I read an interesting article – Adventures in Bookselling, via Shelf Awareness, and thought I’d share some thoughts. First off, Lisa Napoli speaketh the truth. Nuthin’ sez lovin’ like an author event. I know, I know, a lot of authors hate the idea of promoting their books. They’d rather sit back and write.
But that’s not the reality of the business anymore, so you have a choice to make: Help promote and create demand while establishing your footprint in readers’ minds, or do next to nothing and enjoy lackluster sales which will make your publisher want to mainline rubbing alcohol. I recommend you meander on over to Lisa’s article and see what she did to promote her new book, Radio Shangri-La – which I just bought.
In contrast, I found Michael Levin’s views on publishing quite disturbing in his cartoon interview – “Are Publishers Stupid?” – on Bo’s Cafe Life blog. Michael’s stance is that The Big Guy publishing is dead due to a number of elements:
Michael maintains big publishers have a monopoly on sales and distribution. Well, yes, they do. And why? Because they’ve been around since publishing began, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination that they have the corner market on distribution.
Furthermore, he suggests that mainstream distribution – meaning bookstores and libraries – is no longer relevant because we have the internet. While it’s true that the internet has had a huge impact on how books are sold, millions of books are still sold in bookstores and borrowed at libraries, so he’s suggesting cutting out a very big piece of the marketplace. Is this wise? Is this something he’d be willing to do with his own books?
Most DIYers feel as Michael does – bookstores and libraries are dead. Ok, fair enough. But here’s the irony; where do authors go when looking for author events? Bookstores. And guess who screams bloody murder when bookstores shut them out? You can’t rewrite the rules and then cry foul when things don’t go your way.
Michael claims all of this ballyhoo isn’t important any longer because of the internet. I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel if his books weren’t in bookstores and libraries. Lofty words for a NY Times bestselling author who will never have to ask that question.
Big Publishers – Who Needs ‘Em?
Behold, says Michael, who needs the big guys when you have Smashwords, Amazon Direct, or CreateSpace – which allows authors to publish their books in a few days rather than the 1.5 years it takes to publish with a NY press. I wonder how many of these books Michael has actually read. My across-the-pond friend, Jane Smith, has read many of these DIY books, and her review blog offers masterful analysis why a DIY book does or doesn’t work.
Most of these books are pretty bad because there is no litmus for talent other than the author’s ability to convert and upload a file to Amazon or Smashwords.
Rejection used to be a general suggestion that you’re not ready for prime time. Nowadays, it’s the battle cry for saying mainstream publishing is dead because, as Michael says, publishers are stupid. If he would like to compare notes on who’s better able to sell books, I’ll put money on mainstream publishing because they’ve been doing this far longer, they know how to sell books, and they know what sells.
Given his logic, I’m surprised he doesn’t suggest that publishers shouldn’t be concerned about money and just publish everyone. If so, I want what he had for breakfast.
So let’s talk about the differences between DIY and mainstream publishing:
Acquisitions: Michael claims that books are acquired by English majors with no marketing background and they do no market research about what the public wants to buy. This is false. First off, editors aren’t allowed to acquire until they’ve spent years as interns and learning the ropes. By the time they become full-fledged editors, they have a very good idea of what they’re doing.
The idea that no market research is done is pure folly. Virtually every profitable publisher does this in spades because they don’t want to get stuck with a dog that won’t bark. They listen to readers and booksellers in order to judge where the trends are, and when a genre is getting stale due to saturation. If a publisher has too many books that no one wants to buy, the corporate heads are going to scream bloody murder, and heads will roll.
DIY: On the flip side of the coin, the DIYer doesn’t have a team of experts in their corner to tell them whether their book is a good or bad idea. I can’t begin to count the number of DIYers I’ve seen who spent thousands publishing and promoting their books only to end up with a garage full of books that no one wants. Is Michael suggesting that an author, who has probably experienced a large number of rejections and has a day job, is in a better position to know what readers want than a company who is filled with marketing and sales professionals and does this for a living?
