A Perspective from Lindsey Faber, Managing Editor of Samhain Publishing

It’s called digital self-publishing, after all, so maybe this won’t seem like the most groundbreaking topic. But we’re in this brave new world of publishing, with new technology and new publishing models. The industry is changing rapidly, offering more options and alternatives than ever, and some of those options are looking increasingly attractive. Like digital self-publishing. Amazon’s Digital Text Platform makes it easy for any author to get their books into the Kindle store. The Kindle market has exploded, and author J.A. Konrath is making excellent money by self-publishing his titles through Kindle.  There’s an opportunity for the author to get more of the cover price, an outlet for books that might be passed over by publishers as unmarketable, and a system that gives the author more creative control… Just like self-publishing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t want to disparage self-publishing or engage in the commercial-publishing-versus-self-publishing debate. But some of the articles and attitudes I’ve encountered lately suggest that writers feel digital self-publishing is a different animal. And it’s not. It might be a more viable option than print self-publishing at this point, but it’s mostly being examined as an alternative to commercial print publishing, ignoring the more relevant comparison—whether it’s a better option than working with a digital publisher.

As the managing editor for a publisher that specializes in digital, obviously I feel a reputable digital publisher has more to offer. But my main concern is that authors understand the digital process and these five reasons why digital self-publishing is still, well, self-publishing.

1.The author is fronting the expenses

One of the biggest misconceptions about digital publishing is that there’s no overhead. Um, no. Digital publishing has a lower overhead than print publishing, because the expenses of printing, shipping and warehousing the books is eliminated. But the price of editing, copyediting, cover art, formatting, marketing? Still applies to ebooks. And like any form of self-publishing, if there’s no publisher footing the bill, guess who is. That’s right—the author.

Several authors who’ve experimented with digital self-publishing were kind enough to answer my questions about their experience. When I asked them about what it cost them to produce the book, their answers varied. Some had hardly any expenses, but they edited, formatted, and created cover art themselves. One estimated $20-$50 per book, but she depends on beta readers for editing, does her own formatting, and has a webmaster who designs cover art at an affordable price. Bree of the Moira Rogers writing team estimated that if they didn’t do all the work themselves, it would probably cost them $150-$200 a book. As it is, she said they put twice as much time into their self-published work as into their Samhain titles, “and that is taking into account the fact that most of the self-published titles are a good bit shorter.”

Bree also said that the hardest part of self-publishing is “making sure you put out a quality product that is well edited, packaged and formatted. Those are all either time-consuming or expensive to achieve, but skimping on any aspect can result in a book that leaves a poor or outright bad impression. The only way to truly build a platform is to put out a quality product that people want to buy. Doing it without the help of a publisher is already stacking the deck against you, so it's important to deliver an awesome book.”

2. A higher percentage of the profits doesn’t guarantee more money

A major argument in favor of digital self-publishing is that authors can get a much larger percentage of the cover price than by working through a publisher. The royalty rate for ebooks is a complex and ongoing debate in its own right, and I’ll agree that this is probably true if you’re talking about large, print-focused publishers. Most digital publishers, however, offer competitive royalty rates.

For example, authors who publish through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform receive 35% of the cover price on their Kindle sales. Samhain offers authors 30% of these sales—as Bree said, “We only make 5% more on self-published Kindle books than on our Samhain titles. That is soooooo not worth taking responsibility for all the things Samhain does for us.” And 30 to 35% of what? One of the truths of digital self-publishing is that readers flock to books that are cheap. J. A. Konrath has suggested the ideal price point for Kindle self-published titles is $1.99. 35% of that price will net the author 70 cents per unit. A Samhain short story, however, has a list price of $2.50 (but will be discounted by Amazon to $2.00), netting the author 75 cents. For novel-length books, Samhain sets the price at $5.50 (and Kindle readers pay$4.40), which means the author earns $1.65 per sale. Readers are willing to pay a higher price for books from a trusted source, so authors actually have the opportunity to earn more per unit by going with an established publisher.

