Brenna Aubrey: A Case Study

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.

At Any Price Front

28 responses to “Brenna Aubrey: A Case Study”

  1. Great stuff, such awesomeness from Brenna! And one less “untold story” of SP.

    Going back to the Higgins post and I’ve had a lot of thoughts. I don’t want to seem critical of her, it’s her career and her choice, but she seems a lot more interested in “being published” then in simply doing all the writerly things she mentions in her post as the benefits of being with a BPH. She could be doing all of that and more on her own.

    I think some people (not you Hugh) have looked smugly at her admission of low income but the fact is that as an indie she has no guarantee of doing any better. If anything she may even be doing worse. I think it’s safe to say there are a LOT more indie YA titles out there than there are in print. It’s a pretty dense niche right now and she could very easily be lost in that giant pool as well.

    That said she seems to be making excuses for her publisher, justifying things in her own mind and accepting the BPH status quote as somehow unavoidable. Sad, because she seems like a genuinely nice person and it was very thoughtful and open minded of her (brave even) to share her info the way she did. I wish her all the best In becoming a breakout bestseller. Unfortunately BigPub shelf-life is not on her side. Reading the list of promo efforts her publisher isn’t doing for her and they don’t really seem to be either.

    That’s why I think that we’ll be seeing a “Why I left my publisher and self published” post from her in the not too distant future.

    1. Yeah, I hope I don’t come across as critical of her. She was brave and generous to post the truth. I feel awful for her. Those rates are just terrible.

      I will say that she couldn’t possibly do worse self-publishing. Even if she didn’t sell a single book, owning all of her hard work should be worth more than what she was paid.

      1. If I’m remembering right, she got her deal in 2010. She may have made a different decision today, than she did more than three years ago.

        1. God yes! another huge point. The time to publish can stretch out to years. How much has happened in the last two years. What will 2016 be like in the industry? Will there even be a national chain of bookshelves to covet being on?

          18 months is the standard timeline that gets thrown out but so are stories of musical editors, books like your tanking and being reconsidered, big name author X comes aboard and you’re now a D priority, etc. From agent acceptance to bookshelf? 3…4 years? As fast as things are changing now it might as well be decades.

  2. Ugh. Internal conflict bubbles up again.

    I was pretty sure before reading this blog post that I was going to do The Really Hard thing and finish grinding out the last 300 pages of my near-future sci fi novel about the future of California, then go through the multiple levels of flaming hoop-jumping to try to get a deal with Tor or Orb or some other science fiction publisher. THE DECISION came after five years of writing, rewriting, researching, and multiple false starts, when I finally reached a point where I was happy with the first half of the story and could actually see myself finishing the damn thing.

    Making THE DECISION put wind back in my sails. In the past month I wrote 40+ pages. That’s not a lot by the Howey Yardstick, but I’m a game designer (a story writer) who works long hours, and it isn’t always easy to get motivated to spend hours typing in MS word when I’ve just gotten home from the officer, where I spent 8-10 hours writing story in MS Word.

    Now I’m gingerly washing my face through my hands wondering why the heck I clicked on this post, knowing I would reconsider THE DECISION if I did. I’ve worked with, by my reckoning, some of the worst people in entertainment. They gravitate towards the game industry for reasons I can’t explain. But I know how bad it can get. People changing your story or turning it into something it isn’t. Fucking with your dialog. Claiming your ideas as their own for a promotion or just to have their name in front of yours on the script. It wears you down. The appeal of self-publishing is so, so sweet. Even though I know in all likelihood the only person who will ever by my book is my mom, even if it’s really good… that stories like Brenna Aubrey’s are the exception that proves the rule. But that freedom…

    Of course, if I do self-publish, I think it would probably best to serialize, since my intuition tells me anyone who sees a 700-800 page novel from an unknown author is going to shy from it, even if the cover is really cool…

    Anyway Mr. Hugh, thank you for giving this the signal boost, I think it’s exactly what young, clueless, possibly-future-authors (begrudgingly) need to hear, and I know personally I would not have seen it if I didn’t follow your blog.

