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.