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26 April 2011 @ 01:10 pm
On why traditional publishing is about more than a few weeks of chain bookstore distribution  
(Another post from my what-should-I-blog-about poll.)

So a couple months ago in my blog reading I came upon a writer who, in talking about why she'd chosen to self-publish, claimed that the only thing a traditional publishing house could provide that she couldn't arrange on her own was eight weeks of shelf space in the chain bookstores.

I was ... a little taken aback by this. Because there are reasons that authors choose to self-publish, and we can debate them all in good faith, but they ought at least be based on accurate starting information.

The writer who said this was in a different genre from me. Maybe there are genres in which that truly is all a traditional publishing house has to offer. But I'm skeptical. And in my own genre--it's flat out not true.

Here are a few things traditional publishing has provided my books, beyond eight weeks of distribution in chain stores (though that's no small thing in itself, actually, even ignoring the fact that not every last book gets pulled after a few weeks):

- Distribution in independent bookstores. A few passionate indies can still make a real difference for a book. And, sure, I could have brought my books down to my local indie, and driven up to some indie bookstores in Phoenix to pitch them, and maybe, if I was lucky, they would have either fallen in love with my books or else supported me simply because I was a local. Maybe not--because my books wouldn't have had some of the other things below going for them, and because some bookstores either refuse to consider self-published books or charge authors to promote them. But no matter how well things went with my local indies, I'd have been limited to those bookstores I could visit. I love my local indies, and am tremendously grateful for their support, but I'm also grateful for the support of bookstores that are well beyond driving distance for me, stores in cities I've never been to. My publisher has sales reps whose entire job is to pitch books to indie bookstores over a wide geographic area. And if an indie bookstore truly falls in love with a book? It will stay on the shelf far longer than eight weeks.

- In-depth editing. More and more self-published authors do understand the importance of editing, but many seem to feel like that can simply hire an editor. I find myself wondering just how much they're willing to spend. I know what my editor has done for my books, and honestly, I don't think I could afford to buy that level of editing, let alone the years of experience behind it. Certainly we'd be talking thousands, not hundreds of dollars to do so. That editing is one of the reasons there are bookstores that have fallen in love with my books. Quality editing goes way beyond correcting typos and addressing grammar and continuity issues--that all comes later, and my publisher has an entire copyediting department dedicated to it. But long before copyediting begins, my editor looks at the book as a whole, and hones in on deeper structural, thematic, pacing, and other issues that I'm too close to my book to see.

- Quality design. I had lots of ideas of what the cover of Bones of Faerie and the books that followed it might look like. None of them were as stunning as the cover my publisher designed. That cover with its simple leaf and title might look like it didn't take much work, but I've worked with graphic designers just enough, in my day jobs, to know that it takes a lot of work to make something look that effortless and elegant. Again, thousands of dollars worth of work, even before you look at the typography--and one of the greatest design misconceptions of all is that typography is as simple as dumping some type into a word processing program and hitting save. A compelling cover is a book's first, best sales tool. Compelling typography helps keep readers reading after the sale has been made. The design of my books did a lot to help get the attention of both booksellers and readers.

- Review coverage. The major reviewers are still pretty hesitant to look at self-published books, but that's only a small part of a larger picture. Because of the volume of books they publish, my traditional publisher can afford to send far more copies of my book to book bloggers and other not-so-major reviewers than I myself ever could have--and I'm convinced all those secondary reviews have made a genuine difference. Looking at all the review copies that have gone out over the past couple years, it would have cost me--again--thousands of dollars to distribute my own books as widely.

I don't have all the thousands and thousands of dollars that all of the above would take--and really that's just a start, off the top of my head; I'm sure folks can think of other traditional publishing benefits as well.

I'm getting a little weary of this tendency to start discussions of self-publishing, electronic or otherwise, off by spouting off half-truths and untruths about traditional publishing--I think it does real harm especially to those still gathering information and working out how to start their careers. I don't think self-publishing is always a wrong choice (though I do think it's right less frequently than is often assumed), but I do think that if it's the right choice for a given writer, it will remain a right choice for that writer even without pretending that traditional publishing is nearly always wrong for those who pursue it.

Also, because it needs saying: new writers do sell to traditional publishers. On a regular basis. It's part of how publishers build their lists, and Publishers Marketplace includes first-time sales pretty much every week, and the numbers of writers I've seen in the marketing cooperatives focused on debut authors are growing. So please, please, please stop claiming that new writers can't break in to traditional publishing. Selling a book is hard--it's always been hard--but new writers sell them to major publishers all the time, and telling them they can't and shouldn't even try is perhaps the greatest disservice out there to would-be writers of all.
jtucktattoojtucktattoo on April 26th, 2011 09:39 pm (UTC)
I sold to a traditional publisher (Kensington) and I am damn proud of it. I know me... I keep to a writing schedule pretty well, I deliver the manuscript when it is due...but handling all the other stuff that my publisher will take care of? Nope...not gonna happen, not unless I add 10 hours to the day and quit sleeping.

