Writers Are Asking–Or Being Asked–The Wrong Questions

I’m at that phase of a couple of projects where I need to make certain decisions. The most important one is whether to take one of the projects (which is a brand new story/series) the traditional or indie route. There are other questions as well, especially if the answer to the first question is indie. So let’s look at the questions we should be asking and why we all too often let ourselves get put into the position where the tables are turned and we’re the ones being questioned.

Let’s start with the first question: indie or traditional? Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, what are the advantages of going traditional over going indie?

Once upon a time, I had dreams of going traditional. I think most writers, especially those who grew up before the age of indie publishing, did. We had wonderful dreams of seeing our books on the shelves at our local bookstores. We could see ourselves doing book signings in those stores and at our local libraries. But somewhere along the way, the world changed. Even before Amazon came onto the scene, big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-a-Million started running the mom and pop stores out of business. Amazon helped put the final nail in those coffins. (Note: the damage was already done before Amazon came around. Most of those locally owned stores operated on shoestring budgets and couldn’t keep up with the larger selections and lower prices from the chain stores.)

That meant the dreamed of shelf space grew smaller, making it harder for new authors to break through. Why? Less shelf space meant less books being bought by bookstores. That lower number meant these same stores wanted known earners–or more money from the publishers or both–than unknowns who wouldn’t bring people into the store.

Then something else happened. Fictionwise–followed by Smashwords and then Amazon and other online merchants–opened up for authors, giving us another route besides the traditional route. Still, traditional was the tried and true way, the way to “prove” yourself to be a “real” writer.

Remember the gatekeepers.

And this is where you have to start asking yourself if the gatekeepers are actually that? And, if they are, what are they protecting the gates from.

This is a roundabout way of coming back to a post I saw yesterday over at The Passive Voice.  It quoted from a Publishers Weekly article about “The End of Editing”. The article is worth reading if for no other reason than to see one author’s experience with “editing” by a traditional publisher.

My own agent, Madison Smartt Bell, agrees that editing has shifted: “Editors now can expect manuscripts submitted to them to be in an extremely finished state, perfected whether by writers teaching in the academy, or by agents drawing on their past experience as editors, or a combination of those two.”

Morris adds that editors are now expected to promote their books, and I know this was true of my university press editor, who not only acquired the book but was its marketing department, as well.

In other words, editors don’t “edit” any more. Or at least not like they used to. (This isn’t true of all publishers, but it is what I’m hearing more and more regarding the major publishers.)

What this means is they are expecting you to either pay big bucks to attend one of the “approved” writing courses/programs and have your book edited there or for you to hire a content editor–not to mention line editor–before submitting the book. Either option means you are going to take a huge hit in your wallet before you even start shopping your book around.

As for the editor being the marketing department, that may be the case for small presses and university presses but it isn’t for larger publishers. Oh, they might market it to bookstores but that’s it. For the vast majority of authors, any promotion your books gets will be promotion you do. Again, on your dime and on your time, time when you should be writing.

As for wanting agents to be editor before sending the book around, that’s another nope and for several reasons. Your agent should be out there trying to sell your book. Every hour spent going back and forth with you on editing is time spent not selling the book–or selling another client’s book. If that agent accepted a book that needed major content edits, there’s something wrong and, suspicious person that I am, I have to wonder if they aren’t trying to sell book doctor services to their client.

Then there’s the issue of if they have you edit stylistically to meet the tastes of one editor, how many other editors have they taken out of the equation in the process?

And how many more weeks or months or even years have they added to the submission process?

Then we get to the marketing issue. I’ve written on this before with regard to agents. When submitting to an agent or a publisher and they start asking you what you are going to do to help them make money, they have revealed exactly what they are interested in: their own bottom line. That’s all right. They aren’t in this business as a charity. But when you are asked about your contacts with the media, etc., and when you are asked what you are going to do to promote your book BEFORE you even submit it, that’s a red flag you should pay attention to.

What that sort of question says to me is if you don’t have the right connections and aren’t committing to spending time you could be writing doing what should be the publisher’s job–or the agent’s–they they aren’t going to agree to consider your manuscript.

There comes a point when you, as a writer, have to look at things and remember the adage that money flows to the writer and not from her. Money isn’t always currency. It is also time because when you are not sitting at the desk working, you aren’t making money. Yes, you need to do promotion on your own. But if you are with a traditional publisher, if you have a agent, promotion should not fall in a major way on your shoulders. They have a duty to you as your representatives to promote your work. But that is something that seems to have gotten lost along the way.

Sort of like editing.

The Passive Guy closed out the post on his site with this:

So, if hiring a professional editor is something the author should undertake, what services does a trade publisher provide in exchange for taking the majority of the proceeds generated by sales of a book?

