Monday, October 10, 2011

The New Era of Publishing

If I may channel for a moment my inner Army officer (since that's where I initially learned to communicate), I'll put the bottom line up front:


I'm serious.  I've been to many conferences.  This weekend's was the first one for writers I've attended, but my general experience from conferences in other disciplines is that you attend a bunch of sessions, and those that you expect to be great are usually pretty mediocre while those you expect to be mediocre are also often, well, mediocre.  There are often, then, only a few good sessions that end up making the time and money you've invested worth it.

That's what I feared with the James River Writers Conference, and honestly, right now my time is extremely valuable.  I'm still trying to write creatively while I buckle down this week to finish my dissertation, all the while continuing to love my day job.  This conference required I use one day of my vacation and also give up a Saturday with the family--not a small sacrifice.  It also cost $160 (since I registered early).  That's pretty inexpensive as writers conferences go, actually, but it's also half of a car payment, or two nights out to dinner.  All things are relative. 

I went, though, and I'm extremely glad I did, if my last few posts haven't made the point strongly enough.  Next year you really ought to go.  I got something valuable out of every single session, which is a first for my conference attending experience.  If you're in the Richmond area it's worth every penny, and if you're not odds are that the cost of airline and hotel and conference will still be less than or equal to the cost of similar conferences elsewhere.  You must go.

So, all that done, let me flit back to my brief (ha!) on what I learned there.  Today's post is going to be on the session that I, personally, found least valuable.  I said least valuable, not that there was no value at all.  It was still useful, and I could tell from the questions that a great many of my fellow attendees got quite a lot out of it.  It's just that I've spent a long time lurking and listening in the Indie world, so many of the facts presented weren't new.  But I'm choosing to cover this one third because despite my own lack of gain, it generated a bunch of buzz and thus needs to be discussed soon. 

The session was called The New Era of Publishing, and it was run by April Eberhardt, an accomplished literary agent.  Overall, it was a session largely filled with doom and gloom if you're an employee of the Big 6 (or a literary agent, though she didn't tie it back to that explicitly) but potentially containing a ray of hope if you're an author.  I don't think Ms. Eberhardt's crystal ball shows the Big 6 going away as some Indies are suggesting, and frankly I agree with her.  There will always be a place for the big publishers, though whether we end up with a Big 7 or a Big 5 or a Big 3 is up in the air (and largely disconnected from the discussion at hand). 

The power is shifting rapidly from the publisher to the author, according to Ms. Eberhardt.  I knew that, as does anyone who's got their ear to the ground around the Indie community, but it's still nice to hear an agent acknowledge it.  According to her numbers, 80% of all books published were pubbed by the Big 6 just five years ago.  Now, that number is down to 55% and shrinking.  Since the number of books pubbed by the Big 6 probably hasn't changed a lot, that indicates the pie is growing rapidly through the addition of many more indie-pubbed books.

That's good news for Indies, right?  Ms. Eberhardt didn't say, but I'm not sure it's good news.  The potential to indie-pub has always been there, because nearly any printing press will happily take on a book printing for a fee.  It's good news for readers, certainly, because we have many more choices out there.  For authors, indie or traditional, though, now there are double (ish) the number of people to out-market if you want readers to actually find your book to purchase it.  Discoverability is the key word for Indies, and your discoverability drops significantly the larger the field becomes. 

She pointed out, interestingly, that Amazon is going into the publishing business through their acquisition of CreateSpace, setting up of a service, and acquisition of some of the senior editing talent from the Big 6 houses.  Taken in light of their fairly recent and very public spat with MacMillan (one of the Big 6) over ebook pricing, it's even more interesting.  As Ms. Eberhardt pointed out, they'll have lighter infrastructure than any of the Big 6, who are "like battleships on ice skates" (I love that quote from her).  Amazon will be able to bring books to market much faster and much cheaper than their new competitors will.

It's going to be fascinating to watch the world of publishing evolve in the near future.

Her big three things to take away from the talk were:
  • There's no one right way to publish.
  • Authors and readers no longer need publishers to connect them.
  • New publishing models are cropping up every day. (agencies are even creating small pub houses)

An author has three choices, then, as detailed by the speaker.

