10/29/12

Is Traditional Publishing a Happily Ever After?

You may have read my post with the lovely author Erin Kern about her recent book deal with Grand Central Publishing after self-publishing her Trouble series.
That post received a LOT of attention and even ended up being reblogged by The Passive Voice. When I saw the comments oh PV about the other side of the publishing spectrum- going Indie AFTER being traditionally published, I knew that side needed to be heard as well. So, it is with pleasure that I welcome author Anthea Lawson to share her publishing journey.



When Laura asked me to write this post in order to keep the conversation going about different publishing models, I jumped at the chance. Why? Because I was a traditionally published author who’s now indie. I’ve seen both sides, and I wish I’d known more about what traditional publishing was really like before I joyfully signed on.


I don’t have years of experience in the trenches (I signed in 2007, and by 2009 was no longer under contract) but what I do have is a desire to help authors navigate the changing currents of publishing. For some people, pursuing traditional publishing will be a decent choice. But there are other, excellent options out there, from smaller publishers, to e-publishing houses, to a variety of indie and self-publishing options.


Do what’s best for you – but please try and make the most informed decisions you can.

“Once I get a contract with a NY publishing house, everything will be great.”

Every single trad-pubbed author I know has been treated poorly by their publishing houses. Every single one—and I know some top-selling NYT bestsellers all the way down through solid midlisters to the once bright-eyed debut authors. I’m not talking about diva-author behavior, but basic stuff like remembering to print your books the month they’re supposed to release, or neglecting to place your books in the major big-box retailers, thereby cutting your print run in half. Promising a big sale on your e-book, only to discount some other author’s book, instead. Finding out on their last day on the job that your editor is leaving the company. Changing a secondary character into a raccoon (true story, see Laura Resnik’s excellent book Rejection, Romance, and Royalties for unflinching stories of NY publishing). Or holding a publisher spotlight at a huge national conference and vowing that every author is important and their career nurtured, while simultaneously cutting 90% of the debut authors bought over the last two years.

Listen. NY publishing can make you a star (if you’re lucky), but it’s a corporate machine. If you understand that going in, you’ll be in better shape than a lot of the authors who are chewed up and spit out on the other side once their contracts are up.

“But now I’ll just be able to concentrate on writing.”

Think again. If you don’t cultivate a social media presence, your publisher won’t be happy. And an unhappy publisher means less chance of getting your contract renewed. Plus, if your debut sales are too low, they’ll drop you without a second glance. So you better believe you’ll be out there promoting, in all kinds* of ways. Oh, and don’t forget the revisions from your editor (if you get any, that is – mine were nonexistent), and the copyedits (hopefully you won’t get the copyeditor who tries to ‘clean up’ all your sentence fragments, especially in your dialogue), and the page proofs (where you discover that a big hunk of chapter fourteen is inexplicably missing). All due immediately upon receipt.

“My publisher will handle all the details.”

Being ‘taken care of’ by a publisher also means being at the mercy of their decisions, often with little or no input about your career and what their corporate agenda is doing to it. The cover for my debut book was sexy—and completely wrong for the Historical Romance genre I was writing in. At book signings, people still pick that title up and say, “Oh, you’re writing contemporary romance?” Well, no. It’s Victorian set, though I point out even in that era people were naked underneath their clothes. We laugh, and the browser wanders off, maybe taking a copy of the book with them, but still. It’s obvious the graphics department completely missed the mark with my debut book.

For the publisher, it’s one error, maybe a book or two they failed at. They can easily absorb the loss. For an author, your career is tanking, fast.

“But the publisher must like me, if they bought my books.”

Actually, no. They bought rights to an asset they hope will pan out. If it doesn’t, there are hundreds more authors lined up, waiting breathlessly to be ‘chosen.’ It’s all in the numbers. Despite being nominated for a major first-book award, and the fact that my second book wasn’t even out yet, my two-book contract was not renewed. Sales were lower than expected on the first book, through no fault of my own, and that was all they cared about. It was released in the worst month publishing ever had (October 2008, infamous for bookstores returning thousands of previously ordered books ‘for credit’ in order to place buys for the holiday season. See http://editorialass.blogspot.com/2008/11/crash-flow-or-what-went-wrong-in.html.) The book was given a cover that didn’t appeal to its target market. And the back blurb made the big no-no of mentioning the exotic locale setting. It seems marketing hadn’t gotten that memo either. (For an exotic locale historical romance that is completely coy about its setting, see Indiscreet by Carolyn Jewel. All but the first chapter is set in Syria, complete with harems and sheiks.)

