Most writers still nurture the dream of landing a contract with a big publishing house. But in light of the undeniably changing environment of publishing, this may not be the wisest, most profitable goal for the writer anymore. Especially when you look at the fact that in today’s publishing world, indie authors can access the same virtual space on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other booksellers as those traditionally published. When it comes to eBooks, distribution is no longer a primary element to ensuring sales as it is with paper books. It is about marketing directly to the consumer. A business like Amazon can reach millions of readers directly via email or customers’ personal Amazon pages. In such an environment, an indie author can sell on Amazon in the same way and to the same population as any traditionally published writer with the same visibility. While traditionally published writers benefit from the visibility a big house can offer, eBooks beg the question, is that concern relevant anymore?
The Stigma of Self-publishing
Most people still perceive a quality division between self-publishing and traditional legacy publishing. Self-publishing possesses a long-enduring stigma of low-quality—the self-published writer the very embodiment of rejection. Bad writing, lack of editing, gathered together in a poorly-designed book. While this view may not be entirely unfounded, in many cases it reverts back to the idea that being published by one of the Big Six Publishing Houses legitimizes the work. But it might be time to put this all-inclusive label to rest. It’s not as though the big publishers have high-art as their bottom line. The people in the highest offices are motivated by financial interests, not literary ones. Many well-written books can’t find a home with the big publishers not because of lack of quality, but lack of marketability. Maybe a House is following a trend, such as the recent glut of memoir, or doesn’t want another sci-fi title, or maybe they already have as many YA books they want for the year. Maybe a book is just too different and defies pigeonholing, creating a marketing problem. Tinkers by Paul Harding is a good example. He could not find a publisher because no one could quite locate the book’s marketing angle. Finally published by a small press, Bellevue Literary Press, it went on to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, among other prizes and fellowships. This is a quiet novel, gorgeously written, quiescent in plot but not poetry, that pushes the parameters of what a novel must look like. And it almost did not get published. An argument can easily be made refuting the misguided idea that every book that gets traditionally published is “good” and those that are self-published are “bad.” A limiting, mutually-exclusive trap.
It will take time and effort to move away from the singular legitimacy a book contract lends to a writer. But the increasing interest in digital books and the ease with which writers can get their books to the reading public is going to spur change.
It cannot be denied that technology changes, and ever faster. 15 million iPads were sold in 2010, with many more predicted for 2011. Now there is the Kindle Fire to compete with the iPad. 8 million Kindle books sold in 2010, again with that number increasing for 2011—more digital than paper sales. The unlimited choices that have erupted in the music industry and the world of YouTube illustrates that people want variety and are willing to swim through the deep waters to find what they like. The ways in which future generations will consume media, even think about media, is very different from the way Baby-boomers do, the way Gen X, Y or Millennials do. And digital will grow as the price of eReaders continues to decline, the functionality improves and more and more eBooks become available. The argument that a lot of poor work will be self-published further burying the “good” work is a fruitless one. There is already a lot of arguably poor work published by the big houses—highly marketable perhaps, but not of literary worth. What’s more, the cream always rises. Good content creates good word-of-mouth—the buzz it creates will make the good work findable. And this is part of how the new paradigm will work: networking, word-of-mouth, social marketing, author branding (not a reliance on the brand of a publishing house) and platform-building will be what makes a writer successful. The new hot-point of the game will be the ability to be discovered, not distributed.
Writers are not the only artists with a DIY attitude. Ani DiFranco created Righteous Babe Records in order to have full control of her music. She didn’t have the marketing muscle of a big label behind her, so she toured relentlessly and slowly built a large and enduring fan-base. Recently, the comedian Louis CK decided to produce a comedy show without a powerhouse like HBO, instead selling viewings of the show on his website. He never saw any revenue from the cable giant beyond the initial paycheck for a show, in spite of contracted royalties, and decided to see if he could make more money selling it himself. As of December 2011, sales of the show for five bucks a viewing topped one million dollars—in ten days.
Janet Evanovich has been representing herself for years—as agent, publicist and publisher. Barry Eisler recently turned down a half-million dollar contract with St. Martin’s Press to self-publish. This maneuver provides writers the ability to revitalize their backlist, publish on their own timetable and earn much greater profits. While the Big Houses offer writers approximately 17% (and sometimes lower) of the retail price of a book, retailers such as Amazon offer about 35% and self-publishing provides 70%.
