Saturday, February 21, 2015

Learning From Traditional Publishers (Craft Brewing Part 2)

Yesterday, I compared indie publishing to craft beer brewing. Today, I'm continuing the conversation regarding how the "rebel" indies can learn from traditional publishers. This is what I've learned about myself over the past four years of indie publishing following a career in traditional publishing that spanned more than two decades.

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, to compete better.

Treat Bestsellerdom as a Dream, not a Goal

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. Some people believe doing lots of freebies or giveaways make a bestseller. That did work for some people in 2010 and 2011. It rarely works now. Some people believe that if you spend enough money you can make a bestseller. I've seen traditional publishing do this, briefly. If they paid a million dollars for a celebrity memoir. You can bet they will spend a million dollars to publicize it and hope to make the money back. It doesn't always work. Most of us don't have a million dollars to spend on our indie books, so it is not a good model in the long term.

Do I hope to have a bestseller? Sure I do. It is a dream of mine. Do I count on it for my income? Absolutely not. I'm not chasing something I can't define or control, and neither can traditional publishing. Many indie authors make a living without ever having a bestseller. Resetting expectations to build a career one book at a time, instead of expecting a particular book to make a career, is the sane way to proceed.  Thinking about indie publishing as a career with many books, instead of putting all my energy and resources into one book, makes it less daunting and gives me more opportunities to one day see my dream come true.

Those desperate authors who check their numbers every day, who throw hundreds or thousands of dollars at advertising, or give away tens of thousands of free downloads when they have only one or two books, are chasing bestsellerdom on one book. IMO, they are throwing away money and will be very disappointed in the end. Yes, there are outliers--those who make it big on their first book. Those who didn't even bother to get it edited yet make millions. But that is nowhere near the norm, and to set expectations for that to happen to my book would be insanity. If it happens, hooray. I'll dance on the ceiling. But if it doesn't happen, I won't be devastated and quit writing and blame the system.

Go Ahead and Be Unique, but Keep the Foundation

Another thing I can learn from traditional publishers is that there is a reason they don't buy books that are so unique and different--no matter how well written. It's not that editors don't appreciate the uniqueness or the style or the craft. It's that they know the liklihood of finding an audience, that will purchase enough copies to make them a profit, is very small.

Like craft brewers you can choose to create in a way that NY doesn't usually buy--cross-genre, mixing narrative style, having a character who is unredeemable, having a half-dog half-cat narrator that is really the dead mother of the main character.  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. Keep it the same but make it different is what "unique" means in story telling. Give it a twist.

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.

Publishing is Very Different from Writing

Publishing is a business--not an art. Publishing is about packaging a products that can be sold for maximum profit. The indie writer who is self-publishing may gain freedom in her art, but she still has the same problem that all publishers have. That is making enough money to really be free to pursue the writing.


If you do want to be a successful indie publisher then you need to separate from your baby. If it helps, think of your book as something you nurtured throughout the creative process, but now is an adult and completely responsible for its own success or failure. Your responsibility, as the parent, is to apply tough love about the real world of publishing. A world that judges you at every corner. A world that may not even acknowledge that you exist. A world filled with both those who will give you a leg up and those who will stomp on your head as they climb the ladder to get ahead of you. In other words, your book is now part of a worldwide business enterprise and you need to be ready to face that fact and have the tools to survive.

The Publishing Process is Hard, and Frustrating, and Scary, and Rewarding

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.

If you like the status quo, or find change very difficult, then you need to hire people for the publishing part of your business. The entire indie publishing business is changing month-to-month and year-to-year. What worked in 2011 does not work in 2014. The technology available to publishers in 2015 is different from what was available in 2012. The marketing landscape and opportunities in publishing is changing at least quarterly if not faster.

I monitor approximately 70 publishing blogs and newsletters. At least once a week I come across a start-up company that is making a big splash in helping indie authors. At least once a week I come across a scam company that is hurting indie authors. At least once a week I research something new and know that I should find a way to participate. However, I also know that I don't have the time or resources to check it out.  Though I pride myself on being on top of the publishing landscape more than the average writer, EVERY week I wonder what I've missed. What I have not chosen to make time for that would/could make a difference in my income.

That is the scary and frustrating part of being a publisher. In spite of not knowing everything. In spite of not taking advantage of every possibility, I am selling books. I am making money. I do have a career.  You have to be comfortable with not knowing everything. You have to be comfortable with making a plan, making decisions about your investment of time and money, and sticking with it until you've given your plan a chance to prove itself, or not.

In spite of not knowing everything, and all the fear of change, most authors who have left traditional publishing to become indie report making significantly more money than they did before. They love being freed from restrictions on output, pricing, and genre. They are happy to be away from the very long process of 12-18 months from conception to release of a book, and they are happy not to be a part of the churn of editors and managers in traditional publishing that can easily stop the forward trajectory of a career. One of the things each of these authors report is that they couldn't have done it alone. They needed a team.

Tomorrow, in the final post of this series, I'll talk about how to put together a team that works for you and helps you to become successful.

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