It’s Business

Although I am an Independent Author, I still think of myself as a publisher. Actually, I wear several hats: Publisher, Art Designer, Editor, and Author, among others. I don’t edit my own books, I edit others, including non-fiction. But it does help that have worn the editor’s hat, when it comes to judging how well the work is being done on my own books.

I’ll come back to that in a minute. I told a fellow writer recently that I had decided when I started out that I wasn’t self-publishing, I was opening a publishing house. It’s a tiny one, and only a handful of people will ever even be eligible to be published by it – one of them I am married to, and two of them gave me life, if that helps you understand my intentions, although to date none of those three have finished anything – but it is, nonetheless, a business. The goal of a business, as I see it, is to make money. Period, full stop. What it then does with the money is a different kettle of fishies.

Having established that part of my business mission, I then looked at how to go about making money. Well, in my books the only way for a publisher to make money and still respect themselves in the morning is to deliver a quality reading experience to the people who buy books. Here is where it veers from very simple – make money – to very complicated.

I realize that most people are not going to be inclined to wear all the hats that I do. I only attempted it because I had already been running a business for more than a decade, so I had a clue (or so I thought) about what I was getting into. I’d had some graphics design training, and rather a lot of sales & marketing. Most folks don’t. Which is fine. There is nothing wrong with knowing you need some help to put out the best possible product. It’s why I rely on a team of beta readers and editors to get my books in shape when I’m done writing them.

When it becomes a problem is when I see authors simply hand off their manuscript to someone else with no real idea of what’s happening behind the scenes. Even if you aren’t planning on doing all the things, you need to know all the things, so you know when they are FUBAR.

This post was brought on by my receiving an ARC from a friend and fellow author. The book in question is a sequel, I enjoyed the first one, and it’s put out by a small press. The story is a fun one, and I’ve been enjoying the chance to read it, knowing I can say kind words about it. However… it’s badly in need of editing, and I am sad because I know it’s not going to get it. The first book, which I read when it had already been out for some time, was also badly in need of editing. Actually, thinking about it, the second one has shown some improvement and I know that’s because my friend is becoming a better writer (you hear that? Yes, you are! I’ve edited some of your non-fiction and I know) not any outside interference. Also, I know that the cover for this book (I haven’t seen it yet) is likely to suck eggs, because, well, the first one did (although it was re-covered at some point with a marginally better design).

It’s not just that I feel like ranting over this, even though it’s a crying shame that my friend’s book will get out of the gate with two major handicaps. It’s that this is a good example of what can happen if you turn your work over to someone who isn’t going to handle it well and turn out a good product: readers won’t blame the publisher, they will blame the person with their name on the cover of the book. So before you let the publisher touch your work, you need to check them out.

No, I don’t want to hear that your options are limited, you have to take what they give you, and like it or leave it. We’ve talked before about how the publisher/author relationship is often parallel to an abusive marriage. The only way that is ever going to improve is for the authors to stop bending over and taking what’s given them with ‘please sir, may I have another?’ on their lips. The first step is to walk away from the abuse. The next step is to make sure you don’t tumble right into another abuser’s clutches.

Before you submit a manuscript, even, you need to do your research. You wouldn’t, for instance, send a romance novel to Baen. Baen treats their authors right, and it’s worth you looking at that relationship as a guide to what you want for your books. You want great editors – not just for piddly little typos, but content, structure, and that rarest of birds, a development editor who will help you grow. How can you tell if a publishing house has these? Easy… if you know something about editing. Which is where I come back to having worn the editing hat. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see by sampling the product if that publisher is actually editing. They don’t all. Some of them don’t even bother with typos, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.

Even before the editing, the covers will tell you how much the publisher cares. If the covers suck, run. If the editing sucks, run. If you google the company and find that they have a reputation as a scam, or authors are suing them for royalties, run. Ask around discreetly of your fellow writers and see what sort of reputation this publisher has. Do your homework. Don’t do the equivalent of a three-day bender in Vegas, Elvis was involved, and now you don’t know your own last name.

I hate to break it to you, but you’ll never just be able to write. If you want to be a full-fledged author, you have to treat it like a business.

22 thoughts on “It’s Business

  1. It makes me glad for my inner consistency nut, the frothing loon. But the business end makes me nervous, both more and less now that I’ve been helping my husband with his business.

  2. Amen to all this. Doing all the things is hard. What’s harder is doing the writing and having a publisher not only muck it up, but basically hide behind the contract to avoid having to fix it.

  3. Yep yep yep. Excellent post. The only thing I’d add is that if someone is going the self-published route, they should research each other person whose touching their book with the same doggedness they’d use for hiring someone to watch their children or their pets. And don’t be afraid to gripe loudly when their work doesn’t meet your expectations (like I was… am… errr, I’m trying to get over it).

    1. Yes, this is a good point. I’ve lost time and money learning that lesson, even though I am my own publisher. Also, payment up front with no contract is an idiotic idea.

      1. “Also, payment up front with no contract is an idiotic idea.”

        Um. Yes.

        Also note that if you are unfamiliar with contracts, make sure that you get someone experienced to go over them with you, so that you don’t miss important details such as reversion of rights (when your manuscript becomes yours again—very important to note those conditions!)

      2. Do you (or others here) have recommendations for good indie editors for more action oriented books/sf? Feel free to include yourself in the list…

        1. Yes, I could do that. However, if I take on another job my husband may tie me to a chair… heh. I will recommend Jason Dyck, known as the Free Range Oyster and who runs the promo post on Sarah Hoyt’s blog. My other editor is around and will out herself if she’s willing and available.

