I’ve been reading a lot of advice on getting published lately. Yes, I’m at that stage. The latest draft of my novel is with the mentor I was assigned by Humber School of Arts, and if he thinks it’s ready, then the process of querying agents will begin. As long as he gets around to reading it.
So I’ve been preparing by educating myself about the process of turning a bloated .doc file into a finished book. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject. I’ve scoured blogs and websites. I’ve subscribed to Publishers Marketplace. I’ve spent a small fortune.
A lot of people, mostly non-publishing types, have asked me why I don’t just go ahead and publish the book myself. Why wait at the bottom of the food chain for a ‘mentor’ to give me permission to approach an agent, who (if they like the book enough) will then approach a few editors at the ‘right’ publishing houses and hope they will champion the project for me and persuade all the other gatekeepers – the sales and marketing folks at the publishers – to take the book on? That’s a hell of a lot of people to persuade. It’s also a hell of an eco-system to fund. The publisher gets to keep (depending on sales volume) anything from 85-90% of the cover price of the book, and the author – the guy at the bottom of the food chain, gets to keep 85% of the 10-15% that’s left.
Why not take the easy way out? Why not pay the $1000 or so it takes to get the book e-formatted, put it up on Amazon and take 35% to 70% of the revenue from sales? There are writers who claim to be very successful doing just that. In a recent blog, e-publishing phenomenon John Locke claimed he has sold (as of March 8, 2011) 350,000 books on Amazon this year. In case you’re wondering, that’s a lot.
It’s a fair question, and one deserving of some thought. After all, in my reading on going the traditional publishing route I’ve been advised to:
• Pay to get the book professionally line edited before submitting it, because publishers can often no longer afford to do this
• Pay for my own cover art to get a cover I’m really happy with
• Hire my own PR firm, because the promotional budget attached to any given book is miniscule and likely to achieve little or nothing
• Build myself a solid ‘platform’ (i.e. a market) – to make my book more appealing to agents and publishers
• Organize and pay for my own book tours, as debut authors can’t expect publishers to support tours
• Develop my own social media and online strategy
Looking at this list, anybody is bound to wonder. If I’m paying for all the editorial functions to get the book ready for publication and designing the sales and marketing strategy, and paying for my own PR, AND building my own audience for my 8.5%, what’s the publisher doing for its 90%?
Right now, one answer would be distribution. They have the infrastructure to deliver the finished article to brick and mortar stores all around the world. That’s clearly not going to be enough, going forward. Last week Publishers Weekly reported ebook sales of $69.9 million in January (up 116% year on year). Sales of mass market paperbacks for the same period were $39 million (down 31% year on year).
Don’t get me wrong. This is not meant as a diatribe against publishers. They’ve watched their margins get squeezed progressively during the past several decades, and have trimmed and trimmed. They stopped trimming the fat a long time ago – it’s been all muscle for years. Consolidation was supposed to help them achieve economies of scale, but the discounting has always seemed to outpace their ability to achieve cost savings. And they do assume most of the risk in the value chain. For every massive best seller there are a slew of books which fail to earn out (i.e. earn enough to repay the author’s advance). I get it.
However, I have to say that if I was writing solely for money, I’d probably go the self-published ebook route.
So why am I choosing the more difficult, time-consuming and potentially costly traditional publishing route?
Precisely because it is more difficult. And it’s not because I’m contrary, or addicted to pain. It’s because writing is supposed to be art, and art is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to require work, effort, and sometimes pain.
Self-publishing is still tainted with the stench of vanity publishing. Things are changing. Self-published book award schemes are cropping up, some of them from highly credible organisations (Writer’s Digest’s contest springs to mind – a competition which is now in its 19th year). However, when a self-published author like Lisa Genova (Still Alice was a self published after she failed to generate enough interest in the book from agents and publishers) gets the chance of a publishing deal, they still jump at it. Why?
Everybody believes they can write. How hard can it be? All you need is a dictionary and the ability to assemble the words in it together in the right order. A pen and a piece of paper. Or a computer. And maybe everybody can write, after a fashion. But can they raise their writing to the level of art? Can they build atmosphere, evoke emotions, and sustain those through 200 or more pages of a novel? Can they create a world and make readers believe in it?
Publishers, and to a certain extent the agents that serve them (apologies to agents – I know you serve your writers primarily) are our de facto arbiters of talent. Do they make mistakes? Of course. We love to hear about the number of publishers who rejected masterpieces like Animal Farm, or massive hits like the Harry Potter series. We love it when we’re told that 40 or more agents turned down Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (wouldn’t we love to have their names?). These stories just reinforce the point: persuading this tiny cadre of insiders is hard. It’s not enough simply to be good. You have to be world class.
Publishers, simply by virtue of putting a book out there, stamp it with their hallmark. The hallmark says this is a real book by a real writer – it has managed to overcome every difficulty and trial we’ve put in its way. It passes the test.
Which is not going to keep my (or anyone else’s) book out of the remainders bin, but that’s another story.
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Life is an adventure, but publishing is a GIANT adventure. I'm obsessed with books and stories, and my obsessions spill out here, from time to time.