Currently viewing the category: "self-publishing"

A few years ago cupcakes were all the rage. Adorable little cupcake shops were cropping up everywhere and customers were flocking to them. I admired these entrepreneurs and their gumption for transforming their passion–baking cupcakes–into a business.

But what if Hostess (owned by a venture capital firm before it went bankrupt) declared it had the only real recipe and process for baking cupcakes? What if Entenmann’s (which produces all manner of baked goods, including cupcakes) declared only its processes could produce a quality product? What if these large companies spent millions upon millions in advertising and marketing to convince others in the baking industry that any cupcakes not produced, marketed, and sold by them were somehow not only of poorer quality but that they damaged the whole cupcake baking enterprise? That they were dangerous! That entrepreneurial cupcakes were more fattening and led consumers down the road to laziness and sloth and that with all those inferior and dangerous cupcakes lurking out there, how were lovers of baked goods to sift through the chaff to find the wheat of goodness that they themselves produced?

That’s crazy, you say. Well….

Let’s say your passion is not baking. Let’s say your passion is writing. And let’s say you’d love nothing more than to write a novel and publish it yourself–hire editors, proofreaders, designers, and, being entrepreneurially minded, sell it directly to readers. Just a few short years ago, you’d have been be a pariah in the publishing world. How could you–a writer?!–deign to write, package, publish, and market your own book? How could you create an actual business around that when obviously (the publishing world would say) your recipe and your ingredients and your processes are so inferior as to be dangerous to the culture at large. How could you even KNOW if your product is ready for the marketplace if it hasn’t gone through the processes established by the major players in the industry? And publish your OWN WORK?  It’s permissible to start a small press and publish OTHER people’s work–but your own? No, no, no! No writing and publishing for you–unless your work has been vetted by the Hostesses and Entenmann’s of the publishing world. Unless you hand over your recipe to a traditional, established company to produce, your work is of no value at best and dangerous at worst.

Sound ridiculous?

Unfortunately, it’s not. That attitude still exists in some corners of the publishing world, and the only reason it changed at all is because of Amazon–that horrible, terrible, no good, very bad Amazon that developed the technology and opened up a platform to entrepreneurial authors and revolutionized an industry. Of course there is a difference between baking a cupcake and writing a book. So let’s expand the cupcake example out to cooking in general.

Imagine the presidents of such culinary behemouths as McDonalds, Applebees, Olive Garden, Chick-fil-A and Subway taking a stand and telling the world that Grant Achatz–owner of Alinea in Chicago, recognized leader in molecular gastronomy and someone who has revolutionized cooking and dining–and his recipes and his processes are of dubious quality and that he is a threat to the culture of food because he didn’t franchise his restaurants through one of their companies. After all, although he might have a degree from an established culinary school, he can’t just run around starting restaurants using his own recipes. That’s, horrors, self-restauranting! 

The idea that any group that publishes books by “writers” like Snookie and the latest YouTube cat sensation owns the moral high ground and should be taken seriously when they run around declaring they are the only true arbiters and protectors of culture is ridiculous. And the idea that they need to be protected from competition is even more ridiculous. We’re in the middle of a publishing revolution, and, I’m afraid, as in most revolutions, blood (metaphorical, in this case) will be spilled. War cries are echoing far and wide as publishers and authors take sides, declare loyalties and allegiances, and brand one side as the devil incarnate and the other as innocent victim.

I have, my whole life, been a writer. I’ve written bad poetry, worse short stories, and started and completed several novels. But it was only in the past five years or so that I ever attempted to actually get published. I polished off a novel, sent queries to about twenty agents and editors, got lots of rejections and a few requests for partials and fulls and even an if-you-edit-this-a-bit-more-and-send-it-back-we-think-it-will-fit-our-list maybe from one editor. So I hired an editor, reworked the manuscript, and then didn’t send it back. Why? Because in the meantime, technology changed, Amazon single-handedly created a forum through which authors could publish their own work, and, after looking at the book covers and reading plenty of books repped by or published by those I’d queried, I decided I could do the publishing end of the job just as well as they could. After all, don’t I run a small press? Don’t I publish other people’s work? Why should I be ashamed to publish my own? As a restauranteur, would I only prepare and serve other people’s recipes?

