On Friday night I did a reading, talk, and panel at Dominican University in San Rafael. I'll write up a little about the experience (it was delightful), but this was the reading I did. It is an older post, but I gave it a bit of polish and some up-to-date publishing news fact checking. We were limited to fifteen minutes, so I only read the last part (after "So what should YOU do?") after briefly touching on a few of the earlier points to set the scene.
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org 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.]
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 [from] 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]
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 to a few places, been rejected by (almost) all of them, talked at length with several published authors, but never really turned my own accolades 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 still have to pet sit and nanny several hours a week if I want a cell phone, a car, and not to have to shoplift if I visit a bookshop. My decision to go strictly through non-traditional publishing is still in its proto-stage.
Also, I can read pretty gud, and it turns out people write a lot about getting published because so many people want to know how to do it themselves. This approach isn't as reliable with stellar physics or understanding what a Higgs Boson is.
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 June 2019 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, but there's a reason we used to call them the big six. (There're only FIVE now.) 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 a 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 websites are basically called "digital" even though they may end up involving a paper book. These days most traditional publishing involves some dimension of digital publishing, and many of the the things called digital involve physical books (like self-publishing or "print on demand"). There are even small presses with exciting new business models that I would consider to be more non-traditional than traditional. So I'm going to use the term non-traditional from here on out.
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.
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.
Not in the real world.
I mean you can't punch "Mind Control Erotica" into Google (or....um....you know....something like that...just a random suggestion....look a unicorn!) 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. Your family will buy it. A few of your friends. Then you're done.
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-span 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 cocked poppies.
The big five have gotten gobsmacked pretty good. There are a lot of bookstores who scratched their heads as they went out of business and said in their folksy accent (probably with a piece of straw between their teeth), "Well, I reckon folks just don't read anymore." (Hint: They do. Book sales are up--even from 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.
I'm still convinced a good living could be made by being an e-agent.
The emergence of "hybrid" authors (those who write in both the digital publishing medium and the traditional publishing medium) is increasingly ubiquitous precisely because neither side has said "There can be only one!" and decapitated the other. And yet....non-traditional 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....physical book sales shrink every year and this trend shows 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....but digital is starting to make gains in that regard.
Non-traditional 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 that 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 with a traditional publisher. 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.But see below: there are some.....developments.
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 (scope out the bathrooms wherever you go and make a B line at yellow alert). 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" or that they are raging against the capitalist machine or only hurting the publishing corporation and not you directly. Whatever it takes so they don't even have to spend even a moment feeling bad that they took money from your pocket.
But DRM won't stop them, so don't waste time letting T-pubs tickle your self-righteous gland about how their man-eating lawyers 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. You need to get someone other than your mom and six best friends to actually BUY that self-published book. 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 (and can go right to their customers without having to) 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. It didn't count. End of story. Now things are a little more interesting.
Digital publishing is much, much faster––like The Flash and Quicksilver had a kid.
You can basically publish digitally on the same day the ink dries on the final draft....even if that's your first draft. You can be making money before your celebratory drink is all the way down. Traditional publishing would take eight to eighteen months of edits, printing, and galleys (although these days they're mostly electronic and just called preliminaries).
But you also don't have any time to reflect. You won't be able to rush a change to the editor three weeks before you go to print. You've already pressed the button. It's done.
|I admit it!|
I'm going to be the asshole in the room. I'm going to drop the truth bomb that no one talks about at parties––even writer parties (you know the ones with the boxes of wine). A lot of people who "are writers" don't write very much. They like the dream of being a writer more than they really actually like writing. A gatekeeper creates a built-in, ready-made excuse to presume defeat. They can forever be shopping agents, retooling "that one thing," getting it good enough to submit, and basically just about to achieve success. Any day now. Just you wait.
You will make more of the money your art brings in with 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, that number is more like 90%. 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 can make more money all at once (if you close a big five deal).
The really small presses may not be able to pay you very much––especially for a first-timer. A few copies of your book if it's a very modest run. They're mostly just hoping to recover their costs and get your words out into the world. If you have an established reputation, you might be able to negotiate a low four figure advance off your next book.
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 for a household name or a starting writer, but digital makes more for midlisters.