  3. the office**

    buy my book****

    it’s early.

  4. Wow! I’m looking to be publishing my first novel a little later this year. I’m 20 and totally broke, so the thought of putting $1800 into editing and cover art still kind of gives me an an anxiety attack, but it’s stories like these that give me hope. Very very cool. Thank you for sharing, Hugh.

    1. You don’t have to put that much money into it, though if you’re smart about spending it then it can certainly help. There’s a wild difference between genres, and if you’re writing more to a niche, it might be better to start off small and do most of the work yourself. You can always upgrade stuff like covers, blurbs, etc.

  5. Very good post. You are dead right on your case study. Although I’ve never had the pleasure of turning down a 6 figure trad deal, I do fully understand the merit of self-publishing. I have 10 novels out there, one of which was a Smashwords bestseller, another an award winner. After 4 years of publishing, I’m seeing reasonable returns on my books. I published one novella last year and it got quite popular. And its popularity had an unexpected benefit: an novella I wrote 2 years earlier started selling again- and doing very well!

    The nice part of self-publishing is that you can gauge your audience by how your book sales are doing. I write a variety of genres, and right now, I seem to be a romance writer. So that’s what I’ve been focusing on. But that may change. I have a sci-fi series that the first book made it to #4 on Amazon, so maybe in a year that series will be hot. Who knows.

    It all boils down to how much effort you want to put into your books. I do just about everything except copyediting and occasionally covers. But for the most part, I’m a one woman band who cranks out 2-3 books a year. I’m slowly building my fan base, and I know that takes time. Apparently I’m in it for the long haul; I can’t get the characters in my head to shut up!

    1. Yup, the effort is a huge factor. I work more hours than I would recommend for others. But the authors I see doing well really bust their butts. Congrats on your successes. Four years is a very short time to already be seeing results! Most writers wouldn’t have their first work published in that span of time.

  6. Thank you Hugh, I now have a starting point, a case-study to point any author who uses the “But then I’ll have to compete with all the crappy books out there” excuse.

    Write a good book, get it professionally taken care of, YES it costs money to do so… and publish.

    Great share Hugh.

  7. I have to disagree with you on one point: I think self-publishing is like owning your own house, while traditional publishing is like owning your house and then renting it out to someone who might pay their rent every month and treat your investment property with respect… or they might just trash the place and then skip out on you.

    1. Good point. There’s always the chance of having respectful and timely-paying renters! Of course, they’re going to pay every six months. And there’s almost no way to evict them if things go sour. :)

  8. I was gung-ho for self publishing my YA Contempory, but I’m very glad I stepped back. Not because I think either self or traditional publishing is better or worse, but because I avoided the number one fault of people publishing either method- rushing.

    The biggest downside to trying to get published is the damage you can do to yourself. It seems so easy and so impenetrable, but as you do research, you discover, ‘Hey, I could publish this thing RIGHT NOW if I want to!’

    Thank god I stepped back to reassess everything I’d been thinking. My novel was not ready. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought I was done, only to find more ways to improve it.

    If I could give the writers out there any advice, it would be to edit, research, edit more, beta, join crit groups, edit more, research more, then edit, edit, edit.

    Once you’ve done that, then you’re ready to query or self publish.

    The number one goal should be writing something great, NOT just getting published.

    1. This is great advice. Anyone who rushes their work stands almost no chance of success. This is just as true of those who submit to agents before a manuscript is ready.

      1. The flipside of this is often referred to as “never finished syndrome” wherein the author/artist tweaks and works on something forever, either fearing it isn’t “good enough” or just afraid of rejection. Sometimes you have to trust your 1st/test readers, and let that baby go.

        Also, while I understand the reasons for some folks getting an editor, I’m of the school of “writing IS re-writing” and almost a 1000$ on that initial endeavor would have kept quite a bit of food on the table or the lights on.

