How to Win the Self-Publishing Revolution!

Thanks to Ampren7a on DeviantArt
In every revolution there are quick wins and impossible walls, and self-publishing is no exception. That wall stands solidly on the line between the digital and physical realms, and, like any medieval construction, there are defenders and gatekeepers. I don’t know them by name, yet, but I do know the job descriptions. Let me introduce you...

The Problem: Publishers
I self-published. There. I said it. Like most authors, I was frustrated by the traditional method of publishing. It goes something like this:
1.  You send in a manuscript and wait months for someone to review it and get back to you. They get angry if you send it to more than one company, but it could take 100 submissions to find a publisher. A little math: (100 divided by… carry the one…) yeah, lucky to publish one book per lifetime.
2.  “What’s your platform?” That’s the first question a publisher asks. They don’t care if the book is good, what it’s about, or if you wrote the manuscript on a toilet paper roll in one sitting. They want to know how many people you, the author, can bring to it. Reality check: if you had time to write a book, you probably aren’t the most outgoing person. Long periods of fictional introspection trumps social advancement on your calendar. Publishers want the impossible – a popular writer, a contradiction if I ever heard one. (aka. "Why ghost writers exist")
3. Let’s say you convince them you are such a writer, and they publish you.
Hurrah! So what? You are author #476 on their to-do list. They print a few books, drop them on the shelves like chum in the sea and, one month later, give up on you as a complete failure. The marketing is up to you. Who do you know that can get you reviews, interviews, radio time, signings, tours, exposure? What’s that? You’re a creative genius who drinks at home, alone, and only associates the word ‘Friends’ with a sitcom? Too bad. Watch that belabored cover design torn from your masterpiece. Kiss your beloved characters goodbye as your book heads right to the pulper.

The Solution: Self-Publishing
Thanks to the internet, the self-published writer can overcome all three of these hurdles with a few deft mouse clicks. Smashwords your way into ebooks everywhere! Createspace your manuscript on demand! Email it instantly to reviewers! Churn out your marketing from the comfort of your blog-cave!
So you do all that, and then you wait. And wait. You check Amazon. Your book ranks in numbers you made up as a child. Bazillion gajillion something. You sold two books, both of which, you suspect, to your mother. You check your various royalty programs. They’re not high enough to send you a check in this millennium. Even your acquaintances, incredibly supportive and impressed at your achievement, did not get around to downloading their free versions yet.
Published? Yes.
Read? No.
Writer, meet Wall. Wall, Writer.

 The Wall: or, the Real World
The old saying, “It takes money to make money,” is no less true in modern publishing than it was anywhere else. Consider this: UNESCO estimates 330,000 new books are published every year in America. The average reader reads 6 to 15 books per year (24 for ereaders). Factor out fiction vs. nonfiction, genres, and the most popular authors in those genres (*cough stephen king cough*), and it’s a safe bet your book isn’t one of the six. Even if we discount the entire backlist, that gives you less than a 1:100,000 chance to connect with your reader. (Dammit, Jim! I’m writer not a mathematician!)
The result: self-publishing is a one-pebble path to obscurity.
It gets worse the higher your ambitions. Meet the Gatekeepers:

Gatekeeper: Bookstores
Getting that self-published novel on bookshelves isn’t as easy as it sounds. Bookstores categorically reject three things: self-published titles, print-on-demand titles, and you. Backlists, those powerful titans with over a year on the shelves, account for 68 percent of bookstore sales. Most of the remaining percentage goes to new bestselling authors. Which one are you? Oh, yeah, neither. So why would the bookstore stock you at all? Assuming you manage the impossible, getting your title in a bookstore narrows down the competition to only a few hundred competitors, all conveniently located on the shelves around you.  The good news is, you’re automatically associated with good company. The bad news is… who are you, anyway? Why would I read you when my favorite author just published his formulaic potboiler? 

