That was the implied response to the woman’s loud announcement that she’d self-published her book. She stood before the group of about sixty and proudly proclaimed that she’d done what “those stuffy publishers” wouldn’t do – publish her book. Her battle cry was very spirited, “Break free from the subversive reins of the gatekeepers! DIY!”
Zoiks. Considering I was due to get up and give a talk right after her, I pondered whether I should fear for my safety. Nothing worse than speaking to a hostile crowd. Fortunately, I think her call-to-arms in a valiant effort to slaughter the ruling class weren’t taken that seriously, and the crowd was very polite.
But I couldn’t help but wonder about anyone whose feelings run that deeply and passionately. Obviously, she was bitter about mainstream publishing and had probably experienced a lot of rejection. And this meant we must die.
This kind of thinking always leaves me a bit sad because there is no black and white in this industry and things often don’t make sense. A great story (and mind you, “great” is subjective) can either be sold at auction for millions, or be rejected because the “gatekeepers” don’t believe it will sell. Or sell in enough quantities to justify the production and marketing costs. So instead writers stand tall and cry:
“We don’t need you!”
“It’s a brave new world, and mainstream publishing is passé!”
Eh, not so fast. We don’t reject books because we have nothing better to do. We’re in the business to sell books – lots of them. Rejection happens for a lot of reasons that might have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And sometimes rejection is nature’s way of separating the wheat from the chaff. But before you brand mainstream publishing as the root of all evil, let’s talk about why authors might find us relevant.
Before you make any decision about a publisher, think about your intent:
- What kind of writer are you? Hobbyist? Serious? Beginner? Experienced?
- Do you see your books on the store shelves (I know, everyone does), or is this a book for friends and family?
- Do you have a lot of books in you, or are you a one-book wonder?
- Do you have a platform?
- Have you given any thought about how you’ll promote your book?
- Who is your audience?
- What is your competition?
In short, you need to do some honest self-analysis and do the proper research so you know what publishing option is best for you.
Publishing isn’t for the faint of heart or weak intestinal fortitude. How much do you know about the publishing industry? Given the hundreds of authors I speak to on a yearly basis, I’m continuously surprised at how willing people are to turn their hard work over to someone without knowing whether they’re making a good decision. Heck, I’m one of those noobs. In another lifetime, I blithely turned over a book that took me over a year to write and included extensive research. The “publisher” was one of the most popular skanks in the industry, proving that when I go, I go big.
I was the Cosmic Muffin’s biggest idiot, but I lucked out and made lemonade. Most aren’t that lucky. So when you’re considering putting your book into the hands of a company whose only standard is the size of your wallet, take a second and ask yourself whether they have the experience to market, promote, and sell the book. Do you have the experience to know the difference?
Do you know how to sell and distribute books? Store placement
As I’ve said before, this industry isn’t a matter of “if you write it, they will come.” It takes long hours of work and planning, and lots of money to promote and market. Mainstream publishing knows how to sell and distribute books. They have sales teams who have established relationships with the national accounts, indie stores, and libraries. Some of the most consistent comments I hear from self-pubbed authors are that they had no idea how hard it was to sell books. Mainstream publishers have to know how to distribute and sell books and get them into the stores because that’s what they do.
Most self-pubbed authors don’t realize bookstores won’t order their books due to the lack of a return policy – where stores can return unsold stock. I talked to a few authors who had considered paying the extra $600 – $900 for the vanity’s “returnable book package” because they believed that would get their books into the stores. Alas, this is nothing more than an insidious profit center for vanity presses. Their return policies are so restrictive that bookstores won’t have anything to do with them.
Do you know who your audience is? Most folks I talk to give the same answer: “It’s for everyone who loves to read.” Do you have “everyone” in your Rolodex? How do you find “everyone” with your self-pubbed book? Man, even I can’t do that, and it’s something you need to think about.
Mainstream publishers consider this aspect before they ever consider offering a contract. There have been plenty of books that I loved but didn’t feel there was a big enough audience. That isn’t to say that just because I can’t quantify an audience means there isn’t one. Sometimes self-pubbed authors are much closer to their audience than I am and can make some sales. They just aren’t sales that will keep the beagle in high-end tequila.
Do you know whether your book has wings? It’s one thing to THINK your book is very marketable, but do you know for a fact? Do you know readers’ tastes? Have you done any market research to determine whether you’re on to something unique, or one of the pack?
Knowing means that you’re intimately familiar with your readers and your competition – which means you’re very well read. It also means that you know the unique qualities of your book. If you’ve written a Twilight knock off, I urge you to rethink things because Stephanie Myers already did it. Do something else that has its own unique twists. The whole Twilight/vampire romance is making agents’ eyes glaze over because publishers’ eyes are glazing over as well. This is stuff you need to know.
Do you have a platform that makes your book more marketable? Mainstream publishers look for qualities in their potential authors that will enhance sales. We want to know whom you know – but more importantly, we want to know who knows you. You may have written a compelling cancer survival book, but it’s an impacted category, so that means I need an author with a big platform – someone who can attract an audience, a readership. It’s how the cream rises to the top. If you sit at home and knit nose muffflers for cold beagles, then you don’t have a ready audience who knows you. When you compare that to some actress who wrote about the same subject matter, who do you think is the cream?
I’ve noticed that most vanity books have higher retail prices than their mainstream cousins. They’re higher because, well, the vanity press can charge their authors top dollar for the print run. Since vanity presses sell primarily to their authors at a discount, the higher retail price is a tidy profit center. This makes life more difficult for the author because they can’t afford to reduce the price so it’s in line with the marketplace. Net result: fewer overall sales.
Conversely, mainstream publishing sells to the public and needs to competitively priced in order to sell the maximum amount of units. While readers are more apt to buy books from an author who has just given a talk, regardless of retail price, one also has to consider how many more they might have sold had the book been moderately priced.
There is a growing number who are crowing about the irrelevancy of evil mainstream publishing, but I hope I’ve added some balance to this issue. I do believe that there is room for all, and I have no particular problem with any of it PROVIDED the author knows exactly what to expect. To me, there is nothing sadder than hearing, “I had no idea.”
So to rebut my zealous friend, “Dear Author, yes, you do.”