Monday, February 25, 2013

Indie Pub Overview, Part 1

I put together some material last year for a class I taught to my local Writer's Group about navigating the new world of Indie Publishing, and given that I find myself referencing the material frequently in conversations with other writers, I thought I might offer it here to anyone who might be interested in it. This is less about giving you all the details in this rapidly changing environment of indie publishing than it is about helping you fill in the outer pieces of the puzzle. Nevertheless, I hope you find this useful.

Changes in the Publishing World

We are living in a time of tremendous opportunity, challenge, and risk when it comes to being an author. The last five years have seen a tsunami swamp the publishing world, causing many publishing houses to capsize and sending a lot of people adrift on a sea of misinformation.
I started my career as a published author right about the time when the wave was just hitting. I’d grown up under the old rules, and just when I was ready to put into practice all that I’d learned about publishing books the traditional way, everything changed.
I’ve spent the last several years learning how to navigate the flotsam and jetsam of publishing, how to surf the waves from those who are riding high, and I’m beginning to come out ahead.
I want to share with you what I’ve learned to this point, so that you can avoid some of the mistakes I made early on, and hopefully have a successful time as a published author.

Traditional vs. Vanity

Let’s start by talking about the antediluvian world of publishing. There was a time, not so long ago, when a writer essentially had two options when it came to seeing his or her work in print. You could go with the traditional, so-called legacy publishing houses, or you could go the self-publishing route with the so-called Vanity presses (sometimes called subsidy publishing).
The traditional publishers included the Big Six, and their subsidiaries (Hatchette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penquin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster), as well as a gazillion independent presses. Most of these publishing houses require you to have an agent before you can sign with them. You wouldn’t actually offer your book to them. That’s the agent’s job. The agents functioned as the gatekeepers of the Emerald City, keeping you, Dorothy, and her friends from getting inside to see the wizard who can make your dreams come true. Only if your book is of exceptional quality and likely to sell would you have a hope of making it through. Supposedly. In practice, it often came down to luck, whim, and connections.

            Proposals, Queries, and Synopsis

To publish in the traditional world, you first have to submit a proposal (for non-fiction), which includes a hook, the concept for the book, estimated length and time it will take you to write it, and your credentials. Non-fiction books are often written after the book is accepted, so that the editor has a chance to weigh in on the direction the book should take.
For fiction, you first have to compose a query letter. A query letter includes an opening hook, a brief blurb about the book, the intended audience, comparative works, word count, and your writing credentials. For fiction, the book has to be finished as well. Don’t even think of offering an unfinished book. No matter how good you think it is.
Along with your query letter, include a synopsis. This is typically one page long, which tells in a nutshell the complete story of your book. You must include the ending. The agent wants to know that you’ve told a complete, coherent story.
It’s also possible that you would include sample chapters or pages. All this is detailed in the submission guidelines for the agent. They vary from agent to agent, too.
And so you assemble all this material, send it out to a list of fifty agents, and then you wait. And wait, and wait some more. You will get rejections. Most will be form letters. Many agents won’t even bother to reply. It’s not ‘cause they’re mean. It’s because they’re buried under submissions. Sometimes, you may get a rejection letter that actually has some helpful criticism. This is gold. It can help you make your book a stronger book.
And on a rare occasion, you may get asked to send the entire manuscript. Once more you wait and wait and wait, and you can still get rejected, or accepted. And if accepted, you can wait and wait and wait while the agent shops the manuscript around to various publishing houses. This can be a very time consuming, very frustrating process. Your best bet during this phase is to put it out of your mind and get to work on the next book.
The hard part with the traditional publishing world is getting through the gate.

            Vanity of Vanities

If you don’t like the waiting game, you can always self-publish. Vanity or Subsidy presses, like traditional publishers, typically made use of “Offset Printing.” Offset printing is a commonly used printing technique in which the inked image is transferred (or "offset") from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. It is very time consuming to make the plates, and there is a high cost involved.
Once the plates are made, then the printing begins. A typical print run of about three thousand books might make it cost effective.
In vanity publishing, you would pay the publisher an upfront fee to make the plates and print them. You have to do all the rest of the work yourself. The vanity publisher takes your money, prints the book, and then sends them back to you to sell or sit in your garage.
Some vanity presses offer marketing plans or editorial advice, but you still have an upfront fee that must be paid. Many so-called publishers are quite shady in this regard, because once they get your money, they have no more motivation to help you succeed. More than one author has been burned going this route.
Worse, the fact that you’ve been self-published was considered a red-flag by the traditional houses. It suggests that you don’t have the patience to go through the gauntlet of editing and rejection everyone else has had to run to be sure your book is of quality. So you wouldn’t even list it on your resume when pitching your next book.

