Saturday, January 26, 2013

Publishing; The New Paradigm

I'm getting so sick of new paradigms. I mean, I haven't even figured out the old paradigm yet. But new it is. As a matter of fact, by the time you get to the end of this blog post, I'm sure it will have all changed again.

Maybe new authors have it better than "established" authors. Maybe because new authors aren't stuck with the old models and can easily move forward without the old prejudices. I've had to rethink, re-do, and reinvent so often I'm a bit confused these days.

This is my roundabout way of saying that the publishing world is still evolving and welcome to my merry-go-round!

Once upon a time, there was the vanity press, where authors whose work wasn't good enough to be published by big New York publishers could publish it themselves. If you signed with a vanity press, you essentially paid to be published. And it doubly sucked because not only did you pay this money thinking that they would take care of it and you'd start selling like mad, but you didn't sell anything because bookstores certainly wouldn't look twice at you, and you could forget about reviews. There was no such thing as ebooks and Amazon yet.

Then Amazon took the book world by storm, and pretty much opened the door to ebooks (because they had this Kindle Kontraption to sell and needed content) and suddenly it didn't really cost you anything to get published. Except it cost the rest of us, because there was still the problem of lousy books getting "published" that wouldn't ordinarily have seen the light of day. And a LOT of them. Some 250,000 self-pubbed ebooks published each year now. But then more changes happened. Print on demand or POD technology became a viable way for authors to also get print copies of their work out there. (Because POD is just what it says. No need to warehouse books when you just wait for orders to come in and print them when...well, demanded.) And authors with a following, with an established record of publishing with big and small publishers, started to self-publish their out-of-print backlist as ebooks and then print books. Suddenly, it wasn't such a bad thing to self-publish, a formerly dirty word.

But as always, promotion is the bugaboo. A big publisher will at least have your book in their catalog from which libraries and bookstores could order. They'd send your books to reviewers. They'd get you your ISBNs and offer a way for bookstores to connect with distributors. They'd edit, proofread, and design your book, at no small expense. Of course that was all they'd do. No tours, no ads, no placement in endcaps or on tables in the bookstores. Not even a freakin' bookmark. Not for Ms. Midlist, anyway.

And if this last year has taught me anything, it's where promotion is good and where it is lacking.

It wasn't too long ago that if you couldn't get placement in a bookstore, couldn't get your book noticed there, then at least Amazon was another spot where sales could rise. After all, you simply went to your social media "Friends" and asked them to review your book or even "Like" it. Those mysterious algorithms on Amazon would catch those reviews and likes and creep your title up the chain of "if you liked this, then you'll like this" right into the faces of prospective buyers. But then the floor fell out from under all that with the emergence of the "Sock Puppet." A sock puppet is when an author not only pays people/companies to write glowing reviews of their own books, but to write scathing reviews for that of their rivals, whatever that means. (Authors don't really have rivals, not like, say, detergent companies have rivals. When a reader gets done with the latest medieval mystery, for instance, they don't just sit on their hands, feeling loyal to one writer and doggedly waiting a whole year until the next one comes out, forsaking the efforts of all other medieval mystery authors. No, they just go to the next author and buy theirs, and buy the next. And when that first author releases a new book the next year then of course there the reader is buying the latest. And the cycle goes on.)

Amazon got wind of these sock puppets and started deleting "suspect" reviews. Mostly by other authors. The problem was they weren't sock puppets. Authors do read books, you know, and are actually fans of other authors. I know I am. But that didn't matter. And so now the whole paradigm of getting lots of reviews doesn't seem to work anymore. So now what?

I've discovered over the years that tours really aren't worth it either. There is the meeting of bookstore owners and librarians, and those are worth a lot to establish those relationships, because a bookstore seller will hand sell the book of a writer they like, and similarly, so will a librarian when a customer doesn't know what to read next. But it's too expensive to run a hit and miss tour for oneself. After all, I'm the one footing the bill.