That is a question each of us should keep in mind when considering whether to go traditional or indie. Oh, and to answer the question I posted in the opening paragraph, I’m taking the book indie. Now I have to decide if I’m going wide or not. More on that next week.

Featured Image by Wokingham Libraries from PixabayImage by Wokingham Libraries from Pixabay

11 comments

    1. Amen, Laura. If I’m paying for everything but the cover, and doing the marketing myself … then what is the use of a trad publisher to a author who isn’t one of the Big Name Established Authors anyway?

  1. As DWS and KKR say, “Money flows to the author.” If I go indie, there are some initial outlays besides my time – cover art, formatting software (which paid for itself in two books), and occasionally hiring a style and/or copy editor. The latter was especially important when I was new and didn’t know my own tics and problems. That money came back to me over time, so it was more of an investment like a five year bond. When I worked with a traditional publisher, I was paid as a post-doc research fellow, and a grant covered the cost of publishing the book. And it was academic non-fiction, which is a different beast.

    What do Big 5 editors provide? Um, perhaps national marketing, and dealing with cover and formatting? Money eventually flows to the author, or it might not depending on contract and sales. You might get the warm fuzzies of seeing your book on the shelf at Ye Regional Bookstore, or you might not. My academic publisher and outside reviewers offered suggestions for improvement, ideas for illustrations (which I paid for and provided), and I wrote the cover and sales copy. [H/T Dean Wesley Smith’s class on that topic!]

    1. When you go Indie, you become more than a writer. You are the publisher and you provide the cover, the editing, the formatting and the marketing. Now, I’ll be the first to say that in my publisher hat, I’m not real impressive. And I’m cheap. I outsource the editing to volunteers, buy cheap covers or even cheaper art elements and do them my self. But the marketing . . . I really ought to fire my marketer (looks in mirror–you hear that? Do Something!)

      However, since I keep 70%, I don’t think I’ll go back to collecting rejection slips.

      But that “Money flows to the writer” doesn’t work when you are your own publisher. I just wonder what the publishers do to earn the lion’s share.

      1. I’m cheap, too – and my own publisher! I depend on various software to catch spelling, grammar and punctuation; various volunteers for beta-reading, my brother the graphic artist or other volunteers for my covers, unless I do it myself for the basic comp …
        I honestly wonder what the Mainstream Establishment Publishers actually do for their authors who are not already best-sellers. The minor authors are doing most of the work anyway … what do they get from it, apart from the honor of the thing? (Ancient joke, regarding the man being tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail: “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d prefer to walk.”)

        1. I’ve started investing in covers. I’ve got an incredible alpha reader I trade reads with for story structure. The beta readers and proofreaders catch typos and other errors (like continuity), and I pay for print formatting. Also, I pay for advertising on Amazon and with promotional newsletters. My ROI is better some years than others.

  2. You made me think of taxes. The single most important decision you make is filing status. Everything else flows from there.

    More and more, I can’t see the reason for traditional publishing even for people who are terrified of being their own businessman. The point those writers are missing (who don’t want to edit, sell, write jacket copy, promote, etc., etc.) is that they are still going to have to be their own businessman because the traditional publisher who held their hand every step of the way is long gone.
    If that traditional publisher ever existed and if they ever provided enough value to cover what the costs writer paid to get that handholding.

  3. Hmm.

    Time was that indie authors would get picked up by trad. Best selling ones, that is. Has it happened recently?

  4. The attitude common to this very day within Trad Pub is that they take this raw mass of ill formed clay that is the author’s manuscript and lovingly transform it into a perfect work of art.
    To accomplish this they provide:
    A health advance against sales
    Professional editing
    Cover art
    Formatting for print
    Production of physical books
    Distribution to point of sale
    Marketing both to the retail sellers and to the customer public
    In exchange they confiscate all of the profits from sales until your book earns out.
    Should it ever reach that point they continue to skim a majority of the earning while holding your share for a minimum of 90 days, often considerably longer.
    Now the killer is that in these modern times Trad Pub has had to cut way back on all that list of services, some to the point of total elimination. Yet they do nothing to expand the pittance allocated to the author.
    And an author can purchase each of those services by the yard for a fraction of the bite taken by any publishing house. Does not seem to be such a hard decision to make.

  5. > Distribution to point of sale

    If that means “physical book store”, you’re talking about a looong drive for most of the US population. There aren’t even any used book stores in my area any more, much less new ones. Wait, does the best-seller shelf at Wal-Mart count?

    I suspect even people who live within reasonable travel to a chain store are as likely to buy online as they are to drive to a store. Because, unless they’re looking for approved best-sellers, Woke propaganda, travel books, or cookbooks, whatever they’re looking for ain’t gonna be there anyway.

Comments are closed.