Don’t knock at doors. Knock down walls instead

It’s no surprise to anyone who has been a regular follower of this blog to know I’m a big supporter of small press and indie publishing. I have been for a long time, long before I actually started working in the industry. But that doesn’t mean I wish ill to traditional publishing. It has its place. What it means is that I see traditional publishing houses having to change and adapt to new tech and new consumer demands or it will become like the dinosaur. Most will die while a very few will find a way to evolve and survive. But those that do survive will not look anything like they once did.

Before someone points out that trade sales increased last quarter thanks to the Hunger Games trilogy and Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ll say this. I’m glad sales increased. But I have a warning. These books are a short-lived trend. I’ll remind everyone about the huge decrease in sales the publisher had after the last Twilight book came out. Why? Because so much was put into pushing those books that there was nothing in place to take over as the new “it” book when the time came. Also because publishers, and not just the house that brought out Twilight, were busy putting out pale imitations of Twilight and, at least in my opinion, saturating the market with sparkly vampires.

So, is there a reason to try to go with a major publisher these days? Given the difficulty in landing one of the increasingly rare slots with a legacy publisher, is it worth an author’s time — not to mention ulcer and hair — to try to go that route?

I’ll admit, I started thinking about this question again the other day while reading one of the discussion boards I belong to. Someone had asked why an e-book would become unavailable. There were several good explanations for why, including the one that was accurate with regard to the e-book in question — the rights had reverted back to the author so the publisher could no longer sell the e-book.

From there the conversation drifted, as online discussions often do, into whether or not an author should self-publish. It seems the author in question is one who has been self-publishing her backlist and has been discussing her efforts online. She hasn’t held back, describing the good, the bad and the indifferent. More power to her. The way I look at it, the more open and honest discussion of the entire publishing spectrum there is, the better for authors and for readers.

Where I started shaking my head was when an author popped into the conversation and started talking about how he could never self-publish because he couldn’t afford it. The problem is he had fallen into the same trap so many who condemn self-publishing do: he was saying what the major publishers have said without actually investigating it himself. The only thing he really had right was that he wouldn’t get the upfront advance. Yeah, I’d love to have that. It would make life a lot easier. But when you consider that most books never earn out that advance according to publishers who never let you see actual sales figures, how do you know how much that book actually sold?

Big disclaimer here: everything I’m saying about publishers doesn’t hold for Baen. Baen is a solid house that treats its writers with respect. Baen also listens to its readers. The major houses could learn a lesson from Baen.

That said, let’s look at some of the misconceptions about publishing that came out in the thread.

The author commented that if he went the self-publishing route, he’d have to give up either editors or decent cover art as well as release to known venues. The first two because of cost and the second because of distribution.

No. No to all of it. You can find excellent editors who work for a very reasonable price if you want to pay for them. However, if you are in a writers group or if you know other authors, you can find someone who will edit for you in trade. The key is knowing what you want and in getting samples of their work as well as recommendations. As for cover art, with the exception of Baen and one or two others, most cover art these days is either stock or minimalistic. At least one house has delayed the release of all its titles in an imprint so the covers can be rebranded to look like Fifty Shades of Grey. If you look at another major house’s covers, you’ll see a solid color background, a large block banner in a darker color with the author’s name superimposed. Below that is a small, maybe only 1/3 of the cover, image with large block letters below for the title of the book. All design and not art. Even if you are hiring someone to do art for you, you can get a very good cover from young, hungry artists for no more than $200. However, you can do what so many — including established publishing houses of the legacy kind — and use sites that allow you to buy a license for a photo or piece of art at a very small price.

As for getting into known venues, yes, traditional publishers can get you into the bookstores. Note I said “can”, not “will”. And even if they get you into a bookstore, that doesn’t mean your book will be there in a large enough quantity to gather attention or that it will be there long enough to be found. Take a trip to your local bookstore, especially your local big box store. Walk along the aisles and look at the books. How many copies of any book that isn’t by a best seller are there? Make a note of the titles of one or two authors you haven’t heard of before. Note how many copies of these books there are. Go back in a month and see if those titles are still on the shelves. I’ll lay odds that, unless something happened to give the books push, they won’t be. Why? Because the self life of a book is measured in weeks, sometimes in days, not in months.

