Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Know Thy (Publishing) Self

The other day on Twitter, I posted

I originally wrote this as the second part of a response to someone replying to Trav's (awesome) business post about the mechanics of a commercially successful series. The commenter in question had mentioned that business posts were basically intimidating, and I absolutely agree. Big pages of numbers and math can be very intimidating if you're unfamiliar with them, but part of self publishing is getting familiar with stuff like this. This is the business part of the self-publishing business, and if you hate it, then maybe self publishing isn't for you, and that's cool. There's tons of other ways to get your book out there! No big deal.

That's all I was trying to stay. I didn't think it was anything special or incendiary, just the facts as I saw them, and yet this tweet got a lot more attention than I expected. At first, I wasn't sure why. It's hardly my most eloquent statement. But then I realized what I saying--that it's okay to choose not to self publish if that's not what works for you--was actually kind of radical in its own weird, publishing politics way.

So (since I didn't have anything else to talk about today) I thought I'd take a look at why that is, and what it means for all of us as individual writers. Onward!

Writing Wednesday: Know Thy (Publishing) Self

If you've spent any time (and I do mean any time) researching your publishing choices on the internet, you've probably seen someone telling you that there is only one smart way to go, and if you choose anything else, you're wasting your writing, your money, and your time. Sometimes this is said very politely with lots of excellent case studies showing exactly why one publishing path is better than the other. Other times you're flat out told you're a moron who's being swindled if you don't do as the author in question suggests.

No matter how it's said, though, there is always an opinion one way or the other. Pretty much every writer you ask, whether they're a multiply published veteran or someone who's only one chapter into their first book, has very definite ideas about which is better: trad or self.

Whenever you have a topic this divisive, there's going to be conflict. Even though most authors (with a few loud exceptions) are extremely polite, reasonable, and eloquent about their thoughts on the subject, picking a side for yourself can still feel like an emotional decision rather than one based in fact. This is especially true if one of your favorite authors is an outspoken supporter of one camp or another. When that happens, choosing anything else can feel like a betrayal. Even if the one choice makes sense for your situation, if someone you respect and like so much is constantly calling what you're considering stupid, it's only natural to think "am I being dumb? Am I actually throwing my writing future away if I do this?"

This is the part of the self pub vs. trad pub debate that I hate the most. Not the discussion--that's very good, very necessary, and a great tool for bringing to light the pros and cons of each path--but the absolute division. The constant refrain--sometimes boldly shouted, sometimes tacitly implied--that the other side isn't just wrong, they're dangerously, career wreckingly wrong. That if you sign with a traditional publisher, they'll hit you with an abusive contract to take all your money and keep your rights forever. Or if you self publish your first novel and it flops, no traditional publisher will ever look at you again.

To be clear, this isn't fear mongering. Both of the examples above can and do happen, but they're also both worst case scenarios, and that's what makes the question of what you should do with your novel so difficult. Because the truth is that both trad and self publishing have horrible pitfalls and incredible heights. Neither of them is easy and nothing is guaranteed. So how do you know which is right for you?

This is the point where pretty much every respectable publishing advice blog will say some version of "the right choice depends on you and what you want from your career." I've actually said that exact thing in my own post about self publishing and money. But what does that actually mean? If you've never published a book and never had a publishing contract and never worked with a publishing house, how do you know what's actually right for you? After all, whatever you choose, you're going to be locked into that decision for that title for years, maybe even forever.

That's not a choice to be made lightly! But while there are plenty of blogs that talk about the practical differences between the two (including mine! Click here for my Authors & Money posts on trad vs self), in my experience, the real difference between the two isn't actually in the business, but in what each one expects from you, the author.

That's what this blog post is really about. Every publishing blog under the sun (again, including this one) has posts about the practical, business differences between trad and self like royalty rates, contracts, marketing, and so forth. But while all that stuff is really important, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how great the numbers are if you, the author, are unhappy with your choice. You could succeed beyond your wildest dreams in either self publishing or trad, but if that path's version of success doesn't match yours, then it doesn't matter.

In the end, this isn't a really choice of which publishing road is better. It's about which one is better for YOU, and the only way to figure that out is to figure yourself out.

Again, no small feat! "Know thyself" is a life long journey. But as someone who's seen the ups and downs of both the self pub and traditional publishing paths, maybe I can help put this old, bitterly contested question into a more personal light.

Your Best Heaven, Your Worst Hell, and All the Work In Between.

The Best of Times

As Travis wrote in his amazing post about author career planning, the most necessary step for any successful career is to actually figure out what counts as success to you. The best example I have of this is the old "money vs. fame" choice.