I have good friends who have success self publishing (one of them to the tune of $10,000 a month in royalties) and I am very happy for them, but truthfully, I would not trade it for my experience in traditional publishing and my book won't be out until 2012!
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on April 26th, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)
And I think if one has a realistic sense of the variables (and odds) involved in both, one can make informed decisions.

I don't see how, for my particular books, I could self-publish and reach the same audience. It may be different for others, but ... to claim traditional publishing doesn't do anything is flatly untrue. It does so much.

And hey, congrats on your forthcoming book!
deborahjross on April 26th, 2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
Another thoughtful post, Janni. I want to run out and make every new writer read it!

I cannot overemphasize the importance of professional editing, especially early in a writer's career. Very, very few new writers have any objectivity about their work. It helps if they've paid their dues in workshops and classes like Clarion/Clarion West, but what does is open them to the possibility of useful feedback. When it comes to a particular manuscript, no matter how experienced or educated we are, we have blind spots. We know what we intended to accomplish and that's what we see when we read the words. A skilled editor can take those words, see into the heart of our intention, and suggest ways to get rid of the missteps and accomplish what we intended. Or something better.

I've gotten to the point of flipping to the copyright page to see who edited a book (if that info is available) as another guide to whether I want to buy it or not.
Janni Lee Simner: duckstoryjanni on April 26th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC)
And I think of you and the BVC crowd as one of the circumstances under which self-publishing is succeeding ... but you've all been doing this long enough to know the importance of editing, and also to have a more realistic view of what is and isn't working in publishing right now and of what it takes to get a professional book.
(no subject) - deborahjross on April 27th, 2011 01:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
We Were Like the World's Gayest Ninjasthunderemerald on April 26th, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC)
Sing it, sister.
Janni Lee Simner: duckstoryjanni on April 26th, 2011 10:26 pm (UTC)
And you're one of the new writers who has, indeed, sold a book traditionally, this very month. :-)
(no subject) - thunderemerald on April 26th, 2011 10:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 26th, 2011 10:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thunderemerald on April 26th, 2011 10:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 26th, 2011 11:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thunderemerald on April 27th, 2011 03:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 27th, 2011 04:38 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thunderemerald on April 27th, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC) (Expand)
dancinghorsedancinghorse on April 26th, 2011 10:21 pm (UTC)
I'm seeing a fair amount of taking-for-granted that in order to publish a book, an author has to have a large amount of disposable income. That's probably an offshoot of the general misconception that authors pay to publish with commercial houses. The idea that money flows TO the author has never sunk in with the public at large.

Even with that, I had a would-be author ask me what I would charge for a copyedit, and be shocked by my response (at standard rates for a standard job, you're looking at low four figures). When I added that the substantive edit they wanted on top of that would run the cost considerably higher, they blanched and went away to "think about it."

The most common rationale I see for taking one of these deals is that "I don't want to bother to go through the rejection process." Not comprehending that there's a reason for this, too--and that books that are rejected are, the vast majority of the time, not ready for prime time.

Had a client do this just recently. The book is absolutely not ready to see the light of day, but a tiny press (with an a la carte fee schedule) "loves" it and it's coming out this summer. Considering the time frame, there is no way in the world that book is going to receive the extensive structural edits it needs.

I throw up my hands.
Janni Lee Simner: duckstoryjanni on April 26th, 2011 10:28 pm (UTC)
Yes--it's so hard to explain and have others accept that no, really, your book just isn't ready yet--and that even if it is, an edit will make it better.

And coming up with half-truths and untruths about traditional publishing just muddies the waters for the cases where self-pubbing actually does make sense--as with much of what Book View Cafe is doing right now.
(no subject) - dancinghorse on April 26th, 2011 10:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 26th, 2011 11:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - madrobins on April 27th, 2011 02:19 am (UTC) (Expand)
Renee Miller-JohnstonRenee Miller-Johnston on April 26th, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
I am not yet published and have been playing the agent-go-round game for a while. (that's what I call querying to make it more fun) It's frustrating, discouraging and sometimes I wallow in self pity with my old friend Tequila, but I would never consider self-publishing simply because to me, it's the same as quitting.

This post is a refreshing change from the "self-publishing is awesome" nonsense I see everywhere. Thanks so much for a very clear, well thought out post on the reality.
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on April 27th, 2011 01:19 am (UTC)
Well, the flip side of the self-publishing thing is that it's not necessarily nonsense, either. If someone does short-fiction primarily, they may make more money -- if they have or acquire a decent fanbase -- by going the self-publishing route. And then there's Hocking, who got the Gold Ring of Self Publishing.

Self-publishing can be awesome. Traditional publishing can be awesome. They have different strengths and different weaknesses.

