The publishing industry has been in flux with larger houses changing course, smaller presses blooming practically overnight, and ebooks increasing their share of the market in almost all consumer categories. What choices should fiction writers make among the possible publishing venues? I corralled my usual list of suspects (plus some new contributors) and cried for help. Their responses follow in the order received.
Daily Dragon (DD): What is the basis of your own knowledge or, better yet, direct experience with the various publishing options open to writers today, traditional top-tier publishers (at least size-wise), mid-range to small presses, independent or self-publishing including Print on Demand (PoD), ebooks, or other options I haven’t listed?
Charles E. Gannon (CEG): In addition to publication through Baen, I’ve worked with a small-release, high-end, hard-cover only publisher. I’ve also had work in two or three smaller presses which mostly follow the “limited print run plus lots of ebook sales” model. I’m also just starting the wheels rolling on creating an anthology of Caine Riordan/Terran Republic fiction that would be primarily ebook with a PoD back end option.
Bill Fawcett (BF): I have been an agent, packager, and writer for over 35 years full-time. I have also designed and owned game companies and worked directly with ebook companies.
Jonathan Maberry (JM): I’ve been a traditionally-published writer since 1978. I broke in as a magazine feature writer and sold 1,200 articles and about 3,000 columns and reviews. I’ve also sold greeting cards, how-to manuals, college textbooks, plays, advertising copy, and a dozen mass-market nonfiction books. I switched to fiction in 2006 and have since sold novels in several genres, mostly to the major houses (Simon & Schuster, Griffin, TOR, Pinnacle/Kensington), but I also work with small press on specialty projects. And I write comics for Marvel, IDW, and Dark Horse. I have not self-published except for reprints of short stories whose rights returned to me. I put some of them up on Smashwords. All of my fiction is available in print, ebook, and audio.
Gail Z. Martin (GZM): I currently write for a Big 5 publisher (Orbit Books), a large mid-range publisher (Solaris Books), and a mid-range ebook publisher (Double Dragon). I do anthologies with a number of small presses (Silence in the Library, Zombies Need Brains, Dark Oak, Dark Quest, eSpecBooks, Dragon Moon, and others), I’ve been part of quite a few successful Kickstarter anthology projects and we self-publish three series of short stories/novellas on ebook.
Elizabeth Donald (EKD): Most of my work has been published in the small press. My vampire series initially was published in a medium-sized press; I think when you’re publishing 15–20 books a week, you don’t count as small press anymore! I’ve self-published two novellas in ebook as experiments, but have not done so with a full-length novel yet.
John G. Hartness (JH): I have self-published five novels, six novellas, a couple dozen short stories, and several short story collections. I have edited two anthologies for a small press and have five novels published with a mid-size press.
DD: Assume that a newbie writer has published some short stories (in anthologies or magazines) but now wants to get a completed novel published. What venues should this wannabe novelist approach? Under what circumstances should the nouveau novelist consider self-publishing that novel? What are the pros and cons of each option?
CEG: Well, there’s no reason not to approach traditional publishing if they are willing to wait through a turn-around cycle which could easily exceed a year. However, these days, that often means having an agent, to begin with—a variable that is beyond the scope of these questions, but has a huge impact upon how our newbie proceeds. If you have an agent, you probably want to keep swanning at the big houses for purely fiscal and profile reasons (although others may exist as well). If the novel in question has made all those rounds, then generate another for the agent to shop and you might as well start trying the smaller/indie presses with the one that all the big imprints have passed on. Self-publishing is largely considered a bad idea—but you can find some huge success stories which confound that generalization pretty handily.
BF: If you are a new writer all the standard advice applies. Be sure to carefully follow submission guidelines, make sure your story fits the publisher/magazine, and be persistent. Also while one story is out, write the next, and the next, and not a sequel. Self-publishing is more acceptable than ever before, but do not do it unless you have a lot of time and money to do placement and publicity… a lot. Doing well can make your name, but bland, at best, will do nothing and could hurt your ability to sell later. The problem with self-publishing as a new author is to get anyone to notice the story/books exist at all.
