Although I am now an indie author, I was traditionally published—i.e. published by big publishing houses based in New York City—for twenty years. It was almost exactly the twentieth anniversary of my first sale when I stepped away from traditional publishing. I sold my first book to a publisher in April 1992, and declined the offer from my last publisher in March 2012.
In the last five years, I’ve repackaged and republished a lot of backlist titles (because the rights have reverted to me from the original publishers) and also have published a good bit of new work myself. The last three books in the Dragonfire series were indie-published, as was the True Love Brides series of medieval romances, as was Tupperman’s story, Abyss. Indie publishing gave me the opportunity to finish series that wouldn’t have been possible in traditional publishing. Five years ago, I thought that would be my main use of indie publishing, but now I’m launching new series. It’s wonderful to begin fresh, and to have the freedom to play with some story elements, too. The Crusader’s Bride, first in my new medieval romance series, is a completely new project with a series structure I’ve wanted to explore for a while. I have two more series in work, also with an unusual structure, and am loving the creative adventure. I’m pretty sure that none of these series could have been placed with a traditional publisher with favorable terms. Indie publishing has helped me to rediscover the joy of writing and storytelling.
That said, there are things I miss about traditional publishing.
Most of the people I worked with in publishing were very clever and well-educated. They were interesting, whether talking about books or not. Although going to New York to meet with industry partners could be stressful, it was also often fascinating. I particularly miss talking to my agent, who had seen much and understood more. His insight was invaluable. I also miss the great gossipy chats I would have with some editors when we met in person, catching up on who was doing what and all the news in the tiny pond of romance publishing.
There are things that big publishing houses do well, and which they continue to do best. The multi-national release of a blockbuster book, for example, requires skill and timing, as well as a kind of synchronization that is pretty much impossible for indie authors to manage alone. Very few authors write international blockbuster hits, so this doesn’t have much to do with most of us.
One of the things even the newest debut author sees with a big publishing house, though, is their collection and analysis of data. Having a large cache of sales information in a particular market niche gives big publishers the opportunity to discern patterns, even in sub-genre niches, to compare packages and tropes and author voices to try to identify what contributes to success. They can shape what they buy based on what they know they can sell, and they usually can articulate this very well. Like all powers, this one can be used badly—an editor can either build upon a given book’s strengths to make it appeal more strongly to the market without changing its essence, or an editor can insist that everything he or she acquires for publication fits a specific template, whether or not that destroys the work (or the author.) In recent years, the latter perspective seems to have become dominant.
So, I miss the consultations and the expertise the way it was offered fifteen or twenty years ago. This is because I have too many ideas. I truly think of several story ideas per day. It’s just not possible for me to write them all. Even if I could write a book in a month (and I can’t) and do it every month, there’d be at least (365-12) 350 ideas per year abandoned beneath my desk to die. I love all of my ideas, and I could make them all into good books. Choosing which is the most marketable or the most likely to succeed is a skill I don’t have, because I’m not sufficiently objective about my own work when it’s in sharp focus. In five years, I could choose, but it would be irrelevant by then. Another variable to consider: sometimes the book an author has to write isn’t the one that will propel his or her career forward, but will build his or her writing skills instead. It’s good, though, to make an informed choice. I miss being able to tap into that wealth of expertise in order to make the best decision.
3/ The Production Cycle
The production cycle for a book in traditional publishing was at least partly driven by the steps necessary to print a physical book and distribute it. It tended to be about a year, from the final delivery of the book manuscript to its on-sale date. Of course, things have been stepped up (in some cases, at some houses) for digital publications to get to market sooner, but still, I miss the steady incremental progress of a book through the production cycle. Each book would come back to me at least three times for review, which gave plenty of opportunity to ferret out inconsistencies and typos. I would know a year in advance, if not more, what my publication schedule would be. That seems so leisurely to me now, like something from another universe.
In a way, it is. The current market demands that authors and publishers be more nimble, because trends come and go very quickly. I’ve used the past tense in the paragraph above, because I’m not sure that even traditional print houses work at this pace anymore. There’s still a big difference in indie, though. Indie authors often finish and edit a book, then publish it immediately.
There must be a happy middle ground between tomorrow and a year from tomorrow. I follow many of the steps I learned in traditional publishing, but they tend to be done more quickly. I’ve yet to entirely catch up. One of the reasons I’m on a big writing push this summer is to get ahead of the curve a bit, and stockpile some projects for publication in 2016. I’d like to be less rushed in the last month before publication and to be able to sit back, all ready for release day. I’d like to be able to let a story simmer for a while, sit untended while I review its logic.
I also would like to maintain good relationships with my current partners. One of the things that happens in traditional publishing is that authors who manage to perform a miracle and pull something together in a ridiculously tight time frame tend to be rewarded by being expected to perform miracles again. And again and again. It’s not pleasant to be taken for granted, or to know that your partner will always demand too much. I want to be kind to my partners and build even more time into my production cycle.