Personally, I'm going to re-publish some of my well-liked fanzine stuff (no, not fanfic; furry fanzine) via Smashwords. In the meantime, I'm flogging a short story to paying markets (collected my rejection slip from Clarkesworld and F&SF Magazine, now waiting to see what Strange Horizons thinks), and waiting on an agent's evaluation of a novel. The furry stuff would never sell to a traditional market. It's short fiction and it's previously published. Only way it might make me some money is if I stick it up where people can throw money at it if they want! So self-publishing is awesome!

The novel, though, I'd much rather see in dead trees. It'd get a chance at awards (har-dee-har, but I can dream!), it'd be something I can sign that's not a printout (still dreaming, yup!), and it'd probably get a far greater audience than I could achieve from my teeny-tiny friends-and-acquaintances list. So, provided I can get a decent contract, traditional publishing would be awesome! Same with the short story that's touring the editors; paying market, counts towards SFWA eligibility, bigger audience.

One just has to determine what one's goals for a work are, and whether those goals are likely to be achievable in a given venue. Then... one rolls the dice and takes one's chances.
(no subject) - madrobins on April 27th, 2011 02:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - archangelbeth on April 27th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - madrobins on April 27th, 2011 02:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - green_knight on April 27th, 2011 08:00 am (UTC) (Expand)
Edited for clarity - archangelbeth on April 27th, 2011 01:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 27th, 2011 04:28 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - archangelbeth on April 27th, 2011 01:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 27th, 2011 04:26 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
deborahjross on April 27th, 2011 02:07 am (UTC)
Me, too.
mmegaera on April 27th, 2011 02:46 am (UTC)
I've run up against the editing problem. I would give my eyeteeth (and a fair amount of money) to an editor who would work with me on that level, but it's not that they're there if you've got the money, it's that they don't seem to be there at all unless you do get traditionally published (and not always then -- I have friends who are published with small presses who did not get decent editing). You do hear over and over that editors even at the big houses aren't editing anymore, too, they're too busy shepherding books through the publishing process and selling their choices to the higher-ups. There's way too much conflicting information about what's really happening in traditional publishing, and I think that's because every published author has a different experience.

I want to self-publish (for reasons I won't get into here). But I want to be edited properly (as you describe it) before I do. Any ideas on how to find someone to help me make that happen?
Janni Lee Simner: duckstoryjanni on April 27th, 2011 04:32 am (UTC)
The best developmental editors I've seen seem to all be traditional editors who've lost their day jobs and gone freelance. :-) I can think of a few people I think are doing that for children's and YA, and can check if they still are if you are too ... for other genres I'm less sure, though I can at least try to poke around on the adult SF front (and I think dancinghorse is doing some developmental editing there). For romance I'd say try asking RWA, and for other genres, I'm much less sure.

Edited at 2011-04-27 04:34 am (UTC)
(no subject) - mmegaera on April 27th, 2011 05:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lnhammer on April 27th, 2011 04:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - mmegaera on April 27th, 2011 05:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 29th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - mmegaera on April 29th, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on April 29th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
wyld_dandelyon: a wizard writingwyld_dandelyon on April 27th, 2011 03:10 am (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree that people don't have to put down the path not taken to be making a good decision for themselves. Of course, publishing is not the only place where people think that the way that works for them is The One And Only True Way.
Janni Lee Simner: duckstoryjanni on April 27th, 2011 04:33 am (UTC)
The thing about spreading disinformation about paths not taken is, it does a disservice to those who've not yet decide which path to take ...
(no subject) - wyld_dandelyon on April 27th, 2011 06:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
jennifer_j_sjennifer_j_s on April 27th, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
Sour grapes?
Very interesting post, Janni. I think we all have the tendency to slam something that is beyond our reach, and perhaps that is what some of the holding up self-publishing while putting down (traditional, of course) publishing is about. Remind you of Aesop's Fables much? The one about the fox and the grapes?

But as you point out, this way of thinking does hurt the new writer, the one who is trying to find her or his way, and there does seem to be a lot of noise and confusion out there--which you have helped to quiet, I hope.
Troubleliteraticat on April 30th, 2011 01:51 am (UTC)
This might have been addressed, I didn't get through all the comments - but I have to chime in and add that a HUGE amount of sales in kids & YA happen to schools and libraries. Even books that get skipped by the chains entirely (um... like most of my books? Truly? Almost all my books, pretty much?) - have had vibrant sales of many thousands of units to schools, libraries, book clubs and fairs. That simply cannot happen if you are self-pubbed or ebook only.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on April 30th, 2011 02:03 am (UTC)
Yes! The post where the comment was made was by an adult writer, but for YA and children's writers, school and library is still significant, and no one has mentioned that yet. (Including me, who ought have.)

And, you know. Libraries do buy/carry adult books too, so it's not irrelevant there.

Edited at 2011-04-30 02:06 am (UTC)
(no subject) - kimberleylittle on May 2nd, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
A large duckburger_eater on April 30th, 2011 05:30 am (UTC)
Just this week I had a (well-meaning) commenter on my blog suggest that publishers have an English major intern format the text for publication. I pointed out to him that books are designed, even the inside, not just the cover. He seemed pretty startled.