Last year prolific – and profitable – author Steff Green quit her day job to write full-time. And she’s creaming it. Responding to a recent Spinoff essay by Stephanie Johnson, she says it’s time for the old school to drop the scorn and learn from those nailing self-publishing.
This story was published in June 2019.
The sky is falling on the publishing industry.
Online platforms like Amazon and Book Depository are squeezing the bottom line. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores are folding. Paper shortages are messing with schedules. Out-of-date marketing models struggle to understand how to reach readers. All of this is impacting the bottom line – houses, distributors, and imprints are shutting or consolidating, author advances are dropping, and editors are less likely to take a chance on an unknown writer, preferring instead to court celebrities and political tell-alls.
If you’re an author, these cuts are hitting you worse than anyone. The 2019 Writers’ Earnings in New Zealand report, commissioned by Copyright Licensing New Zealand, showed that on average, writers earn only 31% of their personal income from writing, around $15,200 per annum – less than the minimum wage. Around half rely on their partner’s income or another job to pay their bills. Around the world, the numbers are similar. In the UK, writers earn an average NZ$20,500 per annum, down from previous years. In the US, it’s NZ$9400, a drop of 42% from their last survey.
All this gloom. And yet, one subset of the publishing industry isn’t in trouble. It’s booming. It’s flourishing. And weirdly, no one seems to be looking at those publishers and asking, “How are they doing it?” Instead, they’re being blamed for the downfall of books.
I’m talking about self-publishers.
Say the words ‘self-publishing’ to a traditional publisher or author and watch their lip curl back in scorn. As Stephanie Johnson said in her recent piece for the Spinoff, “… writers who have laboured for years, whose publishers have invested in quality editors, design and paper receive less and less per book as a deluge of self-published books cram onto the shelves.” This is the view many hold of us – that our low prices and supposed inferior quality are driving a race to the bottom that will only end in the annihilation of reading as we know it.
Traditionalists cling to small hopes peddled in the media about ebook sales dropping, convinced that this points to the fact that discerning readers are waking up to this deluge of crap. Alas, it is a false hope.
Why? Because the research such reports rely on comes from Nielsen data, which only considers books with ISBNs. You don’t need an ISBN in order to load an ebook onto Amazon. Many indie authors don’t use ISBNs at all, and so they weren’t counted. Author Earnings estimates that of the top 10,000 books on Amazon, less than 45% are traditionally published. The rest are indie authors (a less loaded term for self-publishers) and small press (many of which are actually indie authors). The vast majority of those sales are digital. (Consider too that indie authors earn 70% royalties, instead of approximately 10% from a publisher.)
Sorry to burst your bubble, but digital reading is here to stay. And why not? E-books are cheap and portable. For readers like me who are vision-impaired, every book is accessible as a large print edition. The story is exactly the same on a screen as it is stamped onto chewed-up dead trees.
Instead of viewing indie authors as a threat or a death-knell, instead of laughing off their success and maligning their readers as idiots who’ll eat up any old trash, perhaps traditional publishers could learn from us.
Indie authors like me, we are the new publishers. We do all the jobs a publishing house does – we commission the work, write it, edit it, package it, get it to market, and promote it to readers. We love our books, we live to tell stories, but we treat the act of getting our books out into the world like the business it is.
We use daily sales data from Amazon and other platforms to judge the return on investment of our marketing efforts. We conduct market research on our readers and tailor new releases to hit trends. We experiment with length, genre, and cover art. Some of us hire ghostwriters in order to produce more work in popular series, in the same way publishers have always done for popular brands like Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High.
We hire our own editors, proofreaders, and covers designers to put out quality products indistinguishable from traditionally published books. We know that readers don’t generally care who publishes a book. No one buys a book based on who published it. Readers choose books because they want to be entertained, so we try to make it easy for them to find a story they’ll enjoy.
We price competitively. Many of us use free or $0.99 first-in-series books as loss leaders to hook readers on a series. We experiment with subscription services like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, where readers pay $10 a month to devour as many books as they like. We have our books available in multiple formats – ebooks, print, audiobook – in every major territory. You might cry that we’re cheapening literature, but I believe we’re making reading more accessible.
We collaborate, and experiment with new routes to market. In 2018, I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign with my illustrator friend Bree Roldan for a children’s picture book about a little grim reaper who’s bullied because he’s different. The Kickstarter introduced my work to a whole new group of readers in a new market, and the finished book, Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones, is now available.
We build communities, both online and offline. We find small niches where we connect with readers on a deeply personal level because we all love the same thing – whether that thing is sexy werewolves, diverse children’s books, Amish horror stories, military fantasy, or cosy witch mysteries.
We listen to readers. We don’t tell them what they want. We don’t moan in the media when they don’t buy what we’re selling or call the things they love to read “trash” or “low-quality”. We accept that readers are the final gatekeepers, and that their tastes will ultimately dictate the market and keep reading alive. If we see that they’re craving more of something, we give it to them.
We ‘move fast and break things’. We take lessons from the startup community. We believe that it’s more important to have a book in a reader’s hands or on their Kindle than to spend months or years making that book absolutely perfect. So far this year, I’ve published six books. None of those books will win the Pulitzer but they are out in the world, being read and loved.
We do these things because we’re passionate about books and stories and reading, and it pays off. Last year – my first year in business after quitting my day job to write full time – I published five books and grossed $125,976.53. This year I’ll bank over $200k. Next year… let’s just say I have big goals.
I’m not saying that to skite, but because I want writers to know what’s possible. I’m not a household name. I’m not topping the bestseller lists or having gold statues of myself commissioned by foreign dictators or seeing quotes from my books made into Instagram memes. In the realm of indie authors, I am small fry. I am a publishing house of one.
How am I doing it? I’m putting readers first. I’m giving them more of what they want, and having fun doing it. What I’m not doing is clinging to an outdated publishing model from the Great Depression. I’m not in the business of selling stacks of paper bound with glue. I’m giving readers what they’ve wanted all along – stories.
The publishing industry isn’t dying. It’s evolving. No matter the format, no matter who is behind the publishing desk, humans still crave stories. It’s up to you as an author or publisher to bring those stories to life.
Steff Green is the author of 30 paranormal romance and dark fantasy novels. She is the 2017 winner of the Attitude Award for Artistic Achievement, and a 2018 finalist for a NZ Women of Influence award.