When an artist decides to guide his or her own destiny and become the pivotal force in releasing their art, only good can come of it, right?
You’d think so, but for years, those in the publishing world would have both authors and readers believe not. You’re not a real author unless you have a real contract with a real (New York) agent, who has finagled you a real deal with a real Big Publishing House. The old guard would have you believe that a self-published book is a cheap, vain plea for attention, not worthy of an honored place on your bookshelf or in your Kindle.
So why the bad rap, especially when it comes to books? Independently produced film and music has been the pulsing to its own beat and rotating around its own orbits for years now. When Hollywood or New York deemed a project too dicey, too out there, or too expensive, the rock and roller or budding film producer scraped up their own funds to showcase their art on their own. In fact, the tradition of independent film has been around since the dawn of movies.
As for music, such labels as Sun and Rounder Records were launched as an alternative to the major record producers. Now, with the Internet, nearly anyone can become a singing sensation. Who could forget this earworm of a song, independently produced, that went on to viral popularity?
I’m a writer, and my dream is to become published. Of course, it would be nice if I were discovered a la Hollywood and Vine. I would be plucked from a writer conference crowd after a frenzied round of agent speed dating, or my stellar query letter would somehow rise to the top of the slush pile and everyone from mailroom boy to assistant to agent to editor at a Big House would fall madly in love with my manuscript. The rest, including fame and huge advance, would be history.
Wake up from the dream, writers! Sure, your project might land you an agent. If your book is outstanding, maybe even a great agent. If your book is mildly entertaining, maybe a really hungry agent meaning to make a name for herself.
As with film and music, the hard facts of writing are these: The competition for the traditionally landed work of art is fierce. Slush piles have become the slush Rocky Mountains. There are lots of good stories coming out of tons of good story tellers, and with the Internet, the stories are spilling out faster and faster. It’s a brand new age. Self published doesn’t equate to vanity pressed. Sometimes indie is the only way to go.
One only has to look at Brokeback Mountain, a great Annie Proulx story and a fabulous movie, but not mainstream enough for a Big Motion Picture company to produce. It had to go indie. Likewise, there’s a lot of good music out there. Had punk or grunge not found an alternative creative outlet, we might not know the Ramones or Pearl Jam. And if young adult fantasy author Amanda Hocking hadn’t the need to make $300 for a trip to Chicago, she wouldn’t be the sensation she is today.
Why Go Indie?
There are many good reasons to consider going indie, and some of them have nothing to do with the writer’s narcissistic bent:
An unusual story. Perhaps you have a good, solid story, but it doesn’t fall within the general purview of a specific genre. In my case, Virtually Yours, soon to be e-released, is contemporary and would appeal to women, especially those in the “mature” woman category; i.e. one-time sassy chick-lit readers now moms (which is why I call my particular story ‘mom-lit’). There’s some mystery involved, but it’s light hearted — definitely not a thriller. My novel is a beach read, not literary fiction. But it’s not a true romance, even though there’s plenty of love involved. While there is a potential for hook up at the end, the story concludes without anyone under the sheets… yet.
Unfortunately for me, agents are geared toward representing one genre or a set of them. If your book, like mine, is in a crossover genre not easily defined, you might find yourself fighting an uphill query battle, your email inbox full of rejection letters.
My story is a good story. I had to go indie.
Control. With a contract comes restrictions, and your vision for your printed book might not match those of your publisher’s. Authors who are traditionally signed by big houses have little say in cover design or layout of the book. They must wait for the contract to end before resuming rights to publish and/or distribute on their own. Even though your book is being produced by a major house, the author is still responsible for most of the marketing. Why not do it yourself?
Time. A traditionally brokered book takes anywhere from one to two years to hit the shelves. Using any one of a wide range of author assisted publishers, like AuthorHouse or Create Space, the time is cut to a fraction of that, in many cases, one or two months.
If the author chooses to strike out on their own, they will find many good cover designers, line and developmental editors, author web site designers, and people who can translate a manuscript into something that is online readable. As for printing hard copies, check around locally. By asking, I found that the printer I use to produce our forms and folders in my day job has printed hard and soft-cover books.
