Writing Excuses 15.09: Choose Your Own Adventurous Publishing Path
Key Points: Self-pub? Traditional pub? Hybrid? How do you decide what’s the best outlet for your work? Right now, trad and indie are two parallel but separate markets. Which one is best for your book? Who else is doing similar work, are there successful titles like it in the market? Don’t try to go indie just because your work isn’t very good! Look where your audience is. But there is no easy mode of publishing. Don’t get taken in by “Here’s the simple path to success.” Fundamental strategies or principles are the same, but you have to keep up with the changes, too. You can make self pub and trad work together. Your goal should not be “making a stunning debut.” Your goal should be cranking out good books. Be a 10-year overnight success! Similarly, awards are a consequence, not a goal. Turn your words into money.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Nine.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Choose Your Own Adventurous Publishing Path.
[Dongwon] 15 minutes long.
[Piper] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And Dongwon didn’t know he was supposed to turn to page 3.
[Dongwon] I was too busy marveling at the beauty of that very smooth episode title.
[Howard] Isn’t it great?
[Piper] I was panicked because I’m in… Like, a different spot.
[Dan] These are the kind of titles that we get when there’s no adults in the room.
[Dongwon] Choices have been made.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] Who are the people who…
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] Awesome. Okay. Despite the very unprofessional nature of this episode intro, this is a very great and important topic to discuss. One of… Like… As we’ve been covering throughout the entire year, there’s a lot of career questions that we know you listeners have. This is one of the big ones that we hear at conventions and all the time, is, should I go self-pub? Should I go traditional pub? Should I do some kind of hybrid of that in the middle? So we wanted to make sure that we had both Dongwon as an agent and Piper as a very successful hybrid author on this cast to talk about this. So, I’m going to ask be really dangerous question first that’s going to get us all in trouble. When you’re looking at a particular work, how can you decide what the best outlet for that is, self pub, indie, trad? How do you know?
[Piper] I have a thought, but I think Dongwon has a thought, too.
[Dongwon] Let’s see if our thoughts are in alignment. So, I think, is my thinking about this has evolved and as I’ve sort of taken a close look at both markets and sort of the state of where traditional publishing is, I have become more and more convinced that they’re two parallel but separate markets happening in book publishing right now. I think the indie readership and the indie authorship and publishing is often a discrete set of people from the people buying traditional books in bookstores. So I think the question is whenever you have a specific book is, is this particular type of book working in the indie bookstore or… Well, indie bookstores or independent publishing, right? So I think you need to be looking carefully at who else is doing this and are there other successful titles like your book in this market, right? So if you’re writing a 200,000 word literary beautifully written epic fantasy story, I think that’s going to be a really tough sell in the indie market, right? On the other hand, if you’re writing a 60,000 word compulsive urban fantasy that’s part of a 10 book series, you’re going to have a really hard time finding a traditional publisher, right? So I think a lot of this is being driven by certain market trends, certain audience expectations and demands.
[Howard] I’d like to take just a moment to address the third possibility, which is that the thing that you are writing, depending on who you are and what it is that you are writing, might not fit in either place because it’s not very good.
[Howard] I hate to phrase it in that way, but if you’ve been turned down for representation by agent after agent, if you’ve gotten rejection from editor after editor, and what they been saying is, “This isn’t ready yet, thank you for playing.” That’s very different from what my agent told me in 2006, which was, “I have tried to sell this…” We were talking about Schlock Mercenary. “I have tried to sell this, and everybody I’ve talked to has either said I’m already reading Schlock Mercenary, I love it. We don’t have any place for it at our publishing house. Or, I don’t know what that is, but I can tell you right now, we don’t have room for it at our publishing house.” In every case, the answer was, “Howard, you need to be self-publishing.” Now, I’m self published differently than the Kindle Unlimited or whatever market, but the decision point is the same. I was told by the gatekeepers, if you will, that my thing fit in a different space. If I’d been told, “Oh, we would love to pick that up, something like that up, we’ve been looking for just such a thing, but this one is really crappy…”
[Howard] Going to the indie space with it might not be a great career move. So… That’s… I bring that up because I don’t want people to go to Indy because… I don’t want them to go to Indy without good critiques, without understanding…
[Dan] Yeah. I’m glad that you brought that up, because even 10 years ago, that was the whole stigma of the entire indie market, which is, these are the people who couldn’t hack it in the real publishing, and so they went indie. Which is not… It wasn’t true then, and it’s very, very not true now. It is absolutely a respected and viable publishing path, but it wasn’t before. Now, Piper, you keep trying to talk, and we keep stepping on you. What do you want to jump in here with?
