Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Screw platform and let me self-publish - I just want to write

I received an email from someone today who said,

Much of my confusion stems from the latest trend requiring authors of every stripe to produce an interactive "internet web platform" from which to self promote. A particular online personality is putting herself into the self publishing basket and using every trick in her bountiful book of tricks to convince anyone who will listen to go hell bent for leather in that direction. I fully realize that business is above all, business irrespective of circumstance and style, yet I wonder how she intends to reconcile her current relentless passion for any form of self publishing if 99 percent of it is doomed to relative failure if for nothing more than the sheer magnitude of mathematical odds lined up against it? All this being said, what are we to do in managing to reach the increasingly reclusive literary agents and publishers whose exigencies are growing more outrageously demanding on a month to month basis.

Forgive me for crying on your shoulder this way, but frankly, I am truly puzzled and concerned by what is happening out there.

Excuse me, but this blog will be longer than usual. I wrote it, removed it, then rewrote it. This writer asked me to lay it on the line in his email, telling me he knew I would be straight with him, not commercially enticing with just enough feedback to draw him into buying a product. At the risk of being too straight forward, here was most of my answer to his frustrated email.


Dear Sir,
Today's writer is impatient for publication. Therefore, self-publishing venues make a fortune on that impatience. Your referenced online personality is trying to tap that eager market, and she believes in self-publishing, no doubt, probably for all. I think self-publishing is for those who have the brand to sell the volume of books necessary to eek out a living. When 90 percent of people self-publish and sell less than 100 copies, they give self-publishing a bad name. But the self-publishing business doesn't care, because it makes its income off those eager writers. They are following their business plan well.

Too many writers bash traditional publishing because the rejection rate is so high. When you see the vast volume of books in Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Borders, et al, and realize all those books are traditionally published, you see that we are not lacking in reading material. That tells me that traditional publishing gleans the cream off the top of the submissions. The houses are competing amongst each other as well, so they carefully select who and what they publish. That's just good business, plus they are protecting their own brand.

Now, when you are in business as a publisher, and you have all this good writing at your disposal, how do you make selections when your budget limits you to a certain number of contracts per year? For simplicity, let's assume they need ten contracts this month and they have twenty great queries. They then Google these people and look to see what type of platform they have. The writers with a following receive attention first. After all, they have a higher chance of sales which interprets into higher profit potential for the publishing house. Simple common sense. Good business practice.

Granted, there is the rare exception of phenomenal writing that wings its way to the forefront above the platform possessed, but those people are savants or gifted - not the average person pitching a book. It would be arrogant of us to assume we are such. We save energy realizing we have to work hard for recognition.
Hate to say it, but all we can do as writers is keep on writing, improving and pitching while trying to become known by enough people to convince editors we can make sales. Of course nonfiction needs a brand ten times more than fiction which means fiction has to be more highly gifted in quality.

That's my two cents, friend. It's grounded in conversations with editors and agents, a lot of research over ten years in the business, and serious observation, not to mention the hundreds of emails I've received confirming my suspicions. Many people don't want to hear the above. They can't stand to think they aren't talented enough to be published, but that's the major problem with the writing (not publishing) world these days. People do not work at their talent enough to raise it to a caliber worth contracting.

Take care,
Hope Clark


I want writers to publish; I truly do. I don't want them to crash and burn. Writers ask me what happened when they published and didn't sell but a few dozen books. They blame the publisher, the cover artist, the website, the backwards publishing business structure in place, the economy. They even blame me for not telling them that they did everything right and someone else screwed them up.

Fight the good fight. With each rejection, vow to improve, swear you won't give in until you get this thing right. Don't let them see you sweat, as the commercial says. I don't care if you self-publish or traditionally publish. Heck, publish via Twitter, podcasts or blogs. Write it across the sky with a bi-plane. Just accept the fact that poor sales in any media normally reflect the following:

-writing that still needs work
-platform that still needs work
-self-promotion that still needs work

And then . . . fix it.


Karen O. said...

Thanks for those straight words, Hope! Naturally we all feel worthy of publication, but you are so right that we have to face facts.

Anonymous said...

The publishing business is crazy, and it gets even crazier/harder to understand if one doesn't realize that there are so many niches or pigeonholes in "publishing" that make almost any publishing method a perfect fit for SOMEONE.

I have a business client who has been a self-publisher for about five years. I have done editing, book design, cover design, etc., for two books for her. She has sold nearly a quarter-million copies of her five self-published titles! Now, I can't claim any credit for this. Her books are non-fiction, aimed at a specific and well-defined readership, and she sells through her website, Amazon, and in back-of-the-room sales when she speaks.

But MOST self-publishers are lucky to sell fifty copies of their own book, much less an average of fifty thousand copies.

When we talk about which publishing model is best for someone, we really have to back up and ask questions like:
- What sort of title is it: fiction or non-fiction? Prose or poetry? Self-help?
- Have you identified very clearly your target market?
- Do you have a platform (a publishing history where you have readers) in the same area as your book?
- Do you have the time to market and promote your book?
- Do you have the expertise to do the design and layout, or do you have the money to pay someone to do that for you?
- Do you want to get into the business of publishing, which requires acquiring ISBNs, setting up relationships with printers, getting distribution, making business contacts, handling the accounting and possibly the shipping/fulfillment on your own?

Those questions are just the start, really. Publishing a book is a business venture, unless you are simply doing it for self-satisfaction, and then a lot of those questions go out the window--but so will a lot of money, probably.

Tony Burton

Hope Clark said...

Thanks for those words, Tony. I want people to publish, but only once they have their homework done and head on straight. It's so tempting to just publish and hope all the rest of the "stuff" works itself out. That's a recipe for utter failure.


Susan Toy said...

Thanks for this, Hope. I will be speaking to emerging writers next week at a conference and will be sure to direct them to read your blog and subscribe to the newsletter. You always offer solid and sage facts and advice about writing that, unfortunately, many new writers, and even established and published authors, are afraid to face, but should, indeed must, in order to thrive and survive this business.

Notanaturalmartyr said...

Nice posts. They really clarifythe situation, so that a writer can choose which way to go with a good picture of the costs and benefits of each type of publishing. I do think one problem is that we, as writers, are all so desperate for validation that it's easy to fall for the flattery component of the vanity presses that charge for what is essentially ego-boosting. If your book is good you can get that with a few readings. You may not make money but you won't lose it either.

Karen Lange said...

I like your two cents, and I tend to agree. I won't stop writing...
Have a good weekend,