Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why do I write?

I've been asked that many times before, and the answer's easy.  Almost too easy.  Because I have to.  I have stories that simply have to be told, have to be written down.  But certain changes and shifts in the publishing industry have me questioning myself in this regard.

Why would I question my need to write, though, no matter what's going on in the industry?  Well, the answer isn't easily definable, but I'll give it a shot.  The short version is that it shifts focus from the writing to the end product, or at least it seems to for me.  It's caused me to look longer and harder at different schools of thought regarding publishing, and how it affects the author.

Which brings me back to why I write.  If it simply needs to be written down, then problem solved.  Done that!  Many times.  I have amassed quite a large amount of written work over the past several decades, and I've seen huge improvements in both style and storytelling ability.  And if it were just that, I'd be content to keep tapping them out on my computer for my own enjoyment.  Just to get them out of my head and into print.

But there's more to it than simply getting them out of my head.  I'd like to see them published.  I'd like others to read them as well.  That's the other side of things, the part of me that wants to sell a million copies and see my name plastered high on the New York Times Bestseller list.  That would be simply incredible!

But truth be told, that's a pretty tall order.  More along the lines of a pipe dream.  It can happen.  Relatively obscure debut authors broke through huge, such as Sara Gruen with Water for Elephants.  The Harry Potter series also turned into quite the empire for J.K. Rowling.  It's been done before and will certainly be done again.  It certainly isn't the norm, which means that reality is probably somewhere in between these two extremes.

So, with the shift to digital, things get a little muddled for an author struggling to break through in today's market.  As it stands, they say there's about a two percent shot at making it the traditional way, and that's pretty much at the 'getting an agent' level.  To get an idea of the odds, Jennifer Jackson, of the Donald Maass Literary Agency keeps up with the odds in her blog with the 'letters from the query wars' posts.  Check them out; they're shockingly educational on how amazingly hard it is to really get a reputable agent.  And those odds are pretty similar throughout the industry, in case you're wondering if it's just her.  Suzie Townsend of FinePrint Literary Management posted her stats for 2010.  According to her colleague Janet Reid, 10 new clients from 5530 queries is 'a lot'.

Which brings us full circle again to self-publishing.  I've been against it from the start.  Vanity or subsidy publishing, that is.  I've even written about it here on the blog.  It's a cop out.  Taking the easy road.  And those who know me know I generally don't take the easy road for, well, anything in life.  I'm a die-hard Seahawks fan for pity's sake.  That ought to tell you something about me taking the hard road.

But there's more to it than that.  Author David Gaughran recently wrote a very interesting piece on his blog on the market's shift toward digital, titled Why Traditional Publishers Will Go The Way Of Travel Agents.  Seriously, who uses travel agents anymore when you can book your own vacation online through any number of sites and tweak your vacation however you'd like to yourself?  I know I don't.  And he thinks the giant industry of publishing is headed that way too?  No one knows for sure, but thing is, he's probably right, and that is a gigantic paradigm shift for everyone involved.

E-book sales are rapidly growing.  According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books outranked all other categories of trade publishing this last February.  E-book sales accounted for $90.3 million for the month, or a 202% increase from their sales a year ago.  And although adult paperback and hardcover still rank number one and number two overall, e-book sales have risen dramatically to date.  Every indication is that digital is the wave of the future, and that future is now.  Every day we see more and more authors, such as fellow author Carolyn Arnold, going this way instead of the traditional route.

Another reason e-books are a good fit for authors is the percentages they earn in relation to traditional royalties.  The industry standard for royalties from a traditional publishing house is 15%.  This normally includes a $5,000.00 to $10,000.00 advance against those royalties the author keeps no matter how many books sell.  That's a tidy sum for an author just starting out, and compared to shelling out his own money to get a book published, being offered ten grand instead seems to be a no-brainer.

But e-books can earn far higher royalty percentages for an author.  After all, there are no huge publishing costs to cover, and in fact, the publisher is completely taken out of the picture.  At a rate of 70% royalties from Amazon, selling a book for less money than via traditional publishing will net the author far more far quicker.  That tidy advance that seemed so tempting a moment ago suddenly pales in comparison, especially when you figure that once that advance sum has been reached (by selling fewer books), you're still earning 70% per book instead of 15%.

However, the one big advantage the publishing industry has over do-it-yourselfers is professionalism.  After all, they're the professionals in the business.  They provide the badly needed editorial process, they handle the book's ISBN and formal copyright issues, the cover, the distribution, marketing, and a lot of other great services which contribute to the book's success.

But much of that can still be done by the author, if he puts enough time, effort and attention to detail into things.  Attention to detail is the bread and butter of the military, and I'm pretty sure that with twenty years of experience with it, I could probably figure out how to do it correctly.  There would be up-front money involved, certainly.  To come up with a professional quality cover, invest in proper editing and layout, and such would certainly cost.  And to a reader, that's usually really all it takes.  When was the last time you bought a book based on who published it?  Did you even notice the publisher?  Or did you look at the cover, the title, the back cover blurb and over all appearance of the book's quality?  My guess is it was the latter.

So if an author can accomplish this without going the traditional route, it stands to reason he'd be about as successful on his own.  Maybe more so, maybe less.  But where do you draw the line with success?  Is it the New York Times Bestseller list or bust?  Or is a modest run of 5,000 to 10,000 books good enough?  A person can cripple their odds of getting picked up by a reputable New York literary agency by churning out a self-published book that sells four hundred copies.  After all, if you don't spend the time and effort, or your work is just so shoddy, that you have to publish it yourself, how is that going to be a selling point to an agent?  It has in fact, the exact opposite effect, and with good reason.

5,000 to 10,000 copies in print, however, is a modest success, and is a credential worth mentioning to an agent the next time around.  At that many copies, you've done better than many folks who went the traditional route and simply didn't sell through their advance.  And you probably have a much better chance of getting picked up than they do, because publishers are leery of giving a second chance to someone who didn't come through the first time.

So it all boils down to doing it right, no matter how that is.  I'm still sending queries out, still trying my hand at the traditional methods, but I can't help but look at the alternatives, especially when they seem to be the immediate future of my industry.  The reasons I write have a lot to do with the methods I chose, and may well influence a change in how I approach things.  Stay tuned, folks, it's going to get pretty interesting!


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    An earlier, longer comment got swallowed by the Blogger gremlins, so let me just say:

    Good post, a balanced and accurate take on the options available to writers.


  2. Thank you Dave. I'll have to say things are really getting tossed up in the air in this industry, and it's going to be an interesting ride. I really enjoy reading your take on things in your blog too, and appreciate your support. It looks like I will probably be referencing your blog from time to time, as you have a lot of interesting information there.