Doesn’t “Case Study” sounds so much better than “anecdote”? I think so. Some will no doubt dismiss the following because of ingrained biases, but my hope is that if we stack enough anecdote together that it will become data. Because until we have real data that works, I don’t know anything better than keeping our minds and eyes wide open and accruing as much anecdotal experience as possible. If we do it long enough, we might just learn something.
A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting story on KBoards. A debut author named Brenna Aubrey had just turned down a three book deal worth $120,000. Her main sticking point was a non-compete clause, a ridiculous contractual tool that I’ve complained about here numerous times. She also had enough friends self-publishing and making a solid living that she decided she could do better on her own. The decision couldn’t have been easy, but she found support from fellow writers who have made the transition from traditional to self publishing.
Elsewhere and by others, she was attacked and bullied, called a liar and deemed an idiot. Meanwhile, those of us who understood how this money would be paid out (incrementally over several years) and how tied-up Brenna’s career would be (she wouldn’t be able to write and publish as quickly as she wanted) rushed to her defense. Only time would tell if she had made the right decision.
I figured it would take quite a bit of time. Years, perhaps. At least as long as it would have taken to publish her first novel had she gone traditional. In fact, it took a month. In her first 30 days of sales, Brenna has brought in over $18,000. Yes, this is atypical. So is having a bidding war on your debut novel. As I argued in a blog post entitled The Work is the Work; The Path is the Path, a novel’s quality is not appreciably affected by its method of publication. Brenna wrote a great book, as evidenced by the interest from publishers. Did she leverage having turned down a 6-figure deal for initial sales? No more than she would have leveraged having signed a 6-figure deal for initial sales. This book was never going to release with a whimper. The publisher would have thrown the weight of their mighty publicity department behind this book (no doubt). The book was the book. What this case study does is help reveal the beauty of the path.
Brenna spent just over $1,800 on the production of the book. Again, it shows that she has done her homework, that she has listened to the advice from fellow authors, and that she takes her craft and this profession seriously. The writers who do these things are already in the top 1% (possibly higher). They don’t have to worry about competing with millions of self-published e-books. For this reasonable sum, which I have argued we should see as both an inexpensive hobby and also a paltry start-up cost for a small business, Brenna has paid ONCE what she would have paid her publisher for the rest of her life. It cost her $1,800 to OWN HER ART. Forever. She can now stamp out as many print books as she wants. The electrons are boundless. She can promote this book 20 years from now and make 70% royalties.
When I shared her story weeks ago on Facebook, I commented on how brave she was. A friend tried to compare my having turned down 6 and 7-figure offers, but I strongly disagree. I was making a healthy income from my writing when I walked away from those deals. Brenna had nothing but belief in herself. That blows me away. There’s no way I could’ve been strong enough to trust my craft and my work and give up a 6-figure deal and the prestige of getting published by a major house. I know this about myself. Brenna is cut from a different cloth.
And that’s what makes this case study so important. Contrast this with another recent blog post about how little a debuting author made from their publishing deal. Those of us who have seen revenue from both sides know the pros and cons, and sharing our experiences is meant to help aspiring writers make a sound decision. That won’t always be the same decision. Some authors will decide that the money is less important and go with a traditional publisher. Some will decide that the allure of bookstore placement trumps the ability to control their price and serve their readers. The only wrong choice here is to choose without all the facts.
* The first fact is that very few books make money. Most books sent down the traditional path never get published at all. These authors don’t even get agents. Likewise, most self-published books earn less than $100. Hey, it’s more than zilch, but don’t quit your day job however you decide to publish.
* The second fact is that pound for pound, self-publishing pays more. Is your book truly great? Only the reader can decide this. If it does well along either path, it’ll pay better self-published. And you’ll have the advantage of a lower price (while still making more per sale). You’ll also have a longer window. Rather than sit spine-out on a bookshelf for 3 months, you’ll have decades for your work to be discovered. Multiply any advantage by this expanded range of availability, and a moderate advantage becomes an enormous one.
* The third fact is all about ownership. Not just the business sense of controlling one’s work but the pride and freedom that come with it. No one will put a cover on your book that you disapprove of. No one will charge more than you think is fair. No one will tell you that you can’t give away that work or include it in that box set or quickly rewrite that product description. Working for yourself is like owning your own house. Working for someone else is like renting. How you view a thing and treat it is similarly affected.
* The last fact is that a lot of luck is involved. This is true however you publish. That luck won’t change because a major publisher signed you (they sign a lot of people, and most of them don’t earn out their paltry and staggered advances). Your luck also won’t change because you read on a blog that self-publishing rocks and everyone should do it. There are risks and rewards both ways. Right now, I believe the scale is pinned in the favor of self-publishing. At least until major houses get rid of non-compete clauses, pay higher royalties for ebook sales, and limit their contracts to a set number of years. Until these things happen, more talented writers should be as brave as Brenna. Every writer that walks away and then goes on to sell thousands of books is another anecdote. Once publishers see a pile enough of them, they’ll become data. And then things will change.
Don’t buy Brenna’s book to support her courageous decision. Buy a copy because it’s good. Hell, publishers started a bidding war over this puppy. That ought to tell you something.