Publishing 103: The Other Alternatives

In the last two blogs, I covered traditional publishing and independent (i.e., self-) publishing. This time I’ll cover all the other possibilities–that I know about. If there are some I missed, please write and let me know.

You’ve probably heard the term “hybrid publisher,” which originally meant someone who has both traditional publishing contracts but also self-publishes. (Today, with so many options, the hybrid might be doing several of any number of things.) The statistics at Author Earnings indicate that hybrids, as a group, are pulling in more author income that any other category. The usual, though not only, hybrid approach, is to self-publish, develop a following, then parlay that success into a traditional contract, which may only include print rights, or may be for a sequel or related work. In fact, they may come to you. Traditional publishing watches the Kindle bestseller lists carefully, and if they see a self-published author running up impressive numbers, they often contact them with an offer.

Amazon Publishing is a major force in today’s book world. (I’m not talking about Kindle Direct Publishing for self-pubbed eBooks, I’m talking about Amazon’s own traditional publishing branch.) When people talk about the Big Five, they are usually referring to the big corporations with New York offices (kind of like the Tonys only go to plays presented on Broadway). If Amazon were put on the list, in terms of sales, they’d be No. 3. With a bullet. While the number of books Amazon publishes is relatively small, their sales are significant. Are you surprised? Of course Amazon the retailer gives preferential treatment to Amazon the publisher.

Amazon’s contracts are among the most progressive offered today–usually for a set term, 50% royalty on eBooks, paid monthly, and allowing you to reserve subsidiary rights. Amazon has an imprint for every kind of book imaginable, including both genre and literary work. You do need an agent to approach Amazon Publishing, which means you’ll be giving a good chunk of your earnings to an agent. Unless…

…you go the Kindle Scout route (like I have, twice). Kindle Scout allows you to get into Amazon Publishing without an agent, and in much less time. They call it a crowdsourcing site, but in truth, the decision what to publish and what not to publish is based on many factors, not merely how many “nominations” your book receives. Like any other publisher, they choose the books they believe will be most successful.

A more genuine crowdsourcing alternative would be funding a book through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or acquiring patrons through Patreon (which full disclosure: I have a page on). Kickstarter has funded many individual books, while Patreon funds the artist, allowing them to produce their work or provide mentoring to others. The patrons receive many rewards, so it should be a win-win for everyone. The magic of the internet is that, even if each individual makes a small monthly contribution, the aggregate could make it possible for the artist to create without being controlled or robbed by a big corporation. If you’re interested, please check out everything I’m offering on my Patreon page:

BEWARE! The Big Five publishers now have vanity press lines (Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing, for one example). Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s affiliated with a big company. If they ask you for money, it’s a vanity press. I don’t care if they call it a marketing fee or an editing fee or anything else. If they want money, it’s a vanity press, and if you think that will ever lead to anything good, you are simply kidding yourself. Don’t let the desire to tell friends you have a contract with a Big Publisher lead you to a poor decision. Your friends will learn the truth. This path can only lead to embarrassment.

The Big Five also have “digital-only” lines, that is, all they want is the eBook. They may or may not acquire the print right or audio rights, but they will only publish the eBook. These lines have proven profitable for the big companies–but not so much for individual authors. If you prefer this to learning how to self-publishing, that’s fine, but if you’re doing it because you think you will have great sales or the prestige of being affiliated with a big publisher, I would reconsider.

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Be delighted. When I started back in the 80s, authors basically only had one viable route to publication. Now we have many, and that’s good. I like anything that puts more power (and income) in the hands of the creators, the people without whom books would not exist.

Modern Publishing 102: Indie Publishing

Just to be clear, what we now call indie or independent publishing is what we used to call self-publishing. What we used to call independent publishing was every publisher other than the New York mega-houses. Today, indie publishing accounts for more than two-thirds of all books published in the US.

Self-publishing does not have the stigma it once did, but I’d be fibbing if I suggested it has none at all. If you’re talking to someone who knows anything about the current publishing environment, you’re unlikely to see much judging. The fact that some people have made self-publishing successful speaks for itself. If you’re talking to someone who wants to be perceived as “literary,” a critic, a gossip, a professor, or one of the lucky few still making money from traditional publishing–the reaction may be different.

Some people start out trying for traditional publishing and if that doesn’t work opt for indie. Some people start with indie, work hard, acquire some strong sales figures, then use that to attract a traditional publisher. And some people–the hybrids–do both at the same time. All of these approaches are viable, and I for one am glad to see that writers have options. We are, after all, the ones who create the stories people love. We should not always be at the mercy of giant corporations peering relentlessly at their bottom lines.

To make indie publishing work, you must:

  1. Hire an editor
  2. Learn about formatting, distribution, and design
  3. Master marketing
  4. Create a brand, or
  5. Hire someone to do all of the above for you.

Did you notice that I put the editor first? Good. There’s a reason. Yes, I know–you have excellent writing skills and got As in English all through high school. But no one catches everything, and for that matter, you might need input that goes beyond merely catching typos. Maybe you need fact-checking, or credibility checking, or input on character likability, or pacing or viewpoint or…

Bottom line, no one catches everything, not even writers with 43 published books. We can all benefit from outside eyes, a reliable but honest beta reader. Or ten.

Formatting eBooks isn’t hard and you can learn it in a few hours. Formatting print books, even for print on demand, is hard and will take much longer. If you have no graphic design or layout experience, or you hate computers, you may want to consider hiring someone to do this, at least the first time around. Cover design is also critical, but there are many good cover designers online and you shouldn’t pay more than $2-300 for it.

