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Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Mailbox: Traditional vs. Digital Publishing (Revision)

Should I do traditional or digital publishing?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I promise I don't bite--unless you either ask nicely (and tell me your safe word) or you take the first shot.]    

Just a quick reminder before I get going that I'm still looking for questions–particularly if I told you I would be answering your question and then forgot. I didn't forget, but I did lose the "Notes" file that had all the questions in it.

CAH asks:

Hello, My name is C.A.H. [last name redacted], and I am a recent follower of this page. I have what might be a very stupid question for you as I think you have heard this many times. I have written my first novel, working on my second now. I would like to know your opinion on what you think about putting it on line and selling it as an E book? Or if you think traditional publishing is even worth the attempt?. I really get choked up on my writing when it comes to query letters to agents. I never feel like they are good enough. I am a writer and I want my stuff out there just appreciate any feedback you may afford me..thank you..c. ausband [last name redacted]

My reply:

There are no foolish questions C.A., only-- Oh who am I kidding.  There are some wicked foolish questions out there.  I mean the one about my favorite snack food is actually NOT the worst question I've gotten. I have one here wondering if my balls itch when I write for long periods and what I do about it if they do.

"Please don't just answer 'scratch them.'" the question goes on. "I need details."

Here's another: "What's the best country to find Thai hookers?"

I swear to fuck I'm not making this up. I mean how do you even begin to respond to something like that? "Dear Joe. Let's not use that word for sex workers. However, I'm guessing Thailand might be a good place to start."

However, this is not one of those questions. This is a really good question, actually.

A couple of disclaimers are probably worth mentioning right up front before diving into something like this, so why don't I start there:

Disclaimer the first I have not personally leapt through the full array of traditional publishing hoops. I've submitted a few places, been rejected by (almost) all of them, but never really turned that into an impressive cover letter or tried to push toward the next stage of traditional publication. And while I have a little more experience with electronic media (obviously) I only pay about 75% of my bills with writing right now. My decision to go strictly through non-traditional publishing is still in its proto-stage.

However, one of the spectacular side effects of a good reading comprehension is the ability to dig through what dozens of people have said about a subject, and get a pretty good idea about it.  This works less well with stellar physics and understanding what the hell a Higgs Boson is, but spectacularly well when it comes to things like parsing the publishing world. Then again, if you're the type to say "What the hell does he know?" if I haven't personally experienced something, I understand. (Most well-read people seem to have a pretty good sense that this is bullshit.)

Disclaimer the second Pretty much anything I say is probably wrong. Not WRONG wrong, mind you, but possibly not fully up to date or completely encompassing--especially if you read this months or years after I wrote it. (ETA- I'm updating it in September 2017 with the best of my knowledge.) The publishing industry is experiencing massive tectonic upheaval on par with the music industry about thirteen years ago. Some publishing houses are making the transition, and others are having more trouble than a toilet full of vipers. New tech changes the game almost monthly.  Trending lines have not stabilized yet.  Stuff changes fast!

Disclaimer the third Digital publishing is a bit of metonymy. It is starting to become a pretty wide umbrella that covers everything "non-traditional." Blogging, self publishing, e-publishing, print-on-demand, a ton of other non gatekeeper models, as well as things like apps, and password web sites are basically called "digital" even though they may end up involving a paper book. An article trying to break down ALL the different forms of digital publishing would be way outside my expertise, the internet attention span, and the fun factor here at Writing About Writing, so I'm going to tackle the question at the broadest level only.

Lastly, most traditional publishing involves digital publishing, and many of the the things called digital involve physical books (like self-publishing or "print on demand") so the real difference here is between publisher-backed and independent.

First let's dispel a few myths about both kinds of publishing:

The Beale Ciphers and the Phaistos Disc
have nothing on the mystery of how
this piece of shit became a bestseller.
1- No one really knows what in the name of Athena's left nipple happened with E.L. James, so thinking anyone's career trajectory will mirror hers is sheer ridiculousness.
Someone could probably earn a PhD by figuring out what perfect storm of internet fuckery set up the dominoes that led to that underwear skid mark of a book becoming so fucking popular. (I don't just mix metaphors; I throw them into goulash.)

