Monday, August 23, 2010

Guest Post by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Libby is an old friend and one of the first writers I met once I became published. Like me, she's currently dipping a toe in the Kindle world.

Her books are a lot of fun. If you're a mystery fan, I highly recommend them.

In the interest of fostering an open dialog, I asked her to come up with some reasons why authors should stick with traditional print publishing. This is her response.

Libby: I am a traditionally published author with six crime fiction novels out. I am an indie author with a two novels and a collection of short stories out (Joe wrote the foreword for one of them, btw). In fact, it was Joe, a good friend, who pushed me to do my short story collection for Kindle and Smashwords. I’ve written about e-books on my blog, and I tell every author I meet to put their backlist on Kindle and try to keep the e-rights to their future works. (Which is getting harder to do).

I participate on the Kindle Boards, the Amazon Kindle and Mystery community threads, (Love the Secret Book Club), and I see the handwriting on the wall, er, screen. I am incensed that publishers are only giving their authors a 25% royalty for e-books. I do not agree that just because a publisher releases an author’s book in print that they are automatically entitled to the e-rights. I think the prices publishers charge are outrageous (None of my e-books, at least the ones I control, are more than $3.99). I agree with Joe that the major publishers are clueless about the future, and that many will be forced to downsize to adapt to this Brave New E-World.

So, when Joe asked me to make a case for traditional publishing in this climate and on this blog, I hesitated. Given everything that Joe’s written and done, was I crazy? A masochist? Do I WANT to get beat up in the comments section? Um, in a word, no. But… the more I thought about it, I decided I did have some points to make.

In one of his recent blogs, Joe talked about the “tipping point,” the point at which authors and agents will no longer need publishers. And that’s the key. We are not yet at the tipping point, and, while we may be in a few years, for now, I still want to be traditionally published. Here’s why:

If a publisher gets behind a title, you can’t beat their marketing support and promotion. They saturate the media with information and hype in a way most individual authors can’t. Even if you’re not one of the “chosen,” publishers send out ARCs for review – which I believe is still the best ways to start generating “buzz.”

As much as I appreciate Amazon reviews, a review from the New York Times, or NPR can make a huge difference in sales, in both DTB and e-books.

Publishers still underwrite author tours, which while they aren’t as effective as they used to be, are worth doing, mostly because of the local media that can be generated from the visit.

Publishers are beginning to understand the world of book blogging and are trying to catch up. And when I see an ad of someone’s book on a bus or subway or billboard, I might gnash my teeth that it’s not mine, but it makes a difference in my awareness.

Traditional publishers’ distribution networks are broad, deep, and in some cases, even creative. As much as we focus online for our book info, when you see a book in the bookstore, at the airport, in Costco, or the grocery store, it makes an impression.

The more impressions, the more apt a consumer is to buy. Publishers make those impressions possible in ways that a computer screen can’t. Sure, you can see a book being talked about by several bloggers on Twitter, you can read an interview with the author on line, you can see their blogs on other blogs, but seeing the product in the “real” world is different. You can touch it, thumb through the pages, read the 69th page, even the last line, and make up your mind whether you want it.

And if the publishers’ sales reps are enthusiastic about a title, they can make a difference in the numbers that are available. I’m not saying that can’t happen with e-books; we’ve seen how a cascade of recommendations can catapult a book into Amazon’s best-seller lists; just that we’re not at the “tipping point” yet. Most readers still do not have Kindles or Nooks or iPads.

Publishers offer a built-in editing service. Yes, there are books out from major publishers where the editing sucks. Yes, there are authors who refuse to be edited, or editors who are afraid of touching other authors’ work. But, for the most part, an editor at a publishing house makes a book better. They have for me.

The way I see it is that you have one chance to impress readers, whether you’re traditionally or e-published. Your book HAS to be the best you can possibly make it. If not, no one will buy Book Two. Unless a third party (not a relative or friend) who knows what they’re doing takes a look at it, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Traditional publishers have that third party. And you don’t have to pay for it.

Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of bookstores. In some cases, they have hand sold my books and helped my numbers. They have hosted me when there were thirty people, and when there were less than three.

Booksellers are some of the most knowledgeable, thoughtful people I know. They steer me to wonderful stories, introduce me to authors I might not have considered. I would hate to lose their expertise. Traditional publishing helps booksellers – not as much as readers buying books, of course – but for now, until the “tipping point” arrives, they are an indispensible part of the book landscape. Happily, some have already created e-stores; I hope more do. We need to keep hearing their voices.

If you’re an author who wants to recognized with an award or nomination, traditional publishing still has the big ones. The Pulitzer, the Booker, Penn/Faulkner, the Edgar, etc. stipulate a DTB, not an e-book alone. That may change; other awards might take their place, but for now, that seems to be the case.

OK. This is way too long as is, but I hope I’ve offered some perspective. At least another voice.

Fire away… Oh, and if you’re looking for some great e-books, I sure hope you’ll check mine out.

Joe's response:

Indeed, publishers can do a great job supporting books. Even ebooks. My friend Henry Perez is a perfect example. His ebook, MOURN THE LIVING, was free for three days on Kindle, because of his publisher. When the free promotion ended, it became the #1 paid bestseller on Kindle, and is currently #15. His previous title, KILLING RED, also broke the top 100.

Henry is selling A LOT of ebooks. He couldn't have done this on his own, because authors can't release ebooks for free on Amazon.

But not every ebook gets this treatment, and not every ebook that is lucky enough to get this treatment hits #1.

Support by publishers is terrific, when you can get it. I've certainly gotten some support, and it has helped.

But how much has it helped? I contend I've done more for building my own buzz than my publishers have done, and my publishers have done more for me than most authors get in terms of support.

Choosing a traditional publisher because you hope they'll support you isn't really a good bet, since most books don't get much of a push. Even ARCs have become rarer, with some publishers offering free e-galleys but nothing printed.

Plus, what are you giving up to get support? Are the sales generated by an ad in Romantic Times worth trading 70% royalties for 8%? Will you make up the lower royalty profit in volume? In my experience, probably not.

Libby is right. A traditionally published book can reach many more eyes than a self-pubbed one. But there are two issues that need to be addressed.

1. Right now, the tipping point hasn't come. So bookstores are still the main way to reach readers. However, that point will come. And soon. Do you want to sign with a publisher if the distribution system collapses?

2. Selling 10,000 books at $6.99 each earns the author $5600. Selling 3000 ebooks at $2.99 each earns the author $6000. Selling a lot of books is great, but you can make more money selling fewer books without the need for widespread distribution.

Again, I agree with Libby, but only to a point. As I've mentioned ad nauseum, I wrote nine novels before I landed a book deal. Since then, my books have required very little editing, because I learned craft and structure on my own through trial and error.

While some writers can be helped immeasurably by professional editing, the majority of my peers require very little once they turn their manuscript in.

Yes, newbies pretty much need it. Some pros do too. But some folks don't need it as much, and certainly not to the degree that the industry ballyhoos it.

Again, Libby is right. For now.

I personally hope we always have bookstores. I love them. But my numbers have shown I can earn more money without being in bookstores. In fact, I wish my books were out of print.

Being a professional writer means making a living. The majority of professional writers do that through publishers and booksellers. But currently, the majority of my income is coming from one bookseller: Amazon.

That's doesn't mean I don't value brick and mortar stores. It just means I'm trying to make a living.

I hate awards, and I say this having been nominated for many and having won a few. I despise the nepotism, favoritism, and self-important aggrandizement of organizations that give awards, and question the value they have to book sales.

A chosen few dictating the best of any given category is ludicrous, as if "best" is a quantifiable, objective trait.

That said, some believe awards are helpful, and I'm willing to entertain arguments to that bend.

The industry hasn't reached its tipping point yet. But I have.

I fully expect the industry to reach the same conclusions I've reached. But it might take some time.

Until then, weigh your options, experiment, and choose your course of action wisely... because you might be tied into your choice for longer than you think.