Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: For me traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

All righty, so last time in Real Writers Don’t Self-Publish we talked about a lot of myths that surround publishing in general and I promised to delve deeper into this subject. I hope, at the very least, y’all walked away with one core understanding about traditional publishing.

Traditional publishing measures one thing and one thing only…commercial viability.

Granted, this often means the author is professional and the writing is outstanding…but that’s isn’t always the case. Some works are published for the sole reason that they will sell a certain amount of copies (refer to Snookie’s memoir). Additionally some of the greatest works of our time are not coming to market (initially) through legacy presses (refer to The Martian).

But here’s the deal. While we certainly don’t have to be leggy-pressed to be “real” writers, self-publishing is no panacea.

The hard truth is there is a lot of junk being published. There are too many people who are so in love with the idea of calling themselves “published authors” that they take shortcuts, and I feel this is likely what irritates many professionals (especially since what this group lacks in skill and talent they tend to more than make up for in mass marketing).

But, the dangerous idea comes when we cut off our nose to spite our face.

We are SO scared that we are going to get lumped in with the folks who, frankly, should just increase processing speed by deleting Word off their hard drives, that we sit around believing we aren’t any good unless the Legacy Gods reach down from Olympus New York and give us their blessing.

NY is not going to give you (or me) a writing career. We have to hustle. Self-publishing actually has a lot of benefits not only for writers, but for traditional publishers as well.

Really, I Mean It

In my post The Ugly Truth About Publishing I explained how the consignment model worked and how mega-stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble obliterated the bookstore landscape. We discussed the terrible consequences writers have endured because of these companies’ greed.

Borders is now a memory and, trust me, Barnes and Noble isn’t far behind. They’re succumbing to the effects of their own avarice. Having a megastore on every corner was a sound business model…until everyone began shopping on-line.

If Barnes & Noble survives (which I highly doubt because, to date, they have not listened to my advice to SAVE them 😛 ) they aren’t going to offer writers all that much of an advantage. These days, their stores are few and far between meaning there are fewer point-of-sales locations than ever.

The remaining stores resemble a department store more than a bookstore. They look like a Starbucks, a Hallmark, a Radio Shack, a Tower records, a Blockbuster and a Toys-R-Us had a baby…oh and there are some books, too.

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It’s almost an ironic homage to all stores/industries first plundered by the megastore.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. 

Btw, that was WAY cooler before Amazon started doing it to them. Anyway…

This transition has a huge impact on all authors because bookstores no longer are the best place for discoverability. Gone are the days where most readers found what they wanted to read by browsing a bookstore. Amazon has done a stellar job of spoiling us and training us to rely on algorithms to help us choose.

People who bought this, also bought THIS.

This means the remaining points of distribution—Walmart, Costco, Sam’s, airport bookstores, drug stores and grocery stores—are the only common points of sale and they only carry a scarce fraction of available titles (and those are almost always established brands guaranteed to sell—you know, “real” writers 😛 ).

The biggest advantage legacy press had was distribution, and in a world not yet shopping on-line? That used to be a big deal. Now?

For the first-time novelist or the novelist who’s yet to be a big brand? Not the big deal it used to be simply because shelf space is finite (and only for a short time) and brick-and-mortar stores are going under and the new brick-and-mortars are owned by The Borg Amazon.

The remaining stores (the few indie bookstores that survived) are generally very small, which means limited inventory. By the time we subtract the classics which will always be a staple and the mega-authors who are guaranteed to sell? *cough Stephen King* 

We don’t have a lot of space left for anyone else.

What Does This Mean?

Image via Bill_Owen Flickr Creative Commons
Image via Bill_Owen Flickr Creative Commons

In my opinion, the author career path is evolving. Traditional’s ability to distribute is still a pretty big deal, but due to market changes, NY can now be far smarter/surgical about how they choose. They need to be picky, especially now when shelf space is more limited than ever.

In the old days, a publisher took on a huge risk hoping a work would resonate with audiences and sell.

