December 27, 2011

Self-Publishing vs Sushi

Picture a small town in Pennsylvania where the Amish ride horses through the streets and sell quilts at the market. A place where the locals have names for things most people in the country have never heard of. I went to a writer's conference in this town and met aspiring writers, top agents, and best-selling authors.

On the first day of the conference, a New York agent asked the locals of this small Pennsylvania town where to get some good sushi.

The response from everyone was pretty much the same: Sushi?!
We all had a good laugh about it and the agent handled the faux pas with grace, but it got me thinking. This agent is wonderful at her job. I'd have loved to have her represent me (only she didn't work in my genre). I don't think she's out of touch with readers. But I don't think she's in touch with every reader.

Agents represent books that they like and think they can sell to publishers. Publishers buy books they like and think they can sell to booksellers. Booksellers buy books they like and think they can sell to consumers.

But shouldn't that mean that there are books out there that would appeal to readers, but didn't make the cut because they didn't appeal to everyone else in the chain?

Readers like books from every part of this Venn Diagram. Except that little grey circle. Nobody likes those.

You may or may not like sushi. But if you were stranded and hungry in New York City, I’ll bet you could find plenty of delicious food. Still, you probably won’t find a gumbo that compares to the real thing from Louisiana, or real, honest-to-goodness Georgia peaches.

If you're reading this, odds are you love to read. Odds are, you've read hundreds of great books and are searching for your next. Imagine all those books, the great ones that didn't make the cut because a publisher didn't think it had "mass appeal".

That's why I want to self-publish. Because just like Georgia’s peaches, I have a story to tell that you can only get from me.

I'm not doing this because I think agents are bad people, or that publishers don't know what they're doing, or that chain bookstores are soulless. On the contrary. I think as readers, we’re indebted to them. They’ve made so many good books available to us. They don’t just shape the world of literature; they BUILT it.

But the publishing world is changing.

I’m not trying to find readers that hate all the books ever published so far. That’s crazy. It’s like saying you couldn’t find a single decent thing to eat in New York. I’m looking for hungry readers, the readers that might also like a book from a different source.

Think of my book as a new food or recipe. Are you willing to try it?


Andrea Bathtam said...

There seems to be an epidemic of aspiring writers blaming the industry whey then can't get traditionally published. Everyone seems to think that self publishing is some magic key that lets you bypass the agents and editor as everyone else keeping you from success and get your material out to the reader who will just love it. Readers are not stupid, they are not going to read anything that is thrown at them. They want originality, they want quality, and they want surprise--the exact same thing that agent's and editors are looking for. Self publishing is to readers as the slush pile is to editors, and traditional publishing is to readers as agented submissions are to editors. Why spend hours trudging through the slush pile/self published books looking for the one or two gems in the bunch when you can let the agents/traditional publishing find the quality selections for you?

Julianna Scott said...

The trouble I have with self publishing is knowing which books are worth the time and money to buy and read. There are some really good ones out there, but for every good one, there are ten to twenty that are just awful, and it's impossible to tell the difference before reading. That, and there are TONS! All the traditional publishers combined release about 1000 - 2000 books a year, while there are over 6000 self published books released EVERY MONTH! Makes it hard for us as readers find the good ones.

PS. - I grew up in Amish country and there are some good Sushi places(albeit not many)if you know the areas. :)

April L. Hamilton said...

Andrea Batham said, "[Readers] want originality, they want quality, and they want surprise--the exact same thing that agent's and editors are looking for."

This is simply not true. Agents, editors and publishers are looking for books that will sell, regardless of quality, topic or any other factor. Why else do you suppose the girls of Jersey Shore have had multiple, six-figure book contracts? It's the Marketing and Sales department that gets the final veto or thumbs-up vote nowadays, and having published both traditionally and independently, I speak from experience on this. Readers most definitely DO want originality and surprises, but the industry doesn't want to publish books like that because they seem risky - they have no track record. Selling a novel today is all about convincing every decision maker in the chain that it's very much like So-And-So Bestseller from last year, and therefore a safe investment for publishers, but just different enough that it can pass for original.

Marian Vere said, "The trouble I have with self publishing is knowing which books are worth the time and money to buy and read. There are some really good ones out there, but for every good one, there are ten to twenty that are just awful, and it's impossible to tell the difference before reading."

This is no different than mainstream books. I will not contest the figures you give for mainstream vs. indie published books, since I have no factual basis to say otherwise, but assuming trad pub releases 1-2k books per year that's far too many for any single reader to wade through anyway. The way you choose an indie book is exactly the same as the way you choose a mainstream book: on the recommendations of friends, based on reviews, and perhaps most importantly, by reading a free excerpt. The vast majority of indie authors offer lengthy, free excerpts of their work so anyone can put their books to the '15 Minute Test'. Most mainstream publishers don't offer such excerpts---even those who participate in Amazon's 'Look Inside' program typically severely limit the amount of content shown---, so if anything, it should be EASIER to find quality indie work. Many indies are also now enrolling their books in Amazon's Prime Lending Library program, which allows Prime members to borrow their books for free.

