Over at the SFFWorld.com forums, an author looking at different ways of proceeding in fiction book publishing asked for information regarding a number of basic questions about book publishing. You can check out that discussion thread here, and the conversation is not necessarily done as I’m sure more questions may come up, but I am also going to reprint my responses to various questions here. While many may find the info basic, it ended up being a decent foundational outline of things authors have to understand and consider in business decisions in fiction publishing. And so it may be of some interest to writers navigating the waters or those simply curious about how the odd industry of fiction publishing operates. Part 1 below:
Tag Archives: self-publishing
And here’s the last bit of my thoughts on the SFFWorld discussion on factors regarding self-publishing and partner publishing with a publisher:
But that’s what you will run into sometimes marketing a book to publishers, asking them to invest in you — the people who hear about it or read it will have different reactions and different readings of the market. These readings, as I said, are not based on market research. It’s pretty much anecdotal and sometimes quite inaccurate. I knew a writer once who was a producer in British t.v. She had a woman’s fiction novel about a middle-aged woman dealing with a life crisis, with some humor. Perfect for the audience that was reading Joanna Trollope and Maeve Binchy type stories into bestsellerdom. She ran into a couple of agents who liked her writing but announced that it must be considered “chick-lit” — female driven comedies (it wasn’t; it was a drama mostly,) and that chick lit was dead and over in the British market. Then she found another agent and an editor who loved it and gave her a two book deal. And chick lit in Britain expanded over the next five years, produced numerous bestsellers and wasn’t dead. But the two agents who thought it chick lit and chick lit dead were high powered and probably didn’t enjoy female comedies and were dealing with whining from editors who were tired of female contemporary fiction submissions. They tried to predict the market and guessed wrong. But the other agent and the editor had a different take.
If you are very interested in partner publishing, finding an investor partner takes time and will not be a united front. You have to go beyond two or three editors or agents. But if you decide that you’re willing to make attempts on your own and that this will suit you better than trying to find people to back it, then self-pub is a solid option. But partner publishing is really not drying up. They are putting out more books than before. But with the economy uneven and repeated recessions in Europe, acquisitions (getting them to invest in you,) is still tough in many areas. But two no’s don’t mean it’s all no’s or that the no’s really know what’s going to happen in the market and with your work. Every editor and agent, no matter how high, has at least one if not several cases of a book that they turned down and let go which ended up being a success for some other agent and/or publisher. If you get them drunk enough in the bar at a convention, they’ll tell you the stories. There have even been a few books published through the decades that are collections of rejection letters received by bestselling and acclaimed authors. If you are going to try partner publishing, you’re going to get rejected. It’s a given. And if you try self-pubbing, you are going to get rejected by readers and people will write nasty reviews. If you get successful, the percentage of people who hate your work will expand accordingly. But if you get a partner publisher who goes for your stuff and the book does well, or you self-pub and you find an audience and the book does well, it doesn’t matter. It was just part of the process.
A good part of your “success” depends on your writing, but not all of it. The part that depends on your writing depends on your work connecting with people, entertaining them and interesting them, which is again, not a school assignment. It’s not about whether your writing is “good” to some imaginary objective standard, nor whether it is “commercial” to some imaginary objective standard. And that you are writing something “popular” or “not popular” has very little to do with your success. For every “teen vampire romance” that you think you see doing well, hundreds more didn’t do well at all and thousands more were never picked up by publishers or self-published. For every teen vampire romance, there are thousands of YA novels that are not teen vampire romance. Writing a teen vampire romance or not writing a teen vampire romance gets you nothing either way. Being cheery and good with social media is certainly nice, but you can do that and still not get sales and word of mouth. The writers you see who seem to be good with social media? That was a trait about them noticed by others once they had large sales, which then gave them more of a reputation on the Net, not the other way around. You can certainly get some folk willing to give your novel a go if they are familiar with you, but you can’t make them like it and talk about it and you can’t get a guarantee. If your publisher does a large campaign to back you up, it may be enormously helpful. Or it may not sell well enough. If your publisher ignores you or you do self-pub and can’t do much, your book may still take off. When other people’s books do well, it helps you have more of a chance to find an audience for your work. When other books do badly, it doesn’t really effect your book. (It does in non-fiction, but not fiction.) You do not compete with other fiction authors directly. Stuff happens in your life. Economies change and effect market factors. So one writer’s path is not like another’s and nobody knows what will happen for sure with any book, any author at any time. Predictions you get are guesses. They may be guesses with decent information and experience behind them, but still just guesses.
