I apologize up front for the length of this post, but I have an important announcement to make, so please bear with me.
It started in August, when I saw Colleen Houck speak at the Willamette Writers Conference. She’d self-published her book to Kindle, climbed to #20 on the Amazon.com bestseller list, and had a Hollywood producer and a New York agent come banging at her door. All this after being turned down by nearly every agent in the publishing world. That showed me that there’s a big difference between what agents and editors think the public wants and what they actually want. It wasn’t enough to convince me.
Next came April Eberhardt speaking at a Willamette Writer’s meeting about how ebooks have changed the publishing model. She said it’s now a viable option for authors who are getting the, “it’s not you, it’s me,” send-off from editors to start publishing their own work. I still wasn’t convinced.
At this meeting, my friend Susan and her buddy Renee were doing research for their ebook publishing company. They wanted In the Blood as one of their first releases. I told them I was holding out for the validation of traditional publishing.
But I was intrigued. If New York agents were saying publishing was changing, it was time to start taking this seriously. I began watching my friend Amy Rose Davis, who’d just made her debut as an indie author. I read the links she provided on her blog and discovered that what I’ve been taking for granted all these years is really nothing more than a man behind a curtain, running an impressive machine.
Over the course of six days I went from thinking indie authorship was career suicide to realizing it was the only thing that made sense for a person like me. I succumbed to the Dark Side.
I’m not going to try to convince anyone that indie publishing is a better choice than traditional publishing. Every author has to decide that for herself. However, it behooves all of us to do the research and decide what aspects of writing are most important to us. Whereas traditional publishing offers prestige, the indie model provides complete control over your work and a better chance of making a living wage from your writing. Even traditional agents such as Nathan Bransford and Mary Kole recognize that the enormous upsurge in popularity of ebooks is changing the publishing world. If agents, publishing houses, and booksellers are to survive, they’re going to have to find new ways of doing business rather than denying that the system is in flux.
After much consideration, I’ve determined that with the new-found power of the e-book, I have options I never had before. I’m no longer tied in to the traditional model. Discovering this is a little like losing your religion. When you’ve been told all your life that there’s only One Way, learning that this may not be accurate shakes up your whole worldview.
To me, control over content, cover, and publishing time are more important than the validation of being traditionally published. Furthermore, my main goal is to get my book in the hands of readers. I don’t care about national recognition. I don’t care about money. (While it certainly would be nice to have some, I’ve grown used to doing without.) What I do care about is taking stories that my characters whispered in my ear, stories inspired by a community that I care a great deal about, and presenting them to other people.
People may argue that you can’t create a quality book without having it vetted by the system. The more research I do, the less I believe that. I’m a good self-editor, and I surround myself with other writers who provide quality feedback. I’m also hearing more and more stories about how traditionally published authors often receive little or no editing. Many publishing houses are expecting the work to come to them in near-ready form. And I’ve heard editors admit that while some of their authors require extensive help, many are able to produce books that require little tweaking. For years I’ve bought into the idea that my writing (and any writing) will, by nature, suck and therefore require substantial editing. The more digging I do, however, the more I learn that this is not necessarily the case. Certainly no author can dash off a first draft and expect it to be perfect. But what I’ve learned from listening to people in-the-know is that self-motivated writers who seek extensive feedback from critique groups and beta readers can turn out books that require only light professional editing.
I’m backed up in this opinion by the feedback I’ve received from authors and editors.
JA Konrath, who found success in traditional publishing before realizing there was more money to be made with ebooks, says if you’re hearing these sorts of things you’d be better off becoming an indie author.
Here are some of the things editors and agents have been saying about my books:
- “Your writing is excellent, and it’s literary for the kind of subject you’re dealing with in terms of familial strife, and in particular Cody’s anger.”
- “This is quite good and I’m amazed at how you get inside a 15-year-old boy’s head.”
