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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