Skip to content

Considerations

Yeah. I AM as a matter of fact delaying covers once more. Sorry. Two cons in two weekends were just too much for this introvert-who-hides-it-well. Dan says I can’t write for three days, but actually the big deal is doing creative work, not writing per-se.  So we’ll put off the covers, please and thank you.

Instead, having found that somehow, without passing through the middle, I went from being treated as a raw beginner to being treated as “wise older woman of Science Fiction/Fantasy” I’m going to answer questions everyone and their cousins kept asking me, all trending to: I’m a newby. How should I publish my work.Well, because I’m still me, I’m going to tell you to publish it electronic and on paper, but preferably using the alphabet and the English language. (The later only because indie publishing isn’t doing so well in other countries and traditional publishing is even crazier/more exploitative.)

But hey, if you should choose to tell the stories in your head through interpretive dance or spun sugar confections, don’t let me stand in your way.

On the serious side, you people have a bazillion-ton more options than I had when I broke in. You can go traditional, indie, small press, start a press with your friends, run, crawl, waltz or rock and roll.

When I came in there was only one way in.  Sure. There was also a lot of lying about it.  “Send us the best manuscript you can write, and we’ll buy it and make you a million dollars.”

About that… Okay, it wasn’t exactly a lie.  Or not an active lie. It was a lie of omission, not commission.

Sure, you still should write the best manuscript you could. You’d need it. But if you wanted the million dollar pathway you’d best come in with other relevant assets, like a name that was already famous for something else, or you know, having been the publisher’s roommate in college. (Though that was usually more like the 100k pathway.)

For the rest of us…

First of all you needed to attend conventions, and be seen. If you had a ton of self-confidence and, to be blunt, were a little in love with yourself, and could keep telling people how your writing was the best thing since sliced bread with extra butter, even better. You might even grab that 100k brass ring.

Or… you know you could just continue submitting through agents and publisher slush piles (though when I checked out of that game the only two houses that still had slush piles were Baen and DAW.)

By the time I came in, even to get published in magazines, it helped greatly to get to know the editor first. I’d been getting personal rejections for years. But it was attending my first convention that propelled me to “selling a lot.”

So, just so you know, that system was never “pure” and whatever you think about their ability to pick winners (only worked if they got to shuffle the deck. In fact, it was that temptation that led to push-marketing) they never had the ability to make anyone a “real” writer. Many a real writer whom you or I or anyone would love to have read died with ten or twenty books under the bed, because no one ever told him/her that he/her needed to attend conventions to sell. Keep that in mind.

That was the traditional system when I came in. Such as it was. (It’s much, much worse now.)

If you went ahead and published with a small press, or heaven forbid published yourself, you just limited your chances of selling to a “real” house. They referred to it as a traditional marriage. If you weren’t a virgin and they didn’t get your first book, why buy you? There were hundreds upon thousands of nubile writers all crying “take me.” (Sometimes literally. I keep expecting #metoo to break in sf/f in a big way. Like Hollywood for ugly people.)

If you were one of the lucky winners and had no special advantages, you got hired at 5 or 10k per book, given minimal distribution (you’d be in SOME bookstores) and pretty much be kept there for as long as they continued publishing you. Which presumed no disaster struck.

Disaster?  Well, yes. Your book could be delayed in editing and production, have to be put off, and get no LISTING from which bookstores could even order. Or your book could have the world’s ugliest cover, so ugly that even you wouldn’t touch it. Or you could hit the one week that for whatever reason (mine was rather visible, being around 9/11 but it didn’t need to be. Sometimes it was just that the two or three chains that the publisher pushed their marketing through were having a crisis of some sort) no books got unpacked and put on shelves.

