Gearing up for the Writer’s Digest Conference West this weekend, Write on the Sound the weekend after that, and a new Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction class starting tonight, I’ve been thinking again about one of the questions I always seem to get at any of these events. It’s a question that takes a number of forms, but comes down to this:
Should I submit my novel manuscript to editors and/or agents or publish it myself?
That sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t really. I don’t want to belabor some of the points I’ve made here over and over again, but let’s look at that question again and try to break it down a little.
First of all, if you’re asking me if I think you, personally, should submit or self-publish that specific manuscript, which I have not read, obviously I simply can’t give you an answer. I just don’t know enough to advise you, but anyone and everyone should keep in mind that the second you self-publish a book you are now a publisher, and you need to act like one.
But that’s not nearly as easy to do as it is to say. Here are some things that a publisher does—and they do this for every book they publish, not just the books from established franchise authors:
They edit the book.
And they do this in three stages, each of which costs that publishing house considerable dollars. First there is a line edit, which is often but not always the same thing as a developmental edit. This is where you, as the author, work in collaboration with a professional editor who helps you make your book better. You’ll get into questions of character motivation, plot points, pacing, and so on, and hopefully you’re prepared to make some revisions.
Then the book goes to a copy editor, who will fix almost all of the technical issues the manuscript has. This is where all the rules you thought you knew are thrown back at you and you suddenly realize that you haven’t the slightest idea where a comma should go. It’s okay. It only feels painful, but in the end your book will be rendered in proper English, but (if the copy editor is a good copy editor—and professional publishing houses hire good copy editors) without altering your voice: the style and substance of the narrative.
Then it goes to a proofreader who makes sure the last of the typos are found and corrected. This is an essential quality control pass that is all but absent in the indie publishing world and readers are noticing it.
As the author, you will be involved in this process all along , and will be approving these edits, and working in collaboration with everyone who is there to help you, not humiliate you or put you in your place.
They spend thousands of dollars on the cover.
In the meantime, the publisher will have paid for cover art and design. And if you think this is easy, if you think anyone can do this, you’re just plain wrong. Professional graphic designers are akin to professional musicians. If you have no education, experience, and (not or) talent in that field, you’re no more qualified to design a book cover than you are to play cello for a major symphony orchestra (assuming you aren’t a professional cellist).
These people do not come cheap, and they shouldn’t.
And in the SF and fantasy genres, you need a cover painting, too, probably. Those run about $5000 or more.
They actually typeset the thing.
And when that copy edit and proofread are done, the text goes to a professional typesetter, who does not dump text into a CreateSpace Word template, but crafts the internal design of the book using InDesign and other tools. Like a professional graphic designer, a professional typesetter is a non-optional collaborator.
What this means is that before your book ever goes to the printer (or the e-book provider) you’re in for thousands of dollars in development costs.
But here’s where the publishers start to really break off from indies.
They sell it.
While all this production process is going on, a sales person is sitting down with buyers from the book store chains, mass market wholesalers, subsidiary distributors, and so on, and selling your book. If you’re a new author with no sales track record, yes, you will not be that salesperson’s first order of business. You might even be last on the list, but you’re on the list. Your book is in the catalog for that trimester.
If you’re self-publishing you will never be in the room with the buyer for Barnes & Noble, and that’s not because that buyer is a big jerk who’s collaborating with Corporate America to screw over the little guy, but think about it: Can this person really sit down with literally thousands of indie authors, hear their sales pitches, then devote precious shelf-space to a book that has to be purchased, returned, tracked, paid for, etc. to thousands of individual clients that store then has to track as vendors . . . Or will they choose to write the fewest number of checks for the most number of books that will ship back and forth between the fewest number of distribution hubs?
Please don’t take it personally. It’s the reality of the situation.
So where does that leave you, if you’ve asked that question? Does this mean that self-published authors have no hope?
No. It does not mean that at all.
There’s always reason to hope, but while you’re hoping, start working.
I’m honestly not convinced that the e-book revolution really is leading to a self-publishing revolution, unless by “revolution” you mean “thousands of people are failing at it.” E-books have taken a lot of the expense of publishing away, but not all of it, not if you want to sell a quality product.
What I firmly believe is that e-books and print on demand (POD) not only will, but already are, sparking a revolution in small press publishing—independent publishers that find a niche that’s either being under-served or not served at all by the New York publishers, and going after that readership.
For instance, here’s a new book from Tommy Hancock’s ProSe imprint, which goes after the new pulp audience. If you’re waiting for Simon & Schuster to do that, I think you’re going to have a long wait, but if, like me, you love pulp fiction, well, here it is . . .