You do not know what will happen to you unless you go out there and see. And you don’t have to be a bestseller to have a career in fiction writing. How much you try, what you do, what’s your limit is all personal to you. My suggestions are don’t assume that you know who the audience is and what they want. Don’t assume that they will hate you either. Work out what will work for you and what you want to try to do. The rest is in the wind, pretty much.
Hopefully all that is not too disjointed. You can check out the full thread (link above) where a number of people made some good points and talked about their experiences.
Here are more of my posts from that SFFWorld discussion on some of the factors involved in considering self-publishing and partner publishing with a publisher:
It’s definitely easier if you have a following, because most things are. If you have a following of people who like your stuff, you don’t just have a following who buys, you have an army of word-of-mouth activists. It’s an army that you can’t control at all, but it is an army that is the number one sales factor for all fiction works. And if those they speak to buy you, like you and join the army, there is a rapid amplification effect. (This is why Sullivan and others recommend putting out a lot of titles close together in self-pub, if you can, because it can potentially increase that amplification effect.)
But Sullivan, Howey, Hocking, and many others gained their sales status without a following starting out. It is possible to do, but it’s harder and it’s more work and still depends on luck. You have to be more organized for self-pub, because you are doing more jobs. You have to, as imaster pointed out with music too, strategize a lot of marketing on a slim budget. Fiction readers again are marketing resistant. No matter how much marketing and publicity you do, you cannot make them spread word of mouth, your main engine. They will judge your work, not you. But, if you can effectively market through channels, then your books are more visible in more places, which increases the chances that someone will notice them and try them, then maybe become part of your army. It takes effort and time to do that, whether working with a publisher or self-pub. It usually starts slow, then builds if you are lucky. An advantage of self-pub is that you are in total control of your publicity and marketing efforts. If you want to limit how much you do and how much you spend and go for a smaller audience, you can do that, and the small audience may still turn into a bigger one through word of mouth.
An advantage of partner publishing is that they already have access to lots of marketing channels to make your name visible and they can do much more than you can alone potentially. But a self-pub author can get access to a lot of channels, because fiction publishing is very democratic. Another advantage of self-pub is that you have a lot more time to try to build the audience. Fiction publishers actually do take large amounts of time to let fiction titles build audiences — more than probably any other product on the market. But economic issues do come into play. When times aren’t good, booksellers won’t keep titles in stock long and publishers acquire fewer titles and spend less time letting new authors build audiences and mid-listers lift themselves to the next sales level. (This was why the collapse shrinkage of the North American wholesale market in the 1990’s was so devastating to fiction. Paperback fiction in grocery stores, drugstores, newsstands, airports, etc. made fiction very visible, which attracted lots of buyers. Before the collapse, many authors could sell nice chunks of books without doing much or in some areas any touring and promoting. Bookstores were less important. Before the collapse, bestsellers sold paperbacks in the millions through wholesale. E-books has restored some of that lost paperback market, but it still greatly effects the fiction market, because books are simply not as visible now and so fewer people buy them. That visibility could be improved with more ads, but unfortunately, fiction readers seldom respond much to ads unless the author is already a bestseller with name recognition. So authors need more time to build the audiences they used to have with print wholesale, but don’t always get it, even with e-books.) But with electronic self-pub, you can keep the books on sale for years (and sometimes it takes years to get that audience,) and with print self-pub, you can keep the books in your garage and sell them at book festivals, etc. for years.
The good thing about fiction publishing is that a lot of the time, you can make mistakes and then still correct them. And fiction readers don’t care who you are or who you know, so it is still the most democratic of the arts. So you have to estimate your budget, potential costs, time availability, income and career needs, creative promotional abilities, the considerations of the particular products, the economic climate, etc., like any business. And then there’s the big old luck factor. But remember, fiction publishing is counter-intuitive to other businesses, democratic, marketing resistant, runs on word of mouth and visibility and operates through author symbiosis, reader browsing and market variety of titles offered. The people who work in fiction publishing are business people, but they also love books. They will mess up potentially, they are not your friends necessarily but neither are they horrible enemies intent on screwing you most of the time. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t audit them as necessary.) Screwing you is not their goal as you are the source for the product and each author again is a microbrand, not interchangeable with other authors and if successful, capable of helping and funding many other fiction authors through symbiosis. But you have to approach any partnership with them as a business, and you have to make terms as much to your advantage in giving them a license as possible. (That’s where literary agents come in. Though you also have to watch your business relationship with agents because it’s a business.)
Remember also that fiction publishing (and pretty much all of trade retail publishing) does virtually no market research whatsoever.
