Monday, June 10, 2013

Publishing Choice

Kim Vandervort started off the month of June with a wonderful post about how kickstarters and crowdfunding have opened up a new world of consumer choice within the arts. 

I wasn't quite sure what topic to tackle as a follow-up until YA author John Green made headlines (or at least, a headline) last week with his passionate declaration that self-publishing is the bane of American literature. 

Green's acceptance speech for a booksellers award somehow morphed into a rant about an industry that is growing so rapidly and in so many directions that very few of us really understand what it all means or where it's headed.  It brought to the forefront the ongoing, often vicious tensions between the self-publishing enterprise and the more traditional publishing houses. 

And it inspired me to write about this topic, which I've thought about a lot, though I've said very little, in recent years.

Me and my first ARC
I became a published author at a time when the self-publishing boom was just beginning to take off.  While I was well aware of self-publishing as an option, I decided early on that I preferred to take the traditional route, or no route at all. 

There were many reasons for this decision, though perhaps the most important one was a point made by Green himself:  Publishing is a tough road to travel on your own. 

As a newbee to the publishing industry, I wanted to work with people who understood the market, who could assist with cover design and copy, and who could tell me honestly what needed to be fixed in my work before it went public.  I wanted to be part of a network of professionals who believed in my novel enough to invest in it, and who wanted to see Eolyn succeed as much as I did.

What I didn't quite understand -- even when I started querying, and right up to the moment when I signed my first contract -- was that within the universe we call 'traditional publishing', there are a myriad of options, not just five big ones. 

There is also a qualitative (and quantitative) difference between the small press experience and the mega-press experience. 

Within small press, there are respectable businesses that operate as true presses (i.e., they pay the author and provide all the services you would expect of a traditional press), so-called vanity presses (these make the author pay them while letting the author do most of the work you'd expect traditional editors and so forth to be doing), and everything in between.  There are presses that become your family, and presses that will only ever be your cold-and-distant employer.

Aspiring authors have often asked me what route they should take when deciding to publish, and I rarely have had a straightforward answer. There are costs and benefits associated with every option, and how each individual weighs those costs and benefits can be very different.  In other words, the right choice for me might not be the right choice for you.

And let me just say this upfront:  No matter how you publish, you as an author will assume most of the responsibility for marketing your work

It used to be that the big publishing houses offered an edge in this arena; not anymore.  Even as we speak, changes are happening in the publishing industry that continue to narrow the marketing gap between big press, small press, and self-publishing.  Marketing has become an integral part of every author's career, and there is no sign of this changing anytime in the foreseeable future.

If you can land a big press, you will have a company that assumes the upfront costs of publication. They will have the leverage to not only to get your books onto the shelves at Barnes & Noble, but to determine on which shelves they are displayed. (Yes, publishers pay for the visible spots on those showy tables you see every time you walk into a B&N.)

The flip side?  If your title does not recoup their investment and make a profit within 4-6 months, you will be black listed. Your novel, and very likely your name as an author, will never be backed again by that publisher or even by the book stores that carried you.

In fact, you can be a reasonably successful author only to find yourself dumped because book three (or two or four) in your seven-book series happened to have a bad run. 

The days when the big publishing houses were faithful to their authors are fast coming to an end; contracted authors are being dropped right and left as a matter of course.  Even John Green, currently basking in the success of his first YA novels, may well find his fierce and highly touted loyalty to Penguin spurned by Penguin a few years down the line. 

Small presses and self-publishing allow you to indulge in a slower road to success, if that be your preference. 

In the case of a quality small press, you will bear some but not all of the upfront costs.  If you choose to self-publish, you will need a nice stash of cash to get things started -- and often to keep things going.  (Hence the blossoming of kickstarter campaigns; see last week's post by Kim Vandervort.) 

In both cases, you have a longer window of time with which to build your readership.  You can, to a greater extent, choose how much time and money to invest in your own marketing efforts; you have almost full control over where publishing fits in the greater spectrum of your life.  You will always be new -- that is, not yet a failure and therefore something still worth taking a chance on -- in the eyes of most readers and booksellers. 