The Tsunami

But now everything has changed. Two technological developments have met and caused a tidal wave that has swept away many small presses and is eroding the foundations of even the Big Six.
Recently, Dorchester Books closed, having sold out their lines to Amazon and released their writers from the contracts that Dorchester has been unable to pay or sustain.

            Print on Demand

The first development was a new process called “Print on Demand.” Print on Demand (POD) is a printing technology and business process in which new copies of a book (or other document) are not printed until an order has been received, which means books can be printed one at a time. This dramatically reduces the costs involved, allowing a writer to produce a book, and then have it printed when the book actually sells.  
Print on Demand sites have sprung up like weeds all over the internet, and writers are beginning to take advantage of them. There are some like Createspace, Bookbaby, and Lulu which don’t  charge anything to print and distribute your book. And then there are the vanity presses that have quickly jumped into the field, replacing their offset printers with digital printers, and keeping the same pricing strategy they employed previously. There’s also a whole new set of vanity publishers using POD technology and still charging for the privilege of selling your books through them. Caveat Emptor.


The second major development—perhaps even more significant than print on demand, is the creation and explosion of electronic books.
Ebooks started out as the bastard stepchild of the publishing world. Practically anybody could create a pdf document, call it a book, and sell it over the internet themselves. But as the technology that allows us to use mobile devices began to replace computers, so too did e-books start to come into their own.
Companies like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, and Apple began creating small, portable devices called e-readers. Often these utilized backlit LED screens that weren’t very good. Then the technology for Electronic Ink came into its own around 2004, and the market took off.
The E-Reader Revolution has already claimed some victims. Borders Books used to have brick and mortar stores that were a solid competition to Barnes & Noble. But in 2001 they made the fatal decision to outsource their online sales to Amazon because it was more convenient than doing the hard work of developing their web sales themselves. Borders never recovered.
The sea-change has not only affected bookstores such as Borders and forced Barnes & Noble to compete in new waters, it has also destroyed the walls to the forbidden city of published author. True, the gates still stand, and many people wait patiently in line for the gate keepers to approve their work and let them pass, but meanwhile a horde of new authors are simply climbing through the breach in the wall and publishing directly to their readers without bothering with an editor or publishing house at all.
In July 2010, Amazon reported sales of ebooks for the Kindle outnumbered sales of hardcover books for the first time ever during the second quarter of 2010, saying it sold 140 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there was no digital edition. By January 2011, ebook sales at Amazon had surpassed its paperback sales. The American Publishing Association estimated e-books represented 8.5% of sales in mid-2010, up from 3% a year before. By July 2011, net sales of e-books had jumped to 15 percent of the market, and ebooks outsold hardcover books in fiction for the first time.

What’s It All Mean?

To put it simply: you now have the potential to completely sidestep the traditional and vanity press models of publishing. There is no longer any middlemen between you and the reading public, except for the distributors themselves. No more gatekeepers.
On the positive side, anyone can become a published author today.
On the negative side, anyone can become a published author today.
The lack of gatekeepers means that there is no quality control anymore. The market is flooded with garbage—though hardly saturated. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to rise above the garbage being cranked out by people too impatient to hone their craft and succeed with no one else being responsible for your success but you.
Whether in print or electronically, you can make it as a published author. You don’t even have to make a million bucks in nine months like Amanda Hocking did. You could putter along as a midlist author like J.A. Konrath and still make a decent buck selling e-books, because as an e-publisher, you will keep a larger share of the royalties, meaning you don’t have to sell as many books in order to be successful.
And the advantages are huge: A) the market is only expanding as more people are born (7 billion at last count), as more buy e-readers (over 10 million sold by the end of 2011), and as these readers look for new content. You could sell a thousand books a day and spend more than twenty seven years doing it before you saturated the market. B) Your books will never go out of print. They will always be available as long as the internet is available in some form or another (and if that goes down, we’ve all got bigger things to worry about).
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  1. The thing about print on demand is that small-to-medium sized traditional publishers use the technique also, it's not limited to self-pubbing. It cuts the overhead of having a warehouse holding stacks and stacks of books--which is great, because many of these small houses publish newbies, and sales aren't guaranteed or forecastable (for lack of a better word).

    But it's true, many small, traditional publishing houses have sprung up over the past several years. Most go under pretty fast, but some have managed to weather the storms by finding excellent works to offer the public.

  2. Inventory-less, green publishing.
    Thanks, Michael. This is going to be a great series.