Ever wanted to write and publish your own book? Maybe you’ve got the next blockbuster novel inside you? Or a ‘how-to’ guide that will make life easier for everyone? You’re in luck. These days, thanks to electronic (e-)publishing it has never been easier to get your masterpiece out into the public arena for all to enjoy.
In fact, a lot of self or ‘indie’ published authors have taken the e-publishing route because of the challenges of traditional publishing: having to submit your work for scrutiny, waiting for it to work its way to the top of the slush pile, only to have an editor – or more likely, an editor’s assistant – send it back with a big “NOT INTERESTED” note attached to it, or, should it be deemed worthy, having to hack and slash your hard work to bits just to shoehorn it into the publishers idea of what the marketplace wants, all for a relative pittance in compensation. (It’s not always like that of course, however any writer who has gone through the traditional route will tell you it feels like that sometimes!) Who wants to deal with that when you can just write something, upload it to the e-marketplace directly, and sit back and wait to be adored?
Unfortunately, there are now millions of other people who feel the same way, and competing with you for an audience that has very quickly become over-saturated with product. The days of winning fame and fortune simply by skipping the middle-men are over. With so much on offer and a lot of it – let’s be honest – not exactly the polished product we’ve come to expect from traditional publishing houses, audiences are becoming much more critical, and consequently much more selective, when it comes to indie publications. In this marketplace, you really need to stand out if you want your writing to be read.
What’s interesting is that many indie authors have viewed this as a marketing issue, and subsequently invested their time and effort into branding and promoting. Social media, website campaigns, and promotional videos are just some of the means by which indie authors are wedging themselves into the market. As an example, I’ve seen one up-and-coming indie author recruit over 14,000 followers within several months – all before publishing a single word of their novel. How? A clever teaser video, supplementary information only available by registering on their website, competitions where the prize was a preview of the novel, and lots and lots of social media self-promotion. The result? About 1% of that audience went on to actually buy the book. Was it worth it? Well, you’d have to ask the author about that.
To help put this into perspective, it’s important to note that this author had never previously been published in any form, and always intended to self-publish rather than sell their novel to a publisher. With that in mind you could ask: did this author achieve more through publishing independently than they would have by pursuing the traditional route? Again, it depends on your perspective. On the one hand, you could say the fact they have a published novel that has been read by anyone is an achievement beyond what most people attain in itself. On the other, a 1% strike rate from a pre-committed audience is not a high uptake – in fact statistically, this author could have potentially doubled their readership just by including their novel along with the junk mail people get in their mailboxes (it’s estimated that between 1-2% of junk mail distribution translates into sales – and let’s face it, wouldn’t you be more inclined to read a free book than another catalogue?).
Would this result have been different if the author had decided on the traditional publishing route?
I would suggest the answer is a definite “yes”, however, it’s almost impossible to predict whether the outcome would have been more or less favourable to the author. Regardless of the outcome though, I do believe this author – as a first time writer – could have benefited a number of ways from pursuing traditional publishing in the first instance.
1. It makes you a better writer
It might be hard to believe, but all those rejections you get from potential publishers can make you a better writer, and there’s two main ways this can happen.
Firstly, it forces you to critically examine your writing. Speaking as an up-and-coming writer, none of us like to be told our writing isn’t very good. It can be a massive blow to the ego, and one that can be very hard to recover from . Those that do get past it ask that ageless question, “why?” and answering that requires critical reflection. Sometimes the answers are obvious: you can see that there’s too much repetition, it doesn’t flow, there’s unnecessarily wordy sections, or other stand out issues. Sometimes it’s not as obvious, or perhaps your experience isn’t such that you can identify the issues with your work. That’s where the second way come in.
A good editor (or agent) will recognise good work, even if the writing itself – structure, grammar, etc. – isn’t great. If the work itself is really good, there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to work with you to make your writing better. This is because writing – structure, style, grammar – is, in relative terms, more easily correctable than content is. Writing after all is a skill, and skills can be learned and honed. An editor or agent with a solid interest in your work will invest time and effort into refining your writing skills because it is ultimately in their best interest to do so. (It should be noted that for this investment to be made, you do need to demonstrate some rudimentary level of ability, or have what they believe will be ‘the big thing’.)
