Friday, August 23, 2013

Whether they know it or not, technology puts authors in the driver's seat

By Don Keith N4KC

Rapid technological change has affected few industries any more dramatically than book publishing.  Granted, it has remained an archaic business until very recently.  However, with the blurring of media such as I discussed in the previous post, it has had the effect of actually putting the book-writer, formerly the most abused and disadvantaged of all media-content producers, in a much better position.

Since I am a published author with some modicum of success, I get plenty of email from would-be writers who want me to give them the magic key to breaking through, to getting their books published, gain millions of fawning readers, and make millions.  Well, good luck with that!  However, now more than ever, authors have some leverage thanks to the technology, even if, as noted below, the big publishing houses have yet to realize it.  But I do reply to them, have a short article with advice on my web site, and have even written and published a short, inexpensive e-book on the subject.

Below is a recent reply to one person who wanted some ideas and guidance, and one whose expectations seemed realistic.  This is what I told him:

Well, as you have noted, writing a book is plenty of work, blood, sweat and tears (but I am happy to see you have a positive feeling after getting it done…many don’t) but let me warn you.  Getting it published is even tougher.  And that is even truer in the last few years.  Traditional publishers are becoming more and more restrictive on what books they will buy because today’s publishing “battlefield” is more treacherous than ever.  They are very much afraid of making a mistake and don’t have the luxury of having a few bestsellers to cover bad decisions they might make, simply because best-sellers do not make the kind of revenue for them that they once did.  There are fewer brick-and-mortar bookstores, too, and online retailers are discounting works to a minimum since they don’t have storefronts or warehouses to keep up.  Also, publishing houses still do not totally understand the advent of the e-book and the myriad e-book readers now on the market.  It goes contrary to their business models on many levels and, frankly, has turned the business upside-down.

On the other hand, authors now have many more options to see their works in print and be available for sale.  This, too, takes some of the leverage away from the big traditional publishing houses, even if they don’t yet admit it. 

First, let me suggest that you visit my web site at  There is a tab there labeled “On Writing.”  The short article there and the inexpensive e-book that expands on it will show you where I think most would-be authors should go and how you can do it.  I talk at length about the mine fields new writers might encounter along the way, and there are plenty of them.

Despite all the change, I still believe the best plan for getting your book published and in front of readers is to use a traditional publishing house—one that buys the rights to your book, publishes it, and pays you an advance-against-royalties (maybe), then pays royalties on each copy they sell.  None will charge you money up front.  However, to sell a book to most legitimate publishers, you will need to have a literary agent to represent you to the major houses.  Most legitimate publishing houses (and NONE of the big ones) will read submissions that come directly from authors.  I give suggestions for locating an agent in the article linked above.  It ain’t easy!  But it is worth it.  Note, too, that agents work with a limited number of potential publishers.  If an agent rejects your book, it does not necessarily mean it is a bad book or not marketable.  It simply means the agent does not readily know of an editor/publisher with whom he or she works who is looking for a book like yours at the time.  