I know you would rather write than market, and social media may drive you batty, but it’s necessary. If you think readers will find your books on their own because they are so splendid…you may be in for an unpleasant awakening. For that matter, even if you are published by a NY big shot you will have to market online and might well be contractually required to do so. Branding is simply establishing a reputation for creating a certain kind of work, a genre, subject area, series, or series character. Ideally, you want people to see your name and know exactly what kind of work they should expect.

If you hire someone to do this stuff for you, please beware of expensive services that use high-pressure sales tactics or prey upon your inexperience. Good assisted services include Girl Friday Publications, Book in a Box, DogEar, and Matador. At Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing allows you to self-publish and see your eBook immediately for sale on Amazon, where most books are sold today. Smashwords, or Draft2Digital, will put your eBook everywhere else. Amazon also has CreateSpace, which allows you to create print-on-demand books and have them immediately for sale on Amazon. Others may prefer IngramSpark or Lightning Source, which will guarantee your book can be ordered by bookstores through Ingram (assuming a bookstore is interested in ordering your book–it won’t happen automatically).

If you’re waiting for me to tell you which way to go–it will be a long wait. You’ll have to answer this one yourself, but your decision should be based upon:

  1. What kind of books you’re writing, and
  2. What will make you happy.

Most indie successes have been with adult genre fiction, so if that’s what you’re writing, this course may be more viable. If only a print book, or a contract with a big company, will make you feel validated as a writer–then that’s what you should pursue.

So now we’ve covered traditional publishing and self-publishing. Next time I’ll discuss all the other options.


Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

The State of Publishing–2017


Publishing has probably never been more confusing, in part because people hold onto long-standing prejudices and stereotypes rather than looking at the facts. Well, that’s not the Red Sneaker way. I want you to have the most satisfying and successful writing career possible, and that means keeping one eye on your work and the other eye on the world. Some long-held beliefs are simply no longer true. When you prepare to make critical career decisions, what to write, where to send it, you need facts. Accurate information can help answer a lot of your questions. For instance:

Should I seek a big New York publisher, or a small press, or self-publish?

First let me say, as I have said before, that you must do what will make you happy, what will make you feel successful. That said, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent Author Earnings report, the Big Five New York publishers’ market share is declining and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. By contrast, independent presses, self-publishers, and Amazon imprints (more on those later) comprise over 50% of all book sales. Old stereotypes such as “the best books get picked up by New York” or “bookstore books are superior” are simply no longer true. Given the small market share they have, bookstore sales have become the tail wagging the dog. Most people buying online don’t care who published a book and don’t care whether it’s in bookstores. They just want a good read.

Here’s what Jane Friedman wrote in her blog: “I think it will be a lackluster and perhaps soul-searching year for traditional publishers. The “print is back” fanfare will diminish, with Barnes & Noble continuing to remain flat or decline, and Amazon further gaining market share across formats….Without smarter ebook pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see flat or declining sales in that format.”

There are advantages to having the backing of a New York publisher–and disadvantages too, particularly in the royalty department. What is clear is that it is not the only way to go. Figure out what will be best for you and your work.

Do I need an eBook edition? Do I need a print edition?

I like print books too, particularly hardcovers. I’m old-fashioned and I just get more out of that reading experience. But since our goal is to be successful, not just to please ourselves, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent DBW White Paper, in 2016, over 70% of all adult fiction sold in the eBook format. That is expected to grow, not diminish, in the years to come. eBook reader sales also continue to grow, and more readers means more digital sales. So no, if you’re writing adult fiction and you’re hoping to reach readers, you can’t skip the ebook. You might be okay without a print edition (though it’s not hard to set that up at CreateSpace, whether you think it will be massively profitable or not).

If you’re writing for children or writing nonfiction, your situation may be somewhat different–but I still wouldn’t skip the eBook.

Is Amazon a major publisher?

A strong argument could be made that Amazon is THE major publisher in the US. It now has thirteen different imprints, covering virtually every imaginable genre, and the Kindle Scout program opens the door to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. In 2016, 7 out of every 10 books on the Kindle bestseller list were published by Amazon. Overall, Amazon’s market share grew last year by 4%. No other publisher even comes close.

This just makes common sense. Like every other publisher in America, Amazon favors the product in which it has a vested interest, both in its promotions and its positioning. If you can make Kindle Scout “crowdsourcing” work for you, do it. If not, tie your book to a similar successful Amazon-imprint title in your marketing, so in time it will appear on that book’s page as a “People Who Bought This Also Bought” title.

With all the books out there today, how do I draw readers to mine?

Two answers here, both obvious:
1) Write it well, and
2) Market.

This may seem simplistic, but those are in fact the correct answers. As the Amazon store is increasingly filled with eBooks, the books that attract the most attention will be the ones that please readers (because they are written well) and the ones that have authors willing to spend time and occasionally money on marketing.

Once upon a time, every successful writer wanted a personal assistant. Today, the smart ones hire a book marketer. Using email, search engine optimization, and social media is more effective than any previous book marketing ever was–but it does require time and knowhow. Most writers would rather be writing. But I suspect that in the long run, this is what will separate those who sell well from those who don’t. So I’m going to devote the next several entries in my blog to marketing. Get the app and check it out. And follow what my wife Lara is doing with her new novel, The Wantland Files. She’s mapped out a six-month marketing plan that’s a virtual textbook on modern-day marketing, starting with the online launch party on January 21. Click here to see how it’s done.

(A longer version of this post appears in the most recent edition of the Red Sneaker Newsletter email. If you’re not on the distribution list, sign up here.)