[Piper] You’re not stepping on me. I’m dodging, I’m waiting, I’m dodging. But, the moment is here. So, I do agree that there needs to be a certain quality, that you have to have faith in, in your book, and be sensitive to… Open to critique so that you know this is the right quality. There are, I agree, certain market trends that will help you to realize that perhaps your book could find your readership better via self pub or indie. So, for example, science-fiction romance right now, at this time in 2019, is very niche. It has a very specific readership, and that readership often looks for things online in certain ways. So it’s so niche, it’s not necessarily picked up by trad pub. But there are readers out there hungry for it. So it can still be very, very successful if you take the leap of faith to go indie with this series. You can have a really small, tight, but super loyal readership out of that. That can be very, very profitable. I would say paranormal romance is something that people have been waiting for it to come back for years and years and years, but I’ve got news. There’s readers. They’re out there. They love paranormal romance, they would eat it up. The audience is out there for indie work and self pub work.
[Dan] Yeah. I agree with that. I… My first self published book is now eight or nine years old. I’ve been hybrid for a while. It was for that exact reason. Here’s a book that is clearly good and there clearly is an audience for it, but that audience is small enough that a big publisher is not necessarily interested. So we put it out in that space, and it found its audience and that’s great.
[Piper] Yeah, and you can make money that way. It’s not that trad pub is the way to go to make bank. Right? Indie pubs can definitely make, if your goals are focused on the financial return. Any pub can be very profitable done strategically. There are advantages to trad. But indie can also have strategies that allow it to be profitable.
[Dongwon] You keep such a higher percentage of every sale you make, if you go indie, that it takes so many fewer copies sold to really be very profitable. If you know what you’re doing, and if you’re successful, you can make significantly more money by going indie than you will traditional.
[Howard] Six weeks ago, we had several authors on the show. It was one of the ones that we recorded live at the Writing Excuses Retreat. That episode is probably resonating with you right now, dear listener, as you are recalling some of the numbers that they spouted.
[Dongwon] The thing I really want to caution you, though, is for every one person who is making those kind of numbers, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are selling under 10 copies a week, right? Those who have under 20 copies sold total of their book, right? All I’m pointing out… That’s true on the traditional side, too. There’s plenty of books that are published traditionally that vanish without a trace, that you’ve never heard of, right? I’m only pointing out that there’s no easy mode of publishing, right? Sometimes where I get very nervous about the conversation around self-publishing and indie is there’s a certain industry of people who are invested in making it look easy and invested in saying that here’s a simple path to success, right? Here’s the 10 tricks you can do. From my experience, that just doesn’t exist.
[Howard] They’re invested in it, because they have built a business around selling shovels to the prospectors.
[Howard] They are the ones who are selling editor services, selling cover services, selling whatever. Part of their pitch is telling you…
[Dan] Well, it’s not entirely these people, though. I do think that there is kind of a…
[Howard] Oh, there’s absolutely…
[Dan] A group of old-school people that’ve kind of been burned by the market and their primary investment is biting the hand that used to feed them and doesn’t anymore.