JM: I’m a big believer in writers getting paid for what they write, and so I generally advise them to polish their work, write a heck of a query letter, and approach agents. My favorite agent approach is a live pitch at writers or genre conventions. The upside is that if they secure an agent they have an advocate who can also advise on career decisions, review contracts, protect rights, and generally guide them through the intricacies of publishing. It should be noted that most writers do not quite grasp that publishing is not ‘about’ art but is rather a business wholly concerned with selling copies of art. There is no obligation on the part of anyone in publishing to take, sell or promote your work merely because it’s well written. Writers who understand that the craft of writing and the business of publishing are different but equally important worlds—and who make the effort to understand and become skilled at both—have the best chance of prospering.
GZM: It depends on what the author wants to achieve and how much control you’re willing to give up to achieve those goals. With traditional publishing, there’s the potential for money up front (advances) plus broad distribution and the resources a major publisher can bring to a project. But you give up control in many ways. Small presses are more flexible, but there’s less (if any) money up front and fewer resources. Self-publishing gives you all the control, and all the responsibility for design, layout, proofreading, editing, marketing—everything. Many authors are pursuing “hybrid” careers today working with publishers of all sizes and publishing their own work as well.
EKD: I strongly urge new writers to pursue traditional publishing first. You learn a lot from the process, from working with a good editor and watching the publishing house develop your manuscript into an actual book. In a practical sense, it’s nice to let someone else pay for an editor, proofreader, line editor, book page designer, cover artist, ISBN, distribution, marketing plan… Once you have some professional credits and you’ve developed a solid readership, you can consider going out on your own and self-publishing some of your work. So far, industry research has shown that for sheer sales, authors who have only self-published their work earn the fewest sales; authors who only do traditional publishing are in the middle; and the most successful authors are the “hybrid” authors who do both traditional and self-publishing.
JH: I don’t think that publishing short stories has anything to do with getting a novel published anymore. That’s a myth of publishing from a while back, when publishing shorts was a way to get publishers to look at your longer work. Nowadays, as Brandon Sanderson says in his excellent video series on writing fantasy fiction (look it up on YouTube under the username danceswithdragons), people should just write what they want to write. If you want to write short fiction, go for it. If you want to write novels, write novels.
I can (and have) taught whole four-hour workshops on when to self-publish and when not to self-publish, and there are a myriad of factors that must go into that decision. A lot of it boils down to control and resources. How much control does the author want to retain over the presentation of their work? And what resources does that author have to get their work presented in a professional fashion? If you are an experienced fiction writer with a couple thousand dollars in your pocket to pay a good editor, formatter, and cover artist to work on your book, and you want to retain every piece of creative control, then self-publishing may be the right move for you. If you have little to no interest or facility in cover design, editing, formatting, or distribution (all that last bit can be learned quickly and easily; the editing and cover design is the hard stuff), then you should submit to traditional publishing and let them handle the bits you’re no good at.
Just stay away from vanity publishing houses. If you don’t know what that means, google “Atlanta Nights” and go from there.
DD: Substitute a mid-range novelist as the subject of our query, not a best-selling author, but no slouch either, with several novels already published and selling. How should this author approach the same venue choices? (Replies that depend on assumed history or circumstances are welcomed, just explain the situation.)
CEG: That’s a scenario with a lot of variables. If your novels go out of publication with your primary imprints, then maybe you can get a little more mileage out of them by getting back the rights (or waiting until they revert; check your contract) and negotiating a new release with a smaller publisher. But I am under the impression that this door of opportunity is closing even as I write this; more publishers are realizing that ebook rights, properly secured, create a perpetual income stream for them. And also for the writer, of course. The difference is that this “back-door electronic mid-list” is cheaper for the publisher to maintain (no warehouse for electrons) but also will not move without promotion, and moves at immense discounts (usually). Note the bigger the author, the more sales and profit they can leverage out of this strategy. I’ve heard of folks self-publishing with excellent results, at this stage of their career, but I think the key variable here is: how big and loyal is your fan base? Let’s face it, if you have 5,000 die-hard-core fans who will buy every novel you write for $6, and another 5,000 who buy about 50% of the time, you’ve grossed 45,000 in sales—as fast as you can churn out a product that satisfies your QC and theirs.