Now? They really don’t need to. They can simply look to what is doing well in the indie world then come in and help develop that work/author on the next level.

Try to go through an airport without seeing The Martian on a newsstand.

I feel this new trend also allows us to gain a greater diversity of works. Before we could get realtime feedback what audiences were loving, legacy presses were forced into a lot of guess work. They would spot a trend (Twilight) and then ride that trend until the sparkly vampire was beaten to death. Now? They can capitalize on what I am calling The Dark Horse Effect.

What is The Dark Horse Effect?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Pedro Ribiero Simoes
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Pedro Ribiero Simoes

The dark horse is the outlier no one saw coming. It’s the candidate or competitor about whom little is known but unexpectedly wins. Instead of NY trying to create lighting in a bottle, now they just have to catch it.

It is impossible for NY to capitalize on the dark horse author without self-publishing. Why? Because by definition a dark horse is no one anyone expects to win, and last I checked? NY wasn’t into that.

Self-published/indie authors have much more freedom to experiment with writing that would have been patently rejected ten years ago. I know I keep mentioning The Martian but it is a stellar example because it breaks all the rules.

Too Much Science

Self-published book and now a major motion picture. BOO-YAH!
Self-published book and now a major motion picture. BOO-YAH!

First of all, I’ve read the book and it is very science heavy. I could see an agent going cross-eyed and telling Weir to cut all the talk about chemistry, that audiences would be bored. Why? Because usually that is great advice.

But had Weir (in a parallel universe) sought after approval from the Legacy Gods, they very likely would have given advice that wrecked the exact reason this book is so awesome.

Content Published on a Blog is No Good for Publication

For years (and even today) we will hear agents say that any fiction we publish on our blog is no good and not worthy of publication. The Martian, however, shows this is not always the case.

Weir was originally a programmer who left AOL and decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a writer…but failed. He couldn’t get an agent, let alone a publisher. So he then left writing and returned to programming, but then decided he would still write his story and offer it on his personal blog where anyone could read it for free.

Initially, his story flopped, but he kept at it fine-tuning and doing more research while honing his writing skills.

It paid off. BIG.

Eventually, word of the story spread and readers started requesting an e-version (the PDF was too hard to download) so Weir uploaded it into Kindle and sold it for .99. Within a few months The Martian rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list and an agent contacted him.

Soon, Random House called and wanted to make it into a hardcover. Within days, Hollywood called and asked for movie rights. Weir scored a book deal and a movie deal in the same week.

Crowd-Sourcing is Bad

I would imagine that many within Legacy Land would have broken out in hives at the thought of a book being written using crowd-sourcing. But that is precisely why The Martian ended up being so successful.

According to Business Insider:

“Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts,” Weir said. He was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that’s crucial for Watney’s survival.

Fans of the work were eager to be part of the collaborative process, even if it simply meant helping out with the facts. The writer of that Guardian article blasting self-publishing was adamant that “real” writers possess the decency to make mistakes in private.

But Weir wasn’t afraid to get it wrong in public…and it paid off BIG TIME.

Not everyone has the rhino skin to be corrected publicly, but if we do? We grow up way faster.

Breaking Making the Rules

What all this means is that a work that breaks all the “rules” for what NY might have been looking for in a query letter goes out the window the second they are able to see what readers really want…in sales figures.

NY didn’t have to guess that a science-heavy-crowd-sourced-geek-fest previously offered for free “might” be a winner. They could see it for themselves.

What happens to "rules" when a work is profitable.
What happens to Legacy Press “Rules” when a work is profitable.

I’m also happy Weir didn’t care about being a “real” writer.

As much as self-publishing gets flack, it’s allowing legacy publishers to reap high profits in a world where that’s harder and harder to do. It’s removing much of the guess work out of what readers like and want which helps NY’s bottom line.

