Posts tagged publishing

There has been much discussion lately about the many choices writers have now when it comes to publishing their work. There are still the traditional New York Publishers; there are smaller digital-first publishers; and there is self-publishing. This has turned into flame wars between authors who, I would venture to guess, feel exactly the same about the pros and cons of each choice but express their opinions differently. And I’ve seen the heated opinions on Twitter about differing opinions on this.

So apparently authors have many choices.


I think there are a few authors who have lots of choices when it comes to publishing their work.  Authors like Courtney Milan who has self-reported her two six figure deals with a New York publisher, but chose to self publish. Authors like Barry Eisler, multi-published with New York, who turned down a $500,000.00 deal to self-publish (but instead went with a different choice yet – one of Amazon’s imprints, which isn’t really self-publishing). And authors like Amanda Hocking, who did things in reverse —established herself through her self-publishing and then signed a four-book contract with St. Martin’s Press which reportedly entered a bidding war that went over $2 million. 

But those are not the majority of authors. The majority of authors would probably say their first choice is to publish with New York (majority—not all) but the reality is that only a few will ever get contract offers by those NY publishers. That takes away a choice right there. There are also authors who will then choose to submit to digital-first publishers. Yes, there is a wide range of publishers from hugely successful publishers to tiny niche publishers, meaning a lot of choice but those authors might find their manuscript passed on by those publishers as well. Which then leaves really only one choice —self publishing. 

This past weekend I was at the Emerald City Writers’ Conference and I attended a workshop on author branding by Angela James. During a question and answer period, she made the comment to an author (who had submitted her manuscript to Carina Press but had been rejected) that “just because you can publish doesn’t mean you should publish”.

I don’t disagree with that entirely. I’d just had that conversation with some of my writing friends, when I’d noted another author who’d just self-published the first book she ever wrote. We discussed how that might not be in an author’s best interests in the long run. Sure, I could self-publish the first book I ever wrote. And some people might even buy it, because I do have some fans who like my work. But I know that book is utter crap and it would only damage my professional reputation to put that out into the world for people to read.

But I also know from my experiences trying to find an agent, then finding an agent and having her try to sell my manuscripts, that it isn’t always about the quality of a manuscript. There are very narrow things that editors are looking for, especially at the New York publishers. Anything that is outside that narrow box won’t even be looked at, no matter how good it is. Smaller publishers and digital publishers might have broader windows of what they’re looking for, but they still have those boundaries. So it’s entirely possible that good books go unpublished because they don’t fit within those strict boundaries of what publishers are looking for.  

In those cases, self-publishing is definitely a viable option. But let’s not kid ourselves — there are times it’s the ONLY option. Sure, Barry Eisler might choose self-publishing over a $500,000 New York deal. Courtney Milan might choose to self-publish rather than go for another six figure deal. But for most authors— those New York deals aren’t on the table for them to choose.  

So when we talk about “choices” we need to be honest and realistic. For the majority of writers, there really aren’t that many “choices”.
Is this the future of publishing?
The announcement by Harlequin of their new Harlequin Horizons imprint this week sent shock waves throughout the publishing industry that likely registered on the Richter Scale. My initial gut reaction hasn’t changed much after reading a lot of the chat about this in various loops and forums, but I’ve given it some thought, looking to the future.

Apparently Harlequin is not the first publisher to move to an agreement like this with self-publishing companies. As a business decision, I can totally understand why Harlequin would do this. Malle Vallik commented on Smart Bitches that the reason they’ve done this is to offer authors other avenues to get published. Nothing wrong with that. They’re charging a fee, and there may be a market for this service that will make them money. Tons of money (based on the fees on their website). Especially if every author they reject is directed to Horizons.

On the surface, if that’s all it is, I say, fine, let them run their business (buyer beware). I can understand Harlequin authors who are upset by this, although Ms Vallik assured them there will be no association between the two imprints and readers will not confuse Horizons books with traditional Harlequin imprints.

