When a tornado destroys a small town in the Midwest or the South, people often say, “You aren’t going to rebuild there, are you?”
“This is the place I call home,” most of the victims will say. “It’s all I know. So yes, we will rebuild.”
But a few decide to move on.
Well, a tornado has struck the publishing industry – at least the traditional side of it – and some full-time authors/freelancers are considering whether they should rebuild or do something else to support their writing habit.
Earlier this week, I wrote about how the e-revolution has changed things for me as a writer, and I linked to author Philip Yancey’s post in which he says farewell to the golden age of publishing. Agent Rachelle Gardner has since responded: How to Respond to Alarming Changes.
As traditional publishers merge and minimize risk by taking on fewer lesser known authors, and as advances from them drop (sometimes to nothing), and as payments on work-for-hire contracts arrive later and later, the writing seems to be on the wall – the future in traditional publishing looks shaky for those who aren't A-level authors, causing the rest of us to scramble.
At least one author and speaker I know about (Mary DeMuth) has taken a sabbatical to reevaluate her writing and speaking as a profession.
In a way, all of us are reevaluating.
From my perspective, I spent too many years in the traditional publishing world without reading between the lines. I have three royalty published books, but in addition to being a journalist, my route in the traditional publishing industry has been more of a freelance editor, work-for-hire-specialist and content creator than it has been a traditional author who submits my own ideas (mostly because from book proposal, to acceptance, to publication, to first royalty payment typically takes two years, and that doesn’t work for me). And that’s okay. I’m single and I can live on less than the author who has a family to support.
But a few years ago, publishers and other entities I create content for began paying me later and later. One self-publishing company for which I edited was late (beyond 30 days) in sending 13 of its final 14 payments. A once trusted traditional publisher began sending payments on work-for-hire projects only after I followed-up, gently asking the status of the payment. I chased one book packager for two years for a mere $50.00. I did a short article critique for a ministry a few months ago and they have completely ignored my repeated invoices totaling less than $50.00. I finally wrote it off because I was spending more time than the invoice was worth. By the way, you wouldn’t believe the name of the ministry if I told you.
Freelancers and work-for-hire types have always been the lowest priority when it comes to payments (meaning everything and everybody else was paid first), but in ages past publishers still paid us when they said they would. That's not necessarily the case now. It never dawned on me to try anything else but to find other publishers who might actually pay on time. To be fair, a few publishers do pay on time for the type of work I do, but they are the exception now, rather than the rule.
Early this year I began paying attention to what indie authors* were saying about running their own businesses without depending on traditional publishers for income (although, some are indeed hybrids). Those who are doing so successfully are entrepreneurial – working long hours, but also controlling everything, including when they are paid. They are busy platform-building, creating their own e-books (and offering them as POD), publishing them a few months later (after edits, proofing and a cover design), marketing heavily and then receiving royalties directly from retailers on a monthly basis.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows on that side either because more people than ever are self publishing, so it’s harder than ever to be noticed.
Agent Chip MacGregor, who is an advocate of both traditional and self publishing, wrote a post back in February called Self Publishing as Amway, in which he makes this point: “There are now more than twelve MILLION books for sale on Amazon. Makes it a bit tough to stand out, when you consider the vast number of titles. And while it’s hard to know an exact number, we think roughly eight million of those are self-published titled. More than a million people have posted a book for sale on the site. A few are making a living at it. 150 authors have sold more than 100,000 copies. Um . . . do the math. More than a million authors; 150 who hit it big on KDP.”
I haven’t been around as long as MacGregor, nor do I pretend to have his level of expertise, but two questions popped into my mind when he cited these numbers: Do we really need to sell 100,000 copies to make a living? And how many of those one million authors are selling 5,000 copies?
While hitting it big would be nice, I don't necessarily need to. I just need to pay the bills.
Amazon pays a 70% royalty rate on e-books over $2.99. So, if an author sold 10,000 copies of an e-book he or she prices at $3.99, earnings would be $27,930, minus maybe $1,000 for editing, proofing and cover design. If an author sold 5,000 copies, his or her earnings would be $13,965, minus editing, proofing and cover design. And these numbers aren’t including POD sales numbers. I’m not saying these dollar amounts are going to allow for a lavish lifestyle, or even support every author, but once an established author creates a backlist that never goes out of print, these numbers wouldn't discourage me.
Nobody really knows where all of these changes in the industry are taking us. All we can do is to watch the industry through the lens of our experience and then position ourselves accordingly. That’s what I’m trying to so as I consider focusing more on indie publishing in the future. If you are an author, or a reader, I would love to hear your thoughts.
*By "indie authors" I mean authors who are not dependent on publishers. Author Joanna Penn offers a good definition here.
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.