I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the differences between traditional publishing and indie publishing this week. Almost every day, some writer writes to me and asks if they should go traditional or indie on some new project.
Sometimes the writer has just finished his first novel, and wants to know what to do with it—go the traditional route or publish it himself.
Sometimes the writer is a long-time professional who has noticed indie publishing and wants to give it a go.
And sometimes the writer has done a little indie publishing and a lot of traditional publishing, and wants to know which is best for the current project.
Usually I can’t help them. It truly is a personal choice. For the most part, contract terms and confusing royalty statements make long-term earnings in traditional publishing dicey at best. But indie publishing has its own drawbacks, including a bit of financial outlay up front to make certain the book is the best it can be.
(Hire a copy editor, folks. Really. And a line editor. Or two truly anal friends who care nothing about plot and everything about commas and repetition. An editor or super reader would be nice to help you on the plot side. It would be nice if you managed a professional cover and interior design. And as a reader, I’d really like it if you have a print-on-demand version.)
I have no idea what another writer’s circumstances are. I don’t know if she has the time to upload her works on Kindle or if she barely scratches out enough time to write 1,000 words per day. All of those things matter.
But, for a minute, let’s forget the contract terms, the financial realities, the business decisions, and pretend all books are equal.
If we do that, if we get rid of the individual decisions, and look only at the way the two publishing systems work, we can see the differences in very stark terms.
Here’s what you’re choosing between:
Hurry up and wait
Wait and hurry up
The industry has bifurcated. The two parts of book publishing are so drastically different in their approaches that they can barely talk to each other. Mostly, they fail to realize that they don’t even use the same language. As a result, they measure success differently because they measure everything differently. I’ve talked about this before, primarily in a post called “Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts.”
First, let’s look at what the different attitudes are, and then let’s examine what those attitudes mean for writers.
Hurry Up And Wait
…could be another name for indie publishing. You finish a book or a short story or a blog post [cough, cough], and you want it out in the hands of readers right now.
Actually, all writers want their books in the hands of readers right now, but some writers are willing to delay that gratification for other reasons, which we’ll get to.
You have the finished manuscript edited, copy edited, and proofed. You design a cover, follow all the instructions to distribute your book electronically and in print-on-demand formats. Then you sit back and wait for the cash to roll in.
And wait. And wait.
Sometimes you don’t even have your first sale for weeks, maybe months. The cash doesn’t roll. You panic. You stop your current project and do “promotion,” contacting all the book bloggers you know. You annoy your followers on Twitter by mentioning your book’s title every other Tweet. You look at the real-time sales numbers (or lack of them) over and over again.
You’re waiting for the book to “catch on,” for “lightning to strike,” for “miracles to happen.”
And if you’re smart, you’re also writing your next book. More on that a little later.
But really, what you’re waiting for is time to pass. Five sales per month over 120 months will make you quite a bit of money. Only it won’t seem that way at first.
The indie writer, particularly the indie writer with very few books published, has to be patient. The readership—and the income—will grow exponentially if the writer continues to produce work. One day, the indie writer will wake up and realize she’s making $1,000 per month on a single title, and that amount spread out over a year is more than she would have gotten as an advance for a first novel. (Most first novel advances in all genres are under $10,000.)
The thing is, if she earns $12,000 one year, nothing will stop her from earning the same or possibly more the next year, and the next, and the next.
The indie author must be patient, but if she’s a good storyteller (and her book has a decent cover and is copy edited, and if she keeps writing and publishing new material), she’ll make a living wage over time. In fact, over time, she’ll sell as many or more copies of that book than she would as a first-time novelist who is traditionally published.
The key phrase, though, is over time. Years, in fact.
Wait And Hurry Up
…could be another name for traditional publishing. You finish your book. Then you mail it to editors (and if you’re not too bright on the business side of things, to agents). The book editors take months, sometimes years, to respond. If you stick an agent in the middle of that, an agent will take months, sometimes years to respond, and then if you’re lucky, the agent will send the book to editors who will take months, sometimes years to respond. (If you want clarification about agents, see Dean’s post on agents here.)