We know the publishing industry is struggling with their outdated and cumbersome business model, especially in this economic climate. The advent of digital publishing has highlighted some of those inefficiencies and change has started to occur. I don’t know enough about the publishing business to be able to suggest solutions to their problems, but I can’t help but wonder if publishers are seeing this kind of venture into vanity publishing as a solution.

In an economic climate that is requiring all businesses to look for efficiencies, this definitely works. Editors/editorial assistants read through piles of queries, rejecting most of them or asking for a few partials to read, then read through piles of partials and reject most of them or ask for a few full manuscripts, read through all of those, passing some up to senior editors but rejecting most of them, then senior editors read them and reject them, with all the back and forth correspondence that happens, or in the case of those they accept, the publishers then spends considerable time editing, designing covers, printing, promoting, etc etc. Harlequin still does all their business by snail mail! That boggles the mind in this day and age! No wonder it takes a year to hear back from them.

In this new model, the author pays for all these costs. It also saves them all the time (and editorial salaries and benefits) of reading through slush piles. They can see which self-published stories do well, and pick those ones up with no risk and little cost.

Malle Vallik also stated: “…if anyone is wondering if this changes anything with Harlequin’s usual editorial processes, the answer is no. We remain committed to reading and acquiring manuscripts from aspiring authors. It’s new voices that set new directions for the future.”

Call me cynical but if I was an editorial assistant or less senior editor at Harlequin, I’d be worried about my job. Looking to the future, I can envision Harlequin reducing editorial staff and picking up fewer books from slush pile submissions, and relying more on the Horizons line to provide their next releases. And it makes me wonder if other publishers will do the same.

Publishers are already reducing editorial staff and are apparently reluctant to take on anything that isn’t “big”. They’re afraid to take risks with new authors, and rumour has it they’re even hesitant to take on proven mid-list authors. This is a way for them to reduce their risk. Let’s face it, every book they decide to publish is a guess. Editors are using their best judgment, but it’s subjective and they’re just guessing. Mistakes are made, and it goes both ways – authors who get huge advances that never get earned out; manuscripts that are rejected and go on to become bestsellers with other publishers; books that you read and say, “how the heck did this get published?” and books with few expectations that go on to sell big numbers. This kind of model would take the guesswork out of it, take the risk out of it, and save publishers a ton of money on one side of the business, while making them money on the other side.

Let’s say one day this becomes the normal new publishing model, where authors who have the money pay get their book published and out there, perhaps connected to a particular publishing house that may or may not decide to offer a contract on that book if it does well. If we’re all playing on that level playing field, I suppose it could work. You would think that the books that are good stories and well-written would in fact rise to the top and sell more – thereby attracting the attention of the publishers. Which in fact is a more accurate way of deciding which books to spend money on publishing and promoting than say, a query letter.

But my goodness, how many sales do vanity-published authors make? My understanding is, the numbers are very low. How do you get your vanity-pubbed book into bookstores to sell, without the backing of a publisher? Most bookstores won’t even consider it. Once again, someone with enough money and knowledge to run a good promotion campaign will come out ahead on this one.

Authors already spend money now to write. I spend money on Internet service, workshops, reference books, membership to various professional associations, my own website and promotion, paper, printer ink, postage. Maybe that extra money will just become another cost of doing business for a writer. I’m not saying I like it, or that it’s right or wrong. Things that have been generally accepted business practices in the past aren’t necessarily the “right” way, and I’m thinking of traditional advances. Most people are now recognizing there are other ways to pay authors.

But in that model, only writers with money would get published. That’s a bit discouraging, isn’t it? What about all the great voices and talents and people with something to say, who may not have that kind of money to spend? What about other artists? Sure, painters have to buy brushes and paints and canvases – do they pay galleries to have exhibitions or sell their work? (I really have no idea, not being that kind of artist). Do musicians pay recording studios to produce their album? (Recognizing that many musicians can now record their own music and put out CD’s and MPs independent of big record labels – kind of like self-publishing, hmm?)

