Why I Decided to Self-Publish ‘The Biographies of Ordinary People’

Let’s talk about money, vision, and time.

Last week I listed my 2017 career-and-life goals, and Team Billfold rightfully called me out for burying the lede:

The Biographies of Ordinary People, Vol. 1: 1989–2000, forthcoming Summer 2017.
(That was a really soft announcement that I’m going to be publishing a book this year, and there’ll be a larger announcement later, and if you want to know more here’s the TinyLetter where I’ll share relevant news like pre-order dates.)
This is a really huge deal for me. Expect a big ol’ post coming up about the finances of independent book publishing, and why I chose to go indie over traditional publishing, and all of the money details you could ever imagine.

So here’s your big ol’ post. As promised. Let’s do it Q&A style:

What is ‘The Biographies of Ordinary People’?

The Biographies of Ordinary People is the story of the Gruber family: Rosemary and Jack, and their daughters Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie. The two-volume series begins in July 1989, on Rosemary’s thirty-fifth birthday; it ends in November 2016, on Meredith’s thirty-fifth birthday.

Written for fans of Betsy-Tacy, Little Women, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the story is an episodic, ensemble narrative that takes us into intimately familiar experiences: putting on a play, falling out with a best friend, coming out to your parents. Getting dial-up internet for the first time. Standing on the National Mall during President Obama’s inauguration.

At the heart of the story is Meredith Gruber, the oldest Gruber sister and the one determined to figure out how “ordinary people” should live — because all the biographies she’s ever read are about famous people. She wants to write and act, and her younger sister Jackie wants to sing opera, and the two of them pursue their goals with both ambition and limitations.

Readers have said:

“This is maybe the most beautiful book I have read in a long time.” — Kate Diehm

“So real on the page that you feel like you know [the characters] well enough to take them to dinner.” — Jen MacCormack

Did you just copy/paste your own promotional text?

Yes. It doesn’t count as self-plagiarism if you acknowledge it!

So why are you self-publishing this?

The shortest answer is because I believe I can earn an equivalent amount of money (as I would through a traditional publishing arrangement) while remaining true to my vision and getting both volumes out within an 18-month period.

This, by the way, is a specific answer to the question “how should I publish The Biographies of Ordinary People?” It isn’t meant to imply that self-publishing is always a better option than traditional publishing, either for myself or for other authors. It just means that I think it’s the best choice for these two books.

Okay, what do you mean by “an equivalent amount of money?”

The average debut novel advance is “somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000,” according to literary agent Chip MacGregor (and other sources, but I wanted to quote an authoritative one).

This is an advance against future royalties, meaning that the author does not earn any more money until the book sells enough copies that the author’s percentage of the royalties is greater than the amount of the advance.

Also, the author’s agent gets a percentage of that advance, so the author’s cut is $5,000–$10,000 minus 15 percent or whatever. (Also minus taxes.)

But I’ve already got the “somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000.” I funded the rough draft of The Biographies of Ordinary People through Patreon, and supporters contributed $6,909 over 18 months to help “buy the time” for me to work on the book. (They also got to read chapters as soon as they were drafted.)

So I’m at the same starting place, give or take, as a person who got a traditional publishing advance. However, this $6,909 is not an advance against royalties. Everything I earn from sales of The Biographies of Ordinary People is mine to keep (minus taxes)—and royalty percentages are much higher for self-published authors selling through Amazon than they are for authors working within a traditional publishing system.

I don’t like Amazon.

That’s not a question, but I get it. Some people don’t like Amazon. I’m still going to sell my books through them. As Author Earnings reports, “Amazon accounts for 74% of all US ebook purchases and 71% of all US consumer dollars spent on ebooks.”

Okay, back to royalties then. How much higher?

With Amazon, I can get 70 percent of each ebook sale (minus $0.06 “delivery costs” per book) if I price my ebook between $2.99 and $9.99, and I’ll know what I get from print sales once I finish the formatting and figure out how much it’ll cost to produce a print copy.

