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.
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.