Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

The Death of “Self-Publishing”

It’s time to just say it. “Self-publishing” is dead. I’m not talking about the act of self-publishing a book. I’m talking about the phrase itself. “Self-publishing” now means two different things that are miles apart. It’s time to kill this useless phrase.

Barbara posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am confused by all the different terms in current publishing. Like “indie publishers,” “traditional publishers,” “ebooks,” “ebook indie publications,” “small presses” “small publishers,” “independent publishers,” “print on demand,” “hybrid authors” and whatever it is that Amazon does.

I am former Washington, DC newspaper reporter writing a novel about the newspaper business. Though I have finished a first draft and am working one revisions, I am not quite ready to submit a manuscript yet. But I need to know what all these terms mean and how to go about deciding where I belong. Thanks always for your great blog and for answering my question.

Randy sez: Let’s start with the most confusing term of all—“self publishing.” This used to have a single meaning. But in recent years, it’s come to mean two massively different things:

  • Vanity publishing
  • Indie publishing

Let’s look at these and define them clearly.

Vanity Publishing

“Vanity publishing” means that you pay somebody to publish your work. You typically pay them a flat fee and with that money, they then hire editors, proofreaders, typesetters, graphic designers, marketers, and whatever else. They take care of the printing, warehousing, shipping, distribution, sales, etc. If there are any profits, they distribute them to you, usually taking a cut.

In vanity publishing, you do the writing and you take all the financial risk. The vanity publisher does all the other work and takes none of the risk. The profits can be divided up various ways.

It should be obvious that vanity publishing is wide open to abuse. When you are fronting the money and taking all the financial risk, the vanity publisher has little incentive to keep costs down or do a good job or give you a fair shake.

It is possible for a vanity publisher to give you a fair deal, but most professional authors, editors, and agents will tell you that vanity publishing is almost always a terrible deal for an author. David Gaughran does a great job of explaining why on his blog, so I’m just going to refer you to him. Here’s one of his articles to get you started.

Indie Publishing

“Indie publishing” means that you act as your own independent publisher. You write your book. Then you do all the tasks that a publisher would typically do, or else you find a specialist who can do the ones you can’t. These tasks are:

  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Cover design
  • Typesetting (for print books) or formatting (for e-books)

Indie authors often do all of the above themselves. Then they upload their finished book files to the various online retailers—Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, etc. Or they may work with a distributor, such as Smashwords, who will deal with some or all of the retailers.

The key thing here is that the author gets a large percentage of the money—typically between 35% and 70% of the retail price of the book. The indie author takes all the financial risk and gets most of the rewards, so she has a high incentive to keep costs down and do a good job.

As it turns out, indie publishing can be a great deal for authors. The very best-paid indie authors are earning millions of dollars per year, and a surprising number are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. For a superb analysis of how much indie authors can earn, see the Author Earnings web site run by Hugh Howey.

Why “Self-Publishing” is Useless

“Self-publishing” used to mean essentially the same thing as “vanity publishing” and very few professional authors would have anything to do with it.

In recent years, “self-publishing” has also come to mean “indie publishing,” and a great many professional authors are doing it very successfully.

It ought to be obvious that “self-publishing” is a term that is too ambiguous to be useful. It needs to be thrown away.

We have two other perfectly good terms we can use instead: “vanity publishing” and “indie publishing.” So use whichever is appropriate, and nobody will be confused.

Let’s remember that there are some other publishing options. Let’s look at those.

Traditional Publishing

“Traditional publishing” means that you work with a publishing company that puts up all of the money to publish your book. They pay you some money upfront as an “advance” in exchange for the rights to publish your book for a certain length of time. They also pay for all the editing, proofreading, typesetting or formatting, printing, warehousing, sales, and distribution. They collect all the money earned and pay you a percentage as royalties.

In traditional publishing, you do all the writing and the publisher does all the other work and takes all the financial risk. You split the rewards with them.

What’s not to like with this arrangement?

Let’s be clear that this can be a great deal for authors. Until very recently, most of the really famous authors worked with traditional publishers and made great boatloads of money. There are a couple of thousand authors currently doing very well under this system.

