To be frank, I don’t know much about book publishing. Two and a half years ago I’d never published anything. The industry’s been around for a hell of a lot longer than I have.
But these days a lot can happen in two and a half years, and I’m now one of those author upstarts. I have a four-book epic fantasy series, The Evermen Saga, out with 47North, Amazon Publishing’s SFF imprint. I’ve been in the top 100 SFF authors on Amazon for several months now and counting, sometimes reaching as high as number one.
I have hundreds of thousands of readers, but I’ve never walked into a bookstore and seen my books on the shelf. I’ve never done a launch or a signing. I don’t have an agent. The vast majority of my book sales are e-books. I’m sure you’ve never heard of me.
I think it’s pretty obvious that I have my origins as an indie author. I built up a fan base with three self-published novels and then signed with 47North as I was writing the fourth. Then, as now, I bury my head in my laptop and write. The only marketing I’ve ever done was to give away plenty of copies of my first book for free.
There’s a lot I don’t know, but I believe in sharing, so I’m going to share some observations from the point of view of a young(ish) person working to make it as a full-time fiction writer.
1. There seem to be two types of indie authors, extroverts and introverts.
The extroverts like to post, tweet, tour, update, share, like, review, meet, critique, pitch, sign, you get the idea. They can be characterised by phrases like: “A successful [insert social media strategy e.g. blog tour, kickstarter campaign] is essential for any indie author looking to succeed in today’s crowded marketplace.”
The introverts try to do that social media stuff (feeling foolish the whole time) but generally stick to writing books. They can be characterised by the sound of tap-tap-tap-tap (that’s supposed to be fingers on keys, not one hand clapping). You’ll hear that success is about getting a high number of good quality titles into the market; nothing comes close to being as important. All indies will say this, of course: it’s the truth.
Why do I mention this? Because I think it’s helpful to do what’s true to your nature. I read somewhere that an extrovert is someone who gains energy from social attention, while introverts are also social creatures only the contact is energy draining, requiring recovery. This rings true with me. Writing requires energy. For me, writing comes first, a long, long way before social media. (Guess which type I am?)
2. Some indie authors struggle to get noticed by the establishment.
You know what I mean: bookstores, the mainstream media, literary agents, libraries. In my opinion that’s not necessarily the best way to go about building a career. The fact is, for self publishers, the established industry will notice you when you don’t need it anymore because you’re already being noticed (think Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, EL James). Long story short: if you’re indie, focus on indie success.
3. Plenty of aspiring authors still favour the tradpub dream over the selfpub reality.
For many the hopeful vision of the future still begins with a literary agent who absolutely loves your novel. It moves on to an auction that results in a six figure advance from a Big Five publisher. You get superstar treatment as you meet all your famous author heroes, who are in love with your novel and provide eye-catching quotes for the jacket. Glowing reviews follow a fanfare book launch and tour. Oh, and there’s money too.
It’s a dream, but it’s also a dream that keeps aspirants up at night and makes the words continue to flow, writing in fits and starts around a stressful day job. With no sign of success for many, many years.
4. Both routes are brave.
It requires bravery to keep on submitting to the establishment for year after year. But it also requires courage to choose the journey of many steps, opening your work up to the world and acquiring dirty feet as you climb.
Choosing self-publishing means starting small—rather than dreaming big. In business terms, it’s the difference between founding a one-man software startup and getting venture capital to become the next Facebook.
My thoughts on the traditional dream are that it’s not the common reality. Yes it happens, but not for most. Can anyone really expect an unknown businessman (first time author) with a brand new idea (debut novel) to become the next Mark Zuckerberg (Stephen King)? My opinion is that the publishing industry, like any industry, is finding better and better ways to manage risk as the years go by. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg… they all had to prove themselves on their own before things happened.
It’s tough speculating about the future and it’s hard for us writers to choose a path, but the great thing is we now have a choice.
5. The one thing we can count on is further change.
I think traditional publishers are moving to adapt more swiftly than many in the other camp realise. We’re going to see more digital first imprints, books sourced from the self-pub slush pile, higher royalties, and smaller advances. Print books will become more physically attractive and collectible, maintaining a higher price than e-books. Airport paperbacks will continue to exist as cheap, low-quality, book-and-reader-all-in-one conveniences.
Publishers will outsource most jobs (design, legal, editing) with the exception of acquiring editors who aren’t going anywhere. The publishers themselves also aren’t going anywhere – one thing some people don’t realise is that mainstream publishers are sitting on an intellectual property goldmine, a fund that will continue to pay dividends for eons. Term of copyright is a long time.
Literary agents will continue to be useful to established names looking to negotiate as advantageous terms as possible. It will become even harder for a debut author to get an agent. And also largely unnecessary.
For many authors the path to success will be about using a growing variety of DIY publishing channels to develop a readership, and then the established industry will still have a part to play in growing that readership to its maximum viable size.
6.There are no villains in either camp.
Every author’s path is unique. Most people in publishing, self or traditional, when asked about the future are going to say the same thing: I’m busy. I need to get back to making books that people love.
I don’t know much about publishing, but I’m excited by what I’ve learned in the last two and a half years. I’m going to keep my mind open, my ear to the ground, but most of all, I’m going to keep writing.