There’s something else to consider. You can go the POD — publish on demand — route as a self-published author. That means you can take your book into your local indie bookstore and ask them to carry it. Yes, it may cost you a bit upfront — and we are talking however much you want to spend to buy a few copies to show, and maybe give, to the buyer for that bookstore so they can see the quality of your book. If they like it, they can then order the book and stock it. All it will cost you is the price of an ISBN to get you listed in Books in Print and a little bit of time to go make friends with your local bookstore employees.

It irritates me to no end to see authors saying they can’t put out “professional-quality” books without having a publisher. That is a load of hooey. Is it easy? No. It takes time and effort, but it can be done. The fact that this author and those who think like him are out there saying stuff like this means they are smacking every author who self-publishes in the face. The truth is, these authors who are condemning indie authors and small presses are either publishing’s darlings or they are authors who really haven’t looked into what it takes to self-publish. I’ll lay odds that they also haven’t really looked at the fine print in their contracts to see just how their publishers are screwing them out of so very much.

Again, Baen is the exception. Otherwise, Dave and Sarah wouldn’t be working with them and the rest of us wouldn’t be such vocal supporters of them.

But the list of what publishers do for you grew in further posts from other folks on the list and my disbelief continued to grow with it.

1. Editing — uh, has anyone really looked at books coming out of major publishers over the last five years or so? Have you listened to authors and their horror stories about what sort of editing — or not editing — has gone on? You have to remember that publishers have pared their staffs tremendously and now outsource or let interns handle a lot of work once done by established and respected editors and copy editors. Frankly, I’ve seen better edited self-published and small press published books than I have from some of the big publishers.

2. Cover art — see my earlier comments. Cover art isn’t what it used to be for books, with the sometimes exception of romance. But even then, if you look closely, you’ll see that the artwork is being reused by different books. Yes, the biggest way to show you are new to publishing is to have a bad cover. Yes, covers are probably the hardest for most folks to do. But to think that only big publishers put out good covers or that you have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a cover is flat wrong.

3. Printing — wrong again. Any author can go POD and little to no cost. But the issue that you have to consider is this: where will your sales come from? With the trend showing that more and more readers are going digital, shouldn’t that be where you are focused? Note also that a number of small to mid-sized publishers, and even some major publishers, are now putting out titles digitally first and only taking them to print if a certain level of sales are reached.

4. Distribution — agreed, to a point. Again, see my comment above about placement in bookstores. But again, you are working off the old business model, a model that very well may not survive in its current form for much longer.

5. Marketing — okay, that sound of hysterical laughter you hear is coming from Sarah. Every publishing contract has a clause saying that there will be marketing and push for the book. Does it happen? Not really. The book is listed in a catalog and, if the market rep happens to have read and liked the book, she might suggest it to a bookstore purchasing agent. Otherwise, unless a book has been slotted for best seller status, that is the sum of the marketing. Authors are expected to market it themselves. They are told to brand their work, to have a website, to blog and go on blog tours, to tweet and facebook and all the other social media. They are to do trailers for their book and go talk to folks and, no, usually they are not reimbursed by the publisher. So why not do that for yourself and take yet another middleman out of the equation?

6. Accounting — oops, sorry, I just fell off my chair laughing. I’m sorry, but the accounting an author gets comes to them via bookscan. This is the form of alchemy used to say how many books have been sold and is totally unacceptable. In this day of computers and  RFIDs and instant communication, there is no reason a publisher shouldn’t know exactly how many books have been printed, shipped, sold, and returned. But no, they don’t do this. They hire a company — the same company that does the Neilson ratings for TV — to estimate sales. Depending on who you ask, these figures are 1/3 – 2/3 lower than actual sales. So, who gets screwed? The author.

