On a playwrighting group I belong to on Facebook, someone asked if anyone had an experience with self-publishing plays. I replied about how I had I self-published The Love of Three Oranges, racked up a ton of productions and then publishers came to me so I had my pick of offers and that there were a lot of benefits to it. There a bunch of reasons why I ultimately went with a traditional publisher when the play was doing fine self-published and I outlined them in this series back in 2011. The thread ended up getting a lot of comments and I thought it might be helpful to do a new post on this subject. I could go on about this topic all day so I’m going to try to limit this post to addressing the questions raised in the post.
“Why self-publish at all when you can just submit to theatres?”
Let me answer this question by telling you that my plays had already had hundreds of productions all over the world before I sent my very first submission ever on February 26th, 2015. All those other productions prior to that date came from one of two places: 1) People who found my shows on Amazon and 2) The people from the first group that became friendly with me so I arranged for them to do one of my other shows.
To me, self-publishing is the lazy man’s submissions because theatres find the show on their own and come to you instead of you having to look for them. I don’t doubt I could have gotten a longer list of productions if I had been in a place in my life when submitting was possible but, at the time, I was just out of school and working way too many jobs at once and the set it and forget it method of play submissions appealed to me then.
But if you combine self-publishing with the submission process? Seems like that could double your efforts. It’s what I plan to experiment with going forward.
“But isn’t a self-published play really hard to market?”
Yes and no. I know a lot about publishing NOW but I cannot stress enough how little clue I had what I was doing when I self-published my first play which is still the most successful one. I did no marketing other than putting in on Amazon and offering a few misprinted copies to anyone who wanted them as a free sample. I still do very little marketing and what I do is almost all online. That said, I am better than the average bear at it because I’ve run an online store since 1997 and I know selling. (See The Whine Seller, my e-commerce alter ego.) To some extent, just a strong online presence and good keywords in your book description can do the job for you. Especially if, as in the case with Three Oranges, your play is related to some popular keywords to help you snag browsers.
“Doesn’t self-publishing limit your submission opportunities?”
First off, to me, self-publishing IS a submission opportunity all it’s own. You can create as many play exchange sites as you want but retail sites like Amazon will always have the bigger base of searchers than any niche site. The more you increase your play’s discoverability, the better the chances of someone finding it and thus wanting to produce it. That’s all there is to it.
There are probably theatres out there who hate on self-published plays. There’s someone out there hating on just about anything so I’m sure it exists. I just haven’t run into one yet.
I’ve met exactly one person in all these years who gave me a hard time about self-publishing a play and this was back in 2003 when it was all still pretty new. He worked at one of the NYC play publishers and was very excited about acquiring my show until he found out it was self-published. He told me my play would never be produced let alone published and that I’d ensured it would be blacklisted by every theatre by self-publishing it. When I told him it had already been produced, hundreds of times around the world, he accused me of lying. He was a real winner and since that show’s since been both published and is a consistent bestseller on the Playscripts site, I feel confident in dismissing him.
Beyond that guy, I have had multiple theatres over the years tell me that they preferred my play because it was “unpublished” which I take as a pretty clear sign that self-published isn’t what they mean when they ask for no published plays. They just don’t want to deal with a big publisher with pre-set royalty rates and more restrictions than they’d get dealing with the playwright directly.
Would I submit to an opportunity that specifically said no self-published? Of course not. But, in my experience, if they like the play, they don’t care what you’re doing with it on the back end as long as it doesn’t mean more money for them. As Shakespeare said, the play’s the thing.
“Isn’t your success just a freak exception?”
Listen, I’m pretty convinced everything in my entire life is a freak exception. But while I can’t deny the way Three Oranges took off despite my having no clue whatsoever what I was doing, it doesn’t explain the successes I had with my other three, completely unrelated, self-published plays.
For example, my most neglected play, the one that I self-published when my life was insane and have literally done nothing to market since then other than just having a link to it on my website, racked up sales, reviews, readings and productions in the background until I hit the point that it was getting awkward I hadn’t designated one as the premiere. There’s actually a production of it close to me coming up so I’ll finally get to see it in a few days. This production, like every production and reading of this show that proceeded it, came from nowhere other than people finding it on Amazon. And that one has no nifty keyword hook to draw in buyers, it’s just your standard small cast one act drama.
As you probably guessed from that part above where I forgot about the first productions of my plays being premieres I should probably make a big deal of, until recently when I realized maybe I should start doing this playwright thing with my whole ass for a change, my plays have taken a back seat to… just about everything else I do. I’m embarrassed to admit this but I’m mentioning because I want you to understand… my playwrighting career is like that plant in the corner of the break room that is somehow thriving after having been giving just the right amount of neglect. There are a billion things I could have done better and opportunities I missed. If I could have success of any kind self-publishing with as much as I’ve neglected my poor plays, imagine what someone who actually used forethought and effort could do with the same tools!
“But no one looks for plays on Amazon!”
Incorrect! Here’s where I take off my playwright hat and go full e-commerce nerd on y’all. And while I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on writing plays, I KNOW selling.
What the average person doesn’t realize is that people don’t just shop on Amazon these days. A majority, particularly the young, use it for all their shopping research even if they ultimately purchase the item somewhere else. It’s one of the top search engines period, not just for items on their site. You mean to tell me people who start their search on Amazon for every other item they purchase on this earth don’t do that for plays? Believe me, they do. Three Oranges has been out of print at Amazon for years and a majority of the people I hear from doing the show now, though they bought their copies from Playscripts, FOUND the show on Amazon.
We theatre people tend to get in our little bubble and forget that selling stuff is still selling stuff even if it’s art. The same rules apply as do for normal products. The biggest online store is still the biggest online store when you’re wearing your theatre hats.
Look, not everyone is cut out to self-publish. It’s like running a business and some artists don’t want to wear that hat and that’s totally fine. No shame in that at all. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
While I know I have more experience selling than most, I know I’m not the only playwright who has used self-publishing to my advantage. I used to work for Lulu and I became successful at self-publishing watching from the many other playwrights on that site doing the same thing back then. If people were having as much success as they were back then when POD and all was new, it’s only gotten bigger now. This isn’t conjecture… I had admin powers, you better believe I looked at their real numbers.
Content, particularly the written word, is in a huge state of flux right now and while something like self-publishing may not be right for you, it’s a mistake to discount it completely without at least looking into it. The landscapes of publishing and content consumption in general are changing at lightning speed, do you really think playwrighting is somehow immune to these changes?
This post is getting ludicrously long so I’m going to cap it here. But there’s a lot more to say about this subject so please feel free to ask any other questions you come up with in the comments below and I can expand this discussion based on what people are interested in discussing.
Since I’ve got your attention at the moment, here’s a list of every play I’ve got available both traditionally and self-published. A few of those plays, along with some brand new stuff, are also up on New Play Exchange to read in full for free.
If you’re looking for more on this topic, here’s a series I did on my other blog when I first made the decision to sign Three Oranges over to a publisher:
- I sold my self-published book. No, seriously. I did. Actually me.
- Why I originally self-published my now traditionally published book
- Disadvantages of Self-Publishing: Piracy, copyright & having to be the bad guy
- Disadvantages of Self-Publishing: Being your own publisher is a lot of work
- Disadvantages of Self-Publishing: prejudice and the stigma of being your own publisher