For Your Consideration: Publishers Need to Adapt in the Digital Age

I’ve recently been re-listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts and found them as enjoyable as ever (including LOL moments every few episodes). In this blog post I want to drill-in slightly to Season 1, Episode 20 and then pivot from that onto my own thoughts, especially about how I think publishers need to continue to evolve.

Setting the Scene

(Bare in mind that this podcast is now a decade old. Predictions made about the future of the industry may be well-along to either fruition or stunted after the passing of time, fruit unrealised).

In this episode Brandon asks a question of audience member, author Mike Stackpole who had this to say (slightly paraphrased, mostly verbatim):

“It’s only been the last 70-80 years we’ve been churning out literature, prior to that, we were entertainers. Now with the coming of e-books we can sell direct to endusers and cut out the publishers. … The problem for traditional publishing is they only own the electronic rights on manuscripts since about 1996 and since now were in 2008 they’ve got 12 years’ worth of novels and no writer needs to sell electronic versions to them anymore because we can sell direct. They’re in trouble.

The big problem for traditional publishers is their business has never been about bringing us fiction. It has been about them bringing to us blocks of wood. Their whole business is based around printing, shipping and warehousing blocks of wood. Their not that vital any more. We can find editors, copy editors, etc ourselves.”

To emphasise his point he says he can make greater profit by selling a short story from his website for $2 than he makes selling 2x $8 paperbacks. Additionally he gets the money instantly, not 9-15 months later as he would with a publisher.

As it relates to the Author

It’s pretty hard to argue with the real-world example given. There’s more profit in it for the author to sell direct-to-consumer, rather than via a publisher.

And there’s certainly truth to the point that the writer’s efforts are the main commodity being sold by a publisher. That’s not to say that the publisher doesn’t add value. The publisher brings professionals who have expertise and more experience than most authors ever will in their chosen field: editors, marketers, illustrators etc.

As an example, there’s a reason why most authors aren’t consulted about what their front cover look like. Publisher’s know what will sell, and also have a better understanding of what’s in the marketplace at the present time.

Publishers also bring credibility. Until you’re an established author you’re trading on the brand of your publisher.

However, the publishing world is changing. It is now easier for the author to editors, line editors and research assistants online. Websites like 99 designs exist to let you choose between competing artists for book cover designs. Sites like Patreon make it easier for creative people to be funded by those who love their creativity.

Personally, I don’t want to have to make all of those decisions. I prefer to think of myself as focussed on the writing, not lazy. Just like I could change the oil on my car, but I’m OK with paying someone else to do it.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many fantasy books lately but I wonder in an internet full of people offering their services if we will see a return to guilds? Where groups of similarly skilled people will form to enhance their own credibility and exposure to potential customers.

For the Publisher

I am not unbiased in this discussion. Not too long ago I submitted a manuscript sample to a US publisher via the postal system as prescribed. And it disappeared.

Thinking about this podcast and the changing nature of technology it made me wonder: why would a publisher ever want to receive a manuscript by mail? The only reason I can possibly think of, is that it lowers the volume of submissions. What if embracing technology could actually make the submission process easier and cheaper?

What I’d suggest is that publishers should provide an electronic submission process. They could even charge an administration/submission fee (which would cover the costs of printing at their end, if printing is still necessary?). There are numerous benefits for the publisher:

  • An additional revenue stream (submission fee)
  • Automated-checking to see if the document complies with the submission guidelines. If it doesn’t you can reject it outright. (If you’re nice you can let the author know; if you’re so inclined you can reject it ‘quietly’ and keep their submission fee without much guilt. They, after all, didn’t follow the rules, so be it on their own head).
  • Use machine-learning to automatically check and redirect to the recycle bin. (Too many spelling errors? Rejected. Tense confusion? Rejected. Swear-word tolerance breached? Rejected. Foul content? Rejected).
  • Author-filtering. Get a submission from someone who is truly terrible at writing? Auto-reject anything they submit for the next year. (Or if reject is too strong, though I doubt it, at least put them toward the bottom of the slush pile).
  • Implement a “submission alpha reader” process where unpaid minions can up-or-down vote manuscript samples.
  • Environmentally friendly: less printing.
  • Author-history. Hit gold with an excellent author? Want to see everything else they’ve submitted before?
  • Faster submission process. When you’re already waiting for months, it’d be nice to streamline any part of the process as an author.

