I’ve always used December as a month to re-calibrate and re-think my writing goals for the new year. Since we have writers at all stages of the journey here at TKZ, I thought it might be a good time to consider the various paths a writer might take…and how to choose among them.
- The Forbidden City
The traditional publishing industry—represented by the so-called “Big Five”—is still kicking it, though there are clear challenges ahead. This mega-model cannot sustain itself without developing new talent, but the risk capital for doing that is not so plentiful as it once was. What’s keeping the lights on in Manhattan offices is the ever-increasing dependence on A-list writers. Which means fewer resources to nurture midlist talent. As a recent article in Publishers Weekly put it:
[M]idlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing…
A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.
The dependence on big hits by proven authors has also been exacerbated by two other developments, according to the article: “a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms.”
Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City has always been difficult. And it’s always been difficult to stay inside. With fewer slots available for new writers—and even less for a flat-selling mid-lister—the difficulty of this path has only increased.
- Small Publishing Companies
I’d define this slice of the publishing pie as any company not owned by the bigs but still operating in a traditional fashion. That is, they take on a manuscript and foot the bill for editing and design work. They may or may not pay an advance, but do offer traditional royalty terms.
I’d put Amazon Publishing (note: not Kindle Direct Publishing, which is for indie writers. See #3, below) at the top of this category, though it is truly unique in that it owns the largest (online) bookstore in the world, yet isn’t usually granted shelf space in brick-and-mortar stores (unless, of course, they own those stores!)
As presses get smaller, they usually have a tighter genre focus. For example, Graywolf tends toward the literary, while Brash Books walks the mean streets of crime. Powerhouse bestsellers from the smalls are as rare as the Blue-Footed Booby. But with the right partnership you may be able to put together a solid body of work and a steadily growing readership.
How do you find the right small publisher for your novel? You can still pick up a copy of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2020 (which you ought to do soon, as the future of this publication is uncertain due to the sale of WD assets to Penguin Random House earlier this year).
Finally, there are “really small” companies springing up, seemingly all the time. They focus almost exclusively on ebooks. In many cases they’re run by indie writers who’ve had some success themselves, and seek to make extra scratch helping new writers get out to market.
A great big caveat scriptor is necessary here: it’s easy to call yourself a publisher, and just as easy to go bust. (I got a flaming email once from the founder of a one-person press after I issued a gentle warning to writers about such companies. How dare I! We can give more personal attention to individual writers! I wrote back and wished her good fortune. Eight months later the company was out of business, unable to pay their writers the royalties they were owed.)
While these micro publishers do not offer advances or require an agent, you really need to do your due diligence with any contract. (File this advice under “Duh.”)
How can you tell if a small press is legit? Start by reading this post.
- Indie (Self) Publishing
We’re twelve years into the ebook revolution, and enough time has gone by for the dust of the self-publishing “gold rush” (roughly 2008-2013) to settle back down to earth. We have adequate history now to assert a few things.
First, this path to market is still fast and without obstacle. Anyone can do it. That’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because for the first time since Gutenberg it’s possible for an author to make bank outside the walls of the Forbidden City. A curse because there’s a great temptation to toss a book out there when it’s clearly not ready for prime time, and/or has a shoddy design.
There are innumerable books and blogs and courses that can teach you the technical details on getting your books online. If you are averse to being truly DIY (that is, dealing directly with Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.), there are aggregator sites that will do the distribution for you, in return for a percentage of your net proceeds. Your net is based on the retail price of your book, less the bookstore’s commission. For example, Amazon retains 30% as its commission when a book is sold off its site. The author gets 70%. The aggregator takes a slice (usually 15%) out of that 70% and sends you the balance. Smashwords and Draft2Digital are the leading aggregators right now. Here’s an article comparing the two. (Note: If a company charges you an upfront fee as opposed to percentage of net, it falls more into the category of a vanity press. See #4, below.)
Just remember that regardless of how you get your books to market, the three keys to making actual dough as an indie are 1) writing commercially viable books (i.e., in a popular genre); 2) being prolific; and 3) understanding that you’re running a small business.
That last item—business sense—gives many writers the willies. It’s hard enough to find the time to write! Now I have to spend time on business?
Well, yeah, if you truly want a shot at indie success. I wrote a book about the business principles you’ll need.
- Vanity Press
This is a business that makes money off authors, rather than the other way around. They require you to put up a pretty penny (do they make pretty pennies anymore?) to “publish” your book. They usually do a competent design job, but then what? They’ll offer to upsell you various packages (e.g., enhanced marketing) the value of which is negligible.
The article referenced earlier has a section on vanity presses. If you have written one book that you would like to distribute to family and friends in a nice hardcover edition—and have no desire to make writing a career…and you have lots of discretionary income—then perhaps a vanity publisher might be an option.
Whew. Now that we’ve covered these four paths open to writers today, we need to ask one more big question before making the choice, and that is: just what is it you want to accomplish, when all is said and done and published, with your writing? Here I think there are three possible answers.
The first is the amorphous concept of validation. A lot of writers I’ve talked to over the past ten years about self-publishing have given me variations on, “But I want the validation of a traditional contract.”
I call this notion “amorphous” because you can’t measure it. Will this type of validation give you 100% satisfaction? Probably not. How about 80%? Perhaps, but how long will that feeling last? If you become one of those writers who is dropped by a publisher (which will retain the rights to your output), what then? You’re five years into what you thought was a career and all that work you’ve done belongs to the company that let you go? And your dismal sales numbers make it impossible to land another contract with a like-sized company? (This makes it imperative that you and your agent negotiate a fair reversion clause, based on royalty income, and whatever else you can get.)
A more understandable reason for seeking a traditional contract (from a Big Five publisher) is to play the lottery. You’re hoping that one of your books will be among those chosen to get a huge marketing push, landing you a prime spot on the New York Times bestseller list and guaranteeing a long, seven-figures annually career. There are about two dozen authors who fit this profile and ten million who would like to. That’s why this is a lottery.
I find it a perfectly fine reason to knock on the doors of the Forbidden City. I just want you to be aware of the odds.
The third type of writer wants to create a reliable and steady stream of income. That could happen with the right small publisher partnership, but I find it more likely and lucrative in the indie world. My favorite model is the classic pulp fiction era. The writers who made it were, above all, good storytellers. They knew their craft. They were also prolific and understood the market—just like successful indie writers today, of which there are many. I personally know several indies making healthy five- and six-figure annual incomes because they operate on pulp principles.
Your assignment is clear. Figure out which motivation is most important to you. Then you can fashion 2020 plans and priorities accordingly. Next December, and each December after that, think through these considerations anew.
And whatever your choices—whatever type of writer you see yourself as—do this above all: Love the writing itself. Write with joy. Find and nurture your sweet spot. That’s the only thing that will sustain you over the long haul.
Which is why TKZ exists. We love writers and writing. We love sharing our insights, and hearing back from you in the comments. So as we wrap up another year, thank you for making this community one of the best places to hang out and talk about fiction craft and the book business. We now pause to catch our collective breath, and will see you back here on January 6, 2020!
Próspero año y felicidad!