“Surely traditional publishing isn’t all bad.”

There are still a few places where traditional publishing excels. Wide print distribution (though shrinking). A big marketing machine (for select titles—ideally you want to get a large advance so that you qualify).  Foreign rights sales (some authors benefit hugely here, others don’t so much – it’s luck of the draw).

After being dropped by my publisher, I tried for the better part of a year (along with my agent) to get another contract. We came close, but no bites. The only thing offered up was an invitation to write a short story for The Mammoth Book of Regency Romance, which I had to convince my agent was worth taking, despite the tiny payment. She and I parted ways not long after.

In hindsight, I’m glad I couldn’t sell another novel into NY. Not being under contract freed me to write an award-winning YA Urban Fantasy series, plus I discovered I love writing short-form fiction. To date, I’ve self-published four romance short stories and novellas. Ironically, my best-selling short story (released October 2011) is just about to equal the advance I was paid for my debut, traditionally published novel.

“But I need the recognition only a traditional publisher can give me.”

Step back for a minute, and think about who you’re truly writing for. It’s not the NY agents and editors. It’s the people you hope will find and read and love your books. Those are the people who matter, and those are the people you ultimately need recognition from. Sure, traditional publishing might help you reach those readers. A friend of mine currently has six million copies of her books in print. She’s published through three different houses, and works like a maniac, but she’s reaching readers, no question. Another acquaintance is selling thirty-five thousand (yes 35k) copies of her self-published titles a month. You can achieve your dream in all kinds of ways, but think about what it comes down to. The readers. If a traditional publisher is the best way to get you to your readers, then go for it. But don’t discount all the other options out there.

For authors who have recently signed contracts with NY publishers, congratulations. Keep your wits about you, and remember that you have to advocate for yourself. Enjoy the ride, and I’m sure in another couple years you’ll have all kind of stories to tell the newbies with stars in their eyes. I wish you the best.

*book-blog tours during release month (often set up by the author, yet still an unspoken requirement from the publisher), buying ads in places like RT (if you write Romance), purchasing your own business cards, bookmarks, and other promotional items, setting up your own in-store signings and launch parties, maintaining an up-to-date website, writing other material for the publisher like an ‘author’s note’ or special interview, making and paying for your own book trailer (if you want one), keeping up a presence on FB and Twitter, running give-away contests… the list goes on.
Regency as Anthea Lawson

YA as Anthea Sharp
  


Okay, my friends- it's your turn. I want to hear your side of this fantastic debate! Do you have a story you'd like to get out about going Indie after being traditionally published? Or are you in negotiations with a traditional publisher after some Indie success? Let's hear it!

32 comments:

  1. Great article. I'm still hoping for that big publishing contract :) but working my ass off in the meantime going the indie route. It's important for writers to be aware that no matter which side of publishing fence you land on, you'll be doing most of your own marketing and promotion anyway.

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    1. Well said, Emma! I'm thinking there is more than one right way, but the key is just learning from other's journeys!

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  2. This is wonderful advice!! I currently have a 2-year plan. I will try to get traditionally published in the next two years, while I'll also get acquainted and well-versed in the self-publishing industry, make new friends in this wonderful social network, and learn how to market myself. I think it's a good plan. In all, I think we really need to be thankful and rejoice that we have all these options today. It really is about the readers. I want people to read what I wrote, to be affected by what I wrote, and to love my characters as much as I do :)

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    1. Oh, Megan. I love this: I want people to read what I wrote, to be affected by what I wrote, and to love my characters as much as I do :)

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  3. Excellent article, Anthea! Thanks for always being so forthcoming about your experiences and helping both new and established writers make the decisions that are right for them. (Disclaimer: Yes, Anthea and I are good friends and watching her journey firsthand absolutely influenced my own choices! I am forever grateful for her candor. She's saved me tons of aggravation and heartache.)

    Without the front row seat to observe your career path, and other select authors in my/our local groups, I know I would not be where I am now, an indie-only author with three titles up, and the fourth coming soon. I was firmly set on the traditional path, NY stars dancing in my eyes. But as the industry changed, as your personal NY situation developed, as those other authors became more vocal about their own experiences, it felt like the proverbial veil was lifted from my eyes. It was a painful education for everyone, including me, a writer on the sidelines. But optimism crept back from watching writers like you pick yourselves up, explore your options, and forge a brave new path. Joy rose as those new paths led to creative control, thriving careers and measurable success in increased sales and awards. I am so freaking proud of and happy for you, and everyone who is embracing this path and finding their readers.

