Friday, September 26, 2008

Digital publishing comes of age

The future is what we make of it. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Life gives you a gift for writing stories, and you're going to write stories, nothing will stop you. You might take your first steps into fiction as a child; by age 10, you might know exactly what you want to be when you grow up. By age 19, perhaps you've written more than half a million words of fiction, including several novels. You're at (or on your way to) college, hunting for an MFA ...

And right on cue, you read things like this ... ... which calmly inform you that your chosen industry is collapsing. Meaning, your chances of breaking into it, as an unknown, without contacts (especially if you're from a CNA ... a County Not America) are minimal.

Don't let this stop you: give it a shot. The worst you can do is make friends in far-off places. Along the way, you can try to bounce your work off professionals and see what they think. It's all a crapshoot ... but since life itself is a crapshoot, you'd be the extraordinary writer, if you didn't try to show your best stuff to publishers and agents. Go for it.

Why should you give it a whirl? Well, statistically, it's about one writer in a hundred who has the skill, and the tenacity, and the funding, to get through the whole three-ringed circus. The prize is a professional contract and a shot at making the big-time ... but even after you've perfected your skills, it takes years to get through the professional minefield, and the process can be expensive. Along the way, many people become discouraged, depressed -- or parents, which gobbles up their time and money. It could be decades before you're once more in a position to launch yourself on the Quest for the Holy Grail of Writing: agency representation, a contract, royalties. But people do it. Absolutely unknown writers find publishers. "Local Boys (and Girls) Make Good," as the headline would put it ... it just doesn't happen every day. Going into this quest, you know the odds are against you, but if you have the skill, the courage, the time and the money, you owe it to yourself to, uh, just do it.

"Why would you give it a whirl?" is a different question, though the difference is subtle enough to often be missed. If you're hunting for money to bail yourself out of a jobless situation, or a mortgage that's suffocating you, well ... (sorry) ... you're probably doing the wrong thing. Before you get any further into the grail quest for a major publisher paying enough money to be significant, read these:

Outtake: ...You'll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book. The odds that your book will be a best seller are absolutely terrible. Writing fiction is an impossible life unless you hit the jackpot. There's a great article in the New Yorker about a relatively famous, established novelist who cannot support himself on book advances. I can't find that article, but just trust me: It's a very very hard industry to survive in. (Links to: Odds of writing a New York Times best seller: 1 in 220 ; Odds of dating a millionaire: 1 in 215)

Outtake: Let's look at "working" writers in the niche end of the market. Run the numbers yourself. Say, a paperback costs US$8 (what *do* they cost in the States these days?), earns you .60c (7.5%), and sells 75% of a 10,000 copy printrun. (They pulped 25%). So, you make $4500. If you're paying a mortgage and buying a car, you need to sell ten or fifteen such books per year ... but your publisher can take a maximum of two. You have a major problem. You're out there looking for a job, and your writing, which used to be your trade, has become your hobby.

In my own experience over about 30 years (damnit, is it that long?) writers drop into three major categories. First, the ones who write for the pleasure of it, don't need to earn money, and mostly give away their material on the Internet or as hardcopies, and thrive on feedback, and especially praise. Second, the ones who desperately need the money to save their home, get out of debt, or fill in for a lost job. Third -- the hybrid, people who write for pleasure, give their stuff away, yet would dearly love to make the crossover and write for money.

The first group is the healthiest! Readers to whom you've given stuff are rarely critical -- they're not specialists, they might not be able to tell good editing from bad, they're pleased to receive a special gift, and they're you're friends. Even if they didn't like it, they'd be gentle.

The third group is fairly healthy, and if anyone's going to make the development from happy amateur to pro, it's someone found here: they could easily have developed the skills over years of writing for a group of friends, an online archive, a workshop or club. They also don't actually need the money (though it would be nice!) which means they're gainfully employed and can afford the high price of questing for an agent or publisher. In other words, it just might work, if they're good enough, skilled enough, with sufficient patience and courage.

