Quality control

Self-publishing vs. trad publishing: an experiment

Steve Caplan 13 January 2013

A publisher: all it's stacked up to be?

The primary difference between self-publishing and publishing with a small press lies in the author’s desire for peer-reviewed recognition

Good science is firmly rooted in good controls. When we do an experiment, the best way to ensure its accuracy and the proper interpretation of the results is to do a control; an additional experiment done in parallel, changing only a single key variable. This helps to confirm that only that individual variable is responsible for any changes noted in the course of the experiment.

But, you say, science is science. Can this type of ‘controlled experiment’ be applicable to other walks of life?

With this short introduction I propose to use a similar strategy to discuss the differences between two modes of publishing: 1) self-publishing, and 2) publishing with a small press.

Without formally formulating any plan to do so, I have achieved a nearly perfectly controlled (although as-yet-incomplete) experiment. In Oct. 2010, after nearly 15 years of agents, publishers and bad breaks, I finally self-published Matter Over Mind. The initial copies, while they did post-date the classic Smith-Corona era, did need to be converted from floppy discs to CD before moving forward. Just over a year later (Nov. 2011), after receiving several offers of publication by small literary presses, I published my second Lab Lit novel, Welcome Home, Sir, with Anaphora Literary Press (ALP).

I began writing Matter Over Mind two-thirds of the way through my Ph.D. I had been writing short stories for years, published a few of them, and finally decided to take the plunge and write a novel. With a draft in hand, I set out to find a publisher. Jerusalem in the mid-1990s could have been Antarctica for all its distance from the publishing empire based in New York. I paid a fair bit of my meager stipend to print and send chapter samples to dozens of agents. Obtaining US stamps to supply the requisite self-stamped and self-addressed envelopes so I that could receive my rejection slips was a Herculean task. Most agents and publishing houses never responded, anyway.

The closest I came to closing a deal was through a single connection I had that landed me a Canadian textbook salesman who worked part-time as an agent. After months of revisions and work on the manuscript, he finally informed me that the deal fell through – the small Canadian publishing house that accepted about six books a year had decided to pass – and that he could no longer help me. Abandoned and depressed, I returned Matter Over Mind to my desk drawer until I morphed into the main character years later, seeking tenure as an independent investigator.

At that time, self-publishing was commonly called “Vanity Publishing”, and authors would pay up front for the printing of 5000-10,000 copies that would sit in a warehouse until they were eventually recycled. It was simply not an option. But it sure is now!

When I finally decided to take Matter Over Mind out of the drawer, the publishing world had changed dramatically. A growing number of authors – even mainstream ones – were turning to self-publishing as a viable option. Amazon’s daughter company, CreateSpace, Lulu and others made it easy. The most remarkable technology that spurred this movement toward self-publishing was the invention of “print-on-demand”. No longer were authors and publishers required to initially print 5000-10,000 copies to sit untouched in boxes and lose money. Print-on-demand (POD) essentially means just that – no books are necessarily printed in advance, but with each order through Amazon or CreateSpace, the entire book is printed de novo. This includes the front and back covers, spine and all the pages in between, and the quality is so good that it’s impossible to distinguish POD books from standard publications.

One of the concerns with POD published books is the quality of the writing. This can be a valid concern, as the technology allows anyone to upload a manuscript, with no review process whatsoever. In science, this sort of publishing is a primary concern as there are those who advocate ‘post-publication review’ – meaning that all papers should be published with no advance review, forcing scientists to evaluate the data and conclusions after it has been published. In science, I maintain, this does not work, and scientists (especially those outside the precise field) need to rely on expert reviews to confirm the validity and rigor of the science. But in literature, one can argue, the situation is very different, and pre-review expert analysis is not essential.

In my case, I hired a talented friend who works as a graphic artist, and she read my novel and designed the cover. In fact, she designed four covers, and although I think the final chosen cover was the best, the three others were a very close second. It was exhilarating to have this kind of control over my work.

