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A few months back an old friend and Countless Lies aficionado emailed to report that the European Financial Review was dedicating their June-July issue to Covid-19, and they’d asked him to write an article about self-publishing during the Pandemic Era. The London School of Economics hadn’t awarded Boris a PhD in Economics for being dumb, so he contacted me to outsource half the work.


When new acquaintances find out I write full-time, the two most frequently asked questions are “How do you write?” (process) and “How does self-publishing work?” (mechanics). My answer to the first one is straightforward: Set a routine and stick to it even if nothing seems to be happening. As (almost) empty nesters, my wife’s and my home has a spare bedroom which I appropriated as my workspace, with the only activities allowed being writing/researching/editing, pre-/post-writing goofing off and, of course, napping on the conveniently co-located bed. Trust me, if you spend enough time in [your dedicated space] and truly want to write, eventually you’ll produce work which, after multiple rewrites, will be interesting.


I don’t actually work a long day when I’m writing a novel or otherwise in a creative mode, but I log a lot hours at my desk. I think five-out-of-eight hours is about the average, but I’m in the writer’s lair seven days a week. That routine produced enough sentences that I finished Dark Cure’s first draft (125,000 words) in three months. I took two more months to re-write it twice and worked with an editor to pare it back to 108,000 words.


As to the question of how self-publishing actually works these days, please read the article below. It’s a tough way to earn money, but there aren’t many easy ones left . . . at least not a lot of legal ones.


Bradley West


Singapore, October 8, 2020



Self-Publishing in the Covid Age


By Bradley West and Dr. Boris Liedtke.


No doubt many potential authors have used the Covid-19 lockdown to invest serious effort towards finishing their first book. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the quills and keyboards have been busy. As Europe returns to some semblance of normalcy, these aspiring independent authors turn their attention to birthing their dreams into the literary light of day.


They are in for a rude awakening. Modern book publishing has long been derided as rapacious, antiquated, arbitrary and ripe for disintermediation. Fifteen years ago, an alternative path to literary notoriety and even financial success presented itself in the form of self-publishing, particularly via eBooks on Amazon. But lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worthwhile summarizing the Bad Old Days, the Good Old Days and today’s New Not-so-Good Days.


The Bad Old Days (“BOD”)


Traditionally, the path to publication lay through an agent who for 10%-20% of the putative author’s gross earnings would schmooze editors at publishing houses. Those lucky few agented first-time authors would play the publishing lottery for a year or more, then wait another twelve months for their heavily revised, probably renamed, and often scarcely recognizable masterwork to find its way into print. Their reward? Mostly bragging rights as 5%-12% royalties (before the agent’s cut) weren’t enough to allow one to quit the day-job. Unagented first-timers had to deploy a carpet-bombing strategy, hoping that the quantity of mailed pitches could overcome the long odds of anonymity. Most famously, a dozen publishers rejected J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets before Bloomsbury Press signed her up for a £2500 advance and an undisclosed royalty. These days, most editors refuse to accept submissions from unagented authors: the ratio of rubbish-to-readable is so high, they insist on an agent to serve as a gatekeeper.


For the moment, however, focus on the positive. Let’s assume your 2005 novel about a game show host who becomes the US president (listed in the genre of “Dystopian Fantasy”), finds a home at a small traditional publisher. Other than a modest royalty rate likely to be further reduced after production and promotional expenses, what should one expect? In a nutshell, “take-it-or-leave-it” standard contracts where the author assumes all risks (e.g. indemnifying the publisher in the event of even frivolous lawsuits), gives away most of the television and movie royalties as well as the right of first refusal on the next volumes (perhaps featuring the same main character bumbling his way to stardom in the White House . . . and a second term). To further poison the goodwill, the publisher will retain the right to control the final copy, title and artwork, will not be obligated to advertise or promote the work, and often assigns itself copyright ownership. The author should expect to be paid a year in arrears (after his advance, if any).


Few authors who had spent years writing could resist the allure of seeing their name on a book cover, so most swallowed hard and signed. Maybe they fought for a verbal commitment to launch a paperback version should sales exceed a certain level, or retained minor rights over layout and design, or negotiated a higher royalty rate subject to a minimum sales level. The next step was a long period during which the first-time author was pitted against the low-level book editors and their henchmen who dismantled and randomly re-assembled the manuscript over as long a period as the author could tolerate. If the author kept her cool during this phase, she was finally honored by seeing her work in print at the back of the bookstores and on the internet with the eBook price set so close to the paperback that new readers had little incentive to take a chance on a new writer.


The Good Old Days (“GOD”)


The BOD was tantamount to medieval literary serfdom. When Jeff Bezos invented Amazon, which in turn begat the Kindle (2007), the publishing world was ripe for the dawn of modern times. From roughly 2008 through 2015 was a glorious era in which the successful self-published author could earn a lot of money. The formula was straightforward: Write a good book, re-write it several times making it into a very good book, hire a professional copy editor, hire a specialty proofreader, spend money on cover art, put it up for sale online (either just an eBook or perhaps with the print-on-demand option), advertise it with a sharpshooter’s focus, price it affordably (e.g. $4 or £3 a download), promote it through book marketing websites, nurture a core of loyal readers (who left early and glowing reviews), collect a seventy-percent royalty and live happily ever after.


Authors such as Barry Eisler (the John Rain spy novels, among others) and Joe Konrath (Jack Daniels police procedurals, and many others) were two of the most successful traditionally published authors who thumbed their noses at the BOD and espoused the GOD model. Their hilarious and informative 2011 treatise on why-and-how to self-publish Be the Monkey (Be the Monkey Smashwords free download) became the guerrilla warfare manual for wannabe fiction writers.


If you were fortunate to start your career during that 2008-2015 window, you might still be making a living as a self-published author particularly if you had a flair for sales, marketing and promotion (just like any other entrepreneur).


The New (Not-so-Good) Days (“NOT”)


However, as pointed out by another self-published journalist from a revolutionary era: A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants: Revolutions devour their children, and so it came to be with the GOD. The problem with self-publishing online, similar to the French Revolutionaries’ claim of moral leadership, was that anyone could do it, irrespective of the quality of what they wrote. Vanity self-publishers and a burgeoning how-to-publish-your-own-book consulting industry have so overwhelmed Amazon, adding over two million titles a year, and have so overbid the company’s advertising cost-per-click model that it has become nearly impossible for quality new authors to cost-effectively self-publish.


The business of self-publishing is an industry unto itself. There are hundreds of articles, scores of how-to books, and dozens of blogs and newsletters about how to make money as an internet author. What follows here is an oversimplification of the self-publishing author’s business model. Amazon (and other etailers) are basically search engines. As an author, before you can get read (i.e. make a sale), you need to be noticed. In the less-crowded GOD, if you were clever with your choice of book category, keywords, references to similar authors and ad spend you had a chance that your archaeological mystery set in post-WWII Egypt would appeal to fans of that genre. You would find the top-selling authors of similar books, and design adverts that popped up whenever a fan of a more established author looked for something new to read along similar lines.


The math is a little trickier, but let’s take an example. Your eBook The Mummy’s Eye sells for $3 and nets you $2.10 (70%). You advertise on Amazon on the basis that you don’t pay for your “Sponsored Product” thumbnail ad (150 characters plus the front cover) until someone clicks on it. Amazon displays these tiny ads across the bottom of book pages on their site. Look for Books you may like and you’ll see a mixture of your recent prior browsing history plus authors who have used similar keywords or topics so that their book’s advert pops up when someone is looking at the sales page for The Mummy’s Eye. Amazon gets paid every time someone clicks. The author gets paid only when someone purchases. Conversion rates vary considerably, but ten percent would be doing well these days.


Let’s imagine you bid 20 cents per click to advertise The Mummy’s Nose. For every ten people who peruse The Mummy’s Eye but click on Nose, you pay Amazon $2.00. If one of them buys your eBook, you make $2.10. During the GOD, a five or ten cent bid was enough to show your book on the first three pages (use the right arrow on Books you may like to generate another page of ten thumbnail ads, and so on). So it was possible to turn a profit on Amazon ads. That was then. In the NOT era, a twenty-cent bid for a popular author might leave you on page ten. That means someone browsing for their next archaeological thriller must see one hundred (!) similar titles before your book comes up.


The solution? Bid higher! Authors these days pay fifty to seventy cents (or more) a click to give their ads greater visibility. (Amazon lists the ads in descending order based mostly on who has bid the most.) Now your book is back on the first page, but if it still converts to a sale only ten percent of the time, you’ve just spent $5 to $7 to earn $2.10 in royalties. There are other ways of advertising eBooks, but an Amazon Sponsored Product ad was the most important one for new self-published authors. Vanity publishers these days are simply buying visibility and sales with uneconomic click bids. Author friends who used to spend five thousand dollars a month in advertising to generate ten or fifteen thousand in royalties have stopped advertising altogether because the model is broken.


No matter how clever you are, it’s impossible to turn a profit when the variable cost of sales exceeds gross royalties. In those cases where there’s still a gross profit, recovering fixed costs is arduous: Competition for quality editors, layout specialists and graphic artists has increased. The fixed costs (i.e., ignoring any advertising or promotion costs) of self-publishing a quality 100,000-word novel are around US$7,000. Working from a three-dollar Kindle price and a 70% royalty, that’s a breakeven of 3,333 eBooks before variable costs. Factor in A&P and breakeven jumps to 5,000 or even 10,000 eBooks. If you write 2,000 words a day of polished prose, you’ll produce a book every fifty days (most authors take six months or more). If you value your time at ten dollars an hour, there’s a $4,000 opportunity cost to not flipping burgers. If you earn a little more, your opportunity cost is even higher. Writing a book is a labor of love, now more than ever.


As a sign that “the times they are a changing”, both Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath have signed traditional publishing deals with Amazon’s in-house print label. As the histories of political science and technology have taught us, when revolutions allow the masses to seize control and squeeze out margins, the old order re-establishes itself. To quote another novelist: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose”.


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Is all lost then? As one of us is a full-time fiction writer, we hope not. The traditional publisher still offers awful standard terms, but having a “real” publishing deal is worth more today than it was a decade ago. There’s so much dross in the market that it may be worth more than ever to readers to see “Bloomsbury” next to an unknown author of adolescent wizard stories. Whether it’s worth the fractional royalties, loss of control of content and slowness to market is something that each person will have to judge for themselves. On the self-publishing side of the coin, if you have a cost-effective way of reaching your target readership then you have a chance to break even or make money. Assuming you’ve written a book about a poor kid who wins a lottery to tour a chocolate factory and you have the email list of the European Chocolatier’s Association then you may find you have a critical mass of readers to kickstart your next career. Authors issuing shorter books every six-to-eight weeks targeted at loyal fans may also have found a durable sweet spot. As always, the dream of selling a TV series idea to streaming providers remains the Holy Grail of the independent writer. However, screenwriting is a different, more difficult discipline and the competition is even greater—so be warned.


Whichever path they choose, prospective authors need to treat their books as small business start-ups, complete with customer research, sales plans and budgets. As with any other business, it takes longer and is harder than it looks to make a success out of a new venture, but at least you can work in self-containment safely from home.


© EBR Media Ltd, 2020.  The definitive, and edited version of this article is published in The European Financial Review June/July 2020 edition



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Design by Juan P Padrón


Dark Cure fans, the novel is on the last lap having survived the copy editor and now resides with the proofreader and the combat consultant. I hope to launch on Amazon by Halloween I (October 31) or Halloween II (November 3, election day). It’ll start out as a buck as an eBook and twelve dollars for the paperback, then the eBook price will creep up to three dollars.


It’s a story about the end of America: Let’s just hope Amazon still categorizes Dark Cure as fiction by the time it comes out.


ALSO, if you can take a minute to confirm that the return email address is included in your contacts list, you’ll receive future notifications directly to your in-box instead of your spam filter. Thanks.