If You're Not Ready To Invest, You're Not Ready To Publish

This post is about the alarming sense of entitlement I’m seeing out there among indies and would-be indies now that we’ve become empowered to publish. I’m sure I sound like a broken record (or damaged MP3) by now, but apparently I need to keep saying this:

The decision to self-publish for profit is a BUSINESS decision. When you decide to self-publish for a profit you are deciding to LAUNCH A BUSINESS. You are going into direct COMPETITION with every other publisher and self-publisher out there, and many of them have a lot more money, time and experience than you do, no matter who you are. No one who goes into business has an inherent right to success or profit, or even the attention of consumers. All of those things must be earned, and are generally hard-won.

Anyone who wants to launch a new business like a restaurant, widget manufacturer, accounting practice or pool service expects to invest a certain amount of start-up capital, both in terms of actual cash and sweat equity. Neither is dispensable. Yet plenty of would-be indie authors seem to think it’s unfair for me, and even the book-buying public, to expect them to invest anything more than the sweat equity part of the equation. They expect the public to be able to look past a cut-rate cover, ignore the typos, bad grammar and the many other substantive flaws that can be eliminated by a good editor, and see the excellent story within. These indies are wrong, and they’re hurting all of us by lowering the collective bar.

In a recent Facebook exchange, one indie author directed this to me:

Not all self published authors can afford to hire out for pro services. If that were the case, why not go with a vanity publishing company and all their promises.

To which I responded, in part:

…if we self-publishers wish to compete head-to-head with mainstream books, we have to be willing to invest what it takes both in terms of effort and money. Hiring a pro editor and cover designer yourself is a far cry from going with a vanity press, which will usurp your rights and take a cut of your royalties. A pro edit, file conversion and cover design shouldn’t cost most self-pubbers more than about $400-$600, if you check the freelancer listings on Smashwords—and many can beat even those prices by shopping around and calling in favors. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but compare that to how many thousands of dollars a mainstream publisher invests in every book *it* acquires and releases. If we want a seat at the poker table, we have to be willing to invest at least a small stake.

Another commenter replied:

I work as a handyman. I’m barely making it. $400 to $600 is half a months’ wages for me. How would you suggest I scrape together enough to pay someone to edit my book and another someone to design a cover for it?

My response was: 

I’m sorry to say this…but the realities of launching and running a business are what they are, and I have often advised would-be indies NOT to publish until they can afford to do it right. The vast majority of authors, mainstream and indie alike, do not earn enough from sales of their books to live on. Virtually all of us still need day jobs.

The fact that the content is gold won’t matter if all the reader notices is typos, bad grammar or spelling mistakes, and an amateurish cover. For years us indies have been saying all we want is the opportunity to compete against the mainstream on a level playing field—but that means we have to be willing to do (and spend) what it takes to compete. I’m all for DIY when the person has the skills, and for trading favors and doing whatever else one can to shave costs. But it’s unrealistic to think one can go up against multi-million dollar publishers without spending even a few hundred dollars.

Hopeful Olympians pay for quality equipment, coaching and travel. Hopeful artists pay for quality supplies, professional framing and gallery space. Hopeful filmmakers pay for quality cameras and professional editing, or at least time in a professional editing bay to do it themselves. The fact that it’s much easier for a rich hopeful to afford the necessities of his craft or sport than it is for a poor one doesn’t make those things any less NECESSARY for the poor hopeful.

People DO judge a book by its cover, as I’ve learned firsthand. The cover for my novel Adelaide Einstein is much less slick than the one for my novel Snow Ball , and Snow Ball outsells Adelaide month in and out despite the fact that Adelaide has nearly three times as many positive reviews. I can complain all I want about how unfair it is that more readers won’t give Adelaide a chance, but that won’t sell more copies of the book. 

And ebook fans DO post negative reviews based solely on bad editing and poor formatting. I’ve found most ebook fans to be very welcoming to indies, and even willing to cut us slack to an extent in acknowledgment that we’re not backed by a Big 6 publisher. But when poor formatting or bad editing gets in the way of their enjoyment of the content, they stop reading and let others know about it.

Remember: publishing was never meant to be fair. It’s a business. Mainstream-published authors have the luxury of a whole staff of businesspeople standing between their delicate, artistic sensibilities and the harsh realities of commerce, but they pay for it pretty dearly in reduced royalties and the loss of control of their work. We indies have to be willing and able to play both sides of the net, art AND commerce, ourselves.

If you’re not willing, or you’re not able, you’re not ready to publish.

Having seen comments here and elsewhere, I’m kind of shocked that this is such a controversial stand to take. I mean, if I wanted to go into business making and selling any other product, and openly admitted I had no money for quality control (editing), packaging (cover design) or marketing (author platform) for the product, that I didn’t have the skills to do all of those things myself at a level comparable to a professional, and I don’t know anyone who’d be willing to offer those services to me for free, everyone would just say, "Well, maybe you need to wait till you’ve saved up some money, then."

But for some reason, to some people, when the product in question is a book, it’s somehow a special case. To those people, suggesting the author delay publication till he can make his product—a book—the best it can be is elitest. I’m not saying that only the rich should be able to publish, not remotely. I strongly encourage controlling costs, acquiring as many skills as possible so you can do a professional job of things yourself, calling in favors and comparison shopping for services. And I’m not saying those who don’t do these things should be barred from publishing.

All I’m saying is, if you’re going to step into the spotlight and invite the scrutiny of a paying public, doesn’t it make sense to put your best foot forward? If "good enough" is inadequate when it comes to the quality of your storytelling and characterization, why is it acceptable when it comes to the quality of your book’s presentation?


This is a cross-posting from April L. Hamilton‘s Indie Author Blog.