Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Navigating the Headwinds - Going Indie

I've spent the last few posts looking at the challenges facing the publishing industry and book retailers, but now I'd like to look at writers. Let's face it, publishing may have changed a lot in the last few years, but today's writers are creatures that have never existed before

The writers of today (or tomorrow) can no longer submit their work to a publisher and expect a paycheck in exchange. Publishers have not only forced writers to work through middlemen, they've also taken away advances or reduced them to chump change. Most writers working with traditional publishers find themselves faced with dwindling royalties, a complete lack of marketing and support, and ever shrinking percentages of the sales that they do generate. Writing fiction has never been a full time job except for a very lucky few, and those few are finding themselves faced with some hard choices.

In order to supplement their lost income, many of these legacy writers have been self-publishing on the side. Due to contractual clauses, some of them can't; others do it anyway under assumed identities. In doing so, they put food on the table for now but face major legal challenges in the future if their secrets are discovered. More fortunate writers do this with the blessing of their publisher, allowing them to write under the same name and generate increased exposure. For many, this situation has proven ideal.

But even for a writer with an established platform and an open-minded publisher, these waters can still be tricky to navigate. A self-published author cannot simply write a book and upload it to Kindle. Not without taking a major risk, anyway. Most of us know that no book is written perfectly. We must edit and revise until our eyes bleed... or until it feels that way. Writers then face sending off their manuscripts to third parties like beta readers, writing groups, and hired professional editors. These are all necessary, but they consume a great deal of time, sometimes money, and in most cases, frustration. Honing a book to perfection can be hard, especially when you're working without a net.

Then there are other matters: Cover art. Marketing and Promotion. Book blurbs. Reviews.

These are things writers didn't have to worry too much about, once upon a time. In fact, most writers didn't even get a choice about these things. The publisher chose the art. They promoted the book as they saw fit, and the writer felt grateful for what he or she got. ARCs were sent out by the publisher, so that aspect was out of the writer's hands as well. The only thing a writer might do on top of all that was to hire his/her own marketing company (with the publisher's approval) using his/her own money, of course. So I guess that part at least, hasn't changed.

Obviously, much of what I've described here is what every Indie author faces today, but it's also quickly becoming reality for most traditionally published authors as well. The lines are blurring. We've reached a time where many people who sign up with traditional publishing houses may end up wishing they'd just self-published, which is 180 degrees from where we were pretty much since publishing began.

So what's a modern writer to do? Well, the advice is out there if you look. If you're new to this, or trying new things, a few quick and obvious guidelines may help:

  1. Seek outside help! Beta readers, editors, cover designers, book formatters. Until you master these skills, a few hundred dollars will probably be well worth it. 
  2. Learn! Yes, you can learn to format your own books, create covers, and maybe even be your own editor. But invest the time and practice necessary to master these skills. If you want to make your own covers for example, don't just download some stock art, slap it together, and call it a day. Make half a dozen covers for each book. Try different approaches. Experiment. Set them aside and come back a week later to see if you still like any of them. And come back again, months or years later, as your skills improve. If you're book isn't selling to your liking, start tweaking. Change the cover, the blurb, edit one more time. Keep going until you're satisfied. (Almost every other author in the history of the world has not had this option.... don't take it for granted!) But of course, keep writing. Don't let one project stall you forever.
  3. Read! I don't mean just to study the competition. Read the forums. Read blogs. Research. If you want to master any or all of the skills necessary to be a modern entrepreneur/writer, you're going to have to do your research. The internet is brimming with advice and experiences from which you can learn. Don't bypass the information that just might transform you from a wannabe into a Cinderella story. 
  4. Be realistic. Most people shouldn't publish their first book. Maybe not even their first five. I didn't. You should recognize the fact that the vast majority of writers don't make a living at it, and never have. Today, there are more writers and more books than ever. If you're making coffee money, or filling up your gas tank, be thankful for those readers who made that possible. If you're doing better than that, great! It's okay to hope for more, but don't be crushed if it doesn't happen right away. This business has always required persistence, and it's as fickle as ever. Don't take it personally. Just keep writing because you love it and you need to. In the process, you'll get better. Maybe you'll even get lucky.
Last -and this is an addendum to #4- Decide what the hell you're doing.

What could I possibly mean by that? Well, part of being realistic is acknowledging to yourself that if you're writing chick-lit romance, you're probably not going down in history as the next Dickens or Hemingway. Odds are, you're not even going to be the next E.L. James. You have to be realistic about where you fit into the paradigm before you try to carve out a place. If you're trying to be the next Jane Austen, don't get pissed because you're not selling like Stephen King. And if you want to be the next Dickens or Hemingway, why the hell are you writing chick-lit? It pays to know your genre and conform to its expectations.

With all of this emphasis on editing, formatting, and such, one might think these things are what separate the amateurs from the pros. Our common experience of browsing through the bestseller list tells us otherwise.
The truth is, the real money is in giving readers something familiar, like a warm blanket and a cup of tea on a rainy day.If you can do that, it doesn't matter what you write. You will do well.