Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 18, 2012

Too Many Choices - A NYT Author Decides

By Susan Squires

What a crazy, confusing and possibly wonderful world publishing is today. The traditional publishing world is under duress and their business model depends more and more on writers who are already selling a zillion books. While they may still be looking for the next big thing, just like in other mediums, the next big thing must hit quickly or it’s discarded. The continuing niche for a mid-list writer with respectable sales is disappearing. Many traditional publishers are getting into digital publishing to compete with the e-publishers who established themselves while New York wasn’t looking. And it has become really easy to publish yourself. The number of self-published titles is growing exponentially, but many of those books are not of professional quality. Readers are becoming wary of spending money on what I’ve heard one reader call “books only the author could love.”

What all this means is a lot of choices for an author, which should be a good thing. But since when has having a lot of choices made things easier?  In the recent Romance Writers Report, there was an excellent piece by Marliss Melton on the pros and cons of self-publishing. Everyone writer should read it. But I thought I’d put a personal spin on those pros and cons, because just recently I had to make that choice.

I was at an interesting time in my life. I was burned out on writing because I’d had both a hefty day job and deadlines from my publisher for almost twelve years. After seventeen novels, frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write anymore. But I did have an idea I liked for a series (The Children of Merlin) so I sent it in to my lovely editor at St. Martin’s Press. I knew something had to change though. I did the numbers, and found that I could finally retire from the day job.

Here’s where it gets tricky. St. Martin’s passed on my series. My agent thought he could sell it elsewhere, but I told him to hold sending it out. I had to find out whether I still wanted to write. It took a while, but the joy came back. I completed the first novel in the series, DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? I gave my agent the go ahead to try and sell the series.

But the changes in publishing were becoming more evident. I had writer friend who was doing very well publishing herself, and loved the fact that she could choose her own covers, write her own copy and set her own deadlines. She was producing lots of quirky cozy mysteries that sold well. She encouraged me to strike out on my own. Choose your cover? Write your copy? I found that intimidating. (If you want to check her out, her name is Melanie Jackson and her newest series is Miss Henry Mysteries)

As my proposal ran through the levels at some print houses, and digital first presses expressed immediate interest, I felt like a deer in the headlights. What did I want to do?

The moment of clarity for me came when Angela James, editor at Carina Press, Harlequin’s digital division, spoke at the Orange County Romance Writers of America meeting. She did a great job answering the question, “Why you should write for Carina rather than self-publish?” Here’s my recollection of her checklist:

1) Write for Carina if you aren’t familiar with the editing and publishing process to gain experience.

2) You can get an advance at Carina and some digital presses like it (though not a large one.)

3) You have the backing of a big publisher.

4) Publishing your book in the various formats requires time and skill.

I think that afternoon in January was the point where I truly considered publishing my series myself.

1) I had twelve years of experience publishing with NY and felt I knew the process pretty well. I could hire copy-editing, cover art, and even content editing if I wanted.

2) I was at the time of my life where advances weren’t as important. Would I make more money with a NY contract? Or a small press contract? Unclear. NY gives (usually) 10% royalties and 25% on e-books. Carina gave 40% royalties but didn’t do print. Self-publishing yields 70% royalties, though with very few exceptions you will sell far fewer books. I know authors who are doing financially very well publishing themselves, and authors who aren’t. However, if ever I was going to take the risk, it was when I was no longer dependent on advances.

3) Publishing houses have provided little support for authors for years, except if you happen to be Nora Roberts or Charlaine Harris. You are expected to promote your books, manage contests and websites, etc., for yourself. I had a healthy mailing list, of 37,000 names and was willing to take time to promote the book.

4) I had friends that said that publishing yourself wasn’t that hard. And if I couldn’t do it myself, I could hire it done very cheaply.

So what would I be losing, making a leap to self publishing? Well, I’d be saying goodbye to contest wins. No Rita in my future. My work would not be reviewed by the mainstream press. I wouldn’t be getting the respect of writing for a NY house. And that was the final decider. I actually started to laugh.

Was THAT why I was writing?

