Tuesday, August 6, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book..."Indie" vs. "Traditional" Publishing

"Whoa! I just started! Why should I be worrying about whether I should indie publish or submit my baby to New York publishers?"

Because it's going to influence how you write your book. Not necessarily if you're writing a novel; you're going to have to finish the manuscript anyway before submitting your sample pages (if you choose to submit at all--more on that in a minute).

It is important for those who want to write non-fiction, so I might as well put this chapter in right here before you go ahead and do something like "write the entire book."

The publishing landscape has changed drastically over the last four years. When a lot of folks think of "publishing," they think of a process that goes something like this:

Traditional (or "Trade") Publishing

1) Write Special Book

2) Submit Special Book to Agent

3) Collect Rejections--polish up manuscript

4) Submit Special Book to Agents Again--Yes! Accepted! How lucky!

5) Engage in a partnership with Agent that leads to "nurturing," whatever the heck that means.

6) Agent shops Special Book to Publishers. Some Publisher is blown away by Special Book and buys it on the spot for a hefty advance.

7) Publisher continues to "nurture" author along with agent. Publisher puts magic editing elves to work on polishing manuscript until it shines.

8) Publisher arranges for huge publicity tour, and gets shelf space for Special Book in Big Important Bookstore, a nationwide chain.

9) Go on a glamorous book tour filled with lavish parties and erudite "literary types," all paid for by Publisher.

10) Sell millions of copies, and watch the royalty checks roll in.

There are too many myths in the above process to count. For starters, check out Dean Wesley Smith's excellent "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" series of posts. That series has had more of an impact on my life than any other piece of writing outside of perhaps the United States Constitution.

Here are a few:

-Agents are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Some are good; Hugh Howey's folks seem to do well by him as far as paper rights go. But too many agents are looking to make a quick buck off of naive writers by offering publishing "services" in exchange of a percentage of a book's proceeds in perpetuity! Yes, that's right--FOREVER!

-Unsurprisingly, publishers have largely eschewed the traditional, inefficient "slush pile" in favor of cutting deals with writers who have already proven that they can write books that sell, either through other traditionally-published books, or through indie publishing. Publishers increasingly view unpublished books like venture capitalists view potential acquisitions: if you don't have proven sales, you better have one hell of a manuscript.

-Advances from traditional publishers on first books continue to shrink--figures put them right around $5,000, which sounds cool until you realize that an advance is basically a loan against earnings, and that has to sustain a writer until the next book comes out.

-Publishers may or may not throw some ad dollars your way. As a first-time writer, it's more likely than not that they won't. Again, there are exceptions, but many now full-time writers (like Barry Eisler and Joe Knorath) had to arrange their own bookstore tours and pay for them out of pocket.

-Many of the services publishers offer (editing, formatting, covers) can now either be done by authors themselves, or subcontracted out for a one-time fee.

-Royalties for indie-pubbed authors are much better than for trade-published authors: if you price your ebook between $2.99 and $9.99, you get 65-70% of the price as an indie author. Traditionally-published authors usually sit at 17.5-25%, and can go lower than that depending on the terms of their contract, not to mention that trade published writers have to "earn out" their advance before they see a dime.

-Indie authors have books in bookstores now, too! Createspace and Lightning Source now offer discount plans good enough to entice many bookstores to offer indie books. You still may have to buy that prime placement, but it's unlikely a publisher would do so for a first book unless Special Book really is that special

-If your book is accepted by a traditional publisher, it can take up to two years for it to hit store shelves. Why? The old answer used to be "that's how long it takes to have it edited, get the cover made, etc." Of course, indie authors have blown that one right out of the water; JWATT took five months, from first word written to release with cover. Same with Hack, though I released the first part in like three months. Rogue took something like two months. This is with careful editing, cover design, and formatting these books to look professional; depending on how much you farm out, it could take less than that.

Don't get me wrong; a good number of folks have nothing but great things to say about their agents and traditional publishers.

-Most importantly, there are a lot of reports out there of onerous non-compete clauses inserted into trade pub contracts that ask for rights to the work in perpetuity, try to gobble up potentially lucrative film and audio rights, and contain non-compete clauses, which can limit whether you can indie publish at all.

