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.
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
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.
The (now) late Vonda McIntre (who is a brilliant Nebula Award Winning Author) even posted some of the truly 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.
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…
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?
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.
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?
Remember Traditional Publishing is a BUSINESS
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
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!