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Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit
Self-publishing and traditional publishing. What are the differences? Today I’ve been on a panel at the New Generation Publishing summit, and it’s clear there is no longer an absolute divide between the publishing approaches. These days, we have a spectrum.
So that sounds abstract – let’s have concrete examples. This is how the discussion went at the event today – plus some more thoughts I wanted to elaborate on. (Yes, being a typical author, I muster my best lines several hours after the conversation.)
The question: What do you see as the main differences between self and traditional publishing?
My answer was :
- The solo artist – and who’s in charge
- Who pays
And here’s where we find ourselves in grey areas.
1 The solo artist – and who’s in charge
When you self-publish there are no gatekeepers. You don’t have to be accepted by anyone. Also, you have the final say about the text, the cover, the way the book looks. When you traditionally publish, you have to be chosen, and your book is filling a publisher’s need to fit a certain market. They will make many of the decisions – including the cover and the title. They might direct certain rewrites. They’re usually unwilling to let you lobby for changes; they don’t regard it as your territory. Some writers are happy with this; after all, they are writers, not publishers. Sometimes it turns out well for all. But plenty of authors end up feeling railroaded or compromised, or with covers that attract the wrong kind of reader (who then respond with negative reviews).
Indie authors shoulder all this responsibility themselves – but that doesn’t mean they’re one-man bands. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. Although they might know how to write, that doesn’t mean they also have the other skills needed to publish well. In the early days of indie, many had a go anyway, and the Kindle shelves were stuffed with unedited, unproofed horrors with unsuitable covers. But indies have wised up, and a well-turned indie book will have creative input from editors, cover designers – and even blurb writers. There’s no change in who the final boss is, but an indie book is now more of a team effort – and editors might even steer the book significantly.
2 Who pays for production!
Here’s where the boundaries start to blur. In traditional self-publishing, you pay all the editorial work, cover and launch. And in traditional traditional publishing, the imprint pays. Plus they pay you an advance or a fee to acquire the book.
Here’s how that’s changing.
Crowdfunding If you’re self-publishing you might be able to crowdfund. There are authors who use Kickstarter or Indigogo, to name just two. Ben Galley has a post about it here.
On the trad side of the fence, there’s Unbound – an imprint with traditional gatekeeping and commissioning editors, who ask authors to raise the money for the first print run (here’s an interview with several successful Unbounders plus a Q&A with an Unbound editor). You might wonder what the upside is? Prestige – Unbound is developing a reputation for books that are more innovative than the safe-bet choices of purely traditional publishers.
So you might think that if you’re offered a traditional-traditional contract, you don’t pay any of the costs. But here are two ways that trad-trad authors might help fund their book’s journey.
Developmental editing The market is so competitive now that it’s not unusual for first-time authors to work with an editor to give their manuscript the wow factor. Sometimes literary agents will nudge a promising author to seek an editor to iron out some craft problems.
Promotion and marketing A lot of trad-trad releases have a limited budget for promotion and marketing. It’s not unusual now for authors to top up the launch package by hiring a book marketing company or funding a signing tour. (But beware of self-publishing services companies that upsell marketing packages of dubious value. You’re better going to a specialist consultancy that handles traditionally published authors as well as indie authors.)
Who pays? The authors in both camps are edging closer together.
Another ‘beware’. There are companies that contact authors, apparently offering a publishing contract, but really they’re just touting for business. See here for a post on how to spot them. If you get an approach like that, you’re often better shopping around properly. Check what value you’re getting.
By the same token, keep your head if you’re offered a traditional deal. A significant number of indie authors are turning these down because the offers aren’t worth their while – here’s a post that expands on that.
Speed is one of the great advantages of self-publishing. It’s as instant as you like. You can, if you like, pull a Word doc off your computer, whack it up on KDP and voila – instant ebook. An hour or so of tinkering and you can be making a print version on CreateSpace. You shouldn’t, of course, but there are no barriers to stop you. The tools are available.
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, means entering a slow-moving machine. Your contract might be inked in January but the book might not releases until October – or even later.
Some of that delay is corporation inertia. But actually, indie publishing, if done properly, should also have a long gestation. It might take you many drafts to finalise your manuscript, and after that, you need other processes. The developmental edit (especially if you’re new to publishing). The copy edit. The proof-read. The cover design. The marketing plan (which shouldn’t be left until the book is about to hit the shelves). (Here’s a post on who to hire and when.)
