Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Publish or Perish the Thought

Terry Shames here: This week our question is about publishing: As there's more and more consolidation in the world of publishing, how do you view - generally, and for you personally - big publisher vs small publisher vs self-publishing now? Have your views changed since you were first published? 

 When I first started looking for an agent about 100 years ago give or take, the only way to get published was to either find an agent, who would find you a publisher, or find the rare publisher who would read your work without an agent, and accept it . Period. There were obscure self-published books, but they were rare and often sank quickly from the public interest. 

 To say that publishing has changed is the understatement of the century. When I was looking for an agent for my first Samuel Craddock novel, back in 2011, there were many more self-published books, but they still had the taint of “not good enough for a real publisher.” Still, I decided that I was tired of not being published, so if I couldn’t find an agent I would go ahead and self-publish. I did find an agent and a publisher. I didn’t get the attention of a big publisher, but was very happy with my “small” publishing house, coming out with my first book in 2013. 

 In the mere seven years since A Killing at Cotton Hill, the industry has gone through a sea change that has me on the cusp for future publishing. I have an agent I admire who is professional and knows the market. But I’ve also parted ways with my publisher. Now I feel stranded out here in Neverland, not knowing what the future holds. The siren song of self-publishing is loud. BUT. It would mean learning a whole new way of getting a book out. I would have to research whether I wanted to stick to e-publishing or have print on demand books as well. It would mean deciding if I truly wanted to be on my own, or if I wanted to band with other like-minded authors to form our own publishing company. I would have to decide important details like book covers and print type. 

 I would also have to find an editor I trusted to get the book in final shape for publishing. Yes, I would pay for an editor, something large publishers seem less and less willing to do. These days even the most reputable publishing company produces books full of errors that an editor would have caught. Being willing to pay for one and to edit the final product with a careful eye, would put me, as an independent publisher, above a lot of “professional” houses. 

 I’ve also kicked around the idea of going hybrid: getting a publisher for some books, and self-publishing others. The one thing that wouldn’t change either way is having to promote and market the books. It used to be, even as recently as twenty years ago, that publishers were responsible for marketing and promotion. But more and more, authors are on their own. A few “major” authors will get the royal treatment—paid book tours, arranged by the publishing house; intense publicity; and wide distribution. But as an author with a small publisher I’ve always arranged and paid for my own tours. And with a few exceptions I’ve paid for my own publicity.

Distribution is a different matter altogether. If you don’t go with a “traditional” publisher, getting your books to bookstores is difficult. Since more and more people read on e-readers, this is less of an impediment than it used to be, but if you love seeing your books in brick and mortar bookstores, with a few exceptions, self-publishing won’t get you that. However, through venues like BookBub, social media, and other promotion sites, the savvy writer can find plenty of ways to independently appeal to readers. 

 Do I want to take the plunge? I’m thinking. And thinking. I remember a few years ago running into a young woman who had just published her first book (not a mystery). She had no experience of thinking that going through a publishing house was the “only way” to go. She said, “Why would I want to wait months to find an agent, then more months for the agent to find a publisher, then more months (or years) until the books came out? And pay everybody along the line. I can do all that myself—and keep the money!” I must admit that her logic made sense. Will I do the same? Stay tuned.


Polly Iyer said...

Interesting post, Terry. I come at it from the other end. I self-published after my agent DIDN'T find a publisher for one reason or another. I did what the writer you mentioned did for the same reasons and decided to self-publish. This was around 2011. BookBub was just getting started and gave me a freebie for one of my books. I can't remember whether it was free or .99. But when the ad was over, during that month, I was selling 500 books a day between my four--at that time--books, getting reviews, and making money. I bought more ads with BookBub because I could afford them. For the next two years, I did well. But as you noted, things changed. There were more writers self-publishing, flooding the market. BookBub, because of the success writers had using them, raised their prices until they were out of my market. Now I see the whole business much differently and wonder if I should have kept trying to get a better agent. Not sure there's a definitive answer, but now I wonder if I should keep on writing, even though I think my last book is my best.

Terry said...

Polly, I think about this ever day. I have a great agent, but I still get impatient with the slow pace of things. She has had a book of mine that I really like for five months now and has yet to get to it. In that time I could have published it myself. One thing is that I think self-published authors have to get much more savvy about book promotion--something that's hard for everyone.

I also wonder sometimes if it's time to hang up my writing life. But then another book rears its head and I'm off again.

Susan C Shea said...

Terry, this is such a cogent piece and, like you, I'm on the cusp: good agent, no contract for either of my past (traditionally published) series, and trying to decide if I am ready and willing to do some form of hybrid publishing. Sea change, indeed.

Terry said...

It would be an easier call if I were 35. Or 40. Or...Reinventing myself in my (ahem) advanced years is a little harder sell.

Jennifer J. Chow said...

Interesting post, Terry. I've done a little bit of everything: self-published, small press, and Big 5. Being a hybrid author is a nice route since it gives me some flexibility. I liked learning the ropes of self-publishing, but I do appreciate having the support of a big publisher.