Why Traditionally Publish? A Response To A Comment

So, the other day I said something about how in publishing no real debate exists and hey isn’t it super-nifty that we have lots of options and all options are equal and valid in the eyes of WRITING JESUS and I dunno, I probably said something else but I tend to fade out.

One such comment on that post was the following, by addadinsane:

You think that’s just vanity publishing? There’s no difference between how much work you have to do in marketing whether you’re trad published or self-published. The only authors that get a marketing budget nowadays are the huge sellers. (Even my friend who is A-list doesn’t get one – he’s still not big enough.)

It was funny, I was on a panel a couple of months back with a bunch of traditionally published authors and someone in the audience brought this up, said to me “But don’t you have to do all the marketing yourself?” So I turned to the other five panellists and said “Hey guys, how much marketing do you have to do?” Answers ranged from “Loads” to “All of it”.

And trad publishers take a lot more than 50%. One wonders what for.

I’m all in favour of “no debate” but I think people should be accurately informed about the truth of traditional publishing rather than looking through rose-tinted spectacles. Then they can make an informed decision.

Frankly I don’t know why anyone goes trad published to be honest. The only reason I’ve heard recently is that they want to be a “proper” author. And if that isn’t vanity, I don’t know what is.

And I wanted to respond to it. But I started to write up my response and found it too long for a mere paltry comment, and figured, hey, well, I’ll take up some oxygen at the blog, proper.

The commenter followed up with an additional comment that bears looking at:

The most accurate statement of my viewpoint would be: “I personally can see very little benefit for someone who is serious about being published to pursue traditional publishing because the negatives that I perceive far outweigh any benefits (of which I have trouble seeing any).”

Negatives include: (a) Years chasing agents/publishers because it’s not only about having a great book, it’s whether you hit the right person at exactly the right time and you might never hit it just right; (b) If you get the contract, its years before the book comes out; (c) Only allowed to produce one book per year; (d) restrictive contracts (my A-list pal is *not allowed* to promote except on FB, Twitter and his blog (he is *not* allowed to create a mailing list of fans) other restrictions apply; (e) poor royalties on ebooks (trad publishers are raking it in on over-priced ebooks and not passing the money on to authors; (f) loss of artistic control (if they think it would be better a different way, you have to change it); (g) no marketing budget; (h) book goes the shelves sale after a few months; (i) long delays in production of paperback and ebook (because they make more money out of hardbacks – even though tests by Hugh Howey has demonstrated no loss of income producing all formats simultaneously); (j) Two book deals – fail to sell and you’re out; (k) loss of rights to your books;

Benefits: (a) Book on shelves for a couple of months? I have bookshops wanting to sell my physical books. (b) Professional editing? I have that; (c) Professional covers? I have those. (d) Global distribution? I have that. (d) Translation? I can get that (Babelcube website – yes that’s real human translation); (e) Film rights? Hire an entertainment lawyer for that one deal; (f) Audio books? (Go to ACX) (g) Advances! (Yeah, right, don’t give up the day job); (h) … um …?

The one thing I learned from my A-list friend is that he was clueless about the true state of the indie market, which presumably represents the state of most people in the traditional publishing world, since he most definitely is not a fool.

Do I think there is a lot of indie crap? Yes, of course there is. However I don’t associate with indie authors who think publishing their vomit draft with a cover drawn by their dog is a good idea. Most of use care about what we do. (And what reader checks the publisher? Only the totally anal ones.)

Ultimately, of course, it is the individual author’s decision.

Everyone must indeed make a private decision about their books and how to publish and promote them. And going indie — self-publishing — is one such path forward. That said, I find in that indie community you sometimes find some bad information (or, at the least, very weird assumptions) about publishing with a publisher big or small, and some these misconceptions are on display here. Suggesting that traditional publishing is equivalent to vanity publishing is one such thing — it’s an analogy that fails at the most fundamental levels, given that a) traditional pays you where b) you pay vanity. The flow of money is different. (Now, if you want to talk about how some traditional publishers also run vanity publishers? That’s nastier business.)

