Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A No-Brainer or not…

By R.J. Harlick

If you had just finished your first novel in 2018, given all the changes that have happened in the publishing world, which path would you choose to publication and why?

An interesting question and also one that could require a total relook at my writing were I to be setting out on my writing journey today. 

Basically, I would have two major decisions to make. 
Should I set my mystery novel in Canada or elsewhere? 
Do I want to publish the book myself as an independently or self-published novel or attempt to find a traditional publisher?

I’ll answer the second question first, though in actuality the answer to the first would greatly influence the second.

When I started out twenty years ago, self-publishing or vanity publishing, as it was known then, was a ‘dirty word’. Paying to have one’s book published was considered heresy and only the ‘publish or die’ writers who had been turned down so many times by a ‘real’ publisher that they had lost count went that route. But today it is an entirely different story. I am not certain what the situation is in the US, but in Canada the number of Canadian publishers still publishing crime fiction has diminished to a handful. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult for new writers to find a publisher. Many are now going the independent or self-published route. In fact, I suspect that more first novels are independently published than traditionally published.

That said, I think if I were starting out today, I would still attempt to go the traditionally published route no matter how long it would take. It took me eight years from putting the first words on a page until I held my hard fought words in a bound book. Maybe now it would take ten, likely longer, but I think I would still hang in. 

I found that searching for a publisher forced me to write the best first novel that I could. I rewrote it four times, and I mean literally rewrote, by tossing out much of the text and starting over again, though the central story never changed. If I had given up after the first couple of rounds of publisher rejections and decided to publish it myself, I know I would’ve had nowhere near as good a book as the final product ended up being. I find today with many self-published authors, rewriting/revising is almost a dirty word. But as most bestselling writers will tell you the best books only come through continual refinements brought on by rewrites and revisions.

So with the advantage of hindsight, I would want to produce the best book I could and would use the search for a publisher to help me do that.

The main advantage of going the traditionally published route is primarily related to after publication. Yes, publishers have editors, who certainly help turn your book into a much better product. But today, most self-published authors use freelance editors, but it is an added cost and in some cases a fairly hefty cost in addition to the publishing costs. 

Where the traditional publisher has it over self-publishing is in book promotion and distribution. 

As we all know reviews are one of the best vehicles for getting the word out about new books. Most publishers produce ARCs and send them out to all the pertinent review vehicles, be they magazines, newspapers or websites. With so many new books in their to-be-reviewed piles, most serious reviewers will concentrate on those coming from publishing houses they know will produce a good quality book. Rarely do they take the time to review a self-published book written by an unknown author. Publishers also have established contacts with all these review vehicles. A self-published author would have to search out and develop these contact lists. 

Reviews are also very important for not only alerting readers to new books, but also libraries. Library sales often account for a hefty chunk of a book’s sales. It is practically impossible for a self-published author to have their books bought by libraries other than those in their immediate area. A well-respected publisher on the other hand through extensive advertising in library journals and through sales reps can get new titles in libraries across the country. 

The same goes for distribution into bookstores. A good publisher will use a distributer and sales reps to ensure that its books are carried in stores across the country. Most booksellers will only take self-published books on consignment, which pretty well limits store access to the author’s immediate neighbourhood. 

As a result, most self-published authors are forced to spend considerably more time in book promotion, even money through the hiring of a publicist, than traditionally published authors, time that eats into writing time. Another reason for going the traditionally published route.

There is, of course, the e-bookstore, Amazon, Kobo and the like, which stocks any type of e-book regardless of publisher. But with inventories of over ten million e-books or more, it pretty well makes simple browsing impossible. Anyone who buys an ebook usually sets out with a title and author in mind, which highlights the need for reputable reviews.

Now on to my second decision, should I use a Canadian setting or a foreign one? When I started out twenty years ago, I didn’t think twice about a Canadian setting. It was what I knew. It was what I wanted to write about. But I soon learned, this limited my book publication to Canadian publishers, which in turn limited my book sales to the Canadian market, which is reputed to be no more than 10% of the American market.  Sure, my books are sold in other markets, but nowhere near the same extent they would be if they were published by an American publisher.

Now that I know that American or other International publishers rarely take a chance on a novel set in Canada, believing it is not a setting American readers are interested in, I need to decide before I begin to write the book if I want to set my mystery in the US.  A number of my fellow Canadian crime writers have gone this route and are doing very nicely financially. So what it really boils down to is money.  Do I want to earn more than a modest amount from my books?

Not an easy answer. Everyone can do with more money. But I do love my country. I do love telling Canadian stories. And what do I know about the States? Only what I see on TV and through vacation travel. Still the money and the foreign recognition would be nice.

That is as far as I'll go with the 'what if' scenario. I'll leave it up in the air on where I should set my first mystery.

But since I already have a full blown mystery series, here I am doing my promotional bit at a local bookseller, which by the way gives both traditionally published and self-published equal time. The only difference being, self-published authors have to bring their stock, whereas the store handles mine.

Enjoy this marvellous spring day. Yes, it has finally arrived in Canada. Yipee!


Melodie Campbell said...

Excellent post, Robin, that really outlines the differences between today and ten years ago. Also, gives a good summary of what a traditional publisher does for an author. I have a new class starting tomorrow, and I'll be pointing my students to this post.

Susan C Shea said...

Well thought out, Robin, and the case you make for traditional publishing is similar to my own. It's not getting the book into print, it's getting the book into reviewers' hands, stores, and libraries. You've built a fan base over the years that knows and likes your Canadian settings, so it can be done!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

A good post, Robin, shedding a current light on the publishing industry.