It’s also freeing up writers to do what we do best…get creative. We can experiment. Try new things. Adjust, adapt, grow and mature instead of slaving away on one draft for a decade hoping someone in NY will notice.

Additionally, successes like Weir’s prove that a writer can create a platform of hardcore fans before the work is ever published. The single greatest reason authors fail to ever make a living is they can’t escape the gravitational pull of The Black Hole of Obscurity. Now? We can.

The Martian wasn’t released into a vacuum (*bada bump snare*), rather Weir created a core group of die hard fans using…his blog. There was no high-priced marketing campaign or promotion (which doesn’t work as well as writers believe). Rather, it began as a small grassroots fandom that grew roots and spread exploded.

No ads, no algorithmic alchemy, no giveaways, no contests, no relentless blog tours, no slaving away on social media instead of writing. Hmmm. Wonder if he read my book Rise of the Machines? 😛 #heywhynot

Suffice all this to say that this notion that we are only a “real” writer if we publish a certain way is ridiculous. But, we find what fits for us and our work. We try things, we get creative and who knows?

We might just be the next dark horse 😉 .

Are you ready for a perfect storm?

What are your thoughts? Personally, I love this new renaissance and it always thrills me to see how creative you guys can be. I’m also a helpless pawn on Amazon—the crack-meth-heroin dealer of books. I am now listening to three audiobooks, reading one novel and another novella on my Kindle. Yes, I am ADD but I do finish 😛 #donotjudgeme

I am also completely spoiled that when I find an author I love? I can buy that writer’s entire backlist…probably far too easily.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

March’s WINNER: DK WALKER! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (New Times Roman and one-inch margins double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl dot com and CONGRATULATIONS!

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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One of the things I love about doing what I do is that I have the ability to connect so closely with you guys and speak on the topics that matter to you. Yesterday, a fellow writer shared an article from The Guardian, For me traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way. She wanted my take on what the author had to say.

All right.

For those who’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, I hope I’ve been really clear that I support all paths of publishing (vanity press doesn’t count).

All forms of publishing hold advantages and disadvantages and, as a business, we are wise to consider what form of publishing is best for our writing, our work, our goals, our personality, etc. But my goal has always been to educate writers so they are making wise decisions based off data, not just personal preferences.

We don’t self-publish because all our friends are doing it and we think we can make a million dollars fast cash. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t hold out for traditional out of some misguided idea that self-publishing/indie isn’t for “real” authors and that traditional publishers are somehow going to handhold us.

The author of this article has the right to publish as she sees fit. I am all for empowering authors and trust me, I know that self-publishing gets a bad rap for good reasons. I am not blind to all the book spam and authors who write ONE book and camp on top of it for the next five years selling to anyone who looks at them.

But there were some egregious errors in many of the article’s assertions that I’d like to address so that your decision is based of reality not an opinion piece. I won’t address them all today for the sake of brevity, but here were the major ones that jumped out at me.

Myth #1—Serious Novelists Don’t Self-Publish

Tell that to Hugh Howey, Bob Mayer, Barry Eisler, Joel Eisenberg, Vicki Hinze, Theresa Ragan and y’all get the point.

Myth #2—Self-Publish and ALL Time Will Be Spent Marketing Not Writing

Or maybe they’re doing it wrong?

Myth #3—If You Self-Publish You Will Act Like an Amway Rep Crossed with a Jehovah’s Witness

Many do, but that’s a choice not an inevitability.

Myth #4—Gatekeepers Know Best

LOL. Sure. Because Snookie’s It’s A Shore Thing was published for its literary value.

Myth #5—Private Apprenticeship is Better for Author Growth

Public feedback can be brutal and isn’t for everyone, but rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic in private isn’t necessarily a better, nobler path either.

Myth #6—Awards Are Everything

For some genres, perhaps. But can the literary world keep ignoring that some of the best works of our time are not coming from legacy presses?

Myth #7—To Look Pro in Self-Publishing You Spend a Fortune

Network better.

