elizabethmccoy ([personal profile] elizabethmccoy) wrote2015-02-17 12:38 pm
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I have feels about Reach and Profit

So I wrote this a while back on my personal blog, and because of the oddities of having a personal and a "professional" DW account, didn't crosspost it. Well, I'm going to do so now, with some minor modifications.

Okay, so there was a thing that haikujaguar on livejournal posted, about representation as authors in fiction, and how it felt like this should be a non-issue -- that people should just self-publish and do an end-run around the gatekeepers. (You can probably find the post and she may let me link to it (or she may tell me to occlude the name), but for Bast's sake, if you comment there, be good. Because the TL;DR form is I think she's 100% right on one axis of the argument, though I disagree with her on another axis.) So anyway, I had a mass of feels which I inflicted on her. And which I should probably put here, because it goes really meta in spots. (And now she can delete all my comments if she wants! ^_^ )

...um, Person Who Is Traditionally Published Soon (Now!), whom I refer to, tell me if you'd like me to A: edit this in any way on those aspects, and B: delete the other comments and just reference back to here. I was trying to avoid saying anything specific!

I have, as is said these days, feels.

Feel #1: Self-publishing is absolutely a way for anyone to give a shot at something that is not mainstream marketable -- whether it's some weird cross-genre thing (Hello, Deep-Fantasy-Worldbuilding + Romance plot!), and/or a weird length (E.g., a novella or novelette -- or 125,000+ words), and/or a niche genre, and/or the author somehow does not appeal to the gatekeepers. The bars to entry? Well, if you can format a submission to an agent or editor, you can format for the Smashwords Meatgrinder and Amazon. O:p The bar to entry is having art that does not make would-be readers scream and run. (On the other hand, that bar is low -- there are a huge number of out-of-copyright books which have nothing but a reasonably attractive font on a non-clashing plain or subtly textured background, often with a couple of borders on it. E.g., http://www.amazon.com/Thuvia-Maid-Mars-Edgar-Burroughs-ebook/dp/B0084BMPC8/ , https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/thuvia-maid-of-mars/id507071544 , https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/beasts-of-tarzan/id915782627 , or https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/tales-of-space-and-time/id511012684 . Those aren't optimal covers, but neither are they going to show up on Worst Cover sites.)

Feel #2: So far, the economies of scale are still with traditional publishing. POD prices are still coming down, but mass-market paperback books (the small ones, not the trade paperbacks) at mass-market paperback prices... are still traditional publishing-tied, since they can afford to print 2,500 books at a time. The bar to entry is, as in the past, the gatekeeping editors.

Feel #3: Advertising. This is where US traditional publishing and self-publishing can be neck-in-neck, since the last time I was at a con, there was a trad-published author literally doing the "yeah, get your friends and family to seed your books with some reviews on Amazon" thing. So it's not like she had a lot of faith in her publisher pulling in strangers to leave non-prompted reviews. On the other hand, I have a friend whose first book will be coming out early next year in the UK, and it seems that TorUK is actually doing a certain amount of advertising on their end. [[By now, it has come out, and they not only did a lot of promotional stuff on various blogs and Twitter, but also did an ebook sale at Amazon UK which had her as #3 in one of the larger Fantasy categories -- with #1 and #2 being Neil Gaimen books. So, thus far, they seem to be supportive.]] This may be observer-bias, as I follow her tweets and talk to her online and therefore know what her publisher is doing for her.

(One of those things is sharpening the focus of the book towards the genre it's falling into. Which is something I'd never cope with from an outside source on my selling-best-for-me books -- but I can also see why the editor is requesting those revisions on what's already a pretty darn good book. Do all the revision-requests make it "better"? Debatable. But they do improve focus on a very specific audience.

Meanwhile, lest anyone say that self-publishers don't get revision requests... Well, a smart self-publisher listens to the beta-readers, and solicits feedback. I knew that Crucible, which introduces the Empire's "third gender," was going to have resonances with certain groups of real-world people, and I solicited feedback from certain people about whether the resonances were in ways that were hurtful or not. So I was revising content based on "editorial direction" as well. O:>)

So even though I don't personally have a foot in both camps, I can see where both camps have strengths. Primarily, the strength of tradpub is that one's MMPB books will be more affordable than POD (if this changes, LET ME KNOW!) -- and because one is a member of the gatekept, the within-genre competition for New MMPB will be at a known level. (Yes, this is simplifying.) If your goal is fame, or a Hugo award (same thing...), then you want to be traditionally published at this juncture in time.