In this kind of model, publishers potentially could make more money from rejecting authors than by actually publishing their books and selling them. That just doesn’t feel right and doesn’t bode well for the quality of the work being put out there. And if that was all there was to choose from – unedited, self-published books - what does that do to the quality of our literary experiences?

If this in fact becomes the new model, how would that affect other stakeholders? What happens to agents? If anyone can pay to have her book published, she doesn’t need an agent. If the publisher decides to offer a contract, the author may need an agent to negotiate terms. Or maybe not. Maybe publishers would move to standard boiler-plate contracts like many digital publisher currently do. In which case, why would anyone need an agent? Or could there be a dual model, where some pursue the vanity publishing avenue and others try to get that contract through an agent as they do now?

What about existing digital publishers? They have built an apparently successful business model based on no large advances and higher royalty percentages. Would they be motivated to move to a similar system, whereby authors pay to be published and associated with their name?

Somehow, in the digital-only world, this doesn’t sound so appealing. Vanity publishers have traditionally focused on print books; if you want to publish a digital book, apparently it’s quite easy these days through various venues (Lulu, Smashwords, even Amazon). So it’s unlikely that digital publishers could make money offering this service. And digital publishers are probably pretty lean already in terms of their business processes. Editors work from home, most of them have “day jobs” as well as their editing work, business is conducted electronically and the publishers aren’t paying for office space, computers, equipment, supplies and the salaries of editors to sit in those offices all day reading the slush pile.

I don't have answers, only a lot of questions, and I don’t know if this is where the publishing industry is going. I have to admit I find it a frightening prospect as both an author and a reader. I think everyone will be watching this venture with great interest.
The pace is killing me!
The irony is not lost on me.

I am Ms Hurry-Up, Can’t-Wait, The-Publishing-Industry-Works-Way-Too-Slow.

But the pace is killing me.

This is what my To Do List looked like on Thursday:

Write blog post for my own blog for Friday
Write guest blog post for fellow author’s blog for July 23
Write blog post for Amber Quill Press blog for July 27
Polish manuscript for full request from agent and send
Judge 2 contest entries (did one already, 2 left)
Proof print galley for Friends with Benefits
Send Samhain editor promo excerpt for next release
Send off suggested blog topics for guest blogger in August
Send scavenger hunt question to LASR
Post another instalment at Dorchester/TextNovel contest
Participate in “Not going to conference conferences” at Divas and Passionate Ink

This doesn’t include just keeping up with emails, etc. And I have a full time day job.

Then…my editor sent me another galley to proof (for those who don’t know, this means reading the WHOLE BOOK) for my book coming out this weekend. This had to go to the top of the list.

Then I got a contract offer from another editor. Forms to fill out to get that started.

What’s not on this list? WRITING!

My WIP has certainly been moving slowly and it’s getting frustrating. I’ve been really happy to have a new release coming out every 2-3 months but with all the other work that goes along with it (forms, contracts, editing, promo work) the pace is killing me. And I have five more books coming out between now and June 2010!

I know some reading this might be thinking, what is she whining about? She’s published! And others who have contract deadlines, who have to write three books in the next year, may be thinking the same. Believe me, I’m not whining. I’m thrilled about all this. But it’s another irony that my goal this year was to slow down. I meant slow down with my writing, but I guess what I actually need to do is slow down some of the other things I'm doing.
Bodice rippers????
Twice in the last week or so I’ve come across the term “bodice ripper” referring to romance novels. It surprises me that anyone still uses that term. Today I came across an article from The Times Literary Supplement by Lidija Haas, who works at the London Review of Books. She states “For many decades now, the detailed treatment of conventional love and its happy endings has been all but exiled from serious fiction….The romance novel’s exclusion is made more obvious by publishers’ attempts to disguise its true nature, and many books are pitched awkwardly halfway between literary fiction and bodice-ripper.” (italics mine) She further says that even in these awkward half-romance/half literary fiction stories, “the essential story remains that of a plucky young woman, poor, or at least a misfit in some way, who struggles to make her way in the world, facing loneliness and adversity, before at last being rewarded with a conventional happy ending: successful love, and perhaps babies.”

