Wednesday, August 11, 2010

sorry, guys.

Meant to post. Too much going on. One more wedding and we're over the hump.

Ttys. xxx

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Moonrat's Rundown of Publishing Options

The other day, I received a sad email from a reader who has decided to go the route of self-publishing. This person wanted to know why I--and others in New York publishing--had so little respect for people who chose to self-publish.

When I got this note, I realized we had some clearing up to do. I haven't talked about self-publishing much here lately, so perhaps that is the origin of the confusion, but I personally have nothing against people who self-publish, nor against the self-pub industry. In fact--if you can keep a secret--I freelanced for a large self-pub company for a long time, helping authors polish their books, etc. I know a lot about who chooses to self-publish, why, and what advantages and disadvantages they have. I also know the huge amount of work they undertake. But certainly I respect their choice, and respect the people who make that choice.

But publication is a choice--if you're in the throes of the submission process, this is sometimes hard to remember, but do remember you always, always have a choice whether or not you publish. You also have a choice how you're going to publish, and what kind of publication to pursue.

So I've compiled this list of the pros and cons of each of several publishing options (and trust me, each has pros AND cons). I have worked, as you now know, at big companies, small companies, and self-pub companies, and thusly declare myself a creature without bias (or pretty darn close). Of course, every publication experience is different. These are just generalizations culled from the best and the worst of my observations.

I have, rather snobbishly, lined up these options in the order of what (mostly) everyone starts out hoping for, then what they hope to settle for, etc. But I hope this pro/con list illuminates that all such distinctions are relative.

*Huge, powerful sales force. I put this first because it's perhaps the most important quality of a big house, whether consumers realize it or not. The reason most bestsellers come from big houses is because big houses have the most comprehensive and powerful sales teams, which have the best marketing sponsorship and thereby the biggest laydowns (first printings) and sell-ins (stocking numbers in national chains). So by default, they also have the best track records for numbers of copies sold--book buyers tend to buy what they see in stores. So chicken-egg-chicken etc. If you want your book to be a bestseller, your best bet is the big house route.

*Money, money, money. The big houses are giant corporate cash cows, often with private company or bajillionaire overlords (::cough Rupert Murdoch cough cough::). This means a lot of things:

*The possibility of a substantial advance (although these aren't universal, so don't get your hopes too far up).

*More personnel, so more people working on publicity, marketing, production, etc, with all the benefits that come from crack specialist teams.

*These personnel are usually paid more than their indie counterparts, which means (in theory) they may be the top of their game.

*Bigger possibilities for publicity and marketing budgets.


*Don't assume you're going to be allocated those publicity and marketing budgets. Only the "big books" will. All big companies have a way of stratifying each season's titles to indicate which ones are important and which are, essentially, quota-meeters. These two types of books are, respectively, Lead Titles and Midlist. If people are interested, I can talk about why the midlist exists elsewhere. But the fact remains that you may not want to be on it, unless you have the kind of book with a built-in niche audience (in that case, this may actually be a really good place for you). But for everyone else on the midlist, the publication experience can be harrowing, frustrating, and fraught with disappointment. You may have a great sales team selling the book, but if they don't love you or prioritize you, you might not have the dream scenario you imagined. More than one agent has actually told me they will no longer execute a midlist deal with a big house--they will take their project to a small house, and absorb the risks involved with that, rather than get involved in the midlist malarkey.

*A lot more bureaucracy. If you fall into the midlist, you may find yourself utterly unable to get a human being on the phone. Ever.

*Also, related to the bureaucracy: things can move at a totally glacial pace. In my time at a big company, I observed an awful lot of hurry-up-and-wait on the part of the author.

*Personnel turnover often leaves authors homeless. After their book is bought, it might get shuffled around. Here's's a great article I've linked to on bestselling author Susan Orlean's horrifying experience of big house shunting-around. Which isn't to say small companies are totally exempt, but there is some discrepancy.

In short, who would be best suited by this route:
BOOKS WITH OBVIOUS BLOCKBUSTER POTENTIAL. Make sure your agent gets you a good advance--it's your security deposit that the company is going to have to take you seriously. But if you fit this profile, this slot here is basically the only one on this list that will get you a bestseller.