Am I a genius or diabolically evil?

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Vengeance Will Come

Vengeance Will Come was the title of my first fantasy adventure novel.

Back in September 2017 the first 3 chapters of the manuscript began the journey from Australia to a US publisher. The potential wait, as advertised, was up to 6 months. On the publisher’s website they stated if you hadn’t heard back within 6 months, re-submit as it may have been lost.

I say the manuscript began the journey, because I don’t know where it’s journey ended. Sadly, after waiting months I had heard nothing. I don’t know what happened to the manuscript. It could be sitting in the bottom of a postal bin a kilometre from my house for all I know. It might be gathering dust in the publisher’s basement or dropped into the ocean by a drunk deckhand on the mail ship. My preferred option is that it was intercepted by a mail-reading fiend who has enjoyed it so much they are keeping it close, like a certain Precious ring.

I just don’t know. Learn from my experience: pay whatever it costs to get a delivery confirmation. If you’re going to wait for months it’s worth paying to know it actually arrived at it’s intended destination.

The way I look at it, I have several options:

  1. Re-send it to the same publisher, and wait another 6 months
  2. Send it to another publisher
  3. Indie publish it through Kindle Direct
  4. Banish it to the “draft drawer” (never again to see the light of day)
  5. Imprison it in the “draft drawer” (one day, it might escape either as-is, or be re-written).
  6. Release it for free

Making the decision isn’t easy, and honestly I feel like a weather vane in rough weather. And I don’t like being indecisive.

Traditional Publisher. Part of the reason why I wanted to go the traditional publishing route was for vindication and gate-keeping. I don’t want to add to the torrent of books available unless the quality of my book is reasonable. I wanted the support of professionals to advise me on how to improve the book.

I wrote the book, expecting it to be the part of a series, but now I am less sure that I will write the sequels. Although the book is definitely a beginning of the story, I believe it’s also enjoyable on its own merits stand-alone. However, if I sold to a publisher I’d expect to be locked into finishing the series in short order… and I’m not sure I’d want that.

The “Draft Drawer”. It could go there, but then the hundreds (probably, thousands) of hours I spent on it feel completely wasted. And the premise of spending longer on it (later) for a re-write isn’t appealing, especially given my uncertainty over the series and objective quality.

Kindle Direct or release for free. These are the last two options. If I were to release to Kindle, I’d be doing it for a nominal sale cost ($0.99). As all authors do, I doubt the quality of my work. I suspect it has ‘first-book problems’ and I wouldn’t want to overcharge for it. For the price of $1 I think readers should be more forgiving. I’d be going through Amazon for the chance of reaching a broader audience, not for the small amount of revenue it would generate.

If I released it for free, I have no sense of guilt about questions of quality, and it feels like less work to do it… but then would anyone actually read it???

Any suggestions?

Who’s your god?

The bulk of today’s post is about Christianity. But if you follow me for writing, I highly recommend reading this long, but informative piece: Publishing’s Parallel Universe by Louise Merrington, which talks about her experience with both traditional and indie publishing.

Now onto faith… To highlight the point I’ll be making in this post, a passage from The Heavenly Man which I gushed about earlier. This is a section written by Deling, Yun’s husband:

God helped us greatly while my husband was in prison. There are two special miracles that I’d like to share with you from this time.

With only Yun’s mother and me left to run the farm, things were desperate! We had no clue what we were doing. We decided to plant sweet potatoes, but didn’t know how to do it. I found out later that we should have planted the roots about two feet apart. I had planted them just a few inches apart!

