An Author Speaks Out

Warning: This is a long sucker. Sorry!

A lovely woman and I have been exchanging opinions on publishing. Her frustrations with trade publishing came pouring out, and I felt maybe answering her here would help others who are in the same boat.

Some background;  the author has gone the DIY route and suggested that the Age of Agents and Query Letters had met its demise. I jumped in to say, “Oh, nay nay,” and explained why. I went on to say that with all the publishing choices we have today, we should be rejoicing in options rather than creating an Us vs. Them situation. Thar be room for all.

And this is where this kind woman replied, and I thank her for allowing me to take this to a more public forum:

If I were an agent, I’d be thinking of creating a sideline: Book Shepherd. For those like me who don’t want to go the trad pub route, the BS (oops!) could act as my scout, guide, manager and mentor. I admit, it’s quite difficult to be the entire vertical stack, and I’d love some help. But I don’t see paying for some of the services that are out there, for ex, a traditional publicist (lots of bucks for unprovable results), or a new-age publicist (lots of bucks for tips on how to do it all yourself, online).

Agents aren’t hard-wired to be book shepherds because they have to know every aspect of the industry in order to properly set up their clients. Most agents don’t know enough about distribution and don’t have established relationships with distributors in which to place their clients.

Some don’t always know the editing ins and outs, or cover design. Nor do they have relationships in the marketing and promotional areas. These are all tasks that publishers assume, so there’s little reason for agents to worry about it. And they don’t. If you want good help, then go directly to established book shepherds who do have all those relationships and ability. But regardless, it’s far from free. Agents do, however, have established relationships with editors. That’s where they shine.

I dream of a partner who will tell me what I need to do (i.e. what works) and then help me get it out there. For example, hook me up with (don’t just give me a list of) book clubs and speaking gigs; find me the blogs to follow that will help me expand my reach. Tell me how much time to spend networking online, and which networks are most productive for my purposes. That would be a big time saver for me, as I’m doing that all myself, now.

On one hand, you’re celebrating going DIY, yet you’re frustrated about how hard it is. Successful publishing is hard. If it were easy, everyone would be a successful author, right?  And it’s far from free, which makes it difficult for you to have a partner who will give you all the advice you need in order to expand your footprint. More to the point, all the things you’re looking for are readily available on the internet. It just takes time and research on your part.

A publisher’s job is to get your book nationally distributed and market it on a national level. They don’t have the time or energy to do your job, too. Now, that said, publishers strategize with their authors in order to figure out a great promo plan that will hit up the author’s local area and support the publisher’s national efforts.

Going DIY puts all the responsibility on the author’s back, which is time consuming and expensive. The problem here is that you want all this for free and unless you’re with a good trade press, you’ll have to shell out the $$ for the help. Can’t get somthin’ fer nothin’.

You say trade publishing is a team of hundreds, but all I’ve ever heard is that we writers shouldn’t expect much help (the “unless you’re John Grisham” disclaimer). So, we’re told that we need to build our own platforms and come to the table with tons of ready buyers. If I can do that, what can a publisher offer?

The operative is “I heard.” You haven’t actually experienced this firsthand, have you? If not, then you’re depending on others’ stories to formulate an opinion. This is dicey because you’ll always find someone who will back up a preconceived notion, like “publishers won’t help you.” This is the same rhetoric that a lot of DIY groups like to pull out, and the truth is somewhere in between. A good trade press isn’t going to put all the money into paying out an advance and assuming the large production fees only to flip up their hands and say, “Sorry, we’ve done our part, you’re on your own.” They’d be out of business in months.

Publishers have to protect their investment, and they do that by marketing and promoting the book with all their might and using their sales and marketing teams.A DIY author is a team of one, so you have the burden of marketer, promoter, editor, cover designer, formatter. It’s a full time job and utterly exhausting.

Since we publish nonfiction, authors need to come with a platform that will get their books the attention needed to generate good sales. Such is the way with nonfiction. If I’m going to take a sports book, then I’m going to look for an author who has name recognition with her intended marketplace.

Fiction is different because it’s hard to have a platform for a fictional story. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t define your readership and know where to find them. It’s all a part of doing your market research and understanding where you fit within the marketplace. Your knowledge of your intended readership helps the publisher’s marketing teams come up with the best strategy for promoting your book.

I can get distribution on my own, both from online or in-person gigs; I don’t know that there’s a bricks-and-mortar outlet that matters anymore, so I don’t need a publisher for that. 

Bookstores matter a great deal. To date, this is still where most books are sold. While they sometimes drive me nuts, I would weep huge croc tears if they disappeared. It still remains the one place where an author can stand out with book signings and meeting their readers. Nothing sells a book better than when authors show their pretty faces.

Distribution is key. It’s the lifeblood of any publisher. Our distributor has gotten us so many places where I couldn’t get into on my own. They’ve tripled our sales. They pitch our titles far and wide, which gets us reviews and attention. Conversely, online distribution is a lot of white noise because everyone is competing for sales, yet you have no one representing your book and explaining why yours is so much better than another of the same genre.

Advances are minimal and profits low, sporadic and arbitrary, from the writer’s POV. Lastly, I don’t believe the publisher’s imprimatur means much anymore (if it’s just a bar to clear in order to be recognized by the NYT and reviewers, the expanded attention has to be weighed against the writer’s reduction in profits.) Am I missing anything?

