Recently I wrote a post titled “Almost Famous,” about how strange it is to be a successful author whom no one has heard of. The post prompted a question from a Facebook friend who asked whether I was now irrevocably on the side of self-publishing and would never consider going with a traditional publisher. I replied, “Well, you know that being self-published and being published by Amazon are two different things, right?”
She didn’t. Most people, even lots of authors and people in the publishing industry, don’t know the difference — or that there is a difference. I have probably explained this a hundred times since my books were picked up by AmazonEncore — and people always look at me the way I look at my wife when she explains what the three different laundry bins are for.
I think that a lot of the confusion stems from the fact that lots of people don’t understand what publishers do (and don’t do). Traditionally, publishers would do the following:
1. Acquire a manuscript
2. Edit and proofread the manuscript
3. Design a cover
4. Set the (suggested) price of the book
5. Make the book available to distributors
6. Print the book
7. Promote the book
What has happened, first with print-on-demand (POD) companies and then digital publishing, is that it has become possible for authors to do steps #4 through #6 themselves (or, in the case of Kindle Direct Publishing and other e-book venues, bypass #5 and #6 entirely). That meant that a traditional publisher was really only differentiated by its ability to do #1, #2, #3 and #7. And of course it’s possible to hire someone to do #2 and #3. Number 6 isn’t rocket science, and in any case a publisher’s motive in pricing a book (keep prices high across the board) often conflicts with the author’s motives (sell as many copies of the book as possible). Which leaves #1 and #7. Historically, publishers have had a very mixed record of success at #1, and in any case a publisher’s ability to pick a winning horse is irrelevant to the horse. It may feel good to be “picked” as a winner, but the value in being picked derives entirely from what other benefits the publisher can provide you. That leaves us with #7 — marketing and promotion. So the question these days is whether you think a publisher can (and will) do a better job of promoting your book than you will on your own, and whether that benefit is worth giving up control of your work and most of your revenue.
(An aside: this is an over-simplification of what publishers do. Ideally, your publisher would add value throughout this process by, for example, making sure your cover fits the tone of your book and picking the right reviewers and publications to send copies to. Breaking the process into steps and saying “you can do all this yourself!” is like saying “Why hire a general contractor to build your house when you can hire the builder, plumber, electrician, roofer and all the other contractors yourself and save money?” Well, because it’s a pain in the ass, for one thing. And your general contractor will help you avoid problems like pouring concrete and then realizing you forgot to run the plumbing underneath. He will also probably tell you if you’ve done a horrible job designing the house and nobody is going to want to live in it.)
With Mercury Falls, I decided the answer to that question was no. I had some writer friends help me edit and proofread the manuscript, designed a cover myself, set my own price and did my own marketing. I had the paperback edition printed by CreateSpace, which is a POD subsidiary of Amazon. CreateSpace also offers distribution, enabling bookstores to order the books. I distributed the digital edition through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords.
At this point, however, my book was not published by Amazon. In a sense, my book was published by CreateSpace (and you’ll see many self-published books with “CreateSpace” listed as the publisher), but all I had really done is paid CreateSpace to print my book (#6) and distribute it (#7). I received no marketing support, editorial services, or any other kind of services from CreateSpace. When a company publishes a book, they are accepting responsibility for the sales of the book. They pay the costs of printing and marketing the book. If the book sells, they make money. If the book doesn’t sell, they lose money. A POD company like CreateSpace, on the other hand, makes money whether you sell three books or three thousand. CreateSpace isn’t making money selling books to consumers; they are making money selling services to authors. All of the up-front expenses and risks are on you as the author. That is why printing a book through CreateSpace is still self-publishing.
(Another aside: There are companies that will offer a complete publishing package for a set, up-front price. These are known as “vanity publishers” for reasons that should be obvious. If you don’t want to do the work of self-publishing and don’t think your book is good enough to be published by a traditional publisher, then vanity publishing is the route for you.)
After selling about 4,000 copies and getting some great reviews, Mercury Falls was picked up by AmazonEncore, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Amazon Publishing is, on paper, just another publishing company. They do all that stuff I listed above, from #1 to #7. They acquired the rights to publish Mercury Falls, did some basic copy editing and proofreading (the book had been pretty thoroughly vetted by readers at this point), designed a snazzy new cover, and distributed, printed and promoted the book. At this point Mercury Falls was no longer self-published; it was published by AmazonEncore. (My future books, like Mercury Rests, will be published by 47North, Amazon Publishing’s new sci-fi/horror imprint.)
Now you may wonder why, after negating every benefit supposedly offered by traditional publishers, I would sign on with a publisher. The answer is quite simply that Amazon Publishing kicks every other publisher’s ass. Specifically, they are better at #1, #4, and #7. WAY better. They are smarter about which books to acquire, they price their books more aggressively, and they promote the hell out of them. And they are at least as good as the Big Six at #2, #3, and #6. The only area where Amazon Publishing has trouble is #5 (distribution), and that’s because brick-and-mortar bookstores tend to not like anything with the word “Amazon” in it. Am I willing to give up having a few copies of my books hiding on the shelves at Barnes & Noble in order to have a banner ad splashed across Amazon.com? Yes. Yes, I am.
And this may surprise you (or not, if you’ve read the ravings of my fellow Amazon Publishing authors on New Wave Authors), but the Amazon Publishing people are awesome to work with. They are just really, really nice. I don’t think I’m supposed to go into specifically how nice they are (evidently being nice is a competitive advantage that hasn’t occurred to the Big Six), but they really are super-nice. They treat their authors with respect. They listen to them. They help them to succeed. Basically, they do all the things that traditional publishers claim to do, but don’t.