It’s not you, Sue

I’ve gotten some private flak for my recent post on Sue Grafton and the interview she gave.

You know, the one where she called those who self-publish too lazy to do the hard work?

Yeah, that one.

But, listen, this isn’t about Sue. I have no doubt those who know her and love her and read her find her to be simply lovely. And, frankly, anyone who can write a series with titles based on the letters of the alphabet (I’m assuming G is for Gimmick?) knows her way around a keyboard … and the alphabet.

In fact, this isn’t even about the dismissive, condescending tone she used to describe, well, me … and 99.9% of the self-pubbed authors out there.

In all honesty, this is about the death of traditional publishing.

Okay, maybe death is too strong a word. Let’s go with extreme reluctance to grab the lifesaver we self-pubbed authors are throwing them. But even that gives us too much credit.

How about we just say We’re showing Them that We can do what We do without Them.

And that terrifies Them. (thus ends my brief foray into capitalized pronouns)

A cursory wander ’round Google will bring up all kinds of hits from well-established blogs and writers who’ve discussed this issue at length. So, if this intrigues you — and, if you’re a writer, it damn well should –, there’s a lot out there to read.

I’ve decided to take this bull by the horns in a more personal way.

One person who wrote me about the earlier post said that if I were offered a contract from a traditional publisher, I’d take it!

But, hand to God, I don’t know if that’s true.

You see, as a newbie writer, a contract with a Publisher would basically put me where I already am. I’d still have a book to write, still have a book to market, still have a book to sell, still have other books to write. The only differences would be A) I’d be under contract and more than likely have to alter what I write — bye bye, awesome freedom –, and B) I would not be getting the sweet royalties I get now.

Oh, and there’s a C) in there, too: I’d be not-so-gently penalized (Hello, Bargain Bin) for sales that underperform expectations.

Ouch.

When publishers make budget cuts — and, believe me, the floors are awash in red over there these days — the first things to go are Executive Pay and Star Author Perks.

Just kidding.

Marketing and Editing hit the chopping block first.

So, as a new writer, you’ll get a line edit looking for typos and grammatical errors, but you’re not getting any structural edits. Gone are the days when a pair of Wise, Experienced Eyes would look over your opus, highball in one hand, cigarette in the other, and say in a sonorous voice, “Listen, kid, trim here, give me more of Character A, pep up Character D, ditch Character B ’cause he’s a boring asshole, and lose that bit with the blue hat ’cause it doesn’t make sense”.

Nope. Typos and misplaced commas. That’s what you get as far as Edits go.

And marketing? You’re on your own there, too.

Sure, they may throw a tiny bit of cash your way in the very beginning. But, and this is the kicker, if your book doesn’t show strong numbers right away based on the small ad they ran in some obscure publishing magazine, guess who gets bundled with two other low performers and tossed deep into the shadows of the $1 bin.

Nothing you can do about it.

Shoppers will continue to find themselves face-to-face with Bestselling Author A’s Big Tower’o’Books the minute they escape the revolving doors while you languish deep in a box in a warehouse or far, far, far in the back of a shelf no one can reach.

You signed the dotted line, you agreed to it, you are contractually trapped.

And you no longer call the shots.

Oh, did I mention the royalty payments? If you’re lucky enough to sell a physical book, you’ll see perhaps 12% of that. Or 15%. Or 20% tops. If you’re lucky.

When?

Payments are sent quarterly. Maybe. There are all kinds of accounting gimmicks they pull out of their hats to buff up their bottom line and sap the happy from your checks.

And ebooks? You’re looking at maybe getting 20% to 30% of that. Maybe not. Accounting gimmicks apply as does the quarterly schedule.

So, in the face of all this ridiculousness the Author has no control over, why would I or anyone else who self-pubs go with a Major?

Well, if you’re as unknown as I am right now, you wouldn’t. If you’re Amanda Hocking or that 50 Shades of Grey chick, money. Up front. A lot of it. You sign away the rights, agree to a new series or something, shock your bank account with more numbers than its ever seen, and, finally, take a deep breath and relax.

And then it begins.

Your books no longer priced at .99 or $1.99 or $2.99, you lose a chunk of your audience. The marketing angle the Major decides on is fairly Old School and completely misses the mark ’cause they have no idea who your readers are. You do, but they won’t listen to you because, well, you know, you’re just the Author. Oh, and the new covers kinda suck.

