Monday, January 23, 2012

Self-publishing and traditional publishing: why doing both could be good for your career

Note from Hope:

Enjoy this guest post by Sean McLachlan who blogs about travel for Gadling and writes history books for three different publishers. He recently released his Civil War novel, A Fine Likeness, and a collection of short stories titled The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other dark tales. For more about Sean, see his blog Civil War Horror


Self-publishing and traditional publishing: why doing both could be good for your career
By Sean McLachlan

I’ve been working in this crazy business for twelve years now. In that time I’ve landed a gig at the world’s most popular travel blog, written for national magazines, and had nine nonfiction books published with two more on the way. Now I’m self-publishing my fiction.

Huh? Why am I “taking a step back” by self-publishing? Because publishing is changing and I need to change with it if I’m going to keep this craziness going for another twelve years. I’m not alone. Plenty of hardworking midlisters are self-publishing their backlist and new material in electronic and POD editions. As far as I know, though, I’m the only writer with one business model for nonfiction and another for fiction.

My reasons for self-publishing fiction are both personal and professional. There’s a bottleneck in the submissions process that’s keeping books in the slush pile for months, even years. Big publishers are scaling back on lines and not taking any risks. My rejections from editors and agents all have one thing in common—they love my work but don’t think it will be as profitable as whatever book they accepted that week. Fair enough. They’re in business to make money and they have a right to their opinion.

But consider this. If I got accepted by a major publishing house, as a first-time genre novelist I’d get an average $5,000 advance and virtually no marketing. Well, if the money is poor and I have to do all the marketing myself, why don’t I just get 35-70% royalties via Amazon instead of 6% via some publisher? If I went to the small press the situation would be the same except there’d be little or no advance. After years of positively worded rejections, it made economic sense for me to self-publish. Better a small profit on the novels I’ve written than no profit at all.

Plus I already have a platform—other published books, a recognizable readership, internet visibility, knowledge of the business, professional contacts, etc. I’m well placed to do this myself.

First I published my historical novel, A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri. I’ve had two books on the Civil War and three on Missouri published. I also have many contacts with the mainstream media in that state and for that subject. Instant marketing platform. Having a number of titles increases visibility, so a month later I came out with a short story collection The Night theNazis Came to Dinner, and other dark tales. I priced it at 99 cents to draw in readers who might not take the chance on my $4.99 Civil War novel. Now I’m busy doing guest blogs, tweeting, press release writing, and other marketing that I’d have had to do if I’d been traditionally published.

From a strictly professional point of view I should stick to what’s making money and put my fiction on the back burner. That’s not going to happen because fiction is half the reason I got into writing in the first place. Until now I was only living half my dream. Oh, I got a short story published every now and then, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy me. The death of a closefriend who was only twenty years older than I am and the near-fatal heart attack of a colleague only ten years older than I am reminded me that I won’t be around forever. I want my legacy to include a bunch of novels. I have things to say in fictional form and I want the chance to say them.

Now I’m living my entire dream. It’s scary, exhausting, fun, and deeply satisfying. But most of all it’s a relief. The bottleneck in publishing was being mirrored by a bottleneck in my own production. Three novels in the hopper and more on the way and all I got from publishers were rejectionletters saying how good my work was. Publishing my fiction has given my fiction writing new life. I’m being more productive and inspired now than ever before. My fiction matters now, it’s out before the public eye.

And increasing your productivity and inspiration are the best career moves you can make.


Jane Rutherford said...

I don't necessary believe that self-publishing is a "step back". It's no longer something "bad writers who can't get publish" do. Now it's a business decision that every writer needs to consider.

This is a great post! Good luck with your books!

Kelly Robinson said...

In response to Jane: It's still something bad writers who can't get published do. What's different now is that some good writers do it too. It can't be dismissed outright.

Kathryn J. Bain said...

I've heard this before about doing both traditional and self-publishing. As long as you get your book edited, I see no problem with being self-published.

I'm traditionally published right now, but will probably do both in the future.

Last week, I read a book by a traditionally published author who had eleven books out. It was terrible. I couldn't even follow the plot, and she head-hopped so bad I had to keep rereading to see who was speaking. Sometimes traditional publishing isn't always the best way to go if you go with a bad company.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You have to go with what works for you! Certainly helped that you already had a platform and fan base.

Susan Sundwall said...

You make some very good points. Your post encourages and enlightens. Thanks!

Civil War Horror (Sean McLachlan) said...

Hello from Athens! I'm currently on assignment working on a series about the effect of the economic crisis on tourism and maintaining the nation's archaeological sites.

I have to admit I had to get over a certain psychological barrier before I accepted self-publishing as a viable option. There's such a stigma attached to it, especially among traditionally published writers. This is changing.

I've been very surprised with the support I've received from my publishing houses, who are actually going to help with promotion once the print version is out!

I agree with the comment about having the book edited. Luckily my writer's group ha some good professionals who know how to edit. A good cover is vital as well. My brother-in-law is a designer, so I had my bases covered there too.

Keep on writing!


cschenk said...

There is good and bad writing in both self and traditionally published works, and likely that won't change.

Once you have self-published you know so much more about the business as a whole and have more respect for every aspect of the writing process, from beginning to end.