I’ll quote Lincoln Michel on traditional publishing numbers: “Author royalty rates vary, but the industry standard is about 8% of the cover price for paperbacks and 10% for hardcovers (escalating to 15% if sales go well). Ebooks, which have variable pricing, are 25% of the publisher’s take.”

So… yeah. In terms of ebooks, indie publishing gets me 70 percent. Traditional publishing might get me 25 percent after I earn out an advance, which doesn’t always happen.

Even if the traditional publishing ebook is priced higher than the indie publishing ebook, which would probably be the case, here’s how the math works out if I sell 1,000 copies:

Indie publishing: 70 percent of 1,000 ebooks priced at $3.99, minus $0.06 per book: $2,733.

Trad publishing: 25 percent of 1,000 ebooks priced at $9.99: $2,497.50, and I probably haven’t earned out my advance yet, so it’s actually $0.

But unlike authors working in traditional publishing, you have to pay for the cost of publishing your book… right?

Yes. But I also get to do it in a way that stays true to my vision and matches my ideal timeline. (I also get to keep all the rights, which is another topic entirely.)

If you’re interested in learning more about actual costs, I’m doing a weekly “This Week in Self-Publishing” roundup:

I know the big question is whether I will spend every penny of that $6,909 getting the book published. I don’t think so. I have to figure out how much licensing song lyrics will cost and how much I want to pay for promotion, but beyond that… well, I spent $100 to license the Canva image that I used on both covers, and I can do the interior formatting myself, and so on.

What do you mean by “staying true to your vision?” You’ve mentioned it twice now.

Okay. Wow. This is going to be long.

The Biographies of Ordinary People is a beautiful book. This isn’t just me saying that. I’ve been told as much by multiple people, including people in the publication industry.

It’s also a “quiet book,” which means that it’s much more about character than about plot, and it’s about the day-to-day questions of how to live, how to be a friend, how to be part of a family, and how to make art. There’s no Big Bad to defeat; there’s no mystery, except the great mystery of how to be human.

I structured it that way on purpose, first because those are the types of books I’ve loved and re-read the most, and second because of my readers. When I thought of when people might read the story, I pictured them in two places: on public transportation, commuting; or at home, in bed, before falling asleep. I wanted something that, when you read it, would make your heart happy, not something that would make your heart race.

(I was the person who made the mistake of starting Dave Eggers’ The Circle at 9 p.m. and then smacking my Kindle with my thumb as fast as I could to get to the end of the book by midnight—which is great if you want to figure out whodunit and whytheydunit but not great for reading carefully or thinking about character or thinking about yourself as you relate to the characters. I didn’t want to write a book that you sucked down like you were drinking a Slurpee while driving on the highway.)

So The Biographies of Ordinary People has been described as “art.” It has also been described as “not very marketable.” There are things I could do to make the book more marketable—like, specific things that have been suggested—but that would change the story I want to tell, and I don’t want to do that.

Before you’re all “who is she to say she knows anything about anything,” I have a MFA in theater directing and I have worked for theater companies. I have watched the process through which directors, designers, and producers turn an idea into a compromise. I’ve been part of that process. (It doesn’t happen with every production, but we’ve all sat through those kinds of shows.)

There were three times during my career in the theater that I was told that I had made art. Each time I was in control of the process. I had collaborators—the actors, of course, and all of us working together on the design—but I didn’t have to answer to anyone but the audience, and we were able to go all-in and see what happened.

So that’s what I want to do here. I believe in this story, and I believe in the experience I think the reader will have when they read it. I also believe it’s important for a book like this to exist right now.

Okay, so you’ve segued into the timeline aspect. Why do you want to get this book out so quickly?

With traditional publishing, it can take over a year to get a book out—and that’s after it’s been accepted by an agent and then accepted by a publisher, which can take most of another year. Multiply that by two volumes and it might take five years for The Biographies of Ordinary People to be published in full.

One of the reasons I chose the self-publishing route was to get The Biographies of Ordinary People out as soon as possible—because it’s about now, and the thirty years immediately prior to now, and I want my readers to be as close to now as possible when they read it.

