The Middleman Is Always There: The Economics of Self-Publishing

Today we have a lesson in economics, which is perhaps not what you expected when you arrived here. It could be worse, though. I could have written about the market pressures on ferret farmers as a result of tulip shortages in Denmark. Actually, no I couldn’t. But wouldn’t that have been surprising? Fear not, this is still about writing. In fact, it pertains specifically to all those who have self-published or are thinking about it.

Let’s begin with a recent article from the Guardian. The news here isn’t actually all that new. Basically, half of self-published authors are making less than $500 from their books. This isn’t the economics lesson. This is just common sense. There are so many self-pubbed ebooks out there that most of them will inevitably be buried under the success stories. Not necessarily a bright bit of news, but important to remember if you plan to self-publish.

Fortunately, it seems that most authors are going into the process with reasonable expectations. The survey showed that only five percent of these sub-$500 authors felt unsuccessful. I think this is the right reaction. The feeling of accomplishment alone is pretty satisfying.

However, none of this is related to the economics lesson I promised. Consider this invaluable piece of information buried near the end of the story:

Authors … would be well advised to spend time and money on making a title look professional, the survey found: self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%.

For the love of J.K. Rowling’s bridge club, please tell me that this doesn’t surprise you. In a sea of self-published books, the ones that appear the most professional will always rise to the top. But wait, we still haven’t arrived at the economics lesson.

Notice how the best-selling titles usually had outside help (meaning someone other than the author contributed to the creation and sale of the book)?

I was a panelist at Baycon a few weeks ago (I was speaking as the managing editor of Fiction Vortex, instead of as an author, so I appeared on several publishing-related panels), and I kept hearing people singing the praises of self publishing because the “traditional publishing companies won’t take all your sales revenue and give you a pittance in return for all your hard work.” It’s a revolution that returned complete power to the writer, they said. Everyone believed that we had ousted the evil nemesis of authors everywhere, thus liberating writers to connect directly with the reader and receive all proceeds for their hard work.

The problem is, this simply isn’t true. I think I crushed more than a few dreams when I said this, but you need to understand how this works. The lesson here today is that there will always be a middleman (or middlewoman) between you and the reader, no matter how empowering the digital publishing revolution may be, and the most successful authors will usually be the ones who used them.

In any market of sufficient size, there are always people who do one of two things: process a raw product, or distribute it. I’m related to some farmers, so let me make a rurally inspired analogy here. Many years ago, Bob milked his cows, put the milk in a wagon, and delivered this milk to all the people who would pay money for it. He controlled the production and distribution of his product directly. For his son, Reginald, times are different. Reginald milks his cows and sells the milk to a processing company that makes the milk better (by modern standards) and cleaner. But that’s not the end. The processing company then uses another company to bottle the milk and distribute the milk to stores. Then the stores distribute the milk to paying customers. Depending on the vagaries of various markets, the producer can be anywhere from two to ten steps away from the customer. Furthermore, if a man showed up at your doorstep with a cow in tow, offering to give you farm-fresh milk (organic!), you would turn your nose up at him and explain that you prefer your milk from Foodways, Inc. You may also be curious how he got the cow into the elevator, but that’s a different matter.

So how does this apply to you, dear writer? Simple. Unless you plan to go door-to-door trying to sell your self-published ebook on flash drives to individual customers, you need middlemen. Middlemen perform a service to save you time or money. So, years ago, instead of buying a printing press, paper, ink, etc. you went to a publisher who would perform a multitude of services for you to make your book better. They did (and still do) a host of other things, too. Editing, for one. Distribution, for another. And don’t forget promotion and advertising. Of course, we can debate the efficacy of all this on a book-by-book basis, but in short, the publisher did a whole bunch of things for you that would have cost more time and money than you have, particularly if you ever plan on writing again.

Now, with this digital revolution, we’ve traded one middleman for another. Instead of Penguin and Harper Collins, you’ve got Amazon and Barnes & Noble (or whichever service you think is the least objectionable). Whatever your feelings about Amazon, they’re performing a service that authors still need. But that’s not the end of it. Amazon is really only performing one of the major services: distribution. They don’t really care about promoting your book (unless it’s already at the top of the pile), and they certainly don’t offer free story editing or copy editing.

So what is a self-publishing author with free market dreams to do? Find someone else to help.

That’s where more middlemen come in. There are niches opening up, and people are running to fill them. There are gazillions of services catering to self-pub authors, offering to help with editing and book cover creation. Remember how we said middlemen save you time or money? Well, there are plenty of services catering to those who don’t have time to do free things such as social media promotion or uploading files to distributors. And as The Guardian reports, using at least some of these middlemen is a wise decision. (And I agree. At the very least, consider a professional for copy-editing/proofreading and cover creation.)

That’s how the digital revolution works. Yes, it leap-frogs over one giant middleman, but there is a whole crowd of middlemen on the other side, waiting to gently catch you and keep your feet planted firmly on the earth.

I’m not trying to be a pessimist here, or make you think that you’re doomed to pay money to everyone for the rest of your life, but I do want you to be realistic about your expectations. Yes, it is easier to get published than ever before, but doing it right and becoming successful at it will require the help of at least a few other people. And that’s okay. Just be smart about who you decide to use, and stay within a strict budget. Maybe you’re not the Ayn Rand poster-child of publishing, yanking that ebook out of the digital soil by its bootstrap, with nothing but a sweaty brow and a sense of superiority to help you, but you can be a published author with a great book to sell.

Oh, and there will still be some sweat involved. That book ain’t gonna write itself. Unless you’re interested in another middleman. He goes by the name Ghostwriter.

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