When I did a recent analysis of the top fifty bestsellers in the USA Kindle store, 22 of them (44%) weren’t from the big traditional publishers (tradpubs).
That’s an astonishing number…six years ago, pre-Kindle (although e-books were around, they weren’t having much of an impact on sales), it was very hard for a book to be a bestseller without going through one of the big tradpubs.
Unlike some people, I am not convinced that Random Penguin (as I like to call the proposed result of the merger of Random House and Penguin, even though they aren’t going to call it that) and the other publishers can’t survive and even thrive.
They do have to make changes, in order to adapt to the changes that the world has made…that’s the way for anything that wants to survive in any environment.
There is no reason for us, as authors, to want to duplicate what the tradpubs did to be successful in a world that increasingly no longer exists. The success of indies is due, in part, to being different and better suited for a new environment.
However, we are talking about institutions which have been doing business, in some cases, for more than a century. Adapting to digital delivery is a challenge, but so was adapting to the airplane.
The question for you as an indie is what do the tradpubs do, can I do it without them, and yes, should I do it.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the things that tradpubs do for their authors, and what the alternatives might be. Many authors are still choosing to stay with tradpubs, and it’s likely not to all be just inertia.
- What it is: another person works with you on the actual content of the book. They recommend changes, tell you when you are being too wordy or not explaining things well enough, suggest keeping characters, dumping them, rearranging chapters, and so on
- The alternative: you can have your work read by friends, by a writing group of other authors, even by your readers through social media. You could hire a professional editor. You could edit the book yourself
- Should you do it? I think many brand name authors would tell you that their editors (and they may have worked with the same one for decades) have been an integral part of their commercial (and sometimes, artistic) success. When someone gets to be really big, it may be harder for an editor to challenge them, and that sometimes results in books that are called “bloated” or “self indulgent” (we see the same thing with movie directors). I think that editing will tend to produce a better book: you don’t have to take the editor’s suggestions if you feel they violate your artistic integrity, of course. My feeling is that books will benefit from editing, although it does appear to me that people are more tolerant of less tightly-written books than they used to be
- What it is: a proofreader goes over a book to correct errors (not to suggest content changes). Those are going to be spelling errors, grammatical errors, word substitutions, that sort of thing
- The alternative: you can have somebody else review your work, try electronic techniques like spell check, proofread it yourself (sometimes reading a book out loud or using text-to-speech can help you get a different perspective), or send it out with errors
- Should you do it? I am sure that more books with more errors are making money in the e-b00k era than did in the p-book (paperbook) era…perhaps this is the “Error Era”. I do find errors in tradpub books, but I only find books absolutely riddled with errors which come from indies. I have also found the most exquisitely proofread books from indies. I’m a good proofreader (I’ve done it for other people), but I find it more difficult to go back and re-read my own work. I already know what it says, so I think my brain tends to skip ahead past the errors (it sees what I intended to say, not what I said). I can do it for myself, but it’s an effort. I have read books, though, where I wished the author had just given it to someone moderately literate to go over it first. I think it’s easier to find good amateur proofreading help than it is to find a good amateur editor. Great editors are as rare as great authors…probably quite a bit rarer. I would implore you to have your book competently proofread, but I think it’s hard for me to argue that it makes a big difference to your sales
- What it is: the editor helped you write the book, the proofreader polished it free of errors, and now the design team will make it look good. Certainly, the cover is a large part of that: you can’t judge a book by its cover, the old saying goes, but you can sell a book with its cover;) It isn’t just a question of depicting what’s inside: a great cover artist also knows what the current trends are, and whether going with them or against them makes sense. What should the cover cover reveal, suggest, or conceal? Design also is layout, the way the words you wrote, the editor edited, and the proofreader corrected look. How should the chapter titles appear, for example? What font is right?
- The alternative: if you don’t provide a cover, a retailer like Amazon will do a generic one, but that doesn’t typically help your sales. Either you go without design, or you get somebody to do it (unless you can do it yourself). You may be able to find a public domain image for the cover, and that could help…but there might be other books with the exact same image
- Should you do it? You could have a friend who is a good artist do a cover, but do they understanding the marketing elements? Do they know what upcoming blockbuster books will have as a design? I’m sure my own books’ sales are hurt by my lack of design
- What it is: marketing is representing your book in the market, and getting buyers interested in it. That could include things like print (or web) ads, but also things like book signings, getting the book reviewed, social media promotion, and arranging media appearances. This can all be getting into things based on the original book: movie deals, and in one of the increasingly lucrative areas, lecture tours. That could be handled by your agent, but a traditional publisher is definitely a contact point for someone looking to market things based on your book (including toys and t-shirts, if appropriate)
- The alternative: having the book not sell. A book can sell through word of mouth, but even that is marketing. You simply won’t get big sales numbers without some sort of promotion. That doesn’t mean that no one will buy it, but the numbers won’t cross into the general population. Power listens to power: you will have a very hard time getting booked on The View or getting a People Magazine mention if you are an unrepresented independent. The publishers have the ear of the bookers
- Should you do it? If you want to be a professional author than yes, promotion is part of that. I like to say that “old media sells paperbooks, new media sells e-books”, but that’s changing. The tradpubs are using more social media, and the old media are promoting more indies
Legal and administrative services
- What it is: all that non-writerly stuff: paying the taxes, getting the copyright filed, cease and desist letters for infringement, accounting
- The alternative: hire your own professionals, try and do it yourself, or roll the dice
- Should you do it? Copyright is automatic, but you don’t have the same ability to recover in court if you haven’t filed. Not paying proper taxes could land you in jail. What happens if somebody sues because they say a character is based on them, or they followed advice in your non-fiction book and got hurt? If you don’t have a tradpub, consider an insurance policy and some sort of legal entity for your publishing efforts
- What it is: tradpubs can pay an author royalties before the book has sold, to provide a person they think is a good bet with the necessary investment capital to get the book written. A brand name author can afford to write full time if there is constant money, even before the book is written:
- The alternative: one choice is to “keep your day job”. You write outside of whatever else you do to earn a living. You could also ask friends and family to stake you some money in some way…maybe your Significant Other works two jobs while you write. Another growing method is “crowd funding”. You go on a site like http://www.kickstarter.com/ and ask for money from the public. You give them something in return…it might just be updates on how the book is going at a certain low level, and maybe a personal phone call from you at a higher level. Even very well-known authors/artists are using crowd funding
Those are some of the main attractions to being with a tradpub. It’s important to note that not every author gets equal access to these services. Especially as a new, unproven author, you may not get much of this. They probably aren’t going to book you in as many places as they would book Stephen King, and you may not be able to get any advance at all.
So, what do you think, WG2Ers? If you’ve been traditionally published, what was best and worst about that? If you were and now you are an indie, what do you miss the most?
Recent posts in the I Love My Kindle blog which may be of particular interest to WG2E readers:
- Can you replace a desktop with a Kindle Fire?
- January 2013: Around the Kindle store
- Books, my Significant Other, and me
- Snapshot January 1 2013
- The Year Ahead: 2013
- The Year in E-Books 2012
- Eddiecoms #4: “I am gonna watch out for brussels”
- Baen comes to the Kindle store
- A Kindle Carol, part 1
- Should strangers get to know what you are reading?
Bufo Calvin is the author of the popular I Love My Kindle blog and several titles in the Kindle store, including the #1 bestseller Love Your 1st Generation Kindle Fire: The ILMK Guide to Amazon’s Entertablet, and the best-selling The Mind Boggles: A Unique Book of Quotations. Bufo is proud to be a part of the WG2E family.