Digital Publishing?

Or what are you waiting for?

Consider this:

What are the odds of the average aspiring writer to first land an agent, then have that agent land a publishing deal, and then have that publisher produce a hardback copy of the new author’s book?  That is the dream that originally drove most of us still unpublished novelists.  How much time does this take once your manuscript is finished?  Up to a year to find an agent, another possible year to find a publisher, and at least another year to get an accepted manuscript printed and in stores.

Where will these books be sold besides in online mega-stores like Amazon or B&N?  Borders is gone.  Barnes and Noble brick and mortar stores are struggling.  Are there any independents going to be around?  Increasingly bestsellers are being sold at big box stores like WalMart and Costco.  New authors, mid-listers and genre writers need not apply.  I’ve read enough about diminishing advances, publishers’ insistence on owning and controlling all rights, including e-rights, forever, and other practices to worry me.

I originally had the dream of seeing my books in bookstores.  Some part of me aspires to that still.  But, what that dream really means is that I want readers for my stories.  If I can put my stories into the hands of the readers via a convenient and timely mechanism, whatever you want to call it, then why wouldn’t I take the opportunity while the barriers to entry are still low?  What is that old adage, “Fortune favors the bold?”

Yes, the whole industry is in flux and questions remain, but such transitions also create opportunities for those willing to take advantage.  If we wait too long until things “settle” then many windows may close, some permanently.

I can’t predict the future, but I can predict that I’d rather start selling my novel the day it’s finished and develop a readership than finish my novel and wait up to three years for publication IF my book is deemed worthy of print by the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses.

What of the risk?  Won’t self-publishing taint my reputation and cause traditional publishers to avoid me like a pariah?

What is the real risk for aspiring/unknown/unpublished authors?

We don’t have contracts that a slighted publisher can cancel.  We don’t have agents who try to keep us traditional so they can get their 15% commission.  We don’t have a reputation to harm by writing and publishing an unsuccessful book.  If it doesn’t sell, is our career doomed?


Of course not.

A book that doesn’t sell is just a book that doesn’t sell.  Write a better next book and sell more.  Write an even better third book and sell even more.  Sell enough and more opportunities present.  If that concern is too high, use a pen name.  Many famous and successful authors have used pseudonyms.

I don’t presume to advise anyone on the correct path.  I haven’t gone far down either path to have much experience to share.  But, I like the options, I like the potential, and I’ve waited too long in my own burgeoning career to keep waiting for either the industry to shake out or for the snail’s pace of the traditional process.

Who cares the most about my future writing career?  An agent?  An editor?  The board of directors at a big publishing house?  Or me?

Easy answer.

What about Amazon?  Aren’t they the big bad wolf?

I don’t care about Amazon.  I’m not pro-Amazon or anti-publishers.  Amazon digital publishing does currently offer the widest possible customer/potential reader base and that potential is tough to ignore.  And ultimately, any successful business needs customers.  Whether we like it or not, a writer is a business owner and the products are the written word.

I’ve had some recent conversations with those who have concerns about digital publishing and in many ways those comment threads felt like a few writers sitting in a coffee shop trying to convince each other of the best path to publication.  There are many valid points on both sides, some more emotional and less founded in evidence or fact than others.  I think we actually agree on more points than we disagree.  That is the beauty of such conversations.  All points can be explored and considered and every side of a topic can be covered.

Ultimately, the paths are many and each writer’s journey will be story until itself.  We must each decide our course based on the winds, weather, seaworthiness of our vessel and the capabilities of our captain and crew.  We must navigate towards the goal we have in mind.

Remember, though, when comparing traditional publishing to self/indie publishing,  we can’t really compared traditional publishers directly to Amazon digital publishing because Amazon isn’t really a publisher for digital indie published works, they are a distributor.

The author is actually the publisher and that is a different business model.  Author as publisher requires new and different skills and demands on the author’s time and that path is not for everyone.  Although many famous and historical authors self-published (as was not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th century), the latter 20th century publishing culture turned self-publishing into a negative connotation dubbing the process “vanity” publishing.  That culture has changed and the technology is now available for an author to write and publish an eBook for literally no cash investment, if he/she can do all the publishing tasks themselves.  This again a valid and increasingly respected path for writers.  Not a better path, another path.

