I may not be a Prius, but I am a hybrid
Thoughts on “legacy” and “self” publishing I am getting tired of keynote speeches at writers conferences (like two I heard in 2014) that go for bombast and ignore the merits of traditional publishing. Sometimes I want to say to speakers who overlook the tremendous value that remains for writers who land a contract with a traditional publisher, “Thou doth protest too much.” My own experience with two traditional publishers (W.W. Norton and Random House) and one short-lived start-up (Wired Books) has been a rollercoaster ride, zipping me from highs to lows. I’ve known glitches and disappointments, but on the whole I'm grateful. My editors have had amazing training and discretion, and, with one or two exceptions, the marketing and publicity folks I’ve worked with have dazzled me. These publishing houses have had valuable levers at their disposal, like strong distribution channels, people in-house who work the academic market, social-media channels with lots of followers, and personal relationships with influential reviewers. (The ability to sell to foreign markets is important, too, although since I write books about the idiosyncrasies of English, those aren’t natural moneymakers for me.) The traditional publishing route helps get your book seen, reviewed, and placed on bookstore shelves. And while others are helping with all of this, you, the author, get to focus on what you do best—writing the next book. Well, at least once you’ve finished the promotion. A savvy author is never passive. I scrutinize copy edits and page proofs and work on the page design with the publisher. I write up publicity plans. I pitch stories to magazines at the time of publication, and I pay for a radio tour. I also create supplementary material for my books, reach out to teachers, post regularly on sinandsyntax.com, Tweet, and post on Facebook. I also teach, often creating classes that dovetail with my books, and work with my publicist to arrange talks. And as a result of all this, I have two beautiful books that are popular backlist titles and have been adopted in courses all over the country and the world. (The third book, published by that start-up, is out of print.) I shudder to think what I would have had to spend in money, time, and bandwidth to self-publish at the same level and get these sales. Many authors are frustrated that they only get 15 percent of all sales in royalties. Not me. Let the publisher do all that work—and take the financial risk! (I should concede here that getting to the point where I can have proposals picked up by legacy publishers has not been a cakewalk. I have a master's in journalism, I’ve written hundreds of articles, edited more than two-dozen books, and worked very, very hard at the writing. And I’ve had one proposal that went nowhere.) I like to think creatively about self-publishing, though. It behooves every writer today to be realistic, and to think entrepreneurially. Not just about bandwidth and time and energy (as mentioned above), but about how easily a certain idea will find its market. A writer may not need all the muscle of a publisher if an idea has a strong, pre-existing, or easily tapped market. Maybe a particular book doesn’t need to be in a bookstore to find its audience. I am going to self-publish supplemental materials for my books. And I'm considering self-publishing a book in collaboration with a successful artist who is willing to pay me an advance and has direct channels to a large audience of fans. We can hire a hot designer and a strong editor and a savvy book packager. And we can hire a publicist. But we're still going to talk to traditional publishers. If we find one that shares our vision and is willing to front the costs and has good ideas about how to reach 50,000 people instead of 5,000, we'll probably go for it. Let others take more of the profit to cover the costs that we'd otherwise incur. My SF Writers’ Grotto colleague Caroline Paul is a hybrid author who reminds that “time is money.” Go to a legacy publisher first, she says, “unless you want to do everything yourself.” Her 1998 memoir Fighting Fire was first published by a traditional publisher, but when she wanted to re-edit and re-publish the book after it had gone out-of-print, and the rights reverted back to her, she published with a micropublisher. Paul knew that her book was still generating interest, so it made sense for her to go this route. She received no advance, and had to hire her own copy editor and designers and pay upfront, but she pocketed 50 percent of sales and had complete control of editing and book design. It gave her the chance to update her book, when no legacy publisher had offered to put resources into editing and PR for a paperback. In the case of Paul’s most recent book, Lost Cat, it made sense for her to go with a traditional publisher. As an illustrated hardcover it would have been expensive to print had she gone the route of self-publishing. I will continue to look askance at new publishing ventures (or keynote speakers) that don't give prospective authors the whole publishing picture, and instead slant things to suit their purposes. Statistics, like those reported in Digital Book World, tell us that most self-published authors, especially the newbies, make little money. Let's not mindlessly talk novice writers into self-publishing when maybe what they should do is get better at writing books. Let's not insist that legacy publishing is dead or that writers can make more money by self-publishing and sniffing at 15 percent. Writers who define themselves as high-quality hybrids—smart and talented enough to produce fine literature, able to publish in a variety of ways, savvy about built-in markets, and able to build a platform that matches the product—are the ones we should be listening to and watching. And trusting.