Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What do writers want?

by Sandra Parshall
In the past, nobody except writers themselves cared much about what writers wanted from the publishing experience, because we were the least powerful people in the process of bringing books to readers. 

We were the crazy ones: we were addicted to writing, everybody knew we would write even if we didn't get paid, we would let an agent keep a manuscript exclusively for six months before rejecting it, we accepted that it might take years to find a publisher, we would grab any lousy deal that was offered because we were so desperate and so grateful to get published.

Now – or so I keep hearing – changes in the industry have given writers all the power, and suddenly a lot of people care what we want.

Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest co-sponsored a survey of 5,000 aspiring, self-published only, traditionally-published only, and “hybrid” (traditional and self-published) authors to get their views on a wide range of issues. Some of the results should be eye-openers for both publishers and writers. The detailed report is for sale for a hefty price through Digital Book World, but last week I listened to a free webinar that covered all the key findings. Following the data presentation, a discussion featuring survey co-authors Jeremy Greenfield of DBW and Phil Sexton of WD, along with hybrid author and Cool Gus Publishing founder Bob Mayer, was equally enlightening.

Perhaps the least surprising finding was that writers who have done both are the most savvy about self-publishing and traditional publishing. They’re the most flexible, the most aggressive about getting deals that benefit them, and they make the most money. Among the writers surveyed, the average annual incomes were $7,630 for self-published writers; $27,758 for the  traditionally published; and $38,540 for hybrid writers.

Money isn’t the biggest factor driving most authors, though. Having a writing career, being able to reach readers, is what matters above everything else. For some, self-publishing is the only way to achieve that, because a lot of traditional publishers have no interest in books that won’t generate big sales.

The “best” writers, in a purely commercial sense – the ones most likely to attract a large audience – do have a choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing. How can traditional publishers attract and hang on to those profitable authors?

Even self-published writers acknowledge the prestige of having a book published and distributed by a respected imprint. The ability to get books into brick-and-mortar stores is also a plus. And many writers simply don’t want the hassle of managing the publishing process themselves.

The author-editor relationship at a print publisher, however, isn’t a big draw for either traditionally published or hybrid authors, the writers who have actually worked with editors. During the discussion, the panelists talked about the pressure on editors to be “book processors” rather than partners with writers, especially when the authors are midlist and not likely to bring in a lot of money.

Traditionally published only authors are the least likely to want more creative control. Hybrid authors, having experienced the freedom of self-publishing, want more of a say in how their work is produced by traditional publishers. If a print publisher can’t provide added value, those writers will go elsewhere. The panelists agreed that publishers must learn how to serve authors better by providing things the writers can’t easily do for themselves.

Marketing and distribution would seem to be traditional publishing’s strong points, but writers across the board realize that only a small percentage (panelists estimated 5-10%) of books receive any kind of marketing investment. The money and time required for promotion must come almost entirely from the author. Regardless of how a book is published, its success or failure is usually a result of the writer’s efforts, and most authors know that going in.

One thing traditional publishers can offer, because a lot of writers don’t understand it, is the management of meta-data, which is key to “discoverability” for a book online. Tweaking a book’s meta-data can have a big effect on its sales, but many authors don’t have a clue about this aspect of marketing or they don’t want to invest the time to do it properly. Writers, after all, must write if they’re going to have a product to sell, and nothing can eat into precious writing time the way marketing can.

The panelists warned, though, that big publishers are just beginning to get a handle on online marketing. They’re learning that they can’t depend on Facebook and Twitter for everything – and that social media marketing is not free. Somebody who understands it has to be paid to do it right.

Writers who want to self-publish also have to learn that nothing is free. Good editing is essential, and good editors aren’t cheap. People with no credentials and no expertise are popping up everywhere to offer their editing services, and aspiring writers must be careful in vetting anyone they consider hiring. Good covers, even for e-books, are also vital, and finding a talented artist whose fee won’t bankrupt you can take some effort. The page  layout must also look professional. As the panelists in the online presentation said more than once, there’s a lot more to self-publishing than pressing a button.

Drawing on the survey data, the panelists had some additional advice for aspiring writers: Don’t wait until you’re published, in whatever form, to begin building your audience. Only a small percentage of the aspiring writers who responded to the survey said they already have websites, blogs, and Facebook pages. If they decide to self-publish, they’ll be starting from scratch, with no audience waiting for their work. If they want to publish traditionally, they’ll discover that a strong social media presence is a big selling point with both agents and editors. If you can bring a ready-made audience with you, you’ll be way ahead of the competition.


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
I'm proud and baffled to say that my perceptions of what's going on are valid, according to this study. I worry about marketing and PR. It's one area I just can't afford. I've always felt that traditionally or self-published, I'd be in the same boat.
I think your comments on editing are a propos. However, as a reviewer, I've noticed ebooks originating in traditional publishing houses are chock full of errors too, both formatting and editing. I try to look beyond these in the books I review, but I can't stand them in my own (I'd have more than 11 books if I lightened up on that, but I won't).
I think the study hit the nail on the head (pardon the cliche): writers want readers. I'm not in this for the money, I want to entertain people. Call it a storyteller's obsession or my Irish blarney if you will, but I like to rip off a good tale...and I have lots of them. Self-pubbing permits me a turn-around traditional publishing can't even begin to match.
All the best,

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Steve touched on the point I was going to make: that the essential point I believe is the most overlooked is that the self-published author, besides managing the meta-data and other aspects of marketing, has to do every bit as much promotion as, if not more than, the traditionally published author.

Barb Ross said...

Sandra--thanks so much for this summary. Nothing in it surprised me, but it was so good to hear that this conversation is going on within the industry.

June Shaw said...

Thanks for the info, Sandy. Not too surprising but informative.

Sandra Parshall said...

Lack of marketing support from their publishers is the most frequent complaint I hear from traditionally published writers. "They just dumped my book on the market and forgot about it." That's the case for 90-95% of books. It's true, as Steve said, that the burden and expense of promotion is almost entirely on the writer.

One major benefit of a traditional publisher doesn't appear to have been mentioned in the survey, although I suppose it fits under marketing: a traditional publishing house sends out review copies. A single good review in Publishers Weekly or Library Journal can get a book into libraries. Reviews in industry publications, and shelf space in libraries, still elude most self-published authors.

Ben Solomon said...

Another catch beyond your good info: this publishing landscape of today will only continue to evolve, and at an accelerated rate.