This seemed to be the prevailing theme at this weekend’s Southern California Writer’s Conference in San Diego. Event organizer Michael Steven Gregory tossed this question out in his typical trademark fashion (honestly, you have to experience MSG because he’s impossible to adequately describe in print).
Since he asked the question about where is publishing headed, he posited that power should return to the hands of the authors. I can’t disagree with that. After all, without authors, we publishers and agents would be slinging hash and the beagle would have to get a real job. MSG went further to suggest that big NY publishing would be dead in four years.
I’m not a prognosticator, so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. I do know that NY publishing has undergone a huge change because I see it in the submissions that come to me. The big advance money is drying up and the big guys aren’t buying the kinds of books they did years ago. They need the big blockbuster books because they have a lot of mouths to feed. And guess where those good books are going? Yup. To littler spuds like us.
The notion of the big pay day has changed, and I can’t say I’m sad to see it go because it was unsustainable. These books hardly ever earned out, but they kept tossing money around like it was water. It was good times for all. Lots of books were printed, lots of stores bought them – and as long as the balloon didn’t pop, things could remain unrealistically status quo.
From a financial/business standpoint, this made little sense. Small publishers couldn’t act that way. They had to remain financially solvent at all times, and that meant not spending more than they had in reserves. That’s why, traditionally, small publishers didn’t get the big books. “They don’t pay enough,” the agents would say. And sure, it’s logical to gravitate toward the bigger payday.
And then the bottom finally fell out and the big guy’s had their comeuppance. “Holy bouncing checks, Batman!” they cried. “We gotta lay off a ton of people to keep ourselves afloat.” Agents also had a huge reality check. Their big paydays were affected as well. So in the course of a few years, we saw the Great Return Implosion, where publishers suffered record-breaking returns from bookstores and the Great Editor Layoff – which is still happening today. NY editors are now finding themselves working as agents or indie editors. Many agents decided to do something else because they couldn’t make the big sales to sustain their businesses.
So Michael Steven Gregory’s opening salvo this past Friday night was a call to arms for authors to get into the driver’s seat – don’t be afraid to consider self-publishing. “Publishing as we know it is dead,” he said.
While I’ll agree that NY publishing is undergoing a huge evolution – and fighting it every step of the way – I also did a bit of squirming in my seat Friday night and wondered if they’d sling me up on stage and pass out rocks. I felt slightly irrelevant. Passé. And this bothered me a great deal because I felt there is much more to publishing that meets the eye. It’s one thing to heed the call to the battle cry and chant “death to publishers!” and quite another to actually go out and do it. And be successful.
Understanding how books are sold
Anyone considering publishing their own book MUST know the publishing business and how books are sold. Remember, you’re competing against publishers who have been doing this for a long time, and you need to know how to navigate those same waters. I see so many authors who self-pub – either via vanity or true self pubbing – and they didn’t understand how hard and expensive it is to should the complete burden of producing and selling a book. They end up disillusioned and broke. Prevent that outcome and educate yourself on the business so you can tip the scales for your success (suggesting Writer’s Essential Tackle Box).
One of the biggest uphill battles that I see with a self-pubbed book is quality. Usually what happens is someone writes a book and tries to sell it – to no avail. So they say, “the hell with it, I’ll do it myself.” The problem is, many times those rejections are a sign that there’s either no market for the book, or it’s poorly written. Sometimes rejection is an indication that you need to write a better book rather than soldier on with something that has little chance of sales.
But let’s go on the assumption you have a good book and are determined to be your own publisher. Part of that education process should include cover design, editing, interior design, and more editing. The reason self-pubbed books have a bad reputation is because they richly deserved it. All you need to do is go over to Jane Smith’s blog Self Publishing Review to see that many books are substandard in their quality.
This means you need to hire an excellent editor who can run you through the rinse and spin cycle, and hire a respected cover designer to complete the outside look. But don’t stop there – hire a good interior designer who will do a proper layout of your manuscript. Sure, the average Joe and Jane reader may not notice that bottom text doesn’t align from page to page, or that the sentence spacing is unusually narrow, or that you orphaned your sentences in odd places at the top and bottom of the pages. But they will notice that it’s harder on the eyes to read. There is an art to interior design. I recommend that you avail yourself to it.
You can write the best book in the world, but if no one knows of its existence, then it’ll sit there gathering dust. Most authors are limited in distribution because their footprint goes only as far as their feet can take them. That isn’t to say they can’t sell a lot of books at their local events – I’ve seen plenty who have – but they’ll reach a point of attrition, and this means they need to travel further outside their local community.
To date, the best way to get a book seen is on a bookstore shelf. And this requires distribution – something that is beyond the reach of the self-pubbed author. Publishers have distributors with teams of sales people and marketing and promotional experts whose sole job it is to sell your book. They have national ties and exposure. And they have a reputation within the publishing/buying community which is hard to deny. They open doors. They get sales.
Marketing and Promotion
In order to prevent your book from falling between the cracks into oblivion, you need to market and promote. This is expensive and time consuming. I’ve had conversations with many authors who vanity press published, and they were exhausted – as were their checking accounts. They bought tons of books in hopes of selling them within a few short months. Years later, they still had a garage full of books. And it’s not because they didn’t try. It’s because they were ill-prepared for the rigors of marketing and promotion.
Bookstores are much pickier these days about who they host for signings, so the self-pubbed author may find himself searching high and low for a store who will take him on. Self pubbed authors need to understand the art of marketing a product and capturing someone’s attention long enough so they’ll buy it.
Remember, the self-pubbed author is competing against publishers who already have established relationships with media outlets because it’s their business. It will be vital to think outside the box and have a solid promo plan that will attract attention. The one thing you cannot do is sit on your hands and wait for the money to roll in. It won’t. Everything is on your shoulders, so if you don’t make it happen, it won’t happen. You don’t have the support of a learned, experienced team to help you out. And this is where most self-pubbed authors lose heart.
So it may be that you’d like to take complete control of your publishing future. But if you do, you have to appreciate the realities of swimming upstream. As Michael said in his talk, publishing is changing – on that we can agree – and where it’s going is anyone’s guess. But the one constant is exposure, quality, talent, time, distribution, and money. There are the Cinderella stories out there, to be sure, but don’t make the mistake of believing they’re the norm.
They are the exception. And hopefully, so are you!