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New Game. New Rules.

On various forums throughout the great spiralling galaxy of the Internet, there is something of a pitched battle being fought with regards to the merits of self-publishing (or indie publishing, as some call it–I guess it sounds nicer and probably invites fewer derogatory comments). On one side, we have those who cling to the belief that traditional publishing is the only “real” way a writer can move his or her work; if you’re really good at telling stories, traditional publishers will automagically recognize that and snatch up your property, print several thousand books, ship them to eager booksellers who will sell them faster than the U.S.S. Enterprise traveling at warp nine. And most assuredly, in some cases that has been the case–this simply cannot be overlooked, or ignored. You don’t see James Patterson trying to get out of his contract with Hachette, do you? Or even his apparent nemesis, the redoubtable Stephen King. Hell, not even James Ellroy is brave enough to do that, and there’s no way you could convince me his nickname in high school wasn’t Iron Balls.

On the other side, we have self-pub luminaries like J.A. Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith charting out the independent territory for the rest of us. There’s no doubt that Konrath’s previous life as a midlister gave him something of a leg up when he started out two years ago, but that’s old, moldy news now. I can’t see how having been published by one of the NYC houses years ago somehow continues to confer additional credibility upon his growing self-pub empire today, anymore than it does for, say, his occasional writing partner Blake Crouch, who has slammed one right out of the ballpark with his mondo cool Run. And even if that is the case–their publishing histories somehow continue to propel them to winning self-pub gold medals–what about John Locke? In his own words, he didn’t even bother trying to get an agent and soldier on into the traditional publishing battlefield. It wasn’t for him, and he’s been lighting Donovan Creed’s cigars with $100 bills ever since. And of course, no discussion about the trials and tribulations of self-publishing can go on without invoking that legendary monicker, Hocking. Her success rivals anything that traditional publishing can point to in its collective track record, and that’s no lie.

If traditional publishing really was the cat’s ass, then I doubt folks like Konrath, Blake Crouch, Barry Eisler, and Jon Merz would have pulled the plugs on their print careers and gone indie.

It’s pretty obvious, and even the late Ray Charles probably could have seen there are two tracks to excellence right now. While wearing his trademark sunglasses, even.

Traditional publishing is hard, harder than it probably needs to be. There are gatekeepers at every turn, gatekeepers which were probably somewhat necessary (in theory, anyway) in 2001, but it truly does seem they are breathlessly chasing after relevance now. Writer writes, writer rewrites, writer polishes, writer waits months or even years for an agent, writer waits more months or years for a contract with a traditional publisher, and then… writer waits for months for the book to be slotted and printed. And oh yeah, writer also waits tp pass contractual roadblocks before he or she can get paid what he or she was promised.

And then the writer has to wait to earn out the advance before any more dough comes through.

No lies here, that’s how it works. Plenty of folks out there who will confirm this.

Now contrast that with self-publishing. Okay, you have to wait a couple of days maybe for your work to appear on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but that’s about 500 days sooner than with a traditional house. For those of us who are young, that’s probably not a problem. For those of us who are closer to shuffling off this mortal coil, the extra 500 days might come in handy. Sales can literally start within 48 hours, sometimes even sooner–I had one unit of The Gathering Dead sell before the book was available to me in Amazon’s Kindle Bookshelf page. That’s a near-immediate connection with a revenue stream, and in these troubled, uncertain times, any inbound revenue is a good thing. The chances of you being the next Konrath or Hocking are about a zillion to one, though–you have to keep that in mind. Don’t fixate on the financial rewards right off the bat, otherwise you’ll get discouraged.

But speaking of wealth building, the best thing you can do in this regard is to have a lot of titles ready to go. I have five up right now, with another coming online in a month. Is that enough? Nope, it’s not even half as much as I think I need. And short stories? Forget ’em. I have two up, and while they sell, it’s at a rate of maybe one per day. That’s not enough. My novels sell at a much higher rate, and even the one novella I have up moves a bit more than the shorts, though not by much. Clearly, folks perceive more value with the longer works, and my advice to you would be to work on those.

Other things you should be mindful of…

  1. Your work must be edited. To my horror, I was notified by a reader that my bestselling zombie novel The Gathering Dead had errors in it–and that’s after several passes of my own, followed on by faithful beta readers and one editor. There were about six or seven issues with the manuscript, and they were easy enough to eradicate once they were discovered, but don’t do that to your readers.
  2. You have to know your target audience. If you don’t have the foggiest notion of who might buy your book, then that’s a great big red flag right there. And guess what? If you don’t know who might be interested in the work, then traditional publishers wouldn’t know either, so you’ve managed to kill two birds with one stone right out of the starting gate. That’s not a great sign.
  3. Be flexible. Folks might react very, very well to one of your products. You’ll want to be able to take advantage of that reaction. I never knew that The Gathering Dead would be the product in my line that would outsell everything else by a factor of 10 to 1, and now I’m scrambling to take advantage of that momentum and get a follow-on product out there. Don’t let this happen to you. At least have an idea for a follow-on product for every book you release, just so you don’t spend a lot of time casting about for a story while the clock’s ticking.
  4. Covers and product descriptions. I’ve covered these before, but this bears repeating. Traditional publishing pays attention to this stuff; they have entire marketing departments built around these roles. You might want to do more than find a picture on the web and toss a title banner on it. Trust me, I did this myself and got nowhere. There’s probably no need for you to play the n00b when I’ve already done it for you.
  5. Get reviews. You need these, and even if they suck, any mention is a good mention.

A lot of folks out there have already made a lot of these points, but all of them bear repeating, again and again and again. These are where traditional publishing can still smoke the self-published without undue effort. Self-pubbed authors need to pay attention to these factors, and also reconcile themselves with the fact that a large percentage of the writing public–you know, other writers, your peers–will look down on your works when you self-pub, no matter how polished they are or how successful you’ve become. It’s funny, in an odd way. There’s so much hostility toward the traditional publishing crowd toward self-pubbers that it almost reminds me of a pogrom of sorts, albeit one with much less blood being spilled. And there are those self-pubbers who are more than just a touch evangelical about their chosen path. I try to steer clear of both groups, and you might want to consider that course of action as well.

So there is a bit of internecine combat going on between us writers. I’m not sure why it’s necessary, but the only way to close the gap and earn some respect is for us self-pubbers to take our mission very, very seriously. It’s the sloppy, disorganized approach that gives us a bad name–no matter that there are plenty of traditional publishers out there that are just as sloppy, just as disorganized, just as clueless as anyone else. For the moment, they have the respect of most writers, and the only way that’s going to change is if self-published writers are at the top of their game.

And with that, I leave you with this immortal quote from two of the 20th Century’s greatest philosophers: “Party on, dudes!”

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