(I wasn't going to publish this today, because distant events make anything I have to say trivial in comparison- or, more trivial than usual, at least- but then I changed my mind. Trivia is a welcome relief from the horrible news of the world. This is not burying my head in the sand; it is more like taking a break from matters over which I have absolutely no control.)
My foray into the world of self- publishing has set the world on fire. I have, as of this moment, sold a grand total of three copies! Huzzah. My royalties currently amount to about $0.90 American right now, however, I will not see any of those royalties until my royalties reach $100, also in USD. No reviews, either positive or negative. Don't know what that means. I do know my humour doesn't travel well, so.... it can go either way. Also, all sales were on the 22nd. Since then, nothing. That ninety cents may be the sum total of my royalties.
Not what I had hoped for, but not entirely unexpected, either. Maybe more will read it and it may take off. Maybe it will die the death and remain where it is for all eternity. As I said, I had known abject failure was a possibility, however, unlike my previous abject failures, this one had the virtue of costing me nothing.
So, why go into self publishing, rather than seek the traditional route?
Many reasons. First, I got turned down several times when I tried to go traditional. It is, more and more, becoming a closed circle. Most publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, which constituted what they used to call 'the slush pile'. Many great books from the past, including "Gone with the Wind", "Anne of Green Gables" began life on the slush pile (for publishing house in Boston- where else would a Canadian Classic be published?), as did, or so it is rumoured, "Mein Kampf" the publishing houses have decided on the whole that they want only solicited manuscripts, or manuscripts that have and agent representing them. In other words, they have shifted the slush pile to someone else.
One of the few exceptions to this is in the romance field. Many Romance publishing houses still take in slush, because Romance is the single most popular and best selling genre. They need to keep the stories flowing, so slush it is. It is not without its dangers, however. Some publishing houses (notably Harlequin) have attempted to start vanity publishing branches, where you pay them to have your novel published. Among authors, real ones, not pseuds like me, this is a a cardinal sin. They are playing on the weakness and insecurities of would be authors. This is not how publishing is supposed to work. The author offers their work to the publisher, the publisher accepts or rejects it based on whether or not they believe they can make money from it. Money is supposed to flow towards the author, or not at all. It never, ever flows from the author to the publisher.
So to publish you must have an agent, so you send off you work to an agent, right? Not exactly. Many agents are no longer accepting unsolicited manuscripts. They have shifted the slush pile to.... someone else. I actually have no idea to whom. So how do you get an agent, then? Good question. Some agents comb the literary periodicals to try and find the Next Big Thing. So you send in to a big periodical? No. They don't accept- you guessed it- unsolicited manuscripts. So the little ones, then. Great idea, except they are incestuous. For several periodicals I have read the list of editors and the list of contributors is the same. They are simply publishing their own work, possibly with the aid of government grants set up to promote the 'arts'. Believe me, they won't look at your work either. That leaves...?
Oh, and one other potential problem. Some of you may have heard of the Sad Puppies movement and the fiasco that was the Hugos this summer past. One of the claims of the Puppies- vehemently denied by the other side, but maintained nonetheless by the Puppies- is that politics have crawled into the publishing houses, and unless you share the politics of the publishers, which, according to the Puppies are overwhelmingly Left- you may find yourself unpublished, or even anathematized. I can't answer this for certain, but I do know that at many universities, the fields from which an editor or a literary agent are most likely to come are overwhelmingly dominated by the Left. The Right in these places is ostracized, and conservatism itself becomes the punchline to a joke no one bothers, or is even required, to make. So if you are a right winger whose work reflects even subconsciously your political persuasion, you may find it very, very difficult to get published at the major New York publishing houses.
But say you do get an agent. You're in, right? No. Your chances have just improved dramatically, but that's it. Your chances. they have gone from infinitesimally small to just really, really, really small. The reality can often be quite painful. There was a documentary on a bunch of gamers that I saw some time ago. one of the gamers was working on a manuscript. He got an agent. The agent got a sub-editor at a publishing house to look at it, and the editor got excited. The editor and the author got together and worked hard on the manuscript for a year. Then, when it was ready, they presented it to the main editor. He read about half the first paragraph and tossed the manuscript aside, along with the writer's hopes for publication.
The publishers and editors believe that they and they alone know what will sell to the public despite all evidence to the contrary, which includes the fact that many of them rejected and were later blindsided by the most successful books of the last few decades. Harry Potter and Twilight were publishing phenomena that came, as it were, out of absolutely nowhere, as did Fifty Shades of Grey. Their success left the publishing houses scrambling to find knock offs and similar titles to cash in on this fad absolutely none of them saw coming. yet they still believe they know what will sell and what will not.
OK, let's say you get published. Congratulations. You are now in a profession where the vast majority are below the poverty line- and that's with megastars like Rowling and King boosting the average by earning billions. The publishing houses invest money in publishing your book, but then, get this, they don't push it, and they won't push it unless it becomes a proven seller, or, in short, until it proves that it will succeed without the push. No other industry works according to this model.
So, you are published, and you have been working on the next book, or perhaps a series. things get even messier. In my research, I have found many very successful authors who claim that the real money is in the backlist- the books you have already published, more so than in the new releases. New releases sell well, but they have a halo effect on all the previous writing. People read the new release, decide they like this author, and start looking into what else this author has published, and sometimes end up buying everything the author has ever written. For prolific authors, this is windfall money.
But here's the problem: you don't control your back list. The publishing house decides whether or not they will print more copies of your books to coincide with the release of your new one. Often, they decide not to, so all the money you might have made will be gone. But remember what I said earlier: They know what will sell, you stupid peasant.
E-publishing bypasses all of that. You decide if you will be published or not. It is up to you to promote your own work. Your backlist will never go out of print. While some are claiming that the e-revolution is killing publishing, there are quite a few authors who believe we are entering a new golden age of publishing: one where the power has been placed in the hands of the author, where it should have been from the beginning.
So it's all sunshine and daisies at this point, write? Well, no. Every one of those good points has a drawback.
The fact that we no longer have to work through agents, sub editors and editors means that we and we alone are responsible for the quality of our work. No author, I am afraid, is objective about their own work. They are in for a rude awakening when their works encounters someone other than their mother or their spouse.
As for promoting your own work- well, this is where I am practically doomed to fail. It is a lesson I learned when trying to sell my own woodworking: I have no talent and no skill- none whatsoever- at marketing and self-promotion. My attempts are so pathetically feeble and backwards I generally end up shooting myself in the foot. For example, the work I just published has a blah cover, and the cover is perhaps the single most important marketing tool, and it is not to be underestimated. The cover art exists for one and one purpose only: to catch the potential reader's eye long enough to get them to take the book off the shelf and read the blurb on the back. That's all. So it is important to have an eye-catching cover. I have little skill in creating eye-catching images, so I used Amazon's cover design program, and the result was bland. I had hoped the title would be eye catching and make up for the blahness of the cover. had I any skill at designing my own cover, I would have a cover with Shakespeare in the Conan the Barbarian pose, only holding aloft his quill rather than a sword, and I would have him surrounded by busty babes wearing gold foil chain mail bikinis. However, alas.
As for your backlist never going out of print- that's actually a bonus. I don't see any downside to that one, although there may be one.
It is my belief that the publishing houses are in turmoil at the moment, and that the changes they are facing will destroy many of them. What will be left, I cannot say. Right now, it seems that e-publishing is the way to go. Many are doing it. Some are doing well at it. Many are not. I'll probably be in the latter category, rather than the former.
But you never know, unless you try.