When I tell people I’m a writer, the inevitable question is “Are you published?” I tell them while I have been published, my work hasn’t appeared very widely. This always leads to the dreaded follow-up question: “Why don’t you just publish on Amazon? It’s so easy.”
Normally I just smile and reply “I’ll think about it”, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated. To understand why I’m not throwing books up on Amazon left and right, you have to know a little bit about the publishing landscape, which is currently in a great deal of flux. There are (at least) three ways to publish. I’m going to give an overview of each of them, along with the reasoning behind my current publishing strategy. The two factors to keep in mind, however, is that a) your strategy has to tailored your own goals and dreams and b) you can – and should – revise your strategy as time goes on.
The first way writers are published is through traditional publishing. This is the way publishing has worked for decades. Writers seek out an agent, who present their work to a publisher, in return for fifteen percent off the writer’s earning (this is a standard throughout the industry). A publisher agrees to produce the writer’s book, providing not only publication, but also cover design, editing services and some marketing. Major publishers also usually have the connections to put the author’s work in bookstores across the country. The writer usually receives an advance as well as subsequent royalties after the book sales have paid out the initial advance.
One of the biggest downsides is that this way is fraught with gatekeepers. From the agents themselves to the editors acquiring the book, there are tons of hurdles a writer has to clear in order to land a deal. While these gatekeepers ensure a certain standard of quality, it’s still a very difficult process for writers. Don’t believe me? James Patterson and J.K. Rowling were both rejected at least twelve times by publishers and I’ve heard of major authors being rejected upwards of fifty times.
In spite of these hardships, this is the path I’ve currently chosen. I want to eventually make enough from my writing to do it full-time, or at least most-of-the-time. This way, I’ll have an agent in my corner to help make that happen. While I realize the lion’s share of the work falls to me, and that there’s only so much agents, editors and even publishers can do, I like the sense of structure and teamwork. Plus, these are my first novels. Having them rejected gives me more incentive to go back, revise and ensure they really are the best work I can produce.
But of course, that’s not the only way to publish nowadays.
The other way is through self-publishing. Most self-publishing is done through Amazon’s CreateSpace, although there are tons of other self-publishing services. For years, self-publishing was looked down by traditional publishing entities, but the advances in printing technology and the widespread availability of print-on-demand services has changed that. Unlike traditional publishing, self-publishing is simple: as the name implies, you do it all yourself. It’s actually a lot easier than you think. You just buy an ISBN, upload a PDF of the text, provide a cover, click a few buttons, and then you have a book.
“If it’s that easy, what aren’t you doing it?” you might ask. “Heck, why isn’t everyone doing it?” Well, that’s the problem: nearly everyone is doing it. At least a million books are published a year in English alone. The competition is fierce. And remember, you are doing this all without a publisher, which means you provide the cover, you do the editing. Flubbing either of them can put a black mark of your book, making it difficult to land publishing deals later on in your career.
I think self-publishing works for two kinds of writers on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first are the hobbyists. These writers aren’t looking to make it big or turn it into a career – they just want to get their feet wet. So they put together a well-edited book with a basic cover and see what happens. It worked for Andy Weir, whose book “The Martian” started out self-published, and is now a bestselling novel and movie. The other class of writers are the ones who have tried traditional publishing to no avail and decided to put their work up on Amazon – again with solid editing and a good cover. My friend Cat Stark did this with her book “The Elven Prince”. She’s happy with the results and preparing to publish another book very soon.
Last but not least, there are the hybrid publishers. This is a nebulous category at best, but an important one nonetheless. Like all forms the media, the publishing industry is experiencing a rabid amount of change. What worked thirty years ago in publishing doesn’t work anymore, heck, what worked ten years ago might not work anymore. Hybrid publishers represent those writers with one foot in either camp. It could simply be a writer who uses both traditional publishing and self-publishing venues to get his or her work out there. Or it could be a writer who teams up with a vanity press and then uses crowdfunding to purchases ala carte services to obtain publisher house quality for their project. Or it could mean something completely different.
The industry is rapidly changing. Hybrid publishing acknowledges publishing doesn’t have to be binary choice of either going through the gatekeepers or going it alone. If there’s one part of the industry that’s going to grow in the next couple years, I suspect it’s this one – but how and where, I don’t have a clue. All I can say is if it sounds like a great plan and you’re willing to take the risk – go for it – but keep it mind all experimentation involves risk, and all risk involves failure. Publishing in general is a thorny business to innovate, filled with plenty of good ideas attempted too soon or too late – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try in the first place.
Ultimately, the 21st century has made publishing personal. Thus, the tools and strategies we use have to be tailored to our own objectives, but don’t be afraid to restock or completely revise these strategies from time to time. After all, no plan survives the battlefield.