Authors and Writers Independence Day Compromise

I decided to "work" this July 4th, to make a point about the independence I found in self publishing and the compromise involved in business. The greatest gift of being self employed as an author is that we can write when and what we want. Of course, as our customers are free to buy whatever books they want whenever the fancy strikes them, there's no guarantee we'll make a living next year. The fundamental compromise in self publishing is we can do what you want, but, if we want to make a living, we’d better consider what our potential customers want as well.

I rarely quote authors at length, but I made sure to get the following passage from John Donne up on my original website in 1995, one of the most concentrated bits of prose ever written.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


What Donne expresses so elegantly with "No man is an Island" is that as much as we stand on our own feet, we're all of us born and raised and buried by others. As a "completely independent" self publisher, I have more dependencies than I care to count. What makes me more independent than when I was working as a trade author is that none of my current dependencies are absolute or exclusive. Starting with the Big Three:

I'm dependent on Lightning Source to print my books and get them into Amazon and distribution, here and in the U.K.. If I wanted to sign up with Replica instead, I could get the same printing deal in the U.S., with Baker&Taylor distribution instead of Ingram. If I wanted to sign up with Booksurge, recently purchased by Amazon, I'd get the Amazon part of the equation. I could use any other print-on-demand or offset printer and take delivery of my books for resale through distribution, Amazon Advantage or direct mail order, but it would be a lot more work for a smaller profit per book. Lightning Source, in turn, is dependent on Foner Books for maybe one tenth of one percent of their printing volume. I don't think they're scared of losing us.

I'm dependent on Amazon to sell a goodly percentage of my books, a relationship I encourage by sending potential customers to the Amazon site through the Associates program. I could send them to Barnes& instead, I could just suggest they order through their local bookstore, or I could sell direct only. The advantage of sending customers to Amazon is the force multiplication factor, the more books you sell through Amazon, the more books they sell for you, through enhanced placement in search results and in their Also Bought lists. Foner Books nets about $500 per quarter through referral fees to Amazon, meaning we directly sell about $25,000 a year worth of books for them, about one thousandth of one percent of their annual book sales. They wouldn't even notice if we ended our "partnership."

I depend on the search engines to help people find our website, primarily Google. If Google decided to eliminate small publisher websites from their results, reworked their algorithm in some way that our pages no longer appeared, or simply went out of business replaced by a search engine that didn't work in a similar way, we'd be in trouble. I could try to rework my website to do better with other search engines or in the new system, I could advertise for visitors (costly), or work from dawn to dusk trying to rebuild traffic, but that wouldn't be much fun. Google indexes billions of web pages; Foner Books has well under a thousand web pages online. Foner Books comprises far less than one millionth of their index.

Independence in the publishing business is a compromise for authors. Nobody can tell you what to write, but you can't tell anybody what to buy. Nobody can make you sell books through this or that outlet, but you can't force this or that store to sell your books. When I worked in a more conventional business years ago, I figured if we could reach 10% of our supplier's total volume, we'd be in a pretty good position to negotiate terms and conditions, and we did. As a self publisher, I'd have to pick a pretty small printer or distributor for our sales to reach 10% of their volume, which means they wouldn't have much weight in the broader publishing business either.

The Big Three dependencies I gave above aren't our only dependencies - we're dependent on the U.S. Post Office, on UPS and Federal Express, on the ISBN agency, on our editors and proofreaders, and on any other freelancers we bring in to produce a book. We're dependent on our web host, on our Internet Service Provider, our bank, our lawyer, and even the tax agencies we work with. I'm proud to be a self publisher on Independence Day and I believe self employment was at the heart of the Founding Fathers’ concept of Republic. But, I understand that as far as independence goes, authors and writers are a pretty dependent lot!

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