I’ve said, a couple of times, that I’d like to have Farisa’s Courage out by October 1, 2017. I feel compelled to backtrack on that. I spoke too soon, and I’m not sure. It depends on the first agonizing decision that a writer makes: do I self-publish, or do I work with a traditional publisher?
If I self-publish, I can set my own deadlines and I can easily have a polished book out by October, even with a job change and cross-country move possible this summer. It’s not ready now, but it will be by then. If I use a traditional publisher, it would take a minor miracle to achieve October 2018. Publishing, even if you’re submitting a polished manuscript that doesn’t take a lot of work on their side, doesn’t move fast. I’ve been studying the publishing industry for a few days and poring through contradictory information, but that’s a recurring theme: it’s slow.
I’m still figuring out how publishing works. It’s massively complicated, and it’s terrifying. At every turn, you’re trusting someone else with your reputation. You can self-publish and avoid massive headaches around agents and contracts and various problems of incentive, but then you’re trusting yourself to manage your reputation, as opposed to a professional who knows what she’s actually doing. Given that half of Silicon Valley believes that I’m a unionist, I do not believe that I possess supreme confidence on the matter of managing a reputation.
Before I get into publishing, let me talk about the writing process, because it’s interesting. It seems to have a T-shaped time profile. The original ideas, in some cases, I’ve had for ten years. I’ve been designing Farisa’s character for four years. Some of the scenes, I wrote two years ago. That’s the long, upper-left branch of the “T”. However, I didn’t have a novel for quite a while. I had no idea how to start the first book in the series, much less how to end it. Then, about two weeks ago, I figured it out. Everything clicked, so there was a two-week spell with a lot of writing. I had a few “limit breaks” (10000+ word days). Although this writing required (and will continue to require) polish, it didn’t require more than the normal amount. That’s the upright staff of the “T”. Then there’s revision and editing. I’m guessing that it’ll take three to five months of work, about one to two hours per day. Revision and editing have to be done at a sustainable pace. You’re no longer playing a movie in your head and writing down what you see. Instead, you’re trying to critique the narrative as bluntly as you would if a stranger had written it, and then replace any weak parts (there are few of them, but the target is zero) with professional-quality writing. That’s hard to do in a 22-hour “writer 7-to-5” binge.
I’ve already surpassed the level of quality that is “publishable”. (That doesn’t mean that I won’t get rejected. Everyone gets rejection letters. It’s a rite of passage.) However, my goal isn’t to be “publishable”. I want to go far beyond that, especially since this novel is the first in a series that’ll probably take me a decade or more to finish. It has to be good. That takes time. It takes work. If I succeed with this, I’ll be writing more (and probably better) novels building off of this one. So it’s worth getting right.
The older (and for a long time, only) publication approach is to “trade publish” with a publishing house (“legacy” or “traditional” press). You’ll almost certainly need an agent to play, and agents are virtually impossible to get for first-time writers. Worse, if you get a bad agent (and how would you know?) you might land with the wrong publisher. If you get the wrong publisher, they might do very little promotion. If you sell poorly, it doesn’t matter if it’s your publisher’s fault because he failed to get you reviews, marketing, and exposure. You’re the person that it sticks too. No one in the publishing world differentiates between a bad book and a good book that didn’t sell for reasons having nothing to do with the writing. In fact, you’re often judged as a success or failure based on performance in the first eight weeks. If you’re underperforming in the second month, your publisher doesn’t call up Oprah and get you on the show to drive sales. It’s more likely that he forgets that you ever existed.
What’s a good publisher? I don’t believe that there’s a ranking for it, and it certainly depends both on the writer and the work. I would say that a good publisher is one who believes in you and will leverage every resource and personal relationship he has in order to make you succeed. A good publisher will get you reviewed in major magazines before your book comes on the market. If you’re writing topical non-fiction, a good publisher will get you on The Daily Show. A good publisher will tell bookstores that your book must be placed in a prominent location and make “the next call is from my boss to your boss” calls if someone doesn’t comply. If you’re into TV deals, a good publisher will have find someone in his network whose teenage son interns at HBO, and have copies land in the way of decision makers. A bad publisher thinks his job ends when he sends you a check for the advance. You might still succeed, but it’s on you to make this happen. (You’re effectively self-publishing, but with higher expectations.) Note that all of this is project-specific. If you get a prestigious publisher who doesn’t believe in your work and who doesn’t do anything to market it, then you got a bad publisher– even if he’d be a great publisher for someone else or a different book. If you choose a smaller publisher who can get your book read by the people who’ll love it enough to start a word-of-mouth phenomenon, that’s a good publisher. The game isn’t about “getting in to” the most prestigious publishing house, but about finding individuals who will do absolutely anything to make your work succeed. You don’t just want to be another line in a spreadsheet. You want someone who will pick up a phone at 7:30pm to get reviews and intangibles and placement in order.
