Yesterday when I was formatting my review for Courtney Milan’s Unlocked, I put the author’s name in both the “author” and “publisher” field. I have a feeling I will be doing that more and more often, and I know I’ll be doing it again for Milan. Read on for an interview (as usual, a nosy one) about Milan’s decision to self publish the third book in her trilogy.
So what’s the story? You’ve shared why you’re choosing this option: Your readership, your fans, and your dislike of the digital royalty rate. What you think a publisher could have offered to bring you a print contract you’d be interested in?
I would very much like to discuss your point of view and reasoning however you’d like to share it publicly.
Milan: The digital royalty rate (8% of digital cover price for Harlequin) was a sticking point. And under the terms of the contract and the current market, this would have given them the rights to my backlist for the rest of my working life. You can see people break down the math elsewhere as to how that works out in the long term, with more favorable royalty rates. Most current contracts were written in a time period when a book had a very short commercial lifespan, and the industry is suffering growing pains as it tries to figure out what fair value is now that this time has broadened.
Beyond the financial aspects, there are some creative components of my decision that are exciting and freeing. Under traditional publishing, every one of an author’s books needs to be at or around the same level of commercial viability. That means there’s pressure on authors to write to the largest segment of the market—and once they’ve captured that market, they have to keep writing towards it.
So far, that pressure hasn’t hampered my creative output. I have tons of ideas, and so I’ve selectively developed stories that are about the British aristocracy. Even so, I had to work to keep some plot points. For instance, I had to push to keep Mark, the hero of my upcoming Unclaimed, as a virgin.
If I self-publish, the range of stories I can write widens. It’s okay if not all my books aim for an audience of 100,000. For instance, I’d love to write a belowstairs romance, like what you see developing between Anna and Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey. I don’t think a traditional publisher would touch that, but I do think that there is a subset of historical romance readers who would love it. I want to be able to mix it up.
But I am not at all averse to traditional publishing. Like I said before, some of my ideas are very commercial, and I think they would do well in any form of publication. I don’t think traditional publishers are evil, misguided, or even ignorant. I don’t agree with everything they do, but they don’t agree with everything I do, so that makes us even.
So I could see myself choosing traditional publication again. But there are four requirements that would have to be met first:
1. The publisher would need to be dedicated to wide distribution of my books in print format.
2. I would have to get a fair digital royalty rate under a contract that protected the commercial value to me of my backlist titles.
3. The publisher would either have to commit to simultaneous worldwide electronic distribution of the English language version, or take only North American rights so I could handle the simultaneous aspect myself.
4. I would want to be able to self-publish other works while still under contract.
I don’t think these conditions are unreasonable or unworkable. The explanation for why authors are economically better off if they self publish hinges on the fact that an author’s backlist titles are now worth more to the author than they are to the publisher. Fix that and you stem the impetus to self-publish. I can think of five workable solutions off the top of my head.
Finally, I want to emphasize that this is a business decision on my part, not a manifesto. When I say, “I’m not going to work with a publisher on this book” I’m not declaring all publishers unfit for all purposes. I’m just saying that at this point in time, I didn’t feel it was the right decision for me to make. If you want to know how I feel about traditional publishers, this is from the acknowledgments for Unlocked, the self-published novella I’m releasing:
I know it’s the fad to dis traditional publishers, but I’ve never been one of the cool kids. I want to thank HQN Books and Margo Lipschultz for all that they have done for me. I learned a great deal about how to produce a professional product by working with the entire team there. I would not be where I was today without them.
So, fair warning: I’m not going to be a good poster child for any movement.
You’re not going to be a poster child for any movement? Well, crap, where’s the fun in that? Why not be the poster child for Hot Sexxay Belowstairs Romance? Just think of the potential tag lines….
Milan: I could do that, but then people would be mad if I wrote a romance about a duke! If someone really needs a poster child, I volunteer my dog. I don’t know what he’d be a poster child for, but he’s a very cute dog and he’d do an excellent job.
[Not sure about poster dog child? Check this video Courtney made for the 2011 DABWAHA]
So moving on.
What professionals or professional skills, freelance and otherwise, are you planning to use as you prepare your novel for publication?
I am a huge believer in hiring freelance editing. You really can’t see some aspects of the story yourself, and I know by lengthy personal experience that no matter how many times I read a story, there are just some mistakes I will never see. But many of the professionals who control quality for traditional publishing are freelancers. I can hire the exact same people, and so I have.
I thought long and hard about doing my cover myself. But I found myself nitpicking the design of every cover designer in my price range. Give any one of those graphic designers 2 hours and she would absolutely come up with a better cover than I can in the same amount of time. (For reference purposes: one of my many, many former jobs was in graphic design. I haven’t logged the 10,000 hours necessary to be an expert, but I’m probably at 3,000 hours.) But since this is my cover, I spent close to 60 hours fussing with little details.
