Most of you know me as an author of mysteries and science fiction, or the occasional attempt at a literary novel, perhaps even as a political commentator on my site, Lost Coast Review. I’ve also been a publisher, publishing eight books—six novels and two books of poetry—by other authors. With my own work, I’ve had six different publishers who published six of my novels and one nonfiction academic book, and have self-published the others under my own imprint, Avignon Press. I’ve had a lot of experience. I thought that I would share some of what I’ve learned with you.
Many writers are unsure whether to self-publish or to seek a publisher. It’s a good question and there is not one simple answer. The main advantages to publishing with a publisher are that they may be able to get your book more exposure, mainly reviews by noted media, and they give your book and you, as an author, more prestige. Reviews—in major media or by well-known reviewers—lead people to your books and may be necessary for such things as acquisition by libraries. I’m not talking about Amazon reviews, which readers won’t know about until they’ve already gone looking for your book and which are often regarded with suspicion because they are filled with reviews by family and friends and “reciprocal” reviews with other authors. A New York Times review or LA Times Review or NPR review or interview will go a long way to getting new readers. A positive review by Library Journal, School Library Journal (for children’s books), Kirkus, Booklist, or Publisher’s Weekly is almost necessary for getting your book placed in libraries. Major publishing companies may be able to get such reviews, smaller ones usually can’t. You can purchase some of them, such as Kirkus, while some of these, such as Publisher’s Weekly’s Booklife reviews are free and available to self-publishers and small-presses. Major publishers have a big advantage, though. Academic books, such as the one that I published through Johns Hopkins University Press, virtually require a well-known publisher, such as an academic press or similarly respected press, and they will almost always secure reviews for you, which will at least get your book in university libraries.
In terms of prestige, getting a publisher in the future is harder if you’ve only self-published. Some organizations, such as Mystery Writers of America used to exclude self-published authors, but now place more emphasis on the money a book earns. Agents are also more positive toward authors who have previous works published by publishers, but mainly if they are major publishers. Speaking of agents, they are harder to secure than a publisher, but are still required by major publishers. I’ve had two big-name agents, neither of which were able to sell my books to publishers (they were my two earliest books), and I got a small-press to publish one of them and self-published the other.
I find that small presses are the most ignored avenues for publishing among the writers I know. I’ve had success with a couple of them. I’m not talking about vanity presses. Small presses are publishers that charge the writer nothing, pay royalties but not advances, and help with marketing, but to a limited extent. The field is full of scams, unfortunately, the most egregious being those that charge you for editing or those that require you to buy a certain number of books. The latter type of small press makes virtually all of its money by selling to the authors themselves and does little to market the book to a wider audience. The bonuses from a legitimate small press are some marketing, good editing and cover design, publication of the book in several formats, including audiobooks and sometimes hardcover books, and a return policy for books sold to bookstores. The audiobook provided by my latest publisher is high quality and professional with an actor reading the book. Many small presses use print-on-demand and don’t offer hardcovers, at least in the initial offering of the book. There are some that offer digital first and paperback if they get good digital sales. A few are digital only. They may also set you up or assist you with book signings and appearances, but in my experience, that is mostly something that you have to arrange yourself. Although they charge you nothing, you will probably do a fair amount of marketing yourself at your own expense, sometimes a greater expense than you earn in royalties from the book. Contrary to rumors I have seen bandied around the internet, I have never had a small press ask to have the copyright of my book placed in their name. I have had no difficulty receiving the full rights to my books after the contracts have expired and have self-published three of them at the end of the contract period.
The downside of publishing with a small press is that you only receive a small percentage of sales as a royalty; in my experience between 15-30% of the “net” received for the book (price paid by the book store or online vendor), or a smaller percentage, e.g. 10%, of the list price of the book. If you self-publish, your return on each book, particularly eBooks, is substantially higher. With self-publishing, you are able to manipulate the price of the book to offer discounts, occasional free digital books, etc, which you can’t if you have a publisher (although the publisher may do so of their own accord). You may find yourself better able to obtain reviews than the publisher is, although nothing stops an author from seeking reviews on his or her own for a book published by a small press. The downside of self-publishing is that you have to edit, format, obtain a cover, etc. all on your own and at your own expense.
For self-publishers, and even those who are thinking of publishing others’ works, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), formerly CreateSpace, is the easiest route. The service is free, including purchase of an ISBN number, although then the publisher is listed as “Independently Published.” If you purchase your own ISBN number, then it is listed as you or whatever name you purchased it under (e.g. Avignon Press, for me). Kindle Direct Publishing offers a Word formatting template and about 25 cover templates, which allow you to upload your own pictures, or even your own covers if you have designed one. They charge relatively little, less than most small presses, for author copies, and you should order in bulk, as that reduces shipping costs, compared to small or individual book orders of author copies. A major bonus is that if you later discover that there are errors in your book, you can, at any time, revise it and republish it for no cost.
When I published other’s books, I sometimes used Ingram Spark, which is part of the Ingram company that distributes books. Ingram Spark offers some things Kindle Direct Publishing doesn’t: a hardcover option, a return policy for bookstores, and eBook distribution across more sites than just Amazon. For books sold on Amazon, you get a better royalty from KDP, so it may pay to use it for the Amazon listed book and Ingram Spark for a copy sold via other outlets. Comparing the copies of paperback books printed by KDP and Ingram Spark, I couldn’t really tell a difference. Ingram Spark doesn’t have cover templates and you must design you own and I found it hard to fit my designs exactly into their size specifications and it took several tries. You can design a cover on KDP and if you can copy it, use it for Ingram Spark as they are the same size. Unlike KDP, Ingram Spark charges you for changes to your book, once it has gone to print.
I know that this is too much information for anyone other than an aspiring writer. I hope for those of you in that category, it was helpful.
The best example I can give of one of my books sold by a small press is The Oedipus Murders, published in September of 2019, by Black Rose Writing. It is available in paperback, audiobook and eBook formats. The audiobook is offered for purchase, but also via Amazon’s Audible program. If you subscribe to Audible you can do a 30-day free trial and get the book, as well as another book of your choice, for free and even if you unsubscribe before the end of the 30 days, you can keep your audiobooks. Try it, below.
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