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Publishing Jitters

Big changes are rolling through the publishing industry. It may be good, it may be bad, but the not knowing gives us pause. Often too much pause. Like lab rats staring at too many choices, we are frozen at the choice point.

Should you bother anymore with a traditional publisher? Should you self-publish an e-book? Dig in your heels with publishers about better e-rights? Wait a couple years until things shake out? I don’t have the answers (honestly nobody does) but like everyone else, I have my opinions.

My general conviction is, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A new world is coming, but it’s mostly the old world right now. Three quarters of all books sold are paper books. But for now let us tip toe past the debate on how big e-books are. However much their market share grows, they aren’t the whole game for most of us.

Getting unstuck

My advice will hold better for those writing fiction, mainstream or conventional genre. Here goes:

  1. Timing.  Don’t wait to write or market that finished story. Write it now and get it out there. Begin establishing your brand before publishers get even more paranoid about the coming revolution. The uncertain publishing climate is fostering very conservative buying decisions. I predict this situation will only worsen over the next few years. As for getting clear on the situation and your business plan, it won’t do to wait. Things won’t sort out anytime soon.

  2. The role of paper. For the foreseeable future, most of us will do best with a distributed paper format (not just print on demand) in addition to e-book. Like the four basic food groups, we need them all, because they work together, reaching different readers, building your word-of-mouth reputation, which is your real path to a sustainable career.

  3. E-rights. If you publish with a traditional publisher, will you have unnecessarily signed away decent e-royalties? Yes, you may sign contracts many writers deem unfair; but publishers can’t hope to alienate their sources of product (us writers!) for very long. They used to control distribution, and thus had entire leverage over us. That’s changing. They see that. I think contracts will improve. In fact, they are improving; and publishers may choose to renegotiate old, draconian contracts. Sounds incredible; but I believe it’s coming.

  4. Where to focus your energies. While you do need to keep up with the publishing industry (see my blog on Learning the Biz),  your first job, let us bear in mind, is to write great books. Don’t fretfully circle the blogs hoping to find your path. Read ’em and then get back to writing.

  5. But what about original e-books?  Perhaps, if you have a series with a following, you might consider e-publishing the next book on your own. Furthermore, you might self e-publish your back list. Be aware, though, that publishers are springing up who may do a better job of marketing your e-book back list. You’d be sharing your royalties, but right now for most of us it’s about building an audience, not making pin-money.

  6. Caveat: So much depends on your situation, what stage you’re at in your career, whether you write fiction or nonfiction and how small a niche you write in. In the latter case, it may be possible for people who, for example, write stories about psychic dogs to create an original e-book and market it to a defined audience (animal lovers, let’s say.)

The future and you

Amidst all these considerations, I have just one sure prediction for you. You will do better in this transition age if you manage, despite all the uncertainty, to write great stories.

While it’s true that publishers are downsizing and being more careful of their selections, more than ever, they’re looking for great stories to buoy their lists. If your novel promises a dramatic, memorable, and meaningful story–you’ll get an editor’s attention, and fast. Chances are much better that readers will find you, because their friends will urge your book on them.

I hear one or two of you saying something like, “Well, my story has most of that, and my writing group says it’s just excellent, but it’s not, perhaps, great.” This sort of response gives me pause. Even you don’t think it’s hot? But why isn’t it? The standards have always been high. If your manuscript is not firing on all cylinders, do you really want to market it? In the past you might have published such a piece. Then it might have sold poorly, souring your publisher on you. Not only that, but your sales would hurt your chances to sell to another house.

If your novel isn’t salvageable, start anew. Never consider your time spent on a failed novel lost. It may feel like a divorce, like the death of a pet, but it’s not that bad. It will toughen you. It will teach you your weaknesses as a writer so that you can improve. Putting a weak novel in the trunk may save your career from a painful detour.

Moving toward stronger stories should be a writer’s main trajectory. And, the good news is that fresh, powerful stories have a better chance than ever of selling.

Back to basics

So with great relief, we can let go of publishing angst, the numbers game, and the blog debates and get back to what we presumably do best. Write. Tell extraordinary tales. And tell them well and frequently.


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