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.