Don't die with a book inside you

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A response to "Do we need publishers anymore?" - An indie publisher's view
By Jocelyn Watkin
(This article was first published in The New Zealand Author, #293, June/July 2013)
There'll always be publishers because more and more writers will decide to become their own. The concept that only traditional publishing houses can be publishers is outdated.
I'm in favour of more choice and power for writers, which are both offered by indie (independent) publishing.
Indie publishing, a term that has long replaced 'self-publishing', is not the Last Chance Saloon, as often claimed by the 'you're not a proper author unless published by a proper publisher' lobbyists.
Many writers make a conscious choice to indie publish, even those who have current relationship with a traditional publisher. Why? Because they can have more creative control and power over their work and can reduce the time required from crafted manuscript to finished book. Importantly, they can make more money, too.
Let's take the points presented by the 'pro- traditional' supporters.

1. Expertise in making books
Quality control is not the sole preserve of traditional publishers as indie publishers can also hire professional editors, layout specialists, designers and printers. The fact that some writers choose not to do this does not mean that the indie publishing industry is second-rate.

2. Carrying all of the costs
Traditional publishers no longer carry all of the costs. Anyone who has attended a New Zealand Society of Authors meeting in the last 18 months would have learned that many writers are now expected to make a contribution to their publisher's costs.

This might not be as 'hand in pocket' but as unpaid labour as 'hands on keyboard'. Writers are often required to be active with social media and other networks to build up interest in themselves and their book. Sometimes they are also expected to host their own book launches. It is rare that writers are offered more royalties as a result of this work.

If the book doesn't sell, then it's not just the publishers' problem as oft claimed. If traditional publishers don't market the book effectively, or explore options to sell it overseas, then writers lose big time. In addition, if the publisher allows low-cost retailers to sell the book below the market rates, particularly in prime selling times, then writers lose again.

3. Credibility
It's hard to believe that writers would ever accept that the only way for them to have credibility is via a traditional publisher. Credibility is built in a number of ways, not the least of which is the writer's own ability to write and to write well.

4. Knowing how to market, sell and distribute books
Traditional publishers have recognised expertise in selling via the traditional ways. Sadly, these options are dying. There are less book shops than before and the usual 'high street' book retailers have relegated good books to the back of their shops. Prime position is for toys and/or products endorsed by celebrities.

Traditional publishers were slow to embrace the e-book publishing revolution. As such, they demonstrated that they didn't understand their business or where the market was moving to.

5. Book Champions
Again, anyone who has attended recent writers' meetings will have heard that publishers are not championing writers or their books as they did in the past. The way the public learn about and buy books has also changed. There are well-established online review sites, electronic notice boards and cost-effective ways to market books, such as with social media (Twitter, Facebook and blogging). This means that the traditional distribution channels don't work like they used to and margins are being squeezed in the process.

While the 'best' publishers may back authors and their books, many others don't, other than heavily supporting non-authors, such as celebrities. This is because of the ready-made fan base that comes with those household names, which makes it easier for the traditional publisher to sell the books.

While an indie publisher must also learn how to maximise sales and profits with marketing and distribution, they are in the driving seat in terms of control. Writers can now reduce the barriers between themselves and their readers by using social media. In this way they can have direct access to their readers, build on-going relationships with them and in a way that traditional publishers can't offer.

6. Initiating books

Many traditional publishers now initiate books according to demands made by the well-oiled publicity machines of celebrities and sports champions. This is not 'shaping the books we read' but responding to what PR companies want us to buy.

Successful indie publishers can initiate books in response to what their readers actually want. By using social media and blogging they can test-market themes and story-lines with these readers, as they write their books. In this way, they build a ready-made audience to sell to once they complete their books. I know of non-fiction writers who approach their readers (their audience) with a back cover blurb before writing any new book. If there's enough interest then they then write the book.

Indie publishing offers writers more choice than traditional publishing. Up until recently, this didn't have to be an either/or choice. There is a place for traditional publishers and some writers still want that option.

However, while the pro-traditional lobbyists talk about what 'best' publishers do for writers (or should do) these publishers are decreasing in number. Many have amalgamated and are required to serve the best interests of their overseas owners instead.

As such, many writers, particularly New Zealand writers, will never be offered a publishing contract no matter how good their writing is. So, what are they supposed to do? Wait and somehow hope a chance will come their way? Die with an unpublished book?

Indie publishing offers real choice and opportunity. However, as with traditional publishers, there are difficulties and flaws to be overcome.

If we follow the indie film and music industries, writers and other publishing professionals will learn ways to work together on projects as required - either paid for what they do at the time (or as a skill swap) or via profit sharing. Others will develop collectives, such as with New Zealand's Oceanbooks.

Publishing is not on its way out but the methods have changed forever. The good news is that people are still reading. Even better news is that writers now have more control over the publishing process.

I'm confident that writers have to ability and determination to manage that control responsibility. They don't need others telling them or their readers what is best for them.

Jocelyn Watkin , 2013
Freelance writer, marketing and indie publishing adviser. Co-director of The Story Bridge