Once 50 Shades was "a thing," it snowballed due to buzz/hype, but how it got to that point is the subject of campfire horror stories. It is literally the worst published book many people have ever read. This woman tweaked her third rate Twilight fanfic that she wrote on her phone and became an internet sensation.

That just.....doesn't happen.

EVER.

Not in the real world.

I mean you can't punch "Mind Control Erotica" into Google (or....um....you know....something like that) without finding fifty websites with better writing. Way too many self-publishers have dollar signs in their eyes because of this book when what they should be doing is running around in shark-infested waters with a lightning rod and lottery tickets trying to get eaten by a shark, struck by lightning, and win the lottery all at the same time...

...because that's actually more likely.

Second draft erotic fiction, which couldn't possibly get past a gatekeeper, is not going to make money just because it's published digitally. Basically the only books making real money in digital publishing are the ones that a publisher probably would have published.

Let me say that again in obnoxiously big font and bolded:
Basically the only books making real money in digital publishing are the ones that a gatekeeper publisher probably would have published anyway.
Not that you won't make any money (that's one of the fun parts of non-traditional publishing) but if your book is a turd, it's probably not going to make you more than a few hundred bucks.

With, of course, this one laws-of-the-universe defying exception. There are other exceptions as well: publishing is notoriously whitewashed, so many good books get passed on that are perfectly well written and would make some money in non-traditional publishing.

2- This upheaval isn't over, and neither side has "won."
The digital world is changing the publishing industry. If you don't think that's true, go back to listening to Fleetwood Mac on your eight track. However, depending on who you talk to (and which sources they conveniently ignore) you may hear that the publishing industry is finished and that digital publishing has irrevocably torpedoed it. You may have heard that publishing houses are unfazed and not even truly threatened by this flash in the pan fad. You may even hear that the evil "big five," Amazon, and other monopolies have dipped their greedy fingers into the digital pie and all but defeated the poor struggling independent artists.

All of this is total bullshit.

The big five have gotten gobsmacked pretty good. There are a lot of bookstores scratched their heads as they went out of business and said in their folksy accent, "I guess people just don't read anymore." (Hint: book sales are up--even a decade or two ago.) But not everyone has quietly rolled over and died either.  Bookstores are holding readings, agents are helping with digital media, new publishing house models are being adopted.

The emergence of "hybrid" authors (those who write in both the digital publishing medium and the traditional publishing medium) are increasingly ubiquitous precisely because neither side has said "There can be only one!" and decapitated the other.  And yet....digital publishing has become a multi-billion dollar industry.... And yet it is still less than a quarter of the publishing industry as a whole. And yet....paper book sales shrink every year and show no signs of slowing.  And yet.... And yet.... And yet....

3- Digital media is not a faster road to money, but then neither is traditional publishing. 
D pub wanks like to point out that you will make only a few cents per traditional book sale, but will make almost all the price of a digital sale to put in your pocket, but then conveniently leave out the part about how you will sell far, far fewer copies. Unless you are already a well known author or experience outrageous success, you will be making dollars on a few hundred sales instead of pennies on a few thousand.  If you've written a good digital book (the kind that a publisher would publish), it will pretty much be a wash.

(On the other hand, if you've written a shitty digital book, enjoy the few dollars from your friends and the morbidly curious. That's about all you'll squeeze out of it.  Ever.)

T pub wanks will tell you will have to do all the editing and promotion of a book yourself if you digitally publish it, but they leave out the part that unless you are a household name, you will pretty much be expected to do that anyway. And if you are a household name, you still have to market your book, but it involves readings and signings and shit that is really only awesome and glamorous for the first half hour of the first time you ever do it, and then feels a lot like a private, introvert writer in a room with a thousand strangers.

