If #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Why Not Just Self-Publish?

diverse-logo-sA while back, I wrote this post. I ranted about how during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, some white folks jumped on the hashtag to flog their own books (which may or may not have been truly diverse). I got into a mostly polite back and forth with an anonymous commenter who among other things suggested that if diverse authors can’t sell their diverse books traditionally, they should just self-publish.

On the surface, this sounds like a splendid idea. Self-publishing has become a much more acceptable route to publishing, and there have been some mega-successes (Hugh Howey and Barbara Freethy come to mind).

But how many self-published authors have actually made a go of it? According to Bowker, in 2012 alone (the most recent statistics I could find), nearly 400,000 books were self-published. So that’s a lot of people striking it rich, right?

Not so much. According to this study by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the bulk of self-published authors (about 82%) make less than $5000 per year. The chart they included with the study shows that 19% of the 82% segment make nothing. Zero, nada, zilch. And the chart also indicates that the percent of self-published authors dwindles even more in the higher income brackets.

So right out the gate, if a diverse author went the self-published route, they, like all self-published authors, have a lesser chance of being compensated for their work. Therefore, by being channeled into self-publishing instead of into traditional, diverse authors are almost certainly placed in a lesser position financially.

So a diverse author self-publishing is very likely going to make less money. How about if we move to the other end of the financial issue–what it costs an author to self-publish. I can speak with some authority on this since I have a dozen or so indie-published books up for sale. Here’s what you have to pay for if you’re not publishing traditionally:

  • Editing — If you hope to have any credibility as an author, you need a clean, professionally edited book. Traditional publishers do this in-house, but self-published authors have to pay someone for this service. Costs can be $1000 and up per book
  • Cover art — You think you can do this yourself? Maybe some can, but most authors are masters of the written word, not the visual arts. Even using royalty-free clipart, authors usually don’t have an eye for composition, nor do they own the pricey programs need to put the elements together. An unappealing, amateurish cover can lose you sales, so you’ll want to hire someone experienced to do it for you. Expect to pay $100 and up for cover art per book. It will be even more if you’re going to print rather than just ebook since there’s more work involved in a full cover.
  • Formatting/Uploading — If you’re a technical whiz, you can probably handle the tedious work of getting your book properly formatted and uploaded onto the myriad of sites that sell ebooks. But as someone who has an MS in computer science, I can tell you that this process has been a trial even for me. The worst thing for any author would be to put up a book that’s riddled with errors. Believe me, readers notice and will warn off other readers. So you may need to go the route I did–hire a virtual assistant to do the work. Depending on what their hourly rate is and the formatting problems the VA encounters, I’d say it could be $50 and up per book.
  • Marketing — There are a lot of free avenues for marketing/promoting your book–Twitter, Facebook, e-newsletters. In my opinion, it’s pretty obnoxious to see a million tweets or FB posts urging people to buy your book. But it’s free…and it’s also rarely effective. A lot of people barely register those “Buy me, buy me” tweets, or ignore them entirely. So you might need to go with promotion that costs money, many of which start at $50 or so and go up into the stratosphere cost-wise.

So before a diverse author can get their book up on the virtual shelves of online bookstores, they’ve had to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. Money that the statistics show they are unlikely to recoup. But there are many out there (like my anonymous commenter) who think that self-publishing is a viable way for diverse books by diverse authors to get into the hands of readers.

Expecting diverse authors, but not white authors, to go the indie route is a ghettoization of publishing. Let’s say two authors, one white, one diverse, both have a well-written, publishable book. We’re saying to the white author, “Step right up to this line, the traditional publishing line. We’ll pay for everything, and give you an advance to boot.” Then we’re telling the diverse author, “You have to go to the self-publishing line over there. You’ll have to take all the risk of getting your book published.”

Just as white shouldn’t be the default for characters in books, self-publishing should not be the default path for diverse authors.


About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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8 Responses to If #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Why Not Just Self-Publish?

  1. “…if a diverse author went the self-published route, they, like all self-published authors, have a lesser chance of being compensated for their work.” I think this statement is misleading. In reality, receiving 70% of the royalties vs. whatever minuscule percentage traditionally published authors receive increases the chance of being compensated – fairly compensated. And yes, indie authors do have to pay up front for the publishing services, but ebooks will last forever. Business-wise, if you can pay a flat fee for a service it’s better than a percentage over the infinite life of the product.

    Anyone can self-publish (for better or worse). How many diverse authors get through the slush pile to an agent in the first place, much less get a traditional publishing deal? With self-publishing, voices that aren’t considered marketable can be heard and have the opportunity to find an audience. They may not become bestsellers, but they have a chance. And with the immense difference in royalties, a book doesn’t have to sell nearly as well for the author to earn money.

    http://authorearnings.com, http://www.hughhowey.com/youre-looking-at-it-wrong and this post (http://www.thepassivevoice.com/06/2014/indie-authors-quitting-their-day-jobs/) on indie authors quitting their jobs because they’re making enough with their writing to live on are just a few of the myriad indicators that the situation for self-published authors is not nearly so dire as you suppose.

    • karensandler says:

      I’m just speaking from personal experience. Yes, I make 70% royalty on Amazon for all books priced over $2.99, which works out to about $2/book after Amazon’s fees. However, I’ve had months were I’ve sold only 20 books, 10 books, or even zero books (with a dozen or so for sale). Readers are not finding my books.

      Should I be doing more social networking? Maybe. But putting aside the fact that sites like Facebook won’t give me any reach unless I pay for it (and often I end up with likes from non-readers who are paid to click) which methods are actually effective? Flogging my book on Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest does not build a reader base in my experience. Too many other authors out there are doing the same “Buy me, buy me” tweets/posts for the reader to pick mine out of the Twitter stream or Facebook timeline.

      If you’re making the kind of money as a writer to quit your day job, that’s fantastic. Many, many are not. My main point was just that those who write diverse books should have avenues and opportunities in both traditional and indie publishing.

  2. Penny Johnson says:

    Some people, me, would proofread just for the opportunity to read a free book! I am 63-years old, a retired medical transcription supervisor, and have an MBA in information services. I am also an artist, although of commercial quality, I am not sure. I am disabled due to a degenerative spine. I read a lot and would gladly proof books or manuscripts. If you as the author do not like what I have done, you have lost nothing. Just a thought.

    • karensandler says:

      Penny, you do make a good point, one that supports Leslye’s view too. You can ask beta readers to look at your manuscript for a final proofread. However, there are structural issues in a novel’s story that have to be addressed too. If you’re lucky enough to have a beta reader experienced in making sure the story holds together, and is willing to read for free (or in trade for you reading theirs in return), that’s a great situation.

      You just have to make sure you end up with a professional manuscript when you’re done.

      • Penny Johnson says:

        My sister-in-law is Caroline Clemmons who mostly writes romance novels. I asked her about being a beta reader, and she is going to let me try to beta read one of her books.

      • karensandler says:

        Sometimes an “actual reader” is the best person to beta read. They know what they like and give the author feedback on whether the book works for them.

  3. Annette says:

    I am so glad I stumbled across your site Karen! I have been asking myself these very questions (ok, I’m often late to the party), where are the people of color in my favorite genre, science fiction?
    So I googled it, every which way I could think of. Needless to say it got off topic pretty quickly with many entries being dated. Then I found a comment on DIVERSITY and the heavens opened up! While there are still very few authors with diverse characters in their books (compared to the sheer number of books published, self published or otherwise), I am glad to see that there is serious discussion about it. I haven’t read your book yet but I will!

I do appreciate your comments on what I've written. However, I will no longer approve anonymous comments. Thank you.

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