They can’t afford it, it doesn’t help them much, especially in fiction, and what info they do have tends to come from big booksellers who do some market research but haphazardly and often doesn’t share it beyond basic sales category information. All the things you hear from editors, agents, booksellers, etc. about what the market is going to do, what is hot or going to be hot, etc., is these people guessing combined with personal and company preferences that vary. Granted, they often have a wider view of what’s going on than you do, but fiction is very unpredictable and again, marketing resistant. They have a good general idea what titles might sell in numbers, but again, each title and author is a microbrand that could blow up or fail, sometimes for no clear reasons. This again means that self-pubbing can be potentially just as effective, though it has a harder time getting visibility, name recognition and can be a lot more costly for authors beyond small scale. For self-pub or partner publishing, sales are always, always, did I mention always, a pyramid. Small group at the top sell a lot, with the very tip of the pyramid being the phenoms who sell way beyond anyone else. Larger middle list with middle sales. Really big base of titles at the bottom with small amounts of sales. This pyramid structure never, ever changes, though the amounts for each tier of the pyramid may. (The amounts are smaller now per title then they used to be when we had the wholesale market, but there are more titles selling greater amounts of books more internationally than there used to be.) You may be able to climb the pyramid. You may personally not be that interested in climbing that high on the pyramid. Luck plays a very big, unpredictable role in getting up the pyramid. Luck and a story that people hear about and see in passing, and then like and spread word of mouth. If you do well, your following will give you most of your money on your backlist — your frontlist title will be visible and have good word of mouth and then people will go from that and buy the series, your backlist, in greater waves. This is why SFF is full of series, plus authors like doing them.
So no easy answers, no marketing formulas, no silver bullets and magic keys. But the people you will meet either way you go? They love books. Be kind to them even when your tastes and theirs do not match and you think they like drek. Be open, not demanding. Be creative but to your own beat and your own decisions. Find what works for your life (but hopefully what works will include you getting to do lots of writing.)
Aaahhhhh! Spider Invasion! (I’m thinking that’ s the next big thing after zombies.) While I am blowing away the cobwebs yet again from my poor blog, here are some posts I did in a discussion at SFFWorld about the factors involved in partner publishing with a publisher, large or small, and self-publishing. I’m essentially giving a basic grounding on the two types. There’s a fair amount to it, so I’m doing it in several posts here:
Eighty percent of the fiction market is still print and publishers have the best distribution to reach that market, as well as use the two markets, e and print together. However, not every title on their list will receive maximum distribution. There are many medium and smaller publishers that operate very successfully but have a different set of factors than larger publishers. The print market has a consignment sales set-up that creates a lot of problems but also makes it much easier for publishers to advance you money against estimated royalties and if the publisher guess wrong, you keep the advance. You also may not need the print market to sell a decent number of books. A good sales rate relies on many factors and circumstances, including luck, whether it’s publisher or self-pub. Publisher offerings still have an easier time getting reviews and media coverage that may then help people find the book and spread word of mouth. Larger publishers are also in a better position to pay for display promotions in bookstores, online bookstores and electronic vendors, and while the bulk of such promotion is reserved for bestsellers for whom it will be most effective, publishers also take flyers on debuts they think will do well and can do a lot more of that sort of thing on the Internet more cheaply. An author who is self-pubbing can also take advantage of a lot of free Internet marketing and display promotions (Amazon, for instance, will give self-pubbed authors free promotion — the sort they would charge publishers for — if the self-pub authors are selling well, because it helps them sell other products like the Kindle itself.) But more extensive promotions cost money. Whether you work with a publisher or self-pub, the bulk of publicity efforts will be on you the author. This has always been the case. Again, many things you can do on the Internet (giveaways, podcasts, etc.) and in real life (bookstore readings, local media and radio interviews,) are free, though they require time and effort and sometimes costs — travel, production equipment, postage.
If you work with a publisher, you have to co-ordinate your publicity efforts with a publisher. If you sell large enough, a publisher may tour you and pay for most of it, but tours are less extensive in the last two decades for fiction authors, even for bestsellers. In-industry promotion — advance reading copies for reviews, libraries and booksellers — are easier for a publisher to do and they pay the cost of them. Libraries are helpful both as sales and as word of mouth venues and libraries are still mainly publisher based because the mass of self-pub doesn’t work for them most of the time. A self-pub who is only doing electronic is not in a good position to make foreign sales outside their initial publishing territory, a significant source of income, unless the self-pub sells well enough to attract publishers wanting to do a print translation edition in France, Poland, etc.
