After fighting the notion violently most of my adult life, I’ve become convinced that this indie publishing movement is legit. And it will grow. And it will change the way books are written and published forever.
Years ago, I’d have scoffed at the notion.
My main objection to self-publishing was always feeling that self-publishing was somehow cheating the system, taking a shortcut that offered no real value beyond having a few copies of your book shipped to your house.
I mean, these are the things I looked at from a traditional publishing deal: professional editing, professional design, professional layout, marketing, distribution, competitive retail pricing, and participation in the returns program. My thinking ran along the lines of, what good is a book that can’t be distributed to readers? If it can’t find its way into bookstores, then how will readers find it?
Yes, there is a legitimate Indie revolution underway, started years ago by companies like Lulu, later joined by Amazon’s Create Space. They offered the ability to print without up front costs, and made the independent publishing process accessible to anyone. And I saw writers have success using these platforms. Yet, I still opposed the general idea of self-publishing on the grounds that there was little or no distribution.
No matter how good a self-published book was, I reasoned, it wasn’t going to find its way onto the shelves of your local brick & mortar without a more traditional contract. And without that traditional product placement, how would readers find it?
I knew the trick used by self-publishing companies for years was the promise that the finished book would be “available at Barnes & Noble”. What they didn’t say, was that meant the customer had to request a copy, pay for it, and wait for it to be shipped. This is not the same as having a book on the shelf, where people could browse and pick it up. So, with every last ounce of fight I had in me, I encouraged anyone who would listen to struggle through the process, to find an agent and make contacts at writer’s conventions, to do whatever it took to get that traditional contract.
That, after all, was the key to retail distribution.
Then something happened in 2008. The economy turned to crap. Americans quickly saw their access to credit dry up, and in the ensuing panic, discretionary spending dried up as well. Retail stores felt the bite hard, and a lot of independent booksellers closed up shop for good. For the most part, those booksellers were the ones hand-selling books they loved, where the employees loved books and had a vested interest in promoting the authors they liked.
Sure, these independent bookstores had been dropping off the map for years, but the recession really helped speed that whole process up.
Now, three years later, we’re seeing big chain bookstores closing shop. This is when things get scary. Big publishers start to see their distribution channels wither. Contracts with big publishers get harder and harder to secure, as more money flows to top-tier authors and less to new talent. And the availability of books is becoming an issue, too, as more shelf space is devoted to things other than books.
Meanwhile, book lovers have turned to the internet, and in just a few years, Amazon has become the nation’s bookstore. Almost anything is available there, and much of it is available used in the secondary market for a fraction of retail. So the issue of distribution is becoming less and less of a factor.
I saw this. I knew it was happening. I even did most of my shopping at Amazon.
Still, I couldn’t accept the legitimacy of self publishing. So once my argument of distribution became null, my leverage shifted to price.
With almost any book published available at Amazon, the difference between self-published books and traditionally published books became price. A self-published 6 x 9 trade paperback could cost anywhere from $5-$10 more than a trade paperback or even a hardback from a traditional publisher.
Of the things offered by a big publishing contract—editorial services, marketing, mass distribution, agency pricing, advances—more and more mid-list authors began to complain that they were feeling alone. The advances were drying up, the editing was rushed and often botched, the marketing was non-existent as resources were funneled toward the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world. Even distribution was becoming an issue for mid-listers, as shrinking shelf-space forced retailers to re-prioritize their inventory. Anything that wouldn’t likely move in volume was skipped, and anything that wouldn’t generate acceptable margins was bypassed.
Meanwhile, consumers were buying more and more of these books as remainders online for a fraction of retail pricing, which made life even more difficult for mid-listers to move their product through traditional channels.
It started to look to me like the publishing industry was trying to kill mid-list writers.
Meanwhile, in the music industry, a decade-long fight against digital distribution was conceded as Apple became the world’s largest online music retailer. iTunes was selling more more music than most of the brick and mortar chains. Tower Records collapsed. Local music shops closed down. And this curious thing happened. Digital distribution leveled the playing field for Indie musicians. Artists who self-produced CDs at exorbitant prices could offer their music competitively online for 99 cents. One example of this is Jesus Culture, whose physical CDs often cost upwards of $20 but whose digital albums could be had for less than $10.
Independent musicians found a vehicle through online, digital distribution that allowed them to flourish. And then we even started seeing superstars borne from online marketing (i.e., Justin Beiber).
Years ago, I predicted that eBooks wouldn’t be accepted until a company like Apple made eBooks available on devices like iPods and iPhones. How right I was in one sense–availability was the key–but it wouldn’t come through then-existing devices. And it wouldn’t be Apple leading the charge.
Sony came first, with a device that looked and functioned spectacularly. I’m sure Sony assumed success would come as content was developed for their reader. But it was Amazon who followed Apple’s example, and created a device built around a solid content base.
Not long ago, Amazon began proclaiming that eBook sales had eclipsed physical book sales, and we saw Barnes & Noble develop its own eBook device.
And now Apple steps in with a device that threatens to replace laptop computing as we know it–the iPad. And, oh, by the way, the iPad can also double as an eBook reader. And wouldn’t you know, Apple has its own eBook store that works just like iTunes for music.
And even with all these advancements, it took two events for me accept self publishing as a legitimate option.
First, I received a 3rd generation Kindle for Christmas. My first book on it was WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a book I’d seen at Barnes & Noble but wasn’t willing to pay $16 for. On Kindle, I got it for $5. And as I read it, I realized that I actually prefer the Kindle experience to reading a physical book. For one thing, the text can be adjusted in size, and the display itself is so much cleaner than the cheap pulp most books are printed on now.
The second thing that happened was Amanda Hocking.
And while Amanda Hocking is an outlier in every sense, her success is also the exception that proves the rule. Digital distribution of eBooks is every bit as effective a means of reaching an audience as any traditional method, possibly even more so.
For the first time that I know of, authors have an independent business model that makes sense. It’s real, it’s viable, it works on paper, and there’s not a huge start-up cost. You have to put all the work in up front, marketing and editing, but once you have a viable product, the marketplace is wide open.
Does that mean every book that’s written should be self-published? Absolutely not.
Writing is still a craft, and in any craft, there will be a learning curve. Like music, it will be the writers who have mastered the craft to a certain degree who will find success. What eBooks will do is allow more writers to find success.
It use to be that the agents and editors acted as gatekeepers for the industry, giving the nod to writers whose works fit into a profitable business model. But now its the readers themselves who are guarding the gates, for good or bad.
The great thing about ebooks is the author no longer has to worry about word counts and economies of scale. Writers are free to go back to doing what they love—writing.
My caution to all who consider self-publishing is this: make darn sure you’re ready. Because the readers will be brutally honest. But now, thanks to this interesting new world we find ourselves in, there will be a lot more of those readers for the independent author who chooses to bypass the world of old.
Self-publishing is not any less legitimate than traditional publishing. It’s just a different route of getting work into readers’ hands.
This has taken me a long time to learn.
And now my current WIP is being written with eBook distribution in mind.