The cheerleaders for both sides claim they make more, but it's basically a wash for most starting writers. Digital gets you less money, but more quickly, and spread out over time. Traditional gets you more money, but it will probably take years for the first payout, and it lands in clumps. 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.
If you're eating Fame Flakes every morning (or are just one of THE dozen or so names in your genre), it's probably most a wash too. The kinds of money that big publishers spend on advertising, legal, and your contract will end up getting you more money in the long run.
Things get funny though if you're not a powerhouse or a n00b. The big five are now mostly run by the profit margins of corporate interests. In order keep allocating all their resources (be it legal-fu or the space in the bookstore) to the big new titles that sell, they essentially mothball an author's backlist (denying them much of their trickle revenue, which can be half or more of a long-time author's income), and limit them to royalties only on their latest titles. This has DEVASTATED what might be called the writing "middle class."
Guess where you don't have to mothball anything.
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 and Self Help books are wildly popular, but what is called "literary" (or a book of poetry) is less so.
You don't have to put up with agents, publishers who dictate what your cover art will be, a single goddamned gatekeeper, or copy editors who change your parentheticals to em-dashes....even if that is so very desperately what you need.
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. It makes you do better. Digital publishing can be too much instant gratification. And while the rejection of a pissed off anonymous comment can still sting, getting thoughtful feedback from an agent or publisher is ultimately a good experience. A writer needs a whetstone. Peer review is part of the process for a reason, and your fans on Tumblr might not be, in a manner of speaking, your writing peers. Yes, you can find good, critical feedback without submitting to a gatekeeper, but most non-traditional self-publishers....won't.
If you publish your shit with fifteen typos, a continuity error, and an incomplete sentence, no one is going to be there to object to it, and the first you'll hear of it will be "Dear poseur...."
Traditional publishing is still vastly more "validated."
Brass tacks: the "real" writer thing is totally a thing. Even if you take a deep breath and tell yourself in front of the mirror that gosh darn it, people like you.
If you just want to see your name in print, get your work out there, get feedback, and make money, you can go digital and do all of that within the first month. If you want to be "certified" as a writer by the world at large, be aware that non-traditional publishing is still seen as FAR less valid. You could make a decent salary blogging, reach millions of readers, 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.
Non-traditional 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, especially if you land one of those big fives. (Small presses tend to be more collaborative.) 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 publishing left a bad taste in their mouth.
The quality of non-traditional publishing is, let's face it. Sorta low.
There are mountains of shitaculastic 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 brilliant luminary mind of their writing generation by an agent or publisher--they've all gone digital.
Along with, you know...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. 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 or a weird formatting error on the first page. Horrific physical books are the exception rather than the rule. (It's like the opposite of digital.) This isn't always born out by reality, mind, for there is some truly epic shit getting cranked out, and anyone whose read a bodice ripper knows they need a better editor, but.....generally there is 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 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. If you think that doing everything you can short of amateur porn to share a link is somehow less humbling than putting books on consignment in every local bookstore for six hours every Saturday, you should definitely check your expectations.
Traditional publishing is whitewashed, sexist, and heteronormative.
I'm not going to impugn anyone's personal choice. YOU DO YOU! 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. Many writers would rather opt out.
Non-traditional publishing is on the rise.
The trending lines are showing non-traditional publishing is still growing every year. Non-traditional publishing is showing no signs of slowing. In fact, it's not just growing tidily on its own, but is also encroaching into traditional publishing markets more and more. Traditional just keeps getting harder and harder to break into––the gatekeepers more and more discerning of "true art" or "what will sell." If you are a brand-new, unpublished writer with your eye on a twenty- or thirty-year career, the shrinking market may be the harder path.
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. Turn in the closest thing you can to perfection, give it every ounce of artistic integrity you have, and let the flying spaghetti monster take the wheel. Just like every writer has to look into the mirror at some point and make the choice that they want to keep writing even if they never make a dime or have a fan, every writer who wants their work out there has to have a moment where what they fear will happen if they don't submit is greater than the fear of being rejected. Because here's the fact of the matter, and there's no getting around it: the meanest, most unprofessional, three-days-from retirement agent sending you a rejection is going to be more civil by an order of magnitude than your average internet commenter. Hate to sound like I'm telling you your buttercup needs sucking up, but neither publishing route is going to save you from rejection. Cost of doing business, C.A.
And really, seriously, good luck.