Some of these checking and polishing stages take a necessary amount of time … And good editors and cover designers might need to be booked several months in advance. Many indies then go straight to press once the book is ready, but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages. And bookshops place their orders three to six months before publication – so if you’re selling into shops, you need finalised copies by that time.
All this means that more indies are setting long-term schedules for their publishing plans –in some cases, the same amount of time that a traditional imprint would take.
The artist working solo. Funding the production. Speed to market. These used to be the defining characteristics of indie versus traditional publishing. Now, we’re discovering how to get the best of both worlds – and I find that encouraging. Which other distinct divisions might disappear? What do you think? What have you noticed already? Let’s chat in the comments.
Forgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.
Translated editions can be a great way to reach a wider audience. But they’re expensive and risky to fund yourself. A translator has to reinterpret and rewrite your book, and that level of expertise isn’t cheap.
Sharks and scammers abound, especially as it’s hard to evaluate the results. Then how do you get the translated edition proof read? How do you market in a language you don’t speak?
For years I’ve been exploring options to get my books translated but so far I’ve had false starts. I’ll share a few cautionary tales below. But the reason I’m writing this post is because Amazon Publishing has opened up an important new opportunity. Its imprint AmazonCrossing, which publishes works in translation, has announced it’s seeking submissions from rightsholders, including indie authors (apply here).
This would be a publishing deal, of course, so much depends on whether you’re a good fit for their market as they would be making a substantial investment. But I feel it’s a significant opportunity. Here’s why.
Indie translation options
Paying a translator
A quick question on Twitter produced the following figures. London literary agent Charlotte Seymour
@Roz_Morris The standard rate is about £90 per 1000 words, if that helps!
— Charlotte Seymour (@ce_seymour) October 18, 2015
Harvill Secker senior editor Alison Hennessey concurred
— Alison Hennessey (@crime_queen) October 18, 2015
Those are hefty sums. There are no guarantees of sales afterwards. And how do you recognise whether the translation is worth the price? I googled ‘bad translations’ and found no shortage of horror stories and warnings, such as this site.
Several authors I know have formed partnerships to produce books. This requires trust and a long-term view, but can work if you know the right person. Joanna Penn is one pioneer here, with several experiences to share.
If you are signed with a literary agent, it’s worth having a conversation about your self-published titles to see if there are any markets worth approaching.
Here’s a beware, though. A few years ago, an author friend made a translation deal, through an agent who specialised in representing indie work to foreign markets. Hurrah, I thought, and contacted her. I received an offer – only it wasn’t. It was an invitation to pay for a spot in one of her ‘catalogues’ of indie books, which she would take around the trade fairs. There were several price tiers as well, with bronze, silver and gold service, according to how much effort she would put into sales. No thanks.
Babelcube is a community where authors can meet translators. You complete a profile describing your book, including a sample for translators to use as an audition, and wait to see who’s interested – like a dating site. What’s more, they provide the author-translator agreement and distribute to online retailers.
It seems like a smart answer to the problem, although you still have to find the foreign-language proofreading professionals. But some indie authors have been very happy with their Babelcube experience.
So I tried offering Nail Your Novel. Plenty of translators had a go at the sample, and I amassed a group of Facebook friends with good enough language skills to evaluate the results. Their responses were an eye opener.
Some of the applicants had made the kind of mistakes that commonly happened with Google Translate. Was that, indeed, what they were doing, running my book through an algorithm? Others had made accurate translations, but were too literal, or muddled up their tenses, or lacked the flair and positive spirit of the original book. Many of them had solid CVs, but were probably most competent in technical translation – not the kind of work where much of the message was in the writing voice. I withdrew Nail Your Novel from Babelcube.
And here I am
So you can probably see why I’m excited about AmazonCrossing (if you’re still unconvinced, here’s a post by Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed ). At the moment they’re seeking fiction, so I’ve sent my two novels . Here’s the submissions link again . I’m guessing they will have a hurricane of entries, and many of us won’t be a good fit. So I’m sending my novels – with everything crossed.
Meanwhile, have you had any adventures, good or bad, with translations? Any tips or advice? Share them here
Amazon Crossing, AmazonCrossing, author scams, Babelcube, how to sell books in foreign territories, how to write and publish, indie authors, literary agents, literary translators, self-publishing in translation, translation deals, translations, writing
You know my bookseller friend Peter Snell, of Barton’s in Leatherhead? (He’s the co-host of our Surrey Hills Radio show So You Want To be A Writer.) Peter is a staunch supporter of indie authors, and he mentioned to me that he’d been talking to an indie writer I know who wanted advice on revamping her novel cover.