For me, the small press option has been an excellent choice, in part because it's allowed me to balance my life as an author with everything else I do -- and it's allowed me to do this without the pressure of having to write 50,000 words next month, or sell 300,000 books next year.  I have watched my readership build slowly but surely in the company of a fantastic group of professionals who are just as excited as I am about my stories -- and about storytelling in general.

I have not made much money, but I have a wonderful circle of friends that didn't exist just three years ago.  No price can be put on that.

In mulling over all of this, I've realized that the most important answer to this question that so many aspiring authors ask is actually fairly straightforward: 

Whatever path you choose to publishing, make sure it allows you to build a community, to be part of something larger than your own work. 

If you read between the lines of Green's rant, you may realize (as I did) that this was, in fact, his core message: publishing is a community endeavor.

In this light, the term "self-published" is a misnomer, because no one can publish entirely on his or her own. All of us depend on editors, artists, publicists, fellow authors, readers, book sellers, and countless other people whose support and enthusiasm are integral to our success (however it is that we choose to define 'success').

Unfortunately, in celebrating the community he is a part of, Green ignored the fact that "the book business, the idea-sharing, consciousness-expanding, story-telling business" can and does exist outside of the big publishing houses. 

I, for one, have found just such a community of dedicated professionals in the more humble but equally admirable halls of Hadley Rille Books

And I know for a fact that my colleagues who have chosen self-publishing have built their own communities based on shared commitment to excellence (the Genre Underground comes to mind as a fine example). 

So while I have my own doubts about self-publishing (and I'm happy to go off on that rant on some other occasion), I beg to differ with Green's misconstrued belief that self-publishing is somehow a threat to the breadth and quality of American Literature.

On the contrary, readers have never had more to choose from, and more power in their choice, than today. Diversity means breadth. Moreover, there is more than one avenue to achieving quality in the stories we publish. 

Just make sure that whatever avenue you choose, you do not walk it alone. 

A small part of the Hadley Rille family, reunited for ConQuesT 44.
 Publishing should always be done with  good friends,
avid professionals, honest criticism, and plenty of wine. 

- posted by Karin Rita Gastreich


Terri-Lynne said...

The fam. Great bunch to be part of, eh?

I suppose you know I agree with all you've said. My experience with HRB has been more than I anticipated for, back when I was still writing Finder in the hopes of Eric picking it up.

writerknv said...

I absolutely agree, Karin! What a fantastic post!

I have never regretted submitting my work to Hadley Rille. We ARE a family, a la the old days of genre publishing, and what I have gained in friendships and the support of my community far outweigh monetary gain.

Generally the people who speak out against small press and self-publishing are those who are currently published by the big "traditional" publishers. Those who speak out feel directly threatened by self-pubs and small press, because their paychecks are at risk. Small presses represent a rapid change in the industry, and any change is scary, let alone the sweeping global changes that have come to publishing in the past decade. Why pay agents and publishers when you can upload your work on and make a killing at a smaller cost to the reader than the big houses are charging? Why gouge the reader for a $12.99 ebook that costs a fraction to produce?

I'm going to step off the soapbox now before I hurt myself. :)

Anonymous said...

Although I'm a member of another small publisher's 'family' I agree with you entirely. Publishing is a daunting business, and I am very pleased to have so many supportive friends around me. Good luck to all of you, and maybe see you around.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

I agree completely Karin! The sense of connection we all feel makes this experience all the better in my opinion. The nice thing about starting small is we have time to grow, adjust, avoid splashy risks and troubling shifts in trends. Quality fiction mixed with quality friendships make a perfect combination!

Eric T Reynolds said...

Great post, Karin. One of the parts that struck me was: " the company of a fantastic group of professionals who are just as excited as I am about my stories -- and about storytelling in general."

It's true. It's like when one author in our "family" has success, we all feel it.

And the other, about the friendships we've all made. Those are valuable far beyond any success we've had from sales.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks, Terri, Kim, Jane, Mark, & Eric for all your great comments.

I'd love to hear from some folks who have done self-publishing, about the communities they have been able to build, and how the overall publishing experience has been for them.