Or, you know, you could suffer enemy action. In the old trad pub it was hard to tell, but being published in January or (and particularly AND) trade paperback were good indications. Used to be (different now, with gift cards) January books JUST didn’t sell. AND Trade Paperback is/remains/still/and always the ugly stepsister of paperbook formats.  If your book comes out in that, people wait for mass market.  (The new brilliant move from traditional publishers — I did mention they’ve gone exponentially dafter, right? — is not to bring you out in mmpb if you publish first in tpb. Because you know, if you don’t sell enough in the format no one wants, it means you’re a bad writer and also won’t sell in what, granted, is not hb, but remains one of the most popular and affordable paper formats. Bad writer, bad. Go to your kennel and think on your shame.) If those two things happen, is that on purpose or stupidity?  It’s very hard to distinguish malice or stupidity in this field. Very hard. There’s just so much stupidity to go around. And it’s increasing exponentially, as the fast-spiraling-the-drain-industry all believe each other and believe that the bullshit the other house is doing with ebooks and not bringing out mass markets is absolutely the way to go, because look at their reported numbers. They’re clearly forcing people to buy hb and tpb, even.

And look, there, no one buys indie. Why Publishers Weekly said so.  In a count that deliberately excluded most indie (which don’t have ISBNs.)

Imagine if the only world news you ever got came from totalitarian countries that tightly controlled their press.  Headlines would read like this: “Is China the greatest economic success story ever?”  “Should Russia tighten regulations to get better results?”  “Venezuela, the breadbasket of the world!”

That’s about the level of reporting you get in publishing. What’s sad is that though they know how they cook THEIR numbers, they all believe the others.

When I came into this business it was a shell game. Now it’s a shell game where they each of them act as marks for each other and are shocked when they lose.

In the middle of all this, a lot of newby writers heartily believe that indie is dead, that the way to go is traditional, that–

Look, the only time traditional had a handle on what sold was when they were controlling it from above, by telling the bookstores how many of each book to take. Remember the late nineties and early oughts, when you couldn’t find a blessed thing in your favorite subgenre on the shelves, and all the books sounded exactly the same. That was push marketing and the magic thereof.

It was so “successful”it chased me out of reading, in turn: Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical, romance. It finally got to the point all I read was used/old books.  And used books were an exercise in frustration, because nine times out of ten when I found an author he/she was no longer publishing, or at least not in that genre/under that name.

With total control over laydown (i.e. what you saw on the shelves) and positioning, so that if they wanted to every book they’d publish would sell at least a modicum, trad pub careers were mostly 2 to 3 books.  Why?

Because they were slated to be so. The writers were slated to fail. Why?

Well, because newby or failed writers were cheap. If someone had six failed series under their belt, they could expect 5 or 6k.  The new name didn’t allow fans to find them, so you could still cause them to fail at will, and oh, yeah, hire them again at a pittance. And never reach the point writers knew their own worth and told you where to put it, and had the fans to back it up.

Here’s the thing, though, the ones who had the weird, not just “done and over” but “let’s do the name/genre change again” career were GOOD.  They had to be good enough the publisher knew their books would still sell, not matter how handicapped.

Take my career for instance — please! — almost all of my books earned out, unless the numbers looked… ah… peculiar.  But they were deemed failed.

If you’re selling 10k books and odn’t have a wonderful agent, you’ll barely earn out, BUT here’s the thing, your publisher still made 100k out of you.

Yes, I know, they tell you a mmpb takes 100k to publish.  Yeah, it does. If you charge all of the house’s salaries that month to you, and not to the bestseller with the 200k printrun in hc and the publicity that actually takes up almost everyone’s time.

Remember? Shell game?  Ten “failed” authors made the house almost as much as a mega bestseller, and they were much easier to ensure. Though it was better to keep those who were competent on the name change wheel, because, no matter how you thought they were interchangeable, some of those newbies JUST couldn’t write, and wouldn’t make you the 100k.

It was this type of idiocy — which, as much as it will shock publishers and editors, any writer worth his/her salt knew about from book three (yeah, we saw your games. but you were the only game in town, so we kept our mouths shut) — as much as the improvement in tech that opened the way to indie publishing.

