Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Duke's UNSUITABLE lecture series #4: Courtney Milan on Self-Publishing

RNFF readers will remember my post last fall about speaking at the inaugural meeting of Duke University’s  “Unsuitable” events series, talks by professionals in the romance field that engage students and members of the Durham community in a discussion of women’s interests and popular fiction. As I live so far from North Carolina, I’ve not been able to attend any of the subsequent talks in the series, but I’m pleased to report that students from Duke instructors and romance authors Laura Florand and Katherine Ashe’s “The Romance Novel” (HST 248S.01) class have offered to give RNFF readers a sneak peak by reporting about “Unsuitable” events and speakers.

Please join me in welcoming guest blogger Katherine Berko, who will talk about attending UNSUITABLE #4 on March 2nd, a talk by romance author and self-publisher Courtney Milan.

“UNSUITABLE Event Number Four: Publishing Without a Publisher” was about to commence at Duke University, and New York Times-bestselling historical romance novelist Courtney Milan sat in a midnight blue dress, a few scraps of scribbled notes in front of her, ready to enlighten both undergraduate students and Durham locals about her journey to becoming a self-published author.  Little did audience members know that Milan was about to give them a combination math lesson, autobiographical story, and business speech, cracking jokes all the while.  Yet what less could be expected of a woman who studied chemistry and math as an undergrad while simultaneously running a data collection for HTML, went to law school, served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice O’Connor, taught as a professor of law, and who now had done a full 360, choosing to write romance novels in the heart of the Rocky Mountains?  How did she manage to do all of that?  Well, as Milan unashamedly admitted, “I’m really smart.  I’m a girl so I’m not supposed to say that,” she chuckled, “but I’m actually really smart.”

Milan began her talk by explaining how the ability to publish a book digitally has revolutionized the self-publishing world.  No longer are a minute percentage of people self-published; with the popularity of digital books, it is increasingly easy for writers to self-publish their work.  Milan elaborated on the pros of being self-published: the first pro she shared was that there is a direct-financial benefit to digital sales.  With a publisher, an author gets around 17.5% of the purchase price in revenue. But when self-publishing, an author receives about 70% of the purchase price.  Another benefit to self-publishing is the increased author control over publication timing. Milan explained that books get published much quicker sans publisher because there are no committees to run them through. Publishers also often do not share important data with their authors, such as where books are selling, where they aren’t selling, etc.  This brought Milan to her next point: the publisher’s goal. 

The goal of a publisher is to maximize income, not necessarily for the author but instead for the company.  Milan confided, a twinkle in her eyes: “Hypothetically, you can sell more copies than your publisher.”  Then she shared numbers for a recent novel of hers, which happened to be both self-published as well as published through a publisher.  From July through September of 2014, Milan’s publisher sold 1,845 copies of her book.  Meanwhile, in the same time frame, Milan managed to sell 10,363 copies!  Let’s not forget the catch: Milan only gets 17.5% of that $1,845 that her publisher sold!  How could anyone make a living on that?  Luckily, Milan’s savvy brain also snatches 70% of that $10,363 she managed to sell.  Of course, it’s not this way for every self-published novelist out there.  As Milan admitted, “No matter how you publish, it’s not easy.”

Milan explained of the hundreds of thousands of brand-new books published every year, 50% of them do not sell a single copy.  Daunting?  Of course!  However, this should not frighten writers from the realm of self-publishing, as many of the authors of the aforementioned digital books write poorly Some of those non-selling books are good, though, and yet they still do not sell.  Why not?  Milan explained, “If you want to make a living as a writer, you must think of yourself as a small business and think of your work as an art.”  A big reason why many self-published authors don’t sell is because “something about their business sucks.”  Milan instructs listeners that all businesses require capital when they first start out, and becoming a writer is no exception to this rule.  Then Milan reminded her audience that yes, while writing requires capital at the start, a writer does not have to be best-selling to earn that investment, and then some, back.  50 Shades of Gray has sold a fuck-load of copies,” Milan said, eyes bulging.  “That means 1.4% of the world population bought a copy!” However, Milan then went on to reassure people that they need not sell their book to 1.4 % of the world in order to be successes. To make a living, one only needs 0.0001% of the world’s population to purchase one’s books: not so bad after all, right?  

Why did Milan ultimately crossover from being with a publisher to self-publishing?  She was a success with HQN, one of the best publishers, and quit!  Everybody was shocked by what she did. But Milan had already published four books with HQN, so she had avid followers, which are the key to success.  Milan quit because she’d made very little money from her traditionally-published books, and her publishers pissed her off.  They tried to remove all the elements in her story that somebody could object to. For example, they asked her to remove a gay character from one of her novels.  Milan objected: “These elements are often what we get most excited about.”  She also emphasized that while most publishers are this way, there are still some good ones.  Another reason Milan left was it’s easier to take creative risks without a publisher, be that risk a character in the story or a cover.  Romance novelists often despise their covers, which are selected by their publisher and who can blame these novelists?  Who would want an image of a rapist advertising their book?  A novel’s cover is its marketing device.

Milan told people to understand that: “Super successful self-published books would generally be successful if published by publishers.”  Essentially, Milan explained that a writer should choose whether to self-publish or go with a publisher based on his/her temperament.  Ask yourself: are you a person more stressed by responsibilities or by not being in control?  If the answer to the question is the latter (which happens to be Milan’s answer), then self-publishing is for you.  “The amount of non-writing stuff you have to do is huge,” Milan explained.  This  “stuff” includes finding somebody to design your cover, somebody to edit your book, and many other tasks.  Milan’s biggest hurdle as a self-publisher is finding good people to work with who will not quit.  She pays her workers a lot of money because she is “hard to work with.”

As a closing piece of advice for aspiring authors, Milan said the best person to receive guidance from is somebody who succeeded in marketing their book last year as a new author.  This is because the book market is extremely volatile.  And to make writers feel better about themselves Milan reminded, “The world sucks right now for both types of publishers.”  This is because everything is constantly changing.  However, on the bright side for novelists, “Authors, in general, are being treated better because of self-publishing,” Milan happily told her listeners. So go forth, remember to view your writing as both a business and an art, and look to your temperament to decide what publishing is best for you.

Katherine Berko is a New York City native attending Duke University. She loves to write and hopes to one day publish her own books. Aside from writing, Katherine also enjoys singing opera, as she graduated from LaGuardia High School of the Arts. She travels as much as she can, from the ruins of Machu Picchu to the pagodas of Myanmar.

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