The New Paradigm
The traditional road is a long one. In the traditional paradigm, there is one way for writers to be published: send out a myriad of queries to publishers and agents, (wait for myriad of rejections), maybe catch a break, wait and work through several rounds of edits, get a book published two to three years later. Do most of the marketing oneself, deal with the likely possibility of getting lost in the stacks of the bookstores. Earn very small profits. And if a book misses the mark (because of the cover, a publisher-demanded title change, mismanaged publisher marketing), it is a tax write-off for the Big House. But for the writer, it is an entire loss.
The new paradigm is about choice.
Her Circle spoke to indie writers Karen McQuestion and Allison Moon to gain some insight. Moon told us why she decided to self-publish: “I spent a lot of time contemplating my options and ultimately decided that self-publishing was the most appropriate choice for my book—a feminist novel that didn’t fit cleanly into any genre. I wanted to play with the new tools available to independent authors and was very inspired by the DIY spirit that spurred innovation by independent filmmakers, zine-writers and musicians. On a practical level, self-publishing also allowed me to make far more money in royalties and maintain complete control over my work and career vector.”
With self-publishing, writers are in control. They set the price of their product—which data shows makes or breaks the volume sales of eBooks—and get the book in the hands of readers much sooner. With the old paradigm, books needed to “fit” a genre, a marketing model or some other criteria. With the self-publishing control of eBooks, books can break the molds and still be available to the consumer. There are no concerns about physical distribution, whether or not the bookstore will provide shelf space, where it “fits.” And the bookshelves on Amazon and Barnes and Noble are virtual—an unlimited amount of space. They can accommodate a writer’s every title. There is no time limit as to how long titles can be available.
And it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Paper doesn’t have to be an impossibility for the self-published writer with Print On Demand (POD) services. Although distribution will still pose challenges, the possibility of paper is not obsolete. It is likely that as more writers turn to self-publishing, more POD services will emerge and their services will, as a result of demand, become less expensive, allowing writers to earn better profits on paper books. Services like Espresso Book Machine, CreateSpace—Amazon’s division of POD—and Xlibris among others, are already doing this.
Moon talked about distribution with POD: “With some printers, like CreateSpace and Lightning Source, distribution is included. This is a huge plus for indie authors. My book is automatically added to the catalog of the Ingram, which is the largest distributor in the country. This means bookstores can order my book just like they could order a Harper Collins title. Despite being carried in the Ingram network, many bookstores prefer to order my book on consignment. When this is the case, I have to fulfill the orders myself. As far as eBook distribution goes, I think it’s very important to make my book as widely available as possible. I won’t discriminate because someone has a Kobo or Kindle or Nook. I just want folks to be able to read and enjoy my book.”
Room for Innovation
One of the most exciting aspects of self-publishing is the possibility for innovation. The traditionally published writer Jael McHenry recently discussed on Writer UnBoxed some of the ideas for innovative writing digital publishing fuels: “A few months ago, I approached my publisher about releasing a short story in eBook form. Selling printed short stories à la carte doesn’t make much sense, but electronically, there are no boundaries. So why not? I suggested a short story to come out around the holidays, something food-themed, to help span the gap between the hardcover and paperback releases of The Kitchen Daughter. They liked the idea, and added to it—how about we release the story around the same time as the paperback, and include a substantial excerpt of The Kitchen Daughter along with it? Yes. Even better.”
Traditional publishing has held a monopoly on the industry for many years and as a result, not much has changed. But with the new technologies emerging and the new ways people consume and think about media, the entire industry can open up to innovative ideas. Why not serialize a novel, chapter by chapter à la Dickens? Why not sell stories à la carte, as McHenry suggests? Or articles and essays? Or pieces that don’t fit the word-count molds of “story,” “novella” or “novel”?
Companies and websites are emerging to cater to the new indie and eBook trends. Self-Publishing Review provides content to help self-published writers succeed. Their mission “is to legitimize self-publishing—not just as a fallback plan, but as an avenue that’s increasingly necessary and useful in a competitive publishing industry. If the site has a manifesto it is to improve the culture around self-publishing.” Amazon provides forums and other means of managing self-published eBooks. The same goes for LuLu, which also provides marketing services. And this is just a skimming of the companies out there. Open Road Media is a digital publisher that provides multimedia marketing for eBook writers. They utilize social media and produce short videos to promote writers. They also offer writers 50% profits. Although they are traditional in the sense that they offer contracts to writers, their use of technology and their higher profit margins make them an interesting hybrid of the traditional and self-publishing models and a positive harbinger of similar operations to come.