For contests and reviews and respect? Or was I writing to give people a good ride, to tell the stories I had inside me, to progress in my craft and have the satisfaction of earning money for my work? Besides, I’d done all that.

Suddenly it was all clear. It was time to take a risk and go into business for myself. So I had my agent retract the work from consideration at both print and digital-first publishers. Publishing my book turned out to be very doable, with a little coaching from my friends who had already figured it out. I published DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? in April. And I’m two- thirds through writing the second book in the series. Sales are coming in, and I feel good about my decision.

Now, here’s the million-dollar question. Would I have wanted to self-publish if I hadn’t already been published in print by NY houses? No. I have to say I would have tried as hard as I could to get published in traditional print. Here’s why:

1) I think it’s much harder to have significant sales if you are currently unpublished, and I wanted my books to have as wide an audience as possible.

3) I needed an editor, and experience, and time to build that mailing list, and learn how to promote.

4) I needed to demonstrate to myself that I could produce on time, on a deadline, and be sure that I was motivated enough to make writing a career.

5)  Though I hate to admit it, I needed the validation of people telling me that I was writing at a professional level. I’m not especially proud that I needed that, but it’s no use in denying that psychological factor.

My risky venture may not pay off. But I’ll never be sorry I tried. I’m just glad that the confluence of burnout, rejection, and a turning point my life combined to help me decide to give it a shot.

So, have you made a choice yet? What did you choose, and why? Your logic may help others in their decision!

Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.

Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.

0 comments on “Too Many Choices - A NYT Author Decides”

  1. Great post! Angela's reasons are exactly why I signed with MuseItUp for my first book and will also seek a small press for my second. I'm plotting a series, and we'll see how it goes. I may try to self-publish it, but I know very little about the business as a whole, and I figured a small press was a great way to learn.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us, and congrats on taking the leap!

  2. Susan, like any good social scientists ... you gave the answer within the question. Many of us, who are at the "aspiring" point in life, have seen the radical changes with bifocal vision. Turn your head up and you can see the long picture, put your head down and the short sight is clearer. No, I would not want to venture into the brave new world of self-publishing without the validation, experience and exposure possible in traditinal publishing. Yes, unfortunately, I agee with most critics of self-pub'd books. Most of them, those I receive monthly in my Kindle for "free" or .99 cents, should have been first or fifth drafts.

    The lure of "instant" gratification is the bain of our culture. It temps the inexperienced into believing there really are short cuts out there. Most so-called over night successes in any field are actually the end result of years of failure. It is the perception that failure is bad that has convinced so many to leap before looking. The end results are books that were meant to be part of the learning process, failures are teachers, the first million words can easily be stored in a dark file drawer.

    What you now represent is a growing number of experienced writers, who after years of honing their craft and running their own careers, take the reigns and the profits and redefine themselves. None of those who are taking your path would seriously trade the benefits they had from traditional publising. Conversely, Amanda Hocking did not turn down $4 Million because she thought she might do better self-publishing her next series of books. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post and much success in your new venture 🙂

  3. Great topic, great post, and so refreshing to read the myriad views on the subject through all the blogs picking up the same, or similar, discussion. I'm new to traditional publishing and no where near venturing into the self-publishing waters. If these opportunities had been available to me fifteen years ago, I may have dived right in and probably hit my head on the bottom of the pool. I wasn't ready. I'm still not ready for self-publishing, but I've finally gained the skills and experience to get noticed by one of the big traditional publishers, whom I thoroughly enjoy working with and learning from. I wouldn't want to do this on my own, at least not yet. I still have far to go.

  4. Great post, Susan! I'm with a small e-publisher, mainly because the NY publishers didn't think the genre I wanted to write would sell. I'm learning a lot from my editor and publisher, but unfortunately, don't have the exposure a traditional publisher would give me. So, not ready to experiment with self-publishing just yet.

  5. Thanks for passing along your wisdom, Susan. I have self-published all of my books without going the traditional route after spending years trying for the elusive contract. When I finished my sixth manuscript, I couldn't quite gear up for the agent/editor search once again and decided my ultimate goal of having readers could be attained through self-publishing. I would never recommend this route to anyone who hadn't tried for traditional publishing first, simply because the search for both representation and a contract thickens the skin and hones the craft--two essential ingredients to success as a writer. I'm glad to have options while the industry is in flux.

