Oh the irony! On Monday, I just so happened to read two blog posts advocating for different ends of the publishing spectrum within about ten minutes of each other. One, To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish, by Kerrie Flanagan, compared the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing and traditional publishing and seemed to come out in favor of self-publishing. The other, The Inside Scoop on Publishing by Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius, most definitely advocated traditional publishing (to the point where I felt a wee little bit patronized for choosing to self-publish). But the article has some good points.
Both articles, in fact, had very good points. And both articles left most of the important information out. Each one was arguing their side so passionately that they failed to mention that great big huge REALITY thing in the middle.
Let’s start with Kerrie Flanagan’s article about self-publishing. She paints a very enthusiastic picture of the indie world. She’s right too. So many of the things she says are dead-on. Indie authors have more control, they maintain the rights to their books, and they have a tough path ahead of them. She also gives Five Golden Rules of Self-Publishing that anyone who wants to throw their hat into the ring should sit up and listen to. To me, the most important of these rules is number four:
“Think of it as a business. In order to find success with self-publishing you need to approach it like a business. You have to shift gears from creative writer to entrepreneur.”
Technically she said it, but I worry that the over-enthusiastic will miss what she said. The message that gets out to people who want to self-publish, I fear, is that it’s easy, you control the process, you keep your rights, and receive more of the royalty. Yay! But what they don’t say is that it’s EXCEPTIONALLY HARD WORK. Publishing period is a long-game. You are not going to be a best-seller overnight. In order to make self-publishing work for you, you absolutely have to work your tail off.
I’m not just talking about pounding the promotional pavement and shelling out the necessary money for professional cover design and editing. That’s the mistake so many indie authors make when they hear that self-publishing is hard work. That’s only the tippy-tip of the iceberg. The real hard work is writing a good book. It sounds so simple, but it’s the hardest part of the process. You have to hone your craft, take classes, read craft books, practice, read, and most importantly of all, TAKE CRITICISM. I’ve seen way too many people convinced of their own expertise who are churning our truly horrible prose who absolutely will not hear anything other than that they are brilliant. No one is brilliant. Even Stephen King has written some stinkers. I can always tell a good writer from a not-good writer, because when you critique a good writer they accept what you’re saying and use the information to analyze and improve their work. A not-good writer argues with you.
That’s what they don’t tell you about self-publishing: readers have no mercy for the poorly-written book. And yes, self-publishing IS the new slush-pile. Steven Zacharias is right when he states that at least a million self-published books out there only ever sell 25 copies to the writer’s friends and family before dying a well-deserved death. Slush-pile.
But while Zacharias is factually correct about a lot of things in his article, he’s presenting a skewed version of his side of the story. He talks about all of the amazing resources and tools that traditional publishing has at their disposal:
“We have more promotional vehicles open to us which are very expensive, such a front of store displays. Also, publishers spend money on advertising, whether it’s print ads, Facebook ads and or even just doing social media to stimulate talking about the book.”
Yep! They sure do! However, how many authors have you seen with front of store displays? What about print ads or Facebook ads? The answer? Maybe the top 5% of the authors they have under contract. (Incidentally, I have Facebook ads too – they’re not as expensive as you might think) What about the mid-list authors? You know, the ones who do not get front of store displays or print ads or hoopla? Ah. That’s where things start to go skewed. The simple fact of the matter is that traditional publishing firms do not have the time or money to promote mid-list authors for more than a couple of weeks after release. Before and after that, you’re on your own. So yes, traditional publishing offers you awesomeness…if you hit the top 5%.
Zacharias is also right about the advantage of traditional publishers being able to get your paperbacks into brick-and-mortar stores. As he asserts:
“If the publisher can’t get your print book into the stores, nobody is ever going to see it and even know it exists. … The biggest reason that a self-published author will always come to a publishing house is to get the book distributed in print.”
So having your books in print in stores is crucial to your success. If you don’t have your book in stores, then people will never know you exist. (Never mind that eBooks are 20-22% of the book market right now and growing) That’s what he says. A few paragraphs later in his article he says this:
“Most of the bigger publishers now are putting new authors in their digital first imprints. It’s a less expensive risk for the publisher because of the limited print distribution outlets that are now available. If we see that the book has real potential and has good strong e-book sales, we would of course consider publishing it in print.”
