Yep, the book publishing world has been turned upside down. There are few markets that were earlier or more thoroughly disrupted than publishing. Well, maybe music. The gatekeepers of yesteryear just aren’t keeping the gates much anymore. The Big Five publishers used to have a chokehold on access to the market — editors, bookstores, advertising and distribution, and most importantly, readers. Silicon Valley has taken care of that.
This brave new world has democratized book publishing to an astonishing degree. But with this newfound direct access to readers has come a lot of temptation to engage in bad—and ultimately self-destructive—behaviors. It is entirely possible to slap down anything in a Word document, throw it up on Kindle Direct Publishing, and press “Send.” Yes, this allows unmoderated access to every reader in the world, or at least those with an Internet connection. But it also goes a long way to explain why more than 90% of the nearly 1 million new books that appear on Amazon each year now sell less than a hundred copies.
The Big Choice
Okay, so you’ve made the mental commitment to enter the fray as a new writer and managed to heave yourself over the hump of self-doubt through some admirable writing discipline. Now you’ve got a manuscript. What the heck do you do with it? This is when you face your Next Big Choice as a writer. Your first was what to write. Your second is how to get someone to read what you’ve written.
This choice is mostly binary, with a little grey area in the middle:
The Traditional Route. I don’t really like the term “traditional.” Maybe it once was but not anymore. But the term is generally accepted to mean a two-step process. First, convince a literary agent to take a chance on you and your book. Second, your shiny new agent sells your book to a publishing house. For those of us over the age of 50, this is what we have in our mind’s eye when we think “getting published.” For people under the age of 40, that’s not exactly what they see.
Advantages: First, if all you want to be responsible for is putting the words between the covers, then this is your best route. You and your book get a team of people behind you—your agent, your assigned editor, the production team at the publishing house. That means someone other than you is responsible for editing and proofreading your manuscript, designing the cover, and formatting the text. Second, publishing houses are the ones with long-standing and direct access to the distributors, on-line vendors, bookstores and libraries. Third, publishers have staff and established connections for marketing and advertising. (There’s a big caveat attached to this that I’ll talk about later.) Finally, and this is not to be gainsaid, there’s a lot of emotional validation that comes from having a literary agent and a publishing house full of professional editors saying, “We love your book.” And let’s face it, writers are on average a very emotionally needy bunch.
Disadvantages: First and foremost, it’s really, really hard to get an agent to represent you and a publisher to buy your book. Agents get hundreds of queries from authors each week and timing is everything. If the marketplace is soooo over burly Highlander historic romances—and that’s what you’ve just written—it’s going to be a hard sell. (Mind you, this doesn’t mean there aren’t readers out there who want your kind of book.) Even after you’ve managed to land an agent and a publisher, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Second disadvantage—you’ve just lost creative control. They choose the cover, they demand edits, and sometimes they require major rewrites. If you don’t like it, they are well aware that there are a thousand other writers behind you that will do whatever they ask. Third, once your riotous joy at getting a book contract wears off, you’re in for a long wait until publication day. Generally, we’re talking up to a two-year timeline. For older writers in particular, you may not be willing to wait that long for your book to see the light of day. (By way of example, my first novel, None of Us the Same, went from writing the first word to putting a book in readers’ hands in 11 months and 17 days. That’s fast.) Finally, your royalty rate is rather skimpy.
The Self-Publishing Route. To us Boomers, the self-publishing thing seems all techie and cutting edge. To those peers of my kids, it elicits a yawn and “what’s the big deal?” The best way to distinguish between the traditional route and the self-publishing route is by comparison to building a home. If you go the traditional route, the publisher is your general contractor. All the building trades — book designers, cover artist, editors, proofreaders — are brought together and overseen by the publisher. The self-publishing route, by contrast, leaves you as the general contractor. Also, you’re still the author.
