Hardly a day goes by without another debate between those who believe in self-publishing versus those who opt for traditional publishing. Despite the best efforts of some writers to shed light on the fiscal realities, information remains sparse and, mostly, anecdotal. Methodological pitfalls abound and, in the end, all the data points are idiosyncratic.
I can’t judge the current efforts to quantify the economic viability of any particular path to success (or, more usually, lack thereof) but I can comment on my own situation as a writer and publisher.
Before I do that I will make a few general observations about making money in the arts and, especially, in the literary arts.
Writers, like everyone else, are sometimes reluctant to say what they make. They are, after all, freelancers or, if you like, small businesspersons. Even the question of what constitutes income can be difficult for writers — gross income versus net income is often quite different because writing (full-time at least) is a ‘tax-deductible’ life.
Publically reveling one’s private income can have consequences, (attention one from the taxman, for example). If it happens to be high, it can draw requests from family, friends, even complete strangers. If it is low, there is the stigma attached to all activities that generate low incomes.
In any case, for some people income is a private matter. I used to do opinion surveys for a living and questions of income were always the last asked. Ask it first and a lot of respondents refuse to answer any questions at all.
Some people, for reasons of ego, even inflate their income. Given that most surveys of writers are non-mandatory, with respondents self-selecting, one might suspect that these ‘braggers’ will be over-represented.
The only real data we have is contained in the census and statistical analysis of tax data. What that shows is that both the gross and net income of all artists, including writers, is remarkably low. Visual artists do slightly better, dancers somewhat worse and writers are somewhere in the middle. But the average artist is better educated, works more hours and receives less pay than the average worker. That has certainly been my experience over the years as I’ve moved from public and private sector jobs to the arts and back again. More anecdotal data.
But it is a nice lifestyle.
Personally, I’m inclined to think the choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing is a lifestyle choice. If the reality is a relatively low rate of return for their efforts — it does come down to what you want to spend your time doing.
Some people want total control over the final product; others love the marketing process. But many writers want to be left alone to write or make the occasional public appearance or blog entry. The former are likely to be more attracted to self-publishing; the latter to the traditional route. Some people have gone the self publishing route because they had to and jump at the chance to have someone else do all the design and marketing work when the opportunity presented itself. Amanda Hocking comes to mind.
But what about all those people who make a fortune from self-publishing?
Think of it this way: there are well-over a million e-books on Amazon. The limited data we do have is that an average e-book will make about $500-1000 over its lifetime, many make much less. Still, if 1 book in a hundred makes $50,000, that means there are 10,000 happy writers, at least some whom are out there shouting about how easy it is to make a living from self-publishing.
Writing has an income curve similar to professional sports. There are a few people in every sport who make $5M or more a year; quite a few more who make a million. But for every one of them there are dozens perhaps hundreds making a lot less. Some are playing for $50 a game and a meal allowance. Why? Because they are doing what they love. Sound familiar.
Not everyone can make the major leagues. There isn’t enough room at the top.
So do what you love; do it as well as you can and hope that the combination of talent, persistence and luck eventually pays off. Because you need all three if you’re going to make good living or even a modest one in the arts.
The final thing I’m going to say on the subject of money is about the amazing profitability of publishing — especially small press publishing. Now I have your attention, there’s this bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s located on prime real estate in a Florida swamp.
There are, of course, the big five. They do make money — more in fact than they ever have. This is not because of an explosion in the popularity of reading. Rather it is a direct result of corporate consolidation. When there were more publishers and the difference between big and small was less pronounced, a Return on Investment (ROI) in publishing of 8 to 9% was acceptable. With the increasing involvement of big capital, ROIs had to rise—by head office fiat—to 12% or more. This was accomplished by cutting marketing and other budgets and by cutting loose any authors whose books didn’t sell well enough. It was viewed as a far better risk to publish five new writers — who couldn’t command high advances— than to continue to publish mid-list authors with known sales limitations. Which is why so many writers now have two book careers.
Some of the displaced authors wound up in mid-level houses — thus displacing their mid-list writers— and so on down the line.
After 2008, big publishers claimed the recession was killing them (not clear that it was) and asked even their A-list writers to take less cash. They were surprised when they agreed. Since then advances have remained low and big publishers have become more and more attracted to sure things, such as successful self-published authors. Sometimes loving your work too much is not a good financial decision.
Meanwhile, mid-level houses were facing ever more difficult times. With fewer physical outlets to sell their books and Amazon always trying new ways to squeeze their margins, they too had to reduce publishing plans, cut back on advances and make ever more use of eager young interns, working for little or no pay. If Hachette— one of the big five— can barely stand up to Amazon, you can imagine what clout a mid-sized publisher has in a fight with Amazon or for that matter the few remaining bookstore chains.
So where does that leave the small press publisher. Pretty much the same place as everyone in the low end of the arts: living on hope and the day job. Some of us make money from year to year; others subsidize the company from their owners’ bank accounts, hoping that one of their books will be a breakout publication to let you move both into the black and up to the next level of business operations. It is again a labour of love and, as my wife says, cheaper that a blond and red convertible.
In the meantime, we all seek solutions to endemic cash-flow problems, trying to cut non-fixed costs and discover effective marketing tools that don’t cost more than they deliver in the way of sales.
Many of us rely on arts grants from government agencies or private foundations and, increasingly, on crowd-source funding activities like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon.
Bundoran Press didn’t get a Canada Council grant this year (not that we got one before despite 3 applications but one always hopes) and our sales aren’t substantive enough yet to qualify for Ontario Arts Council grants Our recent Indiegogo campaign didn’t reach its target. Because it was a ‘fixed’ campaign, we will receive none of the generous contributions people made (it all gets returned to them). I’ll blog about that later —after the bruises heal.
Which is all to say that, while our August book, Javenny by Al Onia, will come out as scheduled, the two books that were scheduled for November 2014 will now be pushed back to next March. The anthology, Second Contacts will proceed but will pay semi-pro rates and be published a few months later than originally planned.
We carry on but at a more modest pace. It would be nice to go faster but the only way to do that is to sell a few more books. Check out our catalogue on our web-site. You can buy them direct from us or from your favorite on-line or physical retailer.