Friday, July 08, 2011

Better or Worse

by She Who Shall Not Be Named AKA She With More Names Than She Can Keep Straight

Lately, I’ve gotten sucked into some discussion on how – or whether – self-publishing is better than traditional (AKA ‘legacy’) publishing. With that in mind, I thought we’d have a little discourse on the various options available to authors today, and some of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

I started out in traditional publishing, with a Big Six publisher, so we’ll start there. The Big Six, by the way, are Hatchette, HarperCollins, McMillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon and Schuster. Just so you know.

A contract with a Big Six publisher is many an author’s dream. There’s a lot of prestige in being able to say, “My new book with Penguin is coming out next month.” (Believe me, I know; I’ve said it.) The Big Six have a lot of clout, a lot of money, a lot of connections. The advances are almost always better than with a smaller publisher (although royalties tend to be standard across the board). The distribution tends to be better. The name opens a lot of doors that are closed to smaller publishers or the self-published. There’s the assumption that if you’re published with a Big Six publisher, your book must be worthwhile. You can expect to get professional cover art, professional editing, and professional support. You might even get co-op, which is money your publisher pays to bookstores to secure special placement for your book when it’s released, in the front of the store. It doesn’t happen for every book, but it does for some, and it’s costly, so mostly only the really big publishers can afford it.

On the flipside, the author is a very small part of the giant machine of a big publisher. Most of us are tiny cogs and screws, easily replaced if we show signs of wear and tear. Some of us are a little more important – the New York Times bestsellers, say – but the machine will continue on without us, even so. The world has enough of those too, to carry on, and new ones are made all the time. There’s very little personalized attention to be gotten, since even your editor is working with a bunch of other authors, and you might feel lost in the shuffle.

Beyond the Big Six, there are a lot of smaller, independent publishers. Some are big and fairly well known in the industry, some are tiny and most people have never heard of them. Some have been around for ages, and are very well regarded. Some haven’t had time to prove themselves yet. Some are e-presses only, and since I have no personal experience with those, I’m going to leave them alone. If you’ve got info regarding the ins and outs of e-presses, please leave your helpful hints in the comments. The one immediate drawback that even I can see, however, is that if you decide to go with an e-press, there’ll be no hardcopy books available anywhere.

Moving right along: I placed two books with a small indie publisher a couple of years ago. Small publishers are different from big publishers. There’s still the fact that you’re traditionally published instead of publishing yourself, but beyond that, small publishing has more in common with indie than it does with Big Six, I think.

Assuming the editor is competent, you’ll get professional editing. Sometimes it can be hit and miss, since not all editors are competent. In my case, I was lucky, and the editor was very good at her job. They’re not always that way. (The same goes for independent editors, by the way, if you’ve ever considered hiring one for your WIP.)

Same goes for the cover artist. Some covers from small publishers are awesome; some not so great. The advance is often minimal, or non-existent. Distribution can be difficult, since a small publisher doesn’t have the same clout as the Big Six, and they almost never have the money for co-op, so even if your book makes it into the store, it’ll be on a shelf in the back, with less chances of being discovered by someone browsing for something new to read.

On the other hand, you get lots of personal attention. Small publishers work much closer to the bone than big ones, and they usually only take on books they really love. Where a Big Six publisher might feel fine about using you as a tax write-off if things don’t work out, a small publisher almost desperately wants you to succeed, and what they can’t provide financially, they do their best to make up for in other ways, like attention and effort.

Finally, there’s DIY. Self publishing. Indie publishing. Or (thank you, Jennifer Crusie!) author originated digital publishing.

Traditional publishing, whether Big Six or indie, is a private club. You might get in, but a lot of people don’t. A lot of those people are the ones who are now self-publishing and feeling that tradipubs (don’t look at me, I didn’t coin the phrase) have done them wrong. They’re very vocal in their admonishments to publishers to wake up and smell the decaf. E-books are here to stay and traditional publishing is as dead as the dodo; it just hasn’t realized it yet. (I don’t think so, but that’s a blog for another day. This one is already long enough.)

There are a lot of benefits to DIY, if you’re wired that way. I’ve self-published three books, and I have to say I enjoy the fact that it’s all up to me. I’m control-freaky enough to get off on being in total control of every word, every period, every semi-colon. I don’t have to listen to an editor tell me that such and such isn’t appropriate for the genre and has to go. Nobody messes with my prose but me.

On the flipside, nobody messes with my prose but me, and most of us can benefit greatly from an unbiased eye on our work. Some of us are lucky enough to have critique partners/groups and beta readers who catch our flaws, but if you’re not one of those, you’ll probably want to hire an independent editor to look over the book before your hit the publish button. The biggest reason self-publishing has gotten a bad rep, is because the quality is often inferior. Not always, but enough that the stigma has attached itself. Hiring an editor is something you’ll have to pay for out of pocket, that a traditional publisher, big or small, will do for you free of charge.

