From Rags to Riches: Is the Traditional Publishing Model Broken, and is Self Pubbing Making it Worse?

If the traditional publishing industry is broken, has the self pub wave helped to alleviate some of the heartbreak that comes with trying to get published through traditional routes, or has it only made it that much harder for talented writers to finally have their voices heard?

For some authors, just seeing their works in print and available for sale on such platforms as Amazon and Barns & Noble has been enough to recognize their life-long dream when it comes to writing. For others, they are not just looking for the self-satisfaction of seeing their works up for sale online, but long for all the fame and fortune that landing a big book deal could mean for them. Enter onto the scene the self pub industry and many, many indie publishing houses, agents, editors, cover artists, and scam artists who are offering desperate and inexperienced authors the chance to “break into” and “make it big” in the self pubbing industry. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that with so many new “writers” entering into the industry, the chances of making a name for yourself, much less being able to make enough money off of sales to write full-time, has went from astronomical to nearly impossible. That’s not to say that there are not any famous indies/self-published authors out there, any more than you could say that there are not any famous and well to do traditionally published authors out there. But those success stories are the exception, not the norm, and it is this little, and often unknown fact that has the entire self pubbing industry in a tizzy.

Let’s get real for a moment. Being a writer is not easy. Even when you go the traditional route, writing is only part of the job you will have to undertake as a writer.  First there is the taxing duty of finding an agent who is willing to take you on as a client. This means a never-ending stream of query letters and chapter submissions. If you are lucky enough to finally find an agent, there will then be the endless rounds of submitting the work to an editor and rewrites upon rewrites. Then there are the submissions to publishing houses and even more trips to the editor and rewrites. And if luck is on your side and one day you get the call from your agent that a publisher is interested, the waiting game begins again as final edits are made, cover art is decided upon (not by the author, mind you), and a release date of upwards to eighteen months is set. And if you are not an “A-list” author, your job still is not over as you spend the next year of your life trying to market and publicize the upcoming release.

Vanity presses sought to change all that by making it easier for a writer to just buy their way into instant publication. But writers have day jobs and drive beat up cars for a reason – writing gigs simply do not pay. So while people who had the financial means to accommodate their vanity and pay to have their books published, it was not an option for your standard, run-of-the-mill starving artist. So you had instant self-publication services such as LuLu and Createspace pop up to fill the gap, allowing authors to instantly publish print and ebook copies of their work as a print-on-demand service, allowing authors to pay a percentage of each work sold as payment for the companies printing and distributing their work. It was a great idea, and with the boom of the eReader, it looked like authors might have a cheap alternative to buying their way into the publication business and a quicker way to get their works into the hands of readers by side-stepping the publishing houses and agents altogether. Gone were the days of having to wait a year or longer after your book was finished before it finally hit readers.

It did not take long for Amazon to realize they could do this very same thing for their popular Kindle reader, adding fuel to the already exploding self-publishing industry. So now everyone who has ever thought about being a writer has all the convenient tools at their disposal to become an instantly published author, usually in a matter of minutes. And therein lies one of the many problems with the publishing industry as a whole.

Anyone who does much reading knows that they have come across more than their fair share of really bad books. There have been so many cringe-worthy books published by traditional publishing houses that it’s laughable. How many times have you read a book and wondered how on earth the author ever managed to get such a badly written piece of crap into publication? Being traditionally published did not automatically mean that you were a good writer. Even being on any Best Seller list doesn’t mean much in this day and age as anyone with enough money and pull can buy their way onto those lists. But it did make readers feel better about their choices in authors, at least giving them the “appearance” of being good because, after all, publishers had to sift through thousands of writers and tens of thousands of manuscripts to pick the ones that eventually became published pieces. If this was the scum that rose to the top of the pile, what must all the rejects be like, right? Well, not exactly, but it did at least give the façade that the publishing houses were only after the best of the best, or the best of what they thought they could make a buck off of.

Now imagine that all those boundaries have come crashing down. You no longer have anyone looking through manuscripts trying to find the next big thing. There are no longer gate keepers to the publishing world keeping out the no talent hacks. These days, anyone who has ever had the thought of writing a novel or short story pop into their minds can now be a published author. And all of those wannabes are coming out of the woodworks by the thousands. Whereas the industry used to see a few new books added to the shelves each month, thanks to DIY publishing, the market is being positively flooded with novels and stories each and every hour. The argument was that making self-publishing an easy-access tool would make it easier for great writers who had only known rejection from traditional publishers to now be able to quickly publish their works without any upfront costs (unless they opted for add-on packages such as editors, cover artists, promotional packages, etc). Only that is not what has happened. It is not easier for great writers to get their works in the hands of eager readers, but has made it harder for those authors to get their names out there because it has become easier for no talent hacks to publish their junk on Amazon and then force unsuspecting readers to swim through all that crap just to find a decent book. The ease of self-publishing has been counter-productive by flooding the market with far too many books and authors. It’s a simple economic fact of supply and demand. When you have way more supply than demand, it makes it even harder for an author to make any type of sales when they now have to compete with not only the traditionally published authors, but the thousands upon thousands of ghetto writers who have slapped their works up for sale on DIY pubbing sites. In simple terms, Amazon has now become the dumping ground for any all writers to toss out their creations, be they good or bad. And according to the hundreds of unsatisfied readers who are taking their voices to the internet, it would appear that the bad writers are outweighing the good ones ten to one.

