Publishing in E-minor

First off, I’d like to propose a minute’s silence in memoriam of the Macho Man Randy Savage. Only through his heroic sacrifice in battle vs Zombie Jesus was the rapture averted. Oooh yeaaaaaaaaaahhh.

Alrighty, I have a long running “debate” (drunken arguement) with a couple of folks about the whole “Traditional Publishing” vs “E-Publishing” thang, so in order to prevent the staggering drop off in readership my posts experience when I blog about happy stuff like the end of the world, I thought I’d try to jolly it up a bit today and write about, you know, WRITING.

So in the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of self-published authors, the most famous of whom is probably Amanda Hocking, who during April-December of 2010 sold a metric fuck-tonne of e-books (note: a fuck-tonne is roughly 200% of a shit-tonne) and instantly became the poster child for the entire e-pub movement. A couple of my droogies have asked why I chose to go the traditional publishing route when you can make squintillions and become ultra-mega-famous and buy your own socks by self-publishing. So, thinking about it (and bear in mind these are only my opinions, and I’m only one fellow), here are my thoughts on why I went the old-fashioned route:

Time – I work full time. I’m not fortunate enough to have wealthy parents or a wife who earns a bomb and is willing to support me pursuing a career in which the likelihood of success is somewhere up there with the chances of you making it through the Star Wars drinking game alive if you draw Luke Skywalker. My job is cool, and it’s not the kind I take home. However, it realistically only affords me a few hours every day to do my own thing. If I had to do editing, typesetting, cover design, marketing, publicity, etc, I’d have no time to, you know, WRITE. (Incidentally, this was Ms Hocking’s #1 reason for signing her $2 mil deal with my publisher, St Martin’s recently)

Quality Control – When I finished STORMDANCER, I thought it was perfect. Every word was gold. It wasn’t until I had professional publishing people look it over that I saw the flaws. The truth is, it could have been better. And now, having gone through my agent, his assistant and my two awesome editors, it IS better. About 100% better than it was when I first stuck a fork in and declared it done. The thing about people in the publishing industry? They do it for a living. They have experience and insight that I don’t. My guys edit Nebula and Hugo winners. World famous authors. In short, they know their stuff. And they work to help my stuff get better. When you self-pub, it’s just you and your pet cat Mr Snuggles. And while you might totally trust Mr Snuggles when he declares your opus will be the next Harry Potter, you do realize that you’re mad don’t you, he’s a fucking cat.

Standing Out – The awesome thing about the rise of self-publishing is that anyone who wants to can now put out a book. The worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone who wants to can now put out a book. Because (and this is an awful truth) just like most people can’t play in the NBA or become brain surgeons, most people can’t write. Writing a book is like playing the guitar. People see a Green Day clip, say “WTF, I can play three chords” and start a rock band. And 99% of them suck aren’t very good. People read Twilight, say “WTF, I can write better than this” and fire up the word processor. And 99% of them blow goat are less than superlative. But now they still get published. Eeeeee-published! And your self-published book is going to be sitting right there alongside these books on the e-shelves, struggling to get noticed in a steaming sea of adverbs and bad love triangles. And sure, there’s the theory that “blood will out” – that good books will get good reviews and rise above and sell millions. Maybe that’s true. But it seems like a longer shot to me.

After signing to St Martins and TorUK, STORMDANCER has a tiny little bit of cred. The theory is that it’s got to be somewhere better than bad, because traditional publishing is in the doldrums, and any book that gets sold at auction in this day and age needs to have SOMETHING special about it. I dunno if this theory is true. I’d like to think it is. But perhaps I never recovered from that acid trip I took in 1997, and all this is going on in my head while I stare at a blank wall and say “wibble”.