Can you specify what you mean by arbitrary and sporadic advances because this doesn’t make sense to me. Are advances what they used to be? No. Nor should they be. You can’t pay out huge buckets of money, knowing full well that you’ll never make it back, and expect to stay in business. Publishing has been dealt a blow for the very reason that they paid out ridiculous advances that never came close to earning out. And guess who lost; thousands of editors, who were laid off and midlist authors who were shown the street.

So has Big Six publishing worked smart in the past? No way. And for many years, smaller trade presses were ridiculed because they didn’t pay what the big guns paid. We couldn’t because we had to act like businesses and work smarter and watching our costs. Because small trade presses are working smart, they are experiencing great growth and respect.

I think what bothers me most about this last part is that you’ve done very little research on the industry. You may have received a fair share of rejection and decided that those DIY sites are right; that we have it in for authors and suck stale Twinkie cream. However, the grass isn’t quite as green on the DIY side either, and now you’re upset and frustrated, and feel as though you have no chance for success.

And here is where I beg to differ. You get out of it what you put into it. Whether you go DIY or accept a publishing contract, if you work hard and do your research, you’re better armed to captain your success. I’ve know a few successful DIY’ers, and I cheer their success because I know how hard they worked. I see far more unsuccessful DIY’ers because they weren’t prepared for the difficulties of being a Party of One.

Always remember that you’re competing against companies who do this for a living, which means they have established relationships with A LOT of people in all walks of the industry. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it; but you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work harder than you ever have before. Not every book is appropriate for a publisher, so it’s fabulous that authors have other options that will get their work out to the marketplace. But it has to be for the right reasons, and the author must have their eyes wide open.

Publishing is a No Whine Zone. You either buck up and suck it up and do the necessary research, or you complain about what isn’t being done for you…which is a waste of time and talent.

Lastly, thank you so much, dear author, for allowing this discussion to take place here. It’s my intent to present authors with all the information they need so they can make informed decisions that will enhance their chances for success. Go forth and be brilliant.

7 Responses to An Author Speaks Out

  1. Lynne Spreen says:

    Lynn, I appreciate your comprehensive post, and I’m going to absorb it before I respond, but I want to clarify that at no time in my original comments did I express an expectation of receiving any services for free.
    More later.

  2. You wrote:
    “…a new-age publicist (lots of bucks for tips on how to do it all yourself, online).”

    From that comment, I made some assumptions. It appears as though I’m in error, and I apologize for the blunder, Lynne. I was wrong.

  3. danholloway says:

    Excellent, Lynn. Publishing may be a “no whine zone” but it is certainly not a “no wine zone”.

    Hard work and a brilliant, fresh, head and shoulders above and differentiated (just enough but not too much) from the competition book are the absolute lowest common denominators for anyone going into any kind of publishing.

    From there on in it is a question of carefully and with as much background knowledge as possible weighing variables a non-exhaustive list of which includes
    – your temperament
    – your ambition for your writing life (in 1, 5, 10 and beyond years)
    – the genre you write
    – where your readers hang out
    – how your readers make purchasing decisions
    – your contacts
    – your platform and how that relates to your readers
    – your willingness to pursue platform building
    – your ability to travel
    – your willingness and aptitude for public speaking
    – the time you have available (how much time, and when you have it)

    and then plot those agains all that research to see what kind of publishing is right for you. In many cases, the answer will be “a big 6 contract” but no matter how hard you try you can’t get one – that’s when people go into self-publishing for the wrong reasons. There *are* times where self-publishing would be the right option – usually non-fiction in an area where you are *very* well known and all potential readers meet in the same place that’s not a bookstore, where there’s no potential breakout appeal and where, unless you’re megarich, you don’t require very high production values for your physical product (such as lts of high res pics). Fortunately for me, poetry is also one that suits self-publishing – it’s also an area where you make next to no money and are expected to shlep from reading to reading and count yourself lucky to get travel expenses and sell two or three books – so another thing to add to the list has to be
    – how much you absolutely love what you do regardless of the return

  4. Dan, you’re everything that’s right about DIY. Thank you for your insights.

  5. John Allan says:

    I MIGHT be tempted to take the DIY route, should the traditional route, for me, fall by the wayside. But then, that would be the wrong reason for doing so. Hence, at least for now, I will keep plugging away with agents. Besides, I have spent many years in a business which doesn’t even have the sausage to sell, only the sizzle.

    Perhaps it’s to do with my original trade as a bookbinder, and I might be in a minority here; but somehow, I doubt it. When it comes to online publishing, I prefer to hold, and turn the pages of, physical books, not scroll down a screen, especially one where I can only see a part of a page at a time. Useful, I suppose, when you are on the move, but not enough to convince me. And when it comes to library collections, well . . . Kindles and iPads just can’t match the aesthetics of hardbacks.

    So, while I believe all of Lynn’s points are relevant, it is particularly gratifying to see that most books are still bought from bookstores.

    One observation: you asked Lynne to specify what she meant by arbitrary and sporadic advances, but I read that as referring, not to advances but to profits . . . which profits is unclear, though I assume net royalties.

  6. It’s so refreshing to hear this topic discussed calmly and with a professional neutrality. The “us versus them” mentality is so rampant here, at all levels of the industry: authors, agents, publishers. And for no reason I can comprehend. There are more stories being written than publishers could possibly print, or agents sell, and certainly enough readers to go around for both print and e-books, both indie and trad, that authors don’t need to snipe at each other. In fact, it’s all “we”: we book lovers, we story lovers, we lovers of words. The more, the merrier. Break out the beagle’s margarita’s and lets toast peace!

  7. rocknroll says:

    I thought Twinkies never grow stale…?

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