    Do I still pine for the "glory" of a New York contract? Sometimes. It's hard to give up a dream held for more than twenty years. But the dream doesn't resemble much about the reality these days, so I will keep moving ahead on the indie path. My plan still includes room for the possibility of some small-press projects, and I have a select few projects that I'm reserving the option of shopping to New York eventually, but if that doesn't pan out--they don't want the projects or don't offer the right contract terms--I'll absolutely put them up myself. It was really nerve wracking the first time, but not anymore! Hitting the "publish" button gives me such a charge now. Knowing I'm in control of my destiny and connecting with *readers*, always the ultimate goal, is one of the best feelings ever.

    Best of luck to you, Anthea, as you continue your own journey, and thank you, always, for helping me with mine. You and your fabulous books are the awesome-sauce!

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    1. Thanks for giving us a little background of Anthea's and your story! I think each book needs to do what is best to get that book into the hands of a reader. What is right for one book doesn't always mean it's right for every book you write!

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  4. It is good hearing from the traditional side of things. It is not always greener on the other side. There are benefits to both forms of publishing, and negatives to both.

    Thanks for the post.

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    1. Definitely good to look at all sides!!!

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  5. Whoa, what an eye-opening and informative article! Given that she's experienced both sides of publishing, Anthea's comments really made me think about my strategy in the future. Thanks so much for sharing this with your readers! : )

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    1. As long as you learn as much as you can, you are in a great position to make a great decision for YOU Diane, my friend!

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  6. I don't think the rose colored glasses would have come off if I hadn't seen the way a bestselling friend has been treated by his publisher. It's a joke.

    I'm beginning to understand more and more why authors go indie... and why there's such a big readership for indie. The quality is out there and prices! I'm looking at $10, $12, $14 eBooks going, 'I don't have this kind of money to spend.'

    Thank you Laura and Anthea.

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    1. I was thinking the same thing, Nikki. I buy several books a week so anything above 4.99 and I'd be in trouble!!

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  7. I came here twice through PV and now I'm putting you on my Google reader - I love your balanced approach to covering developments. That's how we learn the best - learn from both sides so that we go into things fully armed with knowledge instead of false hopes or expectations. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks ES. I'm learning so much, too. I appreciate being on your reader!

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  8. I self-published first, because it was a novella, and then was signed on with a small publisher. I adore my small publisher. They treat their authors with respect. I think the small/mid-size publishers have a good shot in this industry.

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    1. Thanks Michelle. It's great to see you here. I'm excited to have Jenn Nixon coming on soon to give the perspective of a small press author. There are many great paths to getting your book into readers' hands.. which is what it's all about!

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  9. Great post, ladies. Lots to think about, and I really appreciate Anthea's honesty.

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  10. Great article! I, too, have been there, done that, been kicked to the curb, and now I've gone rogue--er, indie. Sure, the advances were great in the trad publishing world. I had to keep pinching myself, over and over, because I'd finally achieved my dream of publication with one of the big guys. But there was a dark side to traditional publishing that I wasn't prepared for. When my contract wasn't renewed after six books (they blamed it on Wal-Mart), I thought it was a disaster. Now, I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I took a couple of years off before I started writing again, and I've only been at the indie thing for a few months, but so far, although I'm not getting rich, I'm happier as an indie author than I ever was as a traditionally published one. I can write what I want to write, not what my publisher/editor/agent tells me to write. I recently self-published an early book that would never have flown with a trad publisher because it's about--gasp--rock musicians! The kiss of death, according to the "rules" of publishing. Yet I've never gotten this kind of reader response to any book I published traditionally. The glowing reviews keep rolling in. That never happened when I was writing to the so-called market. I so agree that it's the readers who matter. Indie publishing is definitely a roller-coaster ride. But when I'm feeling sorry for myself because today, I only sold X number of books, an e-mail or review from a reader, praising one of my books, reminds me of why I'm doing this. I've spent my life loving books, and now I'm giving back some of that, and it's the best feeling in the world. GO, INDIE!!!

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  11. Being traditionally published was a long-standing dream of mine that finally came true 20 years ago. The three books in my deal were released fairly close together to encourage sales, but when the second book didn't meet publisher expectations, it and the first were called out of print just as the third was appearing in bookstores. It was the perfect recipe for killing a name. Now I'm indie and happy, though getting rights back from that pesky penguin has proved difficult. Thanks Anthea and Laura for a wonderful article.