BF: One of the big questions is how much do you need to make from your writing. Do you hold out and hope for a major publisher find your novel because it has to support you eventually, or can you settle for a smaller press to help get you started? There is the traditional route, the e-book only route, or the small press route. The big advantage to doing an e-book is that you can put them out yourself (or have someone do it for a few hundred dollars) and keep all of the income (well maybe half the retail or a bit more). But this only works if you have enough readers that will buy it as each story as they come out. If you are willing to take the chance (only a small percentage really succeed) and make the effort in selling your stories, this is a new route that has worked for some authors.
An ideal scenario is to have a major publisher like you books, put them out and promote you. Then you have more options later when you have a substantial readership.
The operative statement in all of this is getting readers to find and want you books or stories. The route is less important than the result.
JM: There are no substantive changes in approach except that if a writer has some career successes they should include them in their pitch. It’s relevant because publishing is about the search for and promotion of saleable commodities. Previous success, however modest, suggests that the writer understands how the business works. In both cases I suggest that the writer learn the business, continually improve their craft, and become intimate with social media.
GZM: You’ve got to be honest with yourself about how much time you can put into being author/publisher/promoter. What do you do well? What don’t you want to do at all? If you absolutely hate the production side of putting a book together (cover, design, layout, etc.) then you’re probably better off working with a publisher of some kind. I’m usually a proponent of start at the top and work down, unless you have a clear game plan in mind.
EKD: Once you have a loyal fan base, they won’t care all that much whether this novella was published by a full publishing house or from your kitchen table. They’re not looking for the publishing stamp of approval anymore; they know your work and they trust that your quality will continue. But that means it’s doubly important to make sure it’s of top quality. Don’t skimp. Hire a good editor to work with you on it, and get a top-notch cover artist. Don’t grab some clip art and use spell-check to save money. And then be prepared to market the hell out of it, because you’re all on your own now.
JH: The same way. It still boils down to control and time. I’m not going to talk about money and royalty splits and what’s “better” for another writer. There are plenty of other people who will tell you how to run your career. I’m going to ask you what you want out of publishing. Do you want to be on a major bestseller list? Your odds are better with a major NY house. Do you want complete control of the finished product? You’d better self-pub. Do you want to have bookstores carry your books so Aunt Edna in Topeka can get a copy easily? Better stick with traditional publishing. Are you a self-starter who loves to tinker with things until they’re “just right”? Self-pub might be a great idea for you.
If you’re a writer with a backlist, out-of-print titles, or short stories with reverted rights, you should self-publish those immediately. You are leaving money on the table and that’s just silly. I don’t pay my mortgage with backlist short stories, but it does cover my power bill every month and I like keeping the lights on.
DD: Consider now an established author who is making a decent living as a writer but isn’t necessarily a regular on either of the New York Times or USA Today lists. How would this writer approach options? Would it depend on what will be published? For examples, what if the author has a back list of stories or novels, with rights reverted to the author, that predated the inclusion of ebook rights in author contracts, or novels or stories that publishers have rejected, but the author believes will find an audience?
CEG: A name-brand author with a large following can make an obscene amount of money this way. What they put out there will depend on any number of factors, not the least of which is their own preferences for what to release, when, and in what combination. They may want to follow a chronological-career model, or themed models, or “same universe” collections. A popular and effective sales tactic is to ensure that that is one new story/novella/etc. in a collection of reprints, thereby enticing the hard-core fans to buy it, even though they have most of the stories. Bottom line: this isn’t quite printing money. But it’s close.