Oh you mean Alison Ripley Cubitt, I said. Her science fiction novel?
It’s not science fiction, said Peter. It’s a contemporary eco-thriller.
And therein lay Alison’s biggest problem.
So how did she end up with a cover that sent the wrong message? How was she persuaded to change it – because she’d made that choice for a good reason. And what did she change it to?
I thought this would make a useful case study. Publishers often rebrand covers if they keep a title in print a long time, and I’ve known other indie authors who’ve rejuvenated their books with new covers, aiming to catch the eye of different readers (here’s the post). And as we’re making our own decisions about everything, it’s inevitable that we’ll take some wrong turns – I’ve nearly chosen a disastrously misleading cover myself when I was releasing Lifeform Three. (Here’s the confession. You will howl.)
So thank you, Alison, for agreeing to share your process. (Alison writes with her husband under the name Lambert Nagle @LambertNagle.)
RM: How did the original cover design come about, and why did it seem like the right choice?
ARC: The photograph we used showed the terrible drought in the Australian outback and came from our extensive research. Although I knew it hadn’t been digitally manipulated, to potential customers it looked like the opening shot in a Mad Max film. We were naïve enough to think we could do the design job ourselves.
RM: I’ve found this is a classic indie mistake – to use a picture because it’s significant to the author. The reader doesn’t know your reasons and may get the wrong message.
Also, note the difference in typography between Alison’s covers. Her designer has used colours, contrasting fonts, different sizes, which all add up to a polished result.
RM: What made you decide to change your cover? Was there any feedback that made you consider it?
ARC: As I stood in a room with indie authors in Foyle’s bookshop at an author event earlier this year, I looked at their covers and realised that I’d been far too complacent. Luckily our stand was next to that of the delightful CJ Lyons (@CJLyonswriter). I asked CJ what she thought of the book and her response was, ‘it looks like sci-fi!’ I loved her honesty. With another book on the way, we decided it was time to look at the design.
RM: Peter Snell mentioned he’d given you advice. Tell me more.
Peter Snell is a real champion of indie authors. On my visit to Barton’s bookshop, I was able to compare our current cover with the thrillers on Peter’s shelves. This underscored that our cover wasn’t working.
RM: I’ve had the incredibly useful Peter cover-brainstorming tour. When I was figuring out what to do about Lifeform Three, he took me round the shelves and pulled out titles with similar themes and atmosphere to show me how this could be communicated by the cover. If you don’t have a friendly bookseller to hand, you could research the comparison titles online.
Peter had a further point about the trim size of Alison’s book. She told me she’d chosen 6 x 9 because it was the most economical in price, but …. (here’s Peter):
PS: The trim size was too big for the pagecount so the book looked too thin, which made it look self-published. In a smaller format the spine would be thicker, making it better balanced in terms of look, weight and feel. It would also fit better on bookshop shelves. Also, the design needed to be repeated on the spine so that customers could find it if the spine was the only thing visible.
RM again: Alison, how did you find the new cover designer? How many ideas did you try?
ARC: I liked Eliza Green’s cover for Becoming Human, by Design for Writers. I filled in a detailed design brief, with information about the genre, target market and tone. I told them which book covers from competitors I liked and those that I thought were clichéd. They sent me a design that I loved. They got it right first time.
RM: How much did the new cover cost? And the interior redesign (for the new smaller size)?
ARC: We were given a 10% Alliance of Independent Authors member discount which brought the cost of the cover redesign to under £200. I have allowed a budget of £100 for the reformatting of the interior, So far, we haven’t had to spend that money, as we’ve done much of the work ourselves.
RM: How are you publicising the change to ensure your fans don’t get confused?
ARC: I am stressing to readers that the print version is a relaunch and not a new book so that they don’t inadvertently buy the same book twice. It’s easier with an ebook as a potential purchaser gets a message stating that they have already purchased it. We are kicking off the publicity campaign at a book signing at Barton’s in Leatherhead on July 11th.
RM: On the new cover you have a lot more supporting text – the series tagline, the review stars. This makes it look more ‘dressed’.