So wait a second. He’s saying that almost all new authors are going to be published digital first, only to get consideration of a print run if they do well. But he just said that if you’re only digital, no one is going to know you exist. So essentially he’s saying that new authors don’t exist? But that the only way a new author is going to get a chance to be known is if they can do well digitally? Isn’t that a contradiction? But I’ll come back to this in a second.
Another thing he doesn’t say is that new authors are responsible for a very large percentage of their own promotion. Yes, the publishing company does some marketing for you, but I know some new, traditionally published authors who bust their tails doing their own promotion. These authors, I believe, will be the ones who nab that coveted consideration of print books in stores. But I also know a lot of self-published authors who are doing their own promotions and selling like gang-busters. Like, quit the day job and just write level sales. How can they sell so well without the prized efforts of the traditional publishing company? Well, there are a ton of marketing, blog tour, and promotion sites out there just aching to show off self-published authors to the world. Yes, they cost money, but you get what you pay for. And as the industry advances, more and more of the SAME avenues that have been open to traditional authors, professional review outlets, distribution catalogs, major awards, are now open to self-published authors too.
In essence, it seems to me from what Zacharias is saying that traditional or self-published, all new authors start off on more or less equal ground in terms of audience and distribution. The difference is that self-published authors have to work harder and shell out more money for success. That’s what Flanagan doesn’t say.
Ah, but a couple more things, a couple more BIG things, that Zacharias doesn’t say. Self-published authors keep all the rights to their books. Traditionally published authors give them up. Traditional publishing has a very narrow scope in terms of the things it is willing to publish. Lines within publishing houses have certain requirements and editors are, in my opinion, not particularly adventurous with sub-genres. Which is good if you write Regency, Georgian, Scottish, or certain Victorian romance, but not so much if you want to get a little creative. Sure, editors are always saying that they’re willing to look at a story written in any era or setting if the writing is good, but frankly, I don’t believe it for a second. Not one hot second. Why? Because of the titles that are actually being published by traditional publishers. Regency, Georgian, Scottish, Victorian. But that’s a whole other rant. Needless to say, self-published authors have a lot more freedom of genre and subject matter.
There are other ways that traditional publishing fails to think outside the box, ways that indie authors have so much more freedom to play with. For example, I’m currently in the middle of writing a historical western romance series comprised of four full-length novels and three novellas, and the final novel in the series is an M/M romance. There is no way on God’s green earth any traditional publishing company would allow an M/M novel in a mainstream series. And even though I find it utterly tasteless, tentacle, monster, and now dinosaur porn stories have taken off, earning their authors quadruple digit paychecks each month. Think traditional publishing would have the flexibility to do that? (Whether they should or not is a different story, but you can’t argue with the cash those authors are making)
And of course there’s the very biggest thing of all that Zacharias didn’t say. Your chances of being rejected by a traditional publishing company are huge. Sure, they offer all that great stuff – advertising, store displays, print books, design and editing – IF you get a contract. And no one out there is ignorant enough to believe that all good authors get contracts and only the bad ones are rejected. I know of several legitimately good authors who have been snubbed for one reason or another, over and over. I also know of some truly awful books that have been published traditionally. It’s not a complete crap-shoot, but there are cracks and plenty of people fall through them. With self-publishing, the effort you put in to all aspects of the process, particularly writing a good book, manifests in sales, one way or another.
Okay, okay, I’ve gone on more than long enough. I just want to leave you with one final thought that neither article touched on: THE FUTURE. The fact of the matter is that no one knows what the future will bring. A distributor could rise up that enables self-published authors to sell their books in brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon could drastically lower the amount of royalty they offer to self-published authors, making it not worth the effort. Barnes & Noble could go out of business and the brick-and-mortar store could become a memory. A POD printing house could find a significantly cheaper way to print books, thus making it possible for self-published authors to sell their paperbacks at the same price that traditional publishers charge. And don’t forget that the younger generation is so much more used to electronic devices than the older, and as they age the market share for eBooks could go up. What does publishing look like in five years? Ten? Twenty?
The point is, no one knows. So with the future of publishing unknown – and I firmly believe, in spite of what either side tells you, it is unknown – the best position for an author to be in is a nimble one. We shouldn’t be locked into either method of publishing. We should focus first and foremost on our craft. We should continue to write the best books possible and as many of them as we can. We should make friends with everyone and enemies of no one. We should publish in the way that feels the most right to us without fear of being put down or scoffed at by the other side. Then, no matter which way the wind blows tomorrow, we can keep a realistic view of the industry and be able to change with whatever changes come.