If you've always dreamed of being a famous author who appears on television and does international book tours, then making millions of dollars off your self pub series while never becoming a household name probably won't make you as happy as it would the author whose always dreamed of being rich. Similarly, the shy author who hits the NYT thanks to a great book and a massive push from their big publisher might not enjoy their sudden rocket to fame. They may have just wanted to be left alone to write their books, not deal with all these people! But if they also don't want to be rude to their fans or squander their chance. Panic!

These are classic examples of success mismatch. Both of these hypothetical authors--the millionaire indie and the NYT Bestselling trad author--have what can be objectively termed wild success, and yet they still don't feel successful because they didn't hit what counted as success to them. This isn't to say they're unhappy or ungrateful. I think any author who achieved either of the above would be very aware of how awesome that is, but it still isn't what they really wanted.

This is why determining what counts as success for you is so important. If you're going to be working as hard as it takes to become a successful author, then you need to know where you're aiming in advance so you can work toward that.

Do you want to be rich? When you day dream about the future, do you think about buying a house and supporting your family in style on your book sales? If this is what you want, self publishing has the highest chance of getting you there.

Do you want to be famous? Do you daydream of bookstore signings and bus tours? Do you want to be flown to a conference as a guest of honor and address a giant room full of screaming fans If this is what you want, traditional publishing has the highest chance of getting you there.

None of this is guarenteed, of course, and neither is it exclusive. There are indies who've gotten famous just as there are trad authors who've gotten rich, but each path definitely has its strengths leading to more likely outcomes. Self publishing's 70% royalty rate simply can not be beat for making money. Likewise, publishing houses are star making machines. They want you to be famous because your rockstar status sells more books and the author dream.

Again, none of this is absolute. Indie or trad, every author's career is different. But this is how how the cards are stacked in each deck, and while I'm sure there are plenty of us who'd love to be rich and famous, determining which of those two is your own personal best version of heaven plays a huge part in figuring out which path you'll be happiest pursuing.

The Worst of Times

But a career isn't defined by its highlights. Great as these wild successes are, they're also highly unlikely. Most people who write books will not be hugely successful. Quite the opposite. Most of us will bomb out at one stage or another, and that's really important to keep in mind since the flavor of failure is very different depending on whether you go indie or trad.

Which of these sounds worse to you?

A) You spend a year writing a book that you're super proud of. You polish it up to the very best of your ability and begin the querying process full of hope. Hope that is immediately dashed when the rejection letters start rolling in. Never one to give up, you rewrite your query and first pages and try again, but it does no good. No matter what you do, it seems that no one in the world wants your book, and after a year of polite "thanks but no thanks" letters from everyone in New York, you finally throw in the towel and trunk the book to be forever unread.


B) You spend a year writing a book that you're super proud of. You polish it up to the very best of your ability and put it up on Amazon full of hope. Hope that is immediately dashed when no one buys it. Never one to give up, you rewrite your blurb and first pages, change the price, buy a new flashier cover and try again, but it does no good. No matter what you do, it seems that no one in the world wants your book, and after a year of bouncing around in the six digit sales ranks, you finally throw in the towel and either abandon the book to the depths of Amazon where, other than that one random sale every month or so, it will be forever unread, or take it down entirely and pretend it never existed.

Make no mistake, both of these situations SUCK. There is no lower hell for an author than having your book universally rejected. It's the lowest, most worthless feeling in the world. Unfortunately, it's also fairly common. I was Author A for my very first book, and while I've never been Author B, I can't imagine it hurts any less. Sure, maybe the indie title got a few sales, which is 100% more than the querying author got, but the indie author's name is also now tied forever to a failed book unless she takes it down, in which case the sales will stop and she'll be right back in the same boat as her trad counterpart.

But while both of these authors were ultimately failures, it's the nature of that failure that I want to look at now. Choosing the publishing path that will lead to your personal version of success is hugely important, but so is picking the one whose version of failure you can tolerate best.

Obviously, there are many, many more ways to fail in either of these than just the two examples above, but speaking broadly, the nature of indie failure is public rejection (having your book fail on Amazon for everyone to see) while traditional is personal rejection (the dreaded rejection letter or having a publisher drop your series).

Again, both suck royally. No one likes to have their work rejected. But just as you probably liked one of the success stories better, you would probably take one of these failures over the other. That preference isn't everything, but it still tells you a lot about which style of publication would potentially fit your personality best. Or at least which one you'll be able to stomach.

The Rest of the Times

But vital as it is to understand which brand of success and/or failure you can handle best, these are both opposite extremes. Sadly, dismal failure is far more likely than wild success, but it's still not as likely as good old mediocrity. While you will probably experience both failure and (hopefully) success if you write long enough, you'll probably spend the vast majority of your writing career somewhere in the middle, which is also where these the two publishing paths actually deviate the most.