You’d better be working on your next book. Hell, your next books, because as you can see, this process will take one to five years per book. Wait, then wait some more, and then wait a lot more.
Let’s say you hit some editor on a good day, and she wants to buy your book. It will then take her six months or so to get that book through the purchase process at her publishing house—all before you even know what’s going on.
You have an agent and the agent has held an auction? It’ll still take a minimum of six weeks from the moment of submission to all parties involved to get a response. (Usually the agent sets a deadline.) Then, if there are positive responses—and there aren’t always (no one is required to buy at an auction)—it’ll take another month minimum to hammer out the details between the various parties.
Add three to six months to get a contract, three to six months after signing the contract to get the first part of the advance, a year after the contract to officially turn in the already completed book, six months to a year after turn-in to get the book into the stores, and you see another one-to-three years pass.
That’s the waiting. Where’s the hurry up?
After the book gets published. In traditional publishing, a book is a product. It is—to use an economics term—a widget. An item. Something interchangeable with other items of the same type.
In traditional publishing, a group of widgets from one company’s imprint hit the stores every month. Your book will get assigned a month. That will be your release date.
And once that’s set in stone and the book is solicited (meaning it’s put in the catalog so that bookstores can order it), the rush begins. Pre-publication publicity starts. Sometimes all you get is a mention in the catalog and a pre-order page on Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. If your advance is big enough, add in advertising and pre-publication galleys. (Small advance books of $10-30,000 [depending on genre] usually don’t get these things.) You might have to do a few interviews with online publications. You will notice some activity but not a lot.
The publisher notices though. They want good pre-orders. They want to ship the book at the same numbers or higher than a similar book from last month.
In the month before release, you might see a few reviews—if they’re good and if the publisher remembers to send them to you.
Then your release month arrives. If you got a six-figure advance, you’ll probably have a small tour paid for by the publisher. If not, you might do a few more interviews. You’ll go into a bookstore (if there’s even one in your area these days), and with luck, see some books on the stand. If the only bookstore in your area these days is a Barnes & Noble, you might not even see that.
And that’s it from your perspective.
So why do I say hurry?
Because the traditional publisher looks at the sales numbers from the moment the book is available for preorder to six months after publication. Whatever the book has sold in that six-to-nine month period is pretty much what the book is going to sell.
It took you five years to sell the book into traditional publishing and get that book on the shelves. That book will have less than a year to prove itself or go out of print.
Traditional publishers are hedging their bets now with e-books, but they still take the print book out of print within the year. That book costs money. E-books don’t.
So the traditional publisher hopes that a future book from you will take off, the old e-book will start selling again, and they’ll be able to put that first book back into print.
But the traditional publisher isn’t counting on it. That’s why next month, they’ll go through the same routine with other authors and you’ll be forgotten until it’s time to sell the traditional publisher a new book under your option. Then the traditional publisher will look at the way this book performed in its brief shelf life and decide whether or not to take a risk with you again.
Traditional publishers, with their high overhead, can’t afford to continually publish a writer who underperforms. What is an underperformance? That varies from company to company (and often genre to genre), so I can’t tell you. But your editor will when it comes time to buy the next book. Either she can buy it or she can’t. Then you’ll know that year’s magic threshold of sales. Next year’s might be higher or, as we learned in the Great Recession, lower. But whatever that arbitrary in-house number is, you need to meet it, or you won’t sell that company another book under that name for years to come.
Right now, all of you blog readers are having varying reactions to what I’ve just written. Some of you see no problems with “wait and hurry up.” It’s what you’re used to, what you’ve been trained in, what you really desire as a writer. You think the months of no-sales and silence in the indie world would be hell.
Others of you can’t imagine ever going the traditional route and what I wrote above just reinforced that position. You see no problem with “hurry up and wait.” You believe it’s better to control the product and to get it in the hands of readers, even if the book isn’t jumping off the shelves. You can’t imagine all the years of no-sales and silence before the book ever hits print. You think—or maybe you know—that’s hell.
