Monday, March 28, 2011

The Times They are a'Changin' - A Roundtable Discussion

For the last 25 years of his life, my dad was a self-employed business owner in the San Francisco Bay Area. He provided custom binders for businesses, such as banks that offer binders to their customers for bank statements, with the bank's name and logo printed/silk screened onto it; or a company that provides a syllabus for each employee or conference attendee designed specifically for that purpose. In his office, Dad had floor-to-ceiling samples of colors and fabrics for the binders, as well as style samples. His business earned him a comfortable living . . .

until . . .

the advent of desktop publishing. In just a few short years, not only his job but his industry had become obsolete. Dad was forced into a retirement he wasn't ready for, because companies large and small had in-house designers who could do the job more quickly and economically, especially with the help of businesses like Staples. His business went the way of the buggy whip, as my husband likes to say.

While traditional book publishing (hopefully) will never become obsolete, the publishing world is in the throes of massive change as we speak. Bookstore chains of the brick and mortar variety that were the big draw of shopping malls have gone bankrupt, and countless jobs have been lost within the industry. That puts writers on shaky ground. Even writers who've had no trouble in the past securing multi-book contracts are feeling the tsunami effect of the sweeping changes taking place. Authors you'd never expect to hear this from are seriously talking about self-publishing. While that once delegitimized an author -- with a few notable exceptions -- it's an idea that's catching on.

There are pros and cons to be sure, and I for one am testing the waters. In 2004, I self-published a Christmas novella through WinePress, and was extremely pleased with the product, but even as recently as 2004, self-publication required that I purchase a certain number of books, many of which are still in boxes in my garage. I chose to self-publish then, with that particular book, because of the "specialty" nature of a Christmas novella. I'm not sorry I did, though I would love to find myself woefully short of product. This time around, with the ease and quality of print-on-demand books and e-books, I'm hoping for a happier ending to my self-publishing story. So let's talk pros and cons, shall we?

I'm looking at self-publishing very seriously. With ebooks becoming more and more popular -- some estimate that 50% of book sales will be digital by 2015 -- self-publishing means no longer having to fill your garage with books. The scary part is taking on the risk that conventional publishers took on before, like editing and book cover design. I'm determined to turn out a superior product to what I've done with my publishers, as amazingly supportive and talented as they were. That means cash. Up front. Risk. I may have to sell off some assets. Anyone need a porcelain pig or one million writing books? I do love the idea of increased creative freedom and a broader market. What say you?

I don't have much to say about self-publishing. I've never done it, and I'm not in a place right now where I'm looking to self-publish. For my contribution to this roundtable, I'd like to point to the uber self-publisher Amanda Hocking whose self published YA books have sold over one million copies. Is that the end of her success story? Nope. She just signed a publishing deal with St. Martin Press. She's a smart, interesting young woman and you might enjoy her blog post about why she signed with a publisher AFTER her massive self-publishing success. Read Amanda's story in her own words.

Patti mentioned my main reservations about self-publishing. A book that runs the gauntlet of traditional publishing has so many gate-keepers who know -- are trained to know -- what they're doing when it comes to editing, book covers, titles, you name it, and have marketing contacts and money to put in place for all the above. I can only imagine how disappointing it would be to write a terrific story but package or edit it poorly, or have it flounder because I can't afford to market the book like I feel it deserves. Worse still would be for reviewers to point out these shortcomings and say that it was poorly done. So, I'm currently wading on the edge of the pool and waiting for someone to signal that the water is fine so I can dive in with confidence. Sounds chicken? Yes! But right now it seems like the prudent thing to do.

This is a thorny issue. I've been publishing books in the CBA market for over three decades. I feel tremendous loyalty, especially to Zondervan who took a risk on a young, unknown writer just three years out of a mind-bending cult. On the other hand, even the best and greatest of publishers in 2011 are not financially able to take the kinds of risks that they did years ago. Because they must turn down some good, solid books with less "star" potential doesn't mean that the books must remain unpublished. That's why I self-published a nonfiction last year; and, God willing, I'll re-release some previously successful and timeless OOP books (to which I've retained the rights) later this year. I realize the marketing and distribution will all be on my shoulders, but so far with Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith, I've been pleasantly surprised at the good results.