Each author is a business, a micro-brand and must operate as a business, including publicity for their products. An author/business that partners up with a publisher, large or small, is defraying costs and gaining labor and resources (including very importantly accounting and money retrieval,) that the author doesn’t have to pay for or attempt to do by having the partner publisher invest in his product through means of a production and sales license, and wide access to the market of varying degrees. But the author has little control in that partnership over the product in terms of production, sales distribution, etc. A partner publish author has no say over the cover whatsoever. Only a handful of top bestsellers get any approval over a cover. Otherwise, any imput the author has on the cover is because the publisher is being nice. Smaller presses tend to give the author more input. But the author has no control over the pricing, and the marketing, production factors, publicity efforts, etc. that the publisher decides to do because the author gave the publisher the license to produce the product in the form that the publisher thinks will work best in return for the publisher’s capital and labor investment.
A self-pub author is essentially going for a targeted sales campaign and acting as the publisher and author both. How elaborate that campaign and the production of the product is, how widely it is sold, depends on the author’s financial resources, time availability, and ability to get sales venues. As the publisher, a self-pub author has more control over the production and sales terms of the product. But not total control — Amazon has a set of rules you have to agree to in order to do business with them. They get money from you even if you sell 0 books, and if you do sell, they not only get a large 30% cut for comparatively little labor as a specialized production printer/sales vendor, but dock you an extra admin fee for each transaction as well. But that’s still potentially profitable. By doing a targeted campaign that’s only going to reach a section of buyers — say an electronic edition only on Amazon — the self-pub author also reduces costs and time and gambles that he’ll be able to reach enough buyers in what is still a crowded market. It’s worth noting that some of the most successful (largely e-only to start) self-pub authors are also partner publisher authors who have an established fan base and name recognition through that form of publishing and are bringing new works out on their own or reprinting older ones they have the license rights back for. The combination of self-pub and partner pub may be the most effective strategy and is becoming quite common. But they are not the only self-pub authors to be very successful.
It is worth noting that a number of the most successful, non-established self-pubs have then sold foreign print rights to publishers and then sold print only or print and e-book rights to publishers in their home territory. Hugh Howey, Mike Sullivan and Amanda Hocking have all done this, for instance, and it has its upsides and downsides. The reasons given for these sales tend to fall in that they want to have to do less work as a publisher to concentrate on writing as an author and for less direct cost to them, and that the partner publisher gives them access to or wider access to the substantial print market and further visibility. But it also means giving up control of pricing, production and some avenues of publicity, as well as different revenue set-ups.
It is also worth noting, as Mike Sullivan brought up, that the issue of e-production rights gets rather tricky for a self-pub author then partnering up with a publisher, and that there is an e-books/out of print issue for all authors that will be critical. Essentially, licensing contracts with publishers say that if a book goes out of print (unavailable for sale, no reprint planned,) from the publisher that the author can then request the licensing rights he gave the publisher back. If the publisher cannot or does not want to reprint a new edition of the work within a time period set in the contract, the publisher reverts the rights back to the author who can then self-pub or license the rights to another publisher. But e-books don’t go out of print (sale) because they are not dependent on stock, merely template. It is possible that the e-edition template would not be available for sale, but there is a big fat grey mist there in terms of the author’s ability to get the license back to monetize their properties when a publisher is no longer utilizing them in the electronic age. One advantage self-pub has, then, is that the author keeps control of the rights at all times. However, it’s more complicated because electronic vendors like Amazon make specialized templates for your work and let you use their platform and accounting to sell. So if Amazon doesn’t want you selling a Kindle version, you’re not going to get to sell a Kindle version, even though Amazon has not contracted any license with you. And Amazon has control of your pricing on their site and sometimes to a wider extent. The language in their vendor contract (and other electronic sellers’ contracts,) is vague and wide and more rights grabby then what they do with publishers. And that’s an issue with electronic vendors.
Self-pub is obviously faster, especially electronic only. It takes a lot of time to find a publisher to invest in your work. Self-pub is smaller in scope and quieter. Once you partner with a publisher, assuming the publisher performs decently, you will have much less work during the production phase and costs and if there is an advance, you have money up front to help you while you prep the book and regardless of sales. But you also don’t have a lot of say in the look and business factors of your product. You get potentially much wider distribution, visibility and access to sellers. But you can acquire those things potentially in self-pub. Promotional costs are a big issue in self-pub, but they are not absent with partner publishing and there are free avenues open to both, at least for now.
The issues are complicated, personal and there is no one right path. It depends a lot on your goals, your time availability, etc. Neither course of action necessarily precludes the other. If you self-pub, you might sell well enough to interest a publisher in your work, or your next work. If you go the search for a partner publisher route first, that doesn’t prevent you from then self-pubbing the work later if you can’t find an interested publisher. So you have to decide what is going to work for you and what would be the best strategy for the particular product. (There is a new market in short fiction and novellas self-pubbed and e-only for instance.)