Indie vs. Traditional Publishing

I recently read an excellent article by David Vinjamuri regarding the changes currently shaking up the publishing industry entitled: “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books And That’s A Good Thing.” on Forbes.com .  The article, along with some interesting comments by readers, sum up many of my own feelings and I decided I use this as a starting point to discuss some of my own personal experiences and thoughts about the rapidly evolving industry.

In the section: Is Indie Publishing Good or Bad for authors? he has quotes from published authors, including Brad Thor and Sue Grafton, who basically say if you are a good enough author, you will get picked up by a mainstream publisher and that Indie authors are not quality authors, or that self-publishing is a short cut for lazy authors who just want to throw something out there with no true appreciation for the art.

I can tell you from my personal experience that is simply not the case for many authors. I spent years learning the craft by taking creative writing classes at SMU while working on my book.  Once I had finished my manuscript, I went to numerous writers conferences to pitch my book to agents, because virtually all of the publishing houses these days will not accept an unsolicited manuscript. One of the most frustrating things I ran into (which I have mentioned in a previous post) when pitching to agents was that my book was too long (about 140,000 words), that no publisher would publish a book that long from a first time author, and that I would have to cut it down to about 80,000 words. And that was without them even having read it.  I then hired well respected editor, Pat Lobrutto, to assist me in cutting it down (we were able to cut it to about 128,000 words) while trying to make it as good as it could possibly be.

This was several years ago, and vampire novels were really hot, but the other frustrating thing to me was that it seemed like everyone was caught up in looking for the next hot thing. Maybe it was zombies or YA, or even better, YA with zombies!  My book doesn’t have vampires or zombies and it’s not YA, so many agents just did not seem interested. Over time it seemed to me that many of the publishers and agents were not as interested in helping to develop promising young authors as much as they were interested in trying to find the next The DaVinci Code, Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games. I understand that the publishers have to make money, and the agents have to be able to sell to the publishers, otherwise none of them would survive, but it seems to influence their decision making process more than I care for.  (You can also see Piers Anthony’s thoughts about the publishing industy in a previous post.) 

Another concern I had regarding the major publishers was if you did happen to have a successful novel is that they would want you to repeat it by basically writing the same thing over and over again.  Look at how many of the big best sellers these days are serials based on a recurring character.  I felt the book that I had written was a stand alone novel and I didn’t want to feel pressured into trying to write a sequel to it when I was interested in writing something different.  I am a huge fan of Dean Koontz and when some of his earlier books were re-released between 2001 and 2004, he included a new afterword in them. One of the consistent themes in them was recollections of his battles with his publisher who told him: His books were too long and needed to be cut by 30% (Strangers); he was a paperback writer and would never be successful as a hardcover author (Midnight); and In the afterword for Lightning he detailed how, after the book Watchers had become his biggest success to date, he was given no less than 5 reasons by his publisher why Lightning was unpublishable and that he should shelve it for at least seven years or it would chip away at his growing audience. One of the reasons given was because it didn’t have a dog in it as Watchers had, and all of his readers would be expecting him to put out another book with a dog as a main character. And who hasn’t heard of the battles between musicians and their record labels, with the record label refusing to release an artist’s album because it didn’t meet the label’s idea of what they thought it should be?

Even so, I still tried to go the traditional publishing route at first and spent many months researching what the different agents were looking for and learning how to write effective query letters, which I was constantly sending out.  I even had several agents ask to see the full manuscript, but ultimately they elected not to sign me, and after awhile I grew tired of the process. It seemed like I was spending most of my time researching what format this or that agent preferred and then writing and sending out query letters, when what I really wanted to be doing was working on my next novel. (This is also why I am not a more frequent blog poster.) But I didn’t want to give up on my first book either. I am an avid reader and I felt that Shadow Dragon was every bit as good as many of the books that were being published by the traditional publishers and, in fact, better than some. That was when I decided I would self-publish my first book. I wanted to get it out there and to get some feedback to see if others enjoyed it as much as I thought they would, and to see if it was truly good enough to compete with “traditionally” published fiction. Also, most agents are inundated with so submissions every day that I thought that publishing my book would be another way to make mine stand out from the crowd.