A New Way of Doing BusinessSelf-publishing is exciting, liberating and promising, but, like any other business venture, without a solid, well-thought-out plan a self-published eBook—no matter its literary merit—is less likely to succeed.
Writers will need to have an editorial system in place. Few writers can distance themselves from their work to see it objectively. With the ever-expanding emergence of self-publishing, indie writers can find freelancers to do editing, proofreading, design, layout and any other services required. Moon concurs: “Absolutely. Hiring an editor is a key step that many overeager self-publishers omit to their great detriment. Professional editors encourage professional results.” And indie writers will need to take cues from those who have done it before and put together a wide arcing, solid marketing plan. Indie author Amanda Hocking paid for a professional editor, created book trailers, paid for advertising on sites that made sense (such as Kindle Nation Daily) and did extensive blog tours. As more indie writers earn success, following their lead will become easier—from price-setting, to innovative products, to marketing.
An active social media presence is a must, both McQuestion and Moon agree. McQuestion replied, “I do have a Facebook page and I’m on Twitter, but I wasn’t on either when I first started out. My most effective marketing practices involved not marketing at all. Instead I participated in the message boards on Kindleboards.com and on Amazon as a reader.” Moon commented, “I’m a big believer in transparency and availability. I use Twitter, Facebook & Goodreads to maintain contact with my fans. It’s such fun to read tweets from people who are enjoying my book. It makes my day, every time. I also blog, which is fun but very time-consuming. I enjoy creating projects that people can watch en media res such as my video series 90 Days of Self-Publishing and my Self-Publishing 101 audio-class. Social media needs to have the emphasis on the social aspect, and the best way to do this is engage in a conversation. Offer more than just a download link for your own book. At least 80% of my tweets are sharing interesting articles, telling folks what I’m reading and liking, or communicating with people about new ideas. Only a small portion of my web presence is about shilling my own books.”
In summation, McQuestion says what writers need to succeed with self-publishing is “One word: perseverance. Now that books don’t go out of print, you have forever to write what you want, improve your craft, market your books, try a new genre, and do anything else you want to do. Keep at it, and try not to get bogged down in comparing your sales with those of other authors. That way madness lies. Instead treat each sale and review as a victory, because that means that someone bought and read your book—no small thing in this crazy, busy world of ours.” Moon echoes, “Indie authors require a strong, borderline manic, work-ethic. When you self-publish, you’re essentially an entrepreneur building a business. You’re going to set up an imprint, manage sales info, keep tax records, write press releases, make contacts at bookstores and everything else the big houses pay a staff to do.”
Self-publishing as a Feminist Act?
In some ways, self-publishing follows in the spiritual footsteps of DIY activists of the ages. Think of Women’s Liberation and their pamphlets and posters. Think of the Grrl Zines of the 1990s. And now the emergence of blogs that address Feminist concerns, activism for women and women and the arts.
So what does self-publishing mean for women writers? Time will tell, but I envision more control for women and more subversive and provocative work by women becoming available. As it stands now, more men get published than women and more men get higher recognition for their work. With the control lent by self-publishing soundly in the hands of women, how could this change the paradigm?
I asked Moon if she envisions self-publishing as serving an important role in publishing work that is seen as “other” or not easily categorized: “Self-publishing has always been important to fringe writers. Feminists, LGBT folks, people of color, innovative artists and plenty of other folks deemed ‘unmarketable’ by legacy publishers have been putting their work out using their own methods for decades. Now, though, we have the privilege of affordable, quality tools that can make our books look and feel just as lovely as the mainstream types. As the publishing industry continues to shift, legacy publishers are getting more scared and hewing ever closer to ‘sure things,’ leaving alternative viewpoints in the dust. Self-publishing is a terrific option for people who have a strong point of view and believe in the value of their words in the world.”
Can we think of self-publishing as a principled philosophy? An act of feminism? Moon thinks so. Perhaps it can be both and depending on the execution and the stance of the writer—a definite component of the trend is possibility. Think, self-publisher as pioneer. It could be a means by which women express their words, their lives and a way by which they connect and communicate.
The work of writers now is legitimizing this form. A starting point might be simply to take the risk. Either path—traditional or self-publishing—is a gamble, in a myriad of different ways. Perhaps control is the key. Support would be the next—from other writers, from readers, from media and indie writer services.
Self-publishing is about possibility, innovation, control and the dismantling of boundaries. Merging technology with artistic ambitions could redefine literature and how we experience it. How will the writer and the writing be affected when barriers are removed and the writer is free to write unencumbered, uncompromisingly? It seems that it’s time to find out.