Let me apologize in advance for this post. How’s that for a convincing way to start? I’m pretty sure this is going to be too long, and I’m almost positive it will offend some people. Any better? I do okay in front of a room full of people, and I think I can hold my own writing fiction. But when it comes to writing what’s in my heart, I stumble, stray and stutter with great regularity. There you go. Proceed at your risk.
The thing is, there’s an important issue that I experience almost every day lately, and yet I haven’t seen it addressed to the extent I think it should be. There is a huge divide in this country right now. And it seems to be getting bigger all the time. It separates friends, family, and strangers.
Nope it’s not politics. And it’s not religion. But it is becoming almost as divisive. It’s controversial enough that it’s not something you can bring up at a party without fear of starting a fight. The divide I’m talking about is between self-published and traditionally published authors. The very fact that already I’m going to have people tell me self-published should be indy and traditional should be legacy tells you how far this separation has already gone. It’s creating it’s own PC language.
First, let me give you a little background. Just over ten years ago, I published my first book. It was with what was than called an independent publisher. Small, Utah-based, they were lucky if they sold 10,000 copies of a book. At the time there were no e-books, no print on demand, and audio books were generally stored on cassettes, Self-publishing was almost unheard of because you had to put up $10,000 or more and live with a garage full of books. People like Richard Paul Evans pulled it off, but they were the huge exception.
I also entered a world full of people I never knew about before. People who liked to write as much as I did. It was great. We did signings together, brainstormed marketing plans together, blogged together. Learned together.I also met lots of aspiring authors. I didn’t know half as much as they thought I did and probably 20% of what I thought I did. But I was happy to give them advice and learn from them as well.
Fast forward ten years. I’ve written a little over a million words of prose since then. Probably closer to two million if you include blog posts, articles, etc. I’ve had two agents. I’ve published eight books and have another three coming out by various publishers. I’ve taught about 100 classes.
And man how the publishing world has changed. When was the last time you bought an audio book on cassette. And $10k to print a book? Try nothing at all. E-books, blogs, podcasts, MP3 audiobooks. All of these things have come about since I published my first book. Really one of the only things that hasn’t changed is writing a good story.
During that time, I’ve made hundreds of great new writer and reader friends. But in the last year or so, something changed. I don’t want to single anyone out, but this is the perfect example of what’s happening around us.
A couple of months ago, a woman who I’ve considered a friend for years wrote a blog post about a series of books she e-published. It was a great post. She explained how she decided to self-publish, how she had gone about it, and how much she was making. It was a great post. Although I had recently signed with a great agent and was about to announce my deal with Harper, I was still very interested in self-publishing and had a couple of titles I was considering releasing or rereleasing myself.
So I replied with a comment that was something like, “Fantastic post! Sounds like you’ve found a great fit!” That was all I said. It seemed like a straight forward comment. Except a couple of days later, I got an e-mail from her. She was furious with me, accusing me of being patronizing and rude. I was seriously so shocked, I wondered if someone had hacked my e-mail account.
It turns out that she had misinterpreted my comment in a way I could never have imagined. She thought I was putting her down for self-publishing—saying that was where she belonged. The good news is that I think we managed to patch fences. The bad news is that our relationship was not the only one to suffer from the self-publishing/traditional-publishing chasm. And from what I can see it’s only getting worse.
Hopefully without offending anyone too badly let me try and explain what I am seeing. Being an author and having author friends has always been a little dicey. Someone always has it a little or a lot better than you do. They get released in hardback while you get released in paperback. They have an agent and you don’t. They get a bigger advance or sell more books or make it on a list or get an award.
Many of you know that James Dashner and I have been good friends for many years. When he got a big name agent, signed a big contract, and ultimately hit the NYT list, it just about killed me. I used to joke that it was a good thing we were such close friends or I couldn’t stand hanging out with him. A close friend of mine worded it best when I told her about my Harper deal. “I couldn’t be happier about this . . . unless it was me.”