ARC: In the original cover, there was no supporting text. That’s because we did it ourselves! I was pleased that we were able to fit both the pull quote and the stars from one of our reviews on the cover. The series tagline was important as it tells readers that Stephen Connor is a character they’re going to see again in the next book.
RM: It’s a challenge to get a lot of elements onto a cover and make them look good. If you don’t know about typography, you can end up with an unholy mess. But notice how Design For Writers makes it all work.
ARC: We lengthened the synopsis on the back cover too.
RM: Many indie authors don’t pay enough attention to the look of the back cover. But it’s a chance to hook readers with an intriguing teaser, and quotes from reviews. Don’t waste this space.
RM: What about badges? The indie world is bristling with awards and rosettes. Alison mentioned to me that she had a Brag medallion and an Awesome Indies seal, but they’re not on the front cover. Alison?
ARC: We’re thrilled to have the badges but we didn’t include them on the cover as readers might miss some of the lovely design details.
RM: I’m in agreement here. I’m very grateful for my various awards, but they clash with my cover designs. But if you’d like to inc lude an endorsement, a good solution is to write it as a line of text.
To return to the start, Peter and I recorded an episode where we toured the bookshop, discussing covers and why they worked. Cover art on the radio? We are fearless. Listen to it here (slide the cursor onwards a little – the file includes the songs that were playing before our slot).
RM: I’ll leave the last word to Alison:
ARC: I would love to get feedback from writers who have had new covers made and to find out how it worked for them.
RM: The floor is yours – discuss!
Alison Ripley Cubitt, authorship, back cover copy, back covers, Barton's Bookshop, bookshops, CJ Lyons, cover design mistakes, cover design tips, covers, Designs for Writers, how to design a book cover, indie authors, Peter Snell, self-publishing, what size should your book be, wrong book cover
Indie authors: are you making these mistakes with your print books? How to look professional on the page
This Friday, around 50 indie authors (including yours truly) will gather in Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road to showcase their books as part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival. We’ll see some swish productions from experienced selfpublishers – but not all indie paperbacks look quite so slick.
Peter Snell, my bookseller friend and co-host of So You Want To Be A Writer at Surrey Hills Radio, is a staunch supporter of indie authors – but he often shows me paperbacks with rookie mistakes that scream ‘amateur’. So here’s our checklist of goofs and gaffes – and how to make sure your book passes muster.
Some indie books launch straight into the text, which looks rather underdressed. Why?
Look at the opening pages of any print book and you’ll see the following:
- a half-title page – this shows the title on its own, or the title and author name in the text font, or a brief (one-paragraph) introduction to the author and the book
- a copyright page
- a full title, maybe echoing the cover typography, with author name and the publisher imprint
a page that lists other works by the author
- contents page
- start of text
You might also have a dedication page before the text starts or a foreword (which is an introduction not written by the author).
On the other hand, some indie books dither around too much before the text, with pages of acknowledgements and biographical material.
The reader wants to get on with the book. So front matter should be concise and useful – eg contents pages, of which more in a minute. Contents pages go very wrong.
Right or left?
Certain pages have to be on the right, others on the left. Here’s that order again:
- half-title – right
- copyright page – left
- full title – right
- other works, dedication etc – left
- contents – right
- start of text – right
Yes, that’s two rights. If necessary, insert a blank page so that the text starts on the right. After chapter 1, though, you can start new chapters on a left. You’d have to go through mad contortions otherwise. But if your book is divided into sections (like My Memories of a Future Life) you want those to start on a right.
You don’t usually need a contents page in a novel. Does the reader need to know that chapter 11 starts on page 49? I draw your attention to Exhibit A at the start of this post.
If your chapters have titles of their own, you might list them to wet the reader’s appetite. But it’s not compulsory, and novels, memoir and narrative non-fiction don’t usually need contents pages.
Instructional and reference non-fiction, on the other hand, definitely needs a list of contents. Here’s an example of one that is helpful to the reader and also a good appetiser for the book. (It’s Reports from Coastal Stations by Geoff Saunders.)
Who’s the author?
Some indie books fail to give any information about the author. Readers like this context – who the author is, where they live, how many books they’ve written. If the book is set in a special world (eg the circus), this is where you reveal you were the offspring of trapeze artists before you ran away to study accountancy. If you’re writing non-fiction, readers need to know why you have the temerity to bother them with your opinions.
