Traditional publishing has a caché – amongst readers and promoted by those in the marketing department. The question I still receive most often is, “where are your books published?”, the subtext being, if it’s self-published, it is a lesser beast. Well, maybe I just traded one beast for another. Both Traditional publishing and Self-publishing can be beasts. Traditional publishing is a well-heeled beast. A wo/man-eating beast that appears docile, floating there on the surface of a still pond, a prehistoric creature that is just waiting for opportunity… or extinction. Fight, damn you! Show me your true intentions or die already! Traditional publishing is a beast because it is something over which the author has very little control. Advocates of T’Publishing would argue that you have control over 1) where you submit, 2) how often you submit, 3) whether or not you accept their terms. But it seems to me, that is pretty unstable ground you’re standing on. There are no guarantees. There is very little feedback regarding what you might do differently the next time. The powers that be will tell you, they receive so many submissions it is impossible to respond with personal suggestions for every query. Aren’t we supposed to invest in goals over which we have some control?
Hats off to all of the authors who have persevered, repeating the effort, honing and targeting, educating themselves about the industry standards. You are formidable!
How does self-publishing fit with my analogy that it is some sort of beast? Sometimes, what you get from a self-published novel is something unvetted, hastily produced, awkward… just an ugly monster. But sometimes, it is well written, unique, genre-bending… Something with an unproven track record… or something with uncertain marketability. I’m sorry, but that IS what it comes down to in publishing through traditional venues. If your book is poorly written, but easily marketable, it will find a home in traditional publishing. A publishing team can often fix poor writing. (They would prefer to not have to, but I can say with confidence, they have done so. S/he with the strongest marketing platform “wins”.) But if it’s beautifully written, but less than easy to ear-mark into a slot amongst genre-specific marketing, well, good luck with that.
It always comes down to marketability – can you produce what sold last month, only a little bit different, BUT NOT TOO DIFFERENT!!! Let’s don’t go crazy here. Little… baby… differences… Did you ever wonder why you get bored with one particular author or genre? Maybe that author is shackled by the bean counters.
So does that mean, pursuing self-publishing is the easy way out? Trust me, I’ve asked my doubting self this question countless times, but when I list the pros and cons, I think I’ve made the right choice. It occurred to me, that most readers, and quite a few aspiring authors, may not be aware of what goes into self-publishing. This term has been slowly traded in for “indie-publishing”, which does not rely on caché so much as confusion. Then why would one choose to self-publish, or indie-publish, over traditional publishing? I answer that question with a question: Which would you prefer? The beast you can grapple or the beast over which you have no control?
In the last century, (that was just twenty-three years ago) before e-publishing was a thing, one would write a manuscript, submit a synopsis, a query letter, and perhaps a few pages, depending upon the demands of that publisher, (submitting to just one publisher at a time) wait for 4-6 weeks, during which time, one usually received a written response – rejection, perhaps a rejection with suggestions for changes and re-submission, or a phone call with a verbal offer, followed up by a written contract with an advance and the promise of royalties once that advance “earned out.” (Psst. Let me share a secret. Most of them never “earn out”. The publisher goes into it knowing how much $$$ they are going to invest in marketing, thus no, or very little, royalties are ever paid.) I’m not sure if it lends credibility to my words, but I have gone that route before, having been traditionally published in a bygone era, so she knoweth (a little bit) of that which she speaketh.
To say that was a really inefficient business model is cutting it mildly. First of all, why would you give a single publisher first refusal? That is what was being asked in the requisite that you let them know if it was a “single or simultaneous submission.” Is that how you sell, say, a car?
Sure, let me spend a year building this car, gearing it toward one dealer’s specific desires, then I’ll just hold on to the finished product for 4-6 weeks while the potential buyer decides if they want it before I move on to the next potential buyer, holding it for another 4-6 weeks while they decide if they want it, rinse and repeat. Really inefficient and staunches creativity.
So I thought, maybe most people don’t know what goes into “indie publishing.” (Maybe they don’t care, but you’ve read this far, so I figure, you’re invested… and you wanna see where this whole convoluted alligator analogy is going.) Here’s a simplified version of it:
- Write the book. This is often referred to as the sh*tty first draft.* Do not pass this along to your friends for critique! We just agreed it’s shitty. Why would you give your friend shit to read? Because your fragile ego needs to be bolstered when they read that one brilliant paragraph or scene out of 300 pages of drek? Don’t do it. Please. (Now go apologize to your friends who are struggling to read your first draft.)
- Re-writes. I usually go through the book, beginning to end, at least 6 times, making changes, often making HUGE changes. It depends. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Do not pass the work on to your friends to “critique.” Do your own dadgum work! Don’t inflict it upon others. It sucks, (that first draft especially, but we covered that.) The second draft will suck less, the third even less, and by the sixth round, the difference is a ball of clay vs. a fully-formed human. When you see the hand of the goddess coming out in most of the words, then you can proceed.
- Run it through an auto editor. I’ve been using Grammarly, but AI is becoming less cumbersome everyday, and can give more detailed editing suggestions… for free… for now.