BOOKS THAT ARE PERHAPS NOT POTENTIAL BESTSELLERS, BUT IN WHOSE GENRE/CULT FOLLOWING THE COMPANY HAS DEMONSTRATED A STRONG TRACK RECORD. For example, do you write urban fantasy or paranormal? Orbit is an imprint of a huge conglomerate (Hachette), but Orbit has been extremely successful with breaking out new genre authors by launching them in very tasty paperback packaging. It may be rare that their books break, say, the bestseller threshhold, but they sure as heck have a good track record of getting authors into the five-digit copies sold threshhold. A place where many, many of us would be very happy.

Most important of all, as you're submitting, IN THIS AS IN ALL THINGS, TALK OVER YOUR STRATEGIES VERY CAREFULLY WITH YOUR AGENT. You'll want to know what you want going in.

*It sounds trite to say indies are full of people with passion, and I don't mean to say the big houses aren't full of passionate readers, but it's true! Let's face it, we at the indies must have some kind of crazed vision of a literary future; otherwise, we wouldn't get ourselves stuck in these love-instead-of-money traps. But hey. This means if you sell your book to an indie, you'll most likely have a team of really die-hard nerds working with you. It can be a very loving environment.

*Many indies have a specific kind of cache; some get impressive numbers of reviews; others outperform all other companies, big or small, in specific genres. Take, for example, Akashic Books, who (among other genres) have created a monopoly on the noir anthology market. Who even knew such a market existed? Well, Akashic new, and made it happen, and has made many authors happy.

*Communication with your publishing team is relatively easy, since there are a small number of people and one professional often wears many hats.

*As mentioned above, indies are often specialized. They have smaller staffs, often with particular expertise areas. So don't try to reinvent the wheel--don't sell your crime novel to an indie that specializes in poetry, or your young adult novel to an indie that specializes in Slavic interest publishing. It's just... not going to be a good fit.

*Indie presses have small--often tiny--budgets. Let's just get that out of the way at the onset. They don't have huge public (or private) conglomerates behind them, and month-to-month cash flow is an immediate issue. They can't take huge risks, because huge risks could very well bankrupt a small company. Let's look at a couple manifestations of this smaller budget:

*A throwaway mistake a big company can make and absorb--say, printing and distributing 100,000 copies of a book, but only selling 20,000--could be ruinous for an indie. This means that they usually take smaller risks, printing closer to the bone, and are cautious about distribution. Because there are fewer copies available, let me come out and say it: on the indie model, it is very, very unlikely your book will be a bestseller.

In short, who would be best suited by this route:

BOOKS WITH CERTAIN CULT FOLLOWINGS: One great example of a success story is Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, a biopunk fantasy novel that was publishing in late 2009 by Night Shade Books, a tiny sci fi/fantasy specialty publisher in San Francisco. Night Shade really knocked the ball out of the park for this book, and The Windup Girl ended up winning both the Hugo and the Nebula and being featured in tons of big places, including Time.

If you have a book with a very specific or cult audience, you might actually be better served by an indie who specializes in your type of publication than you would be served by a big house, who basically knows how to make obvious commercial successes into obvious commercial successes. It's simply a different model of people-power and numbers. Do make sure, if this description fits your book, that you're going with the right press.

*You, the author, control every aspect of the publication process. You can choose to publish a book that has not met with trade attention. You can dictate the title, the appearance, and the editorial content, and be totally in charge of your own publicity possibilities. Most frequently, the hugest pro is that authors who might not otherwise have been able to see themselves in print can, after all, if they self-pub.

*The reading market is becoming more egalitarian, especially with ereaders, etc. Selling your own book cheaply is so easily done on the internet that you might be able to drum up a readership without any of the trappings or deadweight of a publishing house. Just as long as you understand that all the work will be done by you, the author--and that it can be quite a lot of work.

*Some books are really, really well-suited to self-publishing. If you're, say, a lecturer, a community advocate, a professional who conducts seminars, or a doctor or nurse, you may have the need for informational or learning-oriented packets. Self-pubbing is a great way to go, since no company is going to be interested in the project, but there is still a market that wants the project.

In fact, I have a story from personal experience. When I was working at a large company, we bought the rights to a previously self-pubbed book by a dynamic author who did a lot of lecturing on a particular topic. The author's lecture had a tie-in book he had been photocopying and distributing, essentially, from his garage. Once he hit the 20,000 copy mark, he got really tired of doing it himself and decided to see if a publisher could do the work for him. The sad thing was, our publisher couldn't do it as well as the author himself could--publishers sell in traditional channels: bookstores. They don't do well with the hand-to-hand selling. In the end, after a short period of time and only a fraction of the success the author had had on his own selling from his garage, the publisher reverted the rights to the author, who went back on his merry way, probably wishing he had stuck to self-pubbing the whole time. He's an example of an author whose book was actually better suited to self-pubbing.