Advantages: First and foremost, you retain complete control of your work. There is a lot to be said for this. Whether your work soars or sinks is entirely on you. That’s terrifying and exhilarating, often at the same time. Second, this can be the fastest way to get your book into the hands of readers. The kicker is you have to make it happen. This goes back to my earlier post on getting over the hump of self-doubt and the importance of self-discipline. Third, the per-book royalties you’ll receive are much higher. For example, I list my print copies for $14.95. If I sell it from my own stash—after library talks, at book club author visits, during any public appearances — I make $10 a book. If I sell the book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, I get about $3.50 per book. By way of comparison, the usual per-book royalty an author gets from a publishing house is south of $2 for paperbacks. And that’s only after said author has earned out whatever advance may have been received.
Disadvantages: First and foremost, you retain complete control of your work. No this is not a typo. Since you will be your own general contractor, you’re going to have to find some way to ration your time and attention. What most every indie author tells me—and it is certainly my personal experience—there’s always a level of frustration that your self-publisher obligations are draining time and creative energy from your writing projects. And your product is your writing. You’ve got to keep production going if you want to succeed as an author entrepreneur. Second, self-publishing can be expensive if you’re doing it the right way. Although Kindle Direct Publishing will let you hang an e-book on Amazon for nothing, if you want that book to look and read like a professional product, you’re either going to have to learn a lot of trades or hire in subcontractors. I’ll talk in more specifics about this in a future post on financing, but suffice it to say that each of my three books has cost about $2,000 to get into a fit state for publication. That’s my breakeven point, without paying myself for my first hour of writing. (And I enjoy some significant advantages that I’ll talk about in a future blog on writing as a family business.) Finally, the marketing from Amazon down to a local book club is all on you or the marketing consultant you hire.
Since this blog post is about selling, let me spend some more time talking about marketing. Unless you’re an A-list or very high B-list author, even a big publishing house won’t spend much time or money marketing your book. Whatever visions you may have about launching your months-long national book tour after a boozy dinner at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, that just doesn’t happen anymore. Marketing budgets, like many other aspects of the publishing business, have taken big hits over the last 15 years. So if you choose the traditional route, don’t think you’re off the hook for marketing your own books. Most publishers might provide some coordination and maybe a little support for your marketing efforts. They may coordinate book signings that you’ve arranged with bookstores or ship ahead some back of the room copies for you to sell at a conference or speaking event. They’ll list you in their regular promotional materials and new release notices. But the hard work is still on you. This represents the biggest footnote to my earlier statement that the traditional route is for you if all you want to do is put words on paper. That might work for your first book, but unless you flogged it and promoted it every chance you had, there’s not much chance that publisher will buy your second book.
The same goes for indie authors, but you know this going in. Like every other part of the book production process, it’s on you. If you make an honest determination that marketing just isn’t something you can do, we’ll talk later about contracting out marketing support and how to budget for that. From what I’ve seen, there is no deeper hole into which you can shovel money than marketing and advertising, so contracting out in these areas has to be done judiciously.
Independent authors that embrace entrepreneurship never miss a chance to promote their books. For example, you should always combine any sort of travel with some book promotion activity. If you’re going to Phoenix to see the grandkids for a week, Google the bookstores — particularly the indie bookstores — in the area. If they’re amenable—or you can make them amenable—schedule a book signing and maybe a short author talk. Local libraries are another good venue, especially if you’ve written nonfiction or historical fiction and learned a lot about a particular subject, personality, or era. (And refer back to that $10 per book I keep when I sell my novels at the back of the room at these events.) As long as you don’t get ridiculous about it, your accountant may even let you deduct a percentage of that vacation as a business expense.
Always look locally, too. I live in the Tidewater area of Virginia and there are lots of opportunities for indie writers — book fests, book clubs, libraries, schools, professional and service organizations. Your area will have the same types of opportunities in varying combinations. And you don’t have to travel very far.
Of course, the most valuable promotional tool is a great book. This is not unrelated to believing enthusiastically in your own writing, an infectious and powerful marketing tool, too. Which takes us back, inevitably, to the importance of writing with self-discipline and dedication. You owe your very best to your readers and to yourself. Nothing will attract more new readers than word-of-mouth from those who already love your books. [You can read all the posts in my “Your Write Turns” blog series here.]