When reviling Amazon, traditional publishers might want to take a long hard look in the mirror: it was your craven and arrant incompetence and dishonesty (with yourselves as well as everything else, since you always drank your own ink) that created that opening. Markets abhor a vacuum.  And readers were never your bitches or your sheep. You can herd some of them, but you really can’t create lasting success. And you lose more than you rope in, which is why printruns have been falling since the seventies. No, it’s not TV or movies, or video games, or whatever the excuse of the week is. It’s your craven and arrant stupidity and your short-sighted cupidity that made people who read preferentially for entertainment spend years “being disappointed” by visits to B & N.  The fact that the craven and arrant stupidity of chain bookstores and their magical “computer numbers” (GIGO bitches, GIGO) aided and abetted you is no excuse. You were BAD at the one thing you should be doing — which was not lecturing, educating or elevating the public but just — selling books to readers looking for them.  It wasn’t the writers, it was always you. And not all of your lying or maneuvering will erase that knowledge from the eyes that look at you from the mirror in the morning. You knew less about your business than a writer with a book under her belt. That’s your miserable failure and dereliction. Not anyone else’s.

So, after indie… where are we?

About 12? years ago I started realizing there was another path to the top.  No, not indie, precisely.

By then publishers had got so neurotic, that they preferred to hire people who did their business for them.  They bought mostly through agents, to whom they outsourced the slush pile. And they outsourced publicity to the writer.  When I signed on years ago, I blinked at the form that asked things like “Do you have a relationship with librarians/booksellers?”and “how much are you willing to spend to publicize this book?”

Like any newby I thought “Well, if I had those contacts, why would I need you?”

Well, you needed them because only trad pub was “real”.  But if you answered no to that stuff above? You were either a two-booker or had just boarded the carousel of name changes.

BUT if you came in from indie, now, with say a 5 to 10k sales history, they would put muscle behind you, because selling even that much (before Amazon ebooks were popular) meant that you COULD and did publicize and were good at it.  You were slated for wide distribution, and might even know your publishing house had a publicist instead of finding out ten or fifteen years later, by accident. (That there was still a failure rate in these tells you everything you need to know about traditional publishing competence.)

Then came wide-distribution ebooks, and the market went insane.  Mostly traditional publishing houses — the repositories of the amazing competence we’ve examined above — are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, believing all the other shell-game conmen in the fair. And publishing magazines tell them what they want to hear, and give them the beat to the tune they whistle past the graveyard.

Advances have fallen, and if you were in the name change carousel, you might still be there, but you can’t make a living. On top of which they keep playing games with your formats/distribution/etc to the point that I wonder if most employees of publishing houses are now meth addicts.

So, if you’re a newby, ask yourself the question: Do I want fame or fortune?

Your answer determines your route (but doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve it.)

1- You want to make a living.

This is where I always was.  Seriously. Fame? Who cares? I want to help support my family. I want money not to worry about finances.

I’d go indie with one or two exceptions.

Look, there are indie authors you never heard of making six figures. It’s doable. You have to work your ass off, but you always did.

You have to learn to publicize yourself somewhat, but you always did.

1a – the exception Small press might do it, but what do you get out of it?

Well, you might get more exposure. That’s the exception I talked about above: if you can get a collaboration with a more successful writer and/or writing in a successful shared universe (be aware that’s its own skill) it will greatly help with publicity, which is great if you suck at it otherwise.

This also works for anthologies. If you can get in an anthology — trad or small press — with bigger names, it’s exposure. (I also have gotten paid about as much as I would have anyway, from every indie anthology I sent a ‘free’ story to.)

2- You want to be on the shelves

Ah the HARD way. Particularly with Barnes and Noble turning into a giant ice-cream cone, or whatever it is.

Look, even under trad pub this would happen rarely. There was the year I had SIX books hit the shelves. I saw ONE of them in a bookstore in the wilds of Wisconsin. Nowhere else.

But if it’s what you want, remember it’s a shell game. Remember you have to know how to sell yourself, not just to the public (and that helps) but to the publisher. Go to conventions. Talk a good game.

If you can publish indie first and do very, very well.

The DON’Ts

These are fewer than they used to be, but they’re still there:

1- Don’t publish one book — particularly a short story — indie and sit back and wait for money to come in.  If you have friends and contacts, you’ll sell SOME, but the people who’d love your book won’t even find it. You’re competing against a lot. Aim for four books a year, preferably in a series, if you want to do well.  Look at publicity, and, yes, audio (yes, I know. Working on it.)