3. There are limited distribution options

Distribution is the number one reason to go with an established publisher in any format. If readers can’t find your book, they’re not buying it, and getting books in front of readers is one of the biggest struggles authors (and publishers and booksellers) face. Compared to getting your print book into Borders, Barnes & Nobles, Walmarts, and independent bookstores across the country, digital publishing seems a lot easier. Amazon has deliberately made getting books into the Kindle store as easy as possible.

But Amazon is just one venue. The largest and most important venue at this particular moment, but still only one venue that reaches only a certain subset of digital readers. At Samhain, only around half our sales come from the Kindle store, which means an author who limits distribution to the Kindle could be cutting their potential sales in half. Plus new devices like the Nook and the iPad are poised to offer the Kindle some serious competition, so there are no guarantees Amazon will be able to maintain its market dominance in the future.

Of the self-published authors I talked to, only Claire Thompson distributes outside Kindle and author cooperatives, and she explained that achieving this level of distribution took her six months. To list at AllRomanceEbooks.com, she had to have 10 titles available, and she ended up joining forces with a publisher to get her digitally self-published titles listed in Fictionwise, because they require a publisher to have at least five separate authors. Even this doesn’t compare to the distribution Samhain offers, which includes not only Kindle, Fictionwise, and AllRomanceEbooks, but My Bookstore and More (our sister site), Barnes & Noble, Books on Board, Sony, Mobipocket, and LightningSource Digital.

4. The author has to be the salesman

You aren’t going to be the only one who’s heard about the potential of digital self-publishing and is eager to test the waters. So in a sea of self-publishers, how are you going to stand out? The expectations for author promotion are high enough for authors who have excellent distribution and publisher support. Authors who digitally self-publish have to bear all this expense and effort on their own.

The digital market is already competitive. Samhain has helped its authors stand out through our Kindle freebie program. The only thing readers love better than cheap ebooks is free ebooks, so every two weeks we’ve been giving away a new Samhain title for free. The results have been outstanding, as was outlined by this New York Times article. In October of 2009, we gave away over 26,000 copies of Giving Chase, the first book in Chase Brothers series. Each of the other three books in the series sold at least 2500 copies that month.

These giveaways have given our authors exposure and backlist sales while making us the 8th bestselling publisher in the Kindle store. But only publishers can offer these freebies—the lowest price authors can set for self-published titles is 99 cents.

5. The author has to have a platform.

Succeeding in self-publishing is all about platform. The main reason for an author to self-publish is because they know they already have an audience to whom they can sell direct. Even in digital self-publishing, the authors I interviewed agreed this was essential.

Claire Thompson said, “A word of caution to authors who think this all sounds too good to be true–I’ve been at this a long time and had an established readership before I took this leap. I imagine it would be much more difficult to make a go of things, had I not built up the backlist and reputation beforehand.”

And from Moira Rogers (Bree), “I tell everyone who asks me about it that I am 99.9% sure that the ONLY REASON either of us are moving sales is because we have a pre-existing platform with publishers who are respected.”

Even J.A. Konrath has stated that his success is largely due to his platform.

Is digital the future? Absolutely. Is digital self-publishing? Probably not any more than print self-publishing is.

That doesn’t mean digital self-publishing doesn’t offer opportunities. The authors I talked to gave positive reports of their experience, even though all but one said their earnings aren’t anywhere near what they make from working with an established publisher. Many of them liked having direct control over the process, needed to be able to retain rights, wanted to make their work available to their readers, or enjoyed experimenting with the process. But none of them felt it was an easy path, and the only one who’s made it profitable so far spent considerable time and effort to do so.

But for authors who want to be authors and not publishers, I think much of what is appealing about digital self-publishing is actually what is appealing about digital publishing—higher royalties, exposure to a new audience, the opportunity to publish works (shorter works, reprints, books aimed at a niche audience) that might be passed over by larger publishing houses. For authors who want to build a digital platform, an established, reputable digital publisher is in the best position to guide you.

I have far more to say on digital publishing and digital self-publishing than I can fit into this blog, so I’ll look forward to discussion and be happy to answer any questions.

Lindsey Faber is the Managing Editor of Samhain Publishing, a small press publisher focused on digital.