Traditional publishing has all the traditional advantages: the agent and publisher do much of the heavy lifting for us, and the author might receive an advance for the work (against which royalties are accumulated, by the way, so it's not like you get the advance and royalties, at least not at first).  The negatives for this arena are that it's a very competitive space for new authors, advances are shrinking rapidly and are paid in more but smaller chunks, you still need to do promotion yourself, and no matter how good the reviews are, if your book doesn't earn to expectations, they may not take your next one.

A second option is running through small independent presses, typically on an un-agented basis.  The publisher still does some of the heavy lifting, depending on the house (frequently in the form of editing and cover design), and may even do a better job than the Big 6 at it because they focus on significantly fewer book releases (that part surprised me, but it makes sense).  The cons are that it's still lots of work, with fierce competition, it still takes two years to publication, the author still does much of the promotion, it still takes two years to publication, and the book still may or may not make a profit.

The third option is indie-pub.  Hey, hey, you're in control, and you face no competition to get your book out there.  Plus, there are many fewer people to share the money with when your book sells.  If, I must add, your book sells.  In indie-land, you have to do all the heavy lifting yourself, which is of course the general price of independence in the first place.  It's a lot of work, and profits aren't guaranteed. 

What Ms. Eberhardt didn't say, but I've picked up on loud and clear over in indie-land, is that the chief problem with self-pubbing is that the heavy lifting is in areas where authors very likely don't have interest, much less expertise.  Expecting them to design a great cover themselves is a stretch, as is the suggestion that they spend a couple hundred to a couple thousand for a competent artist to design one for them.  That's just a cover; very few writers have ever considered taking a business class or cracking open a marketing text to figure out how to go about making their work discoverable and something people want to purchase.  Most people, in my experience, blissfully go at writing their next book without ever taking the time to figure out that "marketing" and "selling" aren't synonyms.  I'm lucky.  I bring an MBA to the table, but I frankly can't imagine how an Indie would survive long without that--or perhaps the same but more targeted information one receives from a writers conference (like the James River Writers Conference--hint, hint for now; I'll cover those sessions later). 

Smashwords quotes that the overall average number of books sold per title is about 300, per Ms. Eberhardt.  So let's say you get a buck from each one (which is tough to do if you price it at $.99 like most Indies, but just go with it for now), then that's almost enough to pay for two writers conferences.  But you're in charge of pricing, remember?  So let's say you raise the price enough to make five bucks from each one.  If you still sell as many books, then that's enough to pay for a conference that's, like, out of town and stuff.  The good news is that if you use the profits to pay for a conference, you might learn how to out-market the 300-copy-sellers.

All that said, Ms. Eberhardt also pointed out that indie-pubbed books are inexpensive to publish (though not free!), quick to get to the market, and they begin making money once the low costs are covered (if, she apparently didn't feel the need to point out, the costs ever get covered).

Whew.  Long and dark session, indeed.  But she did leave us with five steps for success, regardless of which of the three paths we take, and these five steps are worth every moment of doom and gloom:

  1. Make sure your story is good.
  2. Edit, edit, and then edit again.  Professional editing is full of win (my words on that last, not hers)
  3. Create an interesting cover - KEY.  Say after me: you cannot sell more books than you have close (and non-poor) relatives without a catchy cover (my words on that last)
  4. Tune up your marketing skills.  Or, in many cases, actually gain some (again, my words on that last)
  5. Let go of the belief that only traditionally-published books are "real" books.  

She doled out a few other tidbits.  For example, one path to success some are taking is self-pubbing till the Big 6 notice you.  It typically takes a few thousand books sold to get to that point, Ms. Eberhardt said, but it's worked for several authors.  Keep in mind, though, that we've already said the average author only sells 300 copies.  To get from there to a few thousand requires something the average author doesn't have, and if you're at this point in the blog and don't know what that "something" might be, you should probably stick with sending queries. 

Also, Smashwords has, on their site, a great wealth of information on self-pubbing.  I agree; I've read most of it.  They even have it all (or mostly) lumped into a single how-to manual with pictures.  How's that for cool?

Finally, another thing I didn't know--the traditional publishers only have a 3-4 week attention span.  If the initial print run is 10,000 books, and they don't sell in that time, it's not like they're shipped to you with a smiley face on the front of the box.  Instead, the remaining copies of your wonderful work of literary genius are all--shredded.

And on that happy smiley note, time to get back to work for the day.

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