Monday, 18 January 2010

The Real Value Of Mainstream Publishing

Last spring, the lovely Sally Zigmond linked to this interesting article on her blog. It's a great piece about the value—or not—of publishing by non-mainstream routes.

It's essential reading for writers—particularly those who believe that some sort of Great Publishing Conspiracy is in operation to stop new writers from getting published, and that Indie Publishing is the Next Big Thing.


Jill said...

Never say never, but for me, it seems there are more long-term advantages to sticking with traditional publishing.

My first book, Blood and Groom, was released in November 2009 by a medium-sized Canadian publisher. The experience has been good so far.

I have been reviewed by and interviewed by some newspapers and magazines (two national publications). I doubt those things would have happened if I had self-published.

Also, libraries across Canada have my book in their collections (some libraries have ordered several copies). "Blood and Groom" would not likely be in public libraries if it were self published.

Finally, my book has wide distribution in retail outlets across Canada (plus with online retailers). Again, I don't think this would be the case with self-publishing.

Cheers, Jill
"Blood and Groom" is now in stores!

Marisa Birns said...

Yes, I agree with author of the article that a variety of sources will exist side by side for publishing opportunities. But I do think that we will always need the experts do their job.

And yes, Christopher Paolini did become an international best seller after self-publishing his Eragon book.

But, unlike many others who enter self-publishing arena with absolutely no knowledge of where to begin, Christopher's family ran a home-based publishing company.

They knew how to work the system.

Their son knew how to write well, they knew how to get it out there.

Marisa (@marisabirns)

Dan Holloway said...

"Indie" is a strange old term. It was interesting to read Victoria's take on it. She is right that independent publishers have been around as long as those that are subsidiaries, but I would argue that in case law if not in statute, "indie" no longer really means "independent" - it means "independent-plus" where the plus is, by and large, political. Indie is independent for the sake of independence and is not afraid to be in your face about it (and, sadly, is often confrontational about it). I think what I'm trying to say is that I think Victoria has misunderstood how the term Indie is used just as she has identified a misuse on the indies' part of how "traditional" is used.

Terminology really IS a problem, because there IS a wing of the book world that is beyond independent, that often calls itself Indie, but even that doesn't go far enough. We often call ourselves punk, because that is more descriptive (although many of our interlocutors misunderstand punk) - in the technical sense of espousing self-sufficiency and DIY. Punk lit is writing produced on the author's own terms. The problem is that whilst punk kicked life into music and fashion, and made audiences feel vital again, and we'd love to do the same with lit, let's face it the DIY ethos of punk (that famous "three chords" cover) meant that most of it was rubbish - and whilst I have a lot of sympathy for people who don't care for quality but only care for vitality and democratisation, they're not me.

I think I'm going to blog about this, but it's just occurred to me that the correct terminlogy doesn't come from the music/fashion world at all, as we always assumed it did. It actually comes from the world of wine.

I want to point to two things, and see if they resonate.

1. The wine industry became, especially in the 80s, hidebound by the Apellation Controle system - mainly in France (AOC) and Italy (DOCG), with its rules and regs, and a pricing structure that tied price to adherence to the rules. What did the best, most progressive wine producers do? They didn't change their production methods (they wanted quality, not tradition); they didn't try and change the rles. They simply accepted the tag of Table Wine, the lowest "unclassified" rung on the wine hierarchy, and turned it into a badge of honour. It became a revolution, and now the best, and most expensive wine in Italy is Vino di Tavola - and France is following suit.

2. Again in the 80s, a number of micro-vineyards sprung up. Yes, there was a lot of dodgy capitalism involved, but some have stayed the course and many traditionalists will now admit that the aim of the vintners at Harlan Estate and Le Pin was quality through absolute control of the tiniest detail, and production on the opposite of an industrial scale. The term for such viticultural philosophy was garagiste (because the wines were produced in buildings no bigger than a garage - yes, I DO see the music connection).

Googling the term just now, I actually came across a few uses of the term Garage Lit, and it seems to be used in a way I rather like. I can't snaffle that term, but I would like to date stamp the use of the terms garagiste and garagista (one who practises garagiste philosophy) in a literary context. "Table lit" too.

karen wester newton said...

