Saturday, February 23, 2008

Traditional vs. Self-Publishing Thoughts

I'm a member of a yahoo Fantasy Writing Group, and below is one of the responses by one of the group members, Christopher Rivan. He was responding to another post during a discussion of traditional publishing vs self-publishing. You might want to grab a cup of coffee before you sit down to read this... although it's a little long, it's very enlightening and well worth the read! Enjoy!

A publisher is going to accept and print what he thinks he can get someone to buy. You're right about that. What you're missing is what it MEANS.

We've all read, or even written, the dystopian drama about the future society where only the "right" sort of news makes it to press. Basically, that's precisely what publishers today do. If your book doesn't fit into some narrow little mold they think they know about the consumer, then they kick it back to you.

We're all getting the pablum writing that the big publishing houses think we want to read. I'll bet Baen rejected ten books TODAY that would make it on your "read until it falls apart" list. You will NEVER see them. I find that a lot more saddening than personally getting a rejection letter, because I really don't CARE if someone likes or hates my writing. (You pump out 75,000 words a month and you soon stop getting overly attached to your stuff.)

I point out JK Rowling's "paltry" nine rejection letters because I think we can agree that Harry Potter was the most groundbreaking and effective piece of fantasy fiction published in the last decade. Certainly it was a commercial success; Rowling is the first billionaire in HISTORY made purely through book sales.

Yet some dumb-ass editors thought THEY knew better than anyone else. Some utter buffoons sat there on their high horses and rejected her. A few of them even took the time to write scathing letters of rejection to her. I hope they get a paper cut in a really unfortunate location every day for the rest of their damn careers for that. You lose credibility when you complain about not having the time to read all the manuscripts you're sent every day, but then you take an hour and a half to write a letter whose only purpose is to make someone feel bad.

I think you missed my point about Dan Brown and Kevin Anderson. My point was simply this: it irks me to be told by someone that I don't pay the proper attention to details in my query letter, when the same industry allows such colossal blundering from their "established" writers simply because they are established. Writing a bad book is one thing, screwing up major details and releasing press notices that are complete fabrications is something else, something the publishing industry as a whole refuses to accept responsibility for.

They make YOU, the person that spent most of your life working on this piece, jump through hoops, beg, plead, and cry, and when they finally deign to accept your work they pay you PENNIES on the dollar. Why? Two reasons:

1) The publishing industry is NOTORIOUS for being inefficient. Books are destroyed at EVERY bookseller in the THOUSANDS every week. Talk to the employees at the local Barnes and Noble sometimes. At least one day per week they destroy books. What's worse is that on the next shipment there will be another case of the same damn titles!

The publishing industry has massive overhead in storage and copyediting. These things cost money, and like any industry, the publisher passes the costs in two directions: to the reader and two the writer. (When paperbacks were first printed, by the way, they had an estimated lifetime of twenty-three years. Now, with all our advanced technology, new glues, and fibers, that lifetime has been cut to FIVE years. Think about WHY the publisher might want to sell you a book that falls apart in months. Hardcover books published in 1650 are still in libraries, yet my frickin' copy of Terry Pratchett's "The Wintersmith" is already showing cracks in the binding and I got it for CHRISTMAS.)

and 2) It's always been done that way. Some shmucks are so happy to see their name in print that they'll tolerate being paid like they work at McDonalds. I'm not terribly mercenary, BUT, if I write it, then I need to get paid for it. No editor will EVER spend more time working on my writing than I have.

The problems with self-publishing are NOT in the costs; you'll easily make more money per book through a vanity publisher than through the most generous traditional house. The problems lie in DISTRIBUTION and MARKETING. Because you're self-publishing, YOU have to get on the phone and talk to the agents at the commercial buying houses and booksellers. YOU have to talk people into SELLING your book.

Do the math, if you spend six months collecting rejection slips, you still haven't gotten paid-- and no one has read your book. If you self-published and spent the same six months marketing your fiction and just TWO booksellers picked it up, you're going to get a check. Probably not a very large one, but at least you're making SOMETHING besides heartbreak.

Now, I'll freely admit that most of my experience and opinion comes from non-fiction. I had a publisher seek me out for my NF. I was considering a vanity publisher at the time, and had the contract in front of me when I opened the email from the "traditional" publisher.

