Monday, March 21, 2011

Traditional v. Self-Publishing: The Continuing Debate

I'm new to self-publishing e-books, at least to doing it myself. I have, however, edited several books that were self-published, and I have watched that side of the industry for a very long time. Like most writers, I kept writing and polishing my work, chasing agents and publishers, and getting no love. It's that way for many writers -- for most writers, truth be told.

When I decided to take the plunge with Among Women, I had certain expectations: that my book would hit the market and begin to make ripples. There was still the idea at the back of my mind that a traditional publisher, preferably one who had rejected the book, would see the error of their way and offer me a book deal. That idea diminished over time and I began to look at self-publishing and e-books in a completely different light -- a hopeful light.

Amanda Hocking is a hot topic right now and she has done well, selling nearly a million e-books and making a tidy profit. Joe Konrath, who I have quoted and mentioned several times, has become the guru of self-published e-books and has presented his case with the backing of several other well known print authors who have jumped ship to join the independent publishing brigade, the most recent defector having given up a $500,000 book deal with St. Martin's Press: Barry Eisler. His daughter asked why he didn't publish The Lost Coast himself as an e-book. I have to say, the news isn't all good, but it is intoxicating to think that I could be one of the lucky ones, as long as luck includes passion about writing and a moderate facility with creating memorable characters and interesting books.

It seems that series books are selling the best and I can see why. Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison and Anita Blake spring immediately to mind with their paranormal characters and solid writing. After all, it's like building any relationship; when the people click (reader and character) you want to know more about the person, be a part of their lives. I had that experience with a paranormal series of three books (so far) that is set in Colorado; I got caught up with the characters and wanted to know what came next. Katherine Lampe did a great job creating memorable situations and three-dimensional characters. She isn't published, but I hope she will be so I can keep reading about them.

After doing plenty of research and taking the plunge, no one was more surprised than I was when the news came out that Amanda Hocking was pursuing a three-book deal with traditional publishers for more than $1M (one million dollars). Why would the darling of indie publishing take such a big step backward? She has already made more than a million since she began publishing e-books two years ago, so what's the draw? I had more questions than answers so I went on a bug hunt and tracked it back to the source.

It didn't take long to figure out what was going on here. Fear. It's a big burden writing, editing, finding or hiring someone to do a good book cover, line editing, copy editing, formatting and all the other things that go along with self-publication, and it seems to have taken its toll on Amanda. Can you blame her? Doing it all yourself, especially the marketing and maintaining a web presence, is exhausting and it takes away the energy necessary to write books. It won't cost her much, except most of her profits, and she will sleep better at night, be less afraid and be able to focus on writing, or at least that is what I get from her post.

To put it in perspective, I am reminded of an acquaintance who was desperate to sign a specific agent. She approached the agent with a solid book proposal, a great query and a wonderful sample of what she had in mind. The agent took no time at all rejecting it all. She didn't have time to work with an unpublished author who had one book to offer. The writer was devastated. She submitted the proposal to Adams Media and got back a question: Can you change the book to fit the format the editor had in mind? She could and she did and she got the contract for the book. She was about to be published. What did she do? She went back to the agent, contract in hand to beg for a second chance. The agent agreed. After all, the writer had done all the work and all she needed to do was take a look at the contract and collect her 15%. She did tell the writer that she would have to work hard to promote herself and continue to write more nonfiction books in the same vein. The writer agreed. Why not? She would have -- and did -- crawl naked over broken glass just to pay the agent of her choice. I see the same willingness to do anything to get a traditional publishing contract in what Amanda Hocking wrote.

I'm sure that Amanda realizes that she will get, instead of 35% or 70%, depending on the price of the e-book, 14.2% of digital publishing royalties, after she's paid her agent and whoever else she has hired to promote her work. She will also have to continue to maintain an online presence and promote herself; publishers just don't do that much promotion or publicizing any more; it's up to the writer. It's her book and her name. She will see a 12-15% royalty, minus fees to agents, publicists, etc., when her book hits the stands and its shelf life will be about the length of a Mayfly's life span. She will finally get on the NY Times bestseller's list instead of just the USA Today bestsellers list, but she can relax. She won't have to worry about copy or line editing, have control over the book cover or have any kind of control over the finished product except for what she puts into it. She will finally have an editor who will spot repetitions and plot holes and continuity errors and rest easy that it will be done right. She can finally exhale.

Everybody has to make a choice, whether to self-publish or following the traditional path with agents and legacy publishers, and do the best they can with what they get. No writer is guaranteed to be a bestseller and, whatever route the author takes, it will come with its own set of problems and hurdles. Traditional publishing does not guarantee a book will be published error-free or that continuity, typos, plot holes, etc. won't still get through onto the page. I've read and reviewed too many books that were subpar on that score to believe that. If it means that Amanda Hocking can finally exhale and continue to write the books that have thrilled so many, then so be it. I suppose in the end, a small percentage of sales is worth being able to sleep at night and no longer be afraid.

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