The publishing world has changed radically in the last couple of years, thanks to those pesky e-books. Do the old rules still apply? Does chaos rule? Or are there ways to survive and thrive in the new environment?
Jonathan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’ve been reading what you have been posting regarding self e-publishing with a lot of interest lately. It seems like it’s almost creating a “wild west frontier” type aspect in literature, in which a lot of the traditional “rules” are being thrown out because there are simply better ways to do things.
My question regards the writing itself- with this new freedom for authors to publish what they want, how they want, do you see any trends towards fiction that might have been considered “unmarketable” in a more traditional situation? In this new system that seems to be developing, are there any forces besides market that will dictate what fiction is now? For instance, if I want to write something crazy and experimental (but hopefully entertaining) is there a better chance that I will find a market willing to read it in an e-publishing situation where I am taking most of the marketing onus upon myself?
Randy sez: It’s an exciting time to be alive, if you’re an author.
For the last five hundred years or so, the process of publishing a book was a very expensive process. (In today’s world, despite massive improvements in personal productivity for editors and their colleagues, it can still cost more than $50,000 to produce and publish a book, and that’s not counting the advance that must be paid to the author.)
That meant that large corporations needed to underwrite most books. Corporations who had a high priority to not lose money.
Big corporations aren’t bad people. They aren’t people at all, at least not people who bleed when you poke them. They’re organizations. Their goals are different from yours. When you go to a big corporate publisher to get your book published, you have to take their interests into account, or there’s no deal.
Furthermore, even if you do find a publisher to publish your book, typically you sell it rights to publish in a limited geographic area, such as North America. Getting a book with North American rights into the hands of Australian readers means either an expensive mailing of the printed book from North America to Australia, or selling the Australian rights to an Australian publisher, where it may not have the same economies of scale that it does in the larger US market.
E-publishing changes all that. For a few hundred bucks, you can get a graphic artist to make you a decent cover. For a few thousand dollars, you can get a full-service edit by a really good freelance editor. For a few hundred more dollars, you can find somebody to convert the book to the usual e-book formats. Everything else is free in the e-book publication process. Many e-book authors prefer to do it all themselves, so it’s possible to do the entire book at no cost (other than the cost of a computer, which is a one-time expense.)
So now just about anybody can e-publish their novel. But that doesn’t mean that anybody is going to buy it.
Certain of the old rules still apply.
Quality matters, just as it always has. Excellent writing is more likely to sell than crummy writing.
Marketing matters, just as it always has. If nobody knows about your great novel, nobody is going to buy it.
Luck matters, just as it always has. The nice thing now is that there are more ways to get lucky.
In the old days (before last year), getting lucky meant finding the right agent and the right editor at the right publisher at the right time with the right book, the right title, the right cover, and the right marketing.
If you screwed up on any of those, then your luck wasn’t likely to be all that great. And not all of those were under your control. If your publisher screwed up any of the things that it controlled, your luck was just as bad as if you, personally, had screwed up. Authors didn’t control their own destiny.
That road to nirvana is still open, and a few authors are getting lucky all the time. Hooray for them! We should all wish to get lucky that way.
But there’s a new road to nirvana, e-publishing. Now you need the right e-book at the right time with the right title, the right cover, and the right marketing. And all of those are under your control.
You have fewer things that you must get right with e-publishing, and if any of them get screwed up, it’ll be your fault. Which can make you long for the bad old days when you had “Big Corporate” to blame.
It’s interesting to see how many disaffected authors are out there, eager to “stick it to The Man” by doing an end-run on big corporate publishers. I’m not one of those disaffected authors. I have many editor friends who work for big publishers (although it’s been disconcerting to see so many of them lose their jobs in the last couple of years). I don’t hate big publishers. They’ve produced great books over the years. They’re now trying to drive an aircraft carrier through the rapids, and if they’re slow to react, that’s the nature of the beast.
In the old days, big publishers had numerous editors, sales-people, and marketing folks who functioned as “gatekeepers.” Their job was to make sure that a book didn’t lose money. Most of the time, they succeeded, although in most cases, the book in question didn’t actually earn much either. The few big winners paid for the entire party.
That is one of the things now changing with e-publishing. There is no gatekeeper. Not really. (Unless you’re writing something so irredeemably evil that the online publishers refuse your book.) Only market forces determine what will sell.
In the old days, every publisher had its own rules for its gatekeepers. Part of the hassle of getting published was finding a publisher whose gatekeepers would sign off on you.
So yes, Jonathan, if you’ve got something wacky and experimental and you want to try it, go right ahead. The categories are blending. If you want to write an Amish werewolf erotic western with Zen overtones, go right ahead. No gatekeeper will stop you, and the market will tell you if that’s a viable category.
But remember that you still need the Big Three: quality, marketing, and luck. Without those, your books won’t sell.
I teach quality and I teach marketing, but I’ve not yet figured out how to teach luck. So all I can do is wish you well, along with everyone else who sits down to write the next great Amish werewolf erotic western with Zen overtones.
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.