Myth #8—Traditional Publishing Creates a Far Superior Product

Tell that to the romance authors who, for years, couldn’t expect that the cover would match their story. Pyramids on a romance set in the Highlands? It has happened.

Vonda McIntre (who is a brilliant Nebula Award Winning Author) has even posted some of the really awful covers her publisher (traditional) thought were a good idea. And, because she was a mere author and had no control over the covers? She had no say.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 11.51.12 AM

Myth #9—Self-Published Authors Can’t Make a Living

Many don’t. This job is not for everyone. But then again, most traditional authors would make more flipping burgers.

Myth #10—Amazon & Self-Publishing Have Destroyed Author Incomes

Definitely a NO. For the first time in history more authors are making a living wage than ever before. Mega-bookstores like Barnes & Noble did more to damage author incomes than almost any other factor. They almost single-handedly destroyed the bookstore ecosystem and many writers who were making a good living suddenly were forced to get a day job if they liked eating.

Refer to my post The Ugly Truth of Publishing.

Now that I pointed out the ten contentions I disagree with, I’d like to zoom in on this idea that traditional publishing is only for real writers and that self-publishing is for amateurs. Namely this quote from the article rubbed me the wrong way:

Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write).

This statement is so far off-base I need this book…

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 9.19.49 AM

I’m back and I can “literally even” so let’s go 😀

The Long and Short of Publishing

I know we are going through a lot of birthing pains right now and we still have ways to go, but a lot of the changes in publishing have been for the better. For years, traditional (legacy) publishers were the sole gatekeepers and this had a lot of disadvantages for authors and readers.

Because traditional publishing was taking on a large financial risk and had to also maintain high overhead, they obviously had to be picky about what works to publish. These works had to bring in a certain amount of ROI (return on investment). This devastated the literary landscape and drove many works to the brink of extinction.

For instance, in the 70s and 80s long epic works were all the rage. Readers actually liked a book so long you could take out a burglar with it. I mean, Clan of the Cave Bear  could have been registered as a deadly weapon. But the thing is, paper is heavy so it is expensive to ship. It costs a lot more to print a long book (Duh).

Additionally, big thick paperbacks? Only fitting a few of those suckers on a shelf. Why sell three books for $9.99 when you can sell ten books for $7.99?

Basic math.

So, the trend became to cut works off after a certain word count. Many agents would take one look at a query and if the work was over 110,000 words? Forget it. It didn’t matter that it was the next Lord of the Rings. 

They weren’t being mean, they simply knew that publishers were wanting shorter works because they could sell more of them and enjoy a higher profit.

But what if a story needed to be that long?

The other side also suffered. Short works. Pulp fiction got its start with the much-esteemed Charles Dickens and this form of storytelling really picked up traction in the early part of the 20th century. This type of fiction gave the general public access the larger-than-life stories with exotic and sexy characters. Pulp authors also made a really good living, some becoming among the richest people in the country.

We can thank pulp fiction for some of the greatest literary geniuses of our culture. Edgar Rice Burroughs almost single-handedly laid the foundation for today’s science fiction. Then we have Max Brand, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ray Bradbury.

With WWII we experienced paper rationing and the pulp magazine fell into decline as publishers opted for longer works with…a greater ROI. Notice how these changes really don’t have much to do with the skill of the writer and have more to do with paper costs, shipping costs and ROI.

The beauty of pulp fiction was how it connected to everyday people who normally would not have considered themselves “avid readers.”

As publishing became bigger and bigger business, it had less to do with the story and the quality of the writing and more to do with, “Can we sell this?” Again, this is simply wise business. A publisher might love a vampire book…but unfortunately they already had taken on three other vampire books and filled that quota for the year.

REJECTION

Many forms of writing were driven virtually to the point of extinction. Novellas, short stories, poetry, memoirs (unless your were famous), and epic works all suffered terribly. To extend the logic, their creators were driven almost to the point of extinction.