It's easier to make some money right away in digital, but we're talking a few cents a day.  In traditional publishing you usually have to wait longer (possibly years) but the payout will be bigger.

Basically the cold, hard sucktacular truth is that you probably won't make much money as a writer until you are doing it with a mind numbing dedication for several years, no matter which medium you pick.

4- DRM doesn't even slow pirates down. 
You will get pirated.

It is like needing to pee while pregnant--just a fact of life that it will be better to simply adjust to. It is going to happen. I've already had multiple articles turned into tumblrs or put on Readability against my wishes. Some people have even gotten pissed off at me for asking if perhaps their copyright violation (going viral on some other site) could maybe contain a link back to my blog. I'm not even good enough to call myself a second rate blog--I'm like an eighteenth rate blog. Yet the wonderful world of people stealing my shit for their benefit is already known to me.

Do you think some fifteen year old with Kazaa who has been told how cool the latest Stephen King novel is by his friends is going to have any trouble downloading it? Yes, they suck. Yes, they're thieves. And yes, they've convinced themselves they're doing you a big favor of "exposure," so they don't even have to spend any time feeling bad. But DRM won't stop them, so don't waste time letting T-pubs tickle your self-righteous gland about how they will prevent you from losing your hard earned pay.

No publishing company is able to prevent this, and their claims that DRM can stop folks pirating your work are simply untrue. There is no technology that can really even provide a reliable speed bump against how fast someone will be able to get their hands on your product if they want it and don't much care about supporting artists. Traditional publishing may mitigate this, but now that electronic media are over 25% of the publishing market, only a few small presses ignore it completely.  If your book has a e-reader version (even Kindle), it is very easy to pirate. And if your book doesn't have an e-reader version, you are losing money anyway by being a luddite. Pick your poison.

5- Making money in non-traditional publishing usually requires a different approach
Most writers "making it" (let's assume that means making money for right now although your particular goals might be different) in non-traditional publishing are not simply trading out their submission process for self-publishing, but doing everything else exactly the same. Writers who do this find their sales to be very lackluster and even demoralizing. Writers who are finding success through digital publishing very often have a whole different approach to writing. They're running or writing for blogs. They have Medium, FB, or Tumblr page. They have an online presence. They do a lot of online self promotion. They run kickstarters. They have Patreons. They are adapting their entire strategy to work with a plethora of new media options and a rapidly changing culture.

6- Digital publishing is not just a fad.
Traditional houses tried to convince themselves of this for years, and every year they lost more of the market share and acted confused about it.  "Gee golly whiz, how is this fleeting fad of provisional temporariness cutting into our sales again this year?  It just doesn't make sense!"  Finally they are starting to get their shit together and wrap their heads around the fact that artists who don't want to put up with their elitist crap might be a thing. They are trying to break into more digital fields and their contracts are increasingly digitally savvy. Possibly the shape of things to come.


So what should YOU do?

It's still a very personal decision. If there were a right way (or even a best way), everyone would be doing it. No one had any illusions about self publishing back when it was "vanity press." That wasn't "really" published, and it didn't count. End of story. Now things are a little more interesting.

Digital publishing is much, much faster--like Speedy Gonzalez compared to the other mice.  
Except maybe without being a terrible ethnic stereotype. You can basically publish digitally on the same day the ink dries on the final draft. Traditional publishing would take eight to eighteen months of galley proofs, edits, and printing (unless you were fast tracked for some reason).  That's good in some ways and bad in others. Yes, you don't have to put up with agents, publishers who dictate what your cover art will be, or copy editors who change your parentheticals to em-dashes, but you also don't have the advantage of having outright crap stopped at the gate by an unsmiling guardian who isn't going to put up with your fucking bullshit. Agents are actually pretty useful for helping to find a market for most writers who have no idea what to do with something they've written. If you publish your shit with fifteen typos and an incomplete sentence, no one is going to be there to object to it, and you can't notice it three weeks before your print date and rush a change to your editor. The first you will hear of it is the nasty emails that start flooding in about how you are the worst human imaginable and they would relish the chance to push an exacto-blade through your face since you can't write but have the temerity to try.

