Indy-Writing Scene; 2018

The indy-author scene is not the only thing which has radically changed over the last decade; just the one that I know the best, through having the great good fortune to start as an indy author just when it was economically and technologically possible. It used to be that there were two means of being a published author. There was the traditional and most-respected way, through submission to a publishing house – which, if you were fortunate enough to catch the eye and favor of an editor, meant a contract and an advance, maybe a spot on the much-vaunted New York Times best-seller list. This was a method which – according to the old-timers – worked fairly well, up until a certain point. Some writers who have been around in the game for a long time say that when publishing houses began viewing books as commodities like cereal brands and ‘pushing’ certain brands with favored places on the aisles and endcaps, and treating authors as interchangeable widgets – that’s when the traditional model began to falter. Other experts say that it began when tax law changed to make it expensive to retain inventory in a warehouse. It was no longer profitable to maintain a goodly stock of mid-list authors with regular, if modest sales. Mainstream publishing shifted to pretty much the mindset of Hollywood movie producers, putting all their bets on a straight diet of blockbusters and nothing but blockbusters.

The other means of getting a book out there was what used to be called the “vanity press”, wherein someone with more literary ambition and money than sense and patience paid for a print run of their book, and usually wound up with a garage full of copies. Strictly speaking, this was not such a bad way to get a book in circulation, especially if it was an obscure topic, such as local history or an impatient, new author. Quite a few of the 19th century greats actually kick-started their writing careers by paying for a print run of their own works. My own Tiny Publishing Bidness was launched nearly forty years ago, and some of the local histories which we published, of interest to researchers in the field since they were mostly based on original research go for quite astounding sums on the rare book market.

Three elements have it possible to route around mainstream establishment publishing over the past decade and for independent authors to make a modest living from writing, or at least have a regular income stream. The first was the shift to digital printing from traditional lithographic press; once those big industrial presses begin rolling, there’s a thousand, ten thousand copies of a book printed in a matter of hours, and at a minimal per-item cost, but at a substantial overall expense for whoever was paying for the print run. Digital printing offered an alternative; a slightly higher per-unit cost but producing only as few copies as were required at a time. Almost at once, industrial printers began offering the digital option. New boutique publishers made their services available, for relatively modest sums: format the text to print specs, generate a nice cover, print only as many copies as required, and make the book available to distributors … like Amazon. Amazon’s development of an e-book reader, the Kindle (followed by other reader systems like Barnes & Noble’s Nook) was the third development which upended the traditional publishing industry, eliminating printing, storage and distribution costs in one go. (Although not editing, formatting and marketing expenses.) It doesn’t help that mainstream publishing, or what I’ve been calling “the literary-industrial complex” has been concentrating itself into fewer and larger houses, just about all of them international when they aren’t based in New York and throwing their energies into mass-marketing a diminishing stable of established authors, and through retail channels such as Barnes & Noble.

Curiously, this all has had the effect of leaving the field wide-open for independents like me, to small regional and specialist publishers – like the authors I spend three days with last week at the Word Wrangler Book Festival in Giddings, Texas. The book festival was started thirteen years ago, to benefit the public library in that town. Book submissions are juried by the committee – and the requirement is that the books have a Texas setting or interest. That’s pretty much it – although if they might be of interest to junior readers, that’s a bonus, as the Festival is the focus of school field trips on one of those days. Picture books, self-help, travel, gothic, romance, mystery, thriller, historical fiction – our books ran the whole gamut of interests. Just about every book on display was a quality production, the equal or better of anything produced by the publishing establishment. Indy authors have now been at it long enough to have developed considerable professional skills, either on their own or through networking with freelance talent, and professional organizations like the Texas Association of Authors. This is a paradigm shift that the mainstream publishing establishment wish would go away, if they even admit the existence of it, beyond some snotty remarks about the bad self-published stuff. (Of which there is quite a lot, admittedly. There is also an equal quantity of awful books published through the mainstream, although the copy-editing tends to be a little better.)

