Monday, June 20, 2011

Thoughts on the Economics of Self-Publishing

Apropos of my recent posts, some thoughts and numbers.

A Kindle at $2.95 pays about $2/copy in royalties—one consequence of the fact that the cost of making and delivering one more copy is close to zero. My Salamander seems to be selling about two copies a day at this point, and it looks as though the rate is drifting up despite no serious further promotion by me, possibly as positive word of mouth spreads. Suppose I assume, optimistically, that it makes it to ten copies a day, hardly a best seller. It could maintain such a rate for a very long time without significantly reducing the pool of potential fantasy readers who had not yet read it.The result would be an income stream of about seven thousand dollars a year—not wealth, but a sizable trickle for someone willing to live at a starving artist level. For an author who could add one more book each year to the inventory, the trickle would be growing.

What about the POD alternative? How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes is available on CreateSpace for $9, paying us about $4 in royalties for each copy sold—less for copies sold through Amazon and only about a dollar for any copies sold through brick and mortar stores. As best I can tell it has so far sold about three copies. My guess, from past self-publishing experience within the medieval recreation hobby, is that we can expect to eventually sell a thousand or so into that market, probably over a period of several years. Again a significant amount of money, but nothing close to enough for an author to live on, at least in this part of the world.

The critical step in order to make it a source of income as well as a way of spreading information on historical cooking would be to break into the wider world of cookbooks. I have so far sent out one review copy to a major newspaper that provided me with an address to send it to, several to web sites that review cookbooks. My guess is that a single favorable review in a major source would multiply sales several fold, but that's only a guess.

All of which suggests to me one further development that might help replace the traditional publishing model with one centered on self-publication of eBooks and online POD's.

Currently, the main job of an author's agent is to sell his book to a publisher—first to persuade an editor to accept it and then to negotiate a contract. If we cut the publisher out of the loop neither sale nor contract remains, so it looks as though the agents as well as the publishers are out of a job.

But perhaps not. The publisher's traditional job included not only physical production and sale but also providing various inputs to the creation of a work for which the author was not the best source. The publisher found a cover artist. The publisher provided an editor and hired, or contracted the services of, a copyeditor. The publisher knew whom to send proof copies to in the hope of favorable reviews. All of these jobs will still need to be done, even if the problems of physical production and distribution are eliminated by modern technology.

The best editorial advice I ever got was not from an editor but from my current agent. She went over the first chapter of Hidden Order in detail, suggesting ways of revising it to do a better job of attracting the interest and attention of a reader. It became my most successful book. The same agent went over Salamander well before we had decided to put it up as a Kindle. I accepted some of her suggestions, rejected others—but it ended up a better book as a result.

Perhaps what will and should happen is a shift of function from publisher to agent. Let the agent  be an expert not in selling books to publishers but in helping authors write their books—part of what agents already do. That might include editorial advice. It might include pointing authors at competent free-lance editors and copy editors willing to sell their services. It might mean accumulating an acquaintance not among acquisition editors but among book reviewers, the proprietors of blogs that might be persuaded to recommend books, and a range of other people through whom favorable word of a new self-published book could be spread. It might mean developing mailing lists for sending out review copies, lists tailored to a variety of different sorts of books.

One final thought on the Kindle market, formed after looking at Amazon's list of the top hundred sellers. To my surprise, most of them appeared to be in about the $5-$10 range, inexpensive for a paperback but not for a computer file that costs almost nothing to produce. Possibly too expensive for a book targeted at customers whose first purchase will be more or less an act of faith, since they have no evidence that a commercial publisher thought the book worth publishing. 

Which started me wondering about the pattern of price changes. Perhaps what is happening, perhaps what ought to happen, is price discrimination over time. Put your Kindle up at a nominal price—$2.95, $.99, perhaps for free. Leave it up at that price until it accumulates a significant number of sales and positive reviews. Then raise the price to something more like what people expect to pay for an ordinary paperback book. Ten copies a day at $10 a copy comes to royalties in the neighborhood of $25,000/year. Get a few more books up on those terms, move to somewhere with good weather and low living costs, and retire to a life of comfort.

