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Indie & Trad Publishing & Flying Monkeys On The Yellow Brick Road!

Flying-monkey-with-wicked-witch-wizard-of-oz-416597As you negotiate your journey through the wonderful world of publishing, be careful of those flying monkeys as you gaze in the crystal ball of your career path.

Don’t take anyone else’s monkey as your own! We all are on our unique yellow brick roads to Oz, whatever Oz might be for each of us.

Lately I’ve run into some new writers at conferences who eventually whisper to me they’ve signed a traditional deal, but they’re afraid to mention it to anyone because they get castigated. The attitude seems to be that if the book is good enough to get a book deal, then self-publishing makes more sense.

What a change in just a few years when people would break open a bottle of champagne upon getting a book deal. Now one almost dares not mention it for fear of being ridiculed for not taking the indie route. There are some indie authors saying they will never go back to traditional publishing; the key phrase is “go back”. It’s curious that a lot of us who have been successful as indies actually started in traditional publishing, giving us a distinct leg up; along with a thing called backlist.

I’m a big believer in being flexible and keeping options open. I’ve changed my view on things over the years and will continue to do so. Part of that is my Special Forces background, part of it is having experienced the spectrum of publishing.  And part of it is having learned to never say never.

For a new writer, with no backlist, it’s an entirely different event with the first book. It’s easy for me to say “Well, it would be hard for me to go trad now,” when I’ve been traditionally published 42 times. I definitely understand the ups and downs of it. Actually, with the right deal, I would do it. But the odds of that ‘right’ deal happening are iffy at this point in my career—the key being MY career with my particular monkeys, which aren’t anyone else’s (mine are cute). And the other key is I know what would make it right. Or wrong. And I would be realistic about it, not starry-eyed. Actually, I am a hybrid author in that I publish books with 47North, Amazon’s science fiction imprint. I do that for various reasons, giving up a percentage of possible royalties as an indie in exchange for other benefits. I feel it’s the right monkey for me.

I used the term ‘hybrid’ author back in 2011 in a blog post here. It’s probably the most successful way to go, unless you are a top 1% author. But you can’t be hybrid unless you are published traditionally eventually. An interesting thing few talk about is the successful indies who end up going trad.

For a brand new writer, I believe the odds of initial success going the traditional route, if one can successfully negotiate it, are better than going the indie route. Unless, of course, that new writer has mastered all the aspects of indie publishing, which is a Catch-22 right there. How can they master something when they don’t even understand, or have experience in, the basics?

The reality is that there is a reason all these people are employed by publishers: editors, cover designers, publicists, sales force, etc. And agents play a vital role for a new author, helping them negotiate this confusing path. As a small publisher, I understand that because we have to do all this at Cool Gus for an author; on their own they quickly get overwhelmed, which is the reason they want us to handle most of it, while keeping them informed. Would an unpublished author know how to do it, and not just to do it, but do it correctly? And how would they gain an audience in an eBook market that is drowning in content? Most importantly, there is definitely a place for print, and that market is not anywhere near as crowded simply because there is limited shelf space.  Right there, the trad author is ahead of the power curve.  A trad publisher getting a new author’s book into the bookstore is a very, very important thing.

backgroundA caveat is that a book deal is just the start, but for a previously unpublished author, it can be a solid start if they recognize the positive and the pitfalls and use the internet to study the wealth of information about how they should be planning for the future. I’ve gotten several emails from authors who have their first book coming out in the next year from a trad publisher, asking what they should be doing. That’s worrisome because although I have definitely seen a large improvement in marketing by trad publishers, I go back to my question from years ago of how many agents and publishers have an SOP they give to brand new authors, informing them on the process and what they can be doing? I’m sure there are those who do in this technical age, but probably not as many as should. An author needs to develop a career plan, not fall into the ‘sell the next book’ syndrome. It’s one of the reasons I wrote Write It Forward. I took what we did in Special Forces and applied it to making a living as an author.  Regardless of path, successful authors must have a career plan!

On the flip side, I do think successful traditional authors should really consider indie publishing some titles. Keep options open for the future. Because the one constant in publishing is there is no constant. The creative freedom of being part-indie can be incredibly freeing for an author who has only experienced traditional publishing. At Cool Gus, authors have the final say on everything to do with the book, from content, to cover, to pub date, to marketing. We advise; they decide.

Bottom line: long-term success on any path of publishing (including the infamous hybrid) is extraordinarily rare and difficult.

It’s like anything else: educate oneself. Be flexible. Take what you need and leave the rest. But there are many, many roads to Oz. And Oz is different for each of us. Each of us must find our own Yellow Brick Road; and we must deal with our particular group of flying monkeys.

