First, the commercial: As of today, SwanSong is now available for Kindle. I'm working on getting a dead-tree version together. I'll let you know when it's available.
Also, thanks to everybody who used my Smashwords coupon over the weekend! I hope you enjoy the book. If you do, please consider going back to Smashwords and leaving a short review.
Okay, phew, that's out of the way. Thanks for your indulgence.
Shortly after I started this blog and committed to posting once a week, my Creative Brain went into hyperdrive. "Oh boy, there are soooo many things I could talk about! There's this, and this, and this -- I've got enough material for at least half a year!" At that same time, a still, small voice -- a.k.a. Rational Brain -- said, "Y'know, you probably ought to write all of these great ideas down somewhere." Alas, Responsible Brain, which is in charge of making lists and keeping me on track and whatnot, was at that precise moment distracted by the approach of Hurricane Irene.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Anyway, the List of Great Topics did not happen, so this week we will have to muddle along with a middling topic, which is: Why Self-Publishing Is Not a Stupid Idea in Today's Publishing Environment.
Back in grade school, when I was just a little teeny writer, I saw an ad in our local paper from a "New York editor" who was coming to town to evaluate manuscripts for possible publication. I pointed out the ad to my mom, who -- bless her heart -- actually called and made an appointment for me to see the guy. So Mom and I met him in his hotel room (okay, it was a motel room -- my hometown didn't have any classy hotels) and he looked over my stuff. To his credit, he gave me some decent on-the-spot advice about writing mysteries ("If you're going to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, don't continue the same scene on the very next page"), told me to keep writing, and sent us home without a contract. I know now that it was probably a blessing because he represented a vanity publisher, and it would've cost Mom and Dad money to get my work published.
For decades, that's what self-publishing meant: You paid a vanity press money to format your manuscript so that it looked like a real book and printed it for you, and then you paid them some more for copies of your book (some of which you sent to the relatives at Christmas and the rest of which languished in boxes in the garage).
At the same time, the real publishers, who paid you to publish your book, were still looking for, and signing, midlist authors: writers whose books weren't bestsellers but which made the publisher enough money to justify publishing something else by the same writer. It wasn't easy to break into print, but publishers back then were more willing to take a chance on somebody they'd never heard of.
That began to change (I am learning right now from Wikipedia) in 1979, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a tax case (Thor Power Tool Co. v. Commissioner, 439 U.S. 522 (1979)) that companies could not write off unsold inventory on their taxes simply because the stuff didn't sell. Publishers, who were in the habit of keeping a lot of unsold books on hand, had to tighten up their inventory procedures. In other words, they had to start concentrating on buying manuscripts that would sell. This is why today, publishers prefer to buy manuscripts from authors who have made a name for themselves in some other arena: politics, business, entertainment, whatever. They figure the author's name recognition will help move books.
Pity the poor prospective midlist author in this environment. If it was hard to break into publishing before Thor Power Tool, it was nearly impossible now. For every J.K. Rowling, there were, oh, I dunno, thousands of other decent writers, maybe, who didn't get lucky. Literary agents, who had stepped in as the first line of defense between publishers and would-be authors, had a field day picking and choosing clients.
Then the Internet began to level the playing field. First came print-on-demand (POD) operations like Lightning Source and Lulu, which take your formatted manuscript and your money and print it for you -- no editorial help offered (unless you pay extra). Then came shady operators like PublishAmerica, which is an electronic version of the old vanity press, except worse. Authors who submit their work to these places get a book-like object in return, but it's often a formatting mess, sometimes riddled with errors. (Reportedly PublishAmerica is in the habit of introducing errors into books that weren't there in the original manuscript.) No wonder self-publishing got such a bad name.
But then came the e-book. That's when everything began to change. Now you can send an electronic file to, say, Smashwords, for free, and Smashwords will sell it for you as an e-book. Find an error? Just fix it and upload a new file.
And the pay scale is better. Under the old publishing model, the agent takes a cut, the publisher takes a big cut (which is only fair -- the publisher pays for the editing, printing, marketing, and warehouse space), and the author gets what's left. But by selling an e-book on Amazon, the author can take home as much as 70% of the purchase price. You do the editing and formatting, Amazon does the marketing. The only thing an author might lose this way is the warm, fuzzy feeling you get by knowing somebody liked your work well enough to publish it. But I tell you what: warm, fuzzy feelings won't pay the rent. And if the point of the exercise is to make money, and if you're going to sell at a midlist level either way, well....
Oh sure, there are still people in the publishing industry who look down their noses at self-publishing. But that's changing, too. I've been reading reports of agents (who really are left out in the cold by the new business model) who are setting up their own e-publishing houses and approaching indie authors (that's the hip, new label for self-published e-book authors) with pitches to publish their work. And while dead-tree books still command a larger share of the market, e-book sales are growing faster. Which is apparent every time you pass a Borders going out of business.
The times, they are a-changin'.
For me, self-publishing makes sense right now. I survived broadcast journalism, another absurdly competitive business, in which it took me almost fifteen years to get a job in a major market. I could spend another fifteen years working my way up the publishing industry ladder, the way I did in broadcasting -- but I'm eligible for retirement in eight. And if I can make decent money by doing something I love without banging my head against the wall for the next fifteen years -- really, what have I got to lose by trying?
I just hope self-publishing hasn't jumped the shark.