I admit it!
Traditional publishing provides a legit stop gap between the dreamer and the doer.
I'm going to be the asshole here and drop the truth bomb that no one talks about at parties. A lot of people who "are writers" don't write very much. They like the dream of being a writer more than they really like writing or they really enjoy basically churning out endless first drafts, but not really the rewriting and revision necessary to prep something for an audience. They will tend to avoid digital publishing because it involves simply doing it. A gatekeeper is a built-in, ready-made excuse not to really write or to give a few half hearted tries and claim defeat. They can forever be shopping agents, retooling "that one thing," and basically just about to achieve success. A lot of people "too good" for digital are really just glad to have an excuse not to have to put their money where their cliche is.  "Oh I can't submit that YET. It's not ready for an agent."

You will make more of the money your art makes in digital publishing. 
In traditional publishing, you will probably never make more than 10% of a book's commercial price per unit (and that's if your agent negotiates a pretty sweet contract). Usually it's closer to 5%. (It may get worded in lots of colorful ways: amount per unit, % of wholesale, % of retail, wholesale return value, but it'll mostly come out to roughly the same amount.) In digital publishing, you might make as much as 90%. More if you're doing something like blogging and asking for donations. Finding your audience might be difficult, but there is a reason established traditional writers are going hybrid–they get more of what they make on the digital end.

You will make more money at once despite being an unknown through traditional publishing.
Be careful with this advice. A small press may not be able to pay you very much of anything. A few copies of your book if it's a very modest run. If you have an established reputation, you might be able to negotiate a low four figure advance off your next book, but you have to be a household name or experiencing one of those one in a million publishing stories to get the kind of money that means you never have to have a day job again.

Now, if you close the deal with a big five, you're going to get an advance on the books they know you will almost certainly sell, and that is nothing to sneeze at. It's usually thousands of dollars and it's not uncommon for that to be folded into an advance on your next book and for you to get around ten grand (even for a first time writer).  It may take you years to make that kind of money through non-traditional means.

Neither side really makes "more" money.
Both "sides" claim they make more, but it's basically a wash for most young writers. Digital gets you less money, but more quickly. Traditional gets you more money, but it will probably take years. Short stories can pay, but not well. Patreons and Kickstarters and such can pull in some income, but you have to keep putting out content.

You will not have to face gatekeepers with digital publishing.
This can be especially useful if your art is not of the type that traditional gatekeepers like. (While whole other entries could be devoted to this [ETA: And have], suffice to say that non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual voices have a harder time getting published--especially in certain genres.) Also certain genres are less likely to be published. SF/Fantasy is very popular,  but what is called "literary" is not.

In traditional publishing, you get the benefit of gatekeepers. 
Not facing gatekeepers can also have a pretty significant downside.  Rejection is good for you. It makes you go back and develop your skills. Digital publishing can be too much instant gratification. And while the rejection of a pissed off anonymous comment can still sting, an agent or a publisher giving you thoughtful feedback on what is still lacking is a very good experience. A writer needs a whetstone. Yes, you can find good, critical feedback without submitting to a gatekeeper, but most people don't.

Traditional publishing is still vastly more "validated."
If you just want to see your name in print, get your work out there, get feedback, and make money go digital. If you want to be "certified" as a writer by the world at large, be aware that non-traditional publishing is still seen as less valid. You could make a decent salary blogging, reach millions of viewer, have books with impressive sales, and have a body of work of thousands of pages, and some a-hole at a dinner party is STILL going to ask you if you've ever "really" published anything.  Sure, you can grouse about them in your blog later on that night (and trust me, it helps), but how will you deal with the gnawing doubt within your own soul? I've made more money and have FAR more readers than most writers I've met, and some unpublished writers still sneer at me.

That's something you're going to have to figure out for yourself.