2- Don’t go with a small press.  (By which I mean not a self-owned/run press that you happen to have a name for.  Let’s hear it for Iron Axe.) No, I don’t care if they say they can get your book on shelves (other than Amazon.)  Look at their previous titles, then check the shelves near you. Most of them don’t get on shelves. (Neither does trad pub.) And most of them are drawers at calculating royalties. Almost all the imploding indie houses you hear of went under not because of purposeful larceny but because they couldn’t figure out how to distribute royalties, and eventually took the money and ran away to Cancun or something.

3- Don’t think that if you sold to trad pub they’ll publicize your book. Hell, don’t assume they’ll edit or copy edit with any degree of competency, let alone talent. GET ALL THAT DONE AS IF YOU WERE INDIE.

4- Don’t wait for anyone to tell you that you’re a real writer. If you’re writing and striving to improve, you’re already as real as they come. You’re certainly as real as anyone picked for bestsellerdom because they are the editor’s old college roommate.

Yeah, a lot of what’s published indie is crap.  And? The ratio of beginnings I go through before I find a book that hooks me; the ratio of books I read to books I remember is exactly the same as in traditional publishing.  Stop attributing trad pub magical powers.  They never had them. They were shell-game conmen. Mostly incompetent, craven, short sighted ones.

5- Don’t repine. Never repine. If writing is your vocation, it is what it is. Like almost all f them it will often be hard and painful.

But at least you have more options than we did, lo — dear Lord — 20 years ago. You have more chance to shape your career and your future.

Go forth.  Be not afraid. The way things are now, there are no dead careers. You can always start again.

Go write.

 

 

 

39 Comments
  1. Synova #

    I chatted with a woman on the plane back from LibertyCon. She was reading a novel so I asked if it was a mystery. So we talked about genre a bit. She writes poetry and talked about how she’s working to be published and enters a lot of contests. I hinted and she said that yes, it was hard to leave the traditional route behind and she didn’t want to. Ultimately she said she writes for herself. Well, groovy. But if you write for yourself, why not print up a couple of volumes that you can have on your shelf for family when you go?

    I’d taken my book from my bag and put it in my suitcase, which was a mistake. I did put poetry in it (a fellow who posts here or on According to Hoyt was gracious enough to write a few short bits) and it would have been nice to show her. Maybe she’d have been more open to other avenues from seeing an example. She asked how I’d gotten to be an editor and I said I’d volunteered. 😉 I’m sure she was trying to figure out if it was “real” or not but I realized that I don’t have that question any more. It’s totally real.

    But anyway, the conversation made me realize that there are a lot of people out there for whom the whole business is as much of a mystery as it ever was 20 years ago and back in the day. Which is also why there are authors making six figures that most of us never heard of. Even in our own genres.

    July 3, 2019
  2. I count myself so very fortunate that I got into being published at exactly the right time – and did it ass-backwards through having blogged and built up a fan following that way. I already knew there were readers to liked my stuff – and they were perfectly willing to throw me money to get it for themselves in print. Plus – I had enough serious compliments from other writers and bloggers about my stuff, that I could be confident about my own abilities. I did give the trad-pub circus a whirl, though, on the advice of a British book-blogger with long experience in the field: give it a year, he said, and then go indy.
    Was it Dave Freer or Larry Correia who said if you had a hundred (or was it 1,000) super-fans who would buy anything you wrote straight out of the gate, then you were golden? I have two-dozen super-fans that I know of, maybe another dozen who have never uncloaked. Still working on the next 75, or maybe the 925…

    July 3, 2019
  3. TRX #

    > (which don’t have ISBNs.)

    …which has turned into a rent-seeking scam all on its own. I bought a dozen ISBN numbers from Bowker back in the 1980s, for something like $20. That’d be over $300 now.

    For all the good it did me, I might as well have thrown that $20 away… but hey, it was a long time ago, and I didn’t know any better.