4/ Print Distribution
I have a considerable readership who likes print books. I like them, too, both as a reader and as an author. Print distribution gives a book visibility in the world beyond online sales portals. That visibility drives sales, by encouraging impulse buys and prompting memory. Granted, print distribution from traditional publishers is more difficult to gain than it once was, but it’s even harder to get physical distribution for an indie-published book.
Because most indie print books are print on demand, there’s no big print run of copies. You don’t need that when you don’t have print distribution: orders can be filled one at a time. But another issue for me is the look of the book itself. POD products are better than they used to be, but I miss the special finishes (like foil stamping or tinted varnish, rag edged pages, step-backs, printing on the interior of the cover, etc. etc.) that are only possible for traditionally printed books, produced in quantity.
I miss my ‘shiny’. I’ll keep looking for it.
5/ What’s Done Is Done
In traditional publishing, once a book is in page proofs (two or three months before the release date) it’s essentially done. It’s hard to make changes at that point, because it’s expensive to update typesetting and reburn printing plates. From that point, the book will be as it is. There won’t be revisions, even if a typo is found. There won’t be updates to the front and end matter. There won’t be a new cover, even if the first one doesn’t appeal to consumers. The cover copy won’t be revised. The book is made the best it can be at that point in time, then left to sink or swim. The machinery of publishing moves on to the next project. The author has already moved on to the next project. Only when there’s a new edition of a book some years later will any updates and revisions happen. Most books don’t go into second editions.
Of course, much of this derives from print publishing and the realities (and cost) of making changes to an existing physical book. Some of it also comes from big publishing companies needing to manage their lists and continue to move forward. Indie authors, in contrast, tend to update their book files (both digital and POD) much more aggressively, as well as their metadata. In essence, the entire list of an indie author can be always in transition. Front and back matter can be updated, typos can be corrected, scenes can be added, covers can be changed and links can be updated. The book is a fluid canvas and one that can always be revised. In a way, this is exciting. In another, it’s exhausting. As an author’s book list grows longer, the obligation of doing this upkeep can become quite burdensome.
I miss the finality of a traditionally published book’s publication date, and the ability to move forward instead of constantly revisiting the past. My formatter and I do an annual update of front and end matter in my digital books, although I don’t do the same with my POD book files. They are snapshots in time, like my traditionally published books. This annual update is becoming quite an exercise, given the amount of content I manage, so I might make it a biannual revision after 2015. We’ll see.
6/ Someone To Say ‘No’
This is the big one. It’s counter-intuitive to most indie authors, and even to many authors who come from traditional publishing. One of the things I love about indie publishing is the freedom. It’s very liberating to not have anyone to shoot down your ideas, to be able to play with different formats of stories or different genres, to take a chance on an idea and see how it flies. That power restores our ability to take a chance on an idea that just won’t let go of our imagination.
But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us. Just as in the traditional publishing market, I couldn’t tell my editor that I wouldn’t make change X to my book (or do it by Y date), my editor now can’t tell me to make change X. A freelance editor might believe she can’t tell a client indie author things that author won’t want to hear.
Power is held by the one who pays. We salute the ability of indie authors to write what they want, how they want, and publish it as they want, but the marketing of books is complicated. There are stories that can be improved—not changed into something else, but edited into better versions of themselves. There are covers that don’t appeal to the right consumer. There are stories that don’t build on the author’s established brand, and might even compromise it. The diversification of an author brand, the building of its audience, the management of the graphical branding are all careful balancing acts. It’s better to be able to consult with other experts before leaping forward with a choice.
So, I miss the voice of dissent, as funny as it sounds. I think we learn more from criticism. We might not make change X, but having someone point out a weakness can lead to a buttressing of that issue. The book can become stronger as a result of the exchange. It’s hard to see the merit and flaws of your own work, especially when moving from creation to publication really quickly, because we’re not objective about our own creations. Indie authors take on many responsibilities of their publishing career, many designing their own covers or writing their own copy among other tasks, which brings more under the umbrella of what might not be seen objectively. This is compounded by the fact that many indie authors have built communities of affirmation around themselves, so even when they ask for feedback, they might get only resounding approval—regardless of whether they’re right.
There’s a balance to be struck. I don’t for a moment imagine that if I returned to traditional publishing, I’d find all of these things again. Publishing has changed and what I miss are older industry patterns. I’d need a time machine to go back to 1998 or so to have these conversations again, and that isn’t possible.
At the same time, indie publishing isn’t perfect either. As the market matures and we all find our rhythm, the missing pieces become more clear. My freelance editor and I have had some great discussions this summer, for example. Because we have similar industry credentials and experience, we both understand the power of that dissenting voice in making books better. I’m still looking for my shiny, although shortly after writing this, a new means of print distribution for indie authors was announced. I’m learning more. The market is changing and evolving, and I’m optimistic that we’ll find a new balance. Traditional publishing demands too much sacrifice for what they might offer, so that’s not the right choice for me right now. The advantages of indie-publishing outweigh what’s lacking, at least for me at this point in my career. Things are changing, though, and I’m curious to see what the right choice will be—for me and other authors—five years from now.
What about you? Are there things you miss about the way your favorite authors were once published? Are there things you prefer about this current market?