Lucky Is Nothing More Than a Frame of Reference for the Unlucky

Or, Writers are better off today than they were yesterday, but it took today for them to know it.

It’s the end of 2011. This has been a big year for me, and overall a step–or maybe several–in the direction I want my life to go. I want to take a moment to reflect not on my year so much as on my impressions of the writing and publishing industry as a whole, and how I feel about the choice I made to self-publish first–before trying to find a traditional publisher.

I think my biggest take-away is a sense of relief that I decided to self-publish first. When I was younger, I used to worry about publishing contracts. Would I be smart enough to understand them? Would I take a really terrible deal because I wouldn’t know any better?  How did one find out what an “average” advance was when no writers talked about it and none of the books I checked out from the library about getting published actually discussed the vulgar question of money?

Enter the internet and the blogosphere, the digital revolution and easy self-publishing in the open bazaar of the online store. When I started seeing numbers for advances and the number of the sales required to be a “best-seller” I was shocked at how low most of it was.  $6000 average advance for a new author? Sometimes as few as 5000 sales in a week to hit the best-seller list?  No more than 25% royalties and probably a lot less, for all rights “including technologies still to be developed” for a lifetime?  Ebook royalties as low as print royalties even after the book had earned back all money the publisher invested into it, with no “out of print” clause because there is no shelf life in the digital world?

That’s surreal. It’s a horror story. Sure, some writers come in and blow every mind in the publishing house. They get offered six-figure deals and have the publishers hyping the book because they desperately want another Harry Potter or Twilight Saga. Sure, I might be one of those writers, if I really am as brilliant/talented/creative/original/superlative as I hope. But statistically speaking, I’m not going to get that kind of deal. I would get a crappy deal that would make me feel exploited and used, under the terms of which I would never be able to quit my day job.  

Then there is self-publishing. Sure, it’s a bit like shouting into the void. You never know if anyone will hear you. Sure, you’re responsible for everything (this might be a benefit if you are a bit of a control freak…I certainly don’t mind having to be responsible for the quality control of editing and formatting, because I am capable of making sure it’s done right, and because I am capable nothing would infuriate me more than a publisher putting up a digital copy I could have formatted better myself). Sure, you don’t have the cache you get from a publisher. Case in point: I still haven’t told my family I’m doing this (family = parents, siblings, kinfolk, not husband and best friends).  Sure, there is no instant success.  Well, there hasn’t been for me. I have not sold a ton of books. But I have sold some, and the response has been positive enough that I am encouraged to keep going rather than discouraged. I have a different business model than what a publisher does. Instant sales are the same as sales five years from now–all of it comes to me. Right now I have no bottom line to worry about; I am writing in my free time, spending nothing but my own energy on the project.  

Right now, the returns are better even for the “crappy option” on Amazon of 35% than you can get with almost any publisher. To the credit of a few forward-thinking individuals, I have seen some new digital-first/digital-only presses pop up that offer more attractive terms, about 50% split, which is still too low to tempt me yet but at least not a laughable number.  I wouldn’t feel disrespected with that number, simply skeptical of their ability to add that much more value than what I could do for myself. Most publishers are still trying to grab as much as they can for as little as they can, and they will continue to do so until so many writers wise up that publishers no longer have enough product to sell to stay in business. In my opinion the fundamental publishing contract will have to change at that point. I don’t know if it will be lower or no advance in exchange for better digital royalties, or higher advances against the status quo crappy digital royalties, or something else altogether. But I think the more people walk away from deals or choose not to pursue them, the more pressure publishing will be under to make themselves attractive to writers again. Right now they have violated the number one rule of making money on art: don’t upset the talent.

Publishing has been able to alienate all the talent they wanted, with impunity, for decades, because writers had no viable alternative. Now writers do. I don’t know how long the current situations will hold. But for now, there is an open and competitive market amongst publishers to see who can make themselves indespensible and attractive to writers. If writers in this context are the “consumers” of publishers–and I think the analogy holds, since in essence writers are paying publishers with the proceeds off their art for the publisher’s services–then writers will benefit. Free markets are good for consumers, bad for businesses.

Having an alternative puts writers in a position of power, even if it is only self-empowerment. If you know going into a publishing negotiation that you are willing to walk away from it, then you’re not going to let yourself be treated with disrepect, or shoved around, or intimidated. The onus is suddenly on publishers to prove that they’re worth 80% of your work’s earnings, and if they can’t then you walk away. It’s liberating to know that you can laugh in their faces. It makes you unafraid of their power over you, because their power over you has been broken.

I didn’t choose to self-publish because I had been rejected by publishers; I chose to self-publish because I was rejecting the traditional publishing model. Right now it still feels like the right move. If my work if quality, if it has an audience, then sooner or later they will find it. If my work is not quality, then publishing wasn’t going to want me anyway. If it is, then I am better off beholden to no one for any success I find.

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Publishing

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