Oracles of Delphi, my historical fiction set in 340 BCE in Delphi, Greece and put out under the name Marie Savage, will be published by an imprint of Blank Slate Press this fall. Why the pen name? Because I’ve also co-written and am in the midst of self-publishing a sci-fi/YA trilogy with my daughters under the name K. Makansi and I don’t want to confuse the two author names in the marketplace.

I have great admiration for entrepreneurs in general. Folks who put it all on the line to create a new business and to put themselves out there. Take indie bookstores. I have often dreamed of owning my own bookstore/coffee shop/wine bar/art gallery and so I’ve always sympathized with and recognized the challenges independent bookstores face when competing against huge retailers. Just a few years ago, it was Barnes & Noble and Borders who were the big boys throwing their weight around and the indie bookstores had to compete against their ability to discount titles given that the big publishers gave the big chains better terms because of higher volumes.

Bookstores–big and small–are wonderful. But back in the old days (last year), your local indie was most likely the only bookstore to take on a book (let alone feature it) by a local entrepreneurial author. It hadn’t been vetted was one reason, and it might be awful (and often times I’m sure it was awful) was another. Or it had to be sold on consignment, which is a pain. And if a store took one self-published book, it would open the floodgate to a gazillion others begging for limited shelf space. Certainly no chain bookseller would touch a self-published book–at all. Period. Unless, of course, somehow the book had sold a gazillion copies already.

But now?

All that has changed thanks to Amazon. Amazon, along with advances in digital printing and companies such as Ingram/Lightning Source, created opportunity for entrepreneurial authors–authors that everyone else in the publishing world treated with scorn–and  now every big publishing company on the planet wants a piece of that same self-pubbed author’s purse. These big publishers are snapping up companies like Author House or are creating their own paid self-publishing platforms. Amazon created a market for authors to reach readers (and in the process allowed many authors to make real money off their writing for the first time ever) and the very publishers who decry Amazon’s dominance are scrambling to get a piece of that same market–a market they wouldn’t have touched with a 100-foot pole just a few short years ago.

Yes, Amazon’s dominance in this new marketplace is real, but I suspect part of the reason large publishers fear that dominance is because through the democratization function of the self-publishing platform, power has shifted away from the publisher as gatekeeper to the author as creator. This is, as a small publisher and self-published author, a welcome development, and I don’t understand how anyone who believes in free and unfettered access to the marketplace could see this as a bad thing. With lower barriers to entry, there will be more suppliers and more choices for readers, a more competitive market that will drive authors to strive to improve their work in order to stand out from the crowd, and lower prices to the consumer. And, readers, authors, publishers and retailers benefit (not to mention trees) when books sitting on “online shelves” don’t have to be returned and pulped to make room for the next big (or small) thing. At the end of the day, the best thing for the marketplace is a diverse ecosystem in which consumers have the widest choice, authors have agency over their product and are valued and monetarily rewarded for their creative content, and publishers and retailers can make a profit. There will naturally be give and take on all sides as the marketplace evolves.

My mantra in life is that if you meet anyone who insists they KNOW the THE TRUTH, turn and run the other way. Life is complicated. Nothing is black and white. Markets are messy. Companies put their own self-interests first. If publishers believe Amazon is out to ruin them and, in the process, usher in the end of books and of culture itself, why continue to do business with it? If authors truly believe Amazon is the devil incarnate, why are they not stipulating in their contracts that small independent bookstores be the only outlets for selling their books?

As  a reader, I ADORE brick and mortar bookstores (especially the small, often quirky indies!), and I have spent countless hours in them browsing, finding new gems to read, and generally soaking up the ambiance. But, as an author, I THANK my lucky stars that Amazon has revolutionized the technology to democratize publishing and to give writers like me (and my co-authors) the ability to compete for readers without bias or without being segregated or scorned for daring to be entrepreneurial. As a small press publisher, I LOVE BOTH indie and chain brick and mortar stores AND Amazon and other online retailers for allowing me to connect the authors I believe in with the readers who will enjoy their books.

I’m not great at baking cupcakes or at creating innovative recipes, but as a writer and a publisher–both of other people’s work and of my own–I shouldn’t be ashamed of the desire and the drive to be entrepreneurial, and I am thankful that Amazon created the market environment in which I was able to transform my passion into a business.

