A 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.