We’d get jealous of each other’s successes and console each other when we were down. And don’t get me wrong, there were divides even then. I remember doing a signing with a big-six published author who heard about what house I was with and asked in a totally innocent way, “But those authors aren’t very good are they?” Ouch!
The thing was though, we were all on the same path. If we were mad at someone, it wasn’t because we thought they were wrong, but because they’d gotten there before we had. We were all on the same path, we were all climbing up the same mountain.
Then along came easy, free, self-publishing. Within 24 months, we went from everyone wants an agent and a six-figure contract to who needs agents and publishers. In general, I’d have to say I’ve been thrilled with the idea of e-books. Who wouldn’t like a reader to be able to buy your book anywhere anytime with the click of a button? Who wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of telling the agents and editors who have controlled your fate for years, “Hasta la vista, baby. I don’t need you anymore?”
I once told my children that the advances that have taken place in my lifetime: personal computers, the internet, cell phones, digital music and movies, GPS, etc. have changed our culture as much or more than cars, trains, and plains did previous generations. I think e-books are doing the same thing to publishing. Things could change in ways we can’t even imagine as authors right now.
Along with all the good news though, is something I never anticipated. Now there are two paths to publication. Instead of authors marching side-by-side, encouraging one another, we seem to be forming opposing forces. And the two forces aren’t getting along very well.
On the one hand, you have traditionally published authors. We worked our butts off to get agents. We went through dozens or even hundreds of rejections. We wrote and rewrote query letters. We studied our copies of Writer’s Market. we sent out so many partials and got so many not-right-for-me letters we dreaded going to the mailbox. And when we finally got that first offer, we usually cried from all the years of rejection and frustration. We were proud of the fact that after so many years of trying we finally succeeded in achieving our dreams.
On the other hand, you have the self-published authors. Most of them went through exactly the same thing. Queries, rejections, form letters. They got so sick of having to answer to a faceless entity that seemed totally arbitrary, that when the opportunity came, they happily said, “Screw you,” to the people who made their lives a living hell and published their own books. Maybe they’d sell a handful of books, maybe they’d sell millions. But either way, they wouldn’t have to rely on anyone but themselves to say what they could and couldn’t do.
They problem is that these groups speak a different language from each other. And both of them have chips on their shoulders.
The self-publishing group talks about changing price points, hiring cover designers and editors, and churning out two, three, or four books a year. They gloat over the fact that they can sell their books for less than a dollar if they want and still make money. They love the fact that they can publish whenever they are ready instead of waiting years for a release slot. They predict that very soon behemoth publishers and outdated agents will be as extinct as dinosaurs. They hate the stigma of self-published and assume all traditionally published authors look down on them. They hate that it’s almost impossible for them to get into most bookstores. They would like nothing better than to have a big six editor come begging them to publish their books and to tell them, “No thanks. You missed your chance.” They may not say it out loud, but they are afraid inside that they never got a book deal because they weren’t good enough.
The traditionally published authors talk about agents, contracts, and release dates. They get to see their books on bookstore shelves, in libraries, and advertising slicks. They have free editors, free artwork, and often have marketing budgets, They have an easier time getting reviewed by larger publications. They believe that because they have made it past the guards that protect the grounds of the traditionally published—agents, editors, proofreaders, and committees—that their books are generally better than self-published books.They hate how long it takes for their books to be released, but they love the support, advances, and royalty checks that they receive. They may not say it out loud, but the fact that they finally got a publisher helps erase their fears that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t legit. And they are desperately afraid of that being taken away.
So there we are. Instead of two groups working together toward a common goal. We have two groups of people snarling at each other on blogs. Talking behind each other’s backs. Predicting doom and gloom for the other group. Even though the truth is that both of them have exactly the same goal. They want readers to approve of what they have written to tell them they are good enough. They want to be “real” authors.