Affirmation – Your friends might say your book is awesome. Your wife/husband/real doll might say it too. Mr Snuggles might spasm into paroxysms of bliss when he stares at your pages. But honestly? If your friends are anything like mine, they can’t be trusted. Your real doll? She can’t even talk. And Mr Snuggles, as previously mentioned, is a goddamn cat. Agents work on commission. When an agent signs you, they’re saying “I believe in this manuscript so much, I’m willing to spend a lot of hours working with it ON FAITH. Because I BELIEVE it will sell.” When a publisher signs you, they’re saying “We believe you’re going to sell at least X copies (X being a factor of your advance). We believe it so much, we’re going to get this hulking machine of a publishing house rolling, dozens of people spending hundreds of hours that we’re paying for ON FAITH. Because we BELIEVE it will sell.”

And hell, sometimes they’re wrong. Lots of books don’t sell. But when you see this machine start to roll, and it’s all for you, you can’t help feeling “Yeah, maybe I actually don’t completely suck as a writer”. And that’s the feeling you take into your next book. And sure, it might be insecure to need that affirmation. But show me a slush-pile author who isn’t insecure, and I’ll show you an author who talks to their bloody cat.

Self-publishing strikes me as an easier path – I’m not saying it’s easy to be successful in e-publishing. HELL NO. And I’m not saying it’s easy to write a book. It’s not. Writing is hard. Being successful at it is near impossible. But I suspect that many people look at e-publishing after they’ve failed via traditional routes, because they can’t face the fact that their stuff just isn’t good enough yet.

I have almost 100 rejections under my belt (and I consider this a relatively small amount). My first book took 18 months to write, and I couldn’t find an agent willing to represent it, let alone a house to publish it. And right then I could have said “Well, what do you know, all you people who make your livings in the publishing industry? I’m going to self-publish.” Instead I listened to criticism. I realized I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. That I didn’t know everything (still don’t). And I went back to the drawing board and started again. Took all those rejections and channelled all that frustration and wrote another book. And it was better. Ten times better. And it sold. At auction. Rejection made me a better writer. It made me push myself and write well outside my comfort zone. Everyone needs a good kicking now and then.

You need an ego to be in a creative field. You absolutely MUST believe in your own talent. But when everyone who pays their rent through the publishing industry tells you “This won’t sell”, they might be onto something. Yes, you might the one in a million shot where everyone called it wrong. It’s absolutely  possible. But it’s more probable that they’re right – that you’re not ready yet. There’s a fine line between ego and madness. A lunatic is a minority of one.

There’s lots of valid points about why the e-publishing route is sound. I find it easier to dismiss the arguments of a guy like J.A.Konrath, because everything he says is written from the PoV of a guy who had already established a brand through traditional publishing channels. The Hocking case is compelling, until you realize she just sold her next four books to a major house (amidst the gnashing of teeth and deafening cries of “sell ouuuuut”). Given the choice, she’d rather be a traditionalist. But still, there’s a case to be made, and many good points within it. Creative control. Greater royalties (Although 100% of 0 is still zero). Rights ownership. It all makes sense.

So in the end, in my mind, it comes down to this. A question. For all the slush-pile peeps out there declaring the death of publishing and the rise of the e-beast from the highest virtual rooftops, I ask you this:

If a major house offered you a seven figure deal to publish your first novel, would you still risk slinging it over at Smashwords?

If the answer is yes, then go forth young man/woman/tentacle beast. I commend your boldness, and in all sincerity, I wish you brilliant, staggering success.

If the answer is no, get back to writing the book that’ll get you that seven-figure deal, my droogies.

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

12 responses to “Publishing in E-minor

  • The Bay Area Brit

    This is brilliant, and confirms everything that made me wince every time someone suggested the self-publishing route.

  • Judd

    I think somebody smart and ambitious, who say… pays attention to market trends and is willing to work his ass off to make a good book into a great one… can succeed in either direction.

    YOU my fine feathered friend did it one way. I’m going to do it another.

    Each has their merits and detractions, but I refuse to believe one is inherently better than the other (not what you asserted, I know). I think horses for courses.

    I am positive of one thing though, I’m going to keep you posted however it goes. But that’s mostly because Mr Snuggles doesn’t return my emails, and you do.