I'm on the side of the pool with Debbie, wondering if authors are having more fun in the water -- while also watching for sharks. But I've seen some fabulous manuscripts wait and wait and wait to find a publisher brave enough to court new markets in this economy, and I know I'd rather see their authors jump in than give up. Faced with that choice, I'd take the dive myself.

We know from previous comments that some of you have self-published. We'd so appreciate hearing from you regarding your experience with self-publication. Would you consider your efforts successful? Would you do it again? What were some of the benefits, and what were some of the drawbacks? If you would not self-publish, we'd love for you to share your reasons why. Thank you in advance for what we know will be a good discussion.


Lynn Dean said...

In 2000, I self-published a state history curriculum for Texas homeschoolers. When I say "self-published," I mean that in the fullest sense. So that students can interact with the material, it is published on CD-ROM, and I run the disks at home.

There were a number of other factors that played into my decisions to self-publish:
1-My niche market is small. (About 200K homeschooling families in Texas, not all of whom have students my target grades.)
2-As a veteran homeschooler, I knew my market well and had good contacts.
3-I used tons of full-color photos and illustrations. Traditional printing would have been prohibitive, and when I realized CDs were a way to go, I also realized all I'd need to learn (in addition to how to research and how to write and how to photograph) was how to program, how to market, how to . . .

It's definitely been an adventure, but even in the early lean years production costs were low enough that I could always eek out a profit, though sometimes just barely. But I believed in the product, so I improved it each year and broadened its availability. Last year, my tenth school season, I'm proud to say interest was higher than ever.

Self-publishing was definitely the right choice for this particular project. Many tears of frustration watered a garden I'm quite proud of today.

fOIS In The City said...

Good morning to all: It is said that all great minds think alike. It's because thoughts are universal.

This was my post on Friday, March 25th:

I love the original song too :)

Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

My publishing journey has included a small local company, a big NY publishing house, the publish it yourself that Lynn talked about and the P-o-D version with a couple of different companies. Since with all the options, the brunt of the promo fell on me, I'm leaning more and more toward the pod route for upcoming works, too. It's scary, though, because you do have to do your own covers, editing, etc. (or find a trusted source). You really have to believe in your book to do the self-pub way. On the upside, you get all the perks and profits.

BK said...

I just spent my Sunday afternoon reading through the exchange between JA Konrath and Barry Eisler. Very informative. If what they say is true, and trad pub stacks the deck on digital rights in their favor as protection against declining paper sales, with no great consideration of the author’s short term or long term, and if these digital rights can be frozen, and if, in all likelihood, the trad publishers are not very flexible about digital rights on behalf of the author, I am hard pressed to see why anyone would go the trad pub route. In addition to their exchange, I’ve been reading The Shatzkin Files and other updates on e-publishing.

Maybe it depends on where you are as a writer. If you have already traditionally published, it’s probably a lot harder decision. For me, an aspiring writer who has been reading industry blogs for the last 3 years, what I have learned is that there really doesn’t seem to be much difference between trad pub services and self-pub.

Uniformly, the gist seems to be that the author has to pretty much do most of the work to get their book ready and market it. The only clear distinction I can see is that the publisher distributes paper books and does cover design. Even their editing services have been scaled back.

The one thing I would like to see is a straight dollars and cents comparison of someone who has traditionally published and self-published in the last 2 years. How much money did the author spend prepping their manuscript for distribution (ie. Editing services) and then on marketing (goodies, touring, publicist, etc) for a trad pub? And how did that compare to the $$ they spent by digitally publishing on their own?

It seems to me authors could form a co-op to pool these other services and help one another. And even if that’s not feasible, there’s plenty of people for hire to help you with your weak areas.

I also wonder, what will be the stance of professional writer organizations who are at some level linked to trad publishers—how will that change or will it?

The argument about poor quality in self publishing is very old. And it is irrelevant because poor quality can come through traditionally pubbed channels too.

So how will professional writer organizations treat their self published members? There is much to think about.