All summer long our neighbours who heard about my foolishness mocked us and made fun of us! The news spread rapidly and I was the butt of many jokes.

Then in autumn, all our neighbours started cursing because they had very poor yields from their harvest. Their sweet potatoes were only the size of tennis balls.

When we pulled up our sweet potatoes, we found they were almost the size of basketballs! It was a great miracle and everyone knew God had taken care of us. Our neighbours respected us more from that moment on and they didn’t view my husband as a cursed criminal any more, but as a man who’d been unjustly incarcerated.

Our neighbours saw “the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” Malachi 3:18.

The second miracle took place when Isaac was three. We had to exchange a portion of whatever crops we produced because we owned no animals or fertiliser. Therefore it was imperative we had a good harvest, or we would not be able to buy food to eat or the other items we needed to survive.

This time I didn’t know how to plant wheat seeds. I placed them so close together that they carpeted the soil!

Just a week before the wheat harvest, a severe hailstorm struck. Ice the size of tennis balls fell from the sky. I rushed outside when the hail started and could already see that some of our neighbours’ wheat fields had been completely flattened by the storm. Yun’s mother and I fell to our knees and cried out, “God, have mercy on us!”

A great miracle happened. Our field was the only one protected by the Lord. All our wheat was standing upright, untouched by the hail. Everyone else’s fields in the whole area had been obliterated.

People came out of their homes after the storm subsided and saw how the Lord Jesus Christ had protected us. It was another powerful testimony to them.

While we enjoyed thick, healthy wheat that year, our neighbours had no harvest and were forced to use what was left of their crops as food for their animals.

Looking back, despite the hard times, the Lord was faithful to us!

As most Christians understand, knowing God doesn’t mean your life is suddenly gold. It is fantastic in many ways, but it doesn’t spare you all of the hardships like some kind of mystical genie. As was the case for Deling above – her husband was still in prison, and she still struggled to survive. (The majority of us in the affluent West don’t understand what it means to literally be desperate. [Desperation is not waiting for your internet to buffer]).

Thinking that you’ll suddenly be prosperous and have everything you need is at the far end of the scale. But the other end of the scale is equally wrong: thinking of God with a little ‘g’. God doesn’t confer a small advantage in life, he’s the only advantage you’ll ever need.

It also shows that he’s a God who cares about the individual, and our earthly circumstances. Not only does he want to protect us from the ravages and consequences of sin (e.g. the woman caught in adultery), and pain but he knows us intimately even down to how many hairs are on our head.

Deling and her mother-in-law couldn’t just sit back and wait for rescue – they did what they can, and asked God to help. Note that God came through at the end which is so typically God. He didn’t have someone helpful come along and explain how to farm, but instead worked a miracle to show his power.

If we are being obedient to his call in our lives, then we can be confident that he will look after us. That doesn’t mean we will be saved from incredible hardship, but that he will help us through the hardship. It is, after all, what we’re called to do.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)

Today is the Day

I barely slept a wink all night.

The countdown is close to reaching zero on two separate events. One event is that today I mail off my submission packet for Vengeance Will Come to a publisher.

My very first submission. It feels like I’m breaking new ground. Or better yet, stepping out on the ice, hoping that it’s frozen enough to bear my weight.

To be honest, I’m fully expecting a template rejection letter. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s my first novel and I’m sure I have much to learn about writing. I could have moved on without attempting to publish this first book – but the project would never have felt complete otherwise. (I still have a few wrinkles to smooth out in the manuscript, but they are minor and I hope to be actually complete in two weeks).

And without attempting submission I would never have learned about writing a synopsis, which was both a pleasure and a pain.

Writing a synopsis is an art all of its own and different to a query (or “pitch”). It forces you to distil your entire manuscript down to the core ingredients. (Vengeance Will Come is 300 A4 pages and my synopsis was 7 pages). In complete contradiction to an author’s normal impulses you must outline all major plot points, plot twists and character arcs. You must lay bare your secrets in a summarised recounting, without making it sterile.