The InkpenDreamer said...

I am willing to work hard, to drudge through the wealth of information I've found thus far in order to make my eBooks successful. There's something about making this additional effort to create my own success that has lit a fire beneath me... I am simply determined to succeed! However, I am also continuing in my efforts to get my children's books published through traditional means. One way or another, The InkpenDreamer brand will make it's way into the hearts and homes of my desired audience.
I would just like to add that I LOVE your site! What you have done here is amazing! I look forward to following you!

Andrea Bathtam said...

Yes April, if you are famous, you can sell a book to anyone about anything because it will sell. Obviously. But for the rest of us, you have to present quality work. You make traditional publishing sound like some hat trick. All you have to do is convince the gatekeepers your stuff is good. No, no, no. Your stuff has to BE good. If your story is good, it will sell. If it's not than it won't. You have to work at it. There is no such thing as a fabulous story that just hasn't been picked up for no good reason. What there is, is tons of stories that their authors, and their author's families, and their author's friends, followers, etc THINK are fabulous but are only mediocre. These stories are not picked up and of course it's the publishing industries fault. It can't possibly be the story...

As for Marian's comment, I've read those numbers too, but you have to remember that 1-2K is OVERALL. Fiction, non-fiction, everything. Break that down by genre, and there is far less for the readers to have to go through.

Allen Schatz said...

Andrea's comments are the exact bias most indie writers face: "If you have to self publish, you can't possibly be any good, because only traditional publishers know what is good."

I challenge you - ANDREA - to read my novels and tell me they are not quality work. Google my name, you'll find the links.

Margaret Yang said...

Kris Rusch sent me over here. Can I just say how much I loved this post? You present your (very valid) points in a calm way. It's a great answer to the anger that seems to be flaring up on the traditional/indie divide. No hating on anybody. We're all good.

Julianna Scott said...

I'm with Margaret, it's all good. There is a lot of great stuff from traditional publishing, and there is also a lot of crap. There is a lot of great stuff from self-publishing and there is also a lot of crap. Take the road that works for you and run with it!

April L. Hamilton said...

Andrea Bathtam said: "Obviously. But for the rest of us, you have to present quality work. You make traditional publishing sound like some hat trick."

Sadly, nowadays, trad pub is some kind of hat trick. And it's unfair and wrong of you to assume indie authors AREN'T presenting quality work. It goes without saying that the work must be good, and that wasn't part of your original comment, nor anything about which I was commenting, so I'm not sure why you bring it up here.

Slaughterhouse 5 would not sell in today's market. The Grapes of Wrath would not sell in today's market. Quality has very little to do with the decision of whether or not a given major publisher acquires a manuscript nowadays; it all comes down to how many copies they think they can sell. Period. If it doesn't speak to the lowest common denominator, if it is at all edgy, risky or provocative, if it doesn't fit the cookie-cutter genre molds, it doesn't matter how lyrical the prose is: that book will not sell to a major, mainstream publisher.

Also, it's not for nothing that plenty of mainstream-published authors are jumping the trad pub ship to go indie. They are not happy with this bottom-line mentality that's taken over the industry. We can't blame the industry for working this way, they do need to turn a profit after all and their margins are slim. But we can and will look for better ways to bring quality, unique literature to the marketplace. Trad pub is no longer the only angle of attack.

Unknown said...

Great blog post, Emily. I admit to being one of those silly indie writers who just pushed published and didn't really think of the consequences. Then I got smart and decided no, I couldn't self-edit and no, I couldn't do my own covers.

I hired a cover artist and an editor who actually works for a publishing house as her main day job (lucky me). I have grown close with both and my new book, Death Wish, is just as good as anything else out there. It might not be everyone's cup of tea but I liked it and I have fans who have liked it too.

We as indies have to allow the readers to take the "Pepsi Challenge". Try before you buy, use the sample button (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony and iTunes all have 'em). And if you like what you read then buy.

I would be the first to say I am not asking for special treatment as an indie author, only a chance to build an audience. I don't take any person who follows me on Twitter for granted and I go out of my way to stay grounded. But the stories I write are mine and although they may not be for everyone, I know there is an audience. I might not find them next week, next month or even next year but eventually, I will, and that is fine by me. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Emily! Can't wait to have you stop by the DBC blog on your book tour next year.

Since getting a Kindle in June this year I haven't read a single paper book. And most of the eBooks I now read are by indie authors.

Traditionally published author's books are just too expensive and you never know if they're going to suck or not. I haven't read an indie book that sucks yet, so it's a bonus that I didn't have to spend too much in the first place! HA

Prue said...

Good post Emily. I enjoyed the Amish and sushi story (even if there is sushi to be had in Amish areas!)and it drew me in and got me reading.

