Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Biggest Publishing Change - Two Truths and a Lie

What change in the publishing landscape over the past decade and a half has impacted you the most?

- From Frank

It's a good thing I'm going early in the week, because the easy answer is either still out there or at least not yet beaten to death. Because I'm going to lie to you about it. Ready?

Self-publishing is the biggest change, hands down.

Whether it is a good change or not depends on where you sit, I suppose. But it has been a massive change, fueled of course by the other big change - the advent of ebooks. The former couldn't have happened without the latter.

My first several books were published by very small presses. Unfortunately, they kept going under (or getting out of the fiction business). It happened three separate times, which led me to begin to wonder if it was me

Maybe it was - who knows? But that's a separate story.

What I do know is that around 2011, I had the digital rights to all of my books, and it was starting to look like ebooks were real and self-publishing could work. Since my publisher at the time (the third one, who hadn't contracted out of fiction yet) didn't care about ebooks, I took the plunge and published my River City books myself. Then I went further and published all of the books and short story collections I had ready to go at the time. That included producing a paperback version for each, which was a process I've gotten much better at over time... yeah, my first attempt at those River City short story collections were rough.

The ebooks did well. In fact, for a while there, they did extraodinarily well. I actually first started to consider retiring from law enforcement on the basis of those sales numbers during the latter half of 2012. Of course, sales returned to earth within a year, but the experience of having total control over my own work was one I reveled in.

The discussions of self/independent publishing versus traditional publishing are legion, and I won't rehash them here. Each has its advantages and disadvantages that tend to mirror each other. Proponents and detractors of both have valid points (though they tend to accentuate the positives of their own stance and the negatives of the other, I've noticed).

Because there are advantages to each route, I've ultimately adopted a hybrid approach. Some of my work (River City series and Stefan Kopriva mysteries) I publish myself. Other work (Charlie-316, for example) is published by Down and Out Books. As much as I can, I focus on those positives of each approach and mitigate the negatives (or simply accept them). You could say I'm trying to eat my cake and have it, too.

But I told you I was going to lie to you at the beginning of this post, didn't I? And I did. Self-publishing and ebooks are certainly monumental changes in the publishing world. This is true. But they are perhaps not the biggest change. I think a case can be made that the biggest change for all authors has been a shift in the nature of our greatest challenge.

See, it used to be that the hardest thing was access. Getting past the gatekeepers. Can I get an agent to represent me or a publisher to want to publish my work? That was the challenge, one that most of those who "failed" did not manage to overcome. Failure for those writers was an unpublished manuscript in a bottom drawer, or God forbid, long forgotten in a box in the garage or attic.

But now? Access is not a problem. Between traditional and independent publishing options, a writer can be published, one way or the other. S/he can write a great book and it can be produced professionally, with great editing, attractive formatting and a eye-catching cover. It's not the biggest challenge anymore. 

What is?

Being read.

With so many books out there, being discovered by readers is the bigger challenge to break out. How do you get eyes on your book so that readers will get hooked on your work?

Failure for writers now comes not in the form of an unpublished book in the bottom drawer but as an unread book, languishing on Amazon with two reviews and six digital sales a year.

How big a change is that? Or is it a distinction without a difference? 

Truthfully, that's a whole different blog post. So is the question of how to overcome that challenge (something all of my colleagues here could weigh in on with some considerable knowledge). If we suppose the book itself is great and packaged that way, too, then the answer is marketing, right? And I hate marketing. It honestly feels like I'm screaming at a rock concert while everyone else is screaming, too. I can barely hear them, and who is hearing me?

But I said I'd leave that for some other post, didn't I? I think I've answered this one - the biggest change in publishing? To my mind, that the author's greatest challenge has gone from being access to publication to access to readers' eyeballs and interest.

Your mileage may vary, of course.


Blatant Self-Promotion? 

How can I do that after I just said how much I dislike marketing? But it's necessary, isn't it?  

Let's go with the minimalist approach, then.

My latest book is In the Cut. You can read about it if you click the link.


Paul D. Marks said...

The biggest challenge, as you say, Frank, is definitely being read. It's so hard to stand out amongst so many offerings. Sometimes the publisher does some of the PR work, sometimes we do, sometimes both. I'm still trying to figure it all out...because what worked before doesn't often work anymore.

Susan C Shea said...

Well said, Frank. Being read in this era of a billion books being sold for 99 cents is a huge challenge!

Frank Zafiro said...

I hear you, SUSAN. The problem is, some of those 99 cent books are good (I've had some of mine priced at that level, and my first River City book is currently free) and some are not, but the risk for the readre is low, so if the cover/title/description sounds at all interesting, she takes a flyer at it.

How to compete, though? That's the part where I feel like I'm screaming at a rock concert along with everyone else, like I said in the post. I'm confident that if someone likes the kinds of books I write, they'll be hooked if they start reading my work, and I know that's true of a lot of my friends and colleagues (I've often been one of the readers they've hooked). But again, the challenge is getting eyes on the book in the first place.

PAUL's observation that what worked before doesn't necessarily work no, and that's so true. The only thing I've found seems to hold steady is BookBub. Every other ad service has fluctuated (or I've used it wrong). I've got a newsletter going with a healthy subscription, but I haven't seen a significant bump from that, despite what many pundits in the business say. Maybe I'm using that wrong, too.

From what I can tell, the indie people who are making money (as opposed to those big names published by big houses) are spending big money to do it. $3k/mo to make $10k in sales. Great numbers, but that doesn't include the significant time investment, which we all know is a more precious form of currency than the USD...

Anyway, this turned into a rant rather than a thanks for reading and commenting on the post - I appreciate it!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Frank,

I agree about the greatest challenge is being read. Promotion and publicity aren't easy. That's where the big five publishers have the advantage.