Gatekeeper: Distributors
Contrary to popular opinion, bookstores don’t buy their books from publishers. They buy them from Distributors. Guess who Distributors refuse to carry? Yada yada yada. Can you get your book distributed without a publisher? Fat chance. Why? Distributors pick and choose from a publisher's catalogue of titles. They also tend to focus on specific categories: cookbooks, for example. Distributors have enough books to choose from, thank you very much, without wasting valuable time looking at your piddly contribution.

Gatekeeper: Reviewers
Who needs bookstores and distributors? If you can get that one influential reviewer (*cough oprah cough*), the one with a major following on newspaper, radio, magazine, or television, you’ll be in like Flint, right?
Sadly, no. High profile reviewers didn’t get that way by promoting crappy little novels from no-names. Fame begets fame. Take a walk in their shoes. You’re not in bookstores. Why would they recommend a book that no one can run out and buy? If this were a book title, it's Catch-22. You need to be in bookstores to get reviews, but you need reviews to get in bookstores. It’s more difficult than a time-travel paradox.  

Why we need Gatekeepers
In two words: Crappy Authors (Not you, of course)
Why are there gatekeepers? Because we need them! Of course, YOUR book is pure gold. YOUR book has no typos, deep character development, and draws in readers like an Elvis resurrection. If only that were true of all the rest.
A few years ago a fellow from the office said, “I just finished my book and published it online. Could you read it and tell me what you think?” Not only was English not his first language, resulting in the misallocation of alphabets, but his thoughts were so nonsensical and disordered as to be French New Wave. I avoided him after that, but I had a whole new understanding of publishers’ collective value.

The Problem Redefined: Publishers Don’t Need Writers
The publishing industry could survive just fine without us. They could stop publishing new authors or titles altogether and still mint cash from their backlist. They could contemporize forgotten old stories (“He grabbed her and danced the rumba Brooklyn Shake until 8 all night.”),  or even train computers to churn out Dan Brown sequels. Writers, even good ones, are a dime a dozen, literally. Every hack in English Lit dreams of writing the next American dust collector. Every Joe Out of a Job thinks it’s time to tackle that novel.

The Solution: The Defenders! Viva la Revolucion!
Us authors need to stick together. Let’s form a writer’s collective. Why re-invent the wheel, individually, breaking into such a tough industry? If we band together, our combined research will further the cause! If I find a friendly reviewer, I’ll pass that on to you. If you find a book printer in China, you’ll get me a good price. If I find a bookstore that features self-published authors, I’ll help you get on that shelf. No one else will do it for us, and the more we share, the more access we each enjoy.
So now we have bookstores and reviewers. What about distributors?
Distributors require a discount of 50% or more so that they, and their retailers, make some income. (Real estate, shipping, and staff is expensive). In order to get our books into a distributor, we need to print big volumes – 3,000 to start. Even printing in China, that’s $3,500 after shipping.
So, here’s the business case, assuming you did everything else yourself (editing, cover design): Paperback Retail: $12.00 minus standard discount for retailers or distributors: 60% (or more). Minus printing: $1.00. Minus shipping $1.50. = $2.30 profit, if you can call it that after nine months of work.
Viva la Revolucion!
We value you as a writer so our collective will do all the printing and administrative stuff. Of course, that costs money, so we’ll take a small cut. We only need $1.00 per book. That’s not much, but we’ll make it work. You‘re still making $1.30 per book!
Viva la Revolucion!
Sure, we’re a writer’s collective, but we can’t blow our earnings on every author that stumbles in. Unless they want to spend their own cash, we have to be careful. We have to be selective. Let’s start reading those manuscripts before we help them out.
Wow! We’re getting a lot of manuscripts. Let’s recruit some readers to do it for us. Whatever emerges out of the slush pile, we’ll read through. That could take time, so let’s tell authors it’ll be three months to review.
Viva la.. waitaminit… this sounds oddly familiar.
The more writers we support, the more competition we have as individual writers! Pretty soon, that bookstore I told you all about doesn't have room for my book. Those reviewers are too busy to read mine. The more revolutionaries we enlist, the harder the revolution gets! 
Send us your book anyway. We'll make it work. But please, please don’t send it to anyone else. We’d hate to waste our time. We’ll get back to you in three to six months.
The Wall

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