*If you're a fiction author who is dying to see their work in print--and professional-looking print at that--in a hurry, and who isn't really bothered by how widely it is distributed, go for it. For hobbiest writers without specific writing career aspirations, self-pubbing might be a great option. You'll have a way to get your story to family and friends, and maybe some others, as well, depending on your own distribution efforts.

*To get to the heart of my reader's question, there is a stigma associated with self-publishing. Not everyone feels this way, but many people do. This is because self-publishing contains a range of book types. Many fall into the type "author's passion project that can't seem to find trade publication." Trust me, as someone who has worked on many, many such titles, the range of quality among them is vast. I have seen some well-written, entertaining books that stand on their own but perhaps didn't attract an agent's attention because of bad timing (eg, there were a glut of similar titles on the market). I've also seen books that were barely written in English--in fact, some quite obviously by non-native speakers--but whose authors were so frustratingly precious about their vision that they refused to edit a single word. If you choose to self-publish, you're going to encounter people who think all self-pubbed authors fall into the latter category. You are going to have to work harder to set yourself apart, since no one but you has sanctioned the publication decision. That is, if you want to set yourself apart--as discussed above, many people self-pub for other reasons entirely.

If you choose to self-publish, you have to remember it is a choice, that you're doing it for your own good and have been well-informed about your options. You can't let people get you down or angry or defensive--if you do, you've lost this game. If the publication of your book does not make you happy, then you shouldn't publish it.

*You have to pay to publish your book, instead of having someone else pay you. I mean, these days, what with the trade author's job coming crumbling down, that's probably a smaller concern. But you do need a chunk of capital to get started.

*Capital, indeed, is the great equalizer... The more money you have to put toward promotion, the more likely your book will have any kind of chance in the trade market (if, indeed, trade market you pursue). Brunonia Barry had a huge success with her 2008 book The Lace Reader, but don't forget that she probably wouldn't ever have caught anyone's attention if it hadn't been for the very substantial private publicity plan she implemented when she self-published.

*The fiction market everywhere is extremely competitive. If you are considering self-publishing a novel, it is really important to ask yourself whether this is a novel that mainstream publishing didn't understand (in which case, they probably never will! so, like Brunonia, go with the god/dess of your choice and do what you can with your book) or if it is perhaps a book that isn't ready for trade publishing--meaning, might need another polish, more editorial development, etc.

*You most likely will not have trade distribution (meaning, you probably won't be stocked in your local Barnes & Noble or Powell's).

*Choosing the self-pub route often precludes a trade career. Not always, as demonstrated by Brunonia Barry, but often. The reason: chains, salespeople, buyers, retailers, etc all have access to Nielsen Bookscan. They look at author track records, and usually use these track records to decide whether or not they want to support the author's next book. If it shows that an author has a (most likely very modestly-selling) self-pubbed book already, they are going to use that as an excuse not to buy in again. It's how things work. Trust me, it's frustrating for everyone. But it's a point not to gloss over.

In short, who would be best suited by this route:

NOVELS BY AUTHORS WITH SPECIFIC VISIONS THEY DON'T WANT TO EDIT FOR TRADE PUBLISHING. If you're getting consistent feedback from agents that your book is not right for them for editorial reasons and you really believe in your project as it exists, with no changes, then it's possible your best bet is a smaller (not trade) audience. You can maintain 100% of your vision through self-pubbing, and although it will mean you will have limited distribution, your content will be solely in your control. A niche market is a better fit for many books, anyway.

BOOKS BY AUTHORS WHO WANT TO BE IN PRINT IN A HURRY AND WHO ARE WILLING TO DO THEIR OWN DISTRIBUTION AND PUBLICITY. A number of authors don't believe in the trade model at all. It does, after all, yield a lower percentage of the profits to the author. If you have your own vision and plan for moving forward, and understand the amount of work you'll be undertaking, then go for it.

Remember that it may be more frustrating and heartbreaking for you to publish your book poorly than to not publish it at all. As my mother has oft said to me, if it's meant to be, it will be. Which isn't to say it's not a worthy goal to pursue, and that arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible isn't a great idea. But understand all the options going in, and know what you want, and what you're willing to do to get it.