And then there are a few of you who are willing to straddle the fence. Some books are worth the wait and hurry up; others are hurry up and wait-ers. Some tried the wait and hurry up route, ran out of markets, and are now trying a new method. You’re hybrid writers who make the choice per book, not as an absolute throughout your career.
The problem comes in trying to talk from one side of the publishing divide to the other.
Since folks steeped in traditional publishing only look at how well a book does in its first year—really, its first month–on the stands, traditional publishing folk look at almost all indie titles as failures.
Think about it: If you expect a book to sell thousands if not tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of copies in its first year, and you hear that someone is happy with 500 sales scattered over 12 months, you’d see that as a failure too.
The folks who believe in indie publishing only hear that a book goes out of print in less than a year, and is probably done earning after that point (except for a few high-priced e-book sales), and they wonder who would ever sign a deal like that. After all, books can now last forever. Or as long as we read books electronically and in paper form. The virtual bookshelf means that books don’t have to go away to make way for next month’s books. Books will remain easy to find with the click of a mouse.
Traditional publishing doesn’t want to hear that a book might sell 10,000 copies in 10 years. The economics of their business make such a concept laughable. No traditional publishing house could remain in business right now with that kind of sales record. (For more on how traditional publishing economics work, see the blogs I’ve labeled “The Publishing Series.” They’re a little dated, but still accurate.)
Indie writers try to talk money with traditional writers. The indie writers say they make more than they would with traditional publishing, but so many traditionally published writers aren’t in the business to make money. Traditional publishers have fostered that attitude, making it easier to cut back the amount of money writers get paid. Traditional writers are often in the business to get readers only, and these traditional writers believe that five sales in a month is insulting, to say the least.
Traditional writers don’t look at the long term because in traditional publishing there is no long term.
It’s still hard for me, a woman who has spent thirty+ years in traditional publishing to get out of the traditional publishing mentality. If I don’t have a publisher lined up for a project, I feel a moment of panic. I wonder how I’ll get paid. I’m still surprised when Amazon, and B&N, and CreateSpace dump money into my bank account every month.
For decades, I’ve lived without a regular income. Now that I have one, I forget the checks are coming. My entire existence was based on the next project. If a past project paid royalties, well, that was a nice surprise. But it was a surprise, not an expectation.
Now I should expect the monthly payment, like a salary people get at their day jobs. But I haven’t had a day job in decades. I really have no idea how to behave when it comes to monthly money. It’s causing a paradigm shift in my brain that’s taking years (literally) to occur.
I’m savvy about indie publishing. I know how much it’s benefitting me. I’m getting a novel advance every month, sometimes two or three, from my indie publishing projects—and I’m not even halfway through my backlist, let alone the novels that I wrote but didn’t (or couldn’t) sell. And that doesn’t count the novels I plan to write that I’m not even going to offer to a traditional publisher. (I’ll still offer some. Maybe. If the right deal comes along.)
If it’s this hard for me to understand, a writer who is getting money every month in significant numbers, imagine how hard it is for traditional writers who’ve never ever gotten paid this way. It sounds like fairy tales.
And traditional publishers? They think indie writers are all losers. After all, we don’t sell tens of thousands of copies per title in the month of release. Sometimes indie writers do sell that many copies, and then traditional publishers wonder why most of those indies are turning down traditional publishing deals. After all, traditional publishers can make the book better, right?
Well, we’re not going to get into that dicey can of worms. Except for me to remind you indie folk to copy edit your books and to put a decent cover on them. (Respect your readers. Do it for them.)
What traditional publishers still don’t get is this: People in the publishing industry see traditional publishing as validation; Readers want good books and don’t care who publishes them. Once traditional publishers figure that out—deep in their bones—they’ll start offering successful indie writers better deals.
But don’t hold your breath. The music industry is nearly 20 years ahead of us, and they still don’t get this.
As for indie writers, a lot of them don’t realize that they’re in the hurry-up-and-wait business, not the wait-and-hurry-up business. They work really, really, really hard at goosing the first-month sales, and then getting disappointed when those sales either go down or never happen in the first place.
