Some readers these days are asking why authors are self-publishing instead of publishing through traditional, big-name publishing houses. This is why:
In 1815, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about a message she’d received from her publisher:
Mr. Murray’s letter is come; he is a Rogue, of course, but a civil one. He offers £450 [for the copyright of Emma]—but he wants to have the copyright of MP [Mansfield Park] and S&S [Sense & Sensibility] included. It will end in my publishing for myself, I dare say.
Now, four hundred and fifty pounds was quite a large sum at the time, especially when one considers that upon Jane’s father’s death, Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother had been left with an inheritance of only £210 per year between them. But asking for the copyrights to Emma, Mansfield Park, and Sense & Sensibility was an outrageous demand. In response, Mr. Murray received this response (ostensibly from Jane’s brother Henry Austen, as Jane’s status as the author of her novels was still a secret, but I speculate that, since it was Jane who actually penned the dictated letter, she also had a hand in composing its rather snarky content):
Severe illness has confined me to my Bed ever since I received Yours of ye 15th – I cannot yet hold a pen, & employ an Amuensis [sic]. – The Politeness & Perspicuity of your Letter equally claim my earliest Exertion. – Your official opinion of the Merits of Emma, is very valuable & satisfactory. – Though I venture to differ occasionally from your Critique, yet I assure you the Quantum of your commendation rather exceeds than falls short of the Author’s expectation & my own. – The Terms you offer are so very inferior to what we had expected, that I am apprehensive of having made some great Error in my Arithmetical Calculation. – On the subject of the expense & profit of publishing, you must be much better informed that I am; – but Documents in my possession appear to prove that the Sum offered by you, for the Copyright of Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park & Emma, is not equal to the Money which my Sister has actually cleared by one very moderate Edition of Mansfield Park –(You Yourself expressed astonishment that so small an Edit. of such a work should have been sent into the World) & a still smaller one of Sense & Sensibility.
It’s clear that Jane knew what all authors know: a publishing house is a business whose purpose is to make money, and it does so by exploiting authors—and readers—as cleverly as possible.
When my first novel was published Back in 2001, the Big-Name, New York publishing house I was with paid me just $1,250 USD per novel. Even If I’d managed to turn out a book every month, my income would still have fallen below the federal poverty line. But when I began self-publishing my books, I also began to make enough money to live on.
So, that’s why authors are self-publishing these days. That’s why Jane Austen was thinking of self-publishing. That’s why I continue to self-publish today. That’s the benefit to me. But what about you, dear reader?
Is self-publishing good for you?
You bet it is.
Self-published usually cost you much less (mine do). And they can have exciting new plots and characters that would never make it through any of the traditional editorial gauntlets, the ones concerned with producing only what appeals to the masses. Remember, a publisher doesn’t have to please all its readers to make money, just a majority of its readers. Which is why publishing is cyclical. You don’t see many time-travel romances on the shelves these days. Or Gothics. Or vampires. Or Regencies, for that matter. The readers who want those books just aren’t a big enough slice of the publishing pie.
In short, self-publishing gives you, the reader, the stories you love at a fraction of the cost. And your favorite authors can afford to feed their families.
Jane, I fancy, would have cheered.