15 Sunday Jan 2017
I’ve been toying with the idea of a post along these lines for some time now. Mostly so I could talk about how Amazon has affected the publishing industry, but at least in part to explain why I do what I do.
After the events of the last few weeks, I’m not sure where I stand on that. This fall makes ten years since I began self-publishing. My first book was a short story anthology for an erotica website. I ran the site’s online bookstore at lulu.com. I also helped with proofreading short stories, novellas and online serials for the main site.
Over the years, I’ve published (either directly online or through a publishing platform like Smashwords) well over 300 stories of various lengths, the vast majority of which were my own. If you’re wondering why I don’t have 200 some-odd stories listed in my bibliography, the answer is simple. Not all of it was original fiction.
Before anyone asks, I am proud of my fanfiction roots. I had direct contact with my audience on a daily basis, immediate feedback and learned many different ways to craft a story with varying results. I suppose if I really want to count my fanfic as part of my pubbing experience, I began in spring of 2000.
Either way one chooses to look at it, I’ve been doing this for quite a while. When I decided I wanted to charge people for my services, I thought word of mouth might be enough to sustain my efforts. I had hoped, albeit foolishly, that talking to people about what I do would be enough to garner interest, and then business. Next step, profit!
Nothing is that simple. At least, not for me. I’ve taken part in discussions with authors from time to time, but one of the more eye-opening ones was last night on Facebook. I asked a simple question: do self-published authors feel services (editing, formatting, book cover art) are worth more if the person charges above a certain amount? The answers varied by respondant, but quite a number of people said or implied that price, to them, is at least partically indicative of quality. Maybe I’m overstating the consensus (it’s early and my caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet). I felt…gutted is too strong a word. I felt the wind go out of my sails.
See, I have two issues. The first, I have the kind of experience that isn’t readily quantifiable. The website I used to work for no longer exists, so I can’t use that as a reference point. And saying I’ve published my own work doesn’t impress many. I could probably scrounge through old emails and find every author I’ve beta read or done other work for (there are dozens), but asking for testimonials seems like begging them to help me get noticed. Because there are tons of editors, proofreaders and formatters out there, I feel like my voice is getting lost in the crowd. I’m proud of my work, but I don’t want to beat people over the head with constant self-promotion.
The other issue is that I deliberately underpriced my services because I know how expensive self-publishing can be. I want to be able to help people who are like me – not a ton of disposable income, short story writers – and people just starting out. My idea was that I could help bring good stories to market, rather than let them remain unseen because the author couldn’t afford to invest hundreds or thousands before publication. Not everyone is able to do crowdfunding or save up the money to invest in this kind of thing.
And I know some people (authors, publishers and readers) feel like if an author’s story is worth it, they’ll find a way to come up with the money. The thing is, we all feel like our babies our worth anything we can give them. Some of us just aren’t in a place where we can justify spending that kind of money. (Frankly, if I could raise a few hundred dollars just like that, I’d use it to pay my debts. My stories would get out there any way I could manage.)
Where am I going with this? I’ve recognized for quite some time that my ideas about helping the little guy were romantic. Altruistic, yes, but at least partly based on an ideal world where my greater reward would be helping people who needed it. And I have helped a number of authors.
Unfortunately, I’m not in a place where I can do it the same way anymore. I love working with other authors. I genuinely enjoy editing and formatting books, whether mine or other people’s. But I’m faced with a choice. I can charge more, so that people who feel like these services need to be more expensive will see value in what I do. That, in turn, would limit the choices of authors who don’t have that kind of budget. Or I can stop doing this altogether. This is the most likely, as I can’t afford to keep putting myself out there if the impression a number of people have is that my services aren’t worth their time and money. Perhaps I’ve gone about promoting myself the wrong way. Either way, by the end of the month I’m either going to pare down my website or close it altogether. I wish I had a better solution for this problem.
I think my Facebook post last night allowed me to confirm something I already knew: Perceived value can make or break a product. I used to believe that only applied to the books once they hit market. Now I know better.