Again, it's likely that not all publishers are engaging in these types of practices. However, there are enough horror stories in the comments of sites like The Passive Voice and Kris Rusch's excellent The Business Rusch series that raise my eyebrow and suspicion.

The Benefits of Trade Publishing

All of that said, there are still some valid reasons to go with a traditional publishing house. Many folks want the feeling of having "made it," by having their manuscript accepted by a professional publisher before publication.

Publishers will take care of a lot of the tougher aspects of getting your work out there: cover design, editing, distribution, sometimes even some marketing. Though publishers do have a bunch of good people doing these jobs, keep in mind that you might get some folks on your project that won't be right for it for whatever reason, though. They might consult you on the cover design.
A lot of writers find the idea of outsourcing all of this very appealing, but increasingly publishers still want their authors to build a social media "platform" and engage in marketing their own stuff. The big publishers will help you, but perhaps in ways that are different than you might think.

In exchange for these services, publishers take a much larger cut of your profits. You have to do the math; are you so unknown that you can't sell a copy of a book yourself without outside help (hey, it happens)? Do you not want to take the time to vet good cover artists and editors yourself? Will you actually use that extra time to write more, which is the best marketing strategy out there? Will you sift through the data on Hunt to Read to make your book all it can be?

These are big questions that you have to ask yourself before deciding if you want to submit to trade publishers, or if you want to go indie.

Indie Publishing

I suppose a lot of folks now expect me to sing indie publishing's praises, "Oh, thank God for indie publishing! My salvation!"

Though I do enjoy indie publishing, it's certainly not for everyone, either. Indie publishing is hard work--they call it "publishing" for a reason. You are in charge of everything, from cover to interior to price to formatting to marketing. Even though I've streamlined a lot of those functions over my six releases (hence why I can write this series now), it was a steep learning curve to get where I'm at as far as a level of comfort with the whole process.

Here are some very real things you have to deal with in indie publishing:

-You have to do your homework before you release anything. The following sites and resources should be absolutely mandatory for any aspiring indie writer:

Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler's ebook Be the Monkey, available for free from Barry's site.

Joe Konrath's "The Newbie's Guide to Publishing"

Dean Wesley Smith's Site, especially his "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" Series

His wife, Kris Rusch's "The Business Rusch" Series

Also make a habit of going to The Passive Voice daily and reading up on all of the developments in the industry.

-Because you'll be doing so much research, you'll be exposed to a lot of strong opinions on both sides of the indie vs. trade debate. Stick to your guns, take in the arguments of both sides, and go with your gut. Though indie writers are quick to help one of their own, some folks get a little carried away when defending indie publishing. Likewise, there are some trade-pubbed folks with their head in the sand as far as the direction that publishing is taking. It's all about balance. And if you ever need a more moderate opinion, I'm always happy to help (djgelner@hunttoread.com).

-There are a lot of predatory self-proclaimed "indie publishers" out there who would like nothing more than to take a percentage of your profits in perpetuity in exchange for stuff that you could easily do yourself. And don't get me started on the outright vanity publishers like Publish America; if anyone wants you to give them money to publish your work, run away as fast as you can, no matter how "good" of a deal they make it sound.

-You're going to be thrown out of your comfort zone. Believe it or not, I'm not a great marketer. Never have been. I'm trying to learn on the fly now, but it's a steeper curve than writing, editing, etc., which I've been doing my entire adult life (and then some). Be ready to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations.

-The big one: your book might not sell. There are a bunch of people who release a book and then wait...and wait...and wait for it to sell a single copy. Some folks write one book and never sell a single copy!

How do you avoid this? Two pieces of advice:

1) Keep writing. The more stuff you have out there, the easier it is for someone to find you, and, by extension, your entire catalogue. Not to mention that your writing will get stronger with each new story.

2) Make sure that your final product is the best it can be. Order that paperback proof and go through it line by line before releasing the ebook version (you'll learn all about that in good time). Does your cover look professional? Put it up on Hunt to Read for honest, feedback. Polish, polish, polish until you can't tell the difference between your book and a traditional publisher's.