As I read all this traditional vs. self pub, my head is spinning. It’s a lot to take in. But overall, I am glad about these changes even though I know how much hard work it is on either side. As a writer I’m excited. As a reader I’m excited. Because as a reader I am hopeful that with the traditional gatekeepers not in control of all publishing, self-pubbing authors will take a chance and put out some content that trad pubs refused to publish by virtue of the age old claim that “it won’t sell.” Maybe sometimes it won’t. But let’s give it a shot.

Anonymous said...

Lynn, you were innovative to go the way you did with a CD-ROM. I wish you all the best with your "watered garden." That was a beautiful way to word it.

Florence, well if that isn't an amazing coincidence . . . I'm off and running this morning but plan to read the whole interview when I get home this afternoon. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Cynthia, yes, you really have to believe in your work. And make the decision a matter of prayer.

BK, so many good points. I'll spend some time digesting, but I especially like how you ended your comment: "as a reader I am hopeful that with the traditional gatekeepers not in control of all publishing, self-pubbing authors will take a chance and put out some content that trad pubs refused to publish by virtue of the age old claim that “it won’t sell.” Maybe sometimes it won’t. But let’s give it a shot." AMEN!

BK said...

You know I've been thinking about this trad pub vs. self pub thing all weekend, and as an unpublished author who is looking at both sides and wondering which is better for me the writer, it's almost like I feel that going trad pub is like asking a kid growing up in this day and age to type up their book report on a typewriter.

It's the closest analogy I can think of.

Paula Wiseman said...

I am in the midst of a self-publishing adventure. I think Patti hit the biggest downside- the upfront money. Gaining exposure can be a challenge without an in-house marketing department. The assumption that self-published books are poor quality is still alive and well. However, hearing from a stranger that the book moved them is priceless.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh good golly! This is the stuff that keeps me up!

Keep submitting, knowing that it's a LONG shot? Or give in and put it up on Barnes and Nobel or Amazon? Or (most terrifying) invest thousands on a book that might not sell...and learn 100 ways to boil it and roast it to feed my children.

I wish I knew what was best!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh good golly! This is the stuff that keeps me up!

Keep submitting, knowing that it's a LONG shot? Or give in and put it up on Barnes and Nobel or Amazon? Or (most terrifying) invest thousands on a book that might not sell...and learn 100 ways to boil it and roast it to feed my children.

I wish I knew what was best!

Megan Sayer said...

I'm still a believer that self-pubbed books don't (I won't say can't) compete with traditionally published ones in terms of quality, although I'm happy to be convinced.

Traditional publishers have provided a gateway of accepted quality of storytelling, wordsmithing and structure which is a helpful standard for a newbie like me. I know where the bar is, and can use the work of others as a rough measure to where I'm falling short.

What I'd like to see in this new world is some kind of quality control on Amazon for self-published works - say authors could pay for editing services from a reputable independent editor which would earn them a "publishers tick of approval" on the site.

The other thing that can happen with books - which could be a very GOOD thing - is the way movies have gone: Hollywood films will generally be formulaic and spend much of their budget on big name actors and special effects, whereas if you search out some independent cinemas you'll find some incredible, left-field (what the hell does that mean, anyway?), original movies that leave you talking for weeks. Wouldn't it be great if self-published books translated as "excellent independent and thought-provoking" in the same way?

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I agree, Megan! I perused the books on Amazon and B&N and felt like I was flooded with vampire books and erotica...neither of which I write. I'm sure there are some good books there, I'm just unsure of how to find them! Quality control will become an issue.

Indy publishing really appeals to me!

Nicole said...

Good points all--except I agree with BK here: "The argument about poor quality in self publishing is very old. And it is irrelevant because poor quality can come through traditionally pubbed channels too." Can it ever, from mediocre or inferior writing to massive copy-editing errors.

I've self-published two novels. The first experience was not the best. The second experience with Pleasant Word (WinePress's POD Division at the time) was a breeze, acutely professional, a great experience. I'll be using them again in a few days for a third novel.

The marketing is the challenge. If you're good at it (I'm not), there is virtually no reason not to self-publish. This is always assuming you've done your homework with your writing. It's true anyone with the money or the boldness can self-publish, but with reputable outfits like WinePress, there are notable requirements. As far as the product itself, they produce absolute quality.

