Mark Terry

Friday, December 12, 2008

Self Publishing

December 12, 2008
Yesterday Jude and Zoe went off on a bit of a tangent in this blog's comments section about self publishing. Zoe, who self-publishes, is a proponent; Jude is not.

Me, being wishy-washy, I suppose, thinks they're both right. This post will probably be long, so be prepared. I will say that I have self-published, basically. "Catfish Guru" was published by iUniverse. The difference was that I didn't pay a dime for the privilege. iUniverse was just getting going and had a 6-month program where if you were an active member of Mystery Writers of America you could get a manuscript published for free. At that point, as it turned out, I had a contract with Write Way Publishing for a novel called "Blood Secrets." As a way of promoting it, I wrote a 12-chapter prequel novella, which I was publishing a chapter at a time, one each month for a year leading up to the novel's publication.

Except WWP went bankrupt and canceled my contract about 6 months in. Then iUniverse announced their program and I thought, "What the hell?" and write another novella, also a prequel called "Catfish Guru" and published the two of them as "Catfish Guru." (They hold up. They're good. I stand by them, despite their quirky history). Would I do it again? Maybe, as a last resort, a way of saying, "Hell, I admit failure in the traditional methods, so here's the books." Or not, who knows?

Here's a bit from one of my favorite novels, "Voodoo, Ltd" by the late Ross Thomas. He's describing a character, Billy Rice the fourth, who inherited a ton of money. Ione Gamble is speaking:

"Billy the fourth hung onto everything for eight years, then sold out in early eighty-six at the top of the market. He walked away with at least a billion, maybe more. Then he moved out here and announced he was an independent motion picture producer and, with a billion or so in the bank, everybody said, 'That's right, you are.'"

I have given talks on getting published and one of the things I usually say is that a publisher is a person with money who wants to publish something. There's no particular school for it, no credentials, no test you have to pass. You just pony up the money, pay to have something published, jump through the various hoops to get your books distributed, and voila, you're a publisher.

This supports Zoe's point of view.

Once upon a time, publishers weren't nearly as organized as they are now. Many novels were published by friends of the writer, who often tended to be a wealthy person who wrote under a pseudonym so he or she wasn't embarrassed by what was perceived as a low calling. There's also a significant history of self-publishing. I may be wrong, but I think Mark Twain did a fair amount of it. If not him, it was someone else famous from the same era.

Today, when everyone has access to computers and publishing is relatively easy and the only thing you need to get onto is an ISBN, it's pretty easy to get published. A way to weed out any hack with a computer and someone with talent and skill (presumably) is the convoluted process of getting an agent, then getting somebody with a bunch of money (Bertelsman, et al) to publish your book.

This pretty much supports Jude's point of view. In other words, the industry sets the bar and by being published that way, you've proven you have a certain level of proficiency. You've passed the entrance exam, so to speak.

I've wondered over the years and more and more so recently as the publishing industry appears to be eating itself and focusing more and more (and more) on blockbuster novels and pre-sold concepts (tie-ins based on movies, TV shows, or sticking names of famous authors on books written by someone else ala James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Robert Ludlum, VC Andrews, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc), whether by necessity we're going to see a shift in the publishing paradigm.

We might be already. As Borders goes bankrupt and publishing houses all over the US lay off staff and freeze lines, independent and small publishers are flourishing, as is e-publishing, which apparently has grown about 500% this year.

A couple years ago I interviewed bestselling author David Morrell, who had shifted to Vanguard Publishing (I think it was Vanguard, correct me if I'm wrong), which was a new model. They offered no advances to the authors, but gave them higher royalties, but more importantly, contracted in what they would do to promote the novels. As David said to me, and I'll paraphrase, "The trend in publishers is to not promote books, but authors increasingly have to ask themselves, with how easy it is to self-publish and get your books available on or even sell on your own website, if publishers aren't going to do promotion, what do writers need publishers for?"

The answer to that, still, I think, is "distribution." It's tough for small presses and self-published folks to get their books into brick-and-mortar bookstores unless they're published by the big houses. That may be changing, and if Borders actually goes bankrupt and out of business, we might see more and more changes in distribution.

I would--and do--also often point out that for certain types of nonfiction, self-publishing is the way to go. If you've written a book with a niche audience--a guidebook to the wildflowers of the northeast, for instance--then you might be better off self-publishing. It's just not going to be that interesting to publishers who are looking for national distribution. If you teach classes or give tours or have a relationship with the park system in the northeast, even better. You've got distribution.

