There was a lot of discussion earlier this year and in a great many different writing and general interest venues regarding the success of indy writer Amanda Hocking – which, however you slice it, remains a self-published and e-book success story. Candidly, I think that we need another zombie-werewolf-vampire saga like Custer needed another Indian, but hey- that’s just me. Not my cuppa, but if it floats yer boat . . . To paraphrase the lyrics of a certain old pop song – I can barely run my own life, why the hell should I want to run yours? Yeah – Sunshine, go away and get those kids off my lawn!
Anyway – as an indy-POD-author, untrammeled by the shackles of the literary-industrial complex, I had to give the Ms. Hocking all kinds of mad respect, for writing savvy, plus marketing skills and the sheer neck to go out and just do it. 450,000 copies of nine books, each at a price of .99-2.99 and the author getting 30-70% in royalties . . . is . . . a . . . a lot of turnips.*
I’m an English major, dammit! But I appreciate the business aspects of it all.
Yes, writing books for amusing and edifying a public is a business just as much as it is a pleasure. Technology and the internet make it possible and affordable in a way that writers could only dream about, ten or fifteen years ago. Everything has changed outside of what I have taken to calling the literary-industrial complex: the internet, e-books, e-mail, Amazon.com and their ‘look inside’ feature, POD printing, blogging sites, Paypal, on-line book review websites and on-line book clubs and writer-support circles have all blossomed in the past eight or nine years, like mushrooms after a good rain.
This can be seen as either a good or a bad thing; it means there are ever-increasing numbers of people writing books and trying to get published – just as circumstances have allowed them to do so, and at a minimal cost. A fair number of them are deluded and an even larger number of their books are awful – but then so are a lot of authors and their books who did get published the old-fashioned way. Numbers game – Sturgeon’s rule applies: 90% of anything is crap. Just do a wander through your local big-box-book-store to be assured of this, or cruise to various websites which specialize in wallbangers. (Wallbangers – books so awful that readers throw them across the room so hard that they bang against the opposite wall.) So, marketplace is huge, crowded with writers of varying degrees of skill, all vying for the attention of readers. The gatekeepers of literary tastes haven’t just been over-run, they’ve been trampled flat in the stampede. Good thing, or bad thing? That all depends, and it’s still in the process of shaking out.
Those writers who have the neck and the skills have the means to get their books out in front of the stampede are enthusiastic, naturally. They have disintermediated the literary-industrial complex by appealing directly to readers. There is no guesswork on the part of an acquisitions editor, or a marketing team, no second-guessing by an editor, or a cover designer . . . just rush past the gatekeepers, go into the market and grab your readers. The onus, the responsibility, the risks – and all the rewards – are on the indy writer, not upon the mighty juggernaut of Big Publishing.
If readers like the book – as they obviously like Ms. Hocking, they’ll be looking for your back list, which if you’re an indy-POD author, are forever in print and available. This aspect is quite appealing to those writers who have either been through the traditional-publishing mill, or who haven’t even been offered the chance to paddle out into the mill-stream via the standard-get-an-agent-route.
One of the commenters discussing the Hocking story did a heartfelt plea; “good writers with marketable material should not snub the publishing industry – they know a lot more about selling books than we do.” Which may be true, but I know of indy-writers with perfectly good, readable and fairly successful books who felt themselves to have been snubbed, either because they had been the rounds of the submission slush-pile without result, or because they had gotten a deal and an advance, and then discovered that unless you were a long-established writer, or a celebrity of some sort, you really didn’t get much else out of catching the literary-industrial brass ring. They had the cachet, the services of an editor, book designer, and maybe some publicity support but most of the time they’d be doing their own publicity. If the book was one of those agreeably mid-grade, genre novels which didn’t take off like a rocket, and didn’t make enough sales to cover the advance, they might even have to return a portion of it to the publisher.
Meanwhile big traditional publishing seem to be carrying on by looking in the rear-view mirror, as well as exhibiting a sclerotic inclination to acquire and market only the predictable, the established, and the well-known, and if it has a celebrity tie-in, all the better. I don’t have any first-hand inside knowledge of big publishing – but this is what it looks like from the outside. Those whom I know who do have first-hand knowledge are all saying pretty much the same thing. Original, quirky, outside-the-mainstream manuscripts – which may be also competently written and would have been accepted and published three or four decades ago, now have two strikes against them; first that there are hundreds of them, lost in thousands of manuscripts that are anything but . . . and Big Publishing is the same corporate-oriented rut as Big Hollywood. Only sure-fire blockbusters may apply, no risks allowed. No more taking a chance on ten or a hundred modestly budgeted productions, knowing that one or ten of them will make profits enough to cover the ones that didn’t do so well.
Now it’s a case of put everything into that one blockbuster, and play it safe. Finally, the last time I went jousting with the windmills of Big Publishing, only Baen would consider unagented manuscript submissions; every other house looked to have outsourced the slush pile from acquisitions editors to the agencies. So what’s a writer to do, considering the odds against but go indy? Especially if you already have a following or sorts, and established some basic writing competency. Early on, I was advised to do just that – give the old-school way a year and if no thing came of it, then go independent.
Once it was that a reputable publisher or agent wouldn’t touch an indy/POD book with a ten-foot pole – a fair number of them still had this stipulation in place – but now I know of at least two authors in my indy-writing circle who have gotten traditional publishing contracts after doing modestly well with their novels. It’s been suggested that the more savvy publishers may have already moved on from relying on agents as the first screening device for suitable manuscripts – as has been the practice for quite some time – to letting the marketplace sort them out. Doing decent and consistent sales of your book – not just on the blockbuster level like Ms. Hocking – are considered acceptable evidence of marketability. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun to do the modest regional author bit over the last five years than it is to keep on mailing submission packages in the hopes that someday the odds will be in your favor.
In the IAG discussion group a couple of years ago, one of the members put forth a rumor – that if you had sold 30,000 copies of your own POD book that a literary agent might then be interested, whereupon another member riposted that if they sold 30,000 copies of their own book, than what could an agent do for them, exactly? Well, something, I am sure, but I’m no longer willing to play the same game that I did, back when I was trying to interest an agent in my first novel. (Which has continued to sell quite nicely even though I don’t do any marketing for it, since it came out five years ago.) My daughter and I were discussing this aspect of indy-publishing just the other day, blue-skying what I would do if offered a hefty traditional deal, upon selling sufficient quantities of all my books. I honestly don’t think I could take it – unless it was a boat-load of money, of course. Even then, I’d set conditions. Look at it this way: I’d rather hire an editor, book designer, cover artist, publicist and legal representative myself, and keep control, rather than have to accept that which a publisher chose to ration out to me. I’d prefer to hire seasoned pros who worked for me – not someone whose loyalties were more for Big Publishing.
Such professionals are all out there – just like indy writers – many of them freelancing and relatively affordable. Just another blessing of the fully functioning internet, being able to find them and check out their portfolios, or even arranging for an exchange of services. If you are willing to be realistic, and open to educating yourself in lay-out, cover-design, formatting, marketing and promotions, it is possible to develop a small but reliable income-stream, out of going where your potential readers are, and putting it in front of them. Better than spending your time, energy and money in sending out submission packages, and someday hoping to catch the brass ring from the slush pile.
*gratuitous Blackadder reference