Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gate: New Thinking on How to Publish

Until recently, I’d never heard the term hybrid author. Now I’m about to become one.

It all started last year, when I was on faculty at the North Words Writers Symposium and discovered that some of my colleagues – writers whose work I admire – were swearing off traditional publishing. No ifs, ands, or buts: they were done. These are people with agents and multiple books with big New York houses. Other writers I know and admire had already reached the same conclusion, including Ned Rozell and David Marusek, who’d shared what they’d learned about digital publishing at another blog I help run, 49 Writers.

Hmmm. I thought a little about the phenomenon, but not too hard. I was working on two big projects, one literary novel and one narrative nonfiction, and wasn’t concerned yet about how they’d reach readers.

Flash forward to this spring. Raves came in from respected beta readers on the literary novel, now finished. I made my first runs at the usual gates – the agents who get you to the editors who get you to the sales teams. Having traditionally published twelve books, I knew how to do this. Research. Query. Submit on request. Wait. Wait. Wait. Revise query. Wait. Wait. Wait.

 “I am rooting for you and this novel,” one agent responded. “I truly loved your writing, and devoured what you wrote,” wrote another. But despite the positive comments, I got no takers on round one. “This may be owing mainly to my own overload,” one agent said. “I have about a dozen novels that I need to plow through before I can get to yours,” said another.

I stopped right there, and took a good hard look at the gate.

As it happened, I’d recently learned a lot about digital publishing. Every since the digital revolution began, I’d been telling myself I needed to bring out my first two novels, now out of print, as e-books. But I’d never gotten around to it. This spring, inspired in part by a revision project on a collaborative novel I’d done with Gail Giles, I carved out some time to research the digital publishing process.

Here’s what I found that convinced me to become a hybrid author, with one foot in the traditional publishing world and with the other bypassing the gates:

  • As the digital revolution unfolds, angst and uncertainty among traditional gatekeepers is only increasing, making it harder for them to take on new projects. Understandably, there’s a lot of watching to see how things settle out.
  • The stigma on self-publishing that goes back to the days of vanity presses is dissipating as good authors with good books put them out in digital format. Is there still an ocean of crap out there? Absolutely. But readers are smart. The good stuff will float to the top, if authors do a little work to make sure they get noticed. Also, releasing your own work in digital format used to discourage traditional publishers from picking you up later. Not any more.
  • The work authors do to get noticed is virtually the same these days, no matter how you publish. Unless you’ve got huge name recognition, you’re going to do blog posts and blog tours. You’re going to maximize your presence on Author Central and Goodreads Author. You’re going to have a social media strategy.
  • As my friend David Marusek points out, a big advantage of the hybrid author is confidence, the kind you get from having passed through the gates. Reviews in the big-name publications (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist) on previous books, selection of those books for industry honors, and the response of readers all help to generate that confidence. The hybrid author also knows, to the extent that anyone can, how the publishing biz works.
  • By bypassing the gates, hybrid authors enjoy two huge advantages: control and profit. Of these two, artistic and marketing control matter most. Profit is nice, too (although real artists aren’t supposed to talk about it). The irony is that if you’re bringing your own work to readers, your marketing and promotion responsibilities are actually lessened, in that you can sell a lot fewer books and still put food on the table.
  • With these advantages come responsibilities – but in my case, these are responsibilities I’m well-trained for. For several years, I’ve done developmental and line-editing for hire. Don’t get me wrong – I still use multiple strategies to get editorial advice on my books, because I want them to be the best books they can possibly be, and because I know every author has blind spots when it comes to her own work. But I’ve learned a lot about editing my own work by editing for others.
  • Artists can and should use both sides of their brains. In getting to the place where I can write full-time, I’ve run businesses. I do spreadsheets. I can estimate profit and loss. I do marketing plans. That I do so in no way diminishes my creativity. They are separate functions.
  • The production part is easier than you think, and getting easier by the day.
  • The revolution is bigger than you think, and it’s getting bigger every day with the other big game changer, Print on Demand, which is revolutionizing the way booksellers order and stock books from all publishers, big and small.
  • I’ve been at this awhile. I know myself pretty well. At this point in my career, I don’t covet big awards. I don’t worry a lot about reviews. I don’t need to be a star. I love to write. I want to tell good stories. I want them to reach readers. That’s pretty much it.
  • I’m disturbed by the so-called experts who proclaim that digital writers must spend 80% of their time on marketing and 20% of their time on writing. I’ve set out to prove that writers can and must flip those numbers around: 80% of their time on writing, 20% of their time on marketing. (Stay tuned for how that plays out.)
  • As documented in research by Dr. Alison Baverstock, indie authors (a broader term that encompasses hybrid authors as well as those who bypass the gates entirely), this new breed is a remarkably collaborative and helpful bunch. That makes the whole process much more pleasant (and efficient) than I’d ever dreamed. (Stay tuned for my upcoming post, A Tale of Two Covers, for a detailed example.)
  • Good, smart people like Guy Kawasaki are also making the process easier. Reading his APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur (and joining the Google+ APE community) empowered me to move forward with this paradigm shift. He also coined the term artisanal publishing, which is pretty cool.
  • The time is now. This is a sorting out period. When I was first contemplating whether to do anything other than my out-of-print books as digital releases, I did a lot of searching for other literary authors who’d taken the plunge. As I started to get distressed over how few I was finding, my left brain delivered a revelation: from an entrepreneurial perspective, that’s called opportunity.

Like my colleagues at North Words, am I done forever with traditional publishing? I doubt it. I like the idea of straddling the gate as a hybrid author. Next week, you’ll see the release of my first “artisanal” e-book, Out of the Wilderness, the digital version of the novel that came out several years ago. In the coming weeks, I’ll be talking more about Running Fox Books, a related venture that extends a goodwill platform to select hybrid authors.