BF: Wish I knew a formula that worked for this. Again the main factor is, in marketing terms, finding the market. Whatever it takes to make readers aware of your books and interested in more is what is needed.
JM: A writer of this caliber usually has contacts such as an agent and/or colleagues who can recommend an agent. I am often asked by colleagues for recommendations for agents because they know I’m familiar with a number of key players. For authors with a backlist and the rights to them, self-publishing is one option, but small press is usually a better one. Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press is a small but effective publisher that has returned many backlist books to print, and done so very successfully.
GZM: As my friends in online marketing say, your #1 asset is your mailing list, meaning your followers on social media and those who subscribe to your newsletter. So if you’ve got a loyal group of readers, you want to nurture and grow that list because they’ll be your core. (Really, all authors need to do this.) Reverted rights novels are a great opportunity for authors to self-publish, and they’re a win for readers who can find their old favorites back in print. I’ve also seen authors successfully extend series that were dropped by publishers and do well with sales numbers that yielded a good self-published income but were deemed too small for traditional publishing.
EKD: Some of the most successful authors I know were able to quit their day jobs because their publishers went out of business. It sounds crazy, but when the rights to their earlier work reverted back to them, they put them out on Kindle in order to keep their names alive while they searched for new publishers. Not only did the ebooks sell, they sold well enough to encourage these authors to begin writing directly for the public. The “hybrid” authors I spoke of before often began those efforts by republishing the backlist.
JH: Assuming such a writer exists, they’re going to be pretty rare birds and won’t need to listen to anything I have to say. Authors should always get their backlist out there as much as possible, as long as they’re stories the author is still proud of. Don’t put out crap, no matter if it’s trad pub or self-pub. But yes, if I had rejected or reverted properties, I’d self-pub them in a heartbeat.
DD: What mistakes should writers avoid as they navigate options?
CEG: The biggest mistake would be to indulge in huge generalizations—like this question. 😉 Seriously, don’t diminish the quality of your brand to pull in bucks. Dropping quality is like lying; after a whole life full of truth, one lie can ruin your credibility entirely and forever. Same thing with dropping quality; a reader’s assurance of receiving the anticipated experience in exchange for their hard-earned money is like a prime investment. Do not squander it or put it on margin: protect it, nurture it. It will always pay dividends in the long run.
BF: There are the obvious predatory companies. Watch what rights you give anyone.
Money, excepting paying for a self-published work, goes only from the publisher and to the author. The worst mistake I have seen is thinking that just putting out a good book or story is enough. It is required, but getting readers to buy it is just as important.
JM: Acrimony is a big problem for some of our colleagues. They think that they can increase their visibility and improve their odds by knocking down other writers. That’s a fear-based and petty approach based on the belief that if you help other writers they’ll take the opportunities meant for you. That is crap. I subscribe to the camp that believe that if writers help each other then more writers will turn out good books, more of those books will get published, more people will be drawn to reading and all of publishing will therefore prosper.
GZM: The learning curve for putting together a good self-published book or ebook takes longer than you think it will. Don’t post anything that’s less than your best. Read and negotiate contracts, even with small publishers, and make sure you’ve read the fine print for Amazon and the other ebook platforms. It’s worth having your agent take a look or paying for a lawyer. If you aren’t good with technology and don’t want to learn, factor in the cost of hiring someone.
EKD: The biggest mistake is the assumption that they don’t need an editor, or that a good friend who can spell is a sufficient substitute for a professional editor. There are so many really good books that suffer from poor editing or lousy page design, and it’s really sad when I am reading an excerpt that I know could be terrific, but the editing just drives me away.
JH: Never hire an editor or cover artist that you have shared bodily fluids or DNA with. Unless you’re related to Todd Lockwood or another amazing cover artist. But there are no exceptions to my policy on editing. Hire an editor who will tolerate you, or maybe even one that likes you, but not one that loves you. They must be willing to kick your ass and not care if you cry in your Haagen-Daas. And I don’t know how to spell froofy ice cream brands.