Compounding the problem is all the writers who are coercing their family and friends to write dozens upon dozens of 5 star reviews and all the bloggers wanting to ride the self pubbing authors’ coattails in an attempt to cash in on their “fame” by writing glowing reviews on their blogs. It makes it twice as hard for readers to be able to tell if a book is legitimately well written and appealing because the reviews are no longer unbiased helpers in their quest for the next great story. So then the question arises, has the self-pubbing wave really helped the dire situation of really great authors sinking to the bottom of the pile while publicity stunts, false reviews, and paid ratings from hack writers are rising to the top of the Amazon best-selling list?

As if the overwhelming task of trying to be your own PR person, publishing house, literary agent, and marketing manager was not enough, seeing the overwhelming odds of making it even in the self-pubbing industry is enough to make any writer want to toss in the towel before they even get started. And where do you start on this journey anyway? Sure, writers can write, but for those inexperienced in formatting, graphic artwork, and editing, trying to do all of that work themselves just seems like it might be a bit more difficult than trying to get published the traditional way. Many of them are turning to the hundreds of agents, indie publishing houses, cover artists, and editing service providers that have sprung up since the whole self-pubbing movement began. This, of course, leads to many authors being taken for hundreds and even thousands of dollars for services they have either not received, services that were less than satisfactory, broken promises of publicity and recognition, and instances of their copyrighted works being stolen and sold. It’s a breeding ground for corruption and scams since there is no one holding the ‘companies’ accountable. It is fanning the flames of an already out of control problem that is causing many writers countless dollars and sleepless nights.

On the opposite end of this spectrum are those writers who are hitting the best-selling list on such self-pubbing sites as Amazon and Barns & Noble. And while thousands of great writers can only dream of being a best seller on any list, it would appear that hitting this list is not all it is cracked up to be. With these sites taking as much as 70% of the royalties off of each sale, just being on the best sellers list does not translate into cash in the pockets of writers. Many writers are reporting that while they are selling thousands of copies, the take home pay is pennies on the dollar. When subtracting all the overhead that comes with paying for professional editing services, cover artists, paid advertising, cost of website upkeep and all the time invested, the actual profit on these sales are down right minuscule. And again the sheer number of writers hitting the market and the volume of new material available is causing writers to have to mark their creations at ridiculously low costs. Some are even being forced to go so far as to give copies of their ebooks away in a desperate attempt to drum up readers and interest. And that, of course, presents a whole new set of problems on its own that goes back to there being too many writers and novels and not nearly enough interest, readers, and buying customers to economically support everyone. Then you have to take into consideration the return policy of Kindle books. With Amazon allowing returns, many authors are seeing their already drastically under-priced works being returned by readers by the dozens.

Let’s take into consideration how much profit an author can actually make from a single copy of an ebook. While self-publishing companies like Amazon allow a writer to control how much their product is sold for, they are taking as much as 70% of the profits. Breaking down the math, a $.99 book only garnishes a writer $.29. A writer would have to sell 4 copies to make $1 profit. That means that a writer would need to sell 100,000 copies every year just to make the medial income of $25K per year. And if the writer had overhead costs of graphic artists for covers and book trailers, editors, and paid advertising, it is possible for nearly every penny of that profit to go back into the process of getting the book out to the masses. And while some authors are reporting such sales, again, those are the exceptions to the rule. 99% of writers are not going to see more than a few thousand copies sold each year.

So this leaves authors with the question of whether or not it is worth it to their careers to try the self-pubbing route or to just stick with traditional publishing routes. As with any decision, it ultimately comes down to each individual author having to decide if they have the creativity and/or financial means to handle self-pubbing. It is simply not a yes or no question. There are pros and cons for each route, and what may be a pro for one author will most certainly be a con for another. Making the decision should be based off of well researched data and what each author is willing to invest, both financially and time, and not make a decision based off of what other authors are claiming or reporting. If you are willing to put forth the time, energy, and effort into any publishing route, then make sure you are choosing correctly for yourself, and never be afraid to change your mind.