So, let’s hash it out a little bit. Why would anybody go “trad?”

a) The simplest and most forthright reason is: “I don’t want to publish my own work.” In much the same way not everyone wants to open a storefront or do their own home repairs or 3D print their own sex toys, sometimes you do not possess the skill-set and/or the interest to self-publish. Because, to some people’s surprise, self-publishing requires more than just writing a book. You’re now a publisher — with all the work that being a publisher now entails. (Translation: you have less time to write. Maybe you’re okay with that. But maybe you’re not.)

b) Because bookshelves. Yes, you can get on bookstore shelves with self-published work, but a bookstore friend estimates that this is less than 1% of the books on her shelves. And “book on shelves for a couple months” isn’t necessarily accurate — I poke through bookstores and find books from a couple years ago bobbling around there. Which is both awesome (woo hoo! they carry me!) and anxiety-inducing (oh god are the books just not selling?!).

c) Because advances. Advances are not universal, but can be pretty great and are pretty common in some genres. I’m a fan. I dunno what to tell you — sure, you can take all the risk yourself, and I’ve done that and will do it again. But it’s also nice to have someone give you several thousands of dollars right out of the gate. The commenter says, “Yeah, right, don’t give up the day job,” but it is exactly this that has helped me to give up the day job.

d) Because marketing and advertising. It’s easy to say, “PUBLISHED AUTHORS GET NO MARKETING BUDGET,” but that’s provably untrue. Now, whether they spend that on you or not is up for debate — some authors get nothing, bupkiss, shit-on. Others get a little or a lot. My anecdotal mileage is that I have received efforts for marketing from all of my publishers. Do I wish they did more? Sure, because I will always wish they could do more. They could put my naked ass on a Times Square billboard display for four weeks and I will lament that it wasn’t there for five. And yes, traditionally-published authors still do a helluva lot of on-the-ground marketing of their work because, honestly, human connection (me talking to an audience and also selling books that way) is not something a publisher can really do. (That being said, some publishers will say: “Okay, our marketing plan is a blog tour,” to which you should respond, “That’s my marketing plan. Now I’m waiting to hear yours, motherfucker.” Except don’t say “motherfucker” because jeez, rude.)

e) Because access to doors that are, at present, more open to traditionally-published authors. Interviews, blogs, professional trade reviews, foreign rights, film/TV rights, and on and on. This isn’t always fair and it isn’t universally true, but being traditionally published is a larger foot in that door. It just is. Self-publishing can be a little noisy, and occasionally unprofessional, and sometimes the unwashed throngs in that group form an unfortunately noisy minority and rush the gates of review blogs and other outlets, which forces that door closed more tightly for the rest. Sure, you can sell foreign rights or film/TV for your self-published book. Many have. But I promise: it’s also a lot harder. Maybe that will change over time, but right now, it is what it is. It’s easy to say, “I want to sell the rights to my self-published book,” but it’s a lot harder to get those people to take your fucking meetings, I assure you.

f) Professional editing and cover design: yes, you can get both of these things as a self-published author, and if you are an author-publisher, you jolly well should. But they will cost you money, and they will cost you time, and you will have to wrangle it into existence. Further, professional editing is tricky because you have to find the right editor — one who will edit your work accordingly, but also won’t edit it just to make you happy. The freelance editor has a weird, weird job — you’re literally hiring someone to criticize your work. You’re paying them to attack your book with scissors. That can be a fraught relationship. And not every author wants to or knows how to navigate those storm-churned waters.

So. There you have some reasons.

Now, I’ve also known folks who have been kicked around when going that way, too. Hell, I’ve encountered some pretty gnarly shit on my own (and am, in fact, dealing with some publishing drama even now). But you’ll also encounter it going your own way. No matter how you write and publish, you’re going to cross antlers with some nasty elk, and you just have to harden yourself to the realities that all roads to art are hard. Life is tough. Protect thine genitals accordingly.

(I tackle the pluses/minuses of both publishing paths in a different post, should you care.)

