The Publishing Landscape: Desert or Oasis
I was recently asked to give a keynote speech at the Write it Right conference, sponsored by the Black Diamond Writers’ Network. They requested that I talk about the changing landscape of the publishing industry and what it means for writers.
I spent a good deal of time thinking about the subject before my presentation. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Why? Because it's largely subjective.
There are a lot of negative comments bouncing around about that very topic. The prophets of doom have circled their wagons around the subject, announcing what a terrible time it is to be a writer, predicting the end of traditional publishing, and forecasting how the evil e-book will force the paperback to go the same way as the vinyl record. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth by industry professionals as they gaze upon a bleak and barren landscape, laid to ruin by the plagues of self publishing, digital publishing and micro-presses. The new author shall surely starve and pass into oblivion in this harsh and sterile wasteland.
You see, in my humble opinion, it really depends on what you’re looking for. What one might see as a scorched desert another might see as an oasis blooming with opportunity. And which one you see probably depends on how you define “opportunity.”
If, for you, opportunity means fame and fortune, your name on billboards, appearances on talk shows, royalty checks and movie deals flooding your mailbox, well, break out the sunscreen because you’re in for a long trek in the desert. On the other hand, if your definition of opportunity means a chance to tell your story, get your book “on the shelves” and reach out to readers, regardless of whether you ever make a dime, then enjoy your oasis!
Let’s take a closer look at the landscape.
Everyone knows that self publishing is in its heyday. Back in “olden times” self-publishing was an unknown concept. The big publishing houses called the shots and no one got a legitimate book into print except through them. But now, self-publishing is all the rage. It doesn’t have a stigma or stink attached to it anymore, and a bunch of sites have sprung up all over the internet determined to help the “indie author” (a/k/a authors who are self-published or published through a micro-press) find their readers. Google turned up 38,700 results on a search for self publishing houses. There are tons of them out there, ready and willing to help you turn your manuscript into a real, honest-to-goodness book. Pretty much all of them will offer you, the writer, a host of publishing packages, ranging from bare-bones printing to full packages that include a stack of author’s copies and some degree of promotion. Here’s the rub: they all cost money. Every one of them. You, the writer, have to pay the costs upfront, before you ever see your book. There are also a fair share of scammers out there, too—companies that will include hidden costs, won’t give you good quality, or will coerce you into buying something that you never intended and probably don’t need. Authors have to be proactive, do their homework, and make sure the companies they are dealing with are legitimate. A little scary, isn’t it? The bottom line is simple. Whatever self-publishing house you choose (and they vary as to the details), you are paying someone to publish your book. You are starting out “in the hole” money-wise, and will have to work hard—very HARD—to make back what you will spend on self-publishing.
For those authors who don’t have the money to invest upfront into self-publishing, e-books and micro-presses offer alternatives. Micro-presses are very small publishers that probably won’t pay you an advance but will help you get your book on the shelf and even help to promote it. Most have a selective submissions policy, don’t ask for money, and will ask for your rights.
Then there are e-books. As most of you, e-books offer writers a chance to present their books to the reading public in digital format for download onto computer or e-reader. Unless you pay for a formatting service, they don’t usually cost money to produce. They are easily accessible to the general public but they do sell for less than traditional paperbacks. The e-book industry has blossomed lately and is going through some growing pains. I won’t even get into the current legal sparring over e-book price fixing. That could constitute a whole other blog post.
But wait! What about traditional publishing? After all, it was the way all the “great authors” rose to fame and fortune in the past. Should we totally discount it?
It’s no secret that, while the uprising of self publishing, digital publishing and micro-presses have not caused the “Big Six,” to roll over and die, they have caused them to adapt. The doors to those houses which were notoriously narrow to begin with, have become even more constricted, especially for the debut author. True, the big-name publishing houses are still taking on new authors, but they have become increasingly more selective. But even if you are one of the select few who gets a book published by one of the big houses, fame and fortune don't necessarily follow and, in fact, are not even visible in the rear-view mirror. You will have an agent (most big named publishers won’t look at un-agented work), who will take at least 15% percent of whatever you make on your book right off the top. You will get an Advance against royalties (don’t forget that latter part; it’s not “free money”) but it probably won’t be as big as you had envisioned. You won’t get the rock star treatment of days gone by, and you will be responsible for the lion’s share of marketing and promotion. You will get the prestige of having a big name imprint on your book and will have greater access to reviewers and bookstores, but not much else. In fact, if your book doesn’t sell up to expectations, you may get that disheartening notification that it is being placed “out of print” by the publishing house a lot sooner than you would like. Sure, you might find a copy or two on ebay, but you won’t get any royalties off of that. Consequently, even placing with a big house does not guarantee a big paycheck.
So, what’s the point of all this?
All in all, the avenues by which an author can get published abound like never before. Writers have more options than they have ever had at any time in history. But will you get rich by pursuing any of these options? Nope. Of course, you might be one of those very rare exceptions, the kind of person who buys one ticket for the Mega Millions and winds up hitting the jackpot. If you are, more power to you, and I hope you’ll buy my book when you're rolling in the dough. However, if you’re like the rest of us, if you’re lucky, you might come out a few bucks ahead. Typically, though, you’ll lose some money in the process. Even if you don't spend a dime for self-publication, the process of promotion and marketing (if you’re serious about it) costs money. Therefore, if you define “opportunity” as a shot at making mucho dinero ….
Welcome to the desert.
On the other hand, if your goal is to get your book out there, get it in the hands of readers and tell your story, the landscape looks much different to your eyes. As a writer, I can’t imagine any greater kick than having your story reach someone, get into their head, incite emotion and leave an indelible impression. We, as authors, are gatekeepers. We have the power to invite readers into a world that would otherwise be inaccessible to them, except through your book. It’s like magic—genuine magic—to be able to create entire worlds that spring to life and become real not only for you, but for those who read your book. Numbers don’t matter. If you reach one person and somehow impact that person’s life by what you have written, you have changed the world. For me, that privilege is worth more than gold; and for many writers, it is all the payment needed. So, if you define “opportunity” as a chance to publish your book and reach readers, no matter how many, for the sake of art and expression itself . . .
Welcome to your oasis!
Like so many things in this life, though, which one you see depends upon your perspective. That choice is, and always has been, yours.