The Way We Publish Now

This week I saw a new item at our local dollar store—hardcover books. Well, actually one hardcover book—hundreds of copies of it, dumped in a big bin. It’s sad enough to see good books remaindered on the sale tables of Barnes and Noble, but these were being dumped for a buck a piece, along with off-brand detergent and dented cans of dog food.

What’s worse, I recognized the title. I'd seen the author interviewed by Stephen Colbert—just a few months ago.

I felt a little sick.

Kind of like the way I felt when the only remaining indie bookstore in our nearest big town closed. And the LA Times killed off their book review section. And the Borders at the mall shut its doors.

What’s going on? Have people stopped reading? Should we give up our dreams of becoming authors and take up hula-hoop decorating? Is the book dead?

Nope. It turns out the opposite is true. In fact, The New York Times recently reported that sales of books are going nowhere but up. In the US, trade titles grew 5.8% in the past three years, juvenile books grew 6.6%, and adult fiction went up a hefty 8.8%—in the middle of a recession!

So the book business isn’t really going to Hades in a handbasket. But it is on one wild ride—a ride that’s moving so fast that even industry professionals can’t keep up.

Here’s a little recap—

Back in the dear, dead days of 2009 B.K. (Before Kindle), book authors had only three options:

Option #1: Go through the long, painful process of querying literary agents, hoping to find one who could sell your work to a big or biggish publishing corporation. From the mid-20th century until the early 2000’s, if you wrote a book good enough to snag a reputable agent, you had an excellent chance of launching a professional writing career. But the agent-funneling-to-the international-publishing-conglomerate paradigm had been developing flaws over the past few years:

Option #2: Submit to smaller, regional presses that read their own slush and don’t require an agent-gatekeeper. This minor-league option sometimes led to the big leagues, but it had major drawbacks.

Option #3: Self-publish

But a revolution started late in the year 2009 A.K.

You can read that as “After Kindle” or “After Konrath”, since mystery author J. A. Konrath sounded the first voice of the Kindle revolution on his blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.

The A.K. era has provided many new paths to publishing, and those paths go in remarkable new directions. Sometimes they even make U-turns.

Option #1 is still the same: query agents and hope for that Big Six contract. Some people will argue with me, but I think this is still the best path to fame and fortune for the writer with a shovel-ready, trending-right-now debut novel. If you write like Raymond Carver and have a YA steampunk zombiepocalypse thriller—all edited, polished and ready to go—and a few more like it in the hopper, you just might be the next superstar. It still happens.

But this traditional road is an even rockier path than before, because:

Option #2: Submit to Small Presses. This is the same, too. Except it's a much more appealing option than it used to be. Technology has decreased overhead and Amazon and other online retailers have leveled the playing field.

Option #3: Self-Publish. With the phenomenal success of self-pubbers like Amanda Hocking and John Locke, the stigma has been lifted. Self publishing isn't for rejects any more. It's for rebels and literary innovators. And anybody can join this wild-west gold-rush sparked by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his little Kindle. (You can also now self-pub paper copies quite cheaply through Amazon's Create Space.)

Option #4: Query an agent who will help you self-publish ebooks that will stand out from the crowd

Option #5: HIRE an agent who will help you self-publish ebooks.

Option #6: Publish both e-books and paper books with Amazon’s new paper book lines. This is the new holy grail of publishing. You only get in by invitation at this point, but Amazon is making changes almost daily, so stay tuned.

These options aren’t either/or, as some of the arguing in blogs and forums might lead you to believe. Most of the Big Six published authors I know are also releasing indie books. Some are also using small publishers as well.

Yes, it is scary that one corporation--Amazon--is cornering such a huge segment of the book market. Let's hope that Barnes and Noble and Apple and new start-ups will challenge their growing monopoly.

You can get a beginner’s overview of ebook publishing from the ever-reliable Jane Friedman on her blog here.

If you want more in-depth information, you can buy a great little book on epublishing from the (incredibly smart) Irish writer David Gaughran on his blog Let’s Get Digital or in the Kindle store  for only $2.99.

The publishing world has changed irrevocably in the past two years. The changes came about partly because of the e-revolution and partly because the old system was already in a state of decay. Even though we’re going to miss the corner bookshop (which may be replaced with cool coffee-house/wine bar/print-while-you wait media emporiums) the good outweighs the bad—for both readers and authors.

As Gaughran says, "[Big Six publishers] have been underestimating readers for years. If you talk to readers, their main complaint is that everything is the same, piles of books chasing one fad after the next. Readers want diverse voices, readers like works of different lengths, readers like writers who play outside conventional genre boundaries. Indie writers have been filling that need."

But the greatest thing to come from the ebook revolution may be the way it empowers writers. We now have choices. Even authors who are still publishing only with international conglomerates know they can walk away if they want to. They can demand more equitable royalties. They can refuse to take orders on what to write and how many books to churn out per year. They can publish novellas and short stories and books outside a specified genre.  

And for newbie authors—you’ve all got a chance to make the big time.

One caveat: Don’t publish before you’re ready to be a disciplined, professional writer. (See my post Three Questions to Ask Before You Jump on the Self-Publishing Bandwagon) Reviewers can be unforgiving—even of things like trite cover design, overpricing and a few typos. Amateur comments on Amazon can be cruel, and trolls are being hired to post nasty reviews and bring down a rival’s stats.

So hone your skills, build your inventory, and develop some calluses on your soul. Then set out on whatever publishing path feels right to you. The way things are going, there should be even more options very soon.

So how are the changes in the industry affecting you, scriveners? Are the new possibilities changing how you view your own career goals? Is it affecting how you write?

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