Self Publishing: Practical Economics

When compared to Traditional Publishing, Self Publishing does not offer much in the way of financial security.

That was what I said to myself last night. But was I correct? This morning, I don’t think so.

Last night, I was definitely thinking like someone who grew up in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s. Those were the last decades of the “work for the same company for 40 years, earn a steady paycheck every week, and retire with a pension” model of economics. That model was born in the 1920s, and began dying with the globalized megamerger economics of the post-1988 Bush-Clinton years, suffering its fatal blow in 2008. For better or for worse, it appears that globalized megamerger economic model will continue until at least 2020.

In that light, then, the same financial security exists currently for the corporate CEO that does for the file clerk that does for the store owner that does for the stocker that does for the computer programmer that does for the school teacher. It is the same for the writer who publishes traditionally and for the writer who self-publishes. In other words, none. Even the much vaunted (or despised, depending on your point of view) 1% is not as secure as we at the bottom of the ladder might think. Most of their fortunes are not cash or liquid assets. Their money is tied up in assets, ventures, and holdings that are subject to the vicissitudes of volatile forces outside their control. They could end up just as bankrupt and impoverished as the rest of us overnight. That happened to them in 1929, you know.

Such are the waves on the economic ocean in 2016 and the foreseeable future. I cannot change the tides or the waves. However, I can learn to surf them with some level of competence.

If that is the case, what do I have to lose financially by Self Publishing? Not that much, really. In fact, I stand to gain.

Certainly, I would lose the coveted advance that comes with Traditional Publishing. But that could be the only cash I ever see from a publisher. If A Path of Stones only sold 20,000 copies, that publisher would definitely not take a chance with the second book, The Fires of Tallenburgh Hall. While Self Publishing would not offer the immediate security of the advance, I would exchange that for the security of continuing the series regardless of the sales of the first title. I could consider sales of 20,000 copies a success, publish Fires, and the third book, the fourth book, the fifth, etc. Even a mathematically challenged mind like mine can see that five titles for sale yields greater financial returns than a mere one.

Self Publishing is pure free market. I make it or break it based on the quality of my wares and customer service, or how well I write and how well I publicize. It’s the same way with Traditional Publishing, really. Self Publishing simply eliminates the middle men, forging a direct relationship between the reader and myself. In many ways, it is much like the ancient bartering form of economics, simply without the haggling over price. It is a dynamic, visceral face-to-face conversation between customer (reader) and merchant (writer), made more so by the elimination of the professional book critic.

More than financial security, however, I value financial freedom. In their extreme forms, security and freedom are diametrically opposed. The purest form of security is a prison. As long as someone obeys the rules, he gets food, shelter, clothing, and probably sex and drugs. Not very enticing, is it? The purest form of freedom is anarchy. One does what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, and probably won’t survive the night. Again, not very enticing, is it?

In financial terms, the United States is deluged with people clinging to the elusive concept of financial security, although it is that prison metaphor. These poor folks are wage slaves, and won’t even take a lunch break out of fear of losing their jobs. They can’t afford to, so they won’t run the risk of finding more lucrative employment, much less pursuing their dreams. At the other extreme, we have the homeless, who are financially free. They don’t make car payments, insurance payments, mortgage payments, or own a lot of stuff. They are also one rainstorm, missed meal, or encounter with a whacked out meth addict away from death.

In between absolute freedom and absolute security is a thick fulcrum that can take quite a bit of play in either direction, and still deliver balance. I prefer it on the side of freedom. What I mean by financial freedom is the ability to afford to do what I want when I want. As a modest man with simple tastes, it won’t take that much. That may sound like financial security, but financial security comes with a steady paycheck. Traditional Publishing does offer a higher level of security, through its marketing and publicity teams that help generate sales. If I do my job, and they do theirs, I should expect sales of 100,000 copies, guaranteeing a contract for a second book. Sales of that level of a $ 30 hardback at the standard royalty of 6.5 % would net me $ 195,000. That is nice, but that is not as firm in reality as it appears on paper.

If that same hardback sold 33,000 copies, I would net $ 65,000. That is more than enough for me! It is not nearly enough for the publisher, and I would never see a contract for the second book and have to return to teaching freshman comp at a community college while suffering anxiety attacks. It’s a different story with Self Publishing. Self Publishing puts more power in my hands, and power translates into both security and freedom.

While the cost to print a book through the print-on-demand system of Self Publishing is greater than the cost to bulk print through offset printing of Traditional Publishing, the Self Publishing system comes without much overhead. So, the price at point of sale can be much lower, even if I do build in the standard 6.5 % royalty (roughly $ 2.00, an aggressive profit margin in the world of Self Publishing). That means, I can sell the $ 30 hardback for $ 27. People will buy more copies at $ 27 than at $ 30 because most shoppers look at the first number of the price. It is an axiom of retail that an item sells better at $ 19.99 than at $ 20, even though there is really only one cent difference. Self Publishing gives me the power to set that price, where it is out of my hands through Traditional Publishing, and quite often, out of the publisher’s as well.

A traditional publisher like MacMillan wouldn’t like sales of 33,000 copies, but I would. That’s $ 65,000. Without the need for a second contract, I could publish the second book six months later and earn another $ 65,000 within the same year. Three books selling that well, I could buy a house, and stop paying rent. That translates into a net gain in income because monthly expenditures drop significantly. A fourth title at that sales level, and my wife can quit her job and become a stay at home artist. That is financial freedom, people.

That is also assuming modest middle tier sales, too. The people who have read A Path of Stones tell me that I’ve written something special. That remains to be seen with a larger audience. It could be a phenomenon. It could be a total dud.

If I write prolifically and proficiently, then I have the power to achieve those middle tier sales. If I market competently and price aggressively, then I have the power to move the books toward phenomenon status. Power becomes security and security becomes freedom.

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