What about the quality of work?  Don’t writer’s need an editor to maximize their stories?

The quality of work published varies with both traditional publishing and indie publishing.  The overall level of quality is arguably better with traditional publishing due to over a century of professionals investing their careers into the industry.  But even that doesn’t guarantee quality.

How would you as author feel if your big break into traditional publishing came with assignment of either a neophyte editor or musical chairs of editors, each less invested in your story than the previous?  I don’t have data to support, just enough anecdotal evidence to validate that it does happen.  This partially invested editor navigates the publishing process poorly and your book gets a rushed copy edit, a cover you hate, a title change you don’t agree with and publication with little or now marketing push.  Your book is published, it’s on a few bookshelves?  But now what?  How do you sell enough to earn out your tiny advance?  Especially in genre fiction?  This isn’t the only possibility, many authors have great experiences, but getting through the gatekeepers as new/unknown author doesn’t get you the attention of the publisher’s A team, either.

But aren’t self-published eBooks mostly garbage?

With the low barriers to entry with digital publishing, dreck will be published by authors who are not ready and haven’t honed their craft enough.  To me, poor sales and poor reviews are in some ways more timely and more useful feedback for a prematurely published author than several months worth of form rejection letters from agents or editors.  With digital, you can take the book down, rewrite it, re-title it, recover it and repost it.  With little or no cost.  If you hate the title or cover of your traditionally published book, good luck getting it changed.

As David Gaughran espouses in his “Let’s Get Digital” eBook, even self-published authors should hire a professional editor to raise the story quality publishable levels.

In fact, anyone even remotely considering self-publishing eBooks via Amazon or other outlets would be wise to read Gaughran’s entire book on the subject.  I’ve read it twice and it paints a crystal clear picture of both why and how to publish digitally.

My goal is not to debate with those who really want to follow the traditional publishing route, but to counter what I perceive as a wariness and caution by many writers and bloggers of the digital publication process and the current players.  I went through that cycle of doubt awhile back and can no longer remember the exact moment I decided to go digital.

Actually I do.

Almost a year ago, a member of my writer’s group came back from a conference and reported to us that editors and agents were communicating to new authors that fantasy manuscripts over 125K words were no longer being considered.  I confirmed this with an email to the editor of Pyr books.  I was at 90K words and only halfway through an epic fantasy novel meant for a trilogy.  The estimated total would be 180K plus.  I spent ten months on this manuscript and was now being told the market wouldn’t accept it, regardless of the quality.  (For a great analysis of word count for epic fantasy, see this post on The Undiscovered Author.)

So, I put my novel on hold and went back to the drawing board, drafted a prequel that would be a shorter, more compact introduction to the trilogy (in the same way The Hobbit is a shorter, more linear, simpler story that introduces Middle Earth and key players).

To my shock and surprise, after using the Snowflake Method as advised by Randy Ingermanson, my scene list and outline estimated my supposedly shorter prequel to be 175K words to tell the story right.

It was then back in February of this year, I think , that I decided the books could be as long as I wanted if I published digitally.  So, having made the decision, I started researching how to do that successfully.

What does that all mean?

Consider my thoughts a presentation of the concerns and fears some aspiring writers have about the current traditional publishing model and the great opportunity I see for creating, as an author, my own a publishing company and distributing my works via available channels, Amazon, B&N PubIt, Smashwords, Overdrive, and possibly LightningSource for printed copies of my books.

I like the future, as uncertain as it may be.  I will have more wisdom and insight once I’ve actually gone through the process, but for now, I’m willing to try.  I feel the risk is worth the attempt right now.  That may change if the whole thing shakes up again, but for now, this new model seems to be an open window.

A window I’m willing to not only look through, but climb through.

Are you?


7 responses to “Digital Publishing?

  • m.ramirez

    An author is two things, an artist and a businessman (or woman). An artist who is not realistic as to the market and how to create a product for sale, then the artist is destined to starve. I know most aspiring writers only wish to write and do nothing else. That’s just naivete. eBooks are constantly evolving and it’s a market with tons of potential. Amazon is now selling their Kindle for 80 bucks (the cheapest one). The iPad is setting record sales and one of its major selling points is it’s an eReader. Now there’s the Amazon Fire for 200 bucks. Smartphones have Kindle and Nook applications.

