Show Me The Money, Bitches

At the end of the day, I can be a very pragmatic and mercenary individual. Some people deeply admire this about me, some think it makes me a bitch or naive. But it is what it is. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a published author. I wanted my book to be on bookstore shelves and I wanted to be famous. 

At that time, I believed that everybody who had a big publisher publishing their books, who had a book on bookstore shelves, was making a living doing it. Hell, even into adulthood as I started to seriously begin the undertaking of writing novels I still believed this.

So naturally, in the beginning I was all about traditional publishing for myself. I read all the standard magazines and books and knew all about how to query an agent. I was confident I was one of the smart ones because I wasn’t like these other little boob wannabes who were sending in their submissions on pink scented paper and telling the agent that their grandmother loved it and their grandmother’s dog took a nap on it which meant that the dog loved it too.

At some point I don’t know how or why, I started to wake up. I mean let’s be real here, this may not be the truth for everyone, but I am not working my ass off to give up control of my work and get paid shit for it. Period. dot com, dot net, dot org. It just ain’t happening. I don’t really care what everybody else is doing, or what the socially approved standard path is, or what is “respectable.” “Socially acceptable” has never paid a single person’s bills.

I think my eyes were opened when I started talking to a published author on LiveJournal. It was my first actual back and forth real written contact with a published author and I was thrilled that she’d taken time out of her glamorous life to help me. (Though later when I decided to self-publish, she heavily encouraged me not to cause I wouldn’t make any money self-pubbing, but on to that in a minute.) I won’t mention this author’s name because I’m not dragging her into my diatribe, and I admire her and her writing very much, but suffice it to say, her posts were candid enough that I could read between the lines.

Even though she had a major name brand publisher that we’ve all heard of, she still had a full-time job and wasn’t able to live solely on her writing income. This gave me considerable pause. As I studied more, and read between more lines of what authors were saying and specifically what they weren’t saying (the exact dollar amount of their advances), I began to realize that this author was in no way unique.

I felt like I’d been Mary Kay’d. I might need to explain that reference. When I was eighteen I signed up to sell Mary Kay. I was lured in with the promise of the pink car. I knew I was motivated and could sell things and surely I could have the pink car. But once I was inside I started to see all the downfalls of multi-level marketing and why most people can’t make a living at it. And why the pink car, was not going to be a part of my future most likely.

It seems this is the same thing that has gone on forever in the publishing industry. Hopeful writers believe at first they’ll make a living just by being published by a big name publisher. Then once they’re in, they realize they need to have a backlist first (though please explain to me how an author can gain any traction in this way when so many times they only can manage to keep 2-5 books “in print” at any given time. I prefer a treadmill that makes my ass smaller, thanks.)

Then of course the realization starts to sink in that MOST published authors, including many who have reached that pinnacle, the NYT Bestseller list, are not making a living doing this. Only those with huge prolific outputs that are fairly successful along with the famous ones, are making a living doing this. (And I really just don’t want to put out more than one novel a year on average. I want to put out better quality books not more of them. And normally quality suffers with quantity. We’ve all seen it happen.)

Once I learned these financial realities, I was off the trad train. Fuck that. If I’m going to make peanuts, I’m keeping full creative control. I’m going to be able to approve or deny my cover. I’m going to pick how my book is laid out, and how it’s marketed and distributed. I’m picking the formats. I’m picking the editors, I’m titling my own books. (i.e. I’m not coming up with a great title just to have someone’s marketing department shoot it down and rename it.)

I am not your commodity.

I belong to me. My words, thoughts, feelings, and art belongs to me. And I will create it, package it, and distribute it the way I see fit. The ONLY people that matter in this equation outside of myself, are my readers. Not the talking heads in the publishing industry. I don’t need a publisher to get my words in front of readers. I don’t need a publisher to make a little money. And I certainly don’t need the drama, politics, and headache of the whole treadmill if I’m only going to discover that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for most is fool’s gold.

With authors doing so much of their own marketing now, and fewer people buying most of their books in brick and mortar bookstores anyway… with so little money on the table for most even after years of grueling work and many books… exactly what the hell could possibly be in it for me besides external validation from the other writers and the “publishing industry” as a whole? Why is that validation worth my soul? It isn’t.

So many discourage those who want to self-publish with the warning: “You’re unlikely to make money self-publishing.” As opposed to what option? And how are we quantifying the phrase “making money” here? Because a tiny bit of money is still a tiny bit of money even if your publisher handed it to you.

Will I “make a living” self-publishing? Well… that’s hard to answer because I’m thinking inside a different box. I have the MPC-mentality (multiple-profit-centers.) My “business” is basically finding every way in which I can make money from my writing and making use of it. This includes writing websites that I monetize, selling fiction in print and ebook, selling nonfiction/infoproducts in print and ebook, copywriting, a bit of freelance work, and any other ideas I come up with.

This little mini writing empire is on a 10 year plan, of which I’m in year 2. Some of the plates I spin are more for passion than for profit, like fiction. But considering the fact that I can keep my ENTIRE backlist in print, I’m writing a series, and I keep ALL the profit and not just a royalty, the concept that I could “make a living” just from fiction in ten years isn’t so outside the realm of realistic that I can’t even entertain the possibility.

I do understand that writers are part of a community and in some ways I purposefully alienate myself from this community. But at the same time, most of the politics and drama is unnecessary to my life. And I always get burnt because what I’m saying is not what people want to hear. Even if I say it nicely and temper it with many caveats. I have my own tune, my own plan, and I’ll follow it succeed or fail. But what I won’t do is jump on a treadmill that to me isn’t worth the small payment at the end.

Self-publishing, even if at the end of the day I make little money, IS worth it to me, because it’s MINE. There is a pride of ownership there. Even if it’s not considered as socially acceptable yet as say opening a flower shop, it’s not like I’m running a brothel here. Social attitudes will catch up (and if they don’t you know I’m still doing it, because that’s just me.)

And on the money issue. KEPT has sold 2,500 copies on Amazon and has had 15,000 readers otherwise in the past year. It’s only a dollar on Amazon because they wouldn’t let me give it away for free. It was initial test marketing, not a money-making enterprise. Nevertheless, I’ve already in one year made more in royalties from the novella on the Kindle than I likely would have been paid as a first-time author, had I had my novella accepted for a print anthology.

I don’t write “for the money.” But if money wasn’t any piece of the motivation for me, I would just give all my work away for free. What is the point of selling it for profit if you don’t intend to actually MAKE a profit? I intend to make a profit. There is no crime in this. But I realize I can’t make a profit worth my time inside the standard publishing system. Your mileage of course may vary and it’s okay if it does. I don’t require a bunch of bobble-head yes-men in my life. You can disagree with me and I won’t call your momma names.

So yes, self-publishing for me is a business decision and a personal decision.

Also, just in case you think I’m talking out of my ass and can’t possibly know anything cause I haven’t been inducted into the standard publishing system, here are some posts for you to chew on… two traditionally published authors, both saying basically the same things I am, they just draw different conclusions for their own lives (i.e. not self-publishing), and say it a little differently. But it’s the same bottom line truth.

More on the reality of a times bestseller

The Big Lie

[Publetariat Editor’s note: also see this post from author Kimberly Pauley, in which she shares some of her financial details, and some other authors do likewise in the comments section.]

This is a cross-posting from the weblog of Zoe Winters.

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