Everyone gets a seat at the table

Last weekend I attended the James River Writers Conference. I feel so lucky to have a conference where I can soak up wisdom from the likes of Lee Smith and Barbara Kingsolver practically in my own back yard. I came a way feeling energized and great about the professional path that I'm on. Then of course I ran into a post on a writers forum I belong to about how self-published authors aren't true authors. When I was done seething, I started reflecting on how most of the industry professionals that I had met over the weekend had NOT had that same attitude. 

Saturday afternoon, sitting in a rather stuffy basement room in downtown Richmond, as people were filing in to hear Hugh Howey talk about "Self-publishing and the Changing Climate for Writers and Readers" I witnessed something that not a lot of people get to see, a bestselling author shifting around chairs to make sure that everyone got the best seat possible. It was a good thing he did too. By the end of the hour, people were standing in the back of the room. I can only hope that the other folks left there feeling as empowered as I did.

After the talk, word got around that Howey and some of the other folks from the conference were going to a brewery for dinner. So along with several other people who attended that talk, I went too. As our group grew, the table kept expanding. When we exceeded the original table, we were forced to rearrange. Again, Howey jumped up and with the help of some of the other gents in the party, began rearranging tables and chairs until everyone had a place to sit.

The next day as people were coming in for the Industry Update panel. Howey once again hopped off the speaker's platform and helped distribute extra chairs. Once everyone found a seat, we were in for what was probably the most interesting conversation of the weekend between Howey, Little, Brown and Company's Geoff Shandler, and Jane Friedman UVA professor and digital publishing expert. I wasn't ready for this panel to end, and I expect it could easily have gone on for another hour. (Should also give a nod to the moderator, Erica Orloff who did a great job asking the questions on this panel.)

It's easy at a writers conference where so many people are talking about submissions and queries and agents to feel as if self-publishers like me are relegated to the kiddie table. And I'll be the first to admit that some self-publishers belong there. Likewise, if you frequent critique groups or writing forums online, you will see no end to people saying things like, "Self-publishers are just writers who weren't good enough for a real publisher," or  "All self-published books are unedited junk," or my new favorite, "Self-publishers haven't done the work to earn the title Published Author." That last one really chaps my 12-hours-a-day writing, designing, blogging, promoting ass.

But this is really old industry (pre-Kindle) thinking. Sunday's discussion acts as exhibit A. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the editor from Little, Brown and Company (a subsidiary of Hachette) disagreed with the wildly successful self-publisher on the future of the industry. But the nature of that disagreement may surprise some people. What was not in dispute was the increasing role of self-publishers and the distribution equalizer that is digital publishing. The most contentious part of the discussion actually was on the nature of big traditional publishing. Howey, an avid industry observer in addition to being a terrific writer, makes no bones about his belief that if big publishing companies shut their doors tomorrow, there would be any number of small and independent publishers there to fill the void. Shandler contended that there is still a place for big publishers especially when it comes to funding well-researched nonfiction. He may be right about that, but where does that leave us fiction writers?

Well it leaves us in one of two places.

  1. Writing away in obscurity, then sending off queries to agents and praying to the ghost of Maxwell Perkins that maybe after about 60 or so rejections, someone will adopt us. Then they'll shop our book around for six months or so. If we're lucky enough to sell it to a publisher, we'll sign a contract for a minimal (if any) advance and anywhere from 8-12% of the profits.
  2. Doing it yourself. Pulling that manuscript that you've been nervously praying for an agent to like and holding it up before all the creatures of the savannah like baby Simba in the Lion King. Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but it sure beats hiding it in a drawer.

Then there is the issue of money. As I mentioned, traditionally published authors keep about 8-12% of the profits on their books. Which, when traditional publishing was the only way to get a book to market that had any credibility, may not have been that bad.

Now, that we have digital publishing, the distance from the kiddie table to the grownup table is much shorter than it was in the past. It's getting to the point where self-publishing isn't just one option for a new fiction writer, it's the only viable option. Here are some things that I knew before, but were really hammered home for me last weekend.