It's true that some inexperienced authors will blame agents/editors etc for their inability to be published.
It's also true that a huge number of books pass through the hands of a relatively small number of people. So others get to decide what I will read.
Slush-pile readers, agents and editors are human and are therefore subject to the same instinct to follow fads and fashions - so what I like to read goes out of fashion. Not because I stop reading but because someone else decides that I no longer need or should read what I like.

Self-publishing, as someone points out, means there will be books out there which may be awful. It also follows that there will be books out there worth reading which might not otherwise get published!

It's up to us, the readers, to ensure that we are proactive in our reading. That we are prepared to take time to consider what we have read and to give honest and balanced feedback; and to let our friends know if there is something we've read which we particularly like. Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest comes to mind here. Those authors whose work is poor, will sink to the bottom; those authors whose work is readable and entertaining will survive and flourish.

Self-publishing gives readers a huge opportunity to influence the market; and with blogs, twitter, facebook etc the word can pass round quickly. We can take responsibility for our reading at long last. And websites, blogs and online bookshops allow readers access to a writer's work before making a committment to buy.

Go girl! And don't let any biased, vinegar-mouthed critic stop you writing what you want and need to write :)

Thomas said...

Marian, you are right in that there are a lot of books to wade through but you are off by a couple orders of magnitude. The real pile, both traditionally and non traditionally published, is just staggering.

Bowkers, the company that manages ISBNs in the US, estimated there were 316,480 new traditionally published titles in 2010 with over 47 thousand just in the Fiction category (which is separate from Literature and Juvenile).

Non traditional publishers, defined as "produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ”micro-niche” publications" are estimated by Bowkers at over 2.8 Million titles in 2010.

And that is just for books available in paper (including print on demand for the non traditional sector).

Even someone who stuck to traditionally published fiction works would be drowning in choices.

mcahogarth said...

This is brilliantly fun, so very true, and pithily stated. I have tweeted it. :)

Elizabeth Ann Pierce said...

Love your chart, Emily! You're exactly right - not just about the convergence of tastes that results in a book getting published, but also about the opportunity that indie publishing offers for the titles that fall outside that target zone.

Good, well-written stories will always find an audience, whether it's in traditional publishing or indie. The rest? Well, there's a little gray circle out there for them...
-- Liz

Nancy Beck said...

There are some really good ones out there, but for every good one, there are ten to twenty that are just awful, and it's impossible to tell the difference before reading.

@Marian - When you go into a brick and mortar store, didn't you sometimes look at the cover of a book and read the first couple of pages? (I know I have. :-))

Of course you have to read before you buy. Like going into a bookstore, unless I know and like an author's other work, I'm not just going to blindly buy something from an unknown. That's what the sampling button is for.

Just sayin'.

Great post! :-) (Came over from Kris Rusch's blog.)

Claude Nougat said...

Great post, Emily and I love your diagram! And you've certainly zeroed in on the Number One reason authors self-publish!

We all feel we have a story to tell and that agents and editors don't get it...Of course, they know their market and we don't, so maybe our books belong to that little grey circle of books nobody likes...

That's the biggest fear for any Indie author. There are times I wish family and friends would tell me off! But then, when you get a 5 star review from someone you don't know and have never met, what bliss!

I'm saying all this just to show you how much I appreciate your little Venn diagram! Very clever and to the point!

Anonymous said...

Fun post, Emily and great visual. Too bad the first comment was by someone unfamiliar with the industry. Like many who have already commented, my stories were liked by some, but not all in the industry and didn't make the middle of your diagram. The rejections were always replete with "loved the story, great characters, good you have something about the Tudors?" That's business. Indie publishing has given us with good stories to tell a chance to reach our audience. Luckily, my book didn't end up in the gray circle.

I do sympathize with the huge number of choices that people have in both trad and indie published books. Again, there are strategies for wading through the swamp. As an avid reader, as well as writer, I look to reader groups like Goodreads and Library Thing to help "curate" my selections and I never buy until I read an excerpt. If someone gets stuck with a dud, it's their own fault for not taking the time to look. If course, they can let the bestseller lists curate their reads, but, in the same way I don't write what the marketers want, I don't read what they push. Too limiting. I like a wide range of books...and I'm so sick of the Tudors!

Anne R. Allen said...

This is such a great post. It used to be that writers wrote for much smaller audiences. Jane Austen wrote for educated Englishwomen of her own class--probably a few thousand people in all.

Now everything is supposed to appeal to billions. But it doesn't work that way. Teens are more likely to mass-buy what their peers are buying because their tastes aren't set yet, which is why YA is much more popular with the Big 6.

But adults know what they like. In the heartland they'd probably prefer the emotional stories and family sagas that NY spurns. In Academia, they like elegantly written books about middle-aged men with prostate issues (or so I gather from reading the New Yorker.) Young women usually want to read about romantic adventures. Etc.

That's why the idea that a handful of trust-fund 20-somethings in NYC can decide the tastes of the whole world is absurd. And it's why indie publishing is taking off in such a big way.

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