Following my post on “The Way In: Where to Publish,” a reader wrote with questions so well-articulated that I asked if I might answer in a more public forum. Here, our Q & A:
Q: I am so disappointed I can't be there for your self-publishing seminar. I just read your piece on what happened with Dana (Stabenow) after she decided to re-issue her own out-of-print titles. It certainly helped that she had a big name and a built-in following. What I'm curious about are NEW novelists who don't go through gatekeeping but who decide to digitally self-publish (the ones who do actually have their work proofread first!). How do these authors fare financially?
A: According to recent data, it’s true that hybrid authors who have already established a following among readers fare better than authors launching a first title on their own. But keep in mind we’re talking averages here. Some traditionally published authors have no idea who their readers are or how they would reach them through even a basic tool like an e-newsletter. Others, like Dana, have been effectively connecting directly with readers (hers call themselves “Danamanics”) for years.
On the other hand, there certain books from newly published authors that surprise everyone by breaking through the clutter and noise to achieve phenomenal sales. The odds are very much against this, but it does happen, for both self-published and traditionally published books. The difference, of course, is that traditional publishers do their best not only to predict the books that become big hits but also to try to make them hits by throwing lots of money into creating buzz about those titles. Increasingly, however, publishers are less likely to have such confidence (as demonstrated by large marketing budgets) in brand new authors.
Q: Without a built-in audience for your work, self-promoting is a LOT of work, whether you use social media as your main marketing reach or not. It's still tough to get peoples' attentions, and when books aren't reviewed, either, well...
A: Even as the market shifts and fewer publications are doing formal reviews of new books, reviews still matter within the “literary community” — that is, for librarians and booksellers and what we might call, in perhaps a snooty way, “discriminating readers.” For these readers, reviews provide social proof; that is, the book is acknowledged as having merit by “smart” readers who move within their cultural and intellectual circles.
But of course readers choose books for many reasons. The so-called “beach read” is a great example. Even readers who care deeply about the social proof of reading well-reviewed books will choose something lighter and more entertaining in certain contexts in which reader reviews in online venues may play more directly into their choices than reviews in places like Kirkus or Booklist.
All of that being said: yes, it’s tough to get people’s attentions. When if you land a book deal with a traditional publisher, you’re going to be expected to self-promote; in fact, in weighing their publishing options, some authors have chosen the independent route because they understand that, either way, they’ll have to do most of their own marketing. Why not have control of the process while earning substantial more on each sale, these authors reason, which means of course that they need fewer sales to generate the same income.
Q: I have met someone in Europe who recently published her novel on Amazon's self-publishing division (my understanding is that Amazon also has its own imprint and that they have an editorial staff in-place for those who go through the Amazon gatekeeping route, but maybe I'm mistaken about this?)
A: Amazon is a living, breathing animal that’s always prowling new territories and adapting to market changes even as it helps create those changes. As they monitor the market and look for opportunities, they are experimenting with imprints that operate like traditional publishing, with editors and a selection process, but which also have the advantage of working outside some of the usual industry practices, incorporating strategies such as flexible e-book pricing, for instance, and print-on-demand instead of warehousing large numbers of books. Within the traditional industry, Amazon still gets branded as the evil empire, and that may potentially affect whether titles from some of its imprints get featured in bricks-and-mortar stores, but in terms of overall sales, I’m not sure how much that will matter to Amazon’s bottom line.
Q: Do we have marketing info on what genres are selling more than others in self-publishing world? Is it sci-fiction and fantasy? Or romance? Is anyone self-publishing literary fiction, for example? And what's happening with self-published NONFICTION?
A: Marketing data from all aspects of publishing, especially traditional, is notoriously hard to come by and difficult to interpret. Within the traditional system of distribution, this is primarily because of returns—there might be high front-end orders of a particular title, but when it doesn’t sell as expected, those “sales” are diminished by a high number of returned books, and the reporting on that comes in long after the launch.
In 2011, when the floodgates opened and the self-publishing stigma began to fade, the change happened first in genre fiction, especially romance, where readers care less about whether a title is reviewed in Publishers Weekly and more about when they can get their hands on the next book by an author they love. Nonfiction in certain categories also does well, especially self-help in various niche markets that are underserved by traditional publishers, who with their aversion to risk equate platform with celebrity status. Oddly, biography does well through independent channels; I’m not sure why.
Literary fiction, which is what I write, has been late to the party—or, if you think of it in another way, literary fiction is an area of self-publishing in which the market is less crowded and therefore offers some unique opportunities for authors who are willing to think outside the traditional boxes. Amazon knows this: they were one of the big sponsors at this year’s AWP, and you’ll also see their Kindle Direct Publishing on the masthead page of The Writer’s Chronicle.
In one sense, the literary community has been self-publishing for years; they just haven’t called it that. Literary journals don’t depend on traditional publishers. For the most part, the writers whose work they publish aren’t concerned about getting paid. And the readers are few – probably on par with the numbers who read the average independently published e-book. Yes, journals have gatekeepers, but other than that, the model is not all that different.
Another sign that writers who deem themselves “literary” are exploring new self-publishing options: an interview (well worth reading) on self-publishing in a recent issue of Poets & Writers.
Q: I know the stigma for self-publishing has greatly diminished but I am still one of those dinosaurs who is holding out and trying to get my manuscript picked up by a brick-and-mortar publisher. This is also why it may take me 10 more years!
A: It’s true that the stigma associated with self-publishing has diminished, and it will continue to fall away as more authors of truly fine books embrace that option, assisted in some cases by forward-thinking agents like Kristin Nelson who help their clients navigate in both arenas. Within a few years, we may even find that much of this binary thinking about publishing slips away.
I don’t see authors who hold exclusively to the traditional route as “dinosaurs.” There’s a certain validation that comes from getting through the traditional gates. Authors who’ve traditionally published, as Dana and I have, enjoy the psychological advantage of our work having been validated in this way. Authors need to follow the paths best suit them and their books.
Time is certainly one factor to consider. Waiting is important to the creative process. But waiting for someone to decide your book is worth taking a chance on in an increasingly crowded marketplace? For me, that kind of waiting is a source of huge frustration.
Q: There's this attitude from certain "writers" out there that they can just put what they want up on the Internet so that their friends and family can share in what they're doing as a kind of writing album or something, to say "I have a novel, or I have a book of poetry, and you can buy it cheap on _____." Meanwhile, other writers are working themselves to death honing their craft, going through the submission and rejection agonies, paying close attention to language, attending writing seminars and degree programs, studying all aspects of structure and storytelling, etc. And they pull their hair out or have nervous breakdowns while they wait, and wait, and wait.
A: The floodgates have opened, that’s for certain. What I see is a distinction between writer and author—and please note, I’m creating my own semantics here; others use the terms differently.
If you’re literate, you can write. And if you have something to say, something to share, and you want your friends and family to be able to read it, go ahead and put it out there on one of the digital platforms. It can cost as little as nothing. But don’t succumb to any delusions that your work will be discovered beyond your own circles.
Authors have a different mindset. For them, writing isn’t a hobby; it’s a way of life. They care deeply about craft and recognize that they’re always learning. They aim for each book to be better than the one before. On the merits of their work, they hope to connect with readers they’ll never meet, though they understand that in today’s market, regardless of how their books enter, they’ll need to be strategic about helping that happen. Are they going to wait and wait and wait for validation? That’s up to them.
Books by all these people, books that are gems and books that are trash, these co-exist in the marketplace, now more than ever. With publishing that’s accessible to all, titles by “writers” will always outnumber titles by “authors.” But readers can tell the difference.