Cost. It is cost prohibitive for agents and major publishing houses to take on every good book that crosses their desks. They are geared toward concentrating on those books that will sell the most copies, which unfortunately for the budding author, might be a big name like Nicholas Sparks or John Grisham.
Conversely, it won’t break the bank for an interested author to self-publish physical books. With so many small publishers out there competing for your business, the cash outlay can be reasonable.
Traditional Publishing: The Waves Shift
When I attended my first San Francisco Writers Conference in 2009, the main focus centered on the ways of becoming (hopefully) traditionally published. There were workshops on penning the breakout novel, editing, query letter writing, successful pitching, and what genres agents were looking for. The self-publishing models, what little were represented, took up residence as the red-headed stepchild in the room. The buzz in 2009 was all about the traditional path to publication.
Fast forward four years, and this year’s conference was an entirely different event. In this short span, the publishing business has been turned on its ear, thanks in large part to the Internet. While there were still presentations on the craft and pitching, the number of workshops and vendors offering the fledgling author options in indie publishing had wildly increased. Perhaps the reinvigorated interest stems from such self-publishing success stories as Amanda Hocking, who sold 150,000 in six months.
These days, even die-hard agents and some publishing houses are beginning to see the light, and a few savvy traditional publishers and agents are eying a piece of the indie action. I recently had a chance to chat with April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary at the San Francisco Writers Conference. After I had gotten over my initial angst of being seated next to her (I’d pitched my book to her at the conference two years before. She politely declined at the time — and remembered me now), I sat cross-fire during a very lively conversation on the pros and cons of indie publishing.
Later I found myself wondering about the role of traditional agents and publishers in the brave new indie world and asked April a few more questions.
Q. Why do you think indie publishing has taken off?
A. I think technology has given authors a way to take control of the publishing process for themselves. They no longer have to wait for a publisher to “bless” their work by accepting and publishing it. Many also don’t want to wait the two, three or more years it may take for their manuscript to be accepted by a publisher (if it is at all.) Authors can now get their work out quickly, either in e- or p-(print) form, and employ social media and other online techniques for attracting readers. If they do a professional job of publishing a good story in a well-edited form, and designing a high-quality cover, they can begin to sell their work, and make money, well before they would if published traditionally.
Q. Are traditional publishers moving in the indie direction?
A. Yes. Penguin is experimenting with ways to publish e-books only through their InterMix program. Although they don’t pay advances, they provide the full range of editorial, design and marketing services. Perseus, though its Argo Navis program, is offering assisted self-publishing to authors via agents. We as agents introduce our authors to Perseus. Perseus then publishes their work, with the authors paying the costs.
Q. Do you see a shift in your role as an agent?
A. Yes — there are some of us who act as “change agents,” if you will, guiding, coaching and helping authors who wish to self-publish. We put them in touch with editors, designers, formatters, website designers, marketers, printers and distributors and others who provide such services on a freelance basis, and we act as general contractors, helping them pull the entire project together. It’s a time vs. money vs. patience tradeoff — each author has her or his limitations in terms of what they’re able or willing to do, so we help them find others to perform the tasks they can’t or won’t do. I like to say that self-publishing is anything but self– you’ll need help doing it well.
The Bottom Line
If you’re willing to go indie, make certain your work is the best it can be. Do more than beta test your novel with friends or your mom. Consult with an editor or two. Take classes, even online classes. Be willing to listen to and use constructive critique.
Don’t be a dope. Research those small publishers you might want to use. Weigh their services and prices carefully. Do you need a cover designer? A publisher that provides editorial services? One that distributes your e-book as well as your hard copy book? Who provides the ISBN? Who holds the rights to your book, and for how long?
Be prepared to market. The thought of selling might be distasteful for many writers, who sit in solitude cooped up all day tapping out stories on their computers. After all, what’s more important: the art, or the art of huckstering? The sad truth is this: Even with word of mouth, the most successful writers blog, Tweet, or Facebook their book offerings. And if you find marketing too tedious or time consuming, pay someone to do it for you.
Most important of all, writers, trust your gut. If deep down you don’t think your manuscript is ready for the big time, it probably isn’t ready — yet. In that case, find a professional who can point out what you feel in your gut.
Query in the traditional sense, but don’t rule out going indie.