As someone who is interested in writing, I naturally have an interest in the publishing world. I grew up as an insatiable reader, and always dreamed that perhaps one day I would be selling books as an author. Later, I realized it wasn’t my primary interest in life, or at least not my only interest, and that I was more interested in the steady-paycheque world of being a salaried employee of a government entity doing public administration and policy. You know, a public servant, without the snide view of their role.
My writing has shifted over the years. Some email stuff from time to time, later some blogging and presentations. A few long reports for government. And I realized that as much as I might have dreamed of writing fiction, I have a knack for taking relatively opaque and / or complex topics and simplifying them in order to explain them to others. It’s fueled much of my career in government, as well as some of my personal blogging.
In addition though, my interest in traditional publishing was never very high. Sending off query letters? Getting rejections? Negotiating rights? Maybe seeking an agent? I have zero interest in ANY of those things. The rise of self-publishing with Amazon, rather than through the myriad of vanity printers, and the further development of the publishing system with more robust delineation of small- and medium- presses to combat the once-infamous big 6 publishers housed in New York, all led to a bifurcation of the type of authors out there.
Some still want the traditional publishing model — queries, agents, submissions, acceptance, advances, editors and eventual release of a book. Some authors look at it as a dream; some look at it as a nightmare. Some want the self-publishing model — formatting, self-editing, faster time to the market, and total control of all aspects from soup to nuts.
But what often amazes me is how some authors view one publishing model / path as the ONLY one anyone should ever choose. They will quote reams of data to suggest one way or another, compile anecdote after anecdote of famous author X who did it their way and made more money. Or, more pointedly, author Y who started one way and ended up switching and, after trying both models, only takes one of the paths now.
So I read a lot of articles about the industry, and I rarely share anything that is too one-sided. The article below is an exception, and for the first 80%, you’ll wonder why I shared it — I disagree with almost all of the opening. But there is gold near the end, I promise.
Over at BookBaby, the President of the company, Steven Spatz, has written a post called “Six Myths (and a Few Facts) About Traditional Publishing”. Spatz is DEFINITELY a convert, and most of the company’s business model relies on that conversion. But when I saw that the Passive Voice site (one of my favorites) had curated the above post, I hopped, skipped and jumped to the page. And immediately found myself arguing with almost the entire content of the post! Don’t get me wrong, some of it is fine, it is just so one-sided as to be laughable. Let’s go through it in detail.
Tackling myth #1: Traditional publishers serve as “gatekeepers”
Spatz argues that the myth is that the publishers “curation” ability will ensure good quality out the other side. Sure, there are some that believe that. In fact, it is the primary basis for all curation. That someone, other than you, has time, energy and expertise to review more things than you, choose what is better than average, and ditch the rest. Spatz argues that the curation really doesn’t guarantee quality, and that lots of things that are drivel still get through while lots of things that are quality are rejected.
Okay, so what? It doesn’t mean that the average book out of the traditional publishing isn’t better than the average book out of the entire slush pile. And a lot of those rejections are completely specious…three success stories that were initially rejected, yet a rejection doesn’t say it’s a bad book, it just says that the current curator didn’t see it working enough to invest in. There are people who didn’t invest in IBM, Google or Amazon either when they had the chance. So what? The only test if it works is the marketplace. Some people reject books simply because they don’t think they have anything to bring to the project — it’s not right for them. So they say no. Doesn’t mean they’re saying “Terrible book, you have no hope ever.” A simpler way to look at is like movies or TV shows…many are offered to lots of people who pass on it, not seeing what it will eventually become.
But that’s not my real problem with the so-called myth. The traditional publishers are not called gate-keepers in a positive tone by everyone because they ensure curation, just those around them. The rest call them gate-keepers for the simple fact that they control the gate. They don’t let everyone in, many are rejected. It’s not a myth, they ARE gate-keeping. If you want to be traditionally published, you have to be chosen to pass through the gate. And just about everyone views the term as negative, not merely a substitute for a curator. The justification the gate-keepers use is curation, it isn’t what their name means.
Tackling myth #2: You can only make the big bucks through traditional publishing
I think the funniest line in the whole article is “The truth is, thanks to today’s self-publishing revolution, you have an equal chance at huge sales results no matter which route you choose: traditional or independent publishing.” Normally, I would agree with the initial statement as a myth if it said “you can only make money” through traditional publishing. But there are no self-published authors who are hitting the big time sales and profits of JK Rowling or James Patterson. If you’re looking for Rowling-level results, you are NOT going to get there with self-publishing. You can’t. Well, unless you have a couple of million dollars to generate the machine that can drive such a juggernaut. In early days, sure. Mid-list self-publishing vs. mid-list traditional publishing? No comparison self-published will kick their counterparts butts in revenue. But truly “big bucks”?