    • misterkristoff

      Yeah totally. I’m absolutely not saying one is better than the other, and people like Amanda Hocking have PROVED it can be done. There are people who’ve been fantastically successful in both camps, so for me it’s not about being “better”, it’s really about instinct. The more you talk to people in publishing, the more you realize that nobody knows anything. It’s all subjective. “Sure things” become flops, books that every publisher in NY rejected go on to sell truck-loads.

      As long as you’re selling books at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter 🙂

  • Lucy V Morgan

    Wibble.

    [Stares ominously at the 7th “second project” she has started in the last six months]

  • Suz

    Hi, Lucy! *waves* Thanks for tweeting this link, and you don’t have to do any more ominous staring at your work! Just get your good words e-pubbed.

    Ebook publishing and traditional publishing work together. It’s all about money. I actually don’t like Amanda Hocking’s ebooks, but I like her marketing strategies. She wrote a lot of books, submitted them to lit agents who didn’t want them, then published her novels herself instead. A greedy publisher saw she was making bank on her ebooks and wanted in on a piece of that action, so they offered her a publishing deal worth millions. I’m not blind, I can see what’s going on here. That’s why I’m going to publish my own ebooks. I’ve had the rejections, I’m working hard on my writing and more than just my cat will be editing my words.

    Publishing a book is a gamble for publishers, but if you do what Amanda Hocking did, which was to write what the public wanted to read, you might stand a better chance of novel success. I don’t know why some people think it has to be one way or the other i.e. self-publishing vs traditional publishing. The two go hand in hand, duh! Now that Amanda’s books are being published traditionally, she will gain readers who like regular books. They will spread the word about her novels, which will sell more of her ebooks too. Get it?

    • misterkristoff

      Well, self-pubbing and traditional pubbing don’t really go hand in hand for an unsigned writer. You kinda have to choose one or the other. Any book you’ve already e-pubbed is going to be a hard/next to impossible sell to any agent. You can try traditional, then go electronic, but not the other way around. Not with the same book, anyways.

      I’m not really sure it’s fair to describe St Martin’s as “greedy”. 99% of us are in this business with the dream of making a living from it. Sure we love telling/writing stories, but we’d like to pay our mortgages too. Amanda Hocking obviously thought she was getting a sweet deal or else she’d never have signed up to it. She had the choice to continue e-pubbing if she wanted to – she was doing very well for herself. Instead she chose to go traditional. Ms Hocking wrote NINE books before she got big, and had ALL of them out there for sale when she started to crack the headlines. Then she realized the amount of back-end work required to self-publish was enormous when you start selling on the level she was, and she had no time to actually write. And I’m sure that’s a problem most of us would like to have, but I think it’s telling that the most successful e-published author in history jumped at the chance to go traditional when it was offered to her.

      All those editors/copy proofers/marketers/designers/typesetters/publicists pull a lot of hours on behalf of their authors. When you self-publish, it’s just you for the most part. That seems pretty intimidating to me. Not saying it can’t be done, it obviously can. But I’m not a marketer. I’m not a designer. I’m a writer.

  • Karin B.

    Whichever path a writer takes the whole experience is rather humbling. I’ve chosen the route of traditional publishing for all the reasons you mention, plus while I’m on my submission my agent handles the agony on my behalf, while I can do, you know, other things, like have a life.

    BTW: suck up sentence coming next so be warned: I am really looking forward to your book release, especially if it is written in a voice at all similar to your own on your blog!

    • misterkristoff

      Thanks! The book is a little more serious than the blog, tbh. It made my wife cry, and she didn’t even cry when E.T died.

      On the plus side, nobody in my book is anywhere near the colossal jerk that I am.

      GL on the sub! 🙂

  • Matt

    I’m of two minds.

    I’ve been trying to publish my anthology of Badger Poetry for a couple of years, and nary a peep from the ‘respectable’ publishing houses.

    Now, via the internet I am able to connect with people that share my passion. While I’m not aiming for commercial success per-se, it’s an excellent medium of cummunication, and allows people of similar interests to exchange ideas… and in my case, prose.

    It’s great to be surrounded by fellow Badger-philes.

    http://www.badgerland.co.uk/education/poems.html

    All the best Jay.

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