Now, I need a cupcake.

 

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After a lot of careful evaluation and thought, Blank Slate Press has made the critical decision to begin a new relationship with Midpoint Trade Books.

Why use a distributor in the first place? 

After three years in the publishing industry, we’re convinced that the growth in the future of publishing is in small press and self-publishing. With the rise of e-book sales and digital distribution through Amazon et. al., the future of indies is bright. By working with a small press, authors get access to professional cover design, an experienced editorial team to make the book the best it can be, layout and design services, and assistance with marketing and publicity. But authors who choose to self-publish can have access to all the same things, provided they can pay out-of-pocket for such services. So what sets small presses apart from self-publishing? What advantage does an author achieve by signing with a small press rather than simply self-publishing?

The answer is in distribution.

Many distributors only work with publishers who have more than a few titles on a backlist, which enables them to sell more books in bulk to their buyers. This prohibits self-published authors from signing with distributors. Self-published authors can also occasionally find distribution cost-prohibitive. It’s only by working with a larger number of authors and titles that small presses can achieve the economies of scale to make distribution viable. What does this mean for us? In order for Blank Slate Press to continue to attract authors of the highest caliber, those who deliver the kind of award-winning prose our readers have come to expect, we have to provide them with something valuable – beyond services that authors could pay for on a service basis. By working with a distributor with a powerful, well-established sales team and national reach, we can provide Blank Slate Press authors with the opportunity to have their voices heard far and wide, from the largest booksellers in the world to the nooks and crannies of your favorite neighborhood bookstore.

Why Midpoint? 

As we reached out to distributors and considered all our options, the team at Midpoint stood out to us. They were impressed with the quality of work we’ve sought out thus far, and they are passionate about bringing small press books to the fore. The sales and administration team at Midpoint has several decades of experience between them, coming from high-ranking positions at some of the top publishers and booksellers. We can learn from them, and in exchange, we can provide them with incredible books and talented authors. Midpoint works with booksellers all over the country, and they have connections in the United Kingdom and Canada as well. They have personal relationships with buyers at Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Barnes and Noble, Target, Walmart, K-Mart, Follett, and many more, as well as hundreds of small and independent bookstores throughout the country. By partnering with Midpoint, Blank Slate Press will achieve a new level of distribution and be able to bring BSP books and authors to hundreds of new hands. We’re thrilled to be able to work with them, and we believe that all our authors will benefit from the new opportunities Midpoint affords.

And every team member at Midpoint we’ve dealt with so far has been enthusiastic, kind, polite, and patient. We’re looking forward to growing Blank Slate Press with Midpoint on our side.

This past Thursday and Friday I attended the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) Publishing University in Chicago. It was my first time attending the event, and I’m really glad I went as I think the speakers and attendees represented the thinking—old and new—swirling around the industry. I was also happy to attend because Blank Slate Press won the organization’s 2012 Bill Fisher Award for Best First Book-Fiction for our debut title, THE SAMARITAN by Fred Venturini, and so I have a soft spot for all the great folks at IBPA.

The breakout sessions were led by a number of talented publishing professionals who were both motivating and informative, but it was the big names—people like Guy Kawasaki (author and former chief evangelist of Apple), Mark Coker (Smashwords), Brian Felsen (Bookbaby), Allen Lau (Wattpad), Matthew Cavnar (Vook), Curt Matthews (IPG), Dan Poynter (author and speaker), Kelly Gallagher (Ingram), Dominique Raccah (Sourcebooks), and David Houle (futurist)—who really set the tone.

Before I talk about what I believe were the major themes, I must clarify that I took notes like a madwoman so I apologize in advance if I make a mistake in attribution or get the particulars of a quote wrong. For others in attendance, please let me know if you can add anything or correct anything.

So what were the main takeaways? Some of these overlap, but here are the six major themes I identified at the conference.

1)    “The flaws in the traditional publishing model are everywhere. It is not a viable model.”  This is one of my favorite quotes from Dominique Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks and one of the people busy reinventing the industry.  The telling part of the quote is in its context. Her presentation was not about the industry per se, and that quote was not taken from her presentation, but rather was a response to a question from an attendee who asked why, with all the opportunities available for authors today, she or anyone else should seek to publish traditionally. Raccah responded that she actually had no idea why anyone would want to do that if they are willing and able to take on the tasks necessary to make a book a success according to their own measures and expectations.

