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Take a Step Back

 It occurs to me that I should have discussed why people choose traditional or self-publishing, so I'm going to take a step back and do that.

When I finished my first book, there were two options for publication, traditional publishing or vanity publishing. Vanity publishing requires that an author pay for her work to be presented to the world. It's been around for centuries, and some pretty important writers started out that way, but it was definitely a no-no for "serious" writers. Traditional publishing, getting an agent, waiting for her to shop the book to publishing houses, and hoping for an offer was, at that time, the only way to get any kind of credibility.

I did it that way. It took years, but the result was good. The publisher who signed me up got me reviews from prestigious places like the Historical Novel Society and Kirkus Reviews. I was thrilled that my first review in HNS (For Macbeth's Niece), got a star, meaning the reviewer thought it rose above the ordinary. 

Another thing a large publisher gets for a writer is exposure to sales outlets. Since my publisher was known for offering quality reading material to library patrons, my book description was sent to libraries all over the country. As notifications of my ensuring books continued, my name became (somewhat) familiar to librarians everywhere. (I think it was P.T. Barnum who estimated that a person has to hear something five times before they act on the information. But I don't remember for sure.)  :)


Several years later, my publisher went bankrupt. I was horrified. Besides having noplace to send my newest book, they owed me thousands of dollars that I'd never see. Checking with other authors under contract with them, I found that most of them had expected no money anyway. They hadn't "sold through," meaning they'd never sold enough books to earn back their advance, (money authors are paid before publication of the book).

That's when I went indie, but those years in traditional publishing taught me a lot. I learned how books were prepared for publication (LOTS of editing; input from experienced readers, cover artists, promoters; paying attention to trends; timing releases for best exposure; and more.) I learned that authors receive way less money than people think they do (unless your name is Rowling). I learned that most books sell very few copies, most less than 100. The vast majority of authors cannot make a living on writing alone.

Indie publishing has become more acceptable these days, but because most indie writers operate outside the business of publishing, they're at a disadvantage. They don't know the secrets. They don't have the connections. They're unrealistic about what's going to happen. I had a guy ask me to help him write his query letter (a note sent to agents to convince them to look at your book). He said in the letter that he would be a successful author because he came from a large family that would all buy his books. I once overheard another hopeful author tell an agent that he had a "whole drawerful" of really good writing at home, and if she bought his current book, he'd give her access to all the rest.

I wonder if agents have to hide a chuckle or a tear when they encounter that kind of thinking.

Today there's a thriving industry that's between traditional and self publishing: small press publishing. They do the work of editing, publishing, and promoting for authors, but of course, they take a chunk of the profits. Authors need to find out if the company is legit: I've had friends who spent tons of money they shouldn't have had to, either required or enticed to by not-so-upright publishers. I worked with a couple of different small presses years ago. While mine were honest and easy to deal with, they didn't have the connections to really push sales. And sometimes they didn't know any more about how to make a book successful than I did.

I'm almost completely indie now. I hire editors (because EVERYONE should), and sometimes cover artists, though I enjoy playing with that aspect of publishing. I choose everything: the font and setup, the release date, the publicity methods, and the formats. I do not make a lot of money, but for me writing isn't about the income. After years in the business, I make choices that suit my work ethic and my expectations.

Self-publishing boils down to three things: the work you're willing/able to do to make what you offer the public correct and appealing; the money you're willing to invest; and the outside talent you'll use to fill in your weak spots. (This also requires money and work. You need to find them and you need to pay them.)

Here's a list of some things you should know before you jump into publishing.

You will make less money than you expect, even if you get traditionally published. I hear that advances are shrinking and even disappearing. (My first one was $1000. No five-figure advances for most of us.)

You'll sell fewer books than you think. (See above)

Nobody is dying to discover your writing talent. Lots of writers are just as talented as you, or more so.

It's a business. Despite all the statements you hear about, "We felt compelled to share this important work with the world," the publishing business really cares mostly about sales.

Stop worrying about copyrights and secret files. Nobody will steal your story idea and sell it themselves.

People will like what you write. People will hate what you write. Some of the worst writers I've ever seen have become bestselling authors. My opinion is worth nothing.

Traditional publishing is focused on big names, so if you aren't one of those, you'll need a lot of luck to get your foot in the door.

Mid-range publishing has become gimmicky. If you get the right gimmick, you can do well. (My Sleuth Sisters books, written as Maggie Pill, are an example of an unexpected success: right mix of characters, humor, mystery=complete (but happy) surprise.

What many people do is try the agent-publisher-contract route first. If that doesn't work, they go indie. That's fine, as long as you understand that the indie, like the cheese in the children's rhyme, stands alone.

Award for Sister Saint, Sister Sinner


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