The problem is that in recent years, the deal has gotten substantially worse for authors. Here are some of the friction points that authors have:

  • Advances have gotten smaller.
  • Authors are expected to do all or most of the marketing.
  • Royalties on e-books are low—typically 25% of the wholesale price of the book, which works out to about 12.5% of the retail price. This is very much lower than the 35% to 70% earned by indie authors.
  • Many publishers require option clauses that lock in an author to working with the publisher on the next book.
  • Many publishers require no-compete clauses that prevent an author from working with another publisher (or from indie-publishing) during a certain window of time.
  • Traditional publishing takes a long time to move a book from concept to final published book. It may take a year or two or longer.
  • Traditional publishers often can’t handle all the books that an author can write, and this is a huge problem if there are option clauses or no-compete clauses in place.
  • Traditional publishers decide what will be published and what won’t, and this often feels arbitrary and unfair to authors.
  • Traditional publishers hold all the high cards in negotiating.

There are probably other friction points, but these are the most glaring. These are the reasons why so any professional authors have simply walked away from traditional publishing and gone indie—they believe they’re better off on their own. These are the reasons why so many indie authors have refused contracts offered by traditional publishers.

Some authors use the term “legacy publishing” to refer to traditional publishing.

Hybrid Authors

“Hybrid author” is a term coined by Bob Mayer. It means an author who chooses to publish some books with traditional publishers and some books as an indie author.

Hybrid authors are looking for the best of both worlds, and this can be a reasonable choice. I’m a hybrid author, because I have some books still in print with traditional publishers, while all my current projects are in indie publishing.

Small Publishers

“Small publishers” are traditional publishers that are small—typically just a few employees. Small publishers often give better royalties on e-books. They may give more attention to new authors. I’ve worked with a small publisher, and it can be a sensible option.

Small publishers seem to be fading as more authors go indie.

E-books and Print-On-Demand

E-books are electronic books that are sold and delivered electronically. In some categories of fiction, most of the books sold are e-books.

“Print-on-demand” books are paper books that are printed and sold only when a customer orders a copy. Traditionally, publishers printed thousands of books in a large print run and then warehoused the books. This kept the cost per copy low, but if the books didn’t sell, that was a problem. The unit cost of a print-on-demand book is fairly high, but the risk is zero because you don’t print it until you’ve sold it.

Amazon has made it easy for indie authors to create and sell e-books and print-on-demand books. You can upload your e-book at kdp.amazon.com. You can upload your print-on-demand book at createspace.com.

Numerous other online retailers let you upload and sell e-books, including Barnes & Noble (at nookpress.com), Smashwords (at Smashwords.com), Apple (at itunesconnect.apple.com), Kobo (at kobobooks.com).

The publishing world is changing fast. Traditional publishing used to be the only game in town for authors who wanted a fair shake financially. Now indie publishing is an exciting option. Indie publishing gives authors some negotiating power with traditional publishers, because now they have the power to walk away.

Barbara, I hope that answers your questions. I won’t tell you what you should do, because every author is different. But now you know what your major options are. Good luck!

 

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

 

The Unsafe Road to Writing Fiction

So you’re writing a story and you know it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, except that … it isn’t. In fact, it’s bad. But the reason it’s bad is NOT that you’re a bad writer. The reason it’s bad is because you’re using a technique that’s not familiar to you. What do you do?

Hamish posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hello!

Ben reading your blog for around two years now, it has helped me greatly, thank you!

My question is this: I love first person, I despise third person. I love the knowledge of a single character, knowing them like the back of my hand, creating them however I want. I love being able to make my reader feel! Which, is something I’ve found I can’t do in Third Person.

This, however, is where I run into a problem. The stories I want to write my ‘staggeringly heartbreaking work of genius’ is best written in third person.

The real problem is that, when I write in Third Person I feels if my writing is poor of quality, and I hate it. So, how do I overcome this? When my story i best suited to third person? But, I myself am dismal when writing third person?

Apologies if this is a question asked many times.

Thanks.

Randy sez: Well, now, there’s a dilemma. You’ve got a story that’s screaming to be written in third person, but you are better at first-person than third-person. What do you do?

Tough question, and there’s no easy answer. This is why we call it a dilemma. This is a judgment call, so I’ll give you my judgment, even though I can’t prove it’s correct.

Let’s look at your options.

The Safe Road

You can take the safe road and write it in first person. This is what you’re familiar with. You believe you’ll do your best work in first person. The only problem is that you think the story would work better in third person.

There’s a possibility you might actually be wrong. It might be that this story would work just fine in first person. You could probably find that out by writing a few scenes or chapters and see how it’s working.

But let’s assume that you’re right—that the story would best be told in third person. If you take the “safe road,” what’s going to happen is that you won’t do this story justice because you’re using the wrong tool for the job. And that’s just not acceptable, at least not to me. I don’t want to work on a story unless I can do my best. So this is not the road I’d take.

