Occasionally on the blog we turn the reins over to someone with thoughts they want to share.
Sarah Zama has always lived surrounded by books. Always a fantasy reader and writer, she’s recently found her home in the dieselpunk community. Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, comes out in 2016.
Have a look at her thoughts on the future of the industry, and then check out her website.
The last few years have passed like a hurricane on the fields of publishing. In a matter of five or six years everything has changed for everyone involved with books (authors, publishers, readers, booksellers) and at the speed of the lightening.
It is still changing. I don’t think we’re done yet.
Although utter change has invest anyone who works with or enjoys books, the big debate has centre itself around the means of publishing a book: most of commentary, especially on the indie side, hails the advent and freedom of self publishing and prophesises the end of traditional publishing as obsolete and unable to meet today’s shifting market.
Personally, I don’t think this is a black or white issue. This is my take at it.
Self Publishing: total control
What all writers want is seeing their work in print. We all want to see our stories and hard work transformed into an object (physical or digital) that can be ‘given’. We want readers to appropriate that object, that book, and share the experience with us and other readers.
In the old days, we would either have to get the interest of a publisher, or have money to invest in printing the book ourselves.
The digital era has ushered the revolutionary practice of self-publishing. Anyone can now publish a digital book, at no cost, if one so desire.
On the surface, this sound like an author’s paradise. There are many good things that comes with it, and the best of all is the total control the author has on the entire process:
- We decide when we want to publish
- We decide where to publish in terms of both online stores and nations
- We can decide how much money to invest. We can even decide to spend nothing.
- We decide how we want to promote our book, to the point we can change the price as we see fit.
- We can change anything about the book (the cover, the blurb, event he text itself) or the promotion plan in any moment
Paradise, isn’t it? In fact is sounds too good to be true and if we look a bit closer, we’ll see there are a lot of things we should consider carefully.
First of all: Do I really want that much control?
Sure, having the freedom to decide whatever I want may sound the best thing, but before I self published my first book I asked myself lots of questions: Do I have the skills and the preparation to take all these decisions? Do I have the know-how? Am I able to do everything which I’m expected to do in a professional way?
I knew then as I know now that I’m not and I don’t.
Being a self published authors requires to wear many hats. Even if we are willing to learn, we’ll never achieve mastership of all those skills. For example, I am a visual person, I do like to create images and graphics. But create my own cover? Sure, I can put together a pleasant image which is not too shabby, but I’ll still need the right tools to create one that also looks professional enough (we all know PhotoShop is the best tool… but not the easier to muster). I’ll have to learn composition and typography, the theory of colour, the best use of any kind of fonts. Ideally, I’ll also have to learn the best practices in my particular genre, which are the colours associated with it, which the images, the textures, the ideas that will be recognizable to readers. And sure I can learn all of this (in fact, I’d love to), but how long would it take before I muster that art well enough to make a professional job?
So here we start to see that we cannot actually do whatever we want and there are indeed some limitations to our freedom.
The first are: ability and time.
If we can’t do it ourselves, then we can hire someone who can. This is the essence of the author as soloprenaur: we gather our ideas, work out what we need, pin down what we can do ourselves and then hire out what we can’t. We become managers of our activity as authors.
But here lays another limit: money.
As much as we like to think – and we are often told – that we can publish without spending anything, the truth is we do that at our risks. The indie market has become very competitive in a very short time and readers are becoming very smart and very specialised, they know exactly what they want and they’re learning to recognise it at first glance. No author can afford to be unprofessional today.
We do pay for that.
So, the question is: can we actually afford to self publish? Can we meet all the expense? Can we offer a professional cover, a professionally edited plot, a clean text and an effective marketing strategy?
I feel that unfortunately the answer is: not always.
Take me, for example. As much as I’m trying and as much as I have improved, I’ll never be a good promoter of my work. I simply don’t have the mind that is required (natural inclinations is yet another limit we should consider). I’d love to hire a PR who knows how to do the job, but at the moment that’s simply too expensive for me.
Self publishing is a wonderful opportunity, one that only a few years ago was unavailable. But we should take this path knowing what we’re heading towards and being able to weigh pros and cons.
Traditional publishing: a team effort
Getting a book in the hands of readers is hard job.
We need a good story, but that’s fine. We are writers. Writing good stories is what we do. It’s what comes after that which may prove to be a problem. Editing the story, formatting it for publication, getting it into the store. And last of the list, but certainly not lest of the worries, is promoting the story. Because, let’s face it, very often we are the least prepared person to do it.
This is probably why all authors are extremely sensitive toward this area of the publishing business and why I hear so many complaint: if I have to do all my promotion, why do I even need a publisher?
There’s something that always surprises me about this line of thinking: we see very easily the huge change self publishing has brought to authors, but it seems we fail to notice that change has struck traditional publishing too. And very hard.
Authors who expect publishers to give advances, offer the entire process of producing a book and then promote it single-handedly are actually thinking at publishing as it was five, ten, twenty years ago. That kind of publishing doesn’t exist anymore… if it ever.