Have I thought of becoming a publisher? Yes. For fiction? No f***ing way. I'm too much of a hard-nosed business person for that. I'm still a believer in finding an unmet need and filling it. I have, as a matter of fact, two solid ideas for potential newsletter or book markets. I even went so far as to discuss in a general way, the nature of newsletter publishing these days with one of my largest client, who is the VP and group publisher of a publisher that publishes a lot of newsletters. His comment was that it was a horrible time to be a publisher, of newsletters or anything else. He noted that newsletters went through a big boom in the 1990s, but it was contracting now, which was why they had added a lot of specialty reports and events--conferences and web seminars, etc--to what they offered.

I also think newsletter distribution is in a shakeout period right now (as are newspapers, etc) and the costs of printing things on paper and mailing newsletters is putting all the emphasis on e-newsletters and websites and PDF distribution via the Internet. That's all well and good, but it's a different revenue model than print publications (as well as distribution). As a friend of mine who's retired from the newspaper business (as a publisher and editor) told me just this week, "When newspapers started online editions, they got Internet advertising, but it was 5 cents on the dollar compared to what they were getting from their print editions."

Before this goes on forever with no conclusions, I want to direct you to author Jeremy Robinson's website. 

Jeremy's latest novel, "Antarktos Rising" is terrific. One of the better novels I read in 2008. A tech thriller that's well written, thought provoking and a lot of fun. Perfect? No.

Jeremy ran a small press for a while, publishing his own books and those of other people. Then a company came along and bought his small press. They continue to publish his books. Successfully, from the looks of things.

He notes another writer, I think the name is James Alten, who is a bestselling author ("Meg" and "The Trench" as well as others), who made a boodle of bucks being traditionally published, then decided (for whatever reasons) to open his own publishing house to publish his own books.

I've been waiting for this to happen, actually. For about ten years. Alten's not really a brand name. What I'm curious to see is if Stephen King or Dan Brown or Mary Higgins Clark or some other rock star writer one day says, "You know, I'm tired of getting 15% of the profit off these books when I can self-publish it myself and get 40%. Instead of $5 million for this book I can get $15 million and I don't have to deal with all those morons at the publishing house."

I fully expect it to happen.

So, conclusions?

Nope, don't really have any. When I give my talk on publishing and getting published, what I usually say is this:

It depends on what you want. If you want a book published and to have it on the shelf and be able to give or sell it to friends and relatives, then self-publishing is a great way to go. If you want to start a career as a writer, then most of the time self-publishing doesn't do anything for you. Agents and editors won't pay much attention to it unless you sell 25,000 copies or more. If you sell 100,000 copies self-published, don't worry, the editors will find you. But if you self-publish and sell 500 copies or even 1000, well, you're doing good, but no one in traditional publishing is going to notice.

So it depends on what you want.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

I really need to try self-publishing sometime. Having been self-employed for most all my life, I have to admit I have a hard time parting with my profits, LOL. Making money for someone else, rather than myself, sorta sticks in my craw a little, UNLESS I'm getting something for it.

If I'm smart, I could get to the top of the search engine results for my niche. I'm just dragging my feet, because I'm not into the whole marketing thing. But I think I'm going to try, see how it goes.

Distribution (aside from search engine ranking) is a moot point if you can get ranked well in the search engines, because most erotica readers would rather buy online than have a teenager ringing them up and checking out what they read. :-)

If I write a NYable novel, then I'll pitch it to NY. I intend to, at some point. I'm trying, but in the meantime, I have dental bills, LOL.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

The card Jude didn't play in his debate with Zoe was the success card. Hard as it is to break into "traditional" publishing, when you do your books are distributed to retail outlets. You stand a chance of making money.

The Beatles formed their own label, Apple Records. The Beatles were already mind-bogglingly successful when they did it. Other artists, whether in music, film, or publishing who have gone maverick, have met with extremely limited commercial success.

Everything Zoe said in the previous comment trail is true. Everything. I take my hat off to her. But the route she has chosen, God bless her soul, will lead to commercial failure as certainly as jumping off a cliff will lead to broken bones.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I think it depends a great deal on what you're publishing. Yes, I suspect erotica works better online. I think a lot of nonfiction reference-type things is going to go that route as well.

I suppose it depends on your definition of commercial success. Zoe may very well feel that spending $5000 to make $10,000 as a viable business model, or whatever the actual numbers are.

9:10 AM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

I like visiting here better when you have your Little Mr. Sunshine hat on.

Does this mean you don't really think I'll be able to land the leading lady role when they make my book into a movie? :(

On topic: I sit atop the wishy-washy fence with you. I wishy I had the time and energy to examine Zoe's route, but with the HBB I already help run, I'd be washyed up in no time!

