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Self-publishing, Vanity Presses, and the Independent Author

November 21, 2009

Kris and I have always been behind self-publishing a lot of our writings. Some will be submitted to epublishers (mainly Loose Id because I really like them and their quality), but most will be published under our own imprint. We have a lot of reasons for doing this, none of which is a series of rejection letters telling us we suck as authors.

It was announced that Harlequin intends to open up a self-publishing imprint, but the truth of the matter is that Harlequin Horizons will actually be a vanity publishing operation.

So, the romance world exploded. XD

I have to say that the comments from the traditionally published authors — both midlist and NYT best sellers — just sounds like fear. Once a couple of self-published authors began weighing in, explaining that while, yes, vanity publishing is bad, self-publishing is not necessarily, you would think someone had said Nora Roberts’ mother was ugly. *rolls eyes* Due to Nora Roberts’ behavior here, I can assure you, I will never read or buy one of that woman’s books. Ever.

The main objection seems to be that self-published authors have no one to tell them they suck, so they have no reason to improve their writing quality. It is assumed if you self-publish, you must be a shitty writer, because if you weren’t — and your book was good — an agent would have picked you up and a top house in New York would have handed you an advance. Having to pay to publish your own work is contemptible, and no self-respecting author would ever dream of it. All ‘real’ authors are advance-and-royalty paid, and that’s that.

And I call bullshit. I call absolute bullshit on that.

Everyone pays to be a writer, and while Nora Roberts and various other traditionally published authors say that isn’t true, it simply is. They just pay out of their net profits to the publisher. If they didn’t, they’d get 100% of the sale of their book, not 5%-8% (which is typical for print royalties, epublishers tend to pay out 30%-35% royalties). And I am not referring to big name authors like Roberts, Meyers, Hamilton, and Rowling who rake in so much cash that their publishers DO pay for everything, I’m talking about midlist authors like Patricia Briggs, Christine Barber, Chris McCoy, and Jeff Strand (I use these authors as examples because I met them all at Necronomicon this year, so I know firsthand what they said about being a midlist author).

The do their own advertising, their own travel, their own selling. They have low advances, if an advance at all, and if they don’t keep their sales up, they can be dropped from their publishing contract. Nowadays, authors who are midlist (which most authors are) are responsible for themselves. They don’t get book trailers and print ads and guest spots immediately on the news and book signings… not unless they pay for it and arrange it themselves. They pay.

Keep in mind, an advance is just that: a loan against your future earnings that you must pay back before you ever see a cent from those royalties. Yes, it might be nice to be handed $5,000 in one lump sum and be slammed with a bunch of contractual obligations, but I’d trade that for the freedom to do as I wish and a steady stream of income any day. If I am already responsible for how badly or how well my book does, why should I pay an agent 15% and a publisher 95% simply for the validation of being a ‘real’ author?

I fully intend to make use of epublishers because I like them. I like that their royalties are higher, that they use a digital medium (which is steadily growing), and that they have a higher tolerance for material. I’m a huge fan of Loose Id as a publishing company, and intend to submit Catalyst and Cowboy Up to them (though the latter’s title will probably change). However, I also intend to self-publish Rachmaninoff and The Keeper and the world of Egaea books.

I will never, never publish with a New York house. The deal would have to be absolutely fucking amazing before I did that. My goal — and Kris’ goal — was never to ‘make it big’. Neither of us really wants that. What we want is to write, to share our writing, and to make a modest living off it. I’d like to supplement Roger’s income a little, be able to use the money I make from writing to put into a savings account. That’s really all. Nothing more. No high hopes of fame and fortune. I don’t want to be the next Nora Roberts.

Maybe that’s the difference. I’m not even starting at the traditional publishing route. I’m at that fork in the road and I am actively choosing to self-publish. I know what we’re getting into, and Kris has assured me she does, too, and we’re all gung-ho about it. We will get out what we put in and no one but us will get the rewards for the hard work.

Zoe Winters, another self-published author who was a big voice on that SmartBitches post until the traditional authors ran her off, has given me some wonderful pointers, and has offered to keep in touch with me and answer any questions I might have about the process. And that’s a great contact and opportunity, and I found several self-publishing sites through her and other articles I’m glad to have. Kris and I want to start a podcast about self-publishing once she gets her laptop. I want to be in touch with people of like-mind.

One of the authors, Stacia Kane, made the comment ‘I believe a better way to attract the eye of a commercial publisher is to write a book they think they can sell.’ I think that is the worst advice I have ever heard. This is why the market is flooded with vampire novels right now. One reasonably popular one came along, and agents decided there was a market, that this is what readers wanted. So now, every third book published is another derivative vampire novel.

We have the agents and the publishers telling us what’s good, what we want to read while putting down the independent author who chooses to bypass them. It’s been called the ‘gatekeeper mentality’, and what really distresses me is that a lot of people welcome it. Many times in those comments, people were essentially saying, ‘I don’t want to think for myself, I want someone else to tell me what’s good’. As if ‘traditionally published’ = ‘good’. And, from what they’ve been told their whole lives, that is the equation.

Literary agent Kristen Nelson recently blogged about turning away an author. A previously published author with a really good novel, but she knew she couldn’t sell it to a press, and she admits things are pretty bad in the publishing world. How many other really good books have been rejected? Everyone in that SmartBitches thread equates ‘rejected’ with ‘a bad book that needs improvement’, and this agent disproves that. A really good book was rejected simply because the agent knows no one in New York would pick it up. Not that the book was bad, but because someone didn’t think they could turn a profit.

Self-publishing says, ‘why not publish the work and let actual people decide if it’s good?’

Even people who could get a contract simply by saying their name (Guy Fieri, Wil Wheaton, Piers Anthony, etc.) are choosing to go the self-publishing route. This has nothing to do with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and everything to do with people wanting complete creative control and removing the middleman who takes the profit and does little of the work.

An independent musician is very often respected and revered for striking out on their own instead of kowtowing to the industry. An independent author, however, is just a ‘self-published hack’ who couldn’t get a deal with a publishing house. The double-standard is appalling.

Self-publishing, and the independent author, is where publishing is going, and I think that terrifies those who have found their home in the traditional publishing world. I don’t blame them. Agents and publishing houses make their money off authors they sign, and when authors start doing for themselves, those agents and publishing houses see a decline in their own profits. But the publishing world is changing, and it will continue to change.

And the traditional publishing world can keep screaming that the self-publishing market is full of shit and rejected authors and people will never find those few and far between gems in all the dreck. I, though, side with Roger and his thoughts on that: the market will police itself. Yes, there’s a lot of shit in the self-published world thanks to lulu.com and vanity presses, but that shit doesn’t get bought. That shit doesn’t get reviewed. And those shit authors don’t advertise.

People need to stop caring about what name is stamped on the spine of the book and start caring about the content inside. I’m a damned good writer, and I don’t need a contract and Random House to tell me so.

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