I chose to go with iUniverse because while ebooks and self-publishing are booming, there are still those people who want an actual, physical book–including my mother–and who wouldn’t purchase it if it were only available as an ebook. I also love to collect books, and the idea of being able to offer my book in hardcover and trade paperback as well as ebook format appealled to me.  I also liked the fact that iUniverse has a rating system of Editors Choice, Rising Star, and Star categories to help readers identify those books which their editorial staff recognize as being of commercial quality. About the only thing I can say I miss about the traditionally published route is having my book on the shelves of a brick-and-mortar store. But even that can have its drawbacks.  As Dean Koontz pointed out in the Afterword for Lightning, when the publisher finally relented and agreed to publish the book, they issued a small print order which, when the book became a bestseller, caused the booksellers to run out of stock before another reprint was made available. And with Borders gone and Barnes and Noble struggling, I wonder just how much longer that will even be an option. Another comment I will make is that, being a collector of hardcover and first edition books, I am often disappointed in the quality of the paper and the rough-cut edges on most of the traditionally released books, whereas I find the hardcover version of my book, produced using print-on-demand technology, to be of higher quality.  

In the long run, I think the boom in the independent publishing industy will be good for the industry as a whole because it gives every author an opportunity to get their work out there and encourages them to keep writing when many, including myself, might have just given up. And what better way to learn and hone your craft than by getting it in front of an audience and getting their honest feedback? In the past it was frustrating to me that there wasn’t an avenue for authors similar to that for indie bands. Virtually all bands start out as an “independently published” band, that hones their craft by playing in bars and clubs, cutting and selling ”independently published” demo CD’s, until some are eventually picked up by the big labels.  Some remain as independent bands forever, but are still able to enjoy being musicians and sharing their songs with the fans they have worked so hard to cultivate.

As pointed out in David Vinjamuri’s article, we are already seeing a similar path of success for some indie authors who are being picked up by the traditional publishers. The most famous of course is Fifty Shades of Grey, but there is also The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan that has now sold over 700,000 copies and was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. On The Island by Tracey Garvis Graves was picked up by a traditional publisher and became a New York Times Bestseller and Wool by Hugh Howey has been a big success on Amazon, winning the Kindle Book Review’s Best Indie book of 2012.

I’m very happy with my decision to go with the indie publishing route. And from the selection of my book to the Rising Star category by iUniverse, to the reviews I have received from Piers Anthony, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and the reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I feel vindicated in my assessment of my book as being of commercial quality, and it has inspired me to press on with the new novel I am working on without having to worry if it will get published or just shelved away in a drawer somewhere. And who knows, maybe some day I might be picked up by a traditional publisher and then I can write a blog post about my experiences from the other side of the fence.

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How I was Introduced to Dean Koontz

When you publish a book and start working on how to publicize it, one of the things they will tell you is to have a blog. Now I haven’t posted in a while, so recently, I was trying to think of some topics to write about, and while I have something I have been thinking about, I’m not ready to post it just yet. Then, as I was sitting at home on a cold and rainy night recently, (Hey, that sounds like the start of a story!) and browsing through some postings on Goodreads, I came across one that stated: “I love Cold Fire so very much:-)” Well this immediately got my attention as Cold Fire is one of my all-time favorites, so I clicked on the topic: “How did you get to know Dean Koontz?” As I read some of the stories there, it got me to thinking about how I was introduced to Dean Koontz, which then led me to a posting of my own:

I was introduced to Dean Koontz by a girl I was dating at the time who was reading Watchers. She gave it to me after she finished it and I loved it! At the time I was mostly into sci-fi and fantasy novels, but had started reading Stephen King. (The Stand and Firestarter are still two of my all-time favorites) After reading Watchers I was hooked. I read everything of Koontz’s I could get my hands on and even became a big collector of all of his old books. My all-time favorites of his are: Watchers, Lightning, Cold Fire, Sole Survivor, and From The Corner of His Eye. I have always wanted to be a writer, and had even written a fantasy novel in the past, but I became such a fan of Koontz that it inspired me to try writing thrillers similar to his, which eventually turned into my novel Shadow Dragon.