A big part of the problem is that whether you are self-publishing or going the traditional route, the publishing world isn’t fair. How many people do you know who complain that they aren’t NBA basketball players? I don’t know any. The reason is that the people playing in the NBA are generally the best players in the world. If you dream of playing basketball, you can get tested from a pretty early age. By the time you have made it to college you know whether you have elite skills or not. And, for the most part, the NBA doesn’t judge you on anything more than how good you are at the game.
Imagine if the writing world was like that. Imagine if you could be judged solely on your talent. If you could know that your book didn’t succeed as well as the one above it because that book was written just a little better. Wouldn’t that make it a little easier? Wouldn’t that motivate you to strive to be better and work harder? Wouldn’t that seem more . . . fair?
But the writing world isn’t like that. regardless of which publishing path you choose, there are books that sell better than you even though your book is better. Publishers choose books for reasons that have nothing to do with quality. Great books get rejected by agents because they don’t like that genre, or don’t know any editor who would like it, or because they had a lousy lunch, or hurried through their query letters. Self-published books get lost in the crowd for no better reason than the author didn’t know how to self-promote well enough.
Where does that leave us? Do we all start wearing buttons that say, “Can’t we all just get along?” It would be nice if it was that easy. I don’t have a pat answer, but I do have a few ideas. I think there are some things we can all recognize.
1) No process guarantees a great book—however you define it. The concept of a perfect democracy where all books are all available online and the best naturally work their way to the top isn’t happening now and it’s unlikely to happen ever. Yes word of mouth helps sell a book. But starting that word-of-mouth snowball requires a ton of marketing or extraordinary luck. Even awards only represent the judgment of a fairly small group of people. The one thing we can take a little comfort in is that really crappy books don’t generally occupy top spots or win awards unless they have a celebrity’s name on them.
2) Price alone is not going to be the ultimate differentiator. I’m sorry, you can price crap at $0.99 and eventually people will stop buying it. And regardless of how good a book is, if you price it high enough most people won’t buy it. Yes, if two equally good books are priced at $1 and $20, more people will buy the $1. But I think that readers care more about how good a book is than if one is $5 more than the other. Low price may get you looked at if you are unknown, but it’s not going to keep people coming back the way a great story is.
3) Someone will always have a better deal than you. Either they will sell more books, get a higher advance, win an award you didn’t, get their name in a famous magazine, have their book turned into a movie. Whatever. If you judge your success on other people you will always end up unhappy. (Unless you make sure to always judge your success by people who are doing worse than you. Hmm. Something to think about.) It’s hard, but you have to find a way to enjoy your own journey. Because really, nothing sucks more than hating a really successful author.only to meet them and discover they are a super nice person.
4) Neither side is completely right. Yes, letting everyone and anyone publish whatever they want with no filter or control is going to generate a lot of garbage, just like YouTube generates a lot of really dumb videos. But there are some amazing authors who, through no fault of their own, never got published through the old methods. E-books have given them a chance to shine and despite having none of the benefits of traditionally-published authors, they have kicked butt. And publishers have kicked themselves and paid big advances for not recognizing that talent earlier.
And much as the indy crowd would like to see it, big publishers are not going away anytime soon. Yes, I know. They have made mistakes. They have been too slow to make changes at times. They publish lame books sometimes and they don’t always recognize great authors. But they are more than willing to change. They already have and they will continue to. They have great editors, awesome art departments, big budgets, and great connections. You can make it without them, but man it’s nice to have them in your corner as an author.
Lastly, we really do need to get along. (Sorry, it just forced its way out of me.) For all our differences, we have much more in common. We love a great read. We crave approval. We’re thrilled when we capture the worlds in our heads and describe them so well that everyone else can see them too. We’d all love to make a million dollars, but we can’t help beaming when even one reader tells us our story kept them up all night, or one parent tells us we hooked their kid on books.
We’re already seeing our worlds begin to blend. Traditionally published authors are self-publishing. Self-published authors are signing with traditional publishers. The big six are selling tons of e-books. Indy authors are selling print books. In another ten years the world may change in ways we can’t imagine yet. But hopefully we’ll all be right there trying to write an awesome story and catch lightning in a bottle.