You might put this in the front matter, if you can keep it brief. Or it might be on the back cover. But don’t miss it out.
Speaking of back covers…
Back covers need to look properly furnished. Make sure you have
- a punchy summary
- an enticing quote, if possible
- author details, and preferably a picture
Other sundry howlers that stop your book being taken seriously:
- white paper stock for fiction, memoir or narrative non-fiction (better to choose the cream-coloured paper)
- squashed typesetting and tiny print – authors do this to reduce the pagecount and save costs, but it makes the book a chore to read (there’s more here on formatting your book for print)
- narrow margins, either around the edges or in the gutters (the central margin). Again these decrease readability, and if the gutter is too narrow, you have to break the spine to read the book.
- amateurish or unnecessary artwork. Tables and charts might be necessary in non-fiction, but probably aren’t in adult fiction. Maps and family trees might be helpful for certain genres of fiction, and facsimiles of handwritten notes or other ephemera might funk up a YA novel. But you might not need your aunt’s watercolours, unless a lot of your straight-talking friends agree they add to the book’s charm. (They usually don’t.) And covers are a whole subject by themselves. (More about covers here.)
- lack of an ISBN – CreateSpace and Lightning Source require an ISBN, and CS will issue you with one if necessary. But Lulu or local printers will let you print without them. Most readers probably wouldn’t notice if your book lacks an ISBN, but it really, really annoys Peter, who is still reeling at the author who had regained the rights to her work and printed 1000 copies without obtaining an ISBN. (There’s more here about ISBNs.)
- Peter also grumbles about books that are in a big or unusual format that won’t fit on his shelves. And cut-outs or holes in the jackets, because they catch on other books and get torn. (They probably also cost you more.) He does, however, approve of French flaps, which make a book more solid, though they’re not standard issue and most people won’t mind if you don’t have them.
So, to sum up. The well-dressed print book:
- has a complete set of front matter that is concise and helpful
- follows the conventions of right and left
- has a contents page only if necessary
- gives information about the author
- has an informative (and enticing) back cover
- doesn’t cram the page with type
Have I missed anything out? Or do you have any questions? Head for the comments!
If you’re in or around London next Friday, come and say hello at the Indie Author Fair, which is part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival in association with the London Book Fair. Entry is free, though you need to register and print out a ticket. More here. If you’re further flung (and even if you’re not) you can take part in Indie ReCon, from April 15 to April 17 – an online festival of indie movers, shakers, experts, veterans, trailblazers, and the odd person who was surprised to find themselves volunteered. You’ll find seminars, live chats and roundtables and …. oh just click this link. http://indierecon.org/indierecon-events/ To wet your appetite, here’s a video discussion from last year in which a few authorly types talk about how we tame our creative muse.
Barton's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, CreateSpace, Foyles bookshop, Geoff Saunders, Indie Author Fringe Festival, indie authors, ISBNs, Lightning Source, London, London Book Fair, Lulu, making print books, Peter Snell, Reports from Coastal Stations, Triskele books
I’d completely forgotten I’d written this interview until it popped up on Twitter today. Whitefox publishing services wanted to quiz me about ghostwriting, my first writing gig and any tips I’d give to writers who were thinking of self-publishing. If you’ve known me for a while the answers will be old hat, but if you’re one of the recent subscribers (thank you!) and are still curious, here it is. If you’re wondering about your publishing options, you’ll find some useful tips here. And if you want advice on weighing up publishing services companies, these posts should help you make sensible decisions. And thank you, Whitefox, for inviting me to your blog.
PS Interested in becoming a ghostwriter? Take my professional course
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My guest this week says he’s always been particularly sensitive to music. Watching a film, the soundtrack won’t be background, but a commanding force. He spent two years studying at the Academy of Contemporary Music, hoping for a career as a performer. When that didn’t pan out, he returned to his other creative love, writing – and music helped to fuel his writing mood and suggest ways a story could go. He even has a ‘swagger track’ for days when he needs to drum up confidence in a scene or plot development. He is fantasy author and self-publishing zealot Ben Galley and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Tomorrow (or maybe today or last week, depending on when you’re served this post) I’ll be taking part in a Book Industry Communication debate on the future of ISBNs. I’m providing the author perspective, so as part of my research I canvassed opinions to see what the mood is.