We're going to look at two examples again. This time, though, I'm going to use my own real career rather than hypotheticals.

I wrote my first two series as a traditionally published author. During this time, the vast majority of my professional time was dedicated to writing and, after my books were out, doing promotional events and marketing. I started my blog, went to conventions, and wrote my books. As a trad author, my biggest concerns were meeting my publisher's deadlines and making my editor happy. My books were in print on shelves at bookstores, and my publisher, Orbit Books, set up tons awesome events for me to promo my books with other authors from their stable, including my childhood hero. I was well taken care of, I had professionals who would answer my questions, I even got to excuse myself from a party once to "take a call from my editor in New York," which is still to this day one of the bossest things I've ever done.

But despite all of this awesome, there were still a lot of things I wasn't happy about. For all that I was well taken care of, I also had no control over my own work. My publisher decided my covers. They decided how my books should be marketed. They set the price, which I felt was stupidly high. Certainly higher than I felt comfortable paying for my own books as a reader, and yet I could do nothing. I was merely the talent, and if I had a problem, there were a million authors ready to take my place.

To be clear: this was never said to me. Everyone I worked with at Orbit was incredibly lovely and reasonable and absolutely wanted what was best for my books. We just didn't always agree on what that was, and when push came to shove, it was always the publisher who won. They had all the money, they had my rights, which meant they knew best, even when I knew (and was later proven right) that they were wrong. And I hated that.

I hated not having control. This was very rough, because I loved having an editor and a publisher behind me, but I hated that someone else was deciding what was best for my books. I was the one talking to my readers every day, but when I took my ideas to the publisher or tried to protest when they made decisions I didn't think were best, I had no ground to stand on. And, while they did listen and even changed the cover of Fortune's Pawn for me, it was always clear that I was still the low woman on the totem pole.

This wasn't their fault. I was just one book in a catalog, and they had a budget to stick to. But for me, this book was my world. It was my career, and not being able to do absolutely everything I knew needed to be done to make it a success was making me crazy. I also didn't like that I was making so little money per sale. Especially on ebooks, which were now my best selling format and cost the publisher very little to produce. I'd seen my indie friend's sales. I knew that I would sell way better at a more competitive price point. So when the time came for me to try a new series, I decided it was time to switch and try doing things my own way.

This was the real beginning of my self publishing career. I'd already tested the waters with 2k to 10k, but I am first and foremost a fiction writer. If I was really going to make it, it had to be with a novel, so I pulled out all the stops. I wrote the best book I possibly could, and then I paid to have it edited to hell because I was dead set determined to make sure my readers couldn't tell the difference between my NY books and my indie ones. I paid for the big, flashy illustrated cover I wanted and then I did about fifty million versions of the typography on the front until it was absolutely perfect.

All told, I sunk about $3000 and countless hours of work into the post production of Nice Dragons Finish Last. Keep in mind: this was all stuff my publisher used to do. I was doing all of this work on top of my normal writing, but I didn't mind, because I was doing it all for me. I was finally in control of my own work, and for me, that was happiness. It also didn't hurt that my obsessive attention to detail and quality paid off in spades when the book went on to sell equal to, and then eve better than my trad titles, all while costing my readers half what my NY books did AND earning me four times as much per sale.

For me, this was a taste of heaven, and that's the point I'm trying to make. I had a wonderful trad career with a great publisher who treated me fairly, promoted my books, and took good care of me. I loved my editor, I loved the Orbit PR department, and it was pretty nice to just write for four years without having to worry about anything besides meeting my deadlines and keeping my editor happy. I had a good thing going, and I could have sold Orbit the Heartstriker series.

But I didn't. I chose to walk away and go it alone, and not because I was abused by my publisher or any of that "trad publishing is evil!" you'll see on some indie blogs. I left because, at the end of the day, I wanted to be in control of my own work. I left because I like the business side of publishing, and I wanted to make those decisions myself.

I also wanted to make more money, and there's nothing wrong with that. Writing might be an art, but publishing is a business. I know some of you will find it terrifying, but for me, it was absolutely worth the extra work of finding my own editors and commissioning my own cover and learning how to do the Amazon dance to be able to make $3.42 off a book that sells for $4.99. To me, that was math that couldn't lose. Math worth giving up my publisher's support and my coveted spot in the bookstore for.

Will it be worth it for you? That's the question isn't it. But if you read the Traditional Publishing part of my story above and thought "that sounds really awesome!", then that gives you a clue. Likewise, if you read the reasoning for my decision to go self pub and thought "that makes a lot of sense," that's a clue, too.