The bigger myth is that ANYONE ever makes that kind of money. Rowling might, after huge success building on a huge success, movie tie-ins, etc. Patterson has volume and sub-licensing out the wazoo. But lots of big-name authors hit the so-called best-seller list and are not suddenly multi-millionaires. They make money, sure, but 20K sales aren’t going to give you enough to retire on.
The worst part of the post is that they are relying on Authors Guild letters as their citation. Just about everything they write should be treated as immediately suspect, and often their data is so weak, it can’t be relied on for anything.
Tackling myth #3: Traditional publishers will provide all the marketing support
Is it possible for me to agree with the myth being a myth, while still wondering if it is a myth that it was ever a myth? Basically the argument is that traditional publishers have drastically cut back. Absolutely. Because if you look around the publishing industry, the world inside and out has changed. We don’t consume books and promotional material in the same way we used to…the classic joke was that only 50% of advertising works, except nobody knows which 50%. That was true in the book biz. But mid-listers never really got much support anyway, although some were better than none. And over time, it is narrowed further to not even A-listers get much. However, when I open my copy of Entertainment Weekly, there are still a quarter-page and full-page ads for upcoming books by major publishers. NO small or self-publishing companies are doing that. You can do it on your own if you want. But only the most naive and uninformed have believed that myth in the last 10 years. So was it really still a myth?
Tackling myth #4: A publisher will ensure my book gets on the shelves of brick and mortar bookstores
This one actually pissed me off. Basically, Spatz has worded it as yet another strawman to say “publishers will ensure” and then knocked down the ensure part. Except what is missing is more clear emphasis of what he throws away as “OK, it’s true that traditional publishing is almost the only route to bookstore placement” followed by some buts that negate the “ensure” part. No buts. This first part is NOT something you mess with when communicating with would-be authors.
If you want to get your book on a store shelf, it is close to impossible to do it without traditional publishing of some kind. Small press is better than no press, medium is better than small, big is better than medium. Most of the stores order through consolidators…if they don’t consolidate from your press, you can’t even get ordered. And often the store will have a corporate policy that won’t even CONSIDER self-publishing because they usually can’t do returns. They’ll order stuff, maybe if you wrote a local mystery and they want to showcase you, you might have a shot at a couple of copies being ordered, but don’t bet on it. TONS and TONS of self-publishers have beat their head on this particular door and with little success. Not zero success, but not much.
So, sure, if you word it as a traditional publisher will ENSURE you are on a shelf, then it is indeed stupid; however, if you said going with a traditional publisher at least gives you more than a snowball’s chance in Hades, it’s not quite a myth. Without it, you’re almost dead in the water.
Tackling myth #5: Once you land a book deal, your author career is set for life
Similar to #3, only the most naive believe this. Any writer who has done ANY research at all as opposed to just writing and thinking they were done will have heard the word “mid-listers”. And they know that even being a best-seller (by whatever definition) doesn’t guarantee future deals. Or that you’ll even want them. To me, this is another strawman myth — I don’t think it even exists anymore except in the mind of people who know ZERO about the business.
Which bring me to his myth #6 (If you self-publish, you kill your chances of landing a book deal — actually SOME publishers WON’T touch you, but the rest is fine) and so-called Truth #1 (The biggest reason people still pursue traditional publishing is ego — actually the biggest reason is that they think it is more legitimate than self-publishing, not for their ego). Both are written to denigrate those who go traditional, and neither are very good. However, if you are running a business like BookBaby, I can see why you might want to mislead people into believing those views.
And if this was all that was in the article, I wouldn’t highlight it. I would dismiss it with a snort, self-promotion of the company, bad writing, etc. But Spatz has this one little section that is pure gold and reflects the true value of the self-publishing business model:
Truth #2: There are many compelling reasons to self-publish
I’ll just list the top three:
Royalties. By self-publishing, you’re not sharing your royalties with a publisher. Indie authors make more money selling 500 books than traditionally published authors selling 5,000.
Time. The traditional publishing timeline is long and slow. On average it will take 24 months to go from edited manuscript to a book arriving in bookstores. In the same two-year period, an indie author could have written, published, and promoted three titles.
Control. When you sign a traditional publishing contract, you are signing over all your control of the book. The words, ideas, pages, cover design — they’re no longer yours. You’re pretty much at the mercy of Mr. Bigtime Publisher — until they throw you out on the street because your book wasn’t a bestseller.
And that truth is one I think is worth sharing.