If we went the indie way, we would pay for every single service of the list. Do we think that comes at no cost for a publisher?
The cost of publishing a book hasn’t much change, but the ways to have a return of money has shrunk for publishers. Self publishing has created competition where it never used to be and this has unsettled all the balances in the traditional field.
Indie books are published at a mind-blowing speed (I don’t mean by a single author, I mean as a consolidated market), no publisher can keep up with such pace and indie books normally have a lower price than traditionally published books.
The matter of a book’s price is something we often overlook when considering the relationship between a publisher and its authors. Most indie authors have an easy-going relationship with their book price, the most hard-press question being, what’s the best price to get the most income and the most readers? It’s sort of the other way around for a publisher, for whom the question is, which is the lower price at which I’ll cover all the expenses?
The book’s price is what keep them on the market. Not only traditional prices are assaulted by indie lower prices, the publishing platforms royalties are also another steep point of competition. Where a publishing platform has very few costs in publishing a book (because most of the cost is sustain by the author) publishers still need to cover all their professional expenses.
This is one of the main reasons why today traditional publishers have less possibilities to invest in anything which is not actual production and of course this impacts on the amount of money they can invest in promotion. Authors often point out the small time and money publishers invest in promotion, but really that’s because publishers don’t have much time and money to actually invest, whether they want it or not.
It used to be done through media promotion and distribution, which were (and to some extent still are) venues only available to publishers.
Today promotion has spread everywhere and this means once again that competition has become fiercer and demands for higher investments of both time and monay. Expecting a publisher to promote all their authors (who will be hundreds if it’s at least a Small Press) is simply unrealistic. The amount of time that it would require is unavailable to any publisher.
On the other hand, the relationship with the readers has dramatically change. It used to be that information went from the publisher to the reader and even when an author was willing to be available to her fans, that relation would be handle by the publisher, since authors were seldom willing to give away personal details like their addresses or phone numbers. Contacting the publisher was the only way a fan had to get in direct contact with their favourite authors (that’s what I did too).
Today, the relationship between an author and her fans is laid out online.
Most anyone can be reached via social media, which is an acceptable way to get in touch inside safe limits.
This means that readers now expect to get in touch directly with the author and have no desire or need to get in touch with the publisher. Communication with the publisher is often perceive as promotion, not human contact and so it may result in negative outcomes.
Any marketing person will tell you that the success of a promotion campaign will depend on the quality of the human connection between author and readers, so as authors we must be aware that, any route we’ll take, we will need to make at least a part of our own promotion. That’s the most effective one.
I’ve never been traditionally published, but I’ve worked for nearly fifteen years for QuiEdit, a university publisher in my city, and I can tell you that, if this publisher cannot afford to continuously promote any book, he will never turn his back to any author willing to do the job. He will do anything he can to help.
So, if traditional publishing faces all these limitations today, why would we be interested in it?
Well, because a publisher is a machine specifically designed to publish books. All those decisions we need to take as indie authors will be handled by the publisher, together with the expenses, which a publisher – who works at many books and projects at the same time – can optimise with the least impact on the cost of the finished book. The publishing house becomes a specialised ecosystem in the publication of stories, the best environment to learn and grow as an author. The publisher naturally congregate experiences, professionals and authors on a wide range of different kind of stories, in a environment that – when vital – can push us authors further and sometimes in unexpected directions than we’d go of our own accord.
This is the reason why, even if I have self published a couple of stories and I plan to publish more, I’m still seeking traditional publication for other stories. I know that working inside a professional environment that isn’t created by me will give me experiences and skills I never thought I needed.
Unfortunately, getting in isn’t easy.
The hybrid author: choosing the best path every time
The indie/traditional publishing debate – one that is often heated – seems to concentrate on the supposed opposition between the two ways of publishing. If one way succeeds, then the other must be doomed to vanish.
Things are still furiously changing, so it’s very difficult to guess where the publishing industry will go. But it seems to me this debate hints at our fate is to be either indie or traditional authors. While I do believe that our natural qualities will make us lean towards one form of publishing or the other (I’m a slow writer, for example, it would be hard for me to focus solely on indie publishing), I think that the true difference lays in the project and not the author.
There are projects which are best handled by the author herself, for many different reasons. Maybe the theme is too unconventional for a traditional publisher, maybe the story is too short, maybe it is best suited to use as a free token designed to build an author platform. Other projects may be more suited for traditional publication, maybe because they are particularly complex and a team effort would be more effective, maybe because it requires means that are difficult to get for indies. Why then would we want to see one form of publishing or the other perish?
I don’t believe indie and traditional publishing are opposite ways to create books, I think they are very different but complimentary ways to do the same thing. That’s were the true control resides, in my opinion: in the freedom to decide, for every single project, which is the best way to go.
I do believe that the future belongs to the hybrid author.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sara!
Gang, check out Sara’s links below.