Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Writing Life - Book Publishing Today - The Good and the Not So Good

Most people already know traditional publishing houses are in trouble. Most, if not all of them are laying off editors (some say as many as thirty percent) or asking them to take a pay cut. They’re pinching pennies wherever they can, and this includes the advances for debut authors and midlist authors. In fact, if a midlist author’s book does not sell well, he or she will probably find it difficult-to-impossible to publish another one in this economic climate. Booksellers, too, are struggling. Many of the smaller, indie bookstores are closing or filing bankruptcy, while the big chains have frozen hiring, cut their staff, or are even exploring the option of bankruptcy.

A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while more people are reading literary fiction, fewer people are actually reading – and buying – books.

However, at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground and fast, there is one segment of the publishing industry that is flourishing – self-publishing.

With books like Jim Bendat’s Democracy’s Big Day, a collection of historical vignettes revolving around presidential inaugurations, enjoying relatively “big” sales of more than 2,500 copies, would-be authors who dream of seeing their work between covers are flocking to self-publishers in droves. As the result of self-publishing his book, Sky News asked Mr. Bendar to provide live commentary during the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, while a group of Washington hotels ordered five hundred copies to give to guests who were in town for the event. Sometimes self-publishing is the right choice, sometimes not. Every writer has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for himself.

Bendat, an LA public defender, did try to secure a publishing deal with a traditional house, but when he was unable to do so, he went to iUniverse, one of the biggest, and one of the first, of the self-publishers. In 2000, the first edition of Bendat’s book was published, and he updated it in 2004 and again in 2008.

It is true that traditional publishers are pruning their lists, and they are relying more and more on their “big guns,” authors like James Patterson, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, and Mary Higgins Clark. They know these authors have a huge following, and their books are not only going to sell, but sell big. I know some aspiring authors who resent the “big name” authors for this. No aspiring author should, though. Those big names and their huge sales of highly commercial fiction are supporting the publishing houses so those houses can buy and publish more literary titles, titles fewer people are going to buy and read, but titles many are still going to love, titles like Paul Harding's Tinkers that might end up winning awards.

While traditional publishing houses are struggling, however, self-publishing presses are making money off books that sell as few as five or ten copies, and adding to this profit is the fact that POD (print-on-demand) publishers don’t have to pay for cover design and printing costs. In self-publishing and POD, these costs are passed along to the author.

In 2008, Author Solutions, a Bloomington, Indiana based company that owns iUniverse, among other POD imprints, published 13,000 titles, up twelve percent from 2007. And now, that same company has purchased Xlibris. The combined imprints published more than 19,000 titles in 2008 alone, which is three times more than Random House, the world’s largest of the traditional publishers, published.

Still, this is a time when everyone, or nearly everyone, wants to write a book. And that’s part of the problem. There are many, many more people who want to write books than people who want to read those books, no matter how good they might be. So, if you’re preparing a manuscript to send to an agent or an editor at a traditional publishing house, make sure it’s one that will figuratively knock their socks off. Remember, you have more competition, and stiffer competition, than ever before. (You really need to get a “fresh pair of eyes” to look at your book, an Independent Editor like me or like others out there, but that’s a subject for later.)

Regarding POD and self-publishing, there are many professionals who want to be seen as a “guru” in their chosen field. A business card is no longer enough. These professionals want to be known as “the author of....” Other people who dive into the POD and self-publishing waters, many of them non-professionals, simply want to publish a book to give as gifts to family and friends. In some ways, this is good. While it used to be only the wealthy and the elite who could self-publish a book, now anyone with $900 - $4,000 and up can do so. And if the statistics are to be believed, Blurb, a POD company has seen its revenues grow from $1,000,000 to $30,000,000 in just two years, with more than 300,000 titles published alone last year. Eileen Gittins, the CEO of Blurb, says that many of these 300,000 titles were personal books, purchased only by the author.

Self-publishing isn’t even close to taking over the industry, however. Not yet. Author Solutions sold a total of 2.5 million copies in 2008, while Little, Brown sold more than that many copies of the “Twilight” series by Stephanie Meyer in just the last two months of 2008.