The second group is the one almost doomed to fail from the outset, because success (the contract, the income) is critical, and the need is urgent. Getting published is not a rapid process. It takes years; it can take a decade or more. Your skills must be beyond reproach, and even so, you'll need to make a financial investment in the quest, which might be painful or impossible, if the need for income is so critical. The above post on is not kidding: you really will make more money flipping burgers! And the numbers I quote, above, from my own post, let you see that you could easily spend years to land a contract, only to earn so little, you'll need a magnifying glass to see the pay check.

Okay ... so, what's the alternative? There has to be one. Alternatives are always out there.

In fact, there are several, but until just the last few years you would soon find yourself swimming in dangerous waters. Vanity publishing has its place; just don't confuse it with professional publishing. A "vanity publisher" is very little more than a PRINT SHOP. You pay them to produce 25 or 250 copies of your book, or whatever number. They hand them to you. Then you go out and sell them. Now, if you had a couple of grand to invest in 250 copies and had written (for instance) a history of your local area, which would retail at $25 per copy, you could very reasonably expect to get rid off 250. You just grossed $6250, and if you paid as much as $10 per copy for the 250, you paid $2500 for printing, leaving $3750, out of which all you had to cover (theoretically) was shipping to get the printrun to your spare bedroom or garage, and the commercial in the local paper, which got folks interested, plus posters, leaflets ...

Congrats: you just made $3000+ ... out of something which is usually dismissed as vanity publishing. However, look at the work involved. Putting up posters, sending leaflets, shipping orders, answering emails, doing launches at local libraries and bookstores. You worked hard for the money -- even if it's fun, it's still work. "Vanity Publishing" is so-called, because you do have to work damned hard even after you've received the shipment of books. "Real Publishing" is so-called, because after you've proofed and returned the galleys, you're usually finished. At least in theory, you sit back and earn royalties.

Most writers can be fairly lazy creatures. They don't actually want to work, after the book is finished. They really do want to sit back and be handed royalties ... lots of them. Hence, the bad rep given to vanity publishers, who don't warn writers ahead of time, that copies won't be sold if you don't get off your duff and sell them. (There's also a disreputable element among vanity publishers, who either fail to supply the product, or it's so badly manufactured, they could be, and should be, talking to the attorney representing writers in a class action.)

If you're thinking of going this road -- vanity press -- then, go into it with your eyes wide open, be prepared to pay up front, and then get down to some good, hard work. Also, do your "due diligence" before you invest. Know who's reputable, and who's not.

With the development of the Internet, however, much better options are at your disposal. Vanity publishers ought to be dying a death right now. The day really has arrived when you make a modest investment and expect to do reasonably well with a company like (mentioned here, because I can give you a firsthand account of how it works ... also, how it doesn't work! ... since we use for the Mel Keegan books). If you have a few hundred dollars to invest, and some spare time -- the world of digital publishing just opened its doors and invited you in.

First: if you have any residual image left in your mind of "desktop publishing," jettison it at your earliest convenience! The two areas are distant fourth cousins. DTP is what happens on your desk, when you're in "prepress" stages, working to get the book ready for publication. What happens after you've uploaded the file is probably beyond your imagination, and it takes place in the realms of machines that look like these.
You're not likely to ever buy one; the pricetags are about the same as the house you live in. And these machines are the future of publishing. "Vanity" and "self" publishing are more risk-free than they've ever been, because you're looking at something close to robots here. They're not quite self-aware, and they're certainly nailed to the spot, less than likely to wander away on their own adventures (George Lucas notwithstanding). But they're robots in the same sense as the massive automata which manufacture cars.
You feed a couple of PDF files in at one end, and a finished book falls out the other end of a machine very like these. And this is MORE than you ever needed to know about the technical aspect of digital publishing. The "how" of the process -- your own involvement -- is all about "prepress" and "marketing."

In other words, you'll be responsible getting the product right before you print copies, and then selling them afterwards, however and wherever you can get the sales, converting your inspiration and perspiration to income.