I was going to post this comment on the original BookBrunch post, but they don't allow unregistered comments and it costs "£99.00 per annum" to register, which suggests to me that these are folks who are heavily invested in the old business model.

Of course traditional publishing is the goal of 99% or aspiring writers. Why not? That's where the prestige and money (such as it is) is. Having a traditional publisher increases a writer's chances of success tremendously. But mergers and consolidation in publishing houses has meant that a smaller and smaller pool of editors decides what will get published. Self publishing does provide an alternative; in most cases it will turn out to be, if not a total dead end, merely a cul de sac on a one-block street, but it's better than nothing.

It's also worth noting that every assessment of someone's work is, on some level, subjective. After years of holding out and refusing to pay for TV, I finally have access to cable TV but not to premium channels, and one series I really enjoy watching is MAD MEN. The reason I can watch it on AMC is that HBO turned it down.

Sheila Norton said...

Coincidentally I've just referred, on my own blog, to a letter from a reader of a UK newspaper who was self-published and was being unnecessarily insulting to mainstream publishers and their authors. Sour grapes? Of course. I agree with the previous comment, that most writers would prefer to be published in the traditional way: but if I find myself without a publisher again I'd definitely consider self-publishing as an alternative. I wonder why there is anything to argue about - I'd have thought we'd all agree on this? Show me a self-published author who would actually turn down a contract with a traditional publisher!

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Olivia *raises hand*

I've explained in various forums why I'd say no to a publishing deal. It would probably also be a thought-provoking blog (or at least a debate-starting one) - which is two inspired by this one post - Jane'll be after commission soon.

Let me explain. I'm broke. I mean seriously broke, as in, in deep financial trouble. An advance would provide temporary relief from that, and that is a very tempting thing. But it's temporary.

Fact: No publisher is going to pay me enough of an advance to give up my day job, pay my debts, and devote myself to writing. Writing as a contracted author would be an evening, lunch hour and weekend activity, with signings on my leave days - as it is now. Which consideration throws into light:

1. I would lose - final cut; the ability to work with a cover designert who understands me almost telepathically; freedom to choose my next project according to what's best for my development as a writer

2. I would be under pressure to recoup marketing & advance - and similarly with book 2 - two mediocre sales performances and I'd be junked

So, yes, after year 1, I'd be better of if I had a publisher. But anyone who wants to make a career as a writer has to realise that provided they still have a roof over their heads, year 1 is irrelevant - what matters is where they are in year 5, 10, and beyond For the kind of book I write, and the way I want to take my relationship with my readers, I just don't see that being jumping onto someone's midlist. Of course, there are lots of really really exciting new ventures springing up that may change my mind, but they'd have to offer a lot that no publisher I know is offering. So for now I'm very very happy where I am, self-publishing as part of Year Zero.

I'll hop on over to your blog now :)

Sheila Norton said...

And if you all take a quick look at Dan's blog you'll completely understand, as I now humbly do, why he prefers to be self-published! There are creations -'book' is too prosaic a word - which deserve a more artistic approach than a mainstream publisher would give. Good luck Dan. PS - You're also young enough to get to grips with the necessary technology! :)

Anonymous said...

What flaggers my gast is how vanity publishers are so free and easy with their terminology. "Gee, vanity sounds so, so, tacky, so let's just steal another word [already being used, mind you], and really confuse the snot out of new writers."

Hence, the birth of "indie publishing" instead of vanity publishing. Well heck, guys, I am an indie trade publisher, so I find this whole thing rather offensive.

I have authors who ask me for my price breakdown for publishing packages. Others ask if I offer a "golden package." Fingernails to a chalkboard.

If writers want to vanity pub, that's fine. If they're happy with this option, great. Only I really wish they'd come up with a better, unique term.

[getting off soap box now]

Michael said...

Dan's comparison of publishing to wine is very apt in one way - wine, like publishing, is an artisanal product that's a hand crafted thing. In the late 90s and the early years of this century, the world's most interesting and successful wineries and vineyards were bought up by big corporates, who now demand big profits from what is an unreliable product, subject as it is to the whims of nature.