2)    “The future is global virtual distribution.” That’s the way Kelly Gallagher of Ingram put it, but he wasn’t the only one talking global. Allen Lau of Wattpad related several anecdotes about people from around the world sending him notes about how much they love the accessibility of putting up their own stories and being able to read stories from people around the world. In a conversation over dinner, we talked about how he envisions Wattpad as a giant global campfire around which everyone is able to share stories without barriers to entry. And both Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, and Brian Felson, founder of BookBaby, talked about the stunning growth of ebooks in global markets. 

From the panel with Coker and Felson, I learned that Apple distributes to 52 countries and that its distribution reach is a big growth area for Smashwords. According to Coker, Smashwords conducted research that showed the 2012 global ranking for ebook distribution is:

  1. 1 – Amazon
  2. 2 – Apple
  3. 3 – Kobo

He advised authors and publishers to think globally  because lots of people around the world read/speak English. And both Coker and Felson said they believed that it won’t be too long before the international market will be bigger than the US market.

Coker and Felson made the point that the fundamental change in publishing is that shelf space is no longer an issue. With ebooks and print-on-demand, online bookstores want to and have the ability to stock every book available. It’s just a matter of storing the ones and zeros that make up the digital file. 

3)    It is no longer all about distribution (that part is easy), it is now about discoverability.  I can’t remember who said that, but almost everyone echoed the sentiment, including Gallagher from Ingram, Lau from Wattpad, Cavnar from Vook, Coker from Smashwords, Felson from BookBaby, Dan Poynter, and David Houle. The only person on any of the main panels who didn’t seem to be excited about the future was the representative from IPG (Independent Publishers Group), the second largest distributor for independent publishers. (Disclaimer: BSP’s books are distributed through Small Press United, a division of IPG.) He made several very important points about the importance of metadata and point-of-sale information and he said that when IPG first started that had two IT people. Now they have twelve. And he reminded attendees that 90% of the books sold (that’s what he said, but I’m not sure that’s correct) are still print. But the most memorable thing I have in my notes from his contribution to the panel, titled Beyond the Click, was that self-publishing is very hard. That didn’t get a very big applause line from the crowd.

4)    The Era of Artisanal Publishing.  Industry veteran Dan Poynter used his own success as a guidepost for independent publishers and authors. He, along with Guy Kawasaki and futurist David Houle, drove home the point that it is up to each author to define themselves and carve out their area of expertise. They all three admonished attendees not to be defined by terms from the past.  Kawasaki compared authors self-publishing to people who choose to make artisanal cheese or craft beer. No one says to them: Oh, you couldn’t get a job at a real cheesemaker, so your making your own cheese. If you approach your business like an professional and an entrepreneur, your choice to be a small press publisher or independent author are no less valid than any other craftsman putting out a hand-crafted artisanal product.

5)    The Myth of Big 5 Marketing Support. So, this may sound strange coming from a publisher, but I’ve been on the other side as well and I know that, for many (most?) the idea that just because you got a nice advance and you’ve got a publicity team assigned to you, doesn’t mean you’re actually going to get real, sustained—or intelligent!—pr/marketing support. Dori Jones Yang, a successful historical fiction author, told the story about her agent’s response to all the marketing she was doing. The agent was thrilled at her success and said, “As soon as you hit it big, your publisher’s publicist is going to leap into action.”

Yang also said that from her point of view POD and ebook distribution is the future…and the future is now.

It has always been hard for an author—even an author published with a sought-after New York agent and a big-time New York publisher—to get shelf space in bookstores. And that shelf space is expensive. And if your book doesn’t sell, it is returned and pulped or remaindered. And the hit to your royalty statement is serious. So why would anyone want to go that route? With POD and online distribution, your books are always available and they never go out of print.