I know there are authors out there who will never feel they’ve made it as an author until they have been published by a “real” publisher. Would I jump at a chance to work with a house like Baen? You betcha. But I also respect what authors like Larry Corriea who went the indie route, proved himself and landed a contract with Baen because of it. He, and others like him, have proven that you can make it as an indie author and can use that platform to launch into traditional publishing — if that is what you want.

So maybe instead of beating our heads against the wall, we should do what Larry did, do what authors like Sarah and Dave are doing. We should put our work out there in the best format we can. If we don’t put out the quality our fans want, we’ll know it. We’ll hear about it through the lack of sales and through the comments we’ll bet via reviews or email or facebook posts. But at least we are trying and not sitting in our rooms, beating our breasts and wailing about how unfair it is because we can’t break through.

A writer writes. A writer finds a way to get his work into the hands of his readers. If one path appears to be closed to you, then find another. If you don’t, you’ll never know if you could have made it because you’ll continue to knock on doors that may never open.

24 thoughts on “Don’t knock at doors. Knock down walls instead

    1. LOL. I was nice. You really don’t want to see my first draft. But I do get tired of the oh-so-superior attitude or the excuse-filled explanations for why an author won’t try something that might just put a few more bucks in her pocket.

  1. I’m working with an indie press right now and already they are pointing out ideas (cover art) that are better than a lot of Traditional Press covers I’ve seen recently. And one of the ideas would also work well for marketing swag/ fan goodies. Yes, I’m investing cash for the designer and editor’s time, but I’ve calculated the costs and it is less expensive at this moment in time for me to hire someone to help me do the tech work and to spot typoos than for me to do it myself. That may change. Given what I write and how I write it, and what I envision doing with it, I have nothing to lose by going indie or self-pub.

    1. I’ll admit, my first reaction on reading that you are working with an indie press and paying for designer and editor time was to shout “no!”. But then I realized I don’t know if you are are actually publishing through them or if you have simply contracted for services. If they are your publisher, then you shouldn’t be paying for any of that — at least you shouldn’t be paying them for it. But, yeah, it is often worth having your own people check things over. I know of a number of traditionally published, very successful authors who pay for editing before it goes to the publisher because they don’t trust their editors any longer.

      1. I’ve contracted for services. No, believe me, I’ve heard enough and seen enough of what happens when you get fee’d to death or have your rights stolen by the proverbial SlickTrickSchtick Press LLC! The folks I’m working with are at a small company that offers tiers of services and that is very clear about what they do, what they don’t do, how much they charge, and what other options are available.

        I say “press” in that they do the formatting, eBook set-up, file merging (in this case), and obtaining of ISBN. Thus far, albeit still early in the process, I’m very pleased with the communication and the results.

  2. I figure, at this point it’s best to cover as many possible ways to publish as possible. One of them is bound to work, right? So I’m self-Indie-pubbing, Indie pubbing, and still have an agent out hawking two titles. Not that I have any hopes of a large traditional publisher taking any interest, at this stage of the transition, but a small press would be nice.

    And on the self-indie end of things, it will probably pay to branch out as wide as possible. Right now, while I’m editing a whole series, to get it into publishable form, I’m just on Amazon, so I’m doing the Amazon Select. What the heck. Once the series is done (two more titles) I’ll do POD next, then get out of the Select program and learn how to do Kobo & B&N and if I’m really brave, I’ll take on the Smashwords Meatgrinder.

    1. Pam, I tend to shy away from smashwords as much as possible simply because of the meatgrinder. But you are right, the more outlets you are in, the wider your exposure to readers and, eventually and hopefully, the greater your sales.

    2. The Meatgrinder can be intimidating and/or infuriating. The first book I published on Smashwords took somewhere between eight and twelve tries to get just right. (Some of that was me just not paying attention, most of it was me learning the subtleties of EXACTLY how to get it to work properly.)

      After that, except the one time I uploaded the wrong size cover image by mistake, every single one has gone through AutoVetter and Premium Review first shot.


