On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Publishing is a Sh**ty Business (and That’s a Good Thing!)
Panel members: Allen Jones
Panel description: The traditional model of book publishing may be broken, but this presents opportunities for fledgling writers, and fledgling publishers. Writer, editor, and publisher Allen Jones is author of the acclaimed novel Last Year’s River; an influential consideration of the ethics of hunting A Quiet Place of Violence; co-editor with William Kittredge of The Best of Montana’s Short Fiction, and the owner and publisher of a small book house, Bangtail Press. Join Jones as he discusses how this brave new world opens up room for publishers and authors strong enough to prove themselves in the marketplace.
*Statistics for publishing: new titles published in 2010–328,259; self-published in 2010–133,036. This may be misleading as there are computer programs that automatically publish work. Not all self-published work have ISBNs.
*Growth of traditional publishing 2008-2013: -1.4%; growth of self-publishing since 2007: over 400%.
*In the traditional model: there are five major publishing houses. They also publish textbooks. Most are able to give out significant advances. And they are able to create an author name by force of will.
*In the best case scenario, everyone in the chain agrees: book > agent > editor > publisher > publishing machine > sales and marketing.
*There are a number of careers between the author and the reader.
*Strengths of traditional publishing: professional design/editing, prestige, filter/quality, advance burden on the publisher, brick and mortar channels maximize sales, bookstores like the traditional model (because of returns), review coverage, author can focus on writing rather than curating their books.
*Weaknesses of traditional publishing: nine months between acquisition and publication, thinner margins for midlist writers, payments take about six months, 6-15% royalties (net), less control over design, authors relied upon to promote their books, acquisitions tend to be group decisions.
*Antecedent titles drive the engine of acquisitions. They create comparison types–what similar books have sold? The downside is that there’s less room for creativity in acquisitions. In the market, there could be more excitement.
*Alternatives: partnerships (small publishers), fully assisted pub where you pay upfront, and DIY where authors hire outside help.
*Self-publishing: there are higher royalties and satisfaction of publishing. But does your book bring value to the reader? There’s no filter test. And self-published books could always be better. You need to balance the satisfaction of publishing with the interests of the reader.
*Self-published books that do well: romance, sci-fi. It depends on who owns the ereaders–generally young people. Westerns don’t do well because the older men who read them don’t have ereaders.
*Four companies dominate self-publishing: Amazon, Smashwords, Author Solutions, and Lulu.
*At a small publisher: there’s prestige and filter of a brand, security that someone else finds the book worthy, accounting services, editors/designers, able to address small markets, authors can focus on writing but promotion is similar to self-publishing.
*Promotion tips: provide quality product, build brand, try new tactics, hire a publicist, put up an author page on Amazon, promote yourself on Goodreads, do giveaways, put up a webpage, social medial.
* * *
Q & A Session
Q: How do you formally copyright something?
A: As soon as it’s created, it’s yours. The trick is proving copyright. Permissions are a big deal in publishing. Publishers spend money for permissions. You need permission even for a few lines of poetry. There are draconian penalties for violating copyright.
Q: Can you prove copyright by mailing it to yourself?
A: I have heard of it. It’s okay.
Q: On using names, can you compare something to a Barbie doll in your writing?
A: That’s not a problem.
Q: In historical fiction, if you use a real person, how can you cover yourself legally?
A: For dead people, you can say anything and it is legally fine. But for a living person, it can be slander or libel. It depends on context. If it’s clearly fictional, you’re covered. Celebrities have a different standard. By becoming celebrities, they give up their privacy.
Q: What if a fictional character slanders a big company like Disney?
A: Hard to imagine, but it depends on context.
Q: What’s the future for print books?
A: There’s an explosive growth of ebooks. But recent stats say that growth has slowed. Once it stabilizes, ebooks and print books will occupy their own space. Ebooks gravitate towards edevices–like romance novels. For books that you’re proud to display on your shelf, then you buy print. Bookstores also sell other things than books–coffee, book signings, browsing.
Q: Are small publishers bigger because of innovation?
A: Yes. Some stats say that there are now 59,000 small publishers. Ebooks and POD have empowered small pubs. Before, they needed to be bankrolled, have staff and office space. But now you can hire out, use software and a laptop–and all you need is experience and expertise.
Q: What are the economics of POD (publish on demand)? Is it a higher cost than traditional publishing due to discounting?
A: The POD artifact itself is indistinguishable from traditional publishing, but the per unit cost is higher than the cost of traditional pub. But, for POD you don’t have to pay for warehousing or pay upfront. The risk upfront for traditional is higher. POD has agreements with distributors.
Q: If you get a small publisher to accept you, does this block you from going to other publishers or does this depend on book to book?
A: It has changed. Agents and publishers now look at the self-published. If the self-published author sells well, the traditional publisher has a hard time making their case. What’s important is that the author has demonstrated that they have the platform and sales.
Q: What does it take to get the attention of an editor?
A: Query letter, previous published work (for a magazine), books that are agented (depending on the publisher, especially a big house). At a smaller publisher, you can pitch yourself. Send a couple pages of the manuscript.
Q: Any tips for finding an agent?
A: Everyone in the industry loves books, but agents are more mercenary so it can be difficult. Start with Publishers Marketplace and look for agents who sell books that you write.
Q: Do traditional publishers pick up self-published work?
A: If the book has done well, it’s possible–but more difficult. The book already had its shot so do something else.