GoodReads? I find it hard to get the word out about my books there. Twitter? Some swear by it. Facebook? I found that social media might be a bit deceptive as to how popular you might actually be. The number of "Friends" doesn't necessarily reflect the number of people who will buy your books. And as some of you may know, I am now shopping for a new publisher once the latest Crispin Guest book comes out in the fall of 2013 (SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST). I'm not done telling Crispin's story but my publisher is. Besides signing with a smaller publisher, my first and most favored option, I do have another option, one that my agent wouldn't be too happy about. That is--dramatic pause--self-publishing them.

Why, after all my disparaging remarks over the years about self-publishing would I even think about the possibility? Sure, Barry Eisler turned down a rumored $500,000 advance from my very publisher (by the way, my advances are not only far from that ballpark, they aren't even in the same state!) in order to self-publish his next thriller, which he did. And he did just fine. I mean, he could afford to hire a publicist, a decent editor, a book designer and cover artist. And he already had a huge following. Self-publishers get a much bigger margin of profit from their ebooks than you'd see from a traditional publisher, something that publishers barely even cared about in their contracts five short years ago.

But I'm not Barry Eisler. And didn't he just sign with a publisher again? Yeah, it's easier with one than without.

Self-publishing wouldn't be free. You do have to hire an editor/proofreader. A decent cover artist. The book must be professionally turned out. Your readers would expect nothing less. But will it be worth the outlay? It's possible I could still get them into bookstores with the POD print editions (in paperback only. They be more expensive because the bookstore needs to make a profit, I need to make a profit, and the book printer/distributor needs to make a profit). It's possible with a little extra marketing on my part, I could get them into some libraries. It's even possible that I might be able to finagle a print review or two. But it seems that I would make a lot less than I'm getting now. Or would I? Is the higher percentage of royalty worth it? Might it turn out being about the same money? I'm already doing the lionshare of promotion myself, but there is more going on behind the scenes that a publisher can do that I can't (like this article in Publisher's Weekly that my St. Martin's publicist placed last year). What are the odds of my doing better? And as a writer, is it better to simply drop a series and write a new one, one that a publisher will want to publish? Is that how writers should roll these days?

The paradigm has shifted yet again and there are no answers.             


Sheila Connolly said...

I feel your pain. We as writers all hope there is one magic trick to get our name and our books in front of the right people (that is, readers/buyers!), but there isn't. If you're with a big publisher and if they choose to push you and purchase placement in the dwindling number of bookstores, great--but you the writer don't control that.

For publishers, it's all about the numbers (and they won't tell you what numbers they're looking for). So doing signings may be delightful, but you won't sell enough books to make a difference.

Makes you wonder why so many of us are still beating our heads against the wall, trying to sell our books.

Sandra Parshall said...

First of all, Jeri, I want to say that I think your publisher is making a big mistake. With more support from them, Crispin would be on a lot more readers' must-have lists. (That particular publisher will never have any interest in my work, if their past reaction to it is any indication, so I'm not terribly concerned about offending them.)

Second, you have to make the decision about what's best for you, but I would hate to see you give up on Crispin. I know how much he means to you, and I think he's a wonderful character. I hope you'll continue writing about him while exploring other fictional worlds. You could do quite well by self-publishing Crispin, or going with a reputable e-publisher.

Third, many (maybe most) smaller publishers present their books in catalogs that are mailed to libraries and booksellers. My mid-size publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has always had catalogs. They send out plenty of ARCs, not only to major reviewers like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, etc., but also to established online reviewers. Since so many of PPP's sales are to libraries, sending review copies to Library Journal and Booklist is a must. If someone asks me for a review copy, I have no trouble getting PPP to send one out promptly. They do some advertising, have booths at ALA conventions and the Frankfurt book fair, have all their books recorded by Blackstone Audio, put everything out in e-book form, and employ a top international agent to pursue foreign sales. They provide their writers with free full-color postcards and will provide posters for signings if requested. They pay royalties four times a year.