  • Traditional publishers don't sell books. They print them and distribute them, and they only distribute them to the booksellers who order them. I frequently hear some aspiring author on a forum say something like, "I'd rather have a traditional publisher because I want the marketing help." I try my best not to laugh out loud when I hear this. Any mid-list author will tell you that publishers only market their top authors. They do NOTHING for anyone else. So authors are expected to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to selling their own books. You might say, "Wait. If I'm doing all the work selling the books why am I giving my publisher 88-92% of the profits?" That's just one of the things I asked myself when I was deciding to self-publish.
  • Self-publishers make more money. Compare the 8-12% royalties for traditionally published authors to the 30-70% that self-publishers get, and that's not all from ebooks. As, my eight year old would say, "That's just math."  I would suggest that you hop over to authorearnings.com and have a keek at the earnings reports over there, or read this post by Howey just a few days before the conference. You'll see that in addition to their growing share of the market, income for self-published authors outpaces income for traditionally published authors. There are plenty of self-publishers making a good living at it. (Not me yet, but I'll get there.) The naysayer would say that self-published books don't get the kind of distribution that traditionally published books get. Well, that really depends on how you distribute. Booksellers can order my book through Ingram with the same discount rate and returnability that traditional publishers offer. And just like self-puiblishers, mid-list and new authors have to convince booksellers to carry their books.
  • Self-publishing builds platforms. This one is important if traditional publishing is your ultimate goal. In the current shifting climate within the publishing industry, publishers are looking for writers to come in with a built-in audience. That's their platform. Like any other business, they want to minimize risk. That's how Snooki and Bristol Palin got book deals in a flash while the rest of us labor in obscurity. The best way for a new writer to build their platform is through self-publishing. You're proving to agents and publishers that you can sell books. The self-publishers platform is SALES and that's a lot firmer platform than Twitter followers and Facebook likes. (Although, I do love all my followers <3.) Whether aspiring authors who want traditional deals like it or not, Amazon is the new slush pile. Why should your manuscript be moldering in a drawer, when it could be on Amazon building your platform? If you don't think agents and publishers aren't watching the Amazon best seller lists for self-publishers with big audiences, I'd like to introduce you to the likes of Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Amanda Hocking, E. L. James...

"But those are outliers." People will say. Sure they are, but there are more and more of them all the time. As more and more writers realize the benefits of self-publishing and switch from traditional publishing for the above reasons, that number of so called "outliers" will grow. They're not lightning in a bottle. They're business success stories. You don't hear people talking about Warren Buffet's, Bill Gates's or Mark Zuckerberg's success and saying, "Well, they're outliers." Yeah, they're outliers because they are wildly successful, but no one suggests that they didn't work for it. 

To call successful self-publishers outliers discounts their achievement. It makes it sound like they won the lottery. They didn't. They produced something that people wanted and they sold it, and sold it, and sold it.. They are entrepreneurs just as much as they are writers and publishers. (nod to Guy Kawasaki's APE).

So to review: self-publishers get to market quicker, keep a higher percentage of their revenues, have complete control of their product and build their own platform. What exactly do we fiction writers need traditional publishers for? Well, a lot of people will say it's for that stamp of approval, that vetting by a professional that says, "Yep, this is a book worth taking a minimal risk on."

$10.29 at Staples.com. Just saying.

Okay, that stamp will likely cost you several years of your life, countless hours of dealing with rejections and 88-92% of your profits. Dang, that's a mighty expensive stamp. I think I'd rather get my stamp of approval from my readers.

To the self-publishing naysayers, feel free to keep hiding your light under that traditional publishing bushel basket. Keep writing those query letters and praying to the big publishing gods. And by all means if you do get a deal, feel free to sit back and expect your publisher to market your book, or work your fingers to the bone selling books for a meager 8-12% royalties.

Meanwhile, I'm gonna belly up to the table and grab myself a slice of pie. Hugh Howey got me a chair.