A lot of people who choose to self-publish are lured to that venue by the fact that they can get their books into the market – and often on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble – in a matter of months, not years, and without the discouraging rejection slips that almost every traditionally published author has to face. Of course these self-published authors also give up any advance for their book (they don’t just give up a large advance, they give up any advance at all), they must devise their own marketing strategy, and in all likelihood, they’ll never see their books reviewed in newspapers or on the shelves of bookstores. And why should newspapers take the time to review self-published books, and why should bookstores stock them? With little-to-no quality control, the honest truth is that most of what comes from POD publishers is pretty bad. Robert Young, CEO or Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, NC, said the majority of his company’s titles are of little interest to anyone but the author and the author’s family. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” says Mr. Young.

However, if it’s just money you’re looking for and not prestige and you’re writing for a niche market, then POD publishing might be exactly the way to go. Michelle L. Long is an accountant who advises small business. She self-published Successful QuickBooks Consulting, a guild for others who want to help businesses use the software package developed by Intuit a few years ago. Long says she earned forty-five to fifty percent of the cover price on the sale of each book and made roughly $22,000 in royalties on the sale of more than 2,000 copies. Not bad. A traditionally published midlist author probably won’t make nearly that much. I know about another author who self-published a book for a niche market, and so far, he’s made more than $40,000. (Be aware that you won’t make anything near that if you’re self-publishing a novel, no matter how good that novel is. In fact, the average number of copies sold, even in a niche market is only 150, according to Author Solutions.) If you do have a book for a niche market, such as one on Internet security, how to survive day trading, etc., and you’re a consultant, not looking for a career as an author, a book, even a self-published book, will help you gain credibility, and some money, more than not having one. And, the more specific the need, the better your book will probably sell as long as you get the word out there.

There are authors who self-publish traditional novels with the hope of being discovered by a traditional publishing house. This has happened to a few, but don’t count on it because it’s a very, very, very rare thing.

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, a story of a woman who can tell the future by reading the patterns in lace, was first self-published, then it attracted the attention of HarperCollins and eventually became a bestseller. Barry’s second book, A Map of True Places was selected as one of the Top Ten Books of the year.

Lisa Genova, a former consultant to pharmaceutical companies, wrote her first novel, Still Alice, a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s and was subsequently turned down by more than one hundred literary agents. Ms. Genova then decided to self-publish through iUniverse and sold copies to independent bookstores. When a fellow author discovered the book and introduced Ms. Genova to an agent, that agent sold Still Alice for a mid-six-figure advance to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. The book debuted on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list at number five.

Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said some publishers now scour the Internet looking for new material among the reader comments regarding self-published books. Self-publishing, she says, is “no longer a dirty word.” (If you’re a really good writer, you should definitely be seeking publication in a traditional hardcover edition first, though, or you won’t be taken seriously by professional reviewers, something that's very important.)

Most people know J.K. Rowling needed ten years and more than two hundred query letters to sell Harry Potter. The agents and editors she contacted said “no one” would want to read a book about a boy wizard. Of course, they were wrong.

And Kathryn Stockett’s agent needed five years to sell her bestselling book, The Help. The publishing world didn’t believe anyone would care to read about the relationship among black servants and their white employers in 1960s Mississippi. They were wrong again.

John Grisham had trouble selling his first novel, The Firm. After his second, The Pelican Brief became a hit movie, publishers couldn’t publish The Firm fast enough to keep up with demand.

And then there are always the exceptions that prove the rule. Elizabeth Kostova sold her debut novel, The Historian in two days for approximately two million, while Diane Setterfield sold The Thirteenth Tale in a ten-day auction for more than one million. Debut authors are being published traditionally, and a few of them are being paid very high advances. But you can’t count on getting a large advance from a traditional house just like you can’t count on having your self-published book picked up by a traditional publisher. If you are counting on either of those things, you might as well play the lottery, instead. The chances of winning are better.

“For ever thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,” says Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, Colorado. Langer, who says she’s “inundated” with requests from self-published authors to buy their book, continued, “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”

This is – to a certain extent – discouraging news for the writers out there. But getting published has always been tough. Right now, it’s just a little tougher than it was before. If you hold out for a traditional publisher, the best thing you can do is to hire an independent editor to make sure your manuscript is as perfect and polished and as perfectly polished as it possibly can be before any agent or editor ever lays eyes on it. You only get one shot with any one editor. Don’t hand anyone a perfectly valid reason to say “no.”


Steven E. Belanger said...

Well-written post, and great blog. I was worried that maybe I should look at self-publishing my finished novel, but I see now that I haven't waited long enough to travel the traditional route. I want my books to be taken seriously. Thanks for an informative read.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
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