I can tell you right now that our careers will be nothing alike--no two authors' are--but the fundamentals are always there. If you're the sort of person who finds comfort in the idea that your publisher's got your back. If you love the thought of not having to worry about finding an editor or buying a cover. If you think stepping out of a party to take a call from your editor sounds like the coolest thing ever, then maybe trad publishing is for you.

Sure you'll be giving up some potential income--there's no publisher in the world who can pay indie royalties--but there's no such thing as a free choice. Whenever you pick one path over the other, you have to give up something, which is why knowing what's actually most important to you is so vital.

If you can't say "I know I'm giving up some earning potential, but it's worth it to get X from my publisher," then you will never be truly at peace with your publishing decision. The same goes for Indie. If you can't say "I know I'm giving up getting my book into bookstores for the moment, and I'm going to have to do a lot of research and work on my own, but it's worth it to keep control over my books and make that mad indie 70% royalties money" or something like that, then you're not really ready to make this decision. And that's okay, because it isn't black and white. It isn't easy or clear or obvious, and anyone who claims otherwise is either incredibly lucky to have found their perfect match, or incredibly biased.

Whichever path you choose--indie or trad--you will be giving up something valuable, something other authors would kill to possess, and you have to be at peace with that. You have to go into this with eyes open, or you'll always have regrets. Hell, you might have regrets anyway. You might get knee deep into self pub or trad and discover you hate it. I thought I'd love seeing my book in bookstores, but it actually made me very nervous and uncomfortable. All I could see was all those other books and wonder, "how will anyone ever find mine?"

That was a feeling I'd never even considered before it happened. Obviously, you won't know this stuff unless you try, but that's just another reason why it's SO IMPORTANT to keep an open mind and do your research, because you might have to switch. Until you've actually gotten experience in both indie and trad, everything is still just hypothetical, but if you wait until you have experience in both, you'll already be a multiply published author. Your career will already be well underway, and you won't need articles like this, because you'll already know. But that's what this blog is about: sharing my experiences and outlining the pitfalls so that you don't have to fall into them, too.

If you take nothing else from this post, understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with going indie or trad. They are both perfectly valid forms of publishing with their own strengths and weaknesses. Both sides have wild success stories, dismal failures, and everything in between. If you have a really good book, you will be successful no matter which you choose. Likewise, if you have a terrible book, you will fail no matter which you choose.

Either way, you're going to do a fuck ton of work. You'll do more work for self publishing (and you'll also get more of the money because of it), but trad authors have to do all the same marketing and self promotion as everyone else on top of the writing. Being a published author is just a lot of work. There's no way to avoid that, but you can choose what kind of work you are most comfortable with and which will bring you the rewards you value most. That, at its heart, is what the publishing choice is all about: what works for you. What makes your dreams come true, or at least doesn't drive you crazy.

Figuring that out is what it means to know your publishing self, and if you can do that, then you will be exactly where you need to be.

Whew, that got long!

Thank you as always for reading. I really didn't intend for this to turn into such a huge, impassioned post, but I hope you were informed and entertained by my story. Not that this really counts, but I do writing posts every Wednesday, so be sure to check back in or just follow me on TwitterFacebook,Tumblr, or Google+ if you don't already.

Thank you again, and happy writing!
- Rachel


Ani Gonzalez said...

Great post! I was hoping that the whole indie v. trad war would be winding down by now, but I guess it hasn't. It kinda lay low for a while, but we haven't had any big trad implosions lately, so I guess it's back. I agree with you that you kinda have to figure out your publishing path by yourself and they both have their ups and downs. I think you HAVE to like the business side to make it as an indie. If you're not into crunching numbers, interacting with readers/fellow authors, changing things up, and finding out new marketing tricks, it's going to be pretty hard to make it as an indie. I had this conversation with a friend a few weeks ago. She hates the business side, and just wants to write the best romance books she can with lots of editor feedback and publisher support. As a result, she's submitting to a bunch of Harlequin/Entangled lines. She knows the royalties will be lower, but she thinks it's a good tradeoff. I'm full indie, but I think that's the best path for her. You have to know what you want.

HD Lynn said...

Your blog is a must visit for authors. I'm launching a book series as an Indie because I specifically want control over this project. I want to publish shorter books (40-50k) and put them out faster. I want it to feel like an anime/manga. My S.O. and I want to produce the audiobook (he's a musician/sound editor). This is an exciting project for me. Does it mean I want to self-publish everything ever? No. I want to submit a stand-alone romance to a publisher in the next 6 months because that's not a 'long term' property for me.

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