Sometimes I reread this post by Courtney Milan because I think it says so many smart things, they get lost under their own radiance. But in particular, this one is something I’m thinking a lot about right now:
Some people call it “self” publishing. Some people call it “independent” publishing. I don’t think either of those terms describe what is happening. The other day, I described self-publishers as more like bacteria: most will never register above a blip, but because we’re capable of swapping ideas with each other and evolving at a high rate, the ones that do well can do really well.
It’s why the point that Mike Shatzkin expresses in the commentson this post here—that “it is hugely counterintuitive to me that a single actor whose main capability MUST BE writing could be a more effective marketer than a publisher who would have good reason to develop capabilities at scale across a list”—is both completely right and totally wrong. He’s totally right in that one individual, standing on his or her own, is always going to lose versus publishers. I suspect that is true, on average, by a margin larger than the 4x royalty difference.
But he’s not taking into account the intelligence of the self-publishing collective. The fact that writers have been so poorly paid for years is actually a huge bonus. Most authors by necessity have more skills than just writing. Do the math: There are more self-publishers with marketing backgrounds than there are marketers working in New York publishing. There are more self-publishers with backgrounds in statistics and data collection than New York has on their payroll. There are more computer experts, more graphics designers, more photographers. There are just so darned many of us, and so darned few (relatively speaking) of New York.
As an added bonus, we don’t have to pass ideas by a committee before we try them, so collectively, we have more information on crazy-ass shit that some person tried just because, hell, why not see what happens?
None of that would matter one damned bit—one person who has data expertise still might not understand what makes a good cover–except we talk to each other all the time. Participating in that conversation to some degree, staying nimble, seeing results, listening, learning as a constant matter—is where 70% of the value-added of being a self-publisher lies. The royalty rate is good, but it’s not the winner. The best self-publishers are doing things much, much better than the best publishers do. That may be hard to imagine, but it’s because taken as a whole, we have more data (most publishers don’t get the regular fine-grained data that self-publishers do, and don’t pore over it as we do) and more expertise than publishers do.
You really should read the entire post. Even if you’ve read it before. Courtney Milan is one of the smartest people I have ever met, and I am deeply grateful that she is endlessly generous with all of her wisdom.