Ten years ago, the aspiring writer’s dream was straightforward. Spend two years working in hibernation, scrounge a couple of dollars so you can to print and mail your manuscript to publishers, and then pray. Pray that out of every 200 authors you are the one lucky and skilled enough to get a book deal. And if you happen to be one of the other 199? Well, it’s either back into your cave, where you’ll have to downgrade from Kraft Dinner to no-name noodle soup and turn the thermostat from 13 to 11 (or worse, off), or it’s back to the real world with ya!
Those were the good old days—when authors were authors and publishers were king—and if you wanted to buy a book, well, you just went down to the corner bookstore and bought one. But the digital revolution in the music industry has foreshadowed a scenario ignored by many in the book publishing world, who now find themselves in a very similar situation.
In 2012, Rhonda Bailey, a retired publishing instructor who has been in the book publishing industry since 1978, was interviewed about her career and the industry in Portal magazine. “The digital revolution has unquestionably transformed cultural industries like publishing, and new business models are still evolving at a bewildering rate. The restructuring currently taking place is a paradigm shift much more significant than the constant advances in technology that have been part of my own career in publishing,” Bailey says.
Not since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-1400s has publishing changed so vastly and so quickly. It is a chaotic metamorphosis moving from tradition to technology, from indie bookstores to Amazon.com, from hardcover and paperback to Kindle and Kobo, and from writers who were simply under contract to write and occasionally read their works, to writers who now need to be multi-tasking proprietors of their business.
“Perhaps [Creative Writing] students will be independent practitioners of the craft of writing, those who create content, publish it, and market it themselves,” Bailey says.
The success of “indie authors”—those who are or want to get into self-publishing—depends on skill sets in digital media, page layout, and marketing, for a start. However, brick-and-mortar publishing houses also expect aspiring authors to be social media savvy. So where does this leave authors entering the fray in 2013?
Thankfully for many emerging writers the established industry practices, although some would argue archaic, are far from extinct. However, publishing houses are dealing with continually shrinking margins and many are under greater financial constraints than ever. The marketplace has also become extremely crowded, with large bookstore chains, like Chapters displaying only the books most likely to sell (established or award-winning authors already on bestseller lists).
Meanwhile, many newspapers, magazines, and other “old” media formats are slashing their review sections. All of this makes it more risky for presses to take on new and unproven authors. More often than not, decisions come down to sales forecasts and hard numbers, whereas in the past a publisher might have relied to a greater extent on gut instinct.
Veteran publishing agent and consultant, Robert Mackwood, a Vancouver-based insider specializing in non-fiction, has witnessed many of these changes. “In Canada, the retail bookstore market, which is still the biggest repository of new books, has been contracting for many years, and as Internet e-tailers bloom and expand it makes for an even smaller distribution network. This newer economic model has caused chaos for publishers while costing out an acquisition. Add in a consumer with increasing choices for their entertainment dollar, and more recently the advent of e-books with a brand new business model, and the results are a marketplace that makes acquisition choices even more discreetly and definitively,” says Mackwood.
The consultancy side of Mackwood’s business was added to adapt to these changing times. He consults with aspiring writers and tries to find the right publishing “fit” for them, including guiding potential authors down the self-publishing road and providing the contacts and services they’ll need to succeed. Mackwood is sceptical of the odds for up-and-coming writers going the traditional route, even with an agent. “[It’s] harder than ever and verging on impossible,” Mackwood says of trying to sell a new author’s work to a traditional publisher.
However, a partnership with a traditional book publisher still offers authors the transference of risk; the publishing house takes on the associated costs of editing, printing, designing, and distributing while providing the author with a small advance on what is usually a 10 percent royalty.
Joy Gugeler, a publishing instructor who has taught at Vancouver Island University, Simon Fraser University, and Ryerson University, encourages writers to ask questions before they sign on. “If you go with a traditional press, what’s its track record? Have they successfully published work like yours? Talk to other authors. Have they had good editorial experiences? Are they getting their royalty cheques regularly? Have they done a good job marketing the book? Do they invest in authors over the long term?”
There are some issues that are out of the publisher’s control. The biggest handicap associated with the old system is its bookstore returns policy. During the Great Depression booksellers were provided with this loophole to ensure stock made it to the shelves. The same system continues today. Booksellers can return unsold books to the publisher for a complete refund for up to a year after ordering. The value of these forfeited sales is directly deducted from an author’s royalties. Back then the model didn’t have any competition so it survived; with the prevalence of self-publishing, that may change, but it’s unlikely to help unproven authors given that the risk is being transferred from the publishers to the booksellers, and they’d surely be even less likely to gamble on an unknown.