Let's see. THEY were going to take copyright and distribution rights away from me. They were going to pay me a whopping 7% (NF is about twice what Fiction royalties are.) per book, and they were going to lock me into a contract so even if I hated their guts, the rest of the four-book series had to be published through them until 2012. The book would be released in 18 months at an estimated 1% buyback (meaning I'd lose 1% of my royalties to buybacks.) THEY were going to assume all editing-by-proxy- - meaning that once I sent the book in, any changes they made were up to them, and I had no rights or legal say in the matter. (See Piers Anthony and "But What of Earth?" for an example of editor-by-proxy gone completely berserk.)

Vanity publisher: I paid them $550 for the initial printing of a 420 page book. POD, so no buybacks and no warehousing. The book was released eight weeks after I sent it in.

I market my book myself. I don't even BOTHER talking to booksellers or I could probably triple my royalties, but I don't need to. I sell primarily through my website, which links to the publisher's ordering form. In the first quarter I made $1700 profit after repaying myself the initial $550 outlay. I also make 50% on books sold through them, and 10% on books sold through other retailers. I also retain all copyrights and publication rights. I can call my publisher right now and tell them I've found a better deal somewhere else. That's MY book, and I get to decide what happens with it and where it goes.

If you're willing to do the legwork yourself then self-publishing is the way to go. If you're not, or you can't get your head round the idea, then go the traditional route. There's no shame in it, in fact there's a lot of pride, but you WILL be part of a process that flatly doesn't give a rat's ass about you or your work. There isn't a single person in a major publishing house that would piss on your manuscript if it were on fire. There are thousands piled up at the door. Yours is just one more, and frankly, if they can get out of reading it somehow, then they certainly will.

Brace yourself, I'm going to get political here. Traditional publishing reminds me of the media. A lot of people sit there in front of the boob tube and believe what the idjits on CNN tell them. They ignore spins and specific verbiage designed to get them to think a certain way (Ever wonder why our president is RARELY called anything but "Bush" while Hillary Clinton is ALWAYS referred to by title and her husband is ALWAYS called "Former President?" Why are the terrorists and murderers in Iraq placing IEDs in schoolyards called "insurgents? " Why is it that the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement to the press in 2002 demanding that major media outlets stop linking the words "Muslim" "Islamic" and "Terrorism" together in articles and stories?)

However, if you're willing to do the work yourself, to seek out first or even second source materials, you're connected right now to the largest repository of knowledge and information in mankind's HISTORY. In three minutes I can tell you whether the main headline on Yahoo! news is accurate or inaccurate, just by running some basic search routines and cross checking my sources.

Most people don't do it. They don't take the time to be informed. I don't care whether you're left or right as long as you make the choice for YOURSELF. Most people don't bother, and the media makes it for them.

Which brings me back to the publishing houses. Once you're in, its easy. After you finally scale the wall, the publisher does EVERYTHING for you: marketing, scheduling, printing, release, distribution, promotion, intermedia discussion, etc. You just sit there and collect your (paltry) checks.

You have to do all the work up front. Write the novel, proof the novel, and then submit, submit, submit. It may take years of heartbreak and rejection, but eventually you might break through to the promised land.

How about doing that work over a sustained period of time instead of up front? Put the same amount of effort into promoting a book you self-published that you would put into trying to get some jackass from Laser Media to read it. Work as hard at marketing your writing to the booksellers as you were willing to work to market it to an agent.

I'll bet you make more in the long run.

Christopher Rivan

Here are my thoughts on this:

I agree with Chris that something definitely needs to happen to get traditional publishers to understand that self-publishing is the wave of the future and it't NOT going to go away. I'm in the middle of getting my 3rd book published (it will be live in April) and I've had MANY doubts about my choice to self-publish... but the more I learn about the freedom I have by doing it myself and knowing that the decisions are MINE to make (and not someone else's to make for me), I'm finally happy that I decided to go with self-publishing. It all comes down to you have to believe in yourself, and don't be afraid of criticism because every time you hear something critical about your writing, it's an opportunity to grow.

Happy reading, writing, and self-publishing!


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