Publish And Perish? What To Do With That Book Inside Of You

When people tell me they have a book inside of them — which actually happens quite a lot, probably because I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a clutch of novels (traditionally) published — I always want to ask: “Have you considered surgery?” As George Orwell famously said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

And writing is the easy part. Getting your book published can make the writing seem like two weeks on Necker Island. Or, instead of trying to survive the gauntlet which is the publishing industry, you can self-publish your work … and see it disappear, amateurishly produced and poorly edited, into the vast ocean of mediocrity that is most books. Either way, the tome in which you invested long hard months of your life will probably wind up basically unread, unloved, and irrelevant.

And yet it seems almost everybody wants to be an author someday. So I’ve been watching John Biggs’* Mytro Project, crowdfunding a YA trilogy, with some considerable interest, not least because it actually seems to be an example of a viable third way. He is wisely spending much of the crowdfunded income on professional editing and design, meaning the end product should be as professionally produced as anything from the so-called Big Five publishers.

True, it won’t have the full force of their marketing and distribution arms behind it, but I can tell you from annoyed experience that most traditionally published books won’t get that either. (I’ve had novels published, and then largely ignored, by HarperCollins, St. Martin’s, and DC/Vertigo.) In fact, what traditional publishers really want nowadays are authors with existing “platforms,” i.e. pre-existing relationships with mass media who will publish and trumpet their work. Unfortunately for them, though, nowadays such authors — like Mr. Biggs — have a growing panoply of increasingly attractive alternatives.

The best an author can get is a traditional publisher throwing its full weight behind their book. That hasn’t changed and won’t anytime soon. But mere half-hearted support from a major publisher seems to me in many ways worse than successful crowdfunding. You do get notability, prestige, a (probably crappy) advance, a better chance at critical reviews, and handholding; but you sacrifice almost all control, for an indefinite and probably very long period.

Which is a big deal nowadays. That control gives you a lot of ways to increase your readership online. In particular, Amazon’s Kindle Direct offers a number of effective (albeit time-limited) promotional options, including making your books available for free, or making them very cheap while still claiming their 70% royalty rate. And/or you can bite the bullet and Creative-Commons-license your work for free, as I’ve done. Major publishers are, quite rationally, rarely interested in doing this; it might be good for the author in the long run, but it’s not particularly likely to be good for them.

I’m fortunate enough to have benefited from both the prestige of having been anointed by Big Publishing, and generous rights-reversion clauses. As I mused on Twitter earlier this week:

and then the very next day —

…but if those reversion clauses hadn’t been favorable, my books would essentially be dead to the world until those publishers eventually gave up on them, probably years and years hence, if ever. That’s a real risk that authors take when they go with Big Publishing.

I’ve heard it said said that the most efficient way to take advantage of getting into a really good university like MIT or Stanford is to drop out after a year; by then you’ve already amassed their prestige, which is the most valuable thing they bestow upon you. Similarly, if you already have a “platform” but you need the prestige of having been anointed by a higher power, it probably makes sense to sell a book to a legacy publisher (ideally, one of the Big Five) if you can.

But after that, if they won’t make yours a lead title, I’m really not sure it’s worth it any more. It’s best, by far, to be a major book from a big publisher; and out-and-out self-publishing remains, at best, a lottery-like crap shoot; but successful, professional crowdfunding a la Mytro seems an increasingly viable and desirable option, compared to most small presses or afterthought titles from major publishers. In the short term, the latter is better–but in the long run, it may not be worth sacrificing your rights.

Image credit: Gutenberg Bible at Huntington Library, by yours truly, on Flickr.

*Disclaimer: we both write here, but I’ve never actually met the man.