[Piper] Well, I would like to say that I have some recs because sometimes it’s really frustrating to listen to these episodes and just have somebody tell you to go out and find somebody who knows what they’re doing. So, dear listeners, I have some people who know what they’re doing.
[Piper] So, Zoe York is getting a shout out. I don’t know her personally. I have not ever spoken to her, but I do stalk her… I mean, follow her on social media. Zoe York has a book coming out. She also has two really great podcast episodes on the Sistercast about building your marketing brand. Now, it’s applicable if you’re a trad author, but particularly if you’re going to go indie, if you’re going to go with self pub, those two episodes really, really break down what it’s like to think strategically about your approach to the market, and how you’re not only going to market your first book, but your series if you’re going to have a series, and then how do you keep that going over time so that you can build that trickle income up to something that really feels good. Skye Warren also did a marketing class for expert marketing advice through the RWA forum to celebrate the opening of their RWA marketing forum in January 2019. So those are two people who really know what they’re doing and have made that information and knowledge available to you publicly.
[Dan] Perfect. As it happens, Zoe York is our book of the week.
[Piper] It is.
[Dan] Romance Your Brand. What can you tell us about that?
[Piper] So, Romance Your Brand came out in December 2019. It’s, actually, the full title is Romance Your Brand: Building a Marketable Genre Fiction Series. So, friends, don’t think that this is limited to romance. It is applicable across, I would say, all spec-fic genres. It is really, really focused on helping you build a marketable brand with an eye towards all the things that you need to be able to keep in mind, the moving parts of promotion and marketing and ads and also planning out your series.
[Howard] Because some of these things just work so much better in print than they do in audio, what we’re going to do is were going to get a list of Piper’s recommendations for people you can trust. I want to throw Writer Beware in there. And we’re going to get them into the liner notes, so that you’ve got links. I bring up Writer Beware because I figured out how to articulate my concern. My concern is that the un-agented author, the author who has… Who hasn’t found their footing, hasn’t found their connections within the industry, and is looking for somebody to help out, is a prime target for predatory publishing schemes. We don’t want any of you to end up there. We want all of you to never end up there. The way to avoid that is to listen to the reputable voices and do some homework. We will have pre-done some of that homework for you.
[Dongwon] For me, I’m very focused on educating writers about how the business works, and I think it’s really important. It’s one of the reasons I do this podcast, not just to hang out with your beautiful faces. But what I want to do is make sure that people understand what they’re getting into. So I hope I’m not coming off as negative about the indie market, I’m not at all. I think it’s a really wonderful opportunity. It just breaks my heart when I see people going out there being sold a false bill of goods and not understanding how things work. In my experience, kind of going into what Piper was talking about a little bit, is publishing is kind of publishing no matter how you’re doing it. The fundamental strategies, whether you’re doing literary fiction, contemporary realistic, women’s fiction, or indie romance, or whatever it is, the fundamental principles are all still the same. Selling books is just selling books. There are different tactics that can apply in very limited ways, right? I think indie has a certain set of tactics that are working. Those change seemingly every six months or so. So a lot of it is keeping up on, like, what’s working right now, what strategies are we using, how’s the algorithm working, and those kinds of things. But we’re doing the same thing on the traditional side. On a slightly slower cycle, but what’s going on with the booksellers, what’s going on with the libraries, what’s going on with the school markets? So, a lot of it is similar factors, but the underlying principles are all the same, no matter where you are.
[Piper] As a hybrid author, I just want to say that you can harness those marketing strategies so that your indie and your trad can work together and actually build each other up.
[Dan] That… Let’s talk about that. Because we talk about being a hybrid author all the time, and yet there still are people who are wondering, “Can I self pub and still have an agent? Is it possible to self pub one book and then get picked up by a trad publisher for your second one?” What can you tell us about that?