Same thing with formatting and cover. I formatted my own books – the trick is to start with a clean manuscript – but if you’re not technically inclined, and you’re not sleeping with a techie, you’ll probably want to hire that out, as well. It’ll run you a couple hundred bucks, which also comes out of your pocket. Then there’s the cover. Your traditional publisher takes care of that for you. When you self-pub, you have to do it yourself. Again, if you’re inclined that way, you can make your own. If you’re not, you’re better off hiring a cover artist. It’ll cost you, but it’s worth it. An amateurish cover will mark you as a DIY’er right off the bat.

And after you’ve uploaded the book, it’s still all up to you. Nobody is there to give you a hand with publicity. There’s no co-op, and no book signings. No catalogue, no one telling the book buyers at Barnes and Noble or Amazon that they need to stock your book. It’s ALL. UP. TO. YOU.

So there you have it. The pros and cons of traditional vs. indie publishing.

There’s a whole lot more I could say about all the options, and the nitty-gritty of making them work for you – or not, as the case may be – but we’re at over 1300 words already, and at this rate I’ll probably get a prize or something for the longest Working Stiffs blog this year.

So whatcha think, fellow Stiffs and readers? Is there a ‘better’ option? Or does it just come down to ‘better for you’?

Since I'm in Florida this week, you'll have to debate amongst yourselves, I'm afraid. If I have time between the sun, the sand, the dolphins, and the hot guys, I'll try to stop by, but don't count on it.

Oh yes: Contract Pending is now available as an ebook on Amazon, BN and Smashwords. Anyone looking for a freebie review copy - I'd love a review in return, please! - email me and I'll give you the coupon code.


Annette said...

Thanks, Jennie/Jenna/Bente for a concise overview of the options out there. Publishing is changing so fast and furious right now, it's hard to know which way to go.

Ramona said...

Good info, Miss Multiple Personalities! Thanks for sharing an insider's view.

As Annette noted, the changes are fast and furious. It's easy to be overwhelmed.

PatRemick said...

Great post -- a lot to consider!

Joyce said...

Thanks! You've done a good job with your self-pubbed books, and yes, I will get around to those reviews soon.

I hope to go the traditional route, but I certainly haven't ruled out self e-publishing in the future. I do think a writer should have some kind of backlist, or multiple manuscripts to put out there (like you have). I think it's a mistake to try it with just one book.

C.L. Phillips said...

Great summary of all things, none truer than "and if you don't sleep with a techie..."

What a line!

But there's hope for the control freaks among us. Last night I converted my WIP to a MOBI file from OpenOffice (not word) - and it worked! All free tools, and I'm tickled.

I believe Indie Publishing is the new business card for writers hoping for a Big Six contract.

Units shipped may soon replace the all ambiguous "platform" concept. :)

Take care,


Laurie said...

Thanks, Bente for such a great overview of all of the publishing options out there.

Enjoy your time in FL!

Jenna said...

Thanks, everyone! Actually, it turns out I made a mistake. I thought we were leaving today. But instead of booking the condo Saturday to Saturday, like any normal person, I screwed up my dates and booked Sunday to Sunday instead. So we're not leaving till tomorrow. You'll still have to do without me next week, but I'm here today!

Jenna said...

Oh, C.L.... re Mobi files: I've never tried OpenOffice; glad it worked for you, but I've found that just uploading a Word doc directly to Amazon is the way to go. If I go through MobiPocket Creator, it strips all my section breaks. If I just upload the Word file directly to Amazon KDP, they stay.

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Patg said...

You are probably leaving as I write, but I just wanted to say FAB POST!!!! Especially the part about it is ALL.UP.TO.YOU!
I'm with a small press and (why I don't know, but it could be all those rants I do on my publisher's author list) I get questions all the time about what they are suppose to do to promote and why the publisher doesn't do this or that.
Since I consider myself an author, I politely reiterate for the umpteenth time some of the steps and how to get paper books sold, but what I really want to do it shout:
Sorry Stiffs, it belongs elsewhere, but I feel better typing that.
I'd love to self pub, but I lost that person that had all the computer smarts, so I may have to hire it out. OTOH, I will try it by myself first.
Have fun in FL. I don't do the sun and sand, but give an extra wave to the hot guys for me.

Misa said...

Great look at the options, nameless (or multi-named) girl. ;) I've gone all three ways, too, and for me the biggest difficulty is the publicity and distribution drawbacks of indie publishing.

I do not want to spend all my time promoting my books constantly, which is what so many indie authors I know have to do to have any level of 'success' (of course that depends on how you define success). Plus I like saying 'my new book with XYZ is coming out in 3 weeks (which it is!).

It's a conundrum, and will continue to be so as the whole industry continues to figure out what to do next. The strong (and adaptable) will survive!