Joe Konrath ran an interview with Mark Coker of Smashwords the other day. Great interview. Super comments thread. Well worth reading, even the comments, as there's a lot of meat and Mark takes the time to go in again and again to address various issues folks have had. But there was a repeating strand of thought in the comments, about trying to break down the "odds" of self publishing vs traditional publishing. The thought seemed to be that someone could somehow do the math and show the odds of any given book making as much or more self published as it would be likely to make picked up by a traditional publisher.
OK, I'm here today to say that publishing is not a lottery. Nor is it a sure thing.
Publishing is an act of hubris.
In any given year, there will be literally millions of books submitted to traditional publishers. In the past, those which were not accepted were trunked, or sent again the next year, and the next, and the next. Today, we'll see more and more of those novels self published instead. Someone in that comment thread mentioned that in 2004, "only 2% of all 1.2 million unique titles sold more than 5,000 copies." He didn't give a reference. But let's suppose that's right.
My god, that's a hopeless number, isn't it? Your little book, competing against 1.2 million books? Might as well give it up and pack it in now, right? Hey, it's even worse - that's the published books. If you're submitting to traditional publishing, remember over 99% of submissions are rejected outright.
That's why publishing a book yourself, or submitting to a publisher, is an act of hubris. You are placing a bet, not on the odds (which are pretty crappy) but on yourself. You are betting that your book is good enough to make the grade and get readers. You're betting your time spent writing the book, your money spent submitting or publishing it. You're betting the self-esteem that you risk if you're rejected, or if you self publish and are reviewed badly - or maybe worse, no one buys it at all.
The odds are, if this is your first book, that you aren't going to be picked up by a traditional publisher, and won't make many sales if you self publish. Trying anyway is that act of standing up and saying "I believe in myself enough to ignore the odds and do this."
It takes courage to say that. It takes even more courage to try again if your first attempt doesn't succeed. People who want careers as writers need the courage to do both.
Running the Odds: Trad vs Self Pub
Some folks subsequently were trying to think about the math - comparing the 'odds' of being published traditionally vs the 'odds' of making equivalent money from self publishing. I think the bottom line is again that the odds are absolutely terrible either way. Does it really matter if your chances of making $10k off a book are 0.05% in self publishing and 0.04% in traditional publishing, or vice versa? (Those are made up numbers, for anyone confused.) The odds are so incredibly long either way that it really doesn't matter which way you go.
There's really only one thing you can do to improve your odds via either route, and that's write well. Your writing simply needs to be above average to sell. You need to tell stories people want to read, and tell them in a way people want to read them.
I take that back - there's a second thing: never give up. Because your first book will likely be bad. Your second will probably be bad, too, but will hopefully be better. Every book, every word you write anywhere that is focused on improving your craftsmanship, will improve your skill at writing. All of those words build up over time. Stephen King mentioned in his book "On Writing" that "it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."
Bad writers don't get read.
Competent writers might sell a few copies.
Great writers - well, King suggests that they are born, not made, rare prodigies that live in a place the rest of us cannot aspire to. OK, I won't argue his thesis (right now, anyway).
But good writers? Good writers are the folks we see on the shelves every day, the ones we read and enjoy all the time. Good writing is what we aspire toward.
Publishing is not about the odds. It's about having the hubris to believe our work is good.
Becoming a writer is about having the courage to try again when we find out that it's not, yet.