She further cites some novels as examples, but these novels are not romance novels. Perhaps they are those “awkward half literary/half romance” novels she refers to and maybe that’s why they don’t satisfy.

Many of us saw the recent MSNBC poll about whether people read “bodice rippers”. Turns out 46% of people who responded read romance and 23% read it sometimes (a total of 69%). Only 31% said they never read romance.

According to the Romance Writers of America website, romance fiction outsold every market category in 2006, with the exception of religion/inspirational, and 26.4% of all books sold are romance.

Yet, despite the popularity and widespread sales of romance novels, the genre still attracts derision (which I feel when I see the term bodice ripper) skepticism and criticism. There is still a stigma attached to reading romance novels.

Why is this?

According to fiction author Melissa Pritchard, the romance novel "perpetuates something slightly dangerous, that there's this notion, that there's this perfect love out there, and it can distract you from the work of loving yourself."

Janice Radway’s 1987 study concluded that women feel guilty about reading popular romances, and the shame is often as result of husbands who criticize them for wasting 'their' hard-earned money and for spending time absorbed in a novel rather than devoting time to the household, their family and husband.

Does this still hold true in 2008? Do women still feel guilty about reading romance for the same reasons? Do women who take time away from their home, husband and family to read literary fiction feel guilty? How about readers of science fiction? Do men feel guilty about taking time to read a western novel or Maxim magazine? Or is it just the belief that that romance fiction has no value, that we can’t learn anything about human character, relationships or humanity in general by reading such fiction?

When Lidija Haas states “the essential story remains that of a plucky young woman, poor, or at least a misfit in some way, who struggles to make her way in the world, facing loneliness and adversity, before at last being rewarded with a conventional happy ending: successful love, and perhaps babies.” - this too is misleading. If the climax and resolution of a story is just that someone is “rewarded” (for what?) by finding love (and perhaps babies…????) certainly that is not going to be a satisfying story. And yet, the other elements she mentions – a protagonist who is poor or a misfit in some way, struggles to make her way in the world - how is that essentially different than any other novel: something significant happens to the character, who then decides to pursue a goal, devises a plan of action and even though there are forces trying to stop him/her, moves forward because there is so much at stake, the goal being so important to him/her that he/she will do anything to achieve it, struggles against adversity, faces an ultimate decision in a last effort to achieve his/her goal/solve his/her problem, and in making that decision satisfies a need in him/her created in his/her past, giving us a view of his/her depeest character and humanity...?

Many of those who criticize romance fiction seem to think that the protagonist’s goal is simply to find a man, or to find love, at the expense of finding herself. I don’t know of any romance novels (not that I’ve read them all!) where the heroine’s goal is to find a man. Even if it is, that’s not her only goal – there’s a deeper, more complex goal than just finding a man, getting married or finding love.

A good story is emotionally satisfying; it validates our values, and shows us that the struggle to live our values is worth it all. But when the protagonist remains true to her values, achieves her ultimate goal (or sometimes not, but is stronger and better for it) AND finds love – that’s even more emotionally satisfying.

Love is one of the most common themes in any kind of art. Most movies have a love story and most pop music is about love. Because deep inside everyone one of us, despite our struggles to achieve our most important goals or to solve our biggest problems, we all want to love and to be loved.

Anyone who uses the term “bodice ripper” is out of touch with the changes that have taken place in romance publishing over the last twenty years. And I’d like to say that’s all there is to it. But with the negativity towards the romance genre, using that term to refer to all romances is completely misleading and spurious and only serves to further undermine the legitimacy of the romance genre. The term comes across as demeaning to women, with the portrayal of a weak heroine being at the mercy of a hero who forces her to submit to him. But wait…there are stories about domination and submission where the heroine wants to be dominated by a strong man. And if a woman’s motivations are portrayed in a believable and convincing manner, if she is a strong woman who knows herself and knows what she wants, and she wants to be dominated, isn’t that okay? But I still would never call that story a “bodice ripper”…