“Where are people going to buy copies of the book, if they buy copies at all? Well, the answer is obviously online,” Robert Swartwood said. He spoke about his experience with self-publishing at Bowers Writers House on Tuesday, Oct. 28.
Swartwood initially went the traditional route of publishing. He got an agent, printed copies of his book and sent them out to publishers. Often the answer Swartwood got was that the editors liked the book, but it was not right for their publication, or they would give him constructive criticism.
He explained that previously editors would pick books that they liked and get them published; however, the process has changed since then. “An editor can have strong feelings toward a book, but who almost always has the final say is a publisher,” Swartwood said.
Relations with agents can be difficult as well. “An agent is there basically to make money. There are times when you feel like the working relationship isn’t going anywhere,” Swartwood said. He had this difficulty with his own agent. Swartwood became independent of his agent, but then realized that publishers rarely take books if an author is unattached to an agent.
Swartwood found a way to be published without necessarily needing to have a publisher. His first book, “Hint Fiction” is an anthology of stories Swartwood referred to as ‘hint fiction’ because they are below the normal length for short stories. Swartwood said that they hint at being fiction. The anthology became published through a contest he held on his website. The second day of the contest a publisher emailed Swartwood and asked if he could put together an anthology of hint fiction.
Swartwood sent the publisher’s request to publish “Hint Fiction” to his agent. The agent then helped him get it published and ensured Swartwood would make money off of the deal. “Hint Fiction” was published in both print and e-book. This became his first foray into digital publishing.
After this Swartwood began working in self-publishing independent of an agent. “Now there’s an option to put them out myself,” he said.
Self-publishing largely began when authors realized they could do most of the same work as publishers. Sometimes publishers have in-house workers, but they often outsource the work of editing and graphic design of the book to individuals who work outside the company. “A lot of writers started realizing ‘well, we can do the same thing,’” Swartwood said.
Swartwood explained that self-publishing, especially in e-book form, has several monetary benefits. In publishing, the publishing house that picks up the book will send out about 20 books at a time to stores and hope that one becomes a hit. Swartwood identified Khaled Hosseini’s book “The Kite Runner” as an example of this. Hosseini had not been published as a novelist previous to “The Kite Runner,” but the publisher liked the book and sent it out hoping that it would be a hit.
After the publisher offer to sell a book, they send out representatives to books stores, such as Barnes & Noble, in order to push the books they are publishing. Certain books, often those seen on the new releases table near the front of the store, are part of a co-op space that the publishers will pay for. Essentially, Swartwood said that the stores will push books publishers pay a large sum of money for.
Getting a book published does not necessarily mean that it will sell well. Swartwood said that unless the author is well-known, such as Stephen King or Danielle Steel, their book will not be on store shelves for very long. “A book really only has a couple weeks shelf life,” he said.
E-books differ from print books in this respect. E-books will be out for people to view and purchase for an indefinite period of time. Additionally, Swartwood said that he could never match authors like Stephen King’s output of print books; however, on e-book he has a much greater chance of his book selling well because it will have more longevity. “When it comes to digital, it’s a level playing field,” Swartwood said.
Swartwood said that digital self-publishing also helps the author make more money. The base offer in print publishing for a book advance is often $5,000 to $10,000, and six figure offers are rare. After this, the book has to stay on the shelf long enough to begin gaining royalties. “To earn back that and then royalties almost never happens,” Swartwood said.
On the other hand, publishing contracts for e-books with Amazon and Apple have risen from an initial 25 percent to 70 percent royalties, and if the book is self-published, as opposed to publishing houses normally offering less than 25 percent.
The profit for self-publishing is not just in the royalties, though. Swartwood said that he hires people to do the editing and layout of his book, but other than that, he makes the majority of the profit from the sales. “Once I earned that money back, it’s basically pure profit from that,” he said.
Swartwood also explained the difficulties of self-publishing. If people asking him if they should self-publish he would say, “The question is, should you? And the answer is probably no.” To self-publish is more difficult than going through a publishing house. For instance, an author either has to hire someone to edit their book or do it himself or herself, and it would still be necessary to read through the book again before it gets published. Swartwood does not mind the work himself because he feels connected to his work, but that this does not mean everyone should try to self-publish. He also said he would never want to publish a book with typos everywhere because then people would not want to read more of his work. He said that there are writers who are not as careful with their work, and they cause much of the controversy over self-publishing.