Choosing the only option

Long time followers of my blog might have noticed that I haven’t posted about writing and self-publishing for a while. That’s because I’ve been sidetracked by politics and media and the interaction between the two. In many ways, the challenges faced by mainstream media in the digital age are similar to the current generational shift in the book publishing industry.  In both, writers, authors and journalists are trying to make their mark in a digital world where quality content is available for free.

There are thousands of bloggers like me writing (for free) on the web, stealing market share from paid journalists. Journalists used to enjoy the undivided attention of consumers whose primary access to written news and opinion arrived on their doorstep every morning. So far the only innovation that the mainstream media have come up with to protect their profits, and their journalists’ jobs, is the pay-wall, which is yet to be a proven business model. I still think that there are more options available apart from the pay-wall, such as more strategic advertising models. When advertisements went online, they were always cheaper than their print equivalent and the price fell below what was sustainable. In a race for audience share, online media publishers lost sight of the future profitability of this model. There are various ways they might be able to undo these mistakes. But that is a post for another day.

A similar problem is occurring for traditional book publishers. How do they make profit when there are authors bypassing them and going direct to the market? Previously a few big publishing companies owned and controlled the market. But now self-published or ‘indie published’ authors, mostly using Amazon, are reaching massive audiences, often more successfully than traditional publishers. I don’t use the phrase ‘e-book’ anymore. A book is a book, just as a word is a word. It doesn’t matter what shape or form it takes. People buy books to read stories and to get to know characters, not to own bound paper with a pretty cover.

This week I read two interesting articles about self-publishing vs traditional publishing – The Dead End of DIY Publishing by Eugenia Williamson and a response to this – EXTRA ETHER: Will DIY Pay for R&D? by Porter Anderson. Andreson’s article argues that traditional publishers promote innovation in the publishing industry, as they reinvest their profits from blockbusters to fund innovation and give emerging authors a chance at the big league. But, if you’ve ever had anything to do with traditional publishers and agents, you will know that this is bollocks. The very last thing traditional publishers want to do is give something ‘new’ a ‘try’. The choices agents and publishers make have nothing to do with innovation, and everything to do with making money. This is why most don’t even take submissions from aspiring writers, and are now picking through Amazon, looking for ready made ‘hits’ that have already proven themselves by finding an audience through the non-traditional route.

A recent example of this trend is the success of Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. James, a British writer, published with a print-on-demand publisher in Sydney, The Writers’ Coffee Shop. I’m not at all surprised that this fan-fiction erotica novel was originally indie-published. I can’t help but laugh at the traditional publisher, Vintage Books, who signed EL James to ‘re-release’ the novel, and is now congratulating themselves on ‘uncovering’ this smash hit. Traditional mainstream publishers and agents had zero interest in fan-fiction and erotica, let along a mixture of the two, before this genre proved itself a winner through the determination of the self-published author.

Long time readers of this blog will have experienced my journey to publish Times of Trouble and Conspire. I have always liked the idea of self-publishing (it’s my independent spirit I think!), but I also saw that traditional publishers have distribution structures that I could never hope to replicate by myself. I even dreamt of a situation where I retain the rights to my work, but use a traditional publisher as the distributor only. For both my novels, I have approached agents and publishers via the traditional ‘proposal’ or ‘query’ method, and I’ve learnt that it’s a total waste of time. When people talk about the merits of traditional publishing vs self-publishing, they very rarely make the obvious point that for the vast majority of writers, there is no choice.

Using Conspire as an example, let’s look at the options available to me in the traditional publishing model. I obediently purchased the 2012 Writer’s Market that lists all the agents and publishers in North America. Of the hundreds listed, there were only 27 for whom my book was eligible – ie that they were interested in thrillers, were taking submissions (as the majority don’t) and also took email submissions. I’ve written before about publishers and agents who still only take posted submissions and how I can safely assume they’re not going to have a great handle on the digital publishing industry. I gave up on Australian agents and publishers through my experiences with Times of Trouble. There are less than 10 credible agents and publishers in Australia actively taking submissions from first time authors. So the people who stood between me and my goal of traditionally publishing my novels would all fit in my living room. Not only a tough crowd, also a very small one! Most of these people don’t even respond when you send them a query. So you end up with a handful of responses, all rejecting your proposal. After this not so fun experience, you’re left with one option – self-publishing. When I self-published Times of Trouble as a free book, it was downloaded over 30,000 times and got some great reviews. So far Conspire has been ‘out there’ for a few weeks and I already have some readers giving it a go.

I’m just happy that the traditional publishing model is no longer the only way to get published. In the past, if gatekeeper agents and publishers didn’t like the concept of a Progressive Thriller, Conspire would never have seen the light of day.  I could endlessly discuss the merits of publishing via the traditional route compared to self-publishing, and vice versa, but ultimately, when I, and most authors, don’t really have a choice, this debate is futile. We do the best with what we have and we thank our lucky stars that Amazon exists.


    • , there are some very, very smart business polpee at the tops of these big publishing companies, and they are not dumb, they know what’s happening. And they mostly understand the forces that have them trapped in certain patterns. They are moving quickly now that electronic publishing is finally real (it’s been talked about for almost 20 years now as the next big thing, just that no one knew when) to make income streams on the electronic side. But quickly with long term union contracts, long term warehouse rental, increasing shipping costs, the destructive nature of having the returns system, and huge, leased overhead just isn’t quickly by any means. That’s why the price wars this last year were so critical to publishers. And they lost them.For example, Pocket Books wanted to hold onto Kris’s novel Fantasy Life and not return rights, so they put out a $27.00 POD trade paperback that is discounted down to $19 on Amazon at times. If I went to CreateSpace, for a $39.00 fee, I could get the same distribution as Pocket and do a Trade Paperback of the same size and look exactly for a retail of $17.99 with the same discounts along the way that Pocket Books has to give. Why the difference between $18.00 and $27.00? New York overhead. Their profit and loss statement won’t allow a price under that for a POD, while I have no overhead and thus can give the same product at $17.99 and make Kris more money than she will make per book through Pocket. And thus is the big problem New York faces. With price wars on the electronic side and price point problems on the paper side, they are being shaken. The corporations that can move and adjust fast enough, or carry through a transition phase will survive, the ones that don’t will leave a hole that active young publishers will climb into the gap to fill. That’s the nature of publishing. That’s not changing.

      • One of the major problems with the Big Five is that they pay authors advances. Indie publishers who aren’t paying cash upfront can afford to take chances on “non-formula” books the Big Five can’t/won’t touch. And it is really to the author’s long-term advantage not to be shackled to an advance.

  1. This was perfect! You’ve put into words exactly why I (had to) self-publish. I had no choice. Kept getting rejected before anyone would even take a look at my manuscripts. Oh well, this was a (not so much) choice I am happy to live with.

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