- “I’ve started reading (In the Blood) and find the voice fantastic. “
- “What a wonderful character you’ve created!”
- “Driven was a pleasure to read. Jess is a strong, resilient teenager, and I like the car racing aspect—I haven’t seen many novels with this subject matter.
- “Lisa is clearly a strong writer, and Jess is an appealing main character.”
I’ve presented many arguments as to why indie authorship is a good option for me, but I’ve saved the most important one for last. For the past five years, I’ve been living in a state of constant anxiety. At first that stress was caused by wondering whether I’d find an agent. Now it’s all about whether an editor will accept my manuscript. My published friends have said it doesn’t stop there. The next question is whether the book will sell, then whether it will be well-reviewed, then whether it’ll receive awards, then whether subsequent books will be accepted. With traditional publishing you never get to a point where you aren’t living in fear. I don’t want to live a life where I’m constantly scared.
I’m tired of feeling like my talent and skill are being judged, when in reality the choices are all about marketing. We’ve already seen that the Big 6 are shooting in the dark when they try to determine what will sell. That’s why a few best-selling authors carry a house while the majority of writers fail to earn out their advances.
I see the marketing force behind traditional publishing as an extension of how advertising has re-painted the face of America in recent years. I don’t want to be at the mercy of this machine. I don’t like the fact that I can’t see a full episode of MASH anymore because it’s been butchered to add more commercials. It disappoints me that I can no longer watch a stock car race at Charlotte Motor Speedway—it’s Lowes Motor Speedway now. And even though I’ve gotten used to rolling billboards in the form of city busses, it’s still pretty sad that they exist. Yes, money may be scarce and some cities might have to resort to this sort of advertising. But how long is it going to be before the National Park Service is so hard up for cash that they tattoo “Walmart” across Lincoln’s forehead on Mt. Rushmore? The bottom line is, I hate what marketing has done to this country, and I don’t want this system to be the one determining the value of my art.
Am I taking a risk? You bet your sweet behind. But I’ve been taking a risk all along by pursuing the traditional publishing route. I have no guarantees, and certainly I might fail. But at least with the indie model I’ll be the one behind the rudder, so I can change course if I need to, rather than having someone blow up the whole ship at the first sign of trouble. My books will sink or swim based on public opinion and their own merits rather than the opinion of someone in New York who will make an executive decision based solely on income after a few weeks. As I have learned recently, it takes time for a book to grow a following. The current model doesn’t allow for that. They expect your book to generate decent sales right out of the gate.
Had I grown up in a world where I knew all along that indie publishing was as viable as traditional publishing, I would have chosen it from the start. That’s just the sort of person I am. I like to be in the driver’s seat. I don’t want to be tied down by bureaucracy. I’ve always been better at doing kick-ass things when I’m in control of all the pieces, and I’ve never had much luck when I had to depend on someone else approving of me. Now, technically speaking, I’ll be riding the line between the indie and traditional world because I’m going to release my books through Puddletown Publishing Group, the ePublishing company I’m helping Susan and Renee (mentioned above) establish. PPG is not a vanity press because we actually vet our books, and we earn our income through royalties, not up-front costs. However, since PPG is classified as an indie press, and I’m one of the founders it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to bill myself as “traditionally published.” Besides, the more I think about it, the more I like wearing the indie label. If indie filmmakers and indie musicians can garner respect, why shouldn’t indie authors? Lets let the marketplace decide where the quality lies. Isn’t that the American way?
At the beginning of this year, I realized that most of my goals for 2011 were really dreams, because I had no control over them. And that’s a depressing place to be. But the year 2010, for all its shortcomings, provided authors with new options. You can look at the success of JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and Colleen Houck to see that the potential is there. Now it’s up to me to provide a good story and market it properly.
To learn more about various aspects of both models, follow the links below.
Traditional publishing horror stories:
Self-publishing success stories:
Other agents recognizing the need for a new model:
Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: