Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rise of the Indies


This morning, USA Today ran a motivating article about the rise of independent authors publishing themselves via ebooks. If you are toying with the idea of writing a book yourself, read this article. If it doesn’t excite you enough to start tapping out a bunch of words, you probably aren’t interested in actually writing a book. If it does light your fire and bring your creative juices to a boil, keep this thought in mind: on any given day in the U.S., there are probably twenty thousand people sitting down in front of a keyboard saying, “Today I will write the next great American Novel– ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’
That article touts some enticing sales figures. Indeed, they are quite intoxicating! But, there is a far more important set of numbers in this article. These numbers are quite minuscule in the face of the number of copies each of the cited authors have sold. These small numbers eclipse the sales figures.
That is to say, the number of times each of these authors was rejected.
Darcie Chan in particular stood out in my mind. Her manuscript for The Mill River Recluse had been rejected 100 times by literary agents! Her book never made it as far as a publisher. God bless her for the effort! I would have given up long before that, stuffed my manuscript into the sock drawer and turned my talents to other professional endeavors (“Wouldst thou like fries with that, Good Sir?”).
Now she is sitting pretty with her debut novel as an ebook in USA Today’s Bestsellers List.
The publishing industry has evolved the way it has over a number of centuries. It was in the twentieth century that mass-production of books ramped up. When the pocket book format (aka “paperback”) was created, the cost of buying a book plummeted. This brought affordable books to the masses and resulted in an unprecedented literary explosion. Whether it was high literature, dime store novels, pulp fiction, adventure stories, mysteries, romances, or whatever—suddenly books were cheap and could be bought everywhere.
With this growth came the demand for writers. With that demand, came those looking to become the next big name in writing. The more writers appeared, the more people came running their manuscripts vying for the chance to be published.
Publishing companies were becoming swamped with submissions. As one would expect, not all of them were all that good.
From this, the publishing industry became well known for one thing. Not the successes, not so much the name of famous authors, but for the rejections. Rejection became legendary. People talked about how many times an author was rejected before having that first book published.
Perhaps as a way of quality control, the publishing industry seemed to feed that legend as a way of discouraging all but the most tenacious writers from submitting a manuscript.
J.K. Rowling’s submission for the first Harry Potter book was rejected by eight publishers before one saw the potential in her story. The grand master of science fiction, Robert Heinlein, even had manuscripts rejected even while he was at the top of his game. Variable Star—eventually completed by Spider Robinson—was Heinlein’s last novel, published posthumously because the publisher refused to touch it because the story dealt with the possible end of the human race instead of its triumph.
Still, publishers were swamped with more manuscripts than they could handle. Larger publishers began to turn more and more to literary agents as a filter, to sift through the lot to find the best manuscripts for submission. Today, most of the big publishing houses won’t even glance at a manuscript unless it came to them through certain agents.
The legend of rejection is a double-edged sword for the publishing industry. Sure, it can help cut down on the number of submissions, but it also forces new writers to turn elsewhere to find new ways to be read.
When a book has been rejected so many times that the author can’t find any new publishers to look at it, the last bastion was to turn to self-publishing. Self-publishing had long held a bad stigma. It was usually viewed that the book was so bad, the author had to print it himself in order to get it published. Most periodicals refused to look at a self-published book for review. Distributors had difficult times with self-published books, because often the authors could not afford to produce the books in sufficient quantity for distribution and successful sales.
To self-publish was synonymous with admitting that one’s book would never sell.
The ebook has changed that.
Many first-time authors have decided to forgo submitting to a publisher and try it on their own. Why—after spending so much time to write the story in the first place—waste one’s time going from publisher/agent to publisher/agent only to be rejected? Why not publish digitally?
Publishing your story digitally means no production costs associated with creating a paper book. No distribution costs because you don’t have to ship a physical object*. No coughing up a percentage to an agent. No ridiculously low royalty that gets paid sometimes months late by an inattentive publisher. Seventy percent of your digital sale for each ebook sold goes right into your pocket! (*–Actually, this isn’t true. You pay a 30% royalty to Amazon, Apple, or Barnes & Noble as their slice of the pie for maintaining the web store front where your book is sold.)
The ebook revolution has opened the gates that were normally controlled by the publishers. Now, anyone can take a shot at being an author. Right now there is a virtual gold rush for anyone who wants to be an author!
But like the gold rushes of history, not everyone will be successful. You might not have to face the frustration of being rejected by a publisher, but you might have to face the heartbreak of being rejected by the readers.
I chose to self-publish my own story because I felt I didn’t have a chance going to a publisher. My story is a fantasy, and it doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves. That doesn’t make it a product of interest to a business that wants to ride the current wave of emo parasites and shaggy hunks. I do have a story in the wings about a teenaged wizard of modern times who can fly a broom at insanely fast speeds, but he doesn’t have much else in magic talent, so he has to make due with what he has and his wits. There aren’t any school scenes until he gets into college and meets the girl of his dreams (& nightmares!). But, that’s another story…
The other reason I chose to self-publish is I decided at this point in my life, I can’t afford to deal with the bullshit of dealing with trying to squeeze money out of a publisher. I don’t want to have to put up with a business (and it ain’t just publishers!) that feels that ‘Net-15’ means Net-30/60/90. Sure, you have to wait 60 days for a retailer to send you your first net from selling an ebook. But the retailers have to wait for transactions to clear within the banking system before they can cough up the cash to you the author. But once the checks start coming, it’s pretty much a regular thing. So long as your ebook is still selling.
Ebooks have given independent authors a channel by which they can get their stories out to the readers without having to deal with the middleman. It is important to remember, however, that this means there is no middleman to get your book out to the readers. It is up to you as the author to get your book to the readers, and to get the readers to your book!