The towers of the Literary Industrial Complex are still standing, however cracked the foundations might be. One of the other writers at Word Wrangler has a lovely series of educational picture books. A couple of years ago, she explored the possibilities of the Texas-local HEB grocery chain stocking them, and regretfully decided against it. Accustomed to the good old ways of doing business with established big publishing, retail corporations like HEB have requirements for quantities, returnability, and pricing that simply can’t be met by indy authors and tiny regional publishers. Alan Bourgeois, who founded the Association, has been working with HEB and other companies to adjust their requirements. He has met with some success in this, although a recent meeting with the CEO of Barnes & Noble proved disappointing. The last big box book store chain still standing is still wedded to their old model, of preferring a policy of top-down management, rather than allowing local store managers latitude when it comes to hosting book events with local indy writers and prominently stocking indy-published books. The late lamented Borders and Hastings were much more receptive and responsive, generally. As a footnote and perhaps a harbinger of things to come; a French author, whose latest book was rejected by publishers, apparently because of the subject matter – went to publish it through Amazon … and that book subsequently won a national literary prize. But the French bookstores won’t stock it, because – Amazon has cooties, or something. When establishment publishers and bookstores reject authors whose books are embraced by readers, this does not portend well for doing business in the same old way. In any case, I believe there is not a better time than now for readers and for independent authors.

13 thoughts on “Indy-Writing Scene; 2018”

  1. You are welcome – it was such a lovely weekend in Giddings, and the Friday evening dinner with all the other authors and the members of the Wrangler committee was such fun. Yes, there is a fanship in the heartland for books and reading, and there are middle-school students who haven’t had a love of reading stomped out of them by the educational establishment and the literary-industrial complex.
    And on the way home, we went by Berdoll Pecans, where there is a refrigerated coin-op machine where you can buy whole pecan pies!

  2. I have long thought that if a young Ernest Hemingway or Samuel Clemons was trying to get a book published via the traditional method, he would have a very difficult time. Of course without inventory in a story isn’t it harder to build up sales?

    But as I understand it, Amazon only makes a book when it has a buyer for the book. And i guess you can get an ISBN – everything Random House would do.

    An author doesn’t have to get 300 rejection letters anymore.

    Thanks for the update!

  3. You forgot that the publishing houses have been taken over by SJWs and now have an agenda.
    If your book doesn’t fit the agenda, they aren’t interested.

  4. Bill – yes, an indy author can get about everything done for their book that the publishing houses do – including an ISBN. There are a lot of freelancers out there, willing to do illustrations, cover design – everything and for fairly reasonable rates. One of the other authors at Giddings — Angela Castillo, from Bastrop — had some particularly lovely covers for her historical romances. She has a friend who does historical reenacting, and has a huge wardrobe of period clothing and accessories, some other friends who served as models, a photographer friend, and access to ranch properties. Voila – suitable, professional-grade covers for a small cost.
    Dan – yes, there is that, as well. Apparently the establishment publishing world draws on a very limited pool of people these days.

  5. You forgot that the publishing houses have been taken over by SJWs and now have an agenda.

    I submitted my medical history book to Yale Press back in 1998. It was rejected because I have an MD and not a History PhD.

    Then Yale adopted it for some courses they were running at a small college in Pennsylvania.

    A few wholesalers took it and I sold some copies through them but that dried up. I finally turned it over to Amazon POD and they sell about 20 to 50 copies a month. The sales peak about June as some people probably give it as gifts to graduates.

    The Memoirs book gets excellent reviews at Amazon and my wife keeps telling me I should try to sell it to a publisher but I tried a few agents that seemed possibilities and gave up.

    Now, I have no work and sell a few copies a month.

  6. Quite a few of the 19th century greats actually kick-started their writing careers by paying for a print run of their own works.
    From above link: But the French bookstores won’t stock it.

    “Take Proust,” Besson said. “Swann’s Way was published by Grasset in 1913 at the author’s expense. What farmer would work his field for a 10% return? It’s perfectly understandable that some authors are not satisfied with the current situation and rebel against publishers.”

    Another gem from the link:

    According to the French author Laurent Binet, it’s easy to understand why bookshops are up in arms. For booksellers, the issue was not so much that the book was self-published, he said, but that it was published through Amazon.

    That doesn’t generate much sympathy from me, especially since Koskas tried traditional publishers.

    The French-Israeli author, who has published more than a dozen books via more traditional routes, told the Guardian he was forced into put out an edition of Bande de Français himself after no French publisher picked it up.

