Jenny Milchman replied to my post yesterday with an account of her own trials with the publishing establishment:
Thanks for the post (and posts), Ted–I’ve just begun to scroll through your very relevant blog. Relevant to the times, and relevant to me.
I will try to nutshell it–3 agents, 14 editors who wanted one or more of my books, last one got everyone at the house on board except one top dog who vetoed, 12 blurbs from best-selling/award-winning authors–that’s my experience of the last 11 years.
I’m not sure what to do. I’m wondering if the world has changed sufficiently that
the goal I’ve been positioning myself (or position*ed*) for has become the wrong one. Your words about Harper’s success with their e version aside, what I fear is a major will charge an exorbitant price for digital versions ($12.99), turning off the e readers who expect their content for less. And other like mistakes as that big ship tries to turn itself around. Or doesn’t.
Anyway, thanks again for all the ideas, and best of luck with your own work. If it comes out in print, I will definitely check it out!
My rant of a reply:
Jenny’s blog has a continuing feature, writers talking about how they ‘made it’ in the publishing industry.
That’s the way I thought about my work for years. I wrote stories I would be interested in and then tried to get agents interested so they could interest a publisher and I could get readers.
What I’ve only recently come to understand is that what I’ve always wanted were the readers—and that publishers, in this day and age, are almost entirely getting in the way instead of helping me toward that goal.
Let me sketch out the two paths to publication and you tell me which sounds more compelling:
1) A huge corporation that publishes twenty-five books a month (I’m making the numbers up—they’re surely low in some cases). The company is interested in the big seller this month—until the week after publication, at which time its concern switches to the big seller for next month. If the book isn’t doing numbers the first week or two, the war’s over and Good Luck reaching anybody. You’re three-day-old fish in the marketplace but they’ll keep your e-book in print (at an uncompetitive $12.99, of which they pay you—what? 25%?) so you can’t take it over yourself.
Their business plan is dissolving under their feet as they walk (because it’s based on a 1970’s mass marketplace) and they’re panicking. Therefore, decisions get made on a cover your ass basis—’They can’t blame me for buying this; it’s just like what we sold last year.’ Books that don’t fit the cookie-cutter mold are rejected or forced to fit expectations (‘We need these changes to help your book become more commercially viable’).
'The focus group doesn't like it'
Because of panic, every book bought is either Big Prestige (Mr. Franzen, take a bow) or expected to be a blockbuster, appealing to everyone—and the focus on everyone is necessary if the publisher, bookbinder, publicist (who may or may not be spending any time on your book), proofreader (ditto), editorial assistant and the teams in Accounting and Royalties and Inventory Management are going to be able to pay their mortgages and the Zipcar at the Hamptons this summer . The writer is either saddled with low expectations (which means the publicist never heard of you) or has a huge advance to pay out, which you probably won’t (even big writers often don’t)—which makes it even harder when you want them to publish your next book. It’s like Wall Street, a totally artificial game—someone else sets the expectations , through a set of rules that seem almost entirely arbitrary, and then punishes you for not meeting them.
And all the time, everyone in this game knows that the big successes make their own genres, don’t fit the existing mold—and generally build slowly over time (the Harry Potter juggernaut hit around ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’, didn’t it? Which was Book Three). About half the time, nobody even sees the big hit coming.
So that’s one approach. On the other hand:
2) There’s me. I publish my six books. I’ve got one up now, probably put two more up in the next two weeks and the rest next month.
I know these books and love them. I believe in them to my soul. My focus will be entirely on them and I will sell them by going directly to readers—through Facebook, bulletin boards or bloggers who review books online. YouTube videos. Podcasts. Basically, word of mouth.
This costs me nothing but my time—however, since I set my own pub date and thereafter have the rest of my life to continue marketing them, time is actually on my side instead of working against me.
Since the books cost $0.99 to $2.99 (maybe $4.99 if I’ve got a built-in audience), they are an impulse purchase.
And I’m not looking for a blockbuster—I’m looking to build a group of steady readers for my books. If they don’t fit a genre, fine. They are what they are. They’re stories I love—I don’t want them sold as another ‘modern romance’ or ‘paranormal thriller’—I’m not looking for cookie cutter. I want their uniqueness, their difference from everyone else, to sell them, to find a smaller audience that will stick over time.
This works because I don’t need to appeal to everyone. I’m taking advantage of the modern niche-marketing Internet world. If I find 2,500 people this year who like one of my books—which shouldn’t be impossible if I work hard at it all year—and I make $2 from each sale, that’s $5,000, almost an average fiction book advance.
