Thursday, May 26, 2011

Playing the Devil's Advocate

I just wrote a post contemplating the benefits of self-publishing e-books against sticking with the more traditional methods of finding an agent, getting a contract with a publishing company and eventually seeing the book in print.  I'm still considering it, but I'm not entirely sold either, and the reason is that doing things the traditional way does have its advantages.  Big advantages.

First, as author and former agent Nathan Bransford writes, traditional publishers bring a lot to the table that the author simply can't do himself.  They provide editing and copyediting, and both are invaluable to a writer.  One of the quickest things that will turn me off a book, especially one written by an unknown author is a slew of typos, bad writing, and poor editing.  You don't want that as a new author.  You need every advantage you can to sell your books.  Well established authors will sell millions of copies just based on the fact they are who they are.  Stephen King sells books based on name recognition alone.  Jonathan Dalar, with the possible exception of a handful of friends and family, does not.

Another thing publishers provide is professional design, printing, and packaging.  They make the book look pretty - prettier than I'd be able to do as an author, or at least without spending the family fortune, however much that may be.  They have these services in house, as part of their standard package of doing business.  It's all part of the process, not something I'd have to figure out on my own and hope I got it at least semi-right.

Publicity is yet another area that publishers are well versed in.  They use their own already well established vehicles of marketing to push your book.  They help set up the tours and reviews and all the other work necessary to get your book out there, stuff that usually resides well below the radar to the average reader.  They're the ones who buy space on that highly visible rack right inside the door of the bookstore that you see when you walk in.  They're who determines which books get put on the end caps of the shelves, at visible eye-level locations, or stuffed spine out along with the rest of the books.

And speaking of those bookstores, the publisher is the one who gets your book into the stores.  Most bookstores, and virtually all the larger ones, will not even consider stocking a self-published book, no matter how well it's doing.  The publishing companies have a long, well established track record with them, the bookstores know they're going to get good titles when they buy their books, and there is far less to gamble on doing business with them than with an unproven author on his own.  The previously unpublished author who's going it himself can't begin to compete with a similar author who's backed by Simon & Schuster or the Penguin Group.

This doesn't even cover the advance.  As I said in my previous post, you can earn a lot more of a percentage with royalties doing it yourself.  And selling enough books, you can earn above and beyond that advance by a lot more than with the 15% traditional methods offer.  But that's the catch.  You've got to sell those books.  And $10,000 advance from the publisher is money you don't have to give back, no matter if you only sell a handful of books.  That's pretty damn enticing.

As I've said, self-publishers can break into the market in a big way, as evidenced by Amanda Hocking and others.  It's an incredible long shot though, and it still took a lot of hard work and a ton of luck.  To sell a lot of novels, you have to have several things going for you.  You have to have a lot of exposure to people likely to buy your books.  You have to create a large, growing audience of dedicated readers - people who will go out and buy your next book just because your name is on the front cover.  You have to be not only a great writer, but a great marketer as well.

There has been some very interesting news along these lines recently.  The poster child for indie publishing, Amanda Hocking herself, just signed with St. Martin's Press.  That's right, she's switching to traditional publishing when she had already made a solid name for herself (and a lot of money) by publishing on her own.  And doing almost the exact opposite, author Barry Eisler, who has been quite successful publishing the traditional ways, tuns down a $500,000 advance to self-publish.  Yes.  A five followed by five zeros.  What to make of this?  Which one is right?  As David Gaughran explains better than I could, each appears to be making the right decision for themselves.  For more on this subject, author Tracy Marchini weighs in, guest blogging for Nathan Bransford.

But where does that leave me?  What's the best option for me?  Sadly, I have no $500,000 advance to turn down and try my hand at self-publishing.  I also don't have the massive success in the indie market to garner such attention from the large publishing houses.  I'm starting from the bottom here, and it's a long, tough road.  In spite of the odds, traditional publishing may indeed be the best way to go.  They just have so much to offer, it's hard to overlook it all.  We'll see.

The fact of the matter is that times, they are a-changin', and nobody knows exactly how.  No matter what the future holds, it's important for us authors to get in on the change because it's our future too.  Like my old granddad said, "I dunno where we're goin', but there's no sense bein' late!"


  1. Publishers do everything you mentioned, and they do it without your having to invest any of your own money. Covers, professional editing, copyediting, marketing, distribution, publicity...all these cost money if you must hire professionals, and they cost a lot of time if you can do it yourself. That's time you could be spending working on your next book.

    Traditional publishing still seems like the smartest move to me, but who knows how the playing field may change in coming years.

  2. Truthfully, I'm still trying to do things the traditional way myself. There's simply too much to be offered a new author.

    But there's no doubt that the world of publishing will look very different ten or twenty years from now.