[Piper] Well, I can tell you that it is totally possible. There are some concerns sometimes with it. You want to look at the genres of what works you’re going to self pub and what works you’re going to try to put out there for submission for trad. In some ways, it may be easier for you mentally to think about I’m going to self pub in this genre first while I submit for trad in another genre. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the way you go, but sometimes it’s easier. Because the risk is if you put a book out indie and it doesn’t perform well, and then you try to take that same book or a book in that series to trad, there’s a track record that the publishing houses going to look at to determine whether they think there’s a market for that book. That can impact you. Right, sometimes if your book went gangbusters and awesome, then, yes, the trad pub is going to want to eat that up and take it and publish out further with their extended distribution capabilities for you. But in other cases, when the book does not do as well or does not find its audience, the trad pub may unfortunately decide that that’s not a good investment, and therefore it can hurt your chances. You want to think critically about that.
[Dongwon] You almost never can take a book that you’ve self published and resell that to some publisher. The cases where that happens is people are coming to you because you are selling so many copies, right? So if you are Andy Weir and you’re just selling a billion copies every 30 seconds, then, yeah, publishers are going to come knocking, yelling, “Hey. We want in on this.” Right?
[Dan] We want some of your money.
[Dongwon] If that’s happening, then that is when that works. If you self publish something, you’re not getting the numbers, you’re not getting a lot of excitement, then my advice is to move on to something else that’s in a different category, a new series, and that’s what you want to be pitching to some publishers. The hybrid authors I work with, we really view the self-publishing side and the traditional side as two parallel careers. There’s crossover in terms of the marketing and brand. In my experience, there’s almost no crossover in terms of audience. The people who buy one are not buying the other one. Right? So you can’t expect that if you sold 100,000 copies indie, that suddenly you’re going to sell 100,000 hardcovers, right? So I think learning to think of them as two separate channels that you’re developing in parallel. It’s really more about market and career diversification, then it is about transferring audience from one to the other.
[Piper] I’m going to slightly disagree with you on the fact that I do, as a Venn diagram, think there’s a small amount of overlap, because I don’t want to disregard the readers that are buying both. But that’s because there are readers that have become loyal to the author and decide that the author, regardless of how it was published, is a one-click buy. But they are a smaller selection.
[Howard] We also need to take into account that 10 years ago, this conversation would have been completely different, and that these markets change. For me, the decision points about choosing your own adventurous publishing path hinge on some of the same things, which are, on these two different paths, which market is my book going to sell better into? That’s going to change over the years. The big one for me is do I want to make the sale once and let somebody else sell it a million times, or do I want to beat down 10,000 doors myself? I chose the beat 10,000 doors down myself path because I’m an idiot.
[Dongwon] Or you really like knocking on doors, Howard.
[Piper] Yeah, maybe.
[Howard] I really… I would much rather have somebody else doing that work for me. But what we found is that my primary product, as of this episode airing, is something that plays to a market where I can’t let one person sell it for me.
[Dan] It’s worth pointing out, you said that these markets change over time. They’re still changing. We’re in the middle of a massive technological flux in this industry. I genuinely don’t know what either the trad or indie market is going to look like a year from now. We don’t know. So it is worth your time not just to figure out what to do with your own books, but to keep your thumb on the pulse and keep track of what is going on. Who is big, and where they’re big, and why they’re big. Because it’s going to keep shifting throughout your career. I have one more question before we end. We’re going to go a little bit long, because somebody asked a question that I think needs more of a disabusement than an answer. He says, “Does self-publishing count as a debut, and hence ruin your chance of emerging with a big bang?” In a lot of ways, I think that if you’re publishing plan is I want to emerge with a big bang, I want “a stunning debut” written on the cover of my book, your publishing plan at that point is to win the lottery. What you need to be focused on more so than these questions “of am I going to hit big? Am I going to have a massive debut?” You just need to be cranking out good books.
[Howard] For every big debut we can think of, we can quickly put our fingers on, there are 100 ten-year overnight successes. Where people have been grinding away at this, and they’ve had books hit the market, and they’ve perhaps rebooted their career a couple of times… That would be a great topic for later this year.