The difference is, since I’m the publisher, I will already have six books online at once—instead of having to wait 12-18 months for each book to come out, assuming anyone’s interested in publishing them all. Even more important, I’m making my $2 off a retail price of $2.99 (instead of an 12.99 ‘big publisher’ e-book, $16 trade paper or $25 hardcover, all of which pay roughly the same royalty)! So if, hopefully, 1,000 of those people decide to buy my other books—hell, they’re only $2.99—I make 6,000 more sales at $2 apiece, an additional $12,000. And hopefully those people have friends who read—and I have another book that will be out at the end of this year or early next year. These books keep building an audience indefinitely, since they don’t go out of print, period, until I do (if they’re still selling, my son can keep selling them, so maybe even beyond my expiration date).
But, you say, what about print readers? People who don’t want an e-book, who love the feel of a print book? Like me. (By the way, the Kindle is an awesome device—but I still love books…) There are print on demand deals and they’re only going to get better as this market explodes. You can charge less than a big publisher’s price and make a higher royalty. You just have to generate enough demand to pay off that initial printing.
None of this is new thinking–you only have to read Joe Konrath’s blog for a couple of days to hear all of this and better.
But the most important change here is the one in your own thinking, the writer’s frame of mind.
Suddenly, your focus is on the writing instead of making a deal, on pleasing yourself by doing good work instead of cutting your suit to fit the needs of an agent, marketing committee, focus group, blah blah.
I just figured out what was wrong with my next book—I’d done a whole lot of work on preliminary scenes that totally weighed down the beginning. So yesterday I chucked them and started the book in the middle. Much better. But it’s not a loss—I’ll put those chapters up as bonus content on this site or maybe sell them for $0.99.
I have a book that is a collection of short stories—I might put the book up at $2.99 and the short stories up individually for $0.99. If there’s a way for me to verify that someone bought one of the short stories ( I have to research this but I’ll bet there is), I can offer them a coupon to buy the whole book for $1.99. So everyone feels they get a good deal. Gotta take care of my readers.
Because they’re mine now—not a publisher’s, not some bookseller’s. Mine. That’s a very different attitude from the old model and much healthier. That unruly crazy back-and-forth that the Internet produces everywhere has to make me a better writer eventually—or I’ll deserve to go unnoticed.
Yes, marketing takes time and energy and it isn’t what I was looking forward to, but I’d have to put out that same energy if a publisher signed me. And now I’m captain of my own ship—instead of waiting another five years for someone to give me a chance (assuming there are big publishers or even bookstores then—I hope there are but…), I’m out there now and indefinitely so. If a publisher drops the ball publicizing my book (you hear these horror stories all the time), the book’s done. If I drop the ball myself, I can start again tomorrow, because I have no other focus. This is my business.
I worked at ABC News about fifteen years ago on a newsmagazine called ‘Day One with Forrest Sawyer.’ There were Executives in the News Division who would come down periodically to look at stories being edited and of course they always had their opinions and, since they were Executives, you had to take those opinions seriously. There was one—who still works in television News, though no longer at ABC—who seemed to specialize in finding the one soundbite that was absolutely crucial to the story, the emotional crux of the piece and deciding that bite made him uncomfortable or seemed suspect in some way. So it had to go and you were left after a week of editing trying to figure out how to salvage your story. For no discernable reason. We ended up leaving obviously bad bits in the stories so the execs could cut those out and get their satisfaction without doing massive damage.
I got turned down by an agent recently who was reading Mindbenders. He wrote me saying ‘I stopped feeling like I had to turn the pages at a certain point and in this type of book [thriller], that’s fatal.’ And he’s right, in a thriller, it is. So I wrote back, asking where he’d stopped so I could look the book over.
When I got the answer, I went back and found four pages between the place he’d stopped and the place where every person who’s read the book said ‘That’s when I was totally hooked.’ He’d gone 60 pages and faltered but didn’t give me four pages leeway! In the real world, if I’ve got a reader through page 61, even if they’re having doubts, they’ll get to 65. At very least, four pages should call for a rework, not a turn-down. But that’s the real world, not an agent’s world, not the publishing world today and that’s the point—and the problem. They’re looking for reasons to say ‘no’ and it’s gotten ridiculous.
With this new route I’m following, I’ll get my verdict direct from readers themselves. No politics, no panic, no covering-your-ass. The stories are out there, who wants to read them? Who wants to review them? Stand or fall. Get better or fail. After ten years of busting my hump against an unseen and incomprehensible industry that doesn’t seem to know how to get out of its own way, that seems like a walk in the park.
(Focus group photo courtesy photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)