  4. Another important point about businesses: Most of them fail.

    As a commercial locksmith I was there to hand over new keys to excited business owners, and I was there to rekey the space a few months later when they found out that they couldn’t cover the rent.

    Running a business requires a mix of skills and aptitudes that not everyone has. There are excellent chefs who can’t keep a restaurant open, brilliant engineers who are unable to translate their ideas into a business plan.

    Here in America in particular there is a prevalent myth that all it takes is inspiration and perseverance and that success is assured. That’s just not true. Having a wonderful product is part of the process, but you have to be able to package it and sell it and manage the finances and keep the production line open while dealing with the inevitable problems.

    Some people can handle the stress of running a business, and some people can’t. I don’t know that there is any way to tell which kind you are without trying it–although having experience as a top manager in someone else’s business is probably a good indicator.

    Sometimes, though, you just have to say, “I’m doing everything I can and I’m losing money–it’s time to shut the doors.”

    1. The trick is knowing when to shut the doors, and when to shift angles of attack or marketing. Kris Rusch and DWS have good points about approaching it from the business stand point and thinking about long-term markers – you want to be seeing X return by Y point, barring bad life rolls/stupid publisher tricks, and if you do not see Z return by D time-point, even if you hit your other goals (in terms of releases), then it is time to reassess or bail out.

      1. it also helps to run the numbers beforehand. Felt a chill as I started today’s column, because I looked at being a micro publisher in the traditional sense. The emphasis here was on the word “micro.” I was going to make thin, cheap, almanacs, sell local advertisement, and sell to businesses who wanted to give away almanacs as freebees. Almanacs are incredibly popular locally, and since I could run customized calculations for local towns, that gave a slight leg-up on the competition – or so I thought. There had been another upstart some years ago, but they released their almanacs mid-year, when hardly anyone wanted them. almanacs are more of a seasonal, late in the year, item.

        Then I ran the numbers. The 800 pound gorilla for this type of almanac is Grier’s Almanac, with the same type of distribution. There was absolutely no way I could compete with Grier’s price. The local calculations feature wouldn’t be enough to overcome the price difference. I pulled the plug on my plan before I spent anything more than time.

        Now a big-name almanac is doing something similar, sans local calculations. More expensive, but it’s draw is articles, and it has more upscale printing. That makes two almanacs to compete with if I wanted to do it today.

        1. Any value in an annual subscription web-based almanac where you could have software create automatic calculations for any specified point on earth? Takes the customization to an extreme while removing a lot of the one-off costs.

          Another alternative would be to do POD on-request for a locale using an automated process to produce the POD source file, but you would likely still have a cost-comparison issue for the result.

  5. Speaking of bad editing… I’m presently reading something that was published by Ace, just 3 years ago. Clearly the book has been edited, if erratically (occasionally I hit patches that seem to have been skipped). Clearly the author, and worse, the editor have never heard of any verb tenses other than present and past; the book is rife with tense errors (mostly a crying need for past perfect so I can tell _when_ the hell I’m reading about without having to tease it out of a tale that already flops around across three or more timeframes). And the author is old enough to know better, at least if he finished middle school. (I realise the younger set are no longer being taught such esoterica.)


    1. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Reziac, but back when I was a freshman in college in ’98, my roommate, who’d been valedictorian of her high school, came to me in tears because she’d gotten a bad grade on her first English 101 paper. A lot of what the teacher had red penciled was tense/case mismatched sentences like: They were first publishes in 1954, when he had recovered fully from what they would experienced in the concentration camp. I fixed it. I taught her how. (She came to me because I’d tested out of Freshman English, due to being home schooled. For which I was profoundly grateful, after seeing what my fellow freshman had to learn. I would’ve been so bored!)

      The point being, by 1998, it was not necessary to know how to construct a sentence to get a perfect 4.0 in high school.

      1. o.O Well, that makes me feel better about my college’s mandatory English 101 class. (I got out of it by being one of twenty members of the Honors Program—if I hadn’t gotten in, I would probably have had to restrain myself from homicide. I managed a 5 on my English Composition AP—which I took without a class attached to it, TYVM.)

        I used to edit some of my classmates’ papers on request. I remember helming one friend, an engineering major, whose problem I fixed by telling him he was no longer allowed to use “however.” He was using it correctly, yet it killed his paper every time. I’m not sure how he managed that.

        1. As someone who has to watch his use (and abuse) of the “h” word, I empathize with you. (Yes, I also avoided English for public school graduates…)

  6. It wasn’t necessarily going to be that way – no other hands touching my work – but that’s the way it ended. I’m just as happy. Everything has been a learning experience, guided by years of reading the classics and lots and lots of well-edited work in my formative years, when my formal schooling was in Spanish, and English was reading anything I could get my hands on.

    I passed it on to the kids via homeschooling – if you learn it properly at home when young, there is no reason for it to fall apart later: it’s all basic stuff.

    The business principle I’m going by is to control costs very tightly until there is revenue from the business. Other people invest a lot of money in their writing careers – editing, formatting, covers, marketing, PR. Maybe I should have, and maybe it shows a lack of faith in the product, but I’m not comfortable with big expenditures when I’ve sold a hundred books, and it is the slow growth expected of a debut novel. Especially since it turns out everything is quite learnable, if time-consuming, especially with a programming bit in the background.

    If I farm some of these tasks out later, I will still know what is possible. But I may still find it easier to do it myself and spend the time there, than to spend time finding, vetting, and interacting with other people. Ye Olde Hermit here. I would be a horrible person to work for – those standards, you see.

    PLUS – it was lots of fun. Why would I pay someone else to have my fun for me?

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