  6. These are all great comments, which just go to show that we are all in different places, and use different approaches to getting what's on the page out to the world. I definitely agree with Christy that one of the things most useful about the traditional publishing world is that it thickens your skin. In the long run, that's a good thing (though sometimes a little painful in the here and now!)

    One of the things about self-publishing is that you have to manage yourself. After watching my editors work, both of whom were very talented, (kudos to Chris Keeslar who bought the first five books and a novella for an anthology, and Jennifer Enderlin, who published the others) I also began to learn how to "kill my darlings," as William Faulkner once said. You know, those things we think are just so cool we can't stand to cut them, even though they slow the plot or don't quite sound like something the character would say. It's hard to cut that scene that incorporates all the very interesting research we spent weeks doing. Getting to the point where you can recognize those problems, and fix them takes a bit of a thick skin. If you can't do that, you can hire the best content editor you can afford, so they can show you how to fix them. That's part of the ongoing development of your craft which I find really satisfying..... Just because I'm self-publishing doesn't mean I want to quit growing as an author.....

  7. Very thought-provoking blog. Happy to read all the comments. I am self-pubbing with a very well-organized and experienced Canadian publisher. I am a professional writer/editor with years of experience in PR and marketing, although not in fiction or publishing. I am loving the journey with novel one at second revision, novel two going into layout and novel three (of a trilogy) 1/3 drafted. Through beta readers, a good critique partner and a content editor, I have been learning as I go. It helps that my characters have strong voices and strongly-held values and beliefs. It is a brave new world out here in indie publishing land. But, I would predict that within 3-5 years, the legacy publishers will be looking for the Amanda Hocking jewel and expecting to sign authors only after they have proven their writing and platform skills. JMHO

  8. There is definitely a lot of choice for a writer pursuing publication nowadays, each with their own difficulties, and none of them will make you a guaranteed bestseller. I opted for the middle road: the backing of small publisher, without having to pay an agent fee. My book doesn't release till July, but so far I love the support, which I think is probably way more personalised than what you'd get from a big-name press.

  9. [...] Writer Susan Squires turns to self-publishing after almost twelve years with a traditional publisher. Her story isn’t new, but the checklists she supplies will help those struggling with a similar.... [...]

  10. The only thing I know for sure is that I don't know what will happen in the future. Whatever it is, it will be different than today. Things are changing fast right now. For a while, you could offer your book for free, a zillion people would download it as they tried to fill up their new Kindle, Amazon counted those free downloads equally with paid downloads, and their algorithm ranked your book highly, so the book would be featured and suggested. This equaled more sales. Then Amazon got wise (Free books do NOT equal $ to Amazon) and changed their algorithm. It now appears to count total dollars spent in the download. But they will change it again.

    Talked to an author recently who had big success with self-publishing, and had never published before. That's tough to do, and I admired her immensely. (They were good books--I judged one in the Golden Heart contest). She recently opted to sell those same books to Amazon's own digital publishing unit, just to say she could. Now she's having second thoughts about giving up the royalty percentage of self-publishing. But she may sell more books this way. Who knows?

    There is also a great variability in an author's own sales. If a series "hits" and sells a lot, the next one by the same author may not. Frankly, this has always been true. Just because you make it doesn't mean you stay "made." That's why authors change their names and start over a lot.

    I guess it all boils down to the fact that there's no magic formula for success. We make choices at a point in time and go with it. About the only thing you CAN control for sure is the quality of the book you put out. That's about all I'm sure of.

  11. Yeah I concur with everyone responding here. You have really helped a lot with this insightful post Susan. Everyone these days seems to be talking about publishing from a distance, as if it's something we're all looking at, far off on the horizon. Whereas what you've done is turn it around so that we're looking at it up close, and personal, where it made a lot more sense. You helped us look through the other end of the telescope!! I enjoyed your recounting of your experience. Thank you! 🙂
    Yvette Carol

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