[Howard] And yet, we don’t really notice them until this thing happens. Well, that’s not a debut author. That is a ten-year overnight success.
[Dan] One of the examples I love to use is Hilary Mantel. She started small, she got big, and then with Wolf Hall, she got huge. She got massive. She had a BBC miniseries. All of these things. That was the first time most of her readers had ever heard of her. So, in a sense, that was emerging with the Big Bang. She just had to write 20 other books 1st.
[Piper] Right. Patricia Briggs is my favorite, favorite author in the urban fantasy space. But I read her before she hit big with the Mercy Thompson series. She had the Sianim series, she had Hurog series, she had a really, really fun adorable book, The Hob’s Bargain that I was in love with and have read 50 bajillion times and had to buy three new copies of that book. So she was out there already for quite a few years before she ever wrote urban fantasy. People are like, “Oh. She hit big.” But she was already out there, friends. She was already out there, she had written quite a few books already before the Mercy Thompson series came out, and that hit.
[Dongwon] To sort of go back, though, and answer the actual question, if you all don’t mind?
[Dan] Oh, fine.
[Dongwon] What we do do is we say it is a traditional debut, or a traditionally published debut. You put parentheses around traditionally published and you make the font really little, so it looks like it’s just a debut. That’s the actual answer.
[Dan] I’m glad that you hit that. Okay, so there is one aspect of this that I do want to touch on a little bit, which is awards. Again, I don’t think that your goal should be to win awards. Your goal should be to write good books in a long-term career. But, for example, the Astounding Award for Best New Author, which is connected to the Hugo, that one, I… You can only win that in the first two years of publishing. But they look… They do, for that one, look at specific markets. So they don’t count self pub for that. To my knowledge. That could change any day. Because as we said these things are still in flux. So. There is that. But I don’t want anyone listening to this episode to say, “Oh, I’ve got a fantastic book. I’m going to wait three years to publish it because I want to make sure I have a shot at the Astounding Award.” That’s not your goal.
[Howard] “I don’t want to spoil my Astounding eligibility.” No, what you don’t want to spoil is you’re not getting paid for writing these words.
[Howard] Let’s go turn these words into money.
[Piper] Awards, actually, don’t often boost your sales. Like, there’s a spike. Don’t get me wrong, there is a spike. But they don’t skyrocket your career in the big picture and the long tail.
[Dongwon] The thing I always say is that awards are a sign that other things are going well. Awards are a consequence, not a goal.
[Dan] Excellent way of putting it. We are going to end our episode right here, and we are all kind of on egg shells because Howard told us he has a secret homework planned and he wouldn’t tell us what it was.
[Howard] Okay. The secret homework plan is I want you to write the Choose Your Own Adventurous Publishing Path thing. What you’re going to do, you’re going to build yourself a flowchart with little decision points about your manuscript. Is this going to sell into a wider market? Is this a niche market? Do I want to hand sell a bunch of copies? Do I want to sell it to one person? Do I have test readers in mind? How do I feel about this manuscript? You’re going to write this thing, and in writing this thing, start fleshing out the flowchart. Start fleshing out the flowchart, and write a fun fiction about your Adventurous Publishing Path. Fill every one of those pages. I promise you, when you are done with this, you will be the first person ever to have written this.
[Howard] Because it’s ridiculous. But also, I promise you, you’ll be way more excited about choosing these things, because you will have begun imagining yourself making the difficult decisions.
[Dongwon] Please work hard to keep it from becoming GrimDark.
[Howard] Oh, I want to read the GrimDark one.
[Howard] That’s going to be great.
[Piper] Make it light! And fun.
[Howard] He didn’t win the Astounding Award. Something got hit by a meteor. All right. Dan, take us home. Please.
[Dan] From where?
[Howard] The ruins of civilization.
[Dan] Okay. Unlike Howard, you have no excuses. Now go write.