DD: What steps should writers take to improve publication chances and enhance reader loyalty?
CEG: Wait: do you want an article or a book? Seriously, this would be a long list. But I’m going to suggest something that I suspect others may dodge: survey your own talents carefully. I do not just mean your talent as a writer, but as a small business owner. Because that’s what all writers are increasingly becoming (although ours is a far more unpredictable market than most).
Here’s what I mean: do you like people and chatting with them about your books and their interests? Then do cons: you will grow your reader-base. Are you reclusive? Then don’t spend that much time trying to swim upstream at conventions: use your time to create your product. Same thing with art, and video, and promotions, and PR, and readings, and self-sales, and etc. etc. etc. You want to lay out all your performance indices for each aspect of this career and pitilessly assess yourself on all of them. That will tell you how to spend that most precious resource that helps you increase publications, sales, and reader loyalty: time. Knowing where to invest how many of your finite hours is all-important to your success.
BF: Depends on the market. Consistent quality, characters they can identify with, villains they can accept and understand, and keeping the books or stories coming out regularly certainly helps. If you concentrate in a sub-genre, you can attract more devoted readers than shot-gunning out all sorts of topics. That works after you are established. Never forget that word of mouth, or Facebook, Twitter, etc., is the only functional substitute for a million dollar promotion budget,
JM: Social media is immensely important. A wise writer budgets the time they devote to this, however. I take ten minutes out of ever writing hour for social media. And I manage my own Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Instagram. I have a good website and it’s updated regularly. And I don’t use social media to pitch, pitch, pitch. I post fun stuff—cartoons, movie trailer links, etc. I’m never mean-spirited, never political, and I don’t talk religion. I make my pages affable and they are a safe place to come to get a laugh, get information, network, share, and connect.
GZM: Build your tribe of readers on social media, so you can easily spread the word when you have new work coming out. Build a network of author friends and cross-promote like crazy. Encourage people to sign up for your newsletter, follow you on Goodreads, read your blog, and follow your author page on Amazon. Be consistently present on social media but don’t always be talking about your books. Talk up other books, post fun things, talk about fandom. Create relationships with readers and other authors.
EKD: We are too hung up on venues – this publisher, that format. It’s important that the work is available in the format and venue that they want, to make it as convenient as possible for the reader to find and purchase it. But in the end, good work finds a home. Writing the best story we can is the surest way to bring readers back again and again.
JH: Learn to write. No, really, take a class on fiction writing. Read blogs, read books, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and work on your craft. Too much of the stuff I see in self-publishing and small press publishing is godawful not because the margins are too small or the spacing is off, but it’s godawful because the writer can’t hold one POV for an entire chapter, or switches tense mid-scene, or doesn’t understand passive voice. And just cut out the damn adverbs, already. You can have them back after your fifth novel. By then you should have learned how to use them. It’s not about marketing—it’s about the writing.
DD: Please add any comments about possible publishing venues that round out our discussion.
JM: Small presses, particularly their anthologies, are great doorways into publishing. Most of these anthologies are anchored by bigger name authors, who serve as a draw, but being part of these anthologies offers newbies a chance to get read by a diverse audience.
GZM: Realize that blogging is also a form of publishing, and a creative outlet. Many a book has been born from a blog series! And for writers who just want to write for the entertainment of others, sites like wattpad can be gratifying. (And for pros, wattpad is also a great way to reach a new audience.) Also look for tie-in opportunities to your own works. Most of my/our short stories tie into one of my/our book series.
Our contributing authors may be visited at their websites, on Facebook or Twitter, etc.
Bill Fawcett: www.mistakesinhistory.com
Elizabeth Donald: www.elizabethdonald.com
John Hartness: www.johnhartness.com
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In the Westin Bar for the duration of the con