The Everything Store; Amazon-Hachette; Yada Yada

EverythingAmazon is both “missionary and mercenary” and is a line from Brad Stone, the author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. That to me sums this book up and sums up Amazon.

Given recent events, aka Hachette-Amazon, it’s required reading for anyone involved in the publishing industry. I think it’s actually required reading for anyone who just buys from Amazon. It lays out how a company that was just a thought in 1994 became what it is today.

After reading the book, then I suggest reading the reviews written by some of the people mentioned in the book, including Mr. Bezos wife. I’m a bit surprised at the negative reaction from some of these people because I didn’t think the book is a smear job on either Bezos or the company he started and still runs. It lays out a business template of someone driven to success.

My take on Bezos from this book (which might totally be wrong, I’m sure his wife knows him better): he wants to win. It’s not all about making money (although I’m sure he doesn’t complain) but about winning.

I’m business partner of Amazon (and other platforms) simply because eBooks resurrected my writing career after traditional publishing said it was over. I tell writers it’s the best time ever to be an author. I’ve been able to re-publish my extensive backlist and get it to writers and Amazon facilitates that. I was recently able to publish a free Sneak Peak containing excerpts and author notes from 42 of my books and make it live on Amazon (and other platforms). What bookstore or publisher would do that? I get paid every month, while traditional publishing still issues royalties as if computers and the internet had never been invented.

Also, every interaction I’ve had with Amazon employees (including a day long visit in January) has been positive. They view authors as customers too, which is key although there are rumblings that might change.

That said, after reading this book, I also cast a leery eye at the future and make plans in case winning comes at the cost to me and my career.

As far as Amazon-Hachette, I think the real point is the future of print. Put simply, the current business model is antiquated and extremely inefficient with bookstores being consignment stores and books being shipped back if they don’t sell. Print on Demand is the inevitable future as the machine gets smaller and the price point gets lower. The part of the negotiations that really caught my eye was the mention that Amazon wants to include a clause where they can print up books and sell them if they are out of publisher stock. This means a POD machine at every Amazon fulfillment center and one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination to envision chronic shortages of supplies of print books from publishers. It would be dramatically more efficient, but would give Amazon much more control over publishing.

I also envision Amazon kiosks in airport, at colleges, in malls, etc. with POD machines. Inventory is stored in the computer. The book is printed when the customer wants it. Of course, the problem is: how does the customer know the book exists if they can’t see it? Which is a problem for digital: discoverability.

I was in Costco yesterday (yes, with great emotional suffering) and noticed how much the book table has shrunk in the past year. Same with going into a Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago: a lot less books getting racked. But, also, at airport bookstores, at Costco, the only books being racked at from a handful of mega-bestselling authors. Not much democracy there. For well over a decade publishers have gone more and more to the blockbuster and relegated the midlist and new authors to the slums. Understandable business-wise but apparently something some of those mega-bestselling authors who yell loudly about Amazon care nothing about.

IMG_1494At Cool Gus we take emotion out of the business process and look realistically to the future. I see many crowing that “digital has flattened” and “ebook sales have slowed”. Yes, as one getting above 50% and heads toward 100% things will slow down. It’s math. For those who worry about Amazon taking over the world, we also noticed at BEA a much more aggressive approach from #iBooks, Google and PubIt (although what the split means, we won’t get into).

As I noted in a previous blog: anyone who thinks the status quo is going to be maintained needs to be looking for a new job soon.

That said: It is still the best time ever to be an author. And, I believe, to be a reader. I’ve got a print book on my desk that would have been “out of print” but for POD technology, which I’m using for research. And I’ve got books on my iPhone, always ready to be read, like when I’m sitting in the doctor’s waiting room later this morning.

Nothing but interesting times ahead!

True Lies 9: “Say not ‘I have found the truth’ but rather ‘I have found a truth’.”

So says Kahlil Gibran Kahlil.  I made the error during Beast Barracks of buying off on the pitch from the brand new Arabic instructor at West Point—it was the first year they were offering the language and they needed enough bodies to fill a section.  So I signed up.

I had not yet learned the military maxim:  never volunteer for nothing.

Lots of numbers being bandied about in publishing now.  Lines are drawn.  Bayonets are being sharpened along with pencils and you know what?  Readers don’t give a crap.

Indie authors apparently make.  Whatever.  In all these surveys, I doubt my numbers are getting counted.  60 titles spread over a bunch of genres, most indie, some with 47North, some with the Martians.  I also have a nice revenue stream from Audible ACX.  Why does everyone suddenly care what I make?  They never did in traditional publishing.

One truth is that all the numbers are completely skewed in traditional publishing by a handful of mega-bestselling authors.  Take them out and the whole thing changes drastically.

