Self Publishing and the Dying of Old Gods

by Mike Shea on 26 June 2010

30 second summary

With Amazon's 70% royalty on Kindle books, there's never been a better time to be an independent writer and publisher. With royalties like this, an author only has to sell 10,000 books a year to make a living. Traditional book, magazine, and newspaper publishing might not die right away but they're probably too old and slow to stay alive forever. While it's still too hard for most people to write, edit, and publish an e-book themselves, it's bound to get easier. For those of us already doing it, we're getting in at the perfect time.

Longer pontification

Later this month, Amazon is going to give authors 70% royalties on Kindle books. That's unheard of in this industry. It means that authors who sell 10,000 copies of a book every year could live off of the royalties. It used to be nearly impossible to make a living off of writing. My father was one of the few but he never knew royalties like 70%.

The book, magazine, and newspaper industries are dying. They're big industries, so they'll probably live a while longer, but they have no idea what to do. As they die, they thrash around trying to sell us expensive iPad apps and fighting against Kindle's text-to-speech feature. They do everything but give us a better product. It's interesting that Amazon's 70% royalty requires acceptance of the text-to-speech feature, bribing authors to go against the wishes of the big publishers.

The old industry is too big to change but we can't really blame them. They can't take a 100 year model of shipping huge amounts of physical paper all over the world and suddenly embrace the net.

I've been reading Seth Godin's Linchpin and Jason Fried's Rework. Both are books written to scare the shit out of the establishment and empower individuals to take control over their own work lives. Good stuff if not entirely practical for us corporate shills, but it's fun to dream and cheaper than regular lottery tickets.

Still, what power we have now. I can sit down with this copy of Text Mate I'm using now, hammer out a hundred thousand words, do some markup and formatting, and make it available to millions of people. I can publish, promote, and distribute it all without an agent and without a real publisher. It's unlikely I'd become a best selling author, but with 70% of the take, I don't have to be. I just need one thousand true fans.

That's not to say any of this will become a reality. I'm just about done with a book and I plan on publishing it to Kindle, the iBook store, and on Lulu in both PDF and print on demand. I hope to sell one hundred copies over the year. That's a far cry from selling the 10,000 a year it would take to make a living, but it's still really cool to see the process work from beginning to end.

There's a lot of room to grow in this field. I'm pretty lucky to know how to format a document from Markdown into ePub and Mobi. I bet a lot of people couldn't figure it out. They'd either have to pay someone else to do it (cutting into their profits) or they'll have to wait until the tools get better. Why someone hasn't sold a word processor that outputs ePub and Kindle docs is beyond me.

We might be at that perfect time for self publishers that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Outliers. If we got started now, fighting our way to get our 10,000 hours of self publishing experience while everyone else is hanging onto the dying gods of traditional publishing, by the time everyone else has figured out that this is the way to go, you and I could be sitting on a beach earning 70% on our new teenage Mummy novel series.

It's a very different world out there these days. If you're in traditional publishing, it's probably scaring the crap out of you. If you're a freelancer, you better start learning this shit. If you're just getting started, you picked the right time.

By the way, if you liked this article use this link to buy that Kindle you've been drooling after all these months.