      Because I saved a template from the “final” version. 🙂 I know this is obvious to most people, but sometimes it helps to have the obvious pointed out. When I start a new story, I just delete the body text from my template and start typing into it. My default manuscript document is Smashwords-compatible.

      Then when I’m ready to publish everywhere else, I save as HTML display only in Word, open in Sigil, do the epub formatting, and save it out ready to upload. That minimizes both the number of conversions and the opportunities for Word to stick in control codes. As has been pointed out you absolutely must keep the number of format changes to a minimum and a document should never, ever make the Word/Other Application transition more than once. In either direction. Documents can go into Word, or out of Word. If they didn’t start in Word once they’ve come in they don’t go back out. If they did start in Word once they’ve gone out they don’t come back in. That includes copying and pasting. If you must, always use the “paste text only” command and reformat.

  3. I’m sure bookscan is actually spelled bookscaM these days.

    It has occurred to me a buch of times recently that since a very large proportion of books are sold in exactly two places – amazon and B&N – and both of those organizations have extremely efficient inventory tracking systems (as er does Ingram which serves almost everything else) that any publisher who was serious would link to said inventory management systems so they could see precisely how many books by what authors were being sold now.. You know the way that supermarkets, electronics shops, car makers and so on do. Any publisher ought to be able to give any author a statement at any time that goes something like this:

    Title: X format F last update (date/time)
    Print run: YY (run1: y1 date m1/d1/y1, run 2: y2 date m2/d2/y2 …)
    Sent to Amazon: AA (dates, amounts)
    Sold by amazon: A (last 24 hours a)
    Sent to B&N: BB (dates, amounts)
    Sold by B&N: B (last 24 hours b)
    Sent to Ingram: I (last order mm/dd/yy of i and/or i ordered today)

    It is also quite clear that none of them do do this (hence the whole bookscaM malarkey) and one wonders why because you would think that a bunch of bean counters would really want to have that information for themselves

    1. You’d think, wouldn’t you. It does make you wonder if, as some folks have asked, some of the publishing houses are so crooked that they don’t want to report actual figures because they’d then have to pay what the authors have actually earned. My opinion — publishing changes business plans slower than a snail moves across a cold sidewalk. Plus you have a built-in middle man when you consider the fact that most publishers don’t actually print their own books and distribute them. They hire another company to do it for them — often a company like Simon & Schuster. That means they have to rely on the numbers coming from the printer/distributor. Still, with the current state of software and hardware, there is no reason why real numbers can’t be given just as you postulated above.

      1. This is the part I don’t get. Publishing houses have investors. (Many of them are part of listed companies.) They have to pay taxes. They have to produce earnings statements. They have to make SEC filings. Neither the IRS, the SEC, nor your typical institutional investor have much patience for companies who claim they don’t know how much they sell or how much revenue they generate. SOMEBODY knows, to a fair precision, how many books those companies sold and how much money they made at it. The claim that they cannot provide accurate accounting is nonsensical. It doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  4. Good post, Amanda. I agree wholeheartedly. We have to do whatever we can to get our books and stories out there.

    I’m still trying to figure out how to fix HTML so anything I put out there will be readable/legible. (Your class was very helpful in that regard. But I’m still concerned because I haven’t done it, know it’s not my strength, and wish I had someone to barter with — I’ll do some editing for someone who’s willing to make sure the files are clean, or some such.) Until I can do that professionally, I’m going to wait a little bit longer — but not _too_ long as “Elfy” will finally be coming out next October. (That’s my window, in short.)

    Anyway, I agree with you that allowing ourselves to be limited at this point is exactly that — “allowing ourselves” — a choice, whether we realize it or not, rather than market reality, which a few short years ago seemed to be the case. (It probably wasn’t even then, but there weren’t as many people blogging and discussing and making it known that there were other options.)

    I’m glad you’re here to help set us all straight.