This book is both an “Oregon Trail Generation novel” and a “Millennial novel.” Meredith Gruber, who turns thirty-five on November 11, 2016—an unexpectedly resonant endpoint for the story, as it turns out—is more of an Oregon Trailer, but her younger sisters Natalie and Jackie are definitely Millennials (and yes, that difference becomes apparent in Volume 2).

So I want my readers to feel the Grubers’ stories as immediate, whether they’re the Gruber sisters’ generation or their parents’ generation: I want them to think “I’m the same age, I’m doing the same things they are, this stuff just happened” instead of “I remember experiencing all of this five years ago.”

Does that mean you haven’t edited or revised the text?

I have done multiple editing and revision passes on Volume 1, and will start editing and revising Volume 2 once Volume 1 is published. (These edits include feedback from my Patreon supporters, who helped show me where I needed to rework parts of the story.)

I meant to ask about that. Why two volumes? Are you trying to stretch one book into two?

Hahahahahahahahaha no. I originally wanted The Biographies of Ordinary People to be a single volume, but it got really long. Like, 177,000 words long. So I’m splitting it into what will be two 90,000-word volumes, or two ordinary-sized books. (Pun intended.)

There is, of course, a promotional and financial benefit to releasing The Biographies of Ordinary People in two parts. Having two books to sell means having two opportunities to get readers hooked on the entire series. It means two chances to do launches, readings, interviews, etc. It also means the possibility of twice as many sales.

Wow, it sounds like you’re only in this for the money.

Did you not read that whole thing I wrote about vision? I’m in this to make art.

But I also want to make money—and if there’s one thing I’ve done with my freelance career, it’s figure out how to make money from my writing.

So yes, I have thought about the finances of self-publishing very strategically.

Did you try the traditional publishing route at all?

I did. I sent Volume 1 out to a number of agents and got a lot of great feedback (and multiple rejections).

I never viewed traditional publishing as the only option, though. It was one of many paths I was investigating for The Biographies of Ordinary People. I firmly stepped off that path after studying the Author Earnings blog and seeing who was actually making money in publishing—and realizing that, with these books, I could probably earn more as an indie author than I could as a traditionally published author.

But don’t self-publishing authors only sell, like, 500 copies?

Sure. Some do. But I’m a bit of an outlier. I’m in my fifth year of full-time freelance writing, which means I have both readers and reputation—plus I already know how to do the constant work of marketing and promotion.

I may only sell 500 copies—which at 70 percent of $3.99 per copy (minus $0.06 per book) would earn me $1,365 before taxes—but I’m pretty sure I’ll sell more than that.

I’m not at all sure whether I’ll sell 5,000 copies, which I’m using as a benchmark because it’s on the low end of what constitutes “debut novel success” in the traditional publishing world. It really all depends on whether people like the book, and whether their response to the book creates additional momentum beyond what I’m able to create myself.

Are you really going to sell the ebook for $3.99???? You’re worth more than that!!!!!

Author Earnings data shows that, in terms of ebook sales, people love the $2.99 and $3.99 ebooks—and pricing an indie ebook at $3.99 is likely to attract more purchases (and more total profit) than pricing an indie ebook at $9.99.

It’s what the research is worth, not what I am worth. I already know my own value.

(I also really like the idea of making my books as affordable as possible. I’m going to do my best to get them into libraries as well.)

Isn’t literary fiction the hardest category in which to self-publish?

I believe you mean “literary fiction has the least competition,” and that was definitely one of the factors in my decision to go indie.

There are only a small number of self-published literary fiction books, compared to the tens of thousands of self-published SF&F and romance novels. It’s going to be a lot easier for me to become a bestseller within a specific Amazon category, if that’s the particular game I want to play.

More importantly: I have a really good book, and it’s going to be in a space where there aren’t a lot of other books like it—either self-published or traditionally published. If readers like it, it’ll stand out. If not, well, next question:

What if your book is secretly terrible and you don’t realize it?

Then it doesn’t sell, or it does sell and it gets bad reviews, and we all learn something.

And then I make something new.

I have more questions!

That’s what the comments are for. ❤