Twenty-six year-old author Amanda Hocking is an indie starlet in the self-publishing world. In one's years time, she has written and sold nine books totaling nearly a million copies—banking her $2 million. The Minnesota native publishes mystic romance novels, virtually all of them in e-book form through the Amazon Kindle store, priced from 99 cents to $2.99 each. Digital publishing proved to be a good fit for Hocking's young adult readership.
A digitally formatted book can be read on popular e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and the Apple iPad. A recent survey shows 20 million people read e-books in 2010. The Association of American Publishers reports e-book sales toped $70 million in January 2011, a stellar 115.8 percent increase above the $32 million in sales logged January 2010. While there has been an upsurge in e-book sales, it still represents only about 9 percent of the overall book market which hit $805 million in total sales.
Hocking's recent $2 million deal with St. Martin Press has pushed her over to the other side—traditional book publishing. She sold a four book series to St. Martin Press at an auction attended by major publishers including Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Random House. She now has at her disposal editors, marketers, art directors, publicists and a sales force, contrary to her prior do-it-yourself experience. Most advantageous is shelf space in brick and mortar shops that she will receive to meet demand from her growing readership who were asking for hard copies of her books in stores.
Some industry experts argue Hocking's self-publishing success is far and few between; while others believe it exemplifies that indie authors not only can sell their own books to a broader audience but they can net income off them. "It's possible for any author to make their book available with little or no upfront cost and reach a global audience," says Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Kindle Content for Amazon. Electronic publishing, "gives a chance to a great book that otherwise might have been overlooked."
There isn't any dispute that self-publishing can be successful in circumstances in which writers who are selling directly to their audiences, like frequent conference speakers, or authors with niche books who can market a series directly to interested readers. Self-publishing also is viewed as ideal for people with non-commercial projects, such as family recipe books or memoirs, for limited distribution.
The best way to enter this foray is to peruse various self-publishing services websites to see what each has to offer and to read blogs or reviews from other writers who have self-published. The more popular self-publishing sites are Lulu, Createspace, Authorhouse, and iUniverse. Lulu and CreateSpace are print-on-demand (POP) services offering do-it-yourself options that require no upfront fees (but charge for extra services such as copyediting and design layout). iUniverse and Authorhouse are subsidy services that offer packages starting at $599 (up to as much as $4,199).
In part it all depends on what an indie author wants to get out of the experience, says Lorraine Shanley, principal of Market Partners International, a New York consulting firm that specializes in traditional and digital publishing in the U.S. and internationally. "If you are technologically savvy and interested in getting your novel published and read by as many people as possible then a service like CreateSpace might be the best way to go," she says. "But if you need some handholding to write your memoir you might be better served using one of the (subsidy) publishers such as Authorhouse."
Out-of-pocket costs will probably be the biggest factor in your decision making. But here are some other important considerations when choosing to self-publish your book.
1. Creative Control
How and who will decide what your book cover and interior pages will look like? You may want to hire a graphic artist to do it. Or for a fee you can work with in-house editors, copyeditors, and design people affiliated with the self-publishing provider. One of the challenges with POPs is that it may take a couple of tries to get the book formatting just right no matter how simple it sounds. Some PODs skimp on paper and cover stock or bound with a narrow spine, making your book look like a pamphlet. So, for a professionally looking book you will want higher-end services." If you are writing a children's book, design and illustrations are going to be critical. You have to take such details into account," says Shanley.
2. Long Hours
Many indie authors underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing and publishing their books. You should expect spending long hours formatting copy, finding editors, worrying about sales, marketing your book, responding to customer e-mails, and other tasks that fall on the self-publishing author. In her blog, Hocking, who has been writing for the past ten years, explained that she wanted better editing and to spend less time on covers, sales, and e-mails as part of her reason behind going with a traditional publisher.
3. Hidden Costs
Be sure when you're assessing a self-publishing service to check for these kinds of costs. This is an issue on which you need to do some real research, advises Shanley. Once you start adding on layers of services that jacks up the price, she cautions. The basic cost of a POD service can be increased by additional costs not included in the initial package such as renewal fees, distribution fees, extra costs for non-template cover designs, charges for corrections in proof, and so forth.
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4. Professional Expenses
Hiring a copyeditor may be one of the best investments you can make. It's crucial to ensure your copy is error free, especially if your book is going to be your calling card as a professional. For instance, if you are writing a business book that you intend to hand out at seminars or workshops, you will want to work closely with a proofreader and an editor who has experience in that particular self-help or nonfiction arena, suggests Shanley. On the other hand, if you are writing your memoirs and it really is for family, friends and associates, then you may not want to pay for an outside editor.
5. Author Rights
Do you keep all rights? Can you terminate your agreement at any time without any penalty? With true self-publishing, all rights remain with the writer, who has full ownership of his or her books, including the ISBN number (bar code). With most POD services, they own the ISBN and may lay limited claim on digital publishing rights. Read the contract terms carefully. Lulu sells ISBNs for example. But you can consider getting your own ISBN from a third-party seller for an additional cost of $99 or more.
6. Author Royalties
What is your likely share—a percentage of profit (net sales) or income (royalty)? You won't collect 100 percent of book sales. Self-publishing services will keep a share of sales proceeds to offset printing costs. If you self-publish an e-book, you're likely to earn a higher royalty. Under Kindle's terms the author keeps up 70 percent of gross sales, compared with the typical 10 percent to 15 percent of net earned by most traditionally published authors. PODs typically let authors keep 65 percent to 80 percent of their revenue.
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7. Retail Price
Who determines the cover price — the vendor or you? The book's cover price is the crucial starting point for determining royalties and profits, and it also has a significant effect on sales. The average self-published book sells about 100-150 copies. An indie best seller is really a midlist commercial book, according to Hocking. But as she has noted one stands to make more money selling 20,000 copies as an indie author rather than as a traditionally published author selling 20,000 books.
8. Distribution Channels
Which distribution channels does the company guarantee? You typically will get global distribution online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Most POD services provide worldwide distribution which generally comes from wholesalers such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor and Bertram. But without a sales team that sells your book directly to bookstores, they will never know your book exists (unless your readers start asking for it specially). This is a frequent source of disappointment for indie authors, who often assume that wholesale distribution equals bookstore presence, says Shanley.
9. Marketing Support
The biggest mistake people make when it comes to self-publishing is to just put out a book and hope it magically sells itself. You have to be a relentless self-promoter. This includes utilizing Facebook ads, Google AdWorks/Key Words and AuthorBuzz and pursuing various avenues from virtual book tours to blog interviews. Prepare pitches and build a connection with bloggers. Hocking credits her success to aggressive self-promotion on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter, and word-of-mouth. Buzz created by bloggers propelled her e-book sales from 624 books sold for $362 to 4,285 books at $3,180 in one month.
10. Readership Reach
Know your readership—demographics and psychographics—and understand your market. Shanley also recommends paying close attention to the efforts of other indie authors in your genre. "Go on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and see how that author (or publisher) is positioning his or her book. How can you emulate what your direct competition is doing?"
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Keep in mind that self-publishing services don't really care if your book is successful. They are out to make money on a large pool of writers. You have to make them care.