    1. I might be up for that Edit vs HTML swap….

      Of course I need to work on having something for you to edit, but I can probably find the time if I have an actual incentive. We’ll see how I do on NaNoWriMo this year

      1. Not sure what level of help you’re looking for. We used to use HTML tidy, and a google search on “HTML clean” shows that there is now an online version (and various other alternatives). Those are programs intended to point out problems (or even fix the html). Now, they don’t make it do what you want — the “do what I want” version is still elusive. But there are some options like that which can help straighten out HTML?

        1. The problem with a lot of those programs, Mike, is that they also strip out needed HTML. You have to be careful with which one you use. Then there are a few that have caveats in their fine print that you can’t use it for anything you are going to sell, etc. So whenever using them, you have to be careful to read all the disclaimers and then to check, carefully, the final output.

          1. Yep. I didn’t look close enough, I guess. The original tidy — 15 years ago? — was something that marked what it thought needed changing, but left the actual modification up to you.

            1. I miss the original Tidy.

              I have found when I run into conversion problems because a manuscript has been run through too many different word processing programs that Atlantis works well to clean out a lot of the conflicting html. It’s a rather inexpensive w/p program and its save as filtered html option cleans out more than either Word or OO/Libre does.

              A word of warning for everyone who uses different computers and different w/p programs — or who has beta readers/editors who use different programs than you — the junk code does tend to build up from save to save and it can play havoc with the conversion process.

              1. That’s exactly what I’ve found with my manuscripts thus far, Amanda; between switching computers a few years ago, going back and forth from my computer to my Mom’s (long story), and then various commentaries and such, I have all sorts of extraneous code in there. (Plus many of my works-in-progress are several years in progress, which also adds to the build-up. “Changing Faces” is by far the worst of the lot as it’s ten years in the making . . . not ten years since the last revision, thank goodness.) And of course Smashwords is just an absolute bear . . . but I’m determined to see my way through it one way or another. (Which is why I look forward to talking with you again when you’re able to come up for air.)

    2. Barb, let me get through this week and we’ll talk. I have a couple of projects coming up that I’m going to need some editing on, but they won’t be ready for another couple of weeks.

  5. A few thoughts:

    1) Yeah, pretty much.

    2) I would be VERY interested to see what happened if a few respectable midlist authors pooled their resources and hired a licensing accountant to audit their publishers. Obviously this has all kinds of problems, some of which are obvious and some of which aren’t. (You don’t know me, but Ms. Hoyt does, a little. I’m a licensing attorney. I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years.) I am not familiar with the audit provisions, if any, of a typical midlist publishing contract. Are there any? How do they usually read?

    3) Not to plug CreateSpace exclusively or overmuch, but to address a few of your points:

    3a) They give you a free ISBN when you publish a book on their service. I don’t know if LightningSource does or not. So there’s that. The way ISBN are assigned is monumentally stupid, by the way. (Smashwords and Kobo also give away ISBN for e-books. Apple requires them but if you use Smashwords they will distribute to Apple with their free one. Amazon and B&N don’t require them and will assign an internal tracking number if you don’t have one Most of the major literary sites will accept either ISBN or ASIN, Amazon’s number.)

    3b) Dean Wesley Smith has a nice blog entry about how to use POD to become a micro-print-publisher. Basically, you order the POD in your own name and pay the author price, but put the bookstore’s address in your “Ship To.” Amazon doesn’t care. You get the money up front from the bookstore before you place the order and oh HELL no we don’t do returns. (Defective merchandise can be returned to the printer for replacement.)

    3c) You can pay a $25 flat fee and they will put your POD in their extended distribution scheme – which means it’s available for bookstores to buy like any other tradpub book. I have seen CreateSpace books on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, and while I doubt they stock a lot of them (yet) they can be ordered as easily if not more easily (probably more) as any other backlist title.

    3d) They will let you use their cover designer app for free. Does it compare to a nice custom cover? Oh Hell no. Does it produce results comparable to tradpub midlist covers? I honestly think it does. And you can license a cover picture from CanStockPhoto or Dreamstime for literally a few dollars.

    I suspect most other legit POD services will have something close to this level of service (if they don’t, Amazon will eat their lunches.)

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