Maybe that’s the key to all of this.  We need to clean up our own house.  Because that’s what we control.

Hugh Howey tweeted something interesting, something I’ve been harping on for a couple of years.  It’s not about who makes more money or how or whether they’re hybrid, inbred, or have two heads.  It’s about RIGHTS.

When music imploded digitally, the musicians who not only survived, but prospered, did it one of two ways.  On tour.  (Which aint likely for authors).  And/or controlling the rights to their music.

In case no one has noticed, author rights are being sold. E-reads was just sold.  Along with all those contracts.  I was with E-reads so long I got my rights back after seven years.  This selling of rights is going to happen more and more. Sort of like your mortgage during the bubble.  Remember that?  Authors could end up with the Russian mob owning their rights.  I watched a special where David Geffen talked about trading Poco’s contract to another agent for Neil Young’s.  Really.

And if I see one more indie author taking a trad deal and bubbling about how much is being offered them, how wonderful it’s going to be, I would make a gentle suggestion.  Let’s hear from them in a couple of years.  If you haven’t been trad published, you are likely in for a very rude awakening.  I cringe sometimes when I see someone who has been successful self-publishing, who signs away their rights for not just the up front money but what they think is going to be all the great distribution, marketing, yada yada yada.  I recommend any author who is thinking of going indie to trad, research back a couple of years and study the first authors to do that.  Where are they now?  How glad are they now they sold away those rights?  I might be wrong, but I haven’t heard much about some of them.  I can, however, check their rankings on Amazon.  I’m reminded of when a Roman consul/emperor returned to the city and they held a Triumph and there was a slave in the chariot whispering “Respice post te, hominem memento te.”

The flip side is that indie publishing is getting tougher and tougher. Take out the top 5% of indie authors and the numbers are also skewed.  The market is saturated.  Bestseller lists have very few consistent titles, even day to day.  What many indies aren’t saying is that the increasing competition is making it tough.   I know Hugh Howey thinks the pie can grow bigger, but Joe Konrath speculated that a couple of years ago, and it’s simply not reality.

For trad authors thinking of going indie, here is some food for thought.

  1. Where will you be in five years when print is mostly via POD? I’m seeing Createspace (Amazon) Kiosks in airports printing books soon.
  2. Where will you be in five years if you don’t own any of your rights and you are no longer frontlist with the publisher that does own those rights?  Think they’ll be pushing you?  Hahahahahaha.  Sorry.  Had to do that after looking at royalties for my three co-written NY Times bestsellers that are backlist with St. Martins.  I made more yesterday indie than I do in six months on those books.
  3. Percentage wise, the revenue you would receive from indie publishing will likely more than make up for the loss of what your traditional publisher is doing for you.  Seriously.  I can do the math of your royalty statement.
  4. Control.  How much do you have?  Date of release?  Cover?  Editing?  Pricing?  Library distribution?  Cover copy?  Marketing?  Running specials?  Most importantly creatively?  Can you write what you want to write?  What your fans want?
  5. You can’t really self-publish.  Not if you have multiple titles.  It’s so much more than just cover, formatting, etc.  The digital dance (trademarking that now, like I should have done hybrid author) is complex.  But I don’t think you need to give up 50% of the royalties for those services.  You need a partner who will do that for you, giving you more than they get.  A concierge service for authors where the creator of the content is valued more than the mode of delivery.

There’s another saying which is considered also a curse:  May you live in interesting times.

WP_MexicopsdAh yes– FREE for the next 2 days:  West Point to Mexico, the first part of my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy.  From West Point in 1842 into the Mexican War.  My West Point-Civl War version of HBO’s Rome.  Did you know the Mexican War was the bloodiest in our history percentage wise?

*****Admin Note From Jen*****

Blog Contest for this Week: Sign up for Bob’s Newsletter and get your name put in for a drawing to win all three Duty, Honor, Country books in AUDIO. The complete trilogy! Bob sends out a newsletter no more than 4-6 times per year. Besides interesting information about Cool Gus, Sassy Becca and The Big Orange (Bob’s new Jeep), Bob also gives his newsletter subscribers exclusive content. You can sign up here.

To “Self”-Publish, You Need a Team

I’m linking to an article I wrote that was published today in Kirkus:

To “Self”-Publish, You Need a Team


Currently in Seattle where we infiltrated Amazon’s Death Star yesterday, Jen teaches at Bellevue Library tonight and I teach for PNWA down the road.  Then then Emerald City Writer’s Conference tomorrow.

IMG_0830Nothing but good times ahead.  I’ll leave you with the indelible image of Cool Gus & Sassy Becca hard at work:



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