And now back to our regularly scheduled blog:
Publishers, of late under some pressure to explain their relevance in a brave new world of independent author publishers and a growing number of indie curious, have gone on record with lists of reasons why they still matter. Of course it could be pointed out—and has by a number of people—that if an industry as old and established as publishing has to explain why it's still relevant, chances are it's not and already knows or suspects it. The quest for relevance will occupy those publishers who have any hope of surviving the disruptive interference of digital publishing for some time to come. Those whom it eludes will chase it all the way to the unemployment line.
The fact is, the publishing industry as represented by the so-called "Big Six" is still relevant to people who dream of a big traditional publishing deal complete with a fat advance, generous royalties, a big first printing, bookstore shelf space, co-op advertising, a hard-working publicist pounding out press releases, and maybe a bookstore tour to kick off their career before they get back to work on the next book. In fact, this dream, much like the points of the leaked Hachette memo of late 2011, (expertly fisked here by Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler) outlining what publishers do for authors, belongs to a past century. The reality has changed out from under us, and many writers don't yet realize it. Of those who do, many don't know what to do about it.
Or you could do it yourself...
There's another publishing industry in town, however; or I should say in all the towns, because new publishing, unlike the old, is not centered around one particular city. It's distributed in each author who has published her own book, or is getting ready to do so, or even (I see you out there! Yeah, you!) just considering sticking her toes in the water. And yes, before you ask and make me think up another subhead, there's work involved, and a bit of a learning curve, depending on how much of the work you'll do and how much you'll hire out. There's also fun, satisfaction, liberation, and flavors of control that authors haven't experienced since...well, maybe forever. Oh, and higher royalties. As in much higher.
Don't I need a publisher to tell me whether my book is good enough?
Submitting books to agents and publishers is waiting for your work to be chosen by someone whose day-job it is to select small amounts of writing that fit certain narrow requirements from very large amounts of writing competing for a shrinking royalty pool (because the big advances and meaningful royalty percentages go to proven bestsellers and ghostwritten celebrity fluff). When publishers were the only way to get distribution, and agents were the only way to get to publishers (they never were, but most writers didn't know that) that made a kind of sense. For most projects for most writers, it no longer does, or at least it's not the only thing that does. We now have choices.
There are no fewer hungry young writers out there than there were when big publishing was relevant, and many fewer publishing slots to cram them into. What there are are smaller advances, lower royalties, far worse contract terms, and many fewer inches of bookstore space available to each. That's the reality of the book deal, if you can get one despite worsening odds.
Yes, your book may suck. If it's your first book, it almost certainly will until you learn how to unsuck it. As an independent publisher of your own work, it will be up to you to make sure it sucks as little as possible before you publish it. To that purpose, you're going to assemble your Scooby gang of readers, editors, proofreaders, etc., about which more in Part 2. Will having a traditional publisher guarantee your book won't suck? Sorry. Publishing companies have cut staffs and standards across the board the past couple of decades. Besides, Snooki gets first call on resources; she's going to make them lots more money than you.
Maybe I'll self-publish after I have a few books out from "real" publishers.
Imagine yourself in ten years when you figure out how long you waited to be chosen by an agent, then to be chosen by an editor, a publisher to whom you are a commodity and probably not a very valuable one, the publisher's sales staff to whom your book was a commodity with a limited shelf life, chain store book buyers to whom your book was a one-second glance at a cover image, and ultimately chosen by a reader, two or three or four years after you typed "The End"—all provided you ever got that far. Many, many good writers will not. And then think about how much money you left on the table with the crap royalty rate you accepted when you signed your contract. The agent walked away with 15% of everything you made, which was already the smallest possible slice of the cover price the publisher could get away with giving you. How real is that?