Publicity doesn’t work for books. It really doesn’t. All it does is get your name in front of a reader who might then glance at your book. Or not. Last night, I chanced upon an infomercial from one of those services that will publish and promote books for anyone who can pay the fees.
I just spent ten minutes trying to Google the infomercial. I couldn’t find it because I can’t remember the name of the company that produced it. I watched it—in growing horror (one of the authors looked like her make-up had been applied by an undertaker. Really) and finally had to change the channel. The books had terrible covers. The poor non-telegenic authors tried to discuss the books themselves with an “appropriate” book-related backdrop behind them, and the infomercial’s narrator wore a rug so fake that it looked like a small animal had died on his head.
Embarrassing. And what’s worse is that I invested about eight minutes of my time fast-forwarding through the thing, saw three authors and their books repeatedly mentioned, and less than 24 hours later, I can’t tell you their names or the names of their books.
I’m not unusual. I buy five or more books per week, usually when I see a review, get a notice from a bookseller that a new one of my favorites is out, or follow a recommendation from a friend about a really good book she’s read. I buy because of word-of-mouth, just like every other reader on the planet.
That’s why traditional publishers only spend advertising dollars on the bestsellers. They’re not informing you of a new writer. They’re letting you know that a favorite writer has a new book. They’re relying on word-of-mouth and habit.
Otherwise, they hope that word of mouth will sell a new writer by having that book on the shelf of a favorite bookstore or by some linked (paid-for) recommendations in the Amazon store or a (paid-for) point-of-purchase slot near a Wal-Mart check-out.
So indie writers who promote their book instead of writing the next book are wasting their time. The more books you’ve written, the more books you’ll sell.
That’s how it works. That’s how it’s always worked.
But back to my original point:
Most of the people who email me asking for advice are strangers. I have no idea what they want or need. I don’t know if they can wait-and-hurry-up or if they should hurry-up-and-wait.
I don’t even know if my good friends should do that, although I occasionally have opinions. (Yeah, me. Opinions. Right.) But those opinions might not be right for those authors.
Only you can know what kind of writer you are, what you want, and what you can live with.
And, of course, all publishing is not equal. Traditional publishing has long-term contracts. Indie publishing has agreements with distributors that can be canceled with the click of a mouse.
All publishing isn’t the same within one publishing house. One fantasy series writer might make millions on his series; another (with the same cover artist, editor, and sales department) might make thousands on her series.
All publishing isn’t even equal inside one writer’s career. I have books that sell really well and books I can’t give away. I’m the same writer. But readers have different reactions to different books.
So the key is to give readers what they want. What do they want? Good stories. And the readers will differ as to which of your stories are “good.” So give the readers a lot of stories to choose from.
That’s what traditional publishers do. That’s why they release a new set of books every month. Because they’re giving the readers a choice all the time. You have to do that too, no matter how you publish the books.
What you decide to do, how you decide to make your books available to readers, is truly your decision. If you go traditional, make sure you have an IP attorney vet your contract so you know what you’re signing. Be prepared to wait before seeing your book on the shelf.
If you go indie, spend some money to get that book in fighting shape before launching it at those bookstores. And be prepared to wait before seeing sales of your book.
Neither decision is right or wrong. It’s only right for you.
This blog turned out right for me. I’m still surprised about that. I’m pleased that thousands of you come each week to talk about publishing.
However, I’m primarily a fiction writer. I make the bulk of my living telling stories. An equal number of folk come for the free fiction on Mondays, and according to my analytics program, they’re a whole different set of readers.
They tend to buy my novels. You folks generally do not. Which is fine. I don’t expect you to.
But…that’s why this blog has a donate button. Because it needs to be self-sustaining or I’ll just revert to my fiction-writing persona, and stop commenting on the changes in the business.
The button is below.
So if you get any value from this post or from the blog in general, please leave a tip on the way out. And thanks for all the support, e-mail, comments and donations that have kept this blog alive for so long. I quite literally cannot do it without you.
“The Business Rusch: “Hurry Up. Wait,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.