When you self-publish, you’re your own marketer and business operator. You’ll still need cover art. You’ll need copy editing, no matter how good you think you are. That’s expensive. You sell e-books and you set the price. $3.99? $7.99? There’s no easy number. There’s no floor on the number of copies that you sell. You might sell zero copies, whereas if you’d used a reputable publisher, you have a floor at a few thousand. Expectations are probably lower, and the money can be better. You don’t have to worry about losing a writing career if you self-publish and fail to “earn out” your advance, because there is no advance. On the other hand, if you don’t sell anything, you don’t make anything– again, because there’s no advance.
What makes the decision difficult is that you have to choose, on very little information, what publication strategy you want to pursue. You can’t try one, then the other. If you self-publish and get 2500 copies out there, you’ve done very well. Yet a trade publisher will think that those 2500 “came out of” what the book is capable of doing. (I don’t buy this, and I can make a strong mathematical argument against it, but I don’t make the rules.) They’ll be nervous about editing a book that has loyal readers. So, if you self-publish, then trade publication becomes nearly impossible– even if your book is very good and sells well. With a multi-book series, this is an even bigger concern. Self-publishing the first book might lock out trade publication in general for the entire series. Current trends suggest that self-publishing will grow in prestige and effectiveness, but to self-publish a series is to bet on this.
Trade publishing also has more prestige. Most published books make very little money, but it’s a great line on a résumé in most careers. Self-publishing doesn’t have that cachet, because anyone can do it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. There are great self-published books out there. In fact, some people make more money self-publishing than they ever would if they used traditional publishers, because the royalties are more favorable. It’s just harder to convince people to read a $4.99 e-book than to buy a block of paper and dye for $17.99. The publisher gets the first couple thousand readers, but the self-publisher has to go out and get every single one.
Oddly enough, trade publishing seems to have the advantage at the very bottom and very top of the spectrum of what’s publishable. The worst books (“0-4”) can’t be traditionally published at all, unless written by celebrities like a certain corpulent exhibitionist who copped a $3-million advance. (I don’t think that she wrote a 4. Judging from her TV show, I think she’s capable of more. I’m saying that she could write a 4 and it would still sell.) The bottom-tier publishable books (“5-6”) benefit greatly from having a trade publisher. The writer gets to learn from a competent editor (and might hit 7+ later on, as his skills improve) and the accolade of being traditionally published has some value. The middle-tier publishable books (“7-8”) might do better with self-publishing. Why? I’ll explain that, below. The top-tier publishable books (“9-10”) could probably be fine either way, but trade publishing wins again. Why? Well, they get different treatment. If you convince a publisher that your book is 9-10, they’ll move hell and earth to make you a best-seller. If you wrote nonfiction, you’ll get invited to talk at TED– the main one, not TEDx. You’ll have the best team working on the title and every editor will be using every personal relationship and resource to make your title succeed. You’ll be sick of having to fly out for TV spots, but those will drive sales. You’ll be reviewed everywhere. You’ll have a six-figure marketing budget behind your title. If the editor has a teenage son who is an intern at HBO, that son will leave 20 copies around the office and you may get a movie deal.
At 5-6, your book is probably not good enough to start a word-of-mouth epidemic (unless its trashy or campy or broken in a viral-friendly way like 50 Shades) so trade publishing gets you a couple thousand copies and a physical block of paper to use as a trophy. If you can get the 9-10 treatment, it’s really worth it to put up with the delays and (in that case, slight) reduction in creative control that come with traditional publishing. At 7-8, though? I think that self publishing probably wins: more control, more points on the package, better timeframe. At 7-8, you don’t need the validation that a 5-6 would seek, because you know that you’re good; on the other hand, you’re not likely to be getting that special “9-10” treatment that makes it worthwhile to hand over control on pricing, distribution, cover art, title, and various things that publishers do but that will affect your sales and reputation. A first-time writer who hits 8 is probably going to get the same mediocre treatment as one who hits a 5. Yet a self-published 5 isn’t going to move much, and a self-published 8 might do well enough receive interest from traditional publishers (but, sadly, not on that title or series) if the results match the quality of writing.
Why does traditional publishing maintain superior prestige? Well, it’s not a good look to be seen as shooting for 8. People who’d still be considered above-average writers shoot for 10 and hit 5. People who are quite talented shoot for 10 and hit 7. Everyone’s supposed to be shooting for 10. (I don’t imply that self-published writers aren’t shooting for 10. For many, it’s about retaining creative control, which can be a different expression of shooting for 10.) Besides, an 8 is still very good. I would put less than 5% of traditionally published books at the 8 mark and less than 0.5% at 9. Even still, you’re selling from behind if you communicate, “I think I might just be an 8.” Now, I know that that’s not necessarily what self-publishing means. It might mean, “I’d like to get this out more quickly, instead of waiting for three years to see it in a reader’s hands.” It might mean, “I think this has 9 or 10 potential, but I can’t find an agent or publisher who buys in to my vision, so the 9-10 treatment isn’t on offer.” It might mean, “I value creative control more than what a publisher provides.” It might mean, “I think this is a solid 10, but it keeps getting rejected”, and it might actually be a 10– because we all know good authors who’ve had that experience. Unfortunately, perceptions are based on simple models. To ask, “Why is self-publishing less prestigious?”, we can answer it simply. Someone who wrote a 10, and who knew that she wrote a 10, and who knew that everyone would receive it as a 10, would take the traditional route.