Publishing, another artisanal, unpredictable product, has also been forced into a corporate strait jacket. In both cases, the result has been a homogenization of product and a turning away from the kind of risk taking that's necessary to unleash great writing/ great wine making.

Where the analogy falls down is that the independent wine makers - the garagistes of the world - are almost universally highly expert and classically trained, who are often very cashed up (think the Antinori family and the Super Tuscans). They have all worked within the traditional wine trade.

Where indie publishers, even with the best intentions, are going to fall down, is in this area of expertise and capital. So many self publishers refuse to believe that mainstream editors and publishers actually know anything. Keeping creative control is almost meaningless when you can't afford to buy the right expertise, or aren't even sure what it is.

Some very talented people are going to break out - Dan may well be one of them, because he is so clear about what he intends to achieve.

The best the rest of us can hope for is that eventually the corporate overlords realise they can't squeeze double digit returns out of the book trade, and sell of their publishing arms. If they could become independents again, in the traditional sense, both writers and readers would be better off.

Dan Holloway said...

Wowsers, Olivia - "young"! You've no idea how happy that's made me (here, by the way, is my ugly and fast approaching middle-age mug, reading from SKIN BOOK ) And thank you for the comment about the book :) - do come along to our event in Brick Lane!

@BB - "golden package" - gosh, there are so many images... And I am very aware I'm not an indie publisher. Nor, I hope, have I been sucked in by vanity publishers - my current book (a bootlace version, as opposed to bootleg) is currenntly being assembled in my study from professionally trimmed prints, some glue, a large pile of bootlaces, a hole punch, and a long reel of thick red cotton (I am also hand-stenciling Year Zero ecobags to hold the goodies for everyone on our VIP list at Year Zero live on Feb 4th). I don't know what to call it - garagista is part joke (but only part - the point about wine is deadly serious - of course, as befits wine). At Year Zero we'd rather not realy call it anything (although I'm sure we'll stew up a debate on one of our Saturday blogs about names) - we'd rather just get on and do what we do. And at the moment that's live readings, holding multi-arts events, giving writing classes, generally trying to get people excited about books. And hoping they buy some of what we've got to offer on the way.

@Michael - yes, Super Tuscans was exactly what I was thinking - the Solaia and Tignanello and Sassicaias of the world. I most certainly don't think the mainstream knows nothing - especially editors. Having final cut 100% doesn't mean not consulting the best editors you can afford who are right for you and your book. Likewise design (SKIN BOOK - the product being assembled in my study - was designed to within an inch of its life by a designer who has an almost telepathic ability to interpret what I'm after (it feels sometimes more like a writer/mangaka relationship). I DO agree the big publishers need to behave like independents to have the expertise and flexibility needed in today's market. Harper Collins have made promising moves, but not quite got it - Harper Studio is fab - then they brought in Jessica Wiener(no bad thing - but when they anounced it they highlighted all the big mainstream projects she'd worked on - again, not bad, but why not say why she's right for THAT imprint?)

Voidwalker said...

I used to think that the cosmos aligned in an effort to stop me, and other new authors. from getting published.

I never blamed the publishing industry. lol

Just kidding of course, but it's easy to feel that way when you don't know the system and especially if you don't have a well written novel (which can be the best bet to getting started)

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - you are so right in so much of what you say. There are many published authors who would be doing better financially if seriously self-publishing in the way that you are. I might even be one of them! However, I have two sticking-points (not disagreements with you, but reasons why I can't see myself going down this route): a) I want to spend my time writing. People who know me, including you, Jane and Lynn, know that i bust a gut to do everything possible promotion-wise to help my books launch, but the rest of the time I must be writing, not selling. b) There are so, so many absolutely dire self-published books (yes, there are some crappy published ones too but I'm talking direness of a different order) and it's this attitude of too many aspiring writers: "Well, publishers said no so I'll do it myself because I know my writing is stunning and publishers are stupid." It tarnishes your own (and that of other Year Zero writers, such as Marc) very real determination to write a book which is absolutely good enough to be published but which you have very bravely chosen to publish yourself. I take my hat off to you but I wish there were more like you. THEN I could truly embrace the idea of self-publishing. (Which, Lynn, is not the same as vanity - I do think there's something different going on in the US, a different perception and a different range of activities / business models. Vanity pubbing is not what Dan is doing - he's simply choosing an alternative route to the reader, cutting out the middle-person, and I know him well enough to know that he is deadly serious about wrting quality and attracting quality readers.)