2. It gives you access to a range of support
As an indie author, it’s not just the writing and publishing you need to do yourself. Everything, from the typesetting, layout, and cover design, to the printing (or generation of a compatible e-format), distribution, and marketing and promotion are all your responsibility. Of course, there are a wide range of specialists who will be willing to assist you with these things – for a price.
One of the main benefits of traditional publishing is that the publisher will take care of all of this for you. More than that, if they’re a quality publisher, they will already have a sound idea of how best to achieve the maximum readership for your work. Remember: a publisher’s business is not buying books, but selling them. If they think they can sell yours, expect them to do whatever it takes to maximise that.
3. It familiarises you with the industry
Most authors will tell you they write because they love writing, and that’s a very noble reason. Publishing, however, is an industry, and it’s one that works with one of the toughest marketplaces in existence. As an author, it’s understandable that you probably want to separate yourself from all of that. You just want to concentrate on your writing, right?
Unfortunately, attracting an audience is more than just putting your work on display, and if you want a wide readership, you will benefit from knowing at least a little about how the industry works. Anything from understanding what’s hot – or going to be hot – in the current market, to how the timing of a release influences sales, to how to protect yourself from being ripped off, can only benefit you in terms of ensuring your work reaches the people you’re writing for.
For indie authors this can be a very steep learning curve, and one that can be unforgiving as you work through trial-and-error. The curve can be just as steep with traditional publishing, however there’s a degree of separation. Once the publisher decides to run with your work, you can watch the process unfold and see how it’s supposed to look when handled by experts. Whether they get it right or wrong (and you would hope in all instances they get it right!) you will learn from the process without the risks that publishers take when trying to sell a new author. These insights are invaluable for your future publishing endeavours, whether they’re through a traditional publisher or not. If you understand how the industry works, you are much better placed to be successful within it.
4. It builds your audience
What’s the difference between an audience, and a group of people? Engagement.
Why is engagement important? Consider for a moment some data from Forbes magazine, that estimates approximately 20 million Kindle e-readers of one type or another were sold in 2013. That means if you publish a book in the Kindle format, you have access to group of greater than 20 million people. However, this is not your audience. Let’s make a conservative estimate that 10% of new Kindle owners will see that you have published a new e-book. That means your reaching about 2 million people. However, this is not your audience either. In fact, it isn’t until at least one person engages with you and your book to download it onto their Kindle that you start to develop an audience. Like the earlier example showed, having a group of people looking at your work, or even interested in it, is not the same as having an audience engaged and reading it.
Building and retaining an audience is a challenge for any author, particularly when potential readers have access to a plethora of choices. Attracting an audience is about far more than good writing. In fact, as a new author your writing makes no difference whatsoever until people actually start reading your work. Even for an established writer, retaining, and then building your audience requires a constant effort.
Any good publishing house understands how to develop an audience for an author. They are in the business of engaging people to want to pick up your book and buy it. They can do this because they understand the reading audience. They know what section of the audience your work is going to appeal to, and they have strategies to target that audience to engage with you. A perfect example of this is the way publishers target celebrities, for example, Oprah Winfrey, to promote their authors. It has been demonstrated time and again that an author’s sales (and thus their readership) increase exponentially once they’ve been recommended by Oprah’s Book Club. Why? Because the publisher’s understand the engagement Oprah’s fans have with her, and use this to engage with their authors.
The rise of self-publishing has offered new and up-and-coming writers unprecedented abilities to get their work out to the public. The decision whether or not to publish independently is a very personal one, and one that has a lot of pros and cons to be weighed up. However, all indie authors – whether new, or established – can benefit from the lessons and insights pursing a traditional publishing path. The intent here is not to convert indie authors to traditional publishing; rather it is to recognise that what you need to know about being successful at publishing your work has already been learned, and in many instances perfected, by traditional publishers, and even in the worst case scenario, you can use that to your benefit.
Are you an indie author? Have you tried traditional publishing? Tell us about your experiences in the comments area below.