    The article points out booksellers’ hostility towards e-books. As e-books compete with print books, one can understand their hostility- though my understanding will not increase my purchase of print books. I checked out Amazon- Marco Koskas’s book is available from Amazon only in print! BANDE de FRANCAIS (French Edition) (French) Paperback – April 27, 2018, by Marco Koskas. Booksellers refused to stock a print book, because it came from Amazon!

  7. The cover is the visual hook – that’s why it is important, even for ebooks. Advertising, the catalog where the book is displayed – there needs to be that visual element.
    What many of us indies have been discovering is that a) most of our sales are for the ebook version, but it lends a kind of credibility to also have the book available in a print edition. On Amazon, they have it set up where (if the author chooses) a purchaser can add the Kindle version of the book to their order for the print version for a small additional charge.
    The big establishment publishers have really shot themselves in the foot as far as pricing ebooks goes. They will charge nearly as much for an ebook as they do for a print version, which most savvy shoppers won’t go for. You can buy a used print copy of a best-seller by one of the Bigs for less than they ask for the ebook … and all the while, the indy authors are charging 2-5$ and chortling all the way to the bank.

  8. Mom:

    B&N aren’t the last by any means.

    My local B&N folded years ago (Borders and B Dalton more than a decade)… But BOOKS-A-MILLION, and (local) newcomer 2nd & Charles are both still going strong.

    Sure, books are not the “only” thing either sells, but they’re still the majority of their raison d’etre.

  9. The big publishers have been eating the seed corn for a long time, it’ll be gone any day now. Publishing, like TV and movies was throwing a lot of stuff at the wall to see what stuck. They realized that they were bad at predicting what would be popular. Then someone sold the idea of how much more money would be made if only best sellers were published. This would work if hits could be manufactured like so many widgets.

    The joke is that these authors have the least to gain from the relationship. Does anyone know or care who John Grisham’s publisher is? How long will he be willing to subsidize multi-million dollar advances/pay offs to political hacks?

    I haven’t been in a book store for years. All the ones near me have closed. Amazon isn’t the same, but it’s what I have left. The variety is vastly more than a physical book store could offer. It’s also a little hard to tell the wheat from the chaff. I doubt that I’ll ever go back to “real” books for pleasure reading. Kindle is useless for technical books.

  10. MCS
    I haven’t been in a book store for years. All the ones near me have closed.

    I go to Half Price Books several times a year. Most of my Half Price Books purchases in the last couple of years have been music CDs. Several years ago my cousin from NYC was visiting. When we drove by Half Price Books, I asked her if she wanted to go in. She said yes, because nearly all the book stores in NYC had closed. She ended up purchasing several used books- Josephus among them. I purchased a Thomas Sowell work.

    The last time I made a purchase at a book store selling new books was when a neighbor, in appreciation for my walking her dogs, gave me a gift certificate for Barnes & Noble. I bought a cook book, as a print cook book can withstand splatters better.

    When a cousin gifted me a used Kindle some ears ago, I found out that not only were e-books were more economical than print books (at least back then), but also the fonts options on e-readers made a book much easier for my aged eyes to read than a print version.

    There is a local independent book store that is still in business, and apparently doing OK. Several years ago it had an ad promoting Bill Ayers’s visit to the store. An ad for his appearance described Bill and his wife Bernadine as “often celebrated for their community work and much hated by the radical right.” That ad informed me that the book store didn’t merit my custom. Granted, I purchase hardly any new print books any more, but that ad made me feel even more justified.

  11. MCS:
    Kindle is useless for technical books.

    Six inch e-readers are useless for technical books in PDF. Some 6″ readers have better PDF software than others, but the 6″ screen size makes PDFs problematic. My experience has been that the 9.7″ Kindle DX is the best option for PDFs- which would include technical books. I have brought my 9.7″ Kindle DX to board meetings of my HOA to show various documents to other board members. I would have thought that the Fire HD 8 would have been halfway decent for PDFs, but it shows PDFs with very large margins- making its 8″ screen no better than an e-reader with a 6″ screen. Because there is little to no money in PDFs, the e-book makers are indifferent to improving PDF-reading software.

    The joke is that these authors have the least to gain from the relationship. Does anyone know or care who John Grisham’s publisher is? How long will he be willing to subsidize multi-million dollar advances/pay offs to political hacks?
    Good point.

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