We're getting off on a tangent here, so maybe we should go to...

The Benefits of Indie Publishing

-The royalties. 65%-70% on ebooks is very tough for traditional publishers to match. You might sell fewer copies (then again, you might sell more), but that's okay because you keep a larger percentage of each sale, even if you price your books at $2.99-3.99.

-The freedom. No editor (unless you hire one) looking over your shoulder, telling you what you have to write. Always wanted to write that cat sleuth mystery about the debonair tabby who thwarts the evil Nazi Siamese's plan for world domination? No one's stopping you! It might not sell, but no one's stopping you from writing it.

-The challenge. For long stretches of my adult life, I've been utterly bored with what I've done for work. Indie publishing is anything but boring--there's always something that needs to be done.

-You write, and get paid for it. Sales might be a bit slow at first, but down the road they'll start to build and build. It might take a while to get to "quit your day job " territory (unless you save up a bunch of money ahead of time), but that slow build tells you that you're making progress.

-The feeling of holding a finished paperback in your hand and being able to say "I made this." From the cover tot the formatting to the text inside, I made this book. And what's even crazier, some folks find it valuable enough to buy. And some even like it enough to leave positive reviews! The madness!

"Why Do I Have to Decide Now?"

You don't...unless you're writing a non-fiction book. Non-fiction bestsellers still often follow the Agent-Publisher-Book Deal model. If you want to go traditional with your non-fiction book, here's what you do:

1) Write your outline.

2) Write a book proposal. Agent Rachelle Gardner has outlines for both fiction and non-fiction proposals here. For your purposes, if you're a fiction writer, ignore this for now.

3) Find some non-fiction agents. Writer's Digest has a blog detailing agents and what they're looking for, but there's no guarantee of quality among any of them. Like with publishers, be weary of an Agent who asks for money upfront, and be cautious if they want to handle the cover, formatting, editing of your book in exchange for a percentage of your book's revenue. Poets and Writers has another list. So does 1000LiteraryAgents.com.

Again, though, be sure to try to research these folks you pick online. See who else they've worked with, what they've put out, and how successful the books they've repped have been. The last thing you want to do is get involved with a less-than-savory agent.

4) Submit to the agent per his or her guidelines.

5) Wait for responses.

Again, I personally wouldn't go this route; to me, it seems a lot easier to build an expertise in an area, build a "platform" around that, and put out a (professional-looking) indie book on the topic and keep higher royalties without trade publishing sticking its hand into my pocket, but that's just me.

And like I said, if you're writing fiction, research and keep this in the back of your mind, but you need to have a complete manuscript to submit anyway. Work on that before worrying about any of this nonsense.

The Bottom Line

This is a long post, but with good reason; you should think about publishing like you would any other business venture. For years, I thought (and it was true that) traditional publishing was the only way to go, the only game in town.

But after putting in the hours of research, after reading countless posts and books about the industry, after taking a step back and viewing both sides as business ventures, as tough as indie publishing can be at times, it's still by far the best decision for me...

....right now. And that's the final point: right now, it seems pretty clear to me that indie publishing is the way to go. Traditional publishing may start offering better contract terms or services to their writers; if they do, I'm constantly re-examining my situation.

It's important to keep an open mind because at the end of the day, this is a business decision, and one that should not be entered into lightly. Before you sign a contract with anyone, get an IP lawyer to take a look at it and ask them to advise you as to whether or not you should take the deal. If trade publishing significantly improves its offer to young writers like myself, by all means, I'll be the first one singing their praises to the heavens.

And trade publishers are doing just fine by successful indies who use them for paper distribution, such as Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking. People in trade aren't "evil" across the board, as some paint them. They're just trying to run their business the way that they know how.  Indies are trying to run their businesses however works.

So for now, indie publishing was right for me. Don't let that kill your dream of publishing Special Book with a big publisher. Just go into the decision to do so with open eyes, and keep an open mind going forward.
And as always, Happy Hunting!

D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

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