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  12. After Harlequin, I told myself I'd never again accept a sub-standard contract. When the next one came along -- from a very well-respected (print) small press -- I had to bite the bullet. Could I live up to my principles?

    After a long chat with hubby, we made the decision that I would go indie, with the recognition that it would take 3-5 years before we would start to see any gains. (From the reading I'd done on self-publishing.) I've just passed the Year 1.25 mark and am still committed to this strategy. We'll see whether it pays off or not in 2014! LOL

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  13. Laura - very interesting article. Love her candor about the whole process. How helpful for other indie authors. I really think that NOW, publishing traditionally comes down to a very, very individual choice.

    Like Kaz said, it is about what is right for her. On the other hand, some of my friends (Juliette Sobanet, Dina Silver, Kimberly Kincaid, and JT Geissinger) are being traditionally pubbed and seem very happy.

    xx, Lauren

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  14. Just added you to my Google HomePage, too!!! I love that we both love SPARKLES!!!! xx

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  15. Fantastic article! Thank you Anthea for the brutal honesty. I think you hit all my greatest fears of the traditional publishing route in one article. It's no wonder the trad folks are working hard at stigmatizing folks who go the Indie route.

    Laura keep this series going. It's great...even for the non-romance writers in the audience.

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  16. Amen to all of that! I feel like I've been lucky to have such solid advice from those who've gone traditional before me. Indie just sounds so right for me, has from the beginning. And how wonderful to be living in this time when I can do it! I was raised on a typewriter! And now I've got my own imprint and publishing my own books. Who'd a thought?

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  17. I finished my first book in the early nineties and did all the research on publishers and agents and - and - and it just didn't seem like a good use of time. I could spend my time writing OR marketing to a group that couldn't consistently pick out or make winners (every list of big winners from King to Rowling went through 25-50 rejections. "We know what sells" - no, data doesn't prove that.). Just a poor business case among an entrenched industry. So I finished my degrees (engineering, mba) worked and went on with things, writing for fun and myself when the muse struck. I had some inkling that things could change by the late nineties but no one had cracked the market yet.

    It wasn't until I saw the industry fracture with Amazon's entry of eReaders and their alternative approach to writers that I jumped in. I never considered traditional publishing. The traditional publisher replacements will be companies like Amazon that started in a different industry or the very small traditional-like publishers that took a different approach that realized where the content originates.

    Because writers create the content that readers want. Everything else in between is non-value-added and needs to, and is, shrinking in importance. The remaining questions are how long can Amazon keep its affection for writers and how long before the next little business eats Amazon with a new business model? In this kind of thing that company is already out there experimenting at the fringe - so watch for it. For me, I'm keeping at writing, independently.


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  18. Wow. I feel like the rose-colored glasses just got yanked off my face and the world outside is far from Wonderland. Anthea has given me a lot to think about.

    I have already been considering indie publishing after getting two of my novels repeatedly rejected for not being "mainstream enough" or "failing to hold interest" and many far less pleasurable phrases (this though my two groups of alpha and beta readers have highly praised both novels and begged for more). But I've still been stubbornly holding on to traditional publishing. Looking at it the way Anthea put it, I think I *have* been waiting for the official recognition. When, really, all I want is to get my stories to readers, to let them be whisked away for a few hours into the worlds I love so much.

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  19. The only thing I regret about not getting that contract with a publishing house is walking into a book store and seeing my book on the self. I got over that real fast when I realized e-publishing whether self published, small print published or big house published is the wave of the future (and I received that first deposit from amazon.com)

    I want to make a living at writing - but I know I'll be too scared to give up my day job anytime soon - not get rich, not be extrav in my spending, but be able to stay at home in my pj's and up all night listening to the voices in my head. I want to be paid for doing what I love - isn't that what a dream job is? And writing is a job, a very hard job. With the added responsibilities of getting your name out there - it's a very time consuming job. And like me most writers are working at a day job. Unless I missed something there is still only 24 hours in a day and they haven't issued me my superwoman card yet.

    But you've got to do. I write with a partner and I told her the other day when she was feeling discouraged that you have to Write. One. Word. At. A. Time. See? that was six words you didn't know you had in you.

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  20. Excellent post, but it's so sad that traditional publishing has lost its way and can only see the big bucks. By focusing purely on the profits, they've let valuable assets (authors) slip through their fingers.

    Julia

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  22. It is good to see some updates on traditional publishing. Everything in the world has pros and cons both. World is progressed to modernization so most of the things have changed.

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