I found creating the synopsis helpful in how it articulated the character arcs. In future projects I’m going to write the synopsis in parallel to the manuscript.

Writing a Synopsis

I’ve written before about the amateur author’s pendulum, and the indecisiveness of which route to choose. The spectrum is vast, with traditional publisher at one end and self-publish, release-for-free at the other end.

I’ve decided that I’m going to submit Vengeance Will Come to a traditional publisher. First and foremost, I want the gatekeeper to say I’m allowed through. I don’t want to self publish and (accidentally) add to the slush pile. I know I’m not experienced enough to judge my own quality objectively.

I also know myself. I don’t want to have to worry about things like cover art, promotion and marketing. (I realise there could be elements of this, but I don’t want to ‘go it alone’. I’d rather leave it to the experts).

So now I’m trying to write my very first synopsis. Trying being the operative word.

Why Publish?

I really like receiving correspondence with my readers – either via email or in the comments section below. I enjoy hearing your opinions and thoughts. Plus it also helps me with blog ideas 🙂

I recently wrote about the stress involved in writing something in Vengeance Will Come  (book 1) that I might later regret in a subsequent book in the series. Essentially I was worried about painting myself into a corner.

“BMadTiger” wrote to me and suggested:

No one says you have to publish the first volume straight away… You could write the remaining volumes and then adjust the first book if necessary…

Firstly thanks, BMadTiger, for your correspondence and thought.What you have said is very true, of course. It is sound advice.

So, what would possess me to release the novel, locking myself in, rather than write the entire series first? There are several reasons:

Seeing an outcome. I’ve spent hundreds of hours over multiple years on it, and I want to see an outcome for that effort. Until the novel is available to the public (in some form) it’s not an outcome.

(Having said that, if I did go down the route of a traditional publisher I’ve read that it’s better to pitch at least two books in a series than one).

To Avoid the Endless Revision Loop. One of the main dangers for new authors is to get stuck in one story, endlessly revising. It doesn’t matter how many times I look at a paragraph, I can still find changes. Some of those changes improve the paragraph and some just make it different. (Some, unwittingly, make it worse).

Sometimes it is better to finish a story and move on to the next one, even if the first isn’t perfect.Finishing a story is important, because in finishing you learn things you can’t learn at other points of writing. Whether a finished story should ever be released/published is another question.

There’s a difficult balance to achieve knowing when something is ready for release and when it’s still too raw. I’m assuming that will only come with experience, and probably a few missteps along the way.

Perfection: the enemy of productivity. Again, there’s a balance between quality and quantity. Some authors want to churn out multiple books a year (I don’t know how). Others want to publish a book which adds richness to the study of literature. They don’t care if a single novel is their life’s work. While not being a churner, my goal is to be able to write more than one series.

Also, this is my first novel-length story. I have to accept it’s not going to be perfect. Practice makes perfect.

See what I made. There is a desire to show others my work. I’ve spent so long on the project that I want to share it with others. I understand not everyone will like it. Different strokes for different folks, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I hope someone gets enthused by it. I think it’s probably the goal of every author: to have a community of people who like their work; who think about the worlds they create, and who delve deeper into the story than a casual read. A lofty dream, but here’s hoping.

And back to editing for me…

A true tale of success

I point you to this article: The Shack: How William Paul Young wrote a bestseller as an excellent encouragement.

Some highlights:

  • He was bankrupt and facing divorce after infidelity.
  • He wrote a novel for his family, and had 15 copies printed.
  • The average novel sells only 3,000 to 5,000 copies over its lifespan and sales of 7,500 gives you a bestseller.
  • They sent it to 26 publishers, who all were uninterested. They formed there own printing company and spent $300 on marketing.
  • It has sold 20 million copies, printed in 48 languages worldwide and remained #1 on The New York Times bestseller list for 49 straight weeks. (It has spent 136 weeks on the list, and returned to it just last week, currently sitting at No. 7).

(Incidentally it is an awesome book).