Since writing a series of blog posts on self-publishing in 2011, I have followed the debate with interest. Three years later, self-publishing remains a hot topic - driven by a publishing industry in a state of flux and focused on shareholder profit. The reduction in royalties and advances and lower offerings on new books also factor into the debate. While it is true that publishers are still very much on the lookout for new talent, it is equally true to say that nurturing an author’s career is increasingly a thing of the past. Authors have a small window of opportunity in which to prove their financial worth and should they fail, they are cut adrift.
So what can writers and published authors who have lost follow-on deals do? Is there an alternative to traditional publishing and the still somewhat tarnished option of self-publishing? With this question in mind, I posted an article “Between Traditional and Self-Publishing, a ‘Third Way’” to the SCBWI-BI Facebook page. The writer described the offering as being “author-subsidized” and said there the similarity to self-publishing ended. “In every other way,” she wrote, “ we’re modeled on a traditional press, with a strict vetting process… traditional distribution… and authors who bring strong marketing plans to the table (which authors now need to do regardless of how they publish).” She described her offering as qualifying “as both a traditional publisher and a self-publisher, and we are redefining the middle ground as part of an ever-growing landscape of hybrid publishers.”
The article generated significant discussion. While comments indicated that this particular “third way” was nothing more than a vanity press, both published and unpublished writers expressed a desire for a genuine “third way”.
It has always been the case that many beautifully written books do not make it into the marketplace, but the sheer volume of writers currently vying for publishers’ attention makes it much more noticeable. Constant rejections and cancelled contracts are frustrating and demoralising for any writer, especially when they are deemed to be ‘not commercial enough’, despite positive feedback. At present, to succeed in publishing a writer must be seen to be instantly commercial. Those who are not, irrespective of whether they are traditionally or self-published will have a hard time earning a living. Faced with ongoing rejections for work that is seen as uncommercial, more and more writers are exploring self-publishing options.
Self-publishing, however, despite gradual improvement, continues to have a tainted reputation – primarily due to lack of quality. Librarian and writer Tracy Hager remarked that self-published books she is asked to promote are, “…rarely very well edited and the 'published books' are usually cheap and riddled with typos.”
Self-publishing is also no guarantee of success. While there are success stories they are rare and many have not helped the tainted reputation. Amanda Hocking and E L James’s novels are hardly great literary fiction, yet they were read by enough readers to make publishers offer substantial contracts. What this does indicate is that many readers are willing to read a badly-written, easy and rollicking story. As Will Self said in his recent lament about the death of the serious novel, “The kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.”
To this end, a writer must consider her personal integrity and weigh up it up with career aspirations.
To self-publish well, writers should pay for professional editorial and illustration costs and invest much of their valuable time in marketing and PR. But this doesn’t necessarily guarantee financial success. Besides, many are unwilling to use professionals, some don’t realise they should, others can’t afford the cost. And even books which have been professionally edited may not make the grade. While an entire industry has grown up to support aspiring authors looking to self-publish or get their manuscripts in publishable shape, there remains a concern that while many provide a valuable service, others are just looking to line their own pockets. Spotting the cowboys can be hard, and decent options may be unaffordable.
One hopes that as more established authors self-publish both new and out of print work, and as debut authors self-publish having made the investment in professionals, the quality of, and attitude towards self-publishing will change. Agent Jenny Bent summed up the benefits of self-publishing, saying: “What I love about self-publishing is that it's opened up the industry so much, and there is no one hard and fast route to success anymore. Self-publishing means that there are now many different ways for an author to be successful.” And as both E L James and Amanda Hocking have shown, dreams of traditional publishing don't have to fade because an author decides to put their work out on their own.
On the flip side and despite the challenges, many writers cling to the dream of being traditionally published where the cost of editing, production, distribution and marketing are borne by the publisher. Nick Cross observed that as tough as it is to get a publishing deal with a big house, one of the greatest advantages of going the traditional route is shared risk. “A commissioning editor takes a professional risk by championing and acquiring your book, and that is part of what drives them to make the book the best it can be. An independent editor, no matter how well-motivated, is never going to feel that sense of ownership. And a publisher who pays to acquire a book is motivated to get it out there and get it selling.”
While Nick’s view is correct, it doesn’t help the writer who wants the peer recognition of traditional publishing but has a writing shed wallpapered with rejection letters and isn’t willing to accept the perceived stigma of self-publishing.
Some have suggested the alternative lies in approaching small independent publishers. Anne Rooney believes that, “If there is a 'third way' it is provided by the small independent publishers who are not charging authors, but are offering a larger (or flexible) royalty deal but no advance. They are taking a risk on the book and need it to succeed so will market it, they just don't have the cash-flow for an advance. Some will be perfectly fine publishers - some are start-ups with no significant editorial or market experience, so you have to do your research.”
But even submitting a manuscript to an independent publisher doesn’t guarantee a deal, and writers may still face rejection. This is when the concept of hybrid publishing holds appeal.
Hybrid publishing is rapidly growing middle ground and stems from aspiring authors realising that in order to publish well, they need to have a team knowledgeable about books and navigating the industry. Team or co-operative publishing and crowd-funded publishing are key to hybrid publishing.
Team or co-op publishing involves a group of writers getting together to edit, produce and promote a book (usually an e-book). Alternatively, it exists when a writer uses a critique group or fellow writers as beta readers and promoters, and employs a professional editor, proof-reader and illustrator. With crowd-funded publishing a writer invites people to fund their book. The funding may take several forms from straightforward donations to equity-based funding – the writer may carry no financial risk or may be obliged to split the profits. (For more info see the Wiki article, and also look at the top ten crowd-funding sites.)
Ensuring the critical elements of editorial and marketing expertise, costs. For a writer unable or unwilling to provide the necessary finance, crowd-funding may be the answer - though again, there’s no certainty that funds can be raised. While a “third way” of publishing could involve both a team and crowd-funding approach, the writer would have to, as Nick Cross observed, engage readers from day one. For children’s writers, particularly those without an established market, this could be extremely difficult and may be seen as exploitative. And, as already mentioned, even if the team publishing a book consists of published authors or professional editors, there is no guarantee that a book will be good or well-written, or that it will sell. All team publishing - like self-publishing – ensures is that the book gets into the world. While a novel’s success is never assured, it is the fundamental role of gatekeeping, together with the associated question of risk that remains the biggest stumbling block to any genuine third way of publishing.
As much as the need exists, at present there appears to be no clear-cut “third way” for children’s writers which involves shared risk, some kind of income guarantee and a quality product. It may be that a third way cannot exist while the issue of financing remains the primary stumbling block. But while a genuine third way may not exist, what writers have, however, are a lot more options to get their stories into the world and find potential success. As Kristyn Keene of ICM Partners has said, “Independent publishing has become an important space full of emerging talent, where a writer’s success often leads to a strong relationship with a major publisher.” If you’ve written a good book as well as you can, going out there on your own may well lead to the dream of being successfully traditionally published. It may also lead to an income you might not otherwise have had. The publishing world is no longer an either/or place and writers need to carefully assess their options and be willing to think laterally about their careers. Above all, they need to see them as businesses in which they should be willing to invest not only time but also venture capital.
I’d like to thank all those who participated in the discussion and made it possible to write this article.
To read the full discussion thread please go to the SCBWI- BI Facebook page.
To read one self-published author’s journey with what she calls her A-Team of beta-readers, editors and designers.
Take a look at Nathan Bransford’s excellent post on how he believes the publishing industry needs to change to accommodate authors in the e-book era.
This article originally appeared in two parts on the SCBWI-British Isles Words & Pictures blogzine.