And just like that, without realizing what I was doing at the time, I had my next blog post.

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Shadow Dragon Update

In last month’s blog, I mentioned that I had e-mailed well-known science fiction and fantasy author, Piers Anthony, to thank him for a letter he sent me nearly 30 years ago and to request his address to send him a copy of my debut novel Shadow Dragon.

I am pleased to say that not only did he send me his address, but he also offered to read the book and give me an honest comment.  Needless to say, I quickly shipped it off and then began to check my e-mail every day, anxiously awaiting a reply from him.  I was rewarded just a couple of days later when he e-mailed me to inform me that he had received the book and that it looked interesting.  I was very grateful that he was courteous enough to let me know he had received the book, and then I began the waiting process again, anxiously waiting to hear back from him, but also afraid of the possibility that he would inform me that it just wasn’t any good.  You see, over that last several years I had become used to rejection as I continued to send the book out to numerous agents, only to get rejected time and time again.  One of the most frustrating responses I got was when I let the agents know the word count of the book, which is approximately 128,000 words, was that the book was just too long; publishers would never publish anything that long from a first time novelist and I would have to cut that down to about 80,000 words.  And that was before they had even read it!  Responses like that are what finally led me to the decision to self-publish the book through iUniverse.

So on Saturday morning, a little more than a week later, when I checked my e-mail and found a response from Piers Anthony I nervously opened it, expecting to hear the worst.  And this is what I found: (Warning, the review contains spoilers)

Here is a copy of the review of SHADOW DRAGON I will include in my
Jewel-Lye 2012 HiPiers column. I did enjoy the novel.

    I read Shadow Dragon, by Lance Horton. This is a science fiction horror
thriller self published at iUniverse, and is another example of the
inadequacy of Parnassus, the traditional publishing establishment. Because
this is a fully worthy novel. The author couldn’t get an agent? Couldn’t get
a publisher? No wonder sales are declining! The author wrote to me thirty
years ago, and I described the closed shop that traditional publishing tends
to be, designed more to keep newcomers out than to locate and promote the
best fiction. As old-timer Robert Moore Williams told me maybe 40 years ago,
the fat hogs have their snouts in the trough and they’re not about to let
any piglets get any swill. Nothing much has changed in the interim, except
for this: the advent of electronic publishing and affordable self publishing
is bypassing the limited trough and letting everyone else in. There are
those who hate that, but I am convinced that this is good for publishing,
because the readers want the best, not the best that’s on paid-for shelves
by fat hogs. With the Internet a reader can find just about anything,
ranging from abysmal to excellent, and this is a novel that needs finding.
The author says that the monster herein was inspired in part by my mantas in
Omnivore, and I can see bits of that inspiration, but that’s not the reason
I like this novel. It’s that it is well crafted, well developed, and
supremely compelling. Kyle is investigating multiple savage homicides in the
Montana backwoods. Carrie goes there because her beloved grandparents are
two of the victims. Neither is satisfied with the official explanations, and
indeed it turns out that the monsters of the forest are complemented by the
corporate monsters of the boardrooms, who are as ruthless in covering up
their awful errors as the monsters are in shedding blood. It seems that a
corporate plane crashed and something got loose, and innocent residents are
paying the price. By the time our protagonists come to grips with the deadly
forest monster, the corporate killer is on their trail. It’s a nice
interweaving of the elements, with a hint of romance. If you want a story
that will keep you nervous until the end, this is the one. It’s slightly out
of my genre, as I’m more into humorous fantasy, but this one held my
attention throughout.