Because what if you happen to be an excellent pulp writer in a paradigm that has no outlet for that? What if your strength is epic length high fantasy that just can’t fit into under 150,000 words? Then just because a writer doesn’t fit into the current business model of legacy publishers she is less…talented? He isn’t a professional?

No.

Remember Traditional Publishing is a BUSINESS

Original image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Casey Konstantin
Original image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Casey Konstantin

This notion that an author lacks skill or talent or has nothing worthwhile to offer unless the Legacy Gods deem approval ignores history. Most noteworthy?

John Kennedy Toole’s work A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously and went on to win the Pulitzer for Fiction. Though Toole’s work was praiseworthy in his lifetime, after facing rejection after rejection he took his own life.

Was it Toole’s work was substandard? Or did it have more to do with the business model of the publishing world and his work didn’t neatly fit in? Would Toole have continued to be a great voice in literature had other viable models of publishing been in existence?

African American Author Zora Neal Hurston was an anthropologist whose fiction was overlooked in her lifetime. Luckily for us the first wave of feminism catapulted her writing to success…after her death.

Often traditional publishing is hesitant to make waves because…they are a business.

Notice the massive uptick in LGBT fiction? Thank indie/self-publishing for much of that because these authors had the freedom to push boundaries and challenge social norms in a way that would have been virtually impossible for traditional publishing.

In fact, the success of many of these indies has allowed legacy presses to relax and realize just maybe there is an audience out there who’d love to have a voice, too (I.e. Barry Eisler writing anti-establishment, anti-war thrillers with a gay lead). Eisler left traditional because of the stories he believed needed a voice and he knew there would be an audience who shared those views, too. Indies are aware of cultural shifts and are risk-takers willing to explore them for good or bad.

I suppose this is one big reason I am puzzled a literary author would have so much against non-traditional publishing. Often it is literature that says what’s unpopular, that points out the pink elephant in the room. Literature is known for highlighting the lives and struggles of those groups who are largely ignored in the commercial realm.

Self-published authors have largely been responsible for many of the most beneficial changes in publishing history. Check out Why We Should All Hug a Self-Published/Indie Author.

Back to Business

Sure thing.
Sure thing.

Is Snookie’s A Shore Thing great writing? Or did the decision to publish this work have more to do with the fact that NY could capitalize on the popularity of a reality television show and, crunching the numbers, knew they could sell copies? Is 50 Shades of Grey a better book simply because a legacy press picked it up? Or did they pick it up because giving E.L. James a far wider distribution was a sound business decision?

What all of us have to remember is NY is not a non-profit organization; it’s a business driven by profit and loss. Sure, a lot of authors jump the gun to self-publish and they aren’t ready. Refer to 5 Mistakes Killing Self-Published Authors. But guess what? That is common in ALL business. There is a reason most restaurants don’t last a year 😉 .

Traditional publishing tests ONE thing…commercial viability. All across the arts from painting to music to writing, the greatest legends were very often overlooked by the establishment. From Picasso to Plath, genius is often not something that fits neatly into a P&L statement.

Traditional publishing is also not a meritocracy.

There are excellent writers who don’t make the cut for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. We all know of talented authors we love who, for whatever reason, aren’t selling like 50 Shades of Darker…and we die just a little inside knowing that.

But this notion that only “real” writers publish traditionally? Patently false. We will take some time to explore some of these other myths, but rest-assured the decision of how to publish and when to publish is far more complex than it may seem. Also, self-publishing has evolved quite a lot. Yes, it used to be the equivalent of cheap vanity press, but that is light years from today’s reality.

There are good and bad reasons for ALL forms of publishing, so do some homework. Also, remember sometimes we need to try things on. If they don’t fit? Um…change.

What are your thoughts? Are you a successful indie/hybrid/self-pub author who gets tired of this misconception that you are not a “real” writer? Have you felt undue pressure to self-publish? Are you a writer of really long or really short works and think maybe you might have a new home?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

I will announce March’s winner next post.

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook