Publishing: When you swim with the sharks, bring a shark cage.

I read an article this morning from author Philip Athans: What Publishers Have That You Don’t. Athans provides a comprehensive checklist of value that publishers can provide. The only problem is that most of what the publisher provides is not something that’s unavailable to self-publishing authors. And I happen to know of a few things that are only available to self-publishing authors. The most important thing I get to have? A shark cage.


But I’ll get to that part later. First, I want to go over what is ostensibly the realm of traditional publishers. And I’ll follow Philip Athans’ structure for that.

1. Editing

From What Publishers Have That You Don’t:

They edit the book.

And they do this in three stages, each of which costs that publishing house considerable dollars.

This is true. But there is no monopoly on editing; there is a multitude of freelance editors, and if you look hard enough, you can probably hire the exact same editors being used by major publishers. It’s not illegal to do that… it just costs you money upfront.

Yes, we should all pay for developmental editing. Yes, we should all have someone who can copy edit go over the manuscript. And yes, we should have someone else (actually, multiple someone elses would be nice) to proofread the final version, preferably in the final formats (both paperback and ebook). But assuming a self-publishing author takes the time and invests the funds required, the result should be as good as a traditional publisher. In some cases, the result will be better, since you have one book to manage and not a stable of them.

2. Cover Art

They spend thousands of dollars on the cover.

In the meantime, the publisher will have paid for cover art and design. And if you think this is easy, if you think anyone can do this, you’re just plain wrong.

It sounds like publishers can pay for covers while authors… can’t? The biggest issue with cover design is knowing what cover is right for the audience you’re seeking. It’s not about what looks good, as much as we’d all like to believe it does. It’s about sending a message to the right audience that it’s the book for them, while telling the wrong audience to stay away. Yes, you should hire a professional to do that. But publishers haven’t cornered the market on understanding your genre and writing style. If you read in your genre, you’ll know which covers appeal to you and which don’t. And you’ll hopefully have friends and family who read in the same genre (or beta readers), and they can also give you feedback.

A cover can cost you thousands, or it can cost you a couple hundred. As long as you get some feedback and understand your audience, that difference in price is surprisingly irrelevant to the result.

3. Typesetting

They actually typeset the thing.

And when that copy edit and proofread are done, the text goes to a professional typesetter, who does not dump text into a CreateSpace Word template, but crafts the internal design of the book using InDesign and other tools. Like a professional graphic designer, a professional typesetter is a non-optional collaborator.

I don’t agree with this at all. Maybe it’s my technical background, including some past work with print and web layout, but I don’t feel there is any reason why a self-published book can’t be typeset as well as a traditionally-published book. Using Word means that a book cannot possibly be typeset properly? Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress are non-optional?

I can’t argue that a book that is painstakingly designed with premium software wouldn’t be a more perfect specimen than my books built from that CreateSpace template, but I can argue that my audience would not make any purchase, review or recommendation decision based on that difference in quality. There may be readers who scoff at print-on-demand in general, or the print quality of CreateSpace or Lulu, but that is completely separate from typesetting. And as someone who has published a book with traditional print runs, I know from experience that there’s nothing stopping me from taking a couple thousand dollars and getting a book printed in the “traditional” way (because I’ve done it bef0re). If my print sales every reached a point where that made sense, I would consider doing it again.

4. Sales and Distribution

They sell it.

While all this production process is going on, a sales person is sitting down with buyers from the book store chains, mass market wholesalers, subsidiary distributors, and so on, and selling your book. If you’re a new author with no sales track record, yes, you will not be that salesperson’s first order of business. You might even be last on the list, but you’re on the list. Your book is in the catalog for that trimester.

Trimester. That’s the important word from that quote.

It’s true that self-publishers can not compete with traditional publishers when it comes to distribution of print books. Not yet. So that’s something to consider, assuming you’re interested in selling at Barnes & Noble (or Indigo/Chapters, or Waterstone’s). And assuming that you feel you’ll be selling enough paperbacks and hardcovers to justify far lower earning from a traditional publisher. And this “pro” on the publisher side needs to be balanced with the equally big “con” of books being treated like farm fresh produce; that’s where the word “trimester” comes into play.

A traditionally published book (by a big publisher) is likely to make it onto quite a few bookshelves, for a month or two or three. And some of those books will sell, while others will be sent back as remainders. And if that book doesn’t sell very well, the author could have a huge problem getting the next book published. And that next book will end up on fewer shelves, which will result in fewer sales…

My debut novel, After The Fires Went Out: Coyote, has only sold 3500 copies in seven months. That would be considered a failure in traditional publishing. But my novel hasn’t gotten moldy yet, so it can stay listed on Amazon and and Apple and Kobo and Smashwords for a long time… as in years. And there’s nothing preventing that book from joining some future self-publishing distribution scheme if one arises, even if that happens in 2015 or 2020.

It’s also possible that Book Three of the series will bump sales of the first two books. Or that my next series will find new readers who will discover After The Fires Went Out after they enjoyed something else from me. Or maybe I’ll get a short story published somewhere that will win me some recognition, and that will get once-hesitant readers to give my series a try. There’s a spreadsheet I play with sometimes, when I’m feeling down about the latest sales slump. I plug in how many books I sell a year, my monthly income, an estimate of how much sales will grow with each new title, and it tells me that maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll make enough two or three years from now that if I lost my day job I’d still be okay. Because that spreadsheet assumes that After The Fires Went Out: Coyote will still sell some copies five, ten, even twenty years down the road. Because I own those rights, the only thing that would prevent me (or my executors) from offering that book for sale in 2020 would be some kind of global apocalypse, something even bigger than Amazon shutting down. I don’t have to worry about waiting for the rights to revert after so many years so I can try and sell a few more copies. That’s important to me.

It’s different for every author

First of all, if you’re asking me if I think you, personally, should submit or self-publish that specific manuscript, which I have not read, obviously I simply can’t give you an answer. I just don’t know enough to advise you, but anyone and everyone should keep in mind that the second you self-publish a book you are now a publisher, and you need to act like one.

This is true. If you just want to write and not worry about anything else, then self-publishing is probably not the way to go, at the moment. Things change, and I’m sure that in a few years there will be full-service self-publishing operations that actually provide good value to the author without taking rights away. (I’m not saying there isn’t something out there already; I haven’t bothered to look, since I like doing things on my own.)

Of course, if you want to write and not worry about anything else, I doubt traditional publishing is the way to go, either, since if all you’re doing is writing your next book, you won’t get too far with building a platform and promoting yourself. The industry is changing for all of us, self- and traditionally-published, just as every other sector of the economy is moving toward individuals needing to take full control of their careers, not leaving things to a lifelong employer like in the “good old days”. All authors need to be more informed than ever about the market, about their audience, and about the technological changes at play. Every day, I learn more about all of these things. And every day, I’m still glad I chose the path I did, because it’s right for me.

I don’t have a problem with traditional publishing, but I do have a problem with the notion that somehow self-publishing is ALWAYS “less than”. I can’t say if I could have had my series traditionally published, if it’s “good enough”, because I didn’t try. Because I decided that I knew enough to make a go on my own, and because I decided that I’d rather take my chances with a long-building multi-year plan, instead of having a few weeks to sink or swim in the traditional way.

Self-publishing feels a lot safer to me.

It’s like a shark cage. It keeps me safe from mistakes or bad luck costing me a career. If I mess up somewhere, or if I just have a bad season (like this past summer), it doesn’t take my book off the “shelves”. It doesn’t prevent me from continuing the series, and I don’t have to worry about crates full of my books being sent back to my publisher with the covers torn off.

And if build up enough readership and revenue from my books, I can put more money into the next series, maybe bringing a developmental editor in near the start of the process, or getting custom artwork, rather than having to search for the right cover art on DeviantArt and hoping that the artist checks their incoming “Notes” on that site. And maybe I’ll be able to get a print distribution deal, whether it’s from a traditional publisher or some upstart indie distributor with clout.

I guess you might think the analogy would now reach a point where I climb out of that cage and swim free with the sharks. But, wait… there are still motherfucking sharks out there! I think I’ll hold on to that cage for a little while longer.

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