He then pointed out a couple of typo’s and a grammatical error in the book, which I intend to fix in future editions, and then he finished it off with this:

But these are warts on Miss Universe. It’s a fine novel.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I don’t think I have come down from my high yet.

You can find the review of my book along with his review of the movie Prometheus on Piers Anthony’s Website at: http://hipiers.com/12july.html

 

 

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Shadow Dragon

In 1982, I was an 18 year old kid who wrote a letter to one of my favorite authors, Piers Anthony, informing him that I too wanted to become an author and asking him some questions about the business.  He was kind enough to respond with a letter giving me advice and I have kept that letter for almost 30 years now. (I have attached a copy of it here.)  One thing I find interesting is that in some respects, the publishing industry seems to be in a similar state today as it was back in 1982.

While it took almost thirty years, I recently had the pleasure of emailing Piers to thank him for his entertaining and inspiring novels, the advice he gave me in his letter, and to ask for his address so that I could send him a copy of my debut novel Shadow Dragon.

 

Piers Anthony Jacob

Dear Lance,

                I’m glad you like my books; there will be more appearing soon, Night Mare, the 6th Xanth novel. But you pose a difficult question for me. I was 19 when I started writing–and 28 when I made my first sale; that gives you a notion how difficult it can be to succeed. On the way there I got a college degree in writing.

                Today things may be worse than they were when I was breaking in. The nation is in a recession, and publishers are suffering, and many are closing down or selling out to other publishers. They want materials by proven sellers, and are avoiding beginners no matter how good they are. That means that if you wrote a fantasy novel exactly as good as one of mine, I could sell mine because I am known, and you are not known. So the odds are against you at the start. However, one publisher does consider materials by newcomers, and publishes some of it. This is DEL REY, who publishes all my fantasy. They would look at your novel if you sent it, but would not buy it unless they thought it was good enough–and very few novels are.

                But a handwritten novel—that’s another problem. I don’t like to have to say this, but it is true: you need to submit a typed novel (double-spaced lines, one side of the page, wide margins, and your name on every page) if you want any hope of having it even read. Publishers just won’t bother with handwritten manuscripts. I faced the same problem when I was in college; I solved it by learning to type two-finger on a typewriter my mother loaned me, keeping a personal diary. At first it took me half an hour to type a paragraph, but gradually, painlessly, I speeded up, until I was doing about 20 words a minute, after a semester or so. Don’t let them tell you have to learn touch-typing; two finger will do it. I typed two-finger for 20 years, and did my first 22 novels that way, before switching to touch on a whole new keyboard arrangement. And you know something else? That college diary turned out to be worth more than some of my novels, when I donated it to the Syracuse University Library Archives and had it appraised for tax purposes. About $5,000, as I remember. Because it shows the development of an (eventually) successful writer, you see. College is a good time to keep a personal, private record, because your life is expanding enormously then. You don’t have to call it a diary; I didn’t because it sounded like diarrhea. I called it my Log, as in a ship’s log. I didn’t do it to learn typing; I had kept it in pencil before. But it did teach me typing as an incidental benefit. If you like to write, you surely like to record your impressions of people and things and life, your hopes and fears and angers and loves. My Log ended when I got married; I had too much else to occupy me, then. So I recommend this to you, strange as it may seem, because it worked for me: get a cheap manual typewriter (I still use a manual one; it doesn’t quit when the power fails, and never breaks down) and type letter or private thoughts two-fingers; do this during the college year, and then by summer you will be fast and accurate enough to type your fantasy novel for submission to a publisher. But remember what I said about the odds being against you; be braced for disappointment. I never did sell my first novel, though now I have sold 40 novels. Best luck to you; you’ll need it.

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