Plus, like Jude and many have pointed out, I want to earn a membership into The Club. I don't want to buy it. Not that I could afford to anyway.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Having apparently gained entrance to "THE CLUB" I'm not entirely sure it was what I thought it was going to be. Still, it's nice to say you're in The Club, I suppose.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think self-publishing fiction is pretty useless because you aren’t likely to find many readers. Never mind not making money -- professionally published fiction often earns so little as to hardly matter -- but writers at least want an audience and not many readers will buy a self-published book. It’s hard to give them away, unless you already have established a reputation through professional sales. (Having said that Mary and I have self-published a short story on our website.)

Apart from that, getting published in the sense of finding a publisher who will pay us to publish our work is a big accomplishment. Certainly people can pay too much attention to what others think and we all need to find our self-worth within ourselves, or something....but most of us sometimes want validation from our fellow beings. We want some objective evidence of our achievements. I remember when I got into running, it was a big deal when I was able to complete an official 10K race and get a t-shirt, and see my name on the list of finishers, far down as it was.

Now achieving publication with one’s writing is entirely different than the satisfaction to be had from creating art or communicating with others. For years I printed up little magazines and traded them with fellow enthusiasts. I did everything from fanzines to mini-comics. But these were all done for the joy of creating them and communicating with like-minded people. There was no money involved and no one bragged about being published. No one ever said anything about being published. We weren’t published and weren’t even aiming to be.

Many of the writers today who self-publish fiction do so in order to pretend to be published -- to fool people (not least of all themselves) into thinking they have achieved something they have not. Yes, there are also writers who have the wrongheaded idea (in my estimation) that they might be able to make money from self-publishing or find more than a handful of readers.And that's fine. Doomed to failure as it might be, though. But too many, so far as I can see, just want to proclaim to the world that they are Published Authors. And I find that annoying.

It always amazes me when I see lawyers and teachers and accountants (and they are all over the web) who have written checks to POD printers and now call themselves published authors. Does that mean they wouldn’t object if anyone could just write out a check for a few hundred dollars and go to work as a lawyer, teacher or accountant? No need to go to school and study. No need to pass qualifying tests. I am an attorney because iAttorney sent me this nifty certificate for $700.

I have nothing against writing for the love of it. Mostly that’s what I’ve done. I don’t like the pretense of many self-publishers today.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Nicely put. Yes, there are some self-published writers (Jeremy Robinson) who have done well for themselves. But I figure they're in the same company as bestsellers in general--it's like being hit by bolts of lightning.

Ultimately, for me, it comes down to that delusional thing. I really don't care if people want to spend their money and self-publish. I have some problems with self-publishers basically equating their product with those published by traditional publishers. As is indicated by Jude and folks like Lee Goldberg, say what you will by traditional pubs, they have reached at least a minimal level of craft.

And as some of us who have been published by traditional pubs have discovered, entry into The Club, such as it is, doesn't guarantee continued membership in The Club. Just because you pass the entrance exam doesn't mean you get to stay in, and it doesn't have all that much to do with skill.

Peter Rubin, a literary agent (Fine Print) commented once that no one "deserves" to be published. That it's not simply a matter of craft and talent and skill. That there's a marketplace and companies investing a lot of money, and just having a good, salable manuscript doesn't mean you will get published, and if you do get published, doesn't mean it will be successful in the marketplace, no matter how skilled you are.

The marketplace is a brutal place, in book selling and in everything else. A really terrific restaurant can go under because it's on the wrong side of the road. A great movie (say, Hellboy II) can be released, but be followed the next week by a more popular movie (The Dark Knight), so that by most commercial standards it's a failure. A product that is superior (I'm dating myself, but, say Beta videotapes) may not gain traction in the marketplace due to timing and better marketing on the part of its competitor (VHS).

It's just the nature of the beast.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Hey Mark, thanks for this very thoughtful post! This mirrors a lot of my own thoughts on it. I think as I grow my back-list, with good promo and good writing, I'll be able to build a pretty decent income stream, but it's certainly not the only income stream I'm chasing, and I have some nonfiction type stuff in the works under a different name.

For me it's a big challenge. I see so much changing right now, that to me the time is now to be on my own train and steer my own ship (and now I'll stop mixing mode-of-transportation metaphors)

I'm not sure if you knew this part, but Jeremy self-published his first book, the Didymous Contingency, with of all places, and got his agent through being discovered that way on Amazon.