- Run it past a paid editor – someone with years of experience. Probably someone who has gone “freelance”. (I’m really sorry your jobs are being swallowed up by AI and extinction. I’m sure my job is next on the AI chopping block.) This is also the point where you might ask a friend to give it a read… if it’s within their preferred reading genre.
- Format the book to print-ready quality and create a genre-suggestive cover. (This is part of a book’s marketability, so don’t lie to your reader if it’s genre-bending, but just be aware of the ramifications of being off-genre and the power of building trust with your readers.) This requires either another couple of paid contractors for cover-design and book formatting, or for those of us who are hell-bent on a long-term investment in ourselves, return to school for a degree in graphic design and really expensive software licensing.
- Upload work to one of the self-publishing venues. Absalom.com, DraftsRUs, Sparkles, Barns & Notes, etc. (Of course, those aren’t their real names. You’ll have to use your imagination there.)
- Lose a little sleep when you realize that there are five errors preventing your books from hitting the virtual shelves. Yes, I’m talking to you, template margins that never seem to line up properly. Monkey around with the margins, insert some blank pages so the book doesn’t look weird. Crap! Where did my embedded fonts go? You know, the pretty curly-q font for which I paid good money for the commercial rights to use?
- Gain approval to hit “publish”.
- Now we’re cookin’ with gas. Finally, all you’ve gotta do is… market the book… yourself. Yes, with real money, because the venue, through which you’ve listed your book, is going to take more than half of the profits, but if you want them to really exert effort to promote your book, you will have to pay THEM! (Because monopoly busting hasn’t happened since the 1980s.) You realize you can expect to earn… maybe… fifty cents per book sold, but paid advertisements are costing you $5/day (minimum) and you see that dwindle over the course of the day because you’re charged $.25/click, so everyone intrigued by your awesome, genre-bending cover who clicks on the advert eats up half of your royalty rate… IF they decide to buy the book. Otherwise, you just made a $.25 donation to the bookselling giant.
Oh, did I mention that the number of people who read books is dwindling? Sure, there are genre-specific fans who, if you are able to connect with them, will drive your sales for a few months, but slowly, the sales dwindle… unless you spend more $$$ on advertising. Did you know a book has a productive shelf-life of about 3 months? A year’s worth of writing and the bulk of your sales come about in the first three months of publication. That used to be because brick-and-mortar booksellers couldn’t spare the shelf-space for more than 3 months unless your sales were justifying the real-estate, but now, with on-line markets that use non-transparent algorithms for book promotions, the reason is anyone’s guess. You can watch videos all day long from various “influencers” explaining the way the algorithms work, but no one really seems to know and the target shifts constantly.
But what if, like me, you want to try diversifying the markets through which your book is available to readers because you don’t want to be complicit in the monopoly? And what if those books keep running into different roadblocks as set forth by different markets? These are roadblocks that the seller(s) neglect to tell you about, but which you realize exist because a potential reader complains to you about their inability to purchase a copy of your book through that link you put in your paid advertisements because the link doesn’t work. What if your book spends its first two months (two months of paid advertising) with you THINKING it’s available to readers, but in fact, it isn’t?
This is my current hell. A book that is complete. I have a proof copy that the on-line store won’t release, because now they think it’s available elsewhere, because, well, it was available elsewhere until it was caught up in market limbo by a technicality, so I pulled it (I thought) to re-release it with the second market who now demands proof of copyright, but my log-in at the copyright office is “unknown” and keeps sending me to a “404 page not found.”
For every person I meet who says, “I’ve been thinking about writing a book,” a part of me wants to jump at their face, my index fingers held up in the sign of a cross. I want to yell at them a warning, “Don’t do it! Go back! Get a good job with a guaranteed paycheck and relatively little unpredictability.”
Then I come to my senses. Creativity should never be stifled… unless it is being stifled by starvation, insanity, or a crashed laptop, or ‘gators. Sigh.
The good news is, creativity is fed by… starvation, insanity, crashed laptops that force you to start over and write it again… but better… and ‘gators.
I’ve come to realize that publishing today is like a beautiful, lush swamp. It’s dangerous, it’s lush with clumps of grass that look firm, but in truth are mossy bits growing on the backs of alligators.
So here’s my advice regarding publishing today. Pick your beast. You can ride that gentle beast that will kill your soul slowly, or you can pick the beast that thrashes as it holds you by one leg.
I have chosen the thrashing beast. I ride his back like a bull that that has taken me on a death roll, submerged in sludgy water, that tries to shove me under a log to rot. I regularly have to come up for air, but then I just cinch that lasso tighter, and hold on with my teeth. I bite him back. Chomp, chomp, chomp.
Whatever path you choose, take the time to make some art. Read a book – whether traditionally or indie-published. Some of ’em are gators. But some of them are beautiful clumps of terra firma.
*This is your trigger warning that something profane and off-brand is about to happen. Don’t read further if you can’t handle the uncensored version that includes the “i” in “sh*tty first draft”… but moot point, since you read through to the end. Sorry, I burned your eyes.