing model – crazy since it was coming from an organization ostensibly devoted to protecting authors NOT publishers.)

So there’s a quick breakdown of the pros and cons of each. There is one more PRO to the indie publishing movement, however, and that is technology. Technology continues to move forward and more players are entering the publishing world all the time. Just this morning, Kobo announced its own self-publishing portal along the lines of Amazon’s KDP and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit! program. Along with Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and iBooks, there are now FIVE platforms indie authors can use to get their work into the hands of readers and earn a decent living doing so. I expect we’ll see more platforms arriving soon as well.

It’s a great time to be an author. The freedom of choice is something we’ve never had before, but thanks to the technology of the 21st century, we can now do what we love to do and earn a decent living doing so.

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