Promotion: Michael claims that publishers do no promotion. It’s true that back in the day publishers spent marketing dollars to send their big authors on tour. Much of this money has dried up. This is a lousy economy, folks. Does anyone believe that publishers are immune? Now I’m not saying the big NY publishers have been smart regarding the way they spent money and ended up having to lay off hundreds of editors. But the facts are that promotion still plays a huge part in publishing books, and there is a ton of stuff that goes on in the background that authors are never even aware of.
One of those things is sending out hundreds of ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) to reviewers, libraries, bookstores, print media, TV and radio as a way of letting important people know about your book. This is not free. I might add that this is how Michael received his many lovely reviews.
While publishers may not send authors on a book tour, they open up their wallets to promote their authors. Book conventions are a huge boon to authors’ exposure, and publishers routinely give away hundreds of books to convention attendees, which are comprised of agents, librarians, bookstore owners, reviewers, and readers. Their authors can sign free copies of their books at these conventions and talk to those directly involved in buying their books.
If you go back and read Lisa’s article, you can see what her publisher did for her in terms of support and planning.
DIY: In short, a mainstream published author has the support of many, many people who are working toward making your book a success. If you have a solid promotion plan, they are able to launch you further than you could do for yourself. Just now I received an email from our Special Sales Manager at our distributor’s office, wanting to submit one of our titles to a very huge specialty client in hopes they’ll pick it up for their stores. I have dozens of emails from our distributor’s various departments who have blasted our titles out to the buying public and venues who sell books.
Who do you have on your team to help you plan and promote your book? Do you even know how to effectively promote a book? Who do you think has a better chance of exposure, an author on their own, or one who has dozens and dozens of people backing them up?
Royalties: Michael complains that publishers take the lion’s share of the proceeds, and DIYers can do much better, financially speaking. Really? It’s easy to forget that publishers buy the rights to publish a book. As a result, it’s in their best interests to do everything they can to ensure they bought a winner. To enhance their chances of success, publishers spend thousands in production and promotion, and there is no guarantee it’ll sell well enough to even make back their initial investment. But it’s all a crapshoot because the marketplace is a very fickle mistress.
It boils down to this: He who spendeth the mosteth money, getteth the biggest share. It’s no different than any other business investment where the one coughing up the most money and shouldering the most risk gets paid a higher share. The flip side is that when the investment pays off, everyone enjoys lovely remuneration.
DIY: Authors always want to earn more in royalties, so Michael suggests DIY is the correct route to achieve that goal. However, it’s important to consider the selling power a publisher has within the marketplace and weigh it against someone who’s going it alone. A mainstream publisher can sell far more books than you can. So while you’re making a higher royalty on your own, you’re making far less money because you don’t have the marketing reach. Given that reality, you’re getting a bigger slice of the pie and no one has forks.
Editing: Since publishers sell books for a living, they hire quality editors who know how to make a book shine. The bulk of DIY books – especially those who pay to play – are dreadful because editing consists a quick spin and rinse through SpellCheck. People would freak if they saw what editors put their authors through during the editing phase. They do that because they want the books to rock. Most of the time, DIYers rely on themselves because they’re convinced that their books are the bee’s knees. Few authors, regardless where they’re published, have the ability to look objectively at their writing.
Formatting: Book formatting and layout is an art form, and it’s called interior design for a reason, and it takes many hours to do a book, something vanity publishers and authors don’t know how to do. They – and CreateSpace and Smashwords – simply print the files you send in. Rarely have I seen a properly formatted DIY book.
In the end, it comes down to reputation. Are you compelled to buy a CreateSpace book, or one pubbed by a mainstream publisher? Ask yourself why. The first thing that enters a reader’s mind is quality.
It’s important to think about what will propel your book into readers’ hands. Authors like Michael Levin and JA Konrath, and a handful of others, regularly attack mainstream publishing, and I can’t help but puzzle over their biting the hands who fed them quite nicely for many years. Michael didn’t make the NY Times bestseller list all by himself. Would he be where he is today if he had gone DIY?
I think Lisa’s blog post is a nice contrast as to why mainstream publishing isn’t a dirty word, and I’d be willing to bet the beagle’s stash of tequila she thinks I don’t know about that Lisa wouldn’t have done nearly as well had she not had the support of her publisher.