Digital publishing gives you much more control.
It might be cool to have a "real" book coming out with a "real" publisher, but there is almost no better way to feel exploited as an artist by a corporation. Contracts regularly include future intellectual property, fettering a writer to a certain number of books with a publisher, no matter how badly they feel they're being treated. You lose control of a lot of creative decisions--which may be as small as cover art or as huge as editorial control, and a contract can be canceled the day before the book goes to print.  A lot of writers go to digital publishing AFTER traditional publishers leave a bad taste in their mouth.

In fact, one of the MAIN reasons writers are being treated better these days is because they have options. And they know it.

The quality of digital publishing is very, very low.
There are mountains of shitaculastac writing out there under digital publishing (and not just E.L. James either).  Everyone who ever got a rejection letter from a gatekeeper and thought "Fuck you; I'm a dragon," everyone who convinced themselves they were the tragically misunderstood next Gertrude Stein even though the real problem was their grammar was still at a junior high level, and everyone who simply couldn't handle the slightest chance that they wouldn't be seen as a genius by an agent or publisher--they've all gone digital. A huge huge chunk of digital publishing is erotica of questionable quality. (Trust me on this one. I've thoroughly researched it for quality control. Thoroughly.) Plus, the recent development of Kindle Worlds means that a lot of digital publishing now encompasses fan fiction.

And then of course there's the dinosaur erotica.

Sweet butt-licking Jesus do I wish I were making this up.

You're throwing yourself into a really dank world, and the quality is deplorable. Actually we need a new word, below deplorable, to properly handle this taintstank. (I vote for Santorumy.) Your writing will need to shine in order to lift yourself out of the cesspool. The expectation is that your digital publishing will suck and it will be absolutely up to you to prove otherwise.

In traditional publishing a certain quality is the expectation.
If someone picks up a traditionally published book, they expect it won't have unedited sentences and be total crap.  Horrific paper books are the exception rather than the rule. It's like the opposite of digital. This expectation isn't always born out by reality, mind you, for there is some truly epic shit that publishers have put out including typos. (They are motivated by what will sell, not what is good, and in some genres that sell very well [sf/f, romance, self help] there is almost no quality filter.) However, it's generally of a certain baseline quality that digital publishing lacks.

The work isn't really any easier for either side. 
If you think that marketing and branding and basically making a name for yourself to become successful while every yahoo with an e-mail gets to tell you how much you suck will be any less work or frustration than submitting, collecting rejection notices, and slowly building up a cover letter, you should probably check your expectations.

Traditional publishing is whitewashed, sexist, and heteronormative
I'm not going to impugn anyone's personal choice, but many writers consider this an important factor in their decision. Working within a system that marginalizes certain voices--especially if the writer benefits from that favoritism--is seen as being complicit in that system, and many writers would rather opt out. Not to mention that many non white/male/heterosexual voices wouldn't be able to be out in the world otherwise.

Digital publishing is on the rise.
The trending lines are showing digital publishing is still growing every year. Traditional publishing just keeps getting harder and harder to break into, and digital publishing is showing no signs of slowing--not just it's natural growth, but its encroachment into traditional publishing's markets. If you are a brand-new, unpublished writer with your eye on a twenty or thirty year career, the shrinking market may not be the smart one.

And here is the last thing I'm going to say about this...

Whatever you decide, C.A., you have to get past that fear of rejection. You can't make a query letter perfect, so make it the best you can and let the chips fall where they may. Because here's the fact of the matter, and there's no getting around it: the meanest, most unprofessional, three-days-from retirement agent to send you a rejection is going to be more civil by an order of magnitude than your average reader who has your email address and knows they won't ever have to look you in the eye. You should see the comments I get at least once a week from some anonymous asshole who tells me in explicit language how much I suck for even wanting to try my hand at this wild world of writing. Hate to sound like I'm telling you your buttercup needs sucking up, but neither publishing route is going to save you from rejection.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read! I've been writing what may or may not be a book off and on for awhile and have wondered if I should attempt to publish digitally. Lots of food for thought here.

    ReplyDelete