    July 3, 2019
    • Synova #

      So books don’t actually need ISBNs? Please expound. 🙂

      July 3, 2019
      • Ebooks selling on Amazon don’t need ISBNs. Amazon has their own ID numbers and doesn’t care otherwise. Not sure about print books. Print books and ebooks elsewhere still do . . . I think.

        July 3, 2019
        • Print books (even POD) on Amazon need ISBNs. However, they provide you with one, and absorb the cost as part of the printing price. (They get a really good bulk discount…)

          BUT – it is not your ISBN – it is Amazon’s ISBN. If, for some crazy reason, you decided to print your own books and sell them through Amazon, you would need a new ISBN. That’s because part of the ISBN identifies the publisher – and that is Amazon, not you, if they print them.

          But, honestly, unless you really want to get into libraries, an ISBN of your very own is not worth anything. (Libraries, most of them, won’t touch even ebooks that don’t have an ISBN.)

          July 4, 2019
          • The other way around. Libraries will take the Amazon ISBN not yours, when you POD through Amazon.

            July 4, 2019
            • I’ve not PODded (yet), so I could easily be wrong – but can you even apply your own ISBN to an Amazon POD edition?

              July 4, 2019
              • I did when it was Createspace. Now that Amazon has bought it, I’ll find out shortly I suppose.

                July 4, 2019
              • Yes

                July 4, 2019
    • You need an ISBN to print and distribute through LSI/Ingram Spark. The e-book publishers like Draft2Digital, Smashwords and Amazon Kindle will apply an identifying number to ebooks published through them.

      July 3, 2019
    • Do you still have them? I’m sure you could re-sell them—if you liked the person, it wouldn’t even have to be a profit.

      July 3, 2019
      • Mary #

        I think you can’t. If you got them as part of a company, you could sell IT.

        July 4, 2019
        • Correct. The ISBN is tied to a publisher. Unless you sell your name / pen name (I’m not sure that even that would work, honestly).

          July 4, 2019
  4. Laura M #

    I sent my first book to slush piles while I worked on the second. Then I published the first one myself. By the time the second was done, the thought of it spending a year or two sitting in slush piles was just too overwhelming to bear and, again, I published it myself.

    I do still send short stories off to SF magazines, but I hear back from them in weeks or, at worst, a couple months. It’s worth a little wait at the chance of exposure the magazines offer.

    July 3, 2019
    • I did the same with my first book. Sent it off with a recommendation from another author. Never. Heard. Back. Its been a few years now. They don’t answer emails either.

      From a pure business perspective, this is very bad. Your business accepts manuscripts, but then does not communicate further? No automatically generated rejection letter, even?

      Its contemptuous.

      July 3, 2019
      • Synova #

        Particularly if there’s still the old sort of extreme prohibitions on sim-subing.

        July 3, 2019
        • Simultaneous submission was considered -bad-? That’s idiotic.

          Obviously you would send the work out to as many places as were accepting, isn’t that what agents are supposed to do? Then if you have more than one taker you accept the best deal. That’s how business works. They only get exclusive rights -after- the contract is signed.

          Furthermore how would they even know if you submitted to more than one publisher? Back-channel communication like that implies price-fixing, black-lists and lots of other illegal shenanigans.

          These people deserve to go broke. Faster, please.

          July 3, 2019
          • If they found out you were simultaneously submitting, they’d ban you for life.

            July 3, 2019
          • And yea, back channel. Remember, this is NOT an honest business.

            July 3, 2019
            • No wonder they’re all in New York City. I’m aware of a few buddy-buddy relationships between private and public sector in the education business. Your company doesn’t get chosen unless you’re a good friend of the Governor’s campaign, and the Senator’s campaign, and the Alderman’s campaign, and so forth.

              Its funny how the media never wondered how a woman from Arkansas so easily became the Senator for New York. That type of thing runs deep and wide in NY.

              One imagines a scenario where Ms. Author gets banned by the NYC publishing establishment in an action that would not survive a RICO suit, but then her case mysteriously never comes to pass because of “personnel issues” in the city, state and federal bureaus in NYC. The paperwork just never seems to make it from Desk A to Desk B.