For that matter, if your goal is to inspire readers in some way, then you want to be traditionally published, and ideally in hardcover -- that gets you into libraries, that gets you into bookstores, and that eventually gets you into used-book stores (if only when the MMPB comes out), in quantities that are more likely to reach your target audience.

If you feel that your books are most likely to inspire a minority group of readers who are not likely to have A: access to e-readers, and/or B: access to PODs at new-book prices, then you want to be traditionally published. At this juncture in time. For the same reason as above -- libraries, bookstores at MMPB prices, and used-book stores.

But flip this around. Most tradpub authors -- like most self-pub authors -- are not going to make a living off their books. But if what you are after is whatever money you can get, then self-pub is more likely to give you something, for two reasons.

1: Nothing will make money if it is only sitting on your hard drive. The Story Fairy will not show up and leave a quarter under your laptop, but even the worst story ever will occasionally get a sale from "I gotta see this trainwreck for myself" spectators. (...sell through no-returns places, and sell cheap, if you're writing a trainwreck.)

2: Self-publishing gets a larger chunk of the cover-price, between 35% and around 80%, depending on where you sell. This means a self-publisher has to sell fewer copies in order to make some quite tidy amounts.

So if your goal is money, then you have two options: be one of the blockbuster traditionally-published authors (e.g., Scalzi, George R.R. Martin, maybe Sir Terry Pratchett), or self-publish and see what you can get. (Tip: if you write fast, write fast. A quintillion books selling at 2.99, even if just a few a day, add up! ...sweet stars but I wish I could write fast. p_q )

And then there's a final goal, which is freedom, where self-publishing is almost certain to win hands-down. (Though, as always, read contracts, blah blah blah.)

Yeah, I probably should have run over to my LJ. I see that now. This is a risk of being a pantser. *sigh*

So, to actually address the whole point of [haikujaguar's] post (...I write long...), I'm going to say that if the goal is Making The Most Money, then [she] is right. Hands down. Self-publishing allows one to go straight to the readers, and say, "Here I am!" with whatever marketing one wishes to do (whether as a minority of some kind or as a genre-author or whatever).

If the goal is fame, I think tradpub has an edge -- but there's always a chance of catching attention with self-pub. See also Wool. See, for what it's worth, 50 Shades of Gray.

If the goal is Reaching Others, though, I'm going to disagree (hopefully respectfully!) -- traditional publishing currently has the edge, and I'm really not sure how to change that without dismantling more than the publishing industry! The sheer economics of scale that permit certain prices of MMPBs and the industry of used-bookstores... The issues of getting libraries to carry a hardback (and they do still prefer hardbacks, in my experience), when they're overworked enough that vetting for basic skills (spelling, punctuation, formatting) is hard and they can really only buy based on a limited number of soundbites. Eventually the economies of scale may collapse and then it'll be more of a free-for-all, but I'm suspicious that it won't be for a lot longer than some people think. (I can only hope that POD becomes cheap enough that used-book stores will be able to transmute to "used books and POD-printing" stores.)

This means that yes, if the goal is to reach minorities through fiction, then representation still matters, and that fight still matters, hugely. Finding self-worth can be hard for anyone, and when fiction has a character one identifies with, it can really help. (Honestly, I probably didn't give up on the concept of healthy relationships existing... because of fiction. Not like I had an example of that at home, y'know?)

Self-publishing is an important tool in that fight, though; the ability to point and say, "Look, this does TOO sell!" is one way to get publishers to lumber around, walrus-like, and take notice. (And self-publishing is a way to reach some people, if on a more limited scope. Which means sometimes it's time to stop using a given story as a battering ram, and use a different one, in one's personal career. Self-publish the old story and hope it will matter to the smaller potential audience. Perhaps it will catch fire and kick in the tradpub door that way. Self-pub is no longer doom.)

I think it vastly behooves a would-be author to know what they're looking for. And if it's reaching people, not to diss those of us who choose to make money instead. (Fiction helps pay for our gracious host's coffee! and more important things in her life! and my mom's mortgage for a couple of months!) Or those of us who prefer the freedom to publish weird stuff without it being revised into a tight niche or edited down for wordcount (if it's accepted at all, which it probably wouldn't be), or who mistrust current tradpub contracts.

