Denise wrote and asked, "What do you mean when you say someone 'self-published'?"
Normally an author sends his or her agent a proposal. The agent shops it to a royalty-paying publishing house, who signs a contract, produces the book, and sells it to stores. The author licenses the sales rights to the publisher, so instead of actually "selling" the book, the author's job consists of chatting it up, helping promote it, and complaining that the publisher isn't doing enough marketing.
That's the "normal" route a book follows. But sometimes an author will choose to go directly to a printer, have his or her own copies of the book produced, and then try to sell the book directly. Under this arrangement, the author pays for all the production costs (editing, cover art, ink, paper, binding, shipping). Therefore, the risk is great. However, if the author can actually sell some copies, his earnings will be much greater. Instead of making a dollar in royalty for each book, the possibility exists that he can make ten dollars for each book sold.
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! I was able to say that with a straight face. Okay, in reality, the author knows NOTHING about producing books. So he (we're going to assume a male author, since nobody can tell most men anything) pays too much for a bad cover. (Self-pubbed books are notorious for bad covers.) He sends it to the printer who says they'll edit it, but don't. (Self-pubbed books are similarly notorious for poor editing.) He hopes for good quality ink and paper. (Take a guess at what goes in this parenthetical note.) He pays too much for each book, has no contacts for marketing it, and, worst of all, doesn't know how to sell them after he's talked with his relatives, neighbors, and steadily shrinking network of friends. He goes in debt $12,000, but he can puff his chest out at his 20th high school reunion, since he's now "An Author." That's the game, Denise.
Of course, there are two reasons people continue to self-publish... First, because there's a sucker born every minute. If you want to throw your money at a project in order to feel better about yourself, who am I to stop you? Second, because occasionally an author will educate himself. He'll invest in a real cover artist, send his manuscript to a legit editor, and team up with a quality printer. He'll find a great marketing company to help get the word out on his book, then throw himself into promoting it. And, above all, he will research and invest in sales channels, so that he stands a chance of earning back his investment. The few who do this often speak to groups, so they can sell them in the back of the room, or they know their audience extremely well, and understand how to reach potential readers. But this doesn't happen very often. Short of playing the ponies, pulling the handles of slot machines, or buying stock options, I know of very few ways to lose money as fast as self-pubbing. More power to you!
Mary wrote to ask, "I have a friend who wants me to write his autobiography. He wrote a few pages -- they were poorly crafted, but sweet. I told him there's no market for this, but he insists I write it for him, and he has family money to finance it. How do we determine payment?"
Wow. If he's writing out checks randomly like this, ask him if he needs a consultant. I'd be happy to have him send some of that money my way, Mary. Okay, here's a quick way to determine payment... Look at the project and figure out how long it will take you to write. If you can create about four or five pages per day, and he wants 100 pages, you should be able to get it done in a month. (It takes a bit of experience to look at a project and figure out how long it's going to take, but let's say a month of full-time writing.) Now you have to figure out how much you want to make in a month. If you had a normal job, and worked for a month, maybe you'd make $4000. Since you have to pay your own taxes out of this, charge him $5000 and you're all set. (And yes, the $5000 price tag will probably scare away most people anyway.) Having told you all that, you should know the $5000 figure is low.
Not everyone charges by "time on project." Some charge by the word or by the hour. Last year, the average hourly ghostwriting fee in this country was $73 (it ranged between $50 and $100). It's hard to determine the average overall project fee for this type of thing, but I can tell you the average fee for an "as told to" book in this country was about $22,000...but it usually ran about four months, so my $5000-for-a-month estimate is pretty close to being spot on.
Of course, you may want to heed my advice from an earlier post: If anyone asks you to write their memoir and they are not a celebrity, run the other way. Some day you'll thank me for this bit of wisdom.
And Linda wrote with the question, "What do you think of the services of The Writers Edge and ECPA's First Edition? Do these work?"
For the uninitiated, "The Writers Edge" (writersedgeservice.com) is a private company that solicits author proposals, then produces a printed report that is made available to Christian publishers. You list the title and genre, write your own short book description, and can use up to 75 words to explain your credentials. For that, they charge you $95. They claim that last year they placed 18 books with publishers, though they don't list the projects or the publishers.
The people at Writers Edge are very nice. They mean well. But I'm not a fan. I don't know of many editors who have the time to wade through a monthly report of unsolicited ideas on various ideas in random genres. In fact, I don't know of any significant editor who has contracted a book from this service. I'm not saying this is a bad idea, only that, in my experience, it hasn't been a boon to authors. I still think an author with an agent is much more likely to get his or her project reviewed -- in fact, I believe a well-rehearsed pitch at a writing conference would make a stronger impression than a brief description in what amounts to a printed slush pile.
ChristianManuscriptSubmission.com (formerly known as "First Edition") is run by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). It's similar to Writers Edge in that you list the title and genre, but they allow you to give a 500-word description of your book, a complete Table of Contents, and a 3000-word sample chapter. Rather than producing a printed brochure, they post the proposals on a web site available only to the publishing members of ECPA. The cost is $98 to have your book listed for six months.
In theory, this is a better deal -- you get more words, and you would think that ECPA members would be checking the site. But in truth, the same criticisms hold true. I know of no editors (at ECPA houses or elsewhere) who are short on proposals. So put yourself into an editor's shoes... Would you prefer to contract with someone you don't know, or with an agent you know and trust? Would you rather be reviewing random pieces on a web site sent in by anyone who can afford the fee, or a handful of polished proposals sent in by agents you've done business with in the past? There are thousands of unpublished authors trying to peddle their manuscripts, so this has created the biggest electronic slush pile on the planet. I just don't see that it's an effective tool.
I'm sorry -- I'm an agent, and I know this sounds completely self-serving. But I used to be an editor, a senior editor, and a publisher, and I can tell you with certainty that the publishing business has moved away from the do-it-yourselfer and toward the professionals and specialists.
Does it hurt to participate in The Writers Edge and/or Christian Manuscript Submission? Of course not. And maybe you'll be the one who gets noticed. But using that logic, you may want to also buy a lottery ticket, so that after you win, you can purchase your own publishing house. Business moves from less sophisticated to more sophisticated -- from amateurism to professionalism. It's why most houses only review agented submissions.