I also hired a copy-editor to go over the text with a fine-tooth comb. Although she did not address my overall style (which admittedly improved between Matter Over Mind and Welcome Home, Sir), the attention to detail and consistency ensured high standards.

The overall cost of self-publishing via CreateSpace was $39 (aside from my own cover and proof-reading costs) – and only because I opted for the ‘expanded distribution’ option which allows me to purchase copies at a reduced rate, and also (at least in theory) helps the book reach a wider audience that includes academic libraries, etc.

Now for some specifics: Matter Over Mind is just over 200 pages and sells for $15 on Amazon or CreateSpace. I can purchase my own copies for $3.27, and barring the shipping costs, I can earn about $11 in royalties for sales that I make on my own. Selling out of the back of my car, at book signings, to interested scientists, etc., have netted me the majority of my sales. These sales do not, of course, appear on the Amazon sales/rankings, because they are done independently. Sales via CreateSpace’s site net me about $9 in royalties, and sales via Amazon net me $5-6 in royalties. I also placed Matter Over Mind on Kindle, and I estimate that just over two years after publication I have sold a combined total of about 650 copies, book and e-reader copies altogether.

The big question is how does that compare with publication by a small press? While I am certain that each small press has its own advantages (and disadvantages), my sense is that the system is similar. Most small presses actually use POD technology, so there is no difference in the quality of the printed book from self-published novels. The primary difference between self-publishing and publishing with a small press (I have come to believe), lies in the author’s desire for peer-reviewed recognition.

Having been exposed to the “Vanity Publishing” years ago before POD – where authors paid hefty sums of money to see their names on book covers – I admit that I too aimed to surpass the stigma of self-publishing by placing my second novel with a recognized (albeit small) publishing company. Accordingly, Welcome Home, Sir was published with ALP, which caters to a variety of academics, poets, and novelists, many of whom had previously published with other small publishing companies.

The company did the editing, layout, cover, etc., so I had no expenses – but of course also no advances. The novel sells for $15 on Amazon, and my royalties are about $5/sale. This is reasonable, but in terms of marketing, the situation differs little from Matter Over Mind. One advantage is that as a press-published novel, I have been able to sell some copies to local university bookstores and libraries. It’s interesting that I automatically assumed libraries would only be interested in press-published novels, so I only pitched Welcome Home, Sir to them. The Omaha Public Library (OPL) system was happy to purchase several copies, and of course I was delighted. But I soon realized that OPL, without my solicitation, actually purchased twice as many of the self-published Matter Over Mind! This, I think, demonstrates that the stigma attributed to self-publishing is no longer a major concern.

It is of interest that ALP was not interested in pursuing an e-book (at least at that time). I retained the copyright, obviously, so Welcome Home, Sir is available on Kindle independent of ALP. The advantage of this is that all sales and royalties go exclusively to me (cut out the middle-man)! The disadvantage, at least at the time, was that I needed to format it myself – and more importantly, due to the clause in my contract, I could not use the paper book cover. This time, I opted to do my own cover, and anyone interested can see what my house looks like!

Perhaps the major disadvantage of the press-published book, at least for me, is that I cannot purchase hugely discounted copies as I did from CreateSpace. The discount from my publisher leaves me paying ~$11 per book, so after shipping my car-trunk sales are not nearly as profitable.

The jury is still out on which mechanism will net more profit and prestige. Matter Over Mind did make the Amazon Breakthrough Author Award quarterfinalist list (top 5%), but it remains a self-published novel. Welcome Home, Sir is published by a recognized and relatively successful small press, but its sales still lag behind Matter Over Mind by about ten-fold. Whether it’s the aura of being my first novel, the connection to bipolar disorder, the comical characters, or merely that this novel has a head-start of a year over Welcome Home, Sir (not the perfect control, after all) – I do not know. What I do know is that I would recommend to any author to think very carefully and weigh the benefits and disadvantages of both publishing pathways before making a decision. I will be doing the same as I continue writing Lab Lit novel #3 (about a graduate student whose mentor doesn’t want her to graduate and move on), tentatively titled “Let My People Go.”