Much of the feedback centred on whether authors should buy ISBNs or use the free ones from CreateSpace, Smashwords et al. There were sound arguments on each side. But what emerged for me was the way self-publishers view ourselves. It’s a snapshot of our times that goes a lot further than a little piece of industry bureaucracy.
For and against
Julia Jones, one of my co-conspirators at Authors Electric, said she bought ISBNs ‘to behave like a publisher in every way’ – a view shared by many. Plenty of authors feel to have their own ISBN is more professional, lets you be seen and counted, and gives you control.
Other writers – among them author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn – feel having their own ISBN makes no difference: ‘I can’t see any benefit, or evidence that having a paid ISBN helps you sell more books’. As Joanna sells whopping numbers of her novels and non-fiction books, we certainly can’t argue with that. (I agree with her. Personally I’d rather put the money towards a better cover or more editing time.)
But it was a comment from Michael N Marcus, who writes and publishes books about self-publishing that hit a bullseye for me: ‘If you want to be known as an author, the ownership of the ISBN is unimportant. If you want to be known as a publisher, own the ISBNs you use.’
Now that’s a very interesting view. We’ll return to that in a moment.
But look, no ISBNs at all
Most striking was Dan Holloway, who publishes experimental fiction and poetry – both his own and that of others. He doesn’t use ISBNs at all – even for printed books. He says: ‘I write and publish for a niche, dedicated audience, providing an experience they can’t get elsewhere. I work with selected independent bookstores and galleries and send customers to them for my books, rather than having my books available everywhere.’ He’s not even on Amazon.
Dan is a firm believer in direct selling: ‘We should be trying to get our fans to buy direct from our websites if we can to foster community – we want to nurture fans with stickability, who will become our bedrock over the years, and the best way to do that is to have a hub that exposes them to us, our ideas and worlds, and all that we have to offer. I buy all my music direct from bands, for example.’
You might think this is a recipe for obscurity. Au contraire, Dan’s ISBN-free books have twice received special mentions for the Guardian‘s first book award, been shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize, and been voted ‘favourite Oxford novel’ by readers at the Oxford branch of Blackwell’s.
Author or publisher? Or something else?
I keep coming back to Michael’s interesting distinction and I think he’s nailed something important. Certainly I put most effort into building an identity as an author rather than a publisher. Like Dan, I am most keen to find people who like my imagination and preoccupations, my way of thinking. Having said that, I like publishing and I want to publish myself; I enjoy the control and creativity. I can also, if needed, wave a CV that demonstrates years as a production editor/chief sub/editorial manager, so perhaps that’s why it’s no big deal for me and you should discount my view as I’m not typical of self-publishers.
Other authors feel ISBNs are an important part of their brand and image – one of many signifiers of their professionalism.
Now, more than ever, there is no ‘one right way’ to self-publish well. We’re all finding our own paths. You might be a Dan, a Julia, a Roz, a Joanna. Most probably you’re something else again. I’d love to know. Oh, and wish me luck tomorrow.
What kind of self-publisher are you?
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All the scribbling world is going indie. New, unpublished writers are, to establish themselves – even if they’re agented. And experienced, well-regarded authors are leaving their imprints – either being dropped or deciding to seek a better way to release their work.
While publishers are probably not short of new material, we know they watch the indie scene to see who does well. At the moment they pounce on the Hocking and Howey high fliers, but in a few years’ time they’ll have a different breed of writer to consider: the well established indie with a clutch of books and a growing audience. The kind of author who used to make up the midlist. I’m wondering, what deals would they offer?
For most of us it’s unlikely to be bidding wars. But one thing’s sure. It’s really going to test the industry because it can’t be a standard midlist deal. Most indie authors will have outgrown that.
Help with production
How much production help will a competent self-publishing author need? Of course, some writers loathe production and will be glad to hand it over. Others, though, relish the control (like yours truly) or will have it so smoothly managed that they’d rather hire the help themselves than hand over a bigger share to have it arranged.
A publisher might be able to offer an economy of scale – although they have often cut staff so much they are using the same freelances who are hired by indies.
Here’s an added complication. The book needs to look professional. How would a deal legislate for a situation where a writer’s production values look like a home haircut? Spin it the other way: what would stop a publisher vetoing an outside editor to keep the work themselves and accrue extra percentage points?
I’ve already made this more complex than I imagined. Suffice it to say: production costs will become a negotiation point.
