Indie or Traditional Publishing? Don’t Take Sides: Take Your Time

For a new writer, this can seem like a terrifying time to be launching a career. Everything in the publishing industry is in upheaval. Bookstores are closing all around us. Publishers and online retailers are conducting high-profile battles in the legal system as well as the court of public opinion. (If you want a quick, sensible overview of the challenges in the publishing industry today, Nathan Bransford has a great post this week on the new era of publishing.) 

The rules keep changing. Experts don’t agree on anything. The us/them, either/or arguments of "indie" self-publishers vs. “legacy” traditional publishers can be toxic.

If you regularly make the rounds of publishing blogs and writers’ forums, you may be feeling more and more confused—even bullied.

A whole lot of experts will tell you that if you’re not going indie, you’re a moron, and every minute your manuscript is sitting there unpublished, you’re throwing away potential zillions. They will tell you anybody who has an agent or publishes with the Big Six is a miserable slave who is contributing to the corporate takeover of the world: agents and publishers are all crooks, idiots, and meanies who are going to beat you up and eat your lunch.

A whole lot of other experts will tell you that if you’re publishing anywhere but the Big Six, you’re a moron who's contributing to the downfall of civilization and destroying the World as We Know It: self-publishers are all clueless, uneducated louts who have unleashed a tsunami of crap that is killing our bookstores, libraries and brain cells.

So what's a new writer to do?  

Don't let anybody call you a moron, for one thing. The Internet age is also the age of irresponsible, anonymous snark and bullying.

My advice is shut out the noise, refuse to take sides, educate yourself, and take your time.

The ebook revolution isn’t about battles between warring "sides". It’s about the freedom to choose how we publish and what we read. Relish that freedom.

Change can be very scary. It’s like trying to go about normal business in the middle of an earthquake. There’s nothing solid to hang onto.

But you know what’s scarier than change?

No change.

Before the ebook, publishing was a calcifying industry. New writers were finding it tougher and tougher to break in. Successful career authors were dropped if they couldn’t produce annual blockbusters in spite of no marketing budget. The antiquated system of returns—in which every bookstore is a consignment shop—means publishers have been wasting a huge amount of money shipping books back and forth to warehouses and eventually pulping them.

The ebook is changing everything. Ditto social media.

Even if you’re a traditionalist, you don’t have to be afraid of the electronic revolution. It’s not killing literature. The truth is more people are reading now than ever before. They’re reading voraciously—on their laptops, tablets and phones—and yes, on dead treeware. In fact, nearly 70% of books sold are still made of paper. (And: Newsflash! Not everything published the old-fashioned way was great art. For grins, Google Amanda McKittrick Ros sometime.) 

I love this joke Kristen Lamb posted on her blog this week: 

“Great, thanks to that Gutenberg jerk, everyone can be published.”...Kristen Lamb

Just as Johannes Gutenberg took power from the ruling priestly caste and gave it to the people—who could then read the Bible and find out for themselves what it said—ebooks are taking power from the ruling publishing caste and letting the people find out for themselves what they want to read.

This means more power is now in the hands of readers and writers than any time in history. Thanks to ebooks and social media marketing, writers can now go directly to readers with fresh, innovative ideas and stories.

If and when we want to.

Here’s the thing: the electronic revolution doesn’t mean everybody has to self-publish. But the fact of the self-publishing option changes the playing field for everybody.

Your life is being changed for the better right now—
But you now have choices that never existed before. And more choices are opening up all the time as the industry processes new ideas (Yes, some are slower to process than others, and may get trampled on the way to the tar pits of history, but I don’t think anybody should underestimate the survival skills of multinational corporations.)
Plus a whole lot more things are sure to be possible in the near future. The next Jeff Bezos may be dreaming it up as you read this.

You can choose to self-publish. Or not.

You can choose to blog/Tweet/Facebook/Pinterest. Or not.

But you know what you can't choose? To edit a book that's already on somebody's Kindle.

Don’t let anybody rush you or push you onto one path or the other.

Everybody has a different tolerance for technology. You can mix and match as you wish. I’ve read that Twitter god Neil Gaiman writes his first drafts with a #2 pencil. I know successful Kindle authors who swear by their manual typewriters. Try things out and make the choices that work for you.

Remember it’s people who are most insecure in their own choices who will seek to control yours.

Besides, you may never have to choose.

Many successful authors are using self-publishing alongside of legacy publishing. We’ve had a number of guests on our blog who are doing both: Lawrence Block, Jeff Carlson, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Kim Wright are all successful Big Six authors who are also self-publishing.

But there IS one thing you can do—no matter what path you take:

Use your freedom responsibly.

The truth is there is indeed something of a "tsunami of crap" hitting the online retailers--rough drafts are inundating the marketplace--manuscripts that might have been good books one day if the authors had taken the time to perfect their skills. 

What's wrong with that?

For readers? Nothing. 

Nobody can force us to read a bad book. (And there is that nice "peek inside" feature on most retail sites.) 

Readers can find good books the same way we find good blogs. Without agents, marketers, or unpaid interns from Brown, we somehow find the blogs we want to read amongst the millions.  

But when it's YOUR book--do you really want it to be part of the crap? Do you want to end your career before it starts by neglecting to make your book as good as it can be? 

Even the best editor can't turn an amateur's first draft into a bestseller. And no newbie writer has any idea how bad his first draft is. Believe me, I queried a first novel that was appalling, but I was quite proud of it at the time. If you want to learn a bit from my mistakes, read my post on 12 Signs Your Novel isn't Ready to Publish. 

So remember you also have the freedom to WAIT. Rachelle Gardner and Roz Morris  both blogged brilliantly about the subject this week. And here’s a great quote  from a surprising source:

“The biggest challenge [to authors today] is self-restraint. Publishing tools, like Smashwords make it fast, free and easy for any writer anywhere in the world to publish. But we don’t make it easy to write a great book. Many writers, intoxicated by the freedom to self-publish, will often release their book before it’s ready.”

…Mark Coker—Founder of Smashwords

(Thanks to Porter Anderson  for that quote.)

Yeah. Mr. Smashwords is telling you NOT to use his service--not until you learn to be the most excellent writer you can be. You can’t buy excellence, no matter how much you pay an editor. (Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware gives a great run-down on how and when to use an editing service. And I’ve got a post on hiring an editor here.) Remember an amateur writer + an amateur editor = an amateur book & money wasted.

"I don't want to look at it any more" is not a good reason to publish a manuscript. It's a good reason to set it aside to edit in three-to-six months. Your fresh eyes may be as good as any editor's, and a whole lot cheaper. 

This is a great time to be a writer. A year from now may be even greater. Don’t let anybody pressure you to do anything but put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours, and become the best, most professional writer you can be.

When you’re really ready to publish, the publishing world may be a very different place from what anybody envisions, especially the battling bullies.

What about you scriveners? Have you felt bullied by people who have created two “sides” in the e-book revolution? Do you feel pressured to publish? Do you read self-published books? Do you think they are all crap? Do you have trouble figuring out who to believe? Any hints to give your fellow writers on how to shut out the noise?

My big news this week is that I'm going to be honored at the Central Coast Writers Conference next September with the "Success Story" Award. Thanks to Judy Salamacha and all the good people at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo who make this conference the "best value writers' conference in California" according to Sunset Magazine. Join agent Laurie McLean, book blogger Danielle Smith, and a whole lot of other great presenters at the conference September 21-22. 

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