Zoe Grams, a publicist who has been working with authors for five years, agrees that we need to discover a better publishing model, fast. “I don’t know if subscriptions and paywalls will work [for journalists and feature writers], but if they do become the best financial model then writers will benefit from associating themselves with an organization which can afford to pay them while dealing with the considerable economic factors involved in running a publication.” For novelists, she says, “The future is even more uncertain. Self-publishing is often worth a shot, but ultimately to have the reach, confidence, and publicity associated with your book, joining a publishing house is still the best option.” But what to do when all of the business models are transforming, and as of yet, no one model has emerged as the pacesetter?
Mackwood urges authors to take matters into their own hands. “I would suggest the time for many authors to ‘go it alone’ is [now]. If we agree that publishers’ acquisitions are down and not expected to increase, in fact, I would argue they will never come back to pre-e-book levels, then authors will have no choice.”
What does “going it alone” mean? You can e-publish, or you can go through self-publishing houses like Millcity press, Blitzprint, or Lulu if you still want the physical book. In the past, these self-publishing houses were known as vanity presses, more often than not printing limited runs of books for authors unable to sign on with a publishing house. A recent Canadian self-publishing success story is Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption, and, yes, Happiness, launched in May 2012 after her high-profile firing from the Toronto Star. Wong has already sold over 5000 print copies of her book at $21.99 (shipping included), and sells the e-book for $8.49–$9.99.
But “going it alone” also means an investment by the author, not only in time but money as well. All of the costs associated with publishing the book, and there can be lot of them, fall into the author’s lap. In Anne Kingston’s May 7, 2012 Macleans.ca article, Wong is reported to have invested $35 thousand of her own money to publish Out of the Blue.
For writers reluctant to financially invest, a new form of self-publishing has emerged over the last five years. E-publishing is growing, and is causing much consternation within the industry. It is also the cause of much delight. Indie author, Hille, calls this the “Golden Age of self-publishing.”
With e-publishing, you truly are going it alone. No editors, no design team, no marketing team. Nothing. With that said, publishing your eBook for Kindle on the Amazon site is no harder than selling on Ebay. Once you set up your account and get to the publishing page, you click “add new title,” enter the back jacket copy, identify the rights and set the price, add your cover image, then upload the digital file of your book which will then convert to a Kindle file. Twelve hours later, your book is for sale in 175 countries at zero cost to you.
You set the price, and get options as to what royalty percentage you want (up to 70 percent). This is only one example of how easy it is to e-publish. Barnes and Noble’s Pubit!, Apple’s iBookstore, and Kobo, are some of the other forerunners in this rapidly expanding field of publishing, and new formats continue to evolve; Kindle singles (essays, articles, or short stories between 5 thousand–30 thousand words) are an excellent example of this. Even better, you don’t have to commit to one publisher or bookseller with this model; you can print and sell the same book on each site. There are hundreds of successful indie authors who in the past few years have sold over 50 thousand copies of their books.
But not everyone is on the e-pub bandwagon. “Self-publishing can help an author establish himself,” Grams says. “But so, too, can ‘scratch and wins’ fund your mortgage, or your ‘acting career’ take off in Hollywood. That sounds facetious, but I think one of the problems with the self-publishing model is that there is so much content, and so much competition, that it’s very difficult to get noticed. I think a lot of people forget that and assume they will be the exception to the rule, just like app creation.”
Gugeler suggests that authors should give their options a lot of thought before jumping in. “If you’re going to self-publish then really be a publisher. Really think about why you want to publish this book. For what market? How can you reach them? How much of that effort will be online? How much will be in traditional media or in person? How do you get in front of readers rather than expecting them to come to you? And do you have enough time to write and do all this to promote your book? If not, how do you farm some of that out, get help, and still come out in the black?”
So, is it harder than ever to make money writing? Yes. Is it easier than ever to make money writing? Also yes. Whether you go the traditional publishing route or try your hand at one of the newer business models, there are a lot more options out there for writers than even five years ago.
“I think we’re still in the wild west days of figuring what the sweet spot is for publishers and for authors,” Gugeler says. “And, unfortunately, any author who graduates into this environment right now just enters the chaos to a certain extent and my advice to them would be to do your homework.”
Professional writing is still a crapshoot, always has been, even for the talented ones, and yes, there is a lot of uncertainty out there right now, but for the multi-skilled and entrepreneurial workhorses, there are opportunities like never before.