George Orwell comments somewhere that the 19th century was the great time for authors, when successful ones could live well on the revenue from book sales, free of  past dependence on aristocratic patrons or future dependence on state patronage. To a significant degree we are still in that world, although I am, in my interaction with fellow authors, struck by how many of them seem more able to write books worth reading than to support themselves by doing so. 

Things may be about to get a good deal better.


Jonathan said...

That's the optimistic outlook, from the author's point of view.

The pessimistic outlook is that people will find easy and cheap ways to copy printed books and e-books, copyright laws will be repealed, and authors' incomes will fall off a cliff.

As far as I know, it could go either way. I'll be interested to see what happens, though I won't live to see the end of the story.

Anonymous said...

As it happens, I just (two weeks ago) converted my textbook from POD-only to "download for free, then pay if you wish." So far nobody has wished :-)

The main reason for the shift was that I'm more interested in intellectual market share than in dollars. But I was getting about $1/copy from the POD publisher, and will get about $4.50/copy from those who voluntarily pay for their downloads, so I may make out as well or better with the latter strategy.

I chose not to go with "e-book for sale" because I didn't want to have to deal with copy protection and "what if somebody copies your book and distributes it?"

cheerful iconoclast said...

One possibility -- not as optimistic as yours -- is that the Kindle market will be flooded with self-published efforts, most of which are horrible. While a few efforts may be amusingly bad in a Plan 9 sort of way -- what's that awful Conanesque story people sometimes read at science fiction conventions? -- but most will be just dreary.

At that point, the number of people reading the self-published slushpile may drop to zero, or something very close to it. Which means that the income might not be $7,000 a year, but something closer to $700 a year, or even $7.00 a year.

Another point worth noting is that, while you aren't famous, you are somebody who has more name-recognition than the average Joe. I know who you are and own (in hardcover, no less) both Machinery of Freedom (autographed!) and Hidden Order.

I don't much like fantasy, so I haven't purchased your book. But if you wrote a straight science fiction book with rocket ships and ray guns, I'd probably pay $3.00 for it, and I'd almost certainly pay $.99 for it.

Jonathan said...

Hello, cheerful iconoclast. It may be worth noting that Harald isn't really fantasy in the normal sense: it just takes place in a country not known to our history.

Salamander is fantasy, with magic even, but it's the kind of fantasy sometimes written by sf authors.

It may not matter if there's a lot of junk available in Kindle format, as long as readers have methods of finding needles in the haystack, and such methods will probably become available.

Adam Gering said...

Amazon announces first Independent author to sell 1 Million Kindle Books, John Locke.

I think his cover artwork definitely helps!

"The pessimistic outlook is that people will find easy and cheap ways to copy printed books and e-books"

Far enough people will want to pay for something that *convenient* in purchase and delivery that they value.

People who pay instead in their time and inconvenience of using non-royalty paying methods of acquiring copyrighted works are also a large population, but not sufficient to threaten copyright royalties.

The music industries problem was they were fighting against convenience in purchase and delivery.

"that the Kindle market will be flooded with self-published efforts"

It is absolutely already being flooded with spam-houses publishing $0.99 book spam. There have been a few articles lately.

However, Amazon has a very good recommendation system (related items, related searches, other people bought, and user product lists)... I don't notice it.

Jon Kalb said...

My dilemma.

I just finished reading Salamander. I enjoyed it, but not as much as "Harald." I wanted to give it a positive review and say some nice things about it on Amazon.

When I get there I see that it could use a few more reviews because it only has four. But I find that I'm hesitant to add my review. It isn't because I don't have any thing more to add (but that is true because the other reviews are thoughtful and make all the points that I would make).

The reason that I hesitate is that all the existing reviews give the book five stars. So my positive review of four stars would actually lower the average. That may be not be very supportive of an author whose work I'd like to support.

I could hold off on my review, but I doubt that the average review score will ever dip below four, so it is unlikely that my review will ever be supportive.

Perhaps with only four reviews the helpfulness of an additional review outweighs the reduction in the average? I think I need to give this more thought. In the meantime, it occurs to me that I've never reviewed Harald...