But it’s out of your hands.

So is the fact that your books are no longer selling at the numbers they had been when they were self-pubbed, usually because your readers balk at the new price point and it feels like the work is no longer speaking to them. Because it isn’t.

The marketing budget for you is reigned in a bit. Your new agent assures you everything’s okay when you know it’s somehow not. You’re lost in the dark wondering when the next interview or book signing or whatever will be. And no one is returning your calls.

Surprise! You’re expendable.

Because the unspoken deal behind the smiles and three-martini lunches at restaurants with table cloths and violins (no, scratch the violins … too distracting) the Major will shower you with is that the numbers you have as an incredibly successful self-pub are the numbers you have to bring as a non-self-pub … and then some. If even a small percentage of your readers leave — which inevitably happens when a series ends or they outgrow the genre and move on to other things or the phenom hits its peak and then ebbs or, although your readers love you, they don’t love you enough to splash out $9.99 for something they used to buy for $2.99 or .99 — your numbers suffer.

And where will the smiles and tablecloths and violins (changed my mind, they’re back in) be then?

But there is a way around this.

A very successful self-pub whose name escapes me (apologies) just signed with a Major. For physical books. Only. He keeps the ebook rights and profits, they work the physical book angle and he gets the standard 15 – 20% or whatever.

Smart, yeah?

So, if a Major were to ever wine and dine me — and, let’s face it, the chances of my getting a gilded invitation to sup at Fancy Pants Restaurant are pretty darn slim — , that’s the kind of deal I’d make. And if they balked and hemmed and hawed, I’d walk away. A bad deal will never magically become a good deal. Best not to agree to it and then fan the flames by legalizing it with my Jonathan Winn.

I’d just go back to doing what I was doing well in the first place.

Because, at the end of the day, it’s pretty damn awesome being self-pubbed.

It’s about time the Majors realized that.

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13 comments on “It’s not you, Sue

  1. Thank you, Sir Howey! The only other time I’ve heard the “B” word is after I tripped over a shoelace and spilled my Big Gulp. Needless to say, this “B” is much, much better.

  2. amschultzcom says:

    Reblogged this on HEADSPIT and commented:
    Author Jonathan Winn’s must-read article on self-publishing

  3. amschultzcom says:

    WOW!

    Those “haymakers” aren’t just reserved to Martuk, man. Damn!

    Excellent post! Once I pull the lazy stick out of my mouth, which is attached to the head currently stuck up my ass, I will add this to the daily tweet rotation. People need to read this!

  4. Sarra Cannon says:

    You found a way to put into words everything I’ve been feeling and thinking. So many people believe that self-pubs are only looking to sign a big contract, but that’s really not true. The advantages to self-publishing are too amazing! Yes, maybe if I could get a deal like John Locke where I only sold print rights and they agreed not to change my story, but I know I wouldn’t sign a deal for new work. I just don’t see any advantage to the big publishers anymore. Nothing that would be worth giving up creative freedom, anyway.

    Brilliant post that really hit home. Thank you!

    • Why, thank you, Sarra. (love the two “r”s, by the way)

      As with anything, there are pluses and minuses. For self-pubbed authors, though, it’s my belief the minuses not only outweigh the pluses, they body slam them, suffocate them, tie them in a Hefty bag, and chuck ’em in a river! (hmmmm, think my WIP is waking up)

      That being said, as authors who publish, we’re basically publishers running a small business. Slipping on our nosey britches and Googling ’till it hurts will put us in a much stronger position when the Majors do come a’knockin’. Because as their slush piles disappear — with writers eventually favoring the self-pub alternative and not even bothering to submit –, they’re going to start poaching from the self-pub Best Seller List or they’ll have no new authors to promote.

      Hopefully by then, they’ll have cried “Uncle!” and will be ready to do some Newbie Contract Gymnastics to sweeten the pot. (hint: start with the royalties)

      Arming ourselves with knowledge will enable us to get the deals WE want instead of what they put in front of us.

      Kinda cool, yeah?

      Again, thank you for the Comment. 🙂

  5. mselene says:

    YES. Thank you. I find myself hiding my self-publishing dreams because they’re seen as ‘below’ traditional publishing, but you’ve perfectly summed up why I believe in self-publishing so much.

    • There are pluses and minuses to both platforms. The most important thing is for you to write and then allow that writing to find its readers. That’s why we do what we do! 🙂

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