Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How is Indie Publishing like Craft Beer Brewing?

My husband has been a home brewer for nearly 40  years. He brews with the same passion that he has when playing music on his guitar. He is much better now at creating new craft recipes than he was when he started, or even better than just 10 or 15 years ago. Some of it is better technology, better ingredients. But the majority of it is experience. He's practiced and tested and experimented and failed and practiced and ... it is never ending. He now has recipes he's refined for over 14 varieties of beer. Also, every year he tries something new--something that intrigues him to change the flavor. Perhaps a little more hops in a stout? Or bringing out the banana flavor and aroma in a wheat. These are subtle but important differences, because it is where his voice--his art--intersects with the tried and true brewery recipes of the past.

When I met him, I was not at all a beer lover. In fact, I thought it was pretty disgusting stuff and always chose wine when at a party or going to dinner. He changed that because he introduced me to craft beer--beer that it is recognizable for its style (e.g., porter, stout, IPA, pale ale, wheat, etc.) but changes flavor profiles depending on the brewer and his or her voice in creating that style of beer.

How does this relate to Indie Publishing?  One thing all good brewers know is that you create your "rebel" brew based on a foundation in the past--based on a knowledge of the ingredients, the proportions, the role of each part of the process.  Without that knowledge you are likely to spend a lot of money making beer that very few want to try more than once.  Craft brewers also know that you try new things--use a different hop variety or mix and see how that changes things, use a different malt mixture, try different grains to change the flavor and the color.

When a brewer decides to try something new she doesn't decide that instead of water she'll use a cola base. She doesn't decide that instead of grains she'll use fruit, or that instead of hops she'll use a variety of cooking spices. In other words, she knows that the foundation of beer consists of water, grain hops and yeast. Each of these ingredients can have tremendous affect on the flavor, aroma, and alcohol content. There is a lot of variety and nuanced changes that can be made by manipulating only those elements. It is after understanding those elements and their nuances that something outside of those elements is added.

One of the things I consistently see with some indie authors is the passionate rebel without a foundation in the past. The self-talk goes something like: "Those @#$%*&! publishers didn't have the guts to publish my novel. It was too edgy for them." OR"I don't need editing. Look at (name a bestseller from three years ago who made it big with no editing). She had tons of mistakes but she made millions anyway." OR "A good book will find it's audience no matter what."

Even in traditional publishing, a good book didn't always sell. A good book didn't always get acquired. A good book didn't connect with the consumer. Even in traditional publishing, a minority of books make it to the bestseller lists. A minority of authors make millions of dollars. What I am saying is that we can learn a lot from them and reset expectations, and plan to be better.
  1. No one really knows what makes a book a bestseller. No one in big publishing and no indie guru has the definitive answer. If someone did, they would command millions of dollars and only turn out bestselling books. Do I hope to have a bestseller? Sure I do. Do I count on it for my income? Absolutely not. I'm not chasing something I can't define or control. Many authors make a living without ever having a bestseller.
  2. Like craft brewers you can choose to create in a way that NY doesn't usually buy--cross-genre, mixing narrative style, adding sex or foregoing sex, having a character who is unredeemable, etc. As a writer you can do whatever you want. That is a part of the joy of creation. However, each time you go outside the box it reduces the liklihood the story will hold together enough to sell to consumers. Yes, everyone tells you to make it unique. However, what they are really saying is "give readers what they want and add a small twist." In other words, you still need the foundational ingredients of good narrative structure, good characterization, a plot that pulls the reader forward, dialog that seems true to the characters and time, and enough genre tropes to meet reader expectations.

    When I read about authors leaving NY publishing, I never hear them say: "I wanted to write a book with a character everyone will hate and have no one in the story you can root for." OR "I wanted to write a quiet book, one where no one is ever hurt and the whole world is filled with sunshine and love." OR "I decided that editing was not for me. I don't need an editor."  Instead, the authors I talk to leave NY because they want to write faster, or they want to write in a different genre, or they simply want control over pricing, distribution, covers, etc. In other words, they don't leave because they want to abandon the foundational elements of their stories or their genre.
  3. Publishing is very different from writing. Writing, for most people, is a creative undertaking that is about telling the story that the writer wants to tell. Publishing is a business. Publishing is about packaging the product (the story) into something that a consumer (reader) will buy. The successful indie publisher must separate these two parts of the process. If you can't treat your story (some call it their baby) as a product, then hire someone who can. If you can't separate your creative process (the brewing) from the business (selling a product), then you will have lots of wonderful stories that your family and close friends may enjoy; but you won't have a career and you won't make enough money to live on. 

    It's okay if you don't care about making money from your stories. My husband has no intention of ever selling his beer. For him, the joy is in the creation and in sharing it with people he knows. If that is why you write, that's wonderful. You are not a publisher, you are an artist who only cares about the story and you are rewarded by the few who "get you,"  the few you most care about.  There are a lot of people who self-publish with the expectation of selling 10 or less books. Nothing wrong with that.  For the rest of you, read on.
  4. The whole process is hard.  Yes, the writing is hard. It is hard to create a book that thousands of readers will like enough to tell others about it. It is hard to learn the foundational process of writing a good story. The publishing process is equally hard, and often the entire business side of indie publishing is anathema to the creative mind. The publishing process involves technology, and economics, and salesmanship, and planning, and evaluation, and ... the list goes on. This is why writing and publishing are two separate pursuits and must be recognized as two parts of a career as an indie pubisher.
  5. You need a team. Traditional publishers have a team of people who put out a book: editors, interior designers, cover designers, marketing people, managers, accountants, computer people.  You need this team too! Depending on your personal skill set and your willingness to learn, you may be able to take on some of these things yourself. I have not yet found someone who can do it all themselves AND be successful. 
In my next post I'll talk about some personal takeaways from crafting and publishing.

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