Now, to tackle some of the perceived criticisms of the traditional path:

a) “The only authors that get a marketing budget nowadays are the huge sellers.” Provably untrue. What I mean by provably is, I can provide nearly endless exceptions to this. Including me. *waves hands* Now, the question is, do enough authors get marketing budget? Is that budget big enough? That’s a meaningful question, and one you need to consider.

b) “There’s no difference between how much work you have to do in marketing whether you’re trad published or self-published.” Also untrue. Even my earliest books reached places I never could have with my self-published efforts. Trying to get seen as a self-published author is, honestly, pretty hard — and increasingly so as the elevator gets packed to the walls. But my externally-published work just sorta… went out into the world. I had reviews in places I never expected. Had film interest I didn’t drum up. It felt a little bit like magic. But it wasn’t magic. Because I had publishers actively working on my books’ behalf. Agents, too.

c) “Years chasing agents/editors.” Well, true, to a point. I spent a lot of time chasing agents for a book that, I realize now, was kinda crappy. For Blackbirds, I got an agent fairly quickly — and this seems to be the experience of a lot of authors once they have the right book. Editors, yeah, it took a while. Was quite some time for that book to reach a publisher and then to reach shelves. But that series, the Miriam Black series, has continued on and on for me. New authors mustn’t be freakishly averse to time. Patience is key. You don’t just throw some grape juice in a bottle and then drink it two weeks later hoping it’s wine. It’s not wine. It’s just old-ass grape juice. Good books and good authors take time. This is part of that. That said — it’s usually not “years” before the book comes out. It can be — but these days, if I had to eyeball it, it’s about 9-12 months. Which is not unreasonable. If you’re self-publishing, it could take several months to get proper editing, to make the edits, to design the book.

d) “Only allowed to produce one book per year.” Holy shit, what? Not seeing too many authors held to that. Not saying it’s not there in some contracts — maybe this is an overly restrictive non-compete clause? I dunno. But most authors these days, indie and traditional, seem to get by writing multiple books a year. I’ve got… well, a lot of books coming out this year. Like, it’s so many I’m pretty sure only an imaginary number can represent it. A good agent should be able to run clauses like this over a fucking table-saw to whittle them down.

e) “my A-list pal is *not allowed* to promote except on FB, Twitter and his blog (he is *not* allowed to create a mailing list of fans)” — Double-triple-jaw-drop-holy shit, what? This is beyond sense. Again: maybe it’s a real clause. But one I literally can’t understand. What’s the takeaway here? You can’t promote on someone else’s blog? Or on Google-Plus? Or Ello, Tsu, Faceplate, Wonkcircle, Wankbag, Flippr, Pornhub, or any other social network that comes along? Why would you not be “allowed” to create a mailing list of fans, which, by the way, is not something a contract could even mandate. This sounds like either it doesn’t exist, was misunderstood, or the supposedly A-list author has a D-List agent.

f) “poor royalties” — well, that’s a meaningful concern, innit? Publishers could do better here, particularly on digital. And if they don’t, more authors will defect and publish their own work. So, this is one of those things that goes into your calculation of worth it/not worth it.

g) “loss of artistic control” — A little too vague to be a meaningful criticism, as ostensibly you have a great deal of artistic control over the book itself. Less so the packaging of said book.

h) “long delays of production of paperback and e-book” — Nearly all publishers produce e-book immediately, and most books are also released in paperback. Those that come out in hardcover — I understand the desire to have all forms at once, but that also means bookstores have to make a decision which version to carry. Libraries, too. Indie authors do not universally require bookstores or libraries, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still a thing. Bookstores and libraries, are in fact, total fucking aces.

i) “Fail to sell and you’re out.” Depends on what that means — fail to sell. If you sell nothing, yeah, you might be shit out of luck, which is harsh and unkind and maybe even unfair, but I don’t mean to belabor the obvious when I note that publishing is a business. Further, many publishers continue to take risks on authors they believe in. But lots of midlist authors survive despite having midlist sales. They continue to publish. If they see a good book from an author who hasn’t sold well in the past… from what I’ve seen, some will invest the time and the money. Not always when they should, and sometimes when they shouldn’t, but writers are best served on all sides of the publishing fence by continuing to write past the point of failure and back toward success.

j) “loss of rights to books.” A meaningful concern, and some contracts won’t let you out easily, if at all. This is rarely eternal, and many authors do indeed get their rights back (*waves hands*), but if it’s something that truly concerns you — then either get an agent who will ninja that shit out of your contracts or don’t sign ’em.

None of this means that traditional is best, or easiest, or smartest. In fact, even in this post you may find reasons to avoid going for a traditional publisher — just don’t make that decision based on bad calculus. However, it remains one option for writers, and one to which many are suited.

*disappears in a puff of boring publishing talk*