If more genuinely good writers choose to go down the serious self-pubbing route, perhaps co-operatively, then publishers really will have something to worry about, and so will agents. But I don't beleive that very many will - simply because most are comfrtable having publishers do the selling / distribution / design ect for them. Although writers are entrepreneurial by nature, we are generally not business-people. I am a business-person too, but I hate selling myself and I don't have the desire to lose more writing time than I already do, so I'm sticking with publishers, even when I sometimes am driven demented by their decisions.

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, as regards point b) yes - I think many self-publishers who blithely say "yes, but look at all the awful published books out there" don't actually realise just HOW bad the average self-published book is - it's orders of magnitude stuff as you say.

I'm not 100% convinced that readers notice whether a book is self-published when browsing, so the issue becomes convincing stockists and reviewers. One thing to point out is that they only need convincing once - in either direction.

I have found independent bookshops very willing to give a go to books - especially in conjunction with events which will bring them trade for their other stock. Chains - well, the kind of fiction we write at Year Zero is very suited to direct ordering, and to sale from independent outlets (not just bokstores), so I'm not sure I need to convince chains - that will obviously vary according to genre. So the big hurdle is reviewwers. again, much easier if your target audience is not mainstream.

I am very lucky in 2 respects - 1. I LOVE nattering away on the web (er, sorry, marketing :p) and most of all I love giving readings; and 2. I have 4 years of experience as manager for small luxury retail showrooms, where I was chief buyer and seller as well as responsible for marketing, events, and budgeting.

One further point on the hurdles is that they have to be seen in the scope of a long-term approach. Each book only has to convince A FEW MORE outlets of its worth in order, 5 or 10 books down the line, for the "stigma" to become a non-issue (and those books, of course, are not wasted - they are sellable as back catalogue). This is on the assumption that when an outlet takes a book it is happy that it's made a good decision. If this ISN'T the case, of course, because the book's duff - of course I'll be back where I've started - but then I'd deserve to be, wouldn't I? I certainly don't want favours. That's one thing I really object to about some wings of the militant self-publishing brigade - the idea that we should all help each other "because we're all indie". Well, no! How's that going to help? It'll devalue us rather than promoting us - I am all in FAVOUR of supporting independent writers in what they do - but all AGAINST supporting their individual books unless they're any good. Like I say, we don't want favours - we just want readers to have access to our books so they can make their own minds up.

Sulci Collective said...

dreary old nomenclature... I'd hate to be thought of as garage lit or garagiste. Punk lit will put people off through preconception.

I quite like MoxieMezcal's 'guerilla lit' tag, but some people will misconceive that it's political...

I've never really understood the need for names and genres at all, except for marketing labels. To me it's all just fiction. The means of production and distribution of books are matter for the writers and their producers/distributors. Can't see any value in mud slinging over it. Each writer will know or at least have a good idea what model works best for them.

marc nash

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - I also love doing talks etc. I do hundreds, of all sorts. Doing them is easy. But writing as well... that's harder. I now don't have enough time to write (what with all that "nattering" on the web, er, marketing) and the thought have having to deal with distribution and persuading shops / outlets of any sort to sell it makes me feel sick. I'd self-publish if someone else could do that side for me, the genuine marketing (as opposed to promotion).

Dan Holloway said...

Marc - yes, nomenclature is 99% red herring. The most important thing is to do. I suppose it's the part of me that spent too long in academia (I wasn't allowed to write any of my thesis on the erotioc in Puritan marriage Sermons until I'd spent two terms justifying my use of the word Puritan) that can't quite help thinking that namesare interesting.