Help with promotion and marketing
I’m guessing that one of the prime reasons for partnering with a publisher is to gain kudos, exposure and credibility in places we can’t reach by ourselves.
We all know that if a publisher pulls out all the stops they can make a huge difference to a book’s fortunes. But most of the time (ie if they haven’t paid big bucks for the author), they can’t afford to.
What most non-starry authors get is a few mentions in the national press. That can certainly send an indie author reeling with delight. But does it sell copies? The evidence is that it doesn’t. Most books don’t sell unless you keep them constantly on readers’ radar. A splash in the press is short term. Indie authors know they have to keep a sustained campaign of advertising and promoting. The midlist author launch package is little more substantial than a token cork-pop at the book’s birth. It won’t keep the book alive, month in, month out.
There’s worse. At the moment, when you sign a deal, publishers are often secretive or vague about what marketing they will do. They’re used to the writers being so overawed that they never have to explain what exactly will happen or how brief the publicity flare will be.
Indeed, it’s shocking how meagre a publisher’s marketing plan might be. One writer I know was asked for a list of blogs the publisher could contact to run posts about the books. Up until then, the writer had believed the publisher would use their own special contacts, not people the writer already knew about. Another author friend, after two successful books, was sent on a social media course. He learned nothing he couldn’t have gleaned from reading a few blogs.
However, many of my writer friends are excited about the Amazon imprints – even authors who feel they’re finished with traditional publishing. Why? Because Amazon have developed and honed an amazing machine for finding readers. What’s more, the algorithms can work long term with emails and targeted deals. That’s the kind of help we would all take seriously.
I haven’t even mentioned ebooks. As ebook formatting is one of the simplest things for an author to do or source, few of us will need help to make them. Where will a publisher add value? Publicity? The trouble is, their publicity machine is still wedded to print territories, whereas indies are already marketing on the, ahem, wordwide web. Perhaps publishers will start to think globally. Or perhaps ebooks will be left out of publishing deals with indies, as those markets may already be well served.
Getting copies into bookshops is one area where indies struggle – and traditional publishers are acknowledged masters. However, go into your local Waterstones or B&N and you’ll be bewildered by the acres of book spines. What’s the likelihood of someone finding your book by chance, even if it’s there? Except for prominent displays (which aren’t given to every author), publicity is what makes readers pick up a book or ask for it to be ordered – and indies can already get onto the wholesale lists at very little cost. We don’t even need to buy the ISBN. So it is my contention that well targeted, long-term publicity is more significant to an author than distribution to a lot of shops. Do feel free to disagree.
Help with development
It probably seems cockeyed to consider this last. We can’t deny that editors can add a vital nurturing influence. Although successful indie authors will already have their infrastructure for making a book good, few of us would dismiss the chance to do it better. Or am I dreaming?
At the moment a publishing deal is like a fixed-price menu. But the authors of the future will be savvy about publishing. They’ll look for equitable arrangements and publishers will have to be flexible for each situation. A la carte.
Publishers will also need to be more transparent. Right now the culture is to keep the author in the dark. A business relationship can’t be vague like that.
Ultimately a fair deal will take account of what each side puts in. Who, in a publisher, is equipped to strike a fair deal with the entrepreneurial author or their agent? The editors? They know about nurturing content, being its shepherd and handling production. But they aren’t skilled in converting this into workable contract terms and profit shares. And why should they be? That’s like expecting your plumber to be able to fix your computer. The other option is the contracts department. But they’re in a legal ivory tower, away from authors and the realities of book production or selling. It’s as if we need a new kind of job in publishers – a professional who can grapple with all of this.
UPDATE: To be fair, many editors do recognise the need for change. But they don’t necessarily have the skills, systems or company culture to reinvent their relationships with authors. They’ve usually got enough to do keeping up with their publishing schedule – having managed an editorial department I know the realities of getting books out, and how diktats often come from lofty management levels that are impossible to fulfil while making the daily deadlines. So this kind of change is going to take time.
One thing’s for sure. The current standard publishing deal isn’t going to cut it.
Thanks for the dream team pic Permanently Scatterbrained
Let’s discuss this brave new world. Do you self-publish? If a publisher came calling, what would you appreciate help with? What do you want to handle yourself? What do you think would make you attractive to a publisher in return for their help?
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One of the sweetest compliments a writer can hear is ‘I loved your book, please write the sequel’. And we live in a sequel-minded world. If there are any sure-fire ways to build a readership, a series is one of them.