Now that's not a plan. That's just luck. And it certainly isn't my plan. The way I see it, if I'm not going to be a "supersta" (insert Molly Shannon picture), then I would be just as happy, perhaps more happy, creating and controlling my own work, and building my own audience, however big or small that becomes. And well, if I was really going to become a "supersta", then I would be able to reach the sales numbers to prove it, and trad publishing would came a knocking on my door.

I don't expect that to happen. That's one of those "in the unlikely event" type of things. But if I have that much of "it" (whatever "it" is), something big will happen for me. If I don't, then I get the awesome joy of getting to run my own show and do my own thing. And even though fiction isn't exactly "a great business model" it's one of my passions. And I've learned to follow my bliss.

Stephen, when you say "commercial failure" you make it sound like my goal is to sell a million copies. Eventually I plan to get my ass to the 5,000 copy a year mark. Is that commercially successful? Well not by the blockbuster mentality, but you gotta remember I make 4.5 times the money on the backend per book that I'd make from a traditional publisher. And if that's just one income stream I'm building, it's not that bad.

And as I said, if I have "it" then I'll franchise later. ;) And if I don't have "it" then it won't matter, because I'll be in control of my own art. And that's far more important to me as a writer.

So don't pity me. I'm following my bliss. If commercial success is your bliss, then go for it! I'll cheer you on. :D

And I'm with Spy, I've got this whole internet concept percolating for the erotica. God, there isn't enough time in the day/week/month/year/etc.

But anyway, we'll see where I am in 10 years. I assure you guys, if I have the tiniest spark of "it" and I can in any way leverage it, you might be surprised at what a little self publisher can accomplish. Then again you might not. But let's give me a decade before we start counting my chickens, either way.


1:37 PM  
Blogger Wendy Nelson Tokunaga said...

As someone who self-published a novel and then ended up seven years later having another novel published by a mainstream publisher, I can say that there is no comparison -- the mainstream publishing experience wins hands down. I too self published via iUniverse when it was fairly new and I learned a lot from the experience, especially about online marketing and self-promotion. But I would never do it again for a novel (yes, as mentioned, non-fiction can be a different beast). It is so nice to be able to tell people that they can find your book in stores across the country. :-)

2:35 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I jotted a post on this subject.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Stephen, when you say "commercial failure" you make it sound like my goal is to sell a million copies.

Fair enough, but I would replace "goal" with "desire." I feel pretty safe assuming we all want our books to be as commercially successful as possible. After all, if sales really don't matter, why publish our manuscripts in the first place?

I went back and reread your comments in the previous post. I don't disagree with anything you said. In particular I don't have a problem with the "legitimacy" issue: an actor can become a movie star by showing up at an audition and proving his talent; he doesn't have to go to acting school first.

My problem isn't with legitimacy or validity or anything like that; it's with the potential for success. I would rather place my book at Random House than Ig, for obvious reasons related to commercial opportunity. I would rather place my book at Ig than Lulu.

As for creative control, I don't get the sense from traditionally published authors that they've sacrificed anything significant in this regard. In fact most of them appreciate the assistance they receive from agents and editors.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Fair enough, Stephen.

Regarding, why publish if you don't care about sales? To be read? Especially with a book, to be read in the format your work is meant to be read, i.e. a bound book.

I don't think sales "don't matter." I'm just of the opinion that if I'm not going to be on the NY Times list, or make a strong solid living, then a sideline is fine, and reaching readers (however many) is what it's all about.

The list is SO unlikely that it's not a goal, it's a dream. And I'd rather chase realistic goals. But that's just me.

And if given the choice between 500 readers LOVING my work, and 5 million readers buying me and forgetting about me the next week, I'd choose the former any day. (I realize in the real world it doesn't work out that way, I'm just illustrating where my personal priorities are. Which isn't to say I think other people's priorities should be where mine are, I don't think that.)

I just don't see trad commercial publishing as any more likely of a path to get most people on the bestseller list. Most people aren't getting published by the trad gatekeepers. Most of those people aren't going to stay published. Most of those people aren't going to make a decent living. Most of those people aren't going to hit the list, ever.

So what's the point of all that crap? It's a brass ring worth chasing for some people, but it's a ring I think would turn my finger green, so yeah.

I have realistic expectations and slightly higher goals, but my "dreams" are so damn big that it pretty much breaks totally even doing it my way or doing it your way. Odds are still a zillion to one.


1:16 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Okay, Zoe, I can't resist anyone so passionate. I'm linking to you on my blog.

Prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

hehehe Stephen. I'm like Pollyanna, I eventually win ya over. :P I'll link ya back.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Okay, I'm like Pollyanna if Pollyanna was really really argumentative and insane hahaha.

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