here was a time, not that long ago, when an aspiring novelist was estimated to have a one in 10,000 chance of seeing his or her work of fiction published. The arrival of different publishing options, print on demand technology and ebooks is radically changing this picture as writers increasingly forgo the support of agents and major publishers and go it alone.
The traditional model
For many decades the traditional route into print was to secure a literary agent first. The agent would then find a publisher. Contracts would be signed whereby the publisher took complete control of the final product and the author received a small advance (maybe $5000) plus royalties once a certain sales figure was exceeded. As Tim Jackson, author of Mangrove Underground and resident of Little Cayman explains, most new authors sell 3000-4000 copies, so see no profit beyond the initial advance. “Historically, the benefit of this is the publisher provided marketing and access to bookstores worldwide at no direct cost to the author. The downside was the publisher printed thousands of copies of books, which often went unsold.”
Thanks to the small scale independent printers in the past ten years or so, writers can now bypass the need to have their work accepted by an agent or publisher, by instead paying to have their book published. As well as enabling aspiring and unknown authors to get published, they also retain control of the final product. However, because they do not work with the backing of a publishing company, the author is also responsible – financially and otherwise – for editing, proof reading, cover design, marketing and distribution. This kind of self-publishing is sometimes referred to as “vanity publishing” as the printer often plays on the author’s desire to see their work in print, and profit solely from the author. Because no work is refused, the quality of the writing and production is can be very poor.
Bridging the gap between the notoriously hard to break into world of major publishers and the free for all of the self-publishing industry, some new players are emerging that combine the best of both worlds. Smaller, independent publishing firms still require financial input from the writer but in return offer many of the support services of their larger cousins. Marilyn Jax, author of Road to Omalos and The Find, addressed the question of getting published at the Mystery Writers workshop she recently held at Books and Books. The model she uses is professional publishing, in which she says, “My publisher offers their logo on my book, holds my ISBN numbers, sets up my editors, proofreaders, design company (for cover and interior design), printer, etc. A subsidiary of my publisher also stores my books and sends them out to book buyers (wholesalers, retailers, consumers).”
Authors have more if not complete control over the final product and keep a higher percentage of sales profits. More importantly however, as Tim Jackson, explains about the publishing company he is with, “It retains the selectivity, quality assurance and the access to widespread distribution of the royalty-based publishers,” working only with established writers and talented newcomers. As these companies are associating their name with the authors’ they have a vested interest in ensuring a quality product.
When it comes to marketing, both Jax and Jackson agree that the responsibility falls squarely on their shoulders. In a world where we are bombarded with ever changing information from all sides, they use every means available to get their name recognised: blogs, personal websites, facebook, twitter, book signings, distributing to local booksellers – no stone goes unturned in the work of promoting one’s work. Jax estimates she spends six months of the year writing, and the other six months marketing.
Print on Demand technology means that publishers no longer need risk printing thousands of books that never sell. They can simply be printed as and when they are ordered. When amazon.com lists a book as “shipping within 24 hours”, this is a POD book. This technology opens up self-publishing to those who may only want or be able to afford to print a small number of copies initially.
Ebooks are without doubt changing the world of books in unforeseen ways. Most writers and publishers agree that while ebooks do not necessarily herald the end of the paper and ink book, the electronic versions are here to stay, so must be embraced. Ebooks are cheap to produce, require no warehouse storage or physical distribution and can be created online with a few clicks of a mouse. Once an author has gone to the time and trouble of writing and printing a book, there is no reason not to go one step further and publish it electronically. It opens up another avenue of sales, with greater proceeds going direct to the author.
Does this mean that traditional book publishing will become obsolete? Not necessarily, if the case of Amanda Hocking is anything to go by. Rejected by publishers all over New York, the 26-year-old part time writer decided to self publish in ebook format only, selling her novels for between 99 cents and $2.99. A year later with 2 million copies sold she has found herself at the centre of a bidding war between major publishing houses, reportedly signing a $2 million, four-book deal with St Martin’s Press in late March this year. While the royalties she earns with this deal may not compare to the 70% she kept from her ebooks, for Hocking it’s a question of being able to do what she loves. She sums it up on her blog “I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation.”
Perhaps new technology and publishing options are working to everyone’s advantage. Hocking was able to use the ease of getting published electronically to generate an impressive fan base. Meanwhile, for the publishing houses, the guess work was taken out of it: ebook sales pointed them to a new author whose popularity was already established, guaranteeing they would not be left with a warehouse full of unsold books – and an author happy to exchange a portion of royalties for having the burden of the business side of book publishing taken off her shoulders.