So if people are asking for a sequel and you hadn’t planned one, should you consider it?
Certainly, a lot of hard work has already been done. You know the characters. Indeed, you may have had trouble shutting them away once edits were done. The chance to shake them awake again may be hard to resist.
You might have plenty of material. Outtakes that you pruned from the original novel, back story you wanted to work in but, mindful of pace or the reader’s attention, you cut. They could all be used, couldn’t they?
These are strong temptations, but they do not mean your novel should have a sequel.
Neither should you write a sequel because the reader has unanswered questions. At the moment, those are part of the novel’s resonance. If you answer them, would the magic disappear? Would your answers, in fact, be wrong now that this dimension of the book belongs to the readers?
What will create a story in your sequel?
Stories need a crisis. If you wrote a sequel, where would this new crisis come from?
In some genres, crisis comes with the territory. It’s a natural hazard of the characters’ job, heritage, world, race, DNA and dynasties etc. With those ingredients, your characters will have stories for ever more. Write them, and enjoy their rich variety.
Other novels, particularly non-genre, tend to be self-contained. The arc of the book was the defining experience of the characters’ lives. You wrote ‘The End’ when this was resolved, as much as possible. If you then put those characters through another story with a shift of similar magnitude, will that be hard to believe? And if the characters don’t have a fundamental disturbance, will they be interesting to read about? Remember, they’ve got to match up – or even surpass – the frisson of the original. But it can be done. Think Toy Story 3.
Should you reassemble the original cast? In a genre novel you might have a team who will always be thrown together. Indeed they might create a pseudo-family who give each plot an emotional core while they deal with the crisis du jour. At the end, they reassemble, tested, battered and wiser.
But in other novels, it may be better if the characters disperse. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca has some perfectly ghastly sequels. Obviously licensed by the estate in an attempt to milk the fans, they squeal a warning for all would-be sequelers. They’re novels constructed by tick-boxes, contriving to drag the scattered characters out of contented retirement and flogging them onto the same treadmill again. In most cases they’ve already given their best, first time round. Leave them be.
So straight sequels may be dodgy, but you might have good mileage in a spin-off. While the principals from book one may be living a better-adjusted life, others could take centre stage. The original characters could be cameos to advise, steer, perhaps muddle everything up because the new crisis is not like the thing that happened to them.
Another possibility is to write the ‘missing years’ or a prequel. Perhaps one of your characters had an interesting interlude from far earlier in their life. Or if your original narrative was first person, perhaps there were other good stories happening around the corner.
Just one character
You might have a central character who still has a lot to offer. This is particularly true of catalyst characters, who stir up trouble but don’t change very much themselves. Throw them into a new situation and they will cause another maelstrom, just because. I get regular requests to write more about a certain catalyst character, who seems to inspire much speculation.
Not wanting to leave
Sometimes we writers want a sequel just as much as the readers do. But we have to take a look at what we would offer. After I finished with My Memories of a Future Life, I spent weeks doodling with aftermath scenes. They were indulgences, from a writer trapped in the deep end, struggling to surface. At the time, I intended them to be a continuation of the narrative but they went nowhere. The characters had stopped opening their hearts, as if what happened next was none of my business. Or perhaps I hadn’t found the right things for them to do.
It’s certainly possible that some of the Future Life people will rear up with a new urgent story. If they convince me that a lot more must be said and done, I shall write it without hesitation.
Until then, there are other stories I need to tell.
Are you tempted to write a sequel to your novel? If you’ve read sequels, what have you liked and what has made you wish the original was left alone? Share in the comments!
If you’re working up an idea for a novel, you might find some useful tips in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. And in that case, I find I have plenty more to say and so a second Nail Your Novel is under construction. If you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
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I’m at Authors Electric today, discussing how indie writers are getting their work to readers by curating collections based on a solid respect for craft and originality. While publishers play safe with marketing pigeonholes, some of these indie groups will be the brands of the future. Come and see…
authors, Authors Electric, Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?, how to write a novel, imprints, independent authors, independent publishers, independent publishing, indie authors, indie groups, indie writers, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, publishing brands, Roz Morris, self-publishing, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
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- Slow-burn books, publishing misfits and separation anxiety – interview at Henry Hyde’s blog March 21, 2017
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- ‘You get an idea and… it just grows’ – interview with book and writing blogger Michelle Dunton February 6, 2017