6)    The jawbone of an ass. In what I thought was a brilliant comparison, Tom Doherty, president of Cardinal Publishers Group, a distributor of non-fiction titles out of Indianapolis, said that sometimes it is best for a sales person to just shut up. If a customer isn’t excited about a book, the sales person should quit pushing and try to present the book at the next appointment.  He said (and I’m paraphrasing here) because  just like in the Bible when Samson killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, a salesperson can kill a thousand sales by flapping his jawbone like an ass.  My big takeaway here is that this relates not just to sales people on a distributor’s payroll, but to every independent author who won’t shut up about his or her book on Twitter or Facebook.

And finally, back to distribution, Ingram took the opportunity to formally announce Ingram Spark—a “new and improved” service designed for small publishers that will roll out later this year.  I learned that very small publishers (those with under 1 million in sales…uh, yeah, I fit in that group), makes up 20% of the publishing industry, and Ingram is perfectly positioned to serve that 20%.

As the largest wholesaler in the industry, Ingram serves over 200 ebook retailers in over 150 countries. They have 2500 partners, they handle 11 million titles through 3800 channels, and can output a different book every six seconds. But still they see room for significant growth catering to that 20%–as well as working with many of the major publishers who use their services (including O’Reily Media who just closed their last warehouse).   Ingram Spark will be much easier (according to the Ingram folks) to use than Lightning Source today. It will be “easy, quick, and free” and will provide one interface for POD and ebooks.

I’m looking forward to it.

The idea of developing a cooperative relationship among a group of writers and artists/designers and then publishing the group’s work (ala Hogarth Press) has intrigued me for a long time. (See earlier posts or check out our musings on the TWC page.) As the ebook phenomenon continues to develop and more publishers, agents, and editors jump into the self-publishing fray to try to get a piece of the self-publishing dollars, my thinking on the cooperative idea has continued to evolve. What we’re focused on now is the idea of an imprint that forges a middle road between traditional and self-publishing. In other words, an imprint that would publish authors who, like traditionally-published authors understand the importance of professional editors, designers, and marketers working as a team on their behalf, but who also want the advantages of self-publishing by having a yes/no say in the title and cover design, by getting a larger piece of the revenue pie, and by getting their book to market faster.

The Treehouse model, so named because a treehouse is emblematic as a refuge for the imagination, is, as I envision it, a middle way that will make sense to a lot of authors. (At least, it makes sense to me.) First, let’s consider the advantages for an author:

  • A professional editor will work with you to make sure your book is as good as it can be while at the same time giving you final say over editorial decisions.
  • A professional designer will work with you to create a cover that is both arresting and true to your vision and over which you have final yes/no control.
  • Your book is “curated,” that is it is vetted and ushered through the publication process by professionals. Not all books are ready for prime time and the Treehouse crew will make sure each Treehouse author’s work is at its best before it goes “to print.”
  • Your work will be published under an independent imprint.
  • You have the Treehouse team on your side when it comes to advocating for and promoting your book.
  • You do not have to wait a year to 18 months for your book to be published.
  • You split the revenue 50-50 from each book sold–from the first book sold.

Now, let’s look at the disadvantages:

  • You do not get an advance.
    • But the truth is advances, even at the big houses, are getting smaller and many small publishers are paying very small advances, if any, on the front end while not raising royalty rates on the back end.
  • Not only do you not get an advance, but you have to pay to invest in the upfront time/costs of editorial review, layout, design and e-book conversion.
    • But the bottom line is that you pay either way.
      • If you pay an editor to get your manuscript in shape so you can attract an agent, he or she will then shop it to an editor at a publishing house which then takes the cost of their own editorial/design/marketing, etc. out of the post-publication revenue stream. So in that case, you’ve paid twice. Remember, publishers are not in the business to publish your book for free–we have to make money (ideally) or at least cover our costs.
      • Or, if you are doing self-publishing right, you will hire a professional editor and designer anyway, and you will have to spend the time converting your book or pay someone else to do it for you. Why not have a team work with you through the whole path-to-publication process and then keep that team engaged as your partners on your promotional/marketing efforts as well?

Treehouse Publishing, as I see it, gives authors the best of both worlds. How do you see it? What are the advantages and disadvantages of our proposed Treehouse curated publishing model? If you’re an author querying your manuscript now or considering self-publishing, I’d especially like to know what you think. Climb up into the Treehouse with us and let us know what you see for the future of publishing.