You knew this was going to happen, one way or the next. The essay of self versus traditional publishing.
Mind you, this is for info purposes only. I have people reading this blog who know exactly what I’m talking about, and just as many people who go, “Whaaaa? What does that mean?” This is for both, really.
In the wake of the brouhaha that had trailed the past week with the Book Country stuff, my banker, who is an all-around cool dude, handed over the Wall Street Journal to me, with this article on the front page. This is about Darcie Chan’s journey to become a self-published author – and a best-selling one at that.
And you know what, considering that WSJ’s last article was on Book Country, I like this article. It presents a great example of what happens when you 1. get off the beaten path to find your own way and 2. work hard at it.
Especially with the advance of the Kindle, there is an ongoing debate as far as which method of publishing is better: traditional, via the brick-and-mortar publishing houses, or self-publication. Bear in mind that the majority of publishing houses do e-book publication in any case, but that the e-market is still only 15% of all books sold.
Which is still millions on millions of books.
This is the thing: traditional publishing and self-publishing have very little difference, but for one major factor: instead of the publishing house vetting the work and making sure that it’s market-ready, self-publishing puts every bit of work associated with making a book work is on the author.
You may know, either by virtue of common sense, that a book has its stages in the journey from brain to paper:
The first two stages don’t depend on the method of publication. The third one is a pretty standard step, because it is VERY rare that someone will release a book in any form without going over it first. The fourth one varies.
With traditional publication, you have the following as #4:
Look, if my past series of posts about Book Country and Gayle’s blog in general don’t teach you, then I will say it again, and will accent with a book to the head until it sinks in: do. your. research. You cannot query an agent if they don’t represent your genre. You need to know which publication will print your short story and pay you, versus one who will not pay you a dime and will print only for the sake of it. You need to know the royalty percentages, what’s normal for which publishing house, and you need to know the language used in publishing contracts so that you know exactly where your copyright will be going. You are absolutely required to have the knowledge of the business before you go into it. Otherwise, you’re asking to become the victim of a scam. There are many “agencies” looking to profiteer off authors, just like there are vanity presses posing as legit publishing houses (Publish America being the best example). There are websites such as AbsoluteWrite, Preditors and Editors, Writers Beware, to name a few. Read them egregiously, but also learn and research in your own right so that you know when and if an article by any of those sites is full of it.
You don’t just walk into a publishing house and hand in your manuscript. If only it could be so easy; but then there would be a small mob scene outside of the publishing house headquarters in NYC. You query an agent to take your book. In other words, write a letter that, in one paragraph, sums up why the agent should represent your book and shop it around to publishers. If the agent requires you to send a segment of your book – send in a segment of your book. Make sure everything follows guidelines.
Of course, then you cross your fingers, and repeat the prior until someone says yes. Because you will, without a doubt, get rejected.
But, supposing you get an agent, then you also have to wait to get a contract with a publishing house. Supposing get that, then you have to:
3. Edit, Edit, Edit.
Chances are, the publishing house has an entire editing department. Someone will gut through your book for plot and structure, someone else will gut your story for grammar. You edit, and you edit egregiously. This is in addition to whatever editing that you may have done in Step #3. What you may feel is a sufficient story may not be sufficient for the editing department. Is your plot going into a direction they’re not comfortable with? That may also be the case.
I will now proceed to state an unpleasant truth: a book is chosen by an agent or a publishing house not because of how well it’s written, nor because of the genre. Though both of those play into it, the primary reason for you lucking out and being chosen in tradition publication is invariably because of potential of sales. Because the publishing house will take the bulk of your royalty to cover the production costs, and the agent will take a cut as well, the publication relies on volume to survive. The real question in the publishing house is always “how much money can this book make?” first.
Also keep in mind that there is a lot to be said about copyright. The publishers claim the rights to your work for a certain amount of time, usually numbered in the years. This is what lets them sell on your behalf, and claim a cut of royalty for printing and distribution.
4. Go along
The publishing house already has the marketing plan laid out. You have to now go along with it. This means be interviewed, often. Book tours, which are much more work than what you may think. And if they hadn’t established an online presence for you, then it’s on you to do so.
That stated, there are three main lists in the publishing house. The first one is the infamous slush pile. Manuscripts end up there, get plucked out once in a while, but mostly, they gather dust. Since there are e-submissions now, the easy way to explain it would be File 13. You guys know what I mean. It is RARE that a manuscript gets plucked out of the slush pile to land on the bookshelves.
The second one is the best-seller list. This is self-explanatory. This is a list of books that had sold exceptionally well. This is a list of books that have sold very well. EVERYONE knows who the author is. David Baldacci makes his living on that list, same for James Patterson (though I much prefer Baldacci; he keeps a nice pacing going). They have made their agents and publishing houses very wealthy. This is the list that everyone craves to be on, but few actually make it.
Then there’s the mid-list. Those are the books that you see, usually, in the shelves at Barnes & Noble. They are selling, but not as well as people have expected. They keep the bills paid, but they don’t do anywhere near as well as the best-sellers. The publisher releases them, hoping that they would do well, but when they do not, the lights are turned off. Those books will probably trudge along, but never meet expectations.
The mid-list is enormous for every publisher. If a book isn’t going to sell out quickly within its first printing, or the second and the third, then you can likely expect that they will be mid-listed. And that is normal. Not everyone can write a best-seller, and just because a story has sold well enough to hit the best-seller list doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. Just like a mid-list story or a slush pile story can be absolutely fantastic, but it was not given a long enough chance to reach its audience or, as in the case of the slush pile, not given a chance at all.