(Or those of us who have permission to publish quasi-fanfiction; my short SF stories include background concepts lifted 100% from Steve Jackson Games, and I have permission from SJ to make money off them in self-pub and small press. Not so sure he'd be keen on me making a deal with Tor! ^_^)

Basically, we gotta know what we're talking about on the issue. Fame/"authorial reach" and money are intertwined in tradpub. They're much less-so in self-pub. Authorial reach/fame is impacted by gatekeepers. Making money is much less-so, if at all, in self-pub.

And not being really firm on which one we're talking about is likely to result in people talking past each other in painful ways. O:(

Then I replied to a comment:

I would say this falls into the category of "if it's not going to be accepted by a gatekeeper, get it out there any way you can so that at least some people will be able to access it." Which is a reason that can work both for profit-priority and reach-priority. But I don't think that one can talk coherently about what her (or any author's) business-plan is/should be without knowing the answer to the following:

(...note that I am not actually insisting you either answer these or discuss business plan! I'm sort of springboarding to the meta-level of talking about talking about business-plans.)

1: Is one writing and publishing for the money? (I don't mean that in the "selling out" way, but in the sense of where the priorities lie. There is no shame for prioritizing allocation of one's energies to supporting oneself and one's family. Me, I'm writing for the money, in part because I know I'm not really mass-market appeal. Too long, too different, too niche.) If that's where the priority lies, keep doing more of that.

2: Is one writing to, e.g., give teens role models or validation? If so, self-publishing might be a step in the direction of, "I have a platform, I have people who will read this and sales-figures to back up my assertions, and you are the agent/editor I have deigned to offer a manuscript to, in order to reach more people in mass market paperback form." Basically, the "Look, this DOES TOO sell" maneuver; for this option, keep doing more to build and maintain the readership, but also start picking targets for manuscripts, and have a few manuscripts which will cycle through agents/publishers.

And the ever-present 3: Spoons, as the term goes. How many are available? When one has only so much energy, one has to allocate it according to one's ability and needs. Sometimes one can only save as many starfish as one can reach, walking on the beach; sometimes one is driven to build a Cat-in-the-Hat Starfish-Retrieval Device that will pitch many more of them out to sea after they've been stranded at high tide. Sometimes someone can do both, or start by trying one and winding up doing the other.

The thing is, if someone is very concerned with reaching people, and is getting making money advice, they're going to be upset even if they can't verbalize why. Meanwhile, the people who are all for making money as the first priority are likely to feel that reaching people advice is, at best, full of hidden and questionable assumptions. (Which it is! It's assuming that the priority isn't what the asker is asking!)

So... people giving making money advice (which is likely to lean to self-publishing unless you're Lady Gaga and maybe even then) are likely to be making very good, cogent points, and are going to be hurt by people going, "Well, you're special, I can't possibly do that because I don't have the Magical Birthmark, so there's no way I could get your readership." It's like offering someone a hand up and having it slapped away. It feels like the person is going for the unrealistic "I want a stroke of luck RIGHT NOW that will get me tons of money."

But what it might be is the unspoken, maybe unrealized, goal of: "I want a bigger platform and I don't have the spoons to do the writing and the platform-building, so I need the platform that a publisher can get me." (Which may also be a pipe-dream, depending. Try to get a contract with TorUK; they do seem to be giving good advice and setting up publicity stuff.) And all the realistic "that can happen, though you have to lay the groundwork to take advantage of flashes of luck" advice in the world isn't going to address the hidden assumptions about writing-for-reach, with the spoons someone has in their possession.

(Meanwhile, self-publishers who want reach will do things like advise lots of Free/Discount sales, in order to get more people looking at it, and not really keep track of whether it translates into increased profits in the long run. This will, obviously, make for screaming on the part of people who are looking at this as a money-making business -- and the reach-oriented author will be bristling at being thought an idiot for leaving money on the table.)

And, of course, it's going to be a sliding scale of priorities for everyone. It's just easier to talk about the extremes.

From another comment-reply:

(...I also think that people knowing what they want, money or fame, is necessary for them to decide what they'll settle for. People rarely make sound business decisions that are based on unexamined assumptions.)