    The question isn’t whether or not to publish digitally. The real question is: Why wouldn’t you publish digitally? That’s where your customers live now.

    There will always be a market for print books, but that market is quickly narrowing making it harder for non-established authors to break in.

    You can always get your words in print though….self publishing is still available. In either case an author must still manage resources and embrace the business side of things.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      Totally agree. Before the digital revolution, you had to write books to put your stories in the hands of readers. Now, with eReaders, tablets, smartphones, and reading apps for PC, the customers are asking for and need digital content.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Both traditional and digital self-publishing are viable routes, but as long as the author knows the process, expectations, and commitment needed, they can be successful in either.

    I do see that more and more customers though will look for books in digital form and than demand creates a need for more digital publishing.

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    As I’ve said before, I agree with a lot of these points – though I don’t think digital self-publishing is for me. As pointed out in a comment above, there is one major factor that influences the success of a book that I can’t replicate on my own: and that is marketing.

    I can control, to within the confines of my current skill level, the quality of my writing – and when my skills aren’t up to it I can improve them. That’s one of the most important factors in a book’s success. But Marketing is another, and effective marketing costs money – and money is something that I am not so replete with that I’m looking for ways to burn it. Although often traditional publishers these days fail to follow up the books they buy with fully supportive marketing campaigns, that’s still one of the biggest things I can put in their “pro” column. Even with tight cash flows, they still have access to greater marketing resources than I have, alone. If I can get them to believe in me and my work – an uphill battle, to be sure – then my work stands a real chance at success.

    That, more than anything, is why I’m still hopeful to develop a career in the traditional publishing field. Because whatever else happens, it is entirely unlikely I’ll ever have the resources necessary to successfully market my books by myself.

    That said: if there were a way for me to acquire those resources to do this myself – and especially if there were way to digitally self-publish without relying almost solely on Amazon sales – then I would definitely much more seriously consider this approach, as I definitely like the “pros” of digital self-publishing that involve a greater degree of artistic freedom. But I would sorely, sorely miss the chance to do a huge hard-cover physical distribution. I really prefer that format.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      I agree that taking over the role of publisher adds many more business hats to the writer’s head, and marketing is a key to sales success.

      Again, these are decision each writer must make when weighing the cost of services provided by a publisher in the form of advance + lower royalties versus no advance + higher royalties for those who become their own publishers.

      Another thought is that flat fee services can be found for editorial/formatting/cover art/marketing for indie publishers instead of the advance/royalty model used by traditional publishers. This requires some capital and may not be for everyone. But as with starting any business, often some capital is required to get started.

    • travellerzero

      I’m self-published and I completely agree the marketing side of it can be overwhelming. Some have had great success with it, but I would not include myself in that lot. Still, every interview I do and each review I secure feels all the better, because I know it’s a product of my own hard work. It has slowed down my writing somewhat, but I’m still producing.

      Another thing to consider is traditional publishers don’t market most of the books they’re putting out. Honestly, how often do you see any title that isn’t AAA advertised? The main thing they’re offering is circulation, availability in stores. My eBooks are available through Amazon, Barnes & and through Smashwords in a variety of formats. The only thing missing is people knowing where to find them.

      A guy in my writing group who is a tremendous writer recently spent $1200 to attend a conference with his girlfriend. He made some contacts and got his manuscript into some agents’ hands…and he’s no closer to getting signed than he was before. I’d much rather take that money (or a tiny fraction of it) and spend it on self-promotion.

      All that being said, I’ve been published for a few months and I’ve made enough for a decent Chinese dinner (with some leftovers for the next day). I’m not about to quit my day job, but I have readers now, something I never had when I was waiting to hear back from an agent (I’m not even sure they ever read my stuff). I’m in control of my writing destiny, for good or for bad.

      • Mark J. Taylor

        Thanks for the visit and the comments. It’s always informative to hear from writer’s a little further down the path than myself. I agree that wearing multiple publishing/writing hats takes more work, but I too think it will be worth it.

        And just think, get enough readers and the publishers will come looking for you. Wouldn’t that be a switch?

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Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

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The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.