The Unsafe Road

The unsafe road is to write the story in third person, even though you believe that you can’t do it well.

I suspect that if you give it a chance, you might find that third-person isn’t any harder than first-person. It’s different, but it’s not harder. You can give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience in third-person just as well as you can in first-person.

Writing in third-person is not harder. It’s just less familiar to you, Hamish. Which means that at first, it won’t feel right. But I’d bet that if you try it for a few scenes, you might start getting more comfortable with it.

Third-person lets you do interior monologue and interior emotion just as effectively as you could do them in first-person. (These are two of the five standard techniques novelists use in writing fiction. All five techniques are explained in great detail in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies, so I’m not going to try to repeat all of that here.)

But in third-person, your interior monologue can be indirect—it doesn’t have to be an exact verbatim transcript of the character’s thoughts. Instead, it can be a summary of those thoughts, which is sometimes an advantage.

Third-person also has another slight advantage over first-person. In third person, your narrative voice can be different from the voice of the point-of-view character. This lets you, the author, use your own narrative voice when you need to. You don’t have to. You can write a whole novel in which your narrative voice is always the voice of the point-of-view character. In first-person, you have to do this. But in third-person, if you want to, you can pull back a bit from the point-of-view character and inject your own voice.

Hamish, it’s not my job to tell you what to do. But here’s what I’d do if I were you. I’d try this story in third-person and see if I can grow into feeling comfortable writing that way. Every writer needs all sorts of tools in his toolbox. One of the most useful is the third-person point of view. If you don’t develop this skill, you’ll be limiting yourself. In fact, you’re limiting yourself right now.

Try it. See how well it works. Study the works of other authors to see what tricks they’re using to make it work. Keep trying.

That’s how you learn in this business—by trying things. Whether it works or doesn’t, send me an e-mail in a few months to let me know.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

 

The Official Rules on Head-Hopping

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but somebody told you head-hopping is a no-no, and now you’re worried because you like head-hopping. What’s the deal?

Agata posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I’ve been reading your blog and it’s amazing. I’m planning/writing a novel and your posts are incredibly helpful in organizing everything. I’m writing here because I have a dilemma about the POV characters.

I have two POV characters, sometimes they have their own scenes and sometimes they are together. In that case, I don’t always know which one should be the POV. Is it acceptable to go from one character’s head to another? Like here (I’m just making it up, but it shows the structure of my scenes):

Emily looked up when the door opened.

“you’re late” she hissed. God, he was so irritating.

“what do you want from me?” he snorted.

“to act like an adult” she left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Josh stood there, wondering how to apologize to her this time.

 

So Emily is the POV when she’s alone and when Josh comes in, but then she leaves so he has to be the POV. Is that ok? If so, can I swith POV when they’re both in the room as well, or should I adapt the “God’s eye” approach throughout the story and not show anyone’s thoughts?

Hopefully my question makes sense, I’m just not sure what I should stick to.

Thanks a lot

Agata

Randy sez:  Let’s define terms. “Head-hopping” is the practice of switching point-of-view characters within a single scene. This is not the same as the omniscient point-of-view, which would allow your narrator to know things that none of the characters know.

If you want to start a war among fiction writers, a golden way to do it is to tell everyone that they can’t hop heads. Or tell them that they can.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Wrong

Those who oppose head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character in each scene. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for the scene.

Then in the next scene, your reader may become some other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Right

Those who believe in head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character at a time. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for a part of a scene.

If you need to transition to another character in the same scene, you do that in a way that cues the reader that you’re about to hop heads. And just like that, the reader becomes that other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Randy Settles The Argument Once And For All

So who’s right? The hoppers or the non-hoppers?

Randy sez: Personally, I’ve never hopped heads. That has worked for me, and I’ll bet that 99% of my readers don’t know or care that I’m a non-hopper. Readers just care about whether the story is working for them.

But I have plenty of friends who hop heads all the time. So far as I know, they all write romance, and in the romance category, head-hopping is accepted. Why? Because in a romance novel, the relationship is the most important character in the story. Not the hero. Not the heroine. The relationship. So the reader likes to know what both the hero and heroine are thinking in each scene.

As far as I can tell, this works for my head-hopping friends. I’ll bet that 99% of their readers don’t know or care that they’re head-hopping. Readers just care whether the story is working for them.