If you have a built-in audience or can make one, go for it. Authors are being required to do more of their own marketing by royalty publishers now so the marketing gig is going to be necessary anyway.

Success? Not so much. But how would some of you published authors rate your success with royalty publishing?

Satisfaction? Yeah. Regardless of the outcome, yeah. I feel good about what I've done.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, I have been mainly considering e-publishing. I simply don't have the money to pay for publishing. I do think that self publishing and POD have their advantages. My Dad has done POD with 2 novels and had HUGE success.

I, however, am not independently wealthy and have 3 little ones at home. It would be difficult for me to fork out that much money.

Megan Sayer said...

Susie you've just sparked another thought about Indy publishers:

A few years ago my kids chose a picture book from the library that was so amateurish in both story and illustration. I HATED it. Unfortunately they loved it, and I read it every day for three weeks (that in itself says a lot, really). My first reaction was to look up the copyright details and see if it was self-published. Surprisingly it wasn't! It was copyrighted to a publishing house with the address given as a PO box in a small town in regional Tasmania. I wondered what these people actually gained by going about it this way. Access to book shops? A break from the stigma of self-pub?

Gave me much food for thought. I'm sure that this new "publishing house" isn't producing a large amount of work. And not all indy publishers are created equally.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Megan, you're VERY right. Also, some traditionally published novels are awful.

Alas...this isn't an easy road.

Megan Sayer said...

HAHAHA!!! I just got a bunch of emails from comments here, and an email from Nathan Bransford's blog titled

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which Way Will You Make More Money?

Is there something going on this week in bookland????

Megan Sayer said...

Oh I forgot to say it's worth a read. He does $ breakdowns of author revenue, and some great info.

Can I make a link? I'll try...

nup. Ah well. I'm sure you're all good copy-and-pasters : )

Anonymous said...

Well Susie makes me think of something else--when I am using the term self publishing, by default I mean e-publishing. I don't know what they pay nowadays but I know of authors in past years who have paid thousands of dollars to self-publish paper books.

According to the Konrath/Eisler article, there are more options there too.

But for me, self pub is synonymous with e-pub, but it's good for me to remember that not everybody defines it the same.

BK Jackson (too tired to sign in)

Ellen Staley said...

I feel like I'm on the sidelines, watching, waiting, wondering which side will push ahead with the winning combo. This is a huge topic and not even on my radar for now. And so I watch and wait...

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Death Throws and Birth Pangs!
Mr. Gutenberg would be proud.
The most basic factors in the equation never change: there are always people searching for a story and other people with one (or twenty) to tell. First we did it around campfires with an audience of up to 50. Then the scribes got scribing and maybe 1000 people world wide were able to enjoy their art. Some have increased their audience through surviving book burnings, wars, floods, earthquakes etc. and landing a long term birth in a museum (until the next wave of book burnings, wars....). Then Mr. Gutenberg - exponential change. Expansion of audience equal to that of population and availability of education. And Mr. Microsoft Desk Top Publishing (sorry I don't know the actual name of the programmer responsible). On our winter holiday there were mostly retirees around the pool - 70% of them reading electronic books, very little paper.
Remarkably adaptable, we humans. Creative with the same plot for eons. I have no fear that someone somewhere will innovate to make electronic publishing easier, more appealing to author and reader alike and profitable for all (especially the middle man). I am fortunate to be in no hurry to publish, for the media to settle down, for the guinea pigs to be roasted or gilded according to God's will.

Latayne C Scott said...

After my very positive experience with self-publishing, I feel I should correct a misconception -- these days, not all self-publishing firms charge a lot up front (some don't charge anything other than that you buy a first copy to approve, and that one only at the regular price.) That's true of Amazon Create Space, and you don't have to buy any minimum number of books either.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thanks for the tip, Latayne!

And, so sorry for putting a capital "T" in your name for so long. I just now realized I was doing that.

Latayne C Scott said...

Susie, don't worry about the capital T. It happens all the time. You wouldn't believe the ways my name gets misspelled :)