Of course, in the real world, these numbers don’t exist and the whole model betrays false assumptions (writers know exactly how good or bad they are, quality of literature can be linearly ordered, sales correlate in a meaningful way to literary quality, the best writers never get rejected– none true). Even still, I think that self-publishing will be behind in prestige until we reach a point where it makes sense even for the 9-10. Undiscovered 9-10’s will still self-publish, but publishers will always treat verified 9-10 very differently from other authors and, in most cases, make it worth their while.
I have to size up, very quickly, if I have a shot (probably, a very small shot) at the “9-10” treatment. If I do, it might be worth it to take the traditional route and find an agent. If that doesn’t seem to be the case, I’d rather self-publish and, if my work is good, let that speak for itself.
What about money? The honest answer is: I don’t personally care, because there’s not much. I am making a career change, because I’m disgusted with corporate software, but I’m not planning to move into professional writing. (I’m remaining technical, but going back into research.) It is very rare to make substantial money with either traditional or self-published fiction. People earning $50,000 from their first novels (an effort that takes more than a year) are outliers. It is also possible to write a “9-10” quality book that doesn’t sell well or that makes no money. Anyway, you tend to get more points on the package (70% vs. 15%) when you self-publish, but if you get the “9-10″/star treatment from a traditional publisher, you might sell so many more copies that it’s worth it to have the smaller percentage.
So, where am I? How do I see it? It’d be vain to guess where I score on that 0-10 spectrum. My 95-percent confidence interval for where my manuscript is, right now, is still 2.5 points wide. I still have a few months of polishing to do. I think (although I may be off the mark) that I have it in me to bring the writing into the 9-10 range with a little bit (meaning a couple hundred hours, so “little bit” is relative) of work. Do I have what it takes to get 9-10 treatment from a publisher? I have no idea. I can’t even begin to assess that. Even get an agent who would know is going to take several months to find.
I will probably try traditional publishing out (it can’t hurt to query agents) and see what it offers me. The truth is, though, that unless I can get the “9-10” star treatment– and let’s be clear, even if what I wrote turns out to be great, the odds are low– I probably won’t use a traditional publisher. I don’t need an advance, and I have no interest in the “standard” trade-publisher package that comes with minimal promotional support. I don’t need to be “published”. I know that I can write. At a time, I had one of the top tech-industry blogs. (It was not an enviable experience, and I stopped for a reason.) If a publisher is not going to give me the “let’s swing for a homer” package, then I’m confident that I can self-publish and be better off. Yet, if I can find a publisher that’ll move hell and earth to help me (a) make the novel as great as it can be, and (b) sell the damn thing like there’s no tomorrow, then I’ll work with them. I’d be insane not to do so.
So, the first strategy is to try for traditional publishing. Maybe I’ll find an agent who thinks I wrote a “9-10”. Maybe she’ll find a publisher who feels the same way. I’m willing to forgo an advance– if you take zero, you automatically “earn out”– but the level of promotional support that I’d expect from a publisher typically comes with a $250,000 advance, which first-timers almost never get. (My view is that I’d rather have the advance money put into promotion and cover art. Let’s all make this thing as great as it can be, and I’ll take only points.) These are impossible odds for an average writer and they’re long odds even for me.
So, I have to be honest about what this means here. Even if what I’ve written is great, I have about a 1% chance of getting an offer that I’ll accept. That’s not a 1% chance of being able to get published. With enough persistence, I think I’m closer to 95 percent for this title, and 100 percent overall. (Of course, everyone gets rejected. A lot. You just keep playing.) That’s a 1% chance of getting published under terms good enough for me to hand over creative control. Meanwhile, it’s probably going to take years to find out if that’s even in the offing. I might strike out at getting an agent (which, these days, is infinitely harder than getting published once you have an agent). I might get 47 rejections. I might get an offer that just doesn’t work. I am, after all, planning to ask for a non-traditional contract (“forget the advance, but throw an extra $250k into promotion, because my reputation is on the line”). I’m not that likely to get it. I have to try, and I have to put months of work behind that try, but I’m a realist.
So, I can’t promise a timeframe. That’s annoying. If I could self-publish and later traditionally publish, after having a track record, that’s absolutely what I would do. I would approach publishers if and only if I could ask for the “9-10” treatment (in which case, trade publishers really do add value). Unfortunately, everything that I’m coming across suggests that you can’t do that. Once you self-publish a book, trade publishers are out. You pick one or the other, before you have a single reader.
The conclusion of this long exploration is that I can’t say for sure when I’ll have this title in a reader’s hand. Not knowing anything about the game, I have to figure things out. I have to try things. Meanwhile, I can’t lose sight of the most important thing, which is making this book the best damn thing I can make it. On that note… back to it.