But that's not the end of the story. Because your book was marketed like produce, its time on bookstore shelves was limited to a few weeks for bookstores (for grocery stores a few days, for airports a few HOURS). Readers who may have found your work given time did not, because if the sell-through numbers didn't work for that quarter's budget (no long-term thinking in publishing for the midlist author), the downward spiral began: the publisher printed even fewer of your second book, and if the second book sold fewer copies than the first (and how could it not?) you may have found your series killed just as the third book hit the shelves. Sound crazy? I lived it. And so have thousands of other hungry writers.
Crikey! What can I do?
The possible alternative that's being offered in this article series is for you to write the best book you can, apply the self-editing skills you're going to learn before you submit it to a freelance editor (Surprise! That's who most publishing houses use.) and a proofreader, learn a few simple skills (or hire them done) to turn your manuscript into a book, give it a professional-looking cover and sell copy (VERY important), and let your readers decide whether what you've done is worth their money. And they will begin to decide that as soon as you publish the book, not two or three or four years from now. By the time a traditional publisher would have brought out your book even if you sold it today, you'll have at least one more ready to publish and be on your way to building a career.
What about all the competition among self-published books? How can I possibly stand out?
Let me just quote David Gaughran, author of Let's Get Digital, because he says it better than I could, as usual:
"It always amuses me how these people seem to think that there is some demarcation in the marketplace between self-published work and that which comes from traditional houses.
Some writers say they don’t wish to self-publish as there is too much competition, and are seeking an agent instead. Well, I have news for you. If you manage to beat the insane odds and get a deal, you will still be up against the exact same competition--except there will be more of it, as you will be competing against 2 more years of books.
We all go into the same ranking stew, whichever path we take. Trade published books don’t have any special tags which allow them to stand out from the masses, and, indeed many are languishing at the lower reaches of the rankings. Plus, you’ll still have to hustle. The only difference is you will be pushing something that costs four times as much, and receiving less than a quarter of the royalty rate."
But big publishers pay advances!
They do, but it's very rare indeed for them to exceed $5000 per book. If you are one of the tiny fraction of a percent of hopefuls to win through to a contract, your $5000 will be payable in thirds, and sent to you by your agent, who will have taken out 15%, amounting to a check for $1416 on signing, another on delivery of the book, and the final one on publication. You may not see the entirely princely sum for 12-18 months. This is an advance on a royalty that will likely be 4-8% of cover on a paperback original. If you get a multi-book deal they'll be accounted together, so if you don't pay back your advance on book one, the unpaid amount is added to what you owe on book two, etc. And when they offer you another contract, if they do, the unearned portion of your advance (and most midlist writers never earn out the advance) counts against you when they calculate your next deal. It's a pre-planned downward spiral of earnings, and it's been killing the midlist for years. I'm not saying no-one ever breaks out of it, but most starving midlisters continue to starve.
I haven't even got into bad contracts, but Passive Guy and Kris Rusch have a lot to say about that. The thing keeping big publishing breathing is a constant influx of new writers eager to sign anything.
But wait! What about...?
You have a hundred more questions, I know. And they're all good ones. I won't take them all on here, but if you'll read on, I'll do what I can to point you to some possible answers before the end of this article.
Now that I've at least considered publishing myself, what's next?
Your first assignment is to read some excellent books and blogs about the new world of publishing, which are listed below. Then come back here next week for Do-it-Yourself Publishing, Part Two: Editing, Editing, and Editing, wherein you'll learn some tips about self-editing, and lots and lots about professional editing, the many forms it takes, and how to get some.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it...
Catch up on the new publishing universe with as many of the following as you can. This list is not exhaustive, but it's got a lot of good content. Some of these are only available as ebooks, which you can read on free Kindle and Nook reading apps for just about any computer or smartphone.
Let's Get Digital, by David Gaughran
The Indie Journey, by Scott Nicholson, et al
The Newbie's Guide to Publishing, by Joe Konrath
Surviving the Transition, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A Self-Publisher's Companion, by Joel Friedlander
Be the Monkey - Ebooks and Self-Publishing, by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath
Now go to the right-hand column of this page, click some links under "Blogs for Writers and Publishers," and get reading.