There's a long list of DO and DON'T factors involved with both processes, and alas, the only way to learn the ropes is by climbing them. At this point, there's no course you can take, and there's no book you can buy, something like "The Total Nitwit's Guide to Marketing Your Book on the Internet. (Those how-to books won't be too far in the future, though.)

For the purpose of this discussion, I'll assume you have not signed with a publisher who is using POD services. If you've signed with such a publisher, prepress is a breeze. They have the experience, from editing to proofing, from design and typesetting through to cover mockups and color proofs. You don't have to waste brain cells on all this stuff.

However, if you haven't signed with a publisher -- put on the coffee and break out the carbohydrates. You have a lot of work to do.

Top of the "DO" list is this: learn the ropes. Be completely sure of your writing skills. Know that your editing us beyond reproach. Have as many beta readers as you can find read the book and report ... and actually listen to them. Respect what they tell you. Rewrite, if necessary. Make sure the book is really finished, and then bribe everyone you can find to proofread for you.

Next on the list of "DO" subjects: teach yourself about book design. About fonts, points, leading and tracking, widows and orphans, titles and half-titles. Get into the theory and pseudo-science of cover design; know RGB from CMYK, know the difference between a "bleed," a "trench," a "gutter" and a "wrap." Know something about file formats and sizes. Get the right software to do the job -- ask for some advice, and don't just pay thousands of dollars for the market leaders because someone in a store recommended it. For all you know, they might earn a commission on $2500 software they somehow manage to get out of the store. Find out about ISBNs, barcodes, deposit copies, copyright, and the legalities.

Ready to publish? Choose a digital printshop. One that will produce ONE copy at a time, and tell you, up-front, what it costs. Beware of shops that offer to email you with a "quote" for your specific job. Beware of shops that quote up-front for lots of 50, 100, 150, 200, and so on. You don't want to print a whole lot till you find out if interest in your product is high enough to warrant the investment.

Having chosen your digital partner ... learn their interface. Allow several days to get through the process, and be ready to chat to Support. There are "issues" which you won't have imagined in your wildest dreams. Take it all as it comes, ride with the punches, and get through the process. Order your pilot copy, and sit down with it ... proofread it again. You'll be shocked at how typos jump of a printed page, while the same errors were invisible on the screen and in the manuscript. Check everything. Now: all okay? Time to go to market.

The list of "DON'T DO" items is just as long, and you'll find these out as you go, often the hard way. But here are some absolutely beauties, which are bound to help. Don't take anything for granted: check it again. Don't assume you know how to drive the software -- take the time to learn it properly. Don't just buy the most expensive software for DTP or imaging: look at them all and choose the package(s) which do maybe 15% more than you need, at the price you can afford. Don't just assume the printed book will be fine: order a pilot copy and check it all again.

Now, you're ready to go to market, and ... this is where the real fun starts.

Unfortunately, it's also the moment when I've run out of time again. Marketing books (or anything at all) on the Internet is a huge subject, and it deserves to be given much more than the paragraph I could devote to it today. So I'll be back tomorrow with (!) Part Five of this series: how to sell the damned things, once you've gotten them finished, online, and/or printed!



Thad McIlroy said...

Mel: You're right on the money (and everything else associated). You're offering a great service to your readers by telling it as it is. You don't negate self-publishing, but nor do you glorify it, as so many do.

The times they are a changing (who said that?), and self-publishing is an significantly more credible option than it was 20 years ago in the age of total "vanity publishing." But I think we're in agreement that it's no panacea. The ideal is still to find a "real" publisher. If you choose the self-publishing route you've certainly got your work cut out for you. And then some.

I explore all of this on my website I try very hard to tell it like it is.

Authors are, as always, fragile creatures, and deserve the kind and realistic advice that you offer them.

Thank you for that.

Mel Keegan said...

Hi, Thad - I just returned from your website: what a mine of information! In the last 30 years I've been a writer, graphic designer and photographer, and have worked in the printing and binding of books. The last jobs for me to tackle in the book trade are bookseller and internet marketeer ... and in fact, I'm "getting my feet wet" in the latter area right now. The future of publishing is difficult to predict, but one thing is certain: it's going to be interesting!

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