        A writer’s toolbox isn’t complete, imho, without the ability to cut/n/paste/n/kill the things that you love in order to polish the work.

  9. Melanie A. Nichols Avatar
    Melanie A. Nichols

    Thanks so much for the post. It’s nice to hear success stories. Whether or not they are the norm, it is comforting to think that if I put in the time and effort I have the chance of my book going somewhere (heck, even getting $100 a month is an exciting prospect at this point). I had planned on going traditional, because I had been told time and time again that self-publishing was for unprofessional idiots. Then I read the article about you in Writer’s Digest last year and my entire perspective changed. I’m gung-ho about getting it self-published and am working on getting my book ready for that huge leap. Geronimo!

  10. Feeling a bit overwhelmed (in a GOOD WAY) by the outpouring of support and wonderful comments on Facebook, my blog, here, Twitter, EVERYWHERE! Wow. I can hardly keep up.

    Hugh, you’re a superstar. Thanks so much for everything. I didn’t know you (except through your posts through Kboards) before this but I feel like if we ever meet in person, we could probably talk for hours–mostly about how it’s going as CEO of New Harper Collins :p

    Thanks to everyone for the wonderful support. I’m bowled over by it!! I’ve had a huge smile on my face all day.

  11. […] to write this post for a while, but what pushed me to it this time was Hugh Howey’s excellent post about Brenna Aubrey who turned down a six-figure contract deal to self-publish, and found the […]

  12. Brenna is was doing an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit yesterday. She may still be answering questions.

  13. Please don’t shout at me, attack me or be condescending. I’m not an author, nor a critic or anything, I have no vested interest.
    I came across the story of Brenna today and I was impressed. It seems to good to be true.
    What evidence is there to support her account? I see what she has stated, but surely anyone could do that?
    Why could it not be considered a marketing exercise?

    And please I am really just curious. Just interested in facts. I am not criticising in the slightest.

    1. The writing community isn’t that large. Brenna has a lot of friends who know what she was going through as the deal unfolded.

  14. Oh, wow. I know Brenna through my New Adult Authors group on FB and had no idea this happened! She always comes across as a hard worker and very helpful and kind to other authors trying to make their dreams come true. I’m so happy for her that she followed her dreams and self-published. It is a great book! It should also be said that she worked HARD on this book. She asked tons of questions in our FB group and covered all her bases. Because working hard is so important if you’re going to make it self-publishing. I just read another self-publishing piece yesterday where the author said she didn’t work hard but got lucky, and then assumed that every other self-publisher didn’t work hard like she did. It was baffling. I’m glad there are authors like you that set a better example.

  15. […] For those who are interested in this story and want to join the conversation, you can of course post comments here or also check out these links: Reddit | Chuck Wendig’s Blog | Hugh Howey’s Blog. […]

  16. Hello, I’m a little confused now that I am currently working on trying to get a book deal through a publishing house. I got my first book published by a small publishing house back in 2012, and it was an learning experience that made me want to try something wide range. I am a fairly new children’s author and I would like to know being a self published author how did you target your audience?

  17. Hi Hugh,

    I came across Brenna’s story last night through some random writer’s emailing. Naturally, I was intrigued. And then I stumbled upon your sight. I’m glad I did. From the looks of things, you are gracious enough to share a great deal of valuable information. As I move forward to seriously making a go at a writing career, I am certain to pop back from time to time for words of wisdom. Thank you for making this available.

    Sherry Goman

  18. No one routes for the evil villan who’s run off with the hero’s beau, same applies to
    a site that’s been stuck in Google‘s naughty corner.

    The website speed test at Secret Search Engine Labs will analyze how fast a page on your site is loading and give you tips on how to improve it.
    There are other ways to improve your ranking in Googlemaps, the purpose of this
    blog post is not to tell you EVERYTHING Frederick Web Promotions can do to improve your
    ranking, the purpose of this particular blog post is to:

  19. […] The second post by the amazing Hugh Howey: Newbie Author Declines $120,000 3-book Deal […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *