I thought about making this a Sunday Mailbag question, but thought it deserved it’s own post since it deals with some pertinent issues on the changing dynamics of today’s publishing world. I have received not a few queries from readers of The MAD Blog, friends and colleagues asking me why I went the self-publishing route instead of shopping the book about to established publishers. A few went so far as to hint I was being hypocritical insofar as they say I have showed some level of disdain for self-publishing in the past.
Let me address that last point first. I am not sure where I gave the impression I think all self-publishing is nonsense. That is quite inaccurate. In fact, as few years ago I wrote this blog post about the new face of independent publishing, and how self-publishers are rising from the image of narcissistic self-servers and producing high-quality and very worthwhile content while cutting out the traditional publisher/middleman. It’s true that this was not always the case, and that 10-15 years ago “self-published” probably meant not good/sellable enough to interest a publisher. That is simply no longer the case. Several good pals of mine have self-published some great books that are very worth having and can be compared to the best of the fare published by the big publication houses. In certain conditions it makes more sense to self-publish than it does to take a book to a traditional publisher, even though it is likely one would be happy to publish the tome… I’ll get to those conditions in a minute.
I think where those making those allegations about my perceived self-publishing bias are confusing general contempt for my dislike of a certain type of self-published work… the “Hey, Look at Me!” book. This is the type of book that serves no purpose other than to collect and reproduce the work of an artist. In my view, those types of books are only appropriate for an artist with a significant and influential body of work. Too many of these books are done by artists who, while their work might be really good, have done nothing to justify publishing a collection of it. Having been an illustrator for a few years, doing a few dozen jobs and having a blog where 50 of the same people post “awesome!” in the comments after the artist posts their latest cocktail-napkin sketch does not give one the “art cred” to collect their work in a book. That’s just my opinion, of course… call me old-fashioned. Not all are like this. There are many self-published books of this type where the artists behind them do merit such treatment, and have the “art cred” to back it up. My pal Steve Silver has several collections of his work self-published, and with his considerable credits in the world of animation he has a name and career worthy of interest.
So why did I self-publish if I hold such “Hey, Look at Me!” books in contempt? Simply because The Mad Art of Caricature! is NOT a “Hey, Look at Me!” book. It has a much different purpose and content, and that is the difference. I know a number of other artists who have published books that have a point outside the simple publication of their art, and that added dimension is what elevates self-publishing from narcissism to something that has greater appeal. Joe Bluhm‘s book Rejects, for example, is not just a book full of his terrific art, but a collection of live caricatures that were rejected by the customer complete with the story behind each AND an examination of the live caricaturist’s eternal dilemma between producing art and producing a product. That is fascinating and a great premise for a book. The Mad Art of Caricature! is a how-to-draw book that examines the art of caricature in a comprehensive and (hopefully) easy to understand way, and is only self-serving in the fact that my name is on the cover and my art is illustrating it. I do reference some of my own experiences in the book, but only in a way that illustrates or reinforces some point or lesson on caricature I am trying to communicate. It is about as far from a “Hey, Look at Me!” book as possible. For the record, in my opinion I have not had the kind of career worthy of a “The Art of…” type book—and would never presume to publish such a thing… maybe after another 20 years of professional work, but not now.
The other reason I self-published?
I mentioned earlier that “in certain conditions it makes more sense to self-publish than it does to take a book to a traditional publisher”, and those conditions seemed to be in play with The Mad Art of Caricature! It really all comes down to doing the math.
In all modesty I am pretty sure I could have found a traditional publisher to publish my book. A how-to art book, even one so narrowly targeted a one on drawing caricatures, has a fairly strong potential market and coupled with my credentials with MAD and elsewhere as the author, getting a publisher to pick it up probably would have been pretty likely. However looking at the numbers I would probably come out ahead financially by self-publishing for the following reasons:
- A core audience to market to- I’ve been branding The MAD Blog for over five years now, and while it would hardly compare to some of the real heavyweights in comics-related sites I do get about 3500 page views a day here. That translates into a fair number of people who would probably buy a book like The Mad Art of Caricature! This is a principal part of how self-publishing works these days… cultivating an audience online and then producing a product for that audience that they would purchase.
- Willingness to store and ship the books myself- this is a lot of organization and work, but by doing it we cut out another middleman: the distributor… at least for direct sales. That means more of the cover price ends up as profit. There are several “fulfillment” companies cropping up that service self-publishers willing to let them to this work for a percentage of the sale price, but I decided to go it on my own.
- Amazon and other on-line retailers- One drawback to self-publishing is that your ability to market the book is limited to direct marketing to specifically targeted audiences (via forums, etc) and that takes a lot of time and work. Through retailers like Amazon you can open up your publication to the entire world, and it is only an Amazon search for “how to draw caricatures” away from a potential sale. The bad part is that Amazon buys the book from the self-publisher for 40% of cover price and I have to pay to bulk-ship to Amazon for distribution, but what’s left over is still higher than the royalties you can expect from a publisher. BTW I have not yet listed The Mad Art of Caricature! on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but will eventually do so when direct sales have dried up.
- Secondary/reprint publishing rights- Many publishers are recognizing that some self-published books, which generally have a very low number of copies in their initial print runs, have a value with respect to a second printing. One of the big drawbacks of self-publishing is that it is next-to-impossible to market your book to libraries, schools or brick-and-mortar stores. Publishers have been known to buy the reprint publishing rights to a self-published book to take the book into that market, which has great potential. Often the advance for reprint rights is as high or higher than the initial advance would have been, as the self-publisher is delivering a complete book with all design and production done.
When I compared how much I could reasonably expect to get as an advance from a publisher to how many self-published copies I would need to sell to equal that same figure, it seemed likely I would stand to do better financially by self-publishing. Was I right? Time will tell. I have easily paid off the entire print run and am in the black on the book (THANKS to all who have bought a copy!), but I will need to sell a few hundred more copies before I pass the “probable advance” figure. If I sell the entire print run, I will certainly earn several times what I would have earned with a traditional publisher, even if they had sold 5 times that number of copies, due to the low royalty percentage I’d have gotten past the advance.
It’s an interesting business, of which you now know a lot more that you probably cared to. Publishers still have the ability to tap markets that self-publishers simply cannot access, but unless your book is going to sell tens of thousands of extra copies that way, self-publishing it increasingly becoming an option that makes financial sense in the right circumstances. Publishers also basically leave the promotion of the book to the author, which adds to the attractiveness of self-publishing.