This weekend I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods in NYC’s Central Park. One of the larger themes of the play is summed up best in the line “wishes come true, not free.” It isn’t an uncommon theme, but as I sat there in the twilight, the wind rustling the trees, and fluttering the actor’s costumes, I couldn’t help but think about the things I had wished for that had come true. I had always wanted to be a writer, and now I'm able to do it full time and support myself. But did my wishes come free? Not really. I ended up quitting my job at Random House (a dream job that quickly turned into a nightmare), and transitioned into freelance editing, and teaching, and now my own book is coming out soon. It was the right decision, I got what I wanted, but I definitely paid a toll to cross that bridge.
My ultimate wish, from the time I was little, was to be a writer, and I know I’m not the only one. I’m not in the business of crushing dreams, it’s not my right, or anyone else’s, but I am in the business of helping people get published. I had the opportunity to publish traditionally, but like so many writers are starting to do, I decided to indie publish instead. This is why:
Let’s forget for a moment the massively depressing statistics associated with your odds of getting published (they aren’t good). We’re going to assume you got an agent, and that your agent sold your book to an editor. “Hell, yes!” You think to yourself, “Now I can tell my boss to go screw himself, and I can fulfill my life long dream of swimming in a giant bank vault of gold coins like scrooge McDuck!” Not so fast. A) That tiny cartoon duck makes swimming in a sea of gold coins look way easier than it is, and B) Your advance will probably not be enough that you can retire on it.
The average advance for a debut author is, drum roll please…$5,000. Yes you read that correctly, five thousand dollars. I know. Try not to spend it all in one place, right? $5,000 isn’t generally anything to roll your eyes at, but when you consider all the time that went into writing and rewriting, all the world building, and character development, you come out making about minimum wage. Oh, and don’t forget the cut that goes to your agent who secured the deal for you, and then the taxes you have to pay on it.
“That’s okay!” you think, “I will defy all of the odds because I am a special snowflake, and my book will be a bestseller!” No it won’t. Not most likely, anyway. Most authors don’t make back their advance, and even if you do, a book is pretty much predetermined to be a bestseller or not before it even hits the shelves.
When the publishing house acquires your novel they decide the size of the print run, and how much of their budget they are going to devote to the marketing and publicity of your book. This is partially based upon presales to big bookstores like Barns & Noble (although they aren’t going to want to buy a book the publisher doesn’t believe in either). There just literally may not be enough copies of your book for it to become a bestseller. Also you only have a finite amount of time on the bookshelf to sell before the bookstore sends it back to the publisher to make room for new books. This doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to build any sort of sales momentum.
The alternative to an average sized advance is a heated bidding war resulting in a six figure deal with a major publishing house. Congratulations! That’s awesome. This means your publisher believes in you, and your book. You will probably have a good print run, and a sizeable budget for marketing and PR. Your publisher may even pay to have your book displayed on one of those special tables in Barnes & Noble. In this scenario your chances of your book becoming a bestseller are fairly decent since that is what your publisher is setting out to do. However, if after all the money your publisher just spent on your book, your sales are awful, it can have a negative impact on the rest of your career. Those poor sales figures are going to cause other publishing houses to be more hesitant to buy your future works.
Sarah Reese Brennan, author of The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, knows all about that. Sarah’s books are amazing, honestly some of the best YA writing I’ve read in a long time. Clearly the rest of the publishing world thought so too because her debut manuscript went to auction selling in a “major” six-figure deal. Then something shitty happened. Despite the fact that the writing was above par, and the storytelling stellar, the book didn’t sell that well. I chalk it up to the title, and a cheesy original cover. Now Sarah has another book coming out this fall with a different publisher called Unspoken, and sadly, because of her previous poor sales, Barnes & Noble has decided not to buy her book to sell in their stores. Thankfully it is getting a lot of support from the indie bookstore community ending up as an Indie Next pick for Fall, but it’s still really crappy that something like this could happen to such a talented writer, but sometimes that’s just that hand you get dealt.
I don’t say any of this to discourage you, but rather to help you manage your expectations. Traditional publishing can be a really great thing. It has worked out great for Nicholas Sparks, and James Patterson. But if you have the time, and the know how (or at least the sense to reach out to others who ‘know how’), then indie publishing might be the right path for you as a writer. In part two we’ll discuss the up sides and down sides of indie publishing, and further explore this fascinating publishing trend that puts the power back in the hands of the writer.
Alicia Brockway is the founder of Novel Concepts. Novel Concepts offers editing services, writing classes, private instruction, and career coaching online and in NYC.