I won’t put my product up against some of the better cover designers in the business—for instance, I have serious cover envy for Tessa Dare’s upcoming A NIGHT TO SURRENDER. I could fuss for 1,000 hours and never get there. But I can’t afford them.
What I am not is a photographer or a serious photomanipulator. So I bought nonexclusive rights to an image by Claudia McKinney at Phatpuppyart.
For formatting: I priced out formatting from a handful of leading names. I also read a handful of formatting guides, and discovered that the trick to proper ebook formatting is starting with a clean HTML file. So I ended up doing it myself—more because the really talented people all have a fairly long back log, and formatting is important enough that I wouldn’t want anyone but the most talented. (Again: if I do it and screw it up, I will fuss until it’s right. If I underpay someone else and they screw it up, that’s it.)
Finally, I couldn’t have done this without my agent, Kristin Nelson. She negotiated a contract for me that gave me a lot of flexibility to walk and continue the series on my own. She has been absolutely supportive.
I know a lot of agents would choke if a client said they were walking on a very nice deal to self-publish, but Kristin didn’t blink an eye. There is a lot of flux in an agent’s role today. Some of the news I hear absolutely sticks in my craw. But I’ve talked with my agent about all of this and I have been consistently impressed with her intelligence, ethics, and dedication.
Have you thought about what price point you may use?
Milan: I’m pretty unemotional about price. A price is a price, not a barometer of my self-respect. Unlocked, the novella I’m releasing, is priced at 99 cents. I don’t believe that’s a revenue maximizing price. I think the revenue maximizing price for the novella would be $2.99. I’m looking for an audience maximizing price, not a revenue maximizing price.
For a full-length front list title, I’m probably going to start at $4.99. Maybe $3.99. I’m not sure. I go back and forth with myself.
I know you plot your books mathematically. Do you have a worksheet for this project as well? Can we see it?
Milan: Yeah, I plot my books mathematically—I use a nonlinear stochastic process.
I have the mother of all spreadsheets. I tried to do exactly what a publishing house would do by setting up a profit/loss statement for my book. I made a comprehensive list of every expense I would have and got quotes for all of them. Every time I spend money, I put it on the spreadsheet. I tried to figure out how many copies I would sell. To do that, I did what you’d do in the publishing industry—looked for comparable books.
Except there were no comparable books. The closest you could get was my own book, and the pricing would be different and I don’t know if a self published book would sell at the level of a traditionally published book, and so even that wasn’t comparable. So instead I projected scenarios—best (believable) case, medium case, and worst (believable) case.
At some point, I’ll probably post a stripped-down version of my spreadsheet for projection purposes, but if you saw the full thing it would make you think I was neurotic.
More neurotic, I mean.
What part of the project excites you most? Gives you the fearsome jibblies?
Milan: he part that scares me is the same part that excites me: If this doesn’t work out, I have nobody to blame but myself. That’s scary. Super scary. But on the other hand, it means that if the cover art isn’t working, I can change it. If the cover copy isn’t drawing people in, I can change it. If the pricing is wrong, I can fix it in a single click.
Here’s the other scary thing: When I first started this endeavor, I thought, “No author will ever need to fear being dropped by her publishing house again!” That was naive. I *do* still fear being dropped. It’s just that I’m the publishing house now. And because this is a business, I will have to do that if I don’t turn a reasonable profit. I’ll have to look myself in the eye and say, “It’s not personal. It’s business.”
That being said, my do-or-die number is realistic enough that I only fear that I’ll miss it in the dark of night when I wake up cold and irrational. Still, it’s sobering—and it makes me feel for every editor who has ever had to drop an author that she personally loves.
1. With the news of Barry Eisler and Connie Brockway signing with Amazon Publishing and the establishment of Montlake, the Amazon Publishing romance imprint, have you looked at them as an option?
Milan: I’m not going to foreclose any possibility. I already said what would bring me to a traditional deal: I want an assurance of wide distribution, reasonable royalties, and reasonable reversion clauses. If Amazon can provide that, I’m willing to listen. Amazon is generally smart and savvy, and boy, do they have a lot of data.
That being said, that “distribution” stuff is pretty crucial to me. My understanding is publishing with Amazon means exclusivity. Amazon is a great marketplace for books. I hope in the future that it will be one of many, and not one of one.
I personally think this represents an amazing opportunity for Milan, and for many authors. Each day I hear about another author self-publishing backlist novels, novellas, and previously unpublished works, but I think this represents another bend in the increasingly curvy road of discovery and publishing in the romance community.
I wish you total badass success on the road ahead, Courtney.