Po-tay-to. Po-tah-to. What really matters is how it tastes in the soup.

What do you think? Leave a comment and tell me your opinion.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Agents in the Indie Age

So you’re an indie author writing fiction and you’ve been thinking of writing a novel for a traditional publisher and you need an agent. How do you make that work? What are the rules for working with an agent in the Indie Age?

“Jane” (not her real name) posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I recently made a connection with a literary agent who is willing to represent me. I wasn’t seeking an agent; this happened through recommendations from a small press who is publishing my next series. I did all my due diligence and this agency totally checks out positive, but I need some advice from you.

A little about me: I have two ebooks indie published (one available in print), a contract with a small press for a digital serial style series with the option of print on demand copies later, and more ideas and drafts then I know what to do with other then publish them one at a time myself.

I looked over the contract and the exclusive clause gave me pause. They did say they could include an addendum that would allow me to continue indie publishing if I wanted, but made it clear they want access to all my writing since they will be putting work into my success as well now.

I’d love to have an agent, to be a “hybrid” author, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. The publishing industry has changed dramatically, yet lots of people are still in the same routines as before. Would signing with an agent be detrimental to me at this point?

I highly value your advice. Thanks for any input you can offer.

Randy sez: Well, I’m hesitant to give advice when I don’t know you and your work well. And I’d be hesitant to give advice even then. So consider this blog post to be “Randy’s thoughts” rather than “Randy’s advice.” I’ll tell you how I run my own life. That may or may not apply to how you should run yours.

You only need an agent if you’re working with a traditional publisher. That is, if you’re completely indie, then you don’t need an agent.

My opinion is that if you’re working with a traditional publisher, even a small one, you need an agent. Publishing contracts these days are complex, and you need somebody to explain the nuances of each contract and fight for you on the clauses that are important. The word I’m hearing is that contracts are getting less author-friendly, so you need all the help you can get.

In my experience, virtually all agents want to work with you exclusively–meaning they don’t want you to have two agents. If you happened to be working in two wildly different categories, it might make sense to have two agents, but that’s rare.

In my opinion, it’s reasonable for you to give an agent exclusivity on your traditionally-published work. An agent puts a lot of work into each client, and that effort needs to be rewarded.

Some agents are a lot more indie-friendly than others. The important thing is that you have an agreement with your agent on what your indie activities are going to be. Your agent is your business partner. You must keep them informed on what you’re doing, if you’re doing any indie work at all.

If you and your agent don’t agree on your indie publishing, then that’s a serious problem. It sounds like this agent is happy, in principle, with your indie publishing. The addendum to the contract sounds like a good idea to me, but you should also discuss it  verbally to make sure that you both agree on the meaning of the addendum.

Some agents, in my experience, are just not a good fit for indie authors. Indie authors typically believe that the more books they produce, the better, because each book promotes the others. Some agents just plain don’t buy that reasoning. (And it looks to me like most publishers don’t buy it either.)

If you believe that your indie titles help promote your traditional books, and if your publisher insists on a strict non-compete clause that keeps you from producing indie books during some long window of time, then you have a serious conflict. You need to have an agent who agrees with you on the issue. And not all agents do.

If you’re going to work with an agent, you need to have roughly the same set of assumptions. Some of the points where indie authors disagree most with traditional publishers are the following:

  1. Life of the contract. Should it be limited to a set number of years? Should it terminate when sales volume gets “too low?” What does “too low” mean? Or should the contract go for the life of the copyright?
  2. Option clause. Should the publisher get an option on your next book? Or your next TWO books? If so, can you live with the terms of that option?
  3. Non-compete clause. What is the length of time that you’re willing to NOT publish any indie material that might compete with the traditionally-published book? How broad is the clause? Who decides what “compete” means?

You need to be on the same page as your agent on all the important questions. Any decent agent will of course be working in what he believes to be your best interests. But if the two of you can’t agree on what your best interests are, then you’re working with the wrong agent. And it’s best to figure that out before you start working together, rather than after.

Publishing is more complicated than it used to be. The trend is for more and more traditionally-published authors to do a bit of indie-publishing on the side. The trend is for more and more agents to help them with this. The trend is for more and more traditional publishers to pursue contracts with successful indie authors.

Because of these trends, I’m guessing that ten years from now, all authors will be hybrids or indies, and there won’t be ANY authors who are solely traditional. I can’t prove this. It’s just a guess based on what I see, and so it could be wildly wrong. But ten years from now, if I’m right, then I’ll say I told you so.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.