But the very best thing about a good small press is that they won't demand big sales and blame the writer if they don't materialize. As long as the author produces good books, and they make some kind of profit, the press will usually stick by the writer. That knowledge removes one of a writer's biggest worries: suddenly finding herself without a "home" in the industry. And if you're not a bestselling author, you will probably sell just as many copies of your books as you did with a major publisher.

Alan Cassady-Bishop said...

It's a terrible thing. The publishers are feeling the pinch like all of us and with the advent of the Amazon self-publishing boom, they see their profits dwindle. So they concentrate on the big sellers or those authors who can afford to do what publishers do but give it to publishers!
I've read some great 99p "specials" from Amazon. These are authors who, regardless of having talent, have been "frozen out" by the publishing world concerned with their own overheads and returns. Then again, some are so blatantly cruddy that it looks like this was the only way they'd see their name in print (even if it's on the etheral internet).

I think it's a combination of factors. A recession combined with leaps in technology and a broadening of availability have met to make "real" publishers miserly with their facilities.

Shel said...

I'm with Sandra. I don't want to see you give up on Crispin, and you do still have lots of options, including self publishing. Regardless of what your current publisher may think, you and Crispin DO have a following, and with self-publishing you have more control. Also, the small publishing house option is a very viable one. Have you tried Mysterious Press/Open Road, or Midnight Ink as options for Crispin?

Susan Schreyer said...

I think the vast majority of authors understand your frustration, Jeri. It's a rapidly changing landscape and more often than not very difficult to find the right path to your goal. Hey, even the goal shifts from time to time as well! It is imperative for all of us to say on top of what is going on in the industry and remain flexible. It is impossible to predict -- with any accuracy -- what will be happening a year from now. That said, it's not only a frustrating time to be an author trying to sell her books, but an exciting time as well. New opportunities to connect with readers open daily. Some produce results, some don't. Some of us get lucky, most of us simply work very hard.
In my opinion it is the publishers who have taken the joy out of writing a book. We have become so concerned with the "numbers" that we are constantly seeking ways to improve them. For those of you traditionally published, it's flying blind. Improve your numbers! But you aren't told what they are -- or only quarterly, if you're lucky, and then it is too late to know if a promotional push you did 4 months ago had the desired effect. That is no way to run a business. Everyone but the publishing industry seems to know that.
This is one of the reasons (ONE, not all)I chose to self publish. Please don't dismiss self publishing as the route to take only if you "can't make it in the real world." There are excellent business and artistic reason to follow that path. I keep hoping we have advanced past that old stigma and realize that clinging to a system that doesn't work (for 99.9% of everyone)does not prove you are a good writer.
My advice to everyone is to take advantage of what is available and what works for your own personal goals. The mix of approaches is up to you. Maybe you'll get lucky and sell a lot of books (yes, luck is important), but more importantly you'll gain ownership of your art and your process.
Be bold. Be happy.

Reine said...

Excellent analysis... and hopeful.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Jeri,
Most authors feel your pain because the digital revolution (ok, call it a paradigm shift) in publishing has had one big effect, increasing the competition. But we can't take our failures personally because having a bestseller is like winning the lottery. We just have to keep slogging along....
I second your comments about Goodreads--user unfriendly for both readers and writers. Amazon has become tyrannical with its algorithms and review policies. Etc. Etc.
Sandra, you last line is also valid for self-publishing authors, especially those focusing on ebooks.
Alan, as an addendum to your comments, agents are now only passing on to the publishers what they consider a "sure bet," a policy that will deprive readers of new authors.
Susan, while my decision to stay with self-publishing (now 100% ebooks) is dictated now by cost and control, I was driven there by over 1000 rejections from agents and a few who "read my MS" by sitting on them for months, then saying they weren't for them after all. When you add my observation to Alan, self-publishing is logical. So's a small press, of course, but then there's that control thing (they tend to have their own ideas about covers, for example).
Fundamentally, the problem nowadays is the competition. I think those freebies and $0.99 ebooks will soon go away, ebook pricing will settle down (indies will still have an advantage), and more indie books and books from small publishers will hit the big time.
All in all, I find this exciting!

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