Now, this is not a quick process. You are looking at anywhere from 18 to 30 months – yes, months – from you initial acceptance by an agent to seeing your actual book in stores. However, the trade-off is that the legwork of marketing, printing, distribution, etc. is not on your hands.
Self-publication is a double-edged sword. The good side of that sword is that it takes all the wait, the bulk of the royalty going to the publisher, and the gamut of query-rejection-query cycle, and slices it out of the picture. Generally, a self-pub author also keeps all the rights to their work. The bad news is…all the legwork, and I mean all the legwork, is squarely on the author’s shoulders.
This gets hairy in a hurry.
As you may have seen from my earlier posts, there are multiple avenues for self-publication. Some paid, some unpaid. And there is a massive difference between vanity press and self-publication, contrary to whoever says otherwise. The key words are up front. A vanity press takes money up front, and you are also likely to hand over your rights, because there may be a hidden clause in the contract about first publication rights. Legitimate self-publishing options do not take your rights, and the paid services are optional.
However, you have to keep in mind that everything needs to be done by the author. And I mean everything.
I’m sure I’ve blogged about it multiple times before, but editing has to be one of the banes of a self-published author’s existence. It’s necessary for any sort of a publishing medium, but the self-published author does not have a team of editors waiting to gut out the book. Either (s)he hires someone to do so – which is an expense out of pocket not for publication itself, to note – or does it on his/her own. This is a painstaking process as it is, made doubly more difficult by the actor-observer bias, and made even more difficult by the fact that there is no advance from the publisher that could at least ease financial matters for the author. The cover design also needs to be done in-house, and unless the author is also handy with the Adobe Creative Suite, then that’s something else to consider.
The thing is, self-publishers illustrate on a very regular basis that they are able to adapt. They edit, re-edit, and if they need to learn Photoshop in order to create the cover that they want, then they step up and get to work. But they’re doing this work, and yes, even set up to pay expenses before it goes to publication, in order to put out a quality product.
Let me pause right there and, again, refer to my prior entries on Book Country and vanity presses. Vanity presses’ up-front charge is for use of its publishing services. Editing is usually not included on that list of services, and although a vanity press may distribute – may, not for a fact – you cannot get out of ponying up the money. In the case of self-publication, expenses do come up. However, those are optional expenses. The author has the option of doing the work in-house; learn the ins and outs of publication, limit marketing only to online, and otherwise avoid paying money. However, because it’s squarely on the author, expenses do crop up – in leading the product towards the publication process.
The self-pub process itself, though, is easy. No, really, it is. It doesn’t take much effort to click Upload. That is not difficult. The formatting guides for Kindle and Nook, even the style guide for Smashwords, are very easy to follow. And all of those are avenues for major distributors; Smashwords pushes out their books to iTunes Books, Kobo, and Sony E-Reader markets. And they are free.
The costs in print self-publications vary because, again, there are vanity presses, and then there are print-on-demand presses. The difference, again, is money up front. Also, the difference is copyright. I cannot tell you how important it is for an author to read their fine print and find out whether their publication method will involve ownership of copyright for X number of years. I can’t tell you how important it is to do research. And know this: typically, a POD press will not hold your copyright. CreateSpace is a typical example of of a good print-on-demand press: all they do is print and distribute. There is only one cost associated as a byway of publication, and that is the proof. However, if you have a free code – which is given out pretty routinely through NaNoWriMo, ABNA, and other contests – then that cost is eliminated.
You may say, “AHA! There is a cost up front!!!” at this, but let me point out that you are not paying the market price for a book in buying the proof. You’re reimbursing CreateSpace for the raw materials used in producing the proof. Ink, paper – all of that costs money. After approval and publication, CreateSpace will take its cut from the sale for the exact same thing.
Oh, and honestly, $5-10 bucks for a proof as opposed to $100+ up front? Seriously, which one would you rather pay? Again, this is not a fee up front just to use the press. It’s the cost of raw materials that are used in production, at production cost.
The services offered by a print-on-demand press outside of the basic printing and distribution services are, in fact, paid. Again, they are optional. The author doesn’t have to have a gut-through by the editing service for $300. Nor does the author have to use their professional cover design service. There are very nice-looking templates in CreateSpace that allow the author to design a professional-caliber cover and use his or her own images. While the $40 – note the number here – is not required, it does list the book at Barnes & Noble, and the Amazon outlets around the world, whereas basic distribution to Amazon.com is free and included in the CreateSpace service.
The contrast as far as press goes would be iUniverse. They do all the work for you, much like a regular publishing house, however – it costs money. You are paying them for work performed on your behalf. They print your book, unload, distribute, and that is both time spent by their professionals in the one-on-one time that they give the author and raw materials in printing your books. However, their cheapest package is in the $600 range, with the best and all-inclusive going into four figures. Bonus is that you may get your books as hardcover as well as paperback.
Let’s once again go back to one simple fact: while the bulk of self-published work out there is e-sales, e-sales are still, at the most, only 20% of the market. The mass-market paperback is not going anywhere anytime soon. People like the feel of the book in their hands, they appreciate work by previously published authors, or they may go for a particular publishing brand. If there is a good self-pub print, and it develops a following, it will do every bit as well as a trad-pub print, and at a greater benefit to the author.
Okay. I think I’ve rambled enough. Next post on this topic, whenever that would be, is on the stigmas in self-pub, and some myth-busting. Fun stuff!