Interesting Times For Writers and Self Publishers

I’m constantly watching the news and blogs for stories about writers, publishers, and the overall industry; and recently there’s been a good bit of buzz around one author, Amanda Hocking. For example, this HuffPo piece, and this interview, and supposedly she’ll be featured in an upcoming issue of Elle magazine; all because she’s doing incredibly well as an author who self publishes her writings through services like Amazon, and apparently sells most (if not all?) of her ebooks for just $0.99, which might sound really cheap, but if the numbers about her book sales that are being touted are even close to accurate then it’s possible at $0.99 she has earned more in January of this year than a large number of traditionally published authors will make from their book sales all year long.

But, there have been plenty of stories covering her success online recently, and even quite a few pieces covering the coverage of Amanda Hocking’s success too.

I was actually prompted to blog about this today after reading this recent post on Amanda’s own blog where she gives her thoughts about the sudden media buzz. It’s an interesting read, as are most of her blog posts, with candid and thoughtful insights from her own perspective.

Touching on the “self publish vs. traditional publishing route” debate, and giving her own unique and very insightful commentary, I found some of her opinions and positions were contrary to what I was expecting, which forced me to consider my own feelings on this a little more.

Now, to be clear, I’ve had a few short works published in the past, but nothing honestly noteworthy and my own small successes wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar screen in comparison to how well Hocking’s books are doing. For me, writing has always been a secondary act that I typically engage in when I need to escape reality for a little while–and it’s too cold to go camping. It isn’t something I’ve ever pursued for any real purpose other than self enjoyment. So, my own thoughts on the state of publishing today are admittedly challenged by having no roots in a desire to ever please or ‘be accepted’ by an established publishing house.

With that said, I do have over a decade in online marketing and promotions under my belt, and I’ve spent the last year working one-on-one with a first time author who did publish traditionally, and most of my feelings on the debate over self vs. traditional publishing in today’s world were actually formed in the last twelve months as a result.

The author I’ve worked with, as I said a first time author, has received next to no help what-so-ever from his publisher to promote his novel, online or offline. They basically said “we’ve invested all we’re going to with your first run until such time as you reach some magic number in sales, and it’s up to you to find what that number is, then get there.”

The majority of their input has been to send out Press Releases and make follow-up phone calls to stores or other venues the author approached first on his own to set up signings or speaking events.

I thought that seemed like a crazy stance to take for a publisher when I first became involved in this, but in talking with many other authors since then I’ve found it’s kind of common for first time and even second and third time authors who haven’t established a specific size of market and brand for themselves yet. And I’ve come to understand it’s simply a business decision many publishers have made to minimize their risks on ‘unproven products’.

But the more I became involved in helping this particular author to promote his book, the more I came to believe that for most authors I was meeting along the way, they’d have been financially better off to have self published through one of the many venues out there. Not because it would have been easier necessarily, but because they’d have still been in basically the same position of having to market and sell themselves as they were with a publisher, and they wouldn’t have had to give away such a large percentage to get there.

Sure, there are other benefits to having a publishing house behind you, and I don’t mean to minimize this in any way, but if you’re going to have to become a major business operation anyway, the resources are out there for authors to cut-and-replace the publishing houses from the equation and still be successful, maybe less so, but perhaps more so.

I don’t want to get too heavy into the nuts and bolts of it all, but at the end of the day the genuine best reason for working with a publishing house no longer exists in my opinion.

For many years they controlled distribution. They paid to have their author’s works on the shelves of stores, and also to keep the works of others (publishing house backed and self-published) off the shelves. They manipulated the marketplace in many ways, and for that long period prevented too many self-published success stories from surfacing. Though a few great works still rose to the top here and there despite their controls.

But now, they don’t have that same control over distribution. It’s as easy for anyone to get on Amazon as it is for Stephen King. It’s affordable to get included in the major distribution catalogs and into the bookstores now too. Which I’m sure is still a thrill for authors when they see their books on a shelf, but the fact is that e-readers and the ebook market snowball has finally begun to roll, and a very lucrative opportunity exists now for writers who publish strictly in digital format.

According to Amazon.com, they sold 3 ebooks to every 1 paper book in January of this year, and Barnes & Noble has stated that digital books are out-selling paper books on their website as well. Now more than ever in our lifetime, it looks like the success or failure of a book depends more on the quality of the work and the author than on anything else, including the backing of an established publisher.

Sure, established authors will still sell volume on name recognition alone, but Joe Smith from Nowhereland has the chance today to outsell those top brand authors that really didn’t exist just a few years ago, and if he’s still an ‘unproven product’ then whether or not he has a publishing house contract is going to make almost no difference at all.

Lastly, I’d like to just say on the ‘legitimacy’ question that often comes up when people speak of self vs. traditional publishing, that I remember taking an English Lit class once and my Prof scoffed in speaking about an author who self published several books on the Kennedy Assassination and sold them from a fold-up table near the site of the shooting in Dallas. That same Prof had suggested numerous classics for us to read, and what struck me as funny that I remember this now, twenty-some years later, is that each one of those classics had been self published in their time.

The point is, great work just needs to be out there. And with an almost level playing field, great works from self-publishing authors can rise to the top.

I’m not saying that self-publishing is the best route, or even the right route for everybody by any means. Only that based on my own experiences over the past year, it appears that the days of getting a publisher and instantly having a full-time business partner are long gone regardless of the path an author takes. One is going to have to be their own best marketer and salesperson from the starting line in either case, and with the resources and access that exist now it’s worth looking into very closely and making a decision based on your own abilities and circumstances rather than following the notion that there’s only one proper way for a writer to go.

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4 Responses to Interesting Times For Writers and Self Publishers

  1. CaperBen says:

    Agree with many of your thoughts, but you gloss over alot of the important tasks that publishers help authors with before the book even goes to market, like editing, cover artwork, reviews and blurb gathering.

    All of it’s important too, and especially the editing process. Like it or not, publishers also act as the gatekeepers protecting readers from buying garbage, and there’s a need for that service.

    If everyone who thought themself a great writer begins selling books online, how long do you think it’ll be before readers become frustrated with paying for crap and start sticking only with known authors, thus making it even harder for new authors to get started?

  2. Den of Mischief says:

    CaperBen, I must apologize as I believed that I had responded to your comment weeks ago, but somehow I screwed it up and my response didn’t post.

    I certainly didn’t intend to gloss over or in any way diminish the work that traditional publishers do. In fact, I didn’t comment on any of the pre-publishing tasks that you mentioned specifically because my experience in the past year has been with an author after his first novel was published, so it would have been unfair and from a shallow perspective for me to have commented on the pre-publishing process.

    Having said that, I would suggest that there is no shortage of available firms and freelancers seeking the work right now if an author has need for editing or graphics illustration work. And thanks to the blogoshpere and social networks like Facebook and services such as Twitter, isn’t it possible for an author to solicit their own reviews and cover blurbs?

    Again, I’m not trying to diminish the work that publishers and their staff do, I’m only saying that there are other, very accessible options for authors today, unlike any other time before.

    The crux of my posting was, and still is, that the traditional houses have lost their tight grip on distribution–which was the primary obstacle for self-publishing over the past century.

    As for publishers being gatekeepers, I don’t agree with that premise. The market…readers, decide what rises and falls in the end. Publishers, just like Movie Studios, can (and often do) prop any crap product up for a big launch, but if that product is garbage it will eventually fade to oblivion, and if it’s great it will be honored as such because people are social creatures and word-of-mouth always ends up being Judge, Jury and Executioner over the fate of artistic productions.

    There are rare exceptions, but they are very few and far between.

    The ease of access for authors that self-publishing provides won’t change that fact. People will still be social creatures, and will still discuss and share their thoughts on works and artists.

    So, I don’t see any reason to believe that over the long term more self-publishing will equate to more garbage being purchased and frustrating readers. The readers–via socializing and with their pocketbooks–will still ultimately decide who rises or falls.

    Thanks for your comments and again I apologize for the delayed reply.

  3. voxnewman says:

    I’ve only just got into the eBook game last month by giving away a collection of short stories for free to gain a readers. Marketing is the hard part. Sometimes it feels as if you’re floundering. It would actually be a good idea if there were some reliable and reputable service that helped authors with that.

  4. Den of Mischief says:

    voxnewman, for help with online promotions/marketing concepts and skills, there’s a free workshop-style course held each year called The Challenge that might be of interest to you.

    It’s targeted towards people starting home and online businesses in affiliate marketing, but the fundamental technologies and skills are the same whether you’re promoting someone else’s products or your own books/ebooks.

    You just have to substitute the material about affiliate networks and product links with your own sales/giveaway links for your book(s).

    The biggest takeaway in my opinion is in how they approach building ‘market leadership’, because that stuff is essential for authors or artists in building their own reputation and brand online.

    I’ve known a few authors and musicians who have used The Challenge in the past to give themselves a solid foundation of knowledge and skills with online promotions.

    I just saw that this year’s Challenge is starting next month if you’re interested in checking it out, you can find it and more information at:
    http://www.challenge.co/blog/the-challenge/challenge-starts-september-1-still-no-charge-for-awesomeness

    Hope that’s useful to you.

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