              Oh well, bankruptcy will settle them I’m sure. Its hard to avoid RICO suits when you don’t have Yankees ball game tickets to spread around.

              July 3, 2019
              • Synova #

                You’d have to be able to afford the suit, and be able to prove it.

                The explanation was that a lot of time and effort on the part of the editor would go into convincing everyone else in the company to buy your book so that by the time you got the offer and told them you’d already sold it, the editor would have already gone out on a limb for you and would take the sale elsewhere very personally.

                July 3, 2019
            • Partly also human nature of the tribal variety. Some writers that I have seen complain about blacklisting were acting like they had the weight of a C or D list writer (or even A list) – when they were maybe G or H at best. Word gets around that they are a pain to work with, and not worth the headaches.

              Contrary to rumors, we writers have just as many personality types and quirks as other people – from absolute a-hole to near-saint. Near-saints are frequently ignored, but absolute a-holes only get love if they can make you bucket loads of money for putting up with them (or you think you can, anyway – certain publishers are rather unhappy about what they invested into Hillary for no return).

              July 4, 2019
              • I don’t know. I blacklisted myself by coming out politically. Eh.

                July 4, 2019
  5. Christopher M. Chupik #

    I literally started reading an indie book this morning, Shami Stovall’s Star Marque Rising.

    July 3, 2019
  6. TheOtherSean #

    “Don’t repine. Never repine.”

    Is it OK to remaple, reoak, or rechestnut?

    July 3, 2019
  7. Thank you!!!! Oh thank you! I realized this whole thing about a decade ago! Yet, when I tell people this is how it really works, I get the big lie spouted back at me. That it’s only A+++ books which get published.

    July 3, 2019
  8. Traditional publishing is experiencing the symptoms of the disease that just about every large company has. They know how to administrate the business, but have no clue about the business. They don’t know their customers, the people that supply them with the content they need or the economics of the business. By and large, the person in charge is as separated from the business as possible. The person in charge is not chosen because he has great skills in the art of publishing, but instead because he went to an ivy covered snob factory and is “good with numbers.”” The lower management may have the vestiges of the talent that once ran the various imprints when they were independent forty years ago when the congloms put their eye on publishing, but they are either dead or dying. Their replacements probably came with credential laden degrees from said snob factories and are answerable to business degree graduates, who are “good with numbers” and can “manage people” but have no clue about how the business should work and think that every business is exactly the same, except for product sold. As far as they are concerned the company may as well be selling soap. In publishing’s case, I can almost guarantee that the people at that level, don’t actually read what they print. On the editorial level, the staff is underpaid for NYC and has nothing to gain by building a writer up and developing their work. So everything by and large has gotten stale and the readers have gone elsewhere.

    July 4, 2019
    • Yep.

      July 4, 2019
        • Zsuzsa #

          This line deserves highlighting:

          “If you let the price of ebooks go down to say $2 or $3 in Western markets, you are going to kill all infrastructure, you’re going to kill booksellers, you’re going to kill supermarkets, and you are going to kill the author’s revenues.”

          Yes, obviously, if you drop the prices of ebooks to $2, the supermarkets are all going to close, and it will be the end of Western civilization. People will be starving in the streets.

          He also clearly doesn’t understand the current market for ebooks, given that he seems to think that 3D experts and video game designers are what the publisher needs.

          July 4, 2019
          • Yep.

            July 5, 2019
          • As far as I know, the book sellers are closing, or at least circling the drain. I don’t know about Books a Million, but B&N is certainly in trouble. I’m not sure why that hedge fund bought them recently, unless they needed a loser or had some good ideas. Frankly, everything that I have seen just demonstrates just how clueless the trad five is. Carouselling authors seems to me to be a bad way to run you business when your business depends on the value of the author’s name. Nobody remembers who published Gone With The Wind, anything Dickens wrote or any other publisher. They do remember Margaret Mitchel, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens and so forth. The big five have pen names backwards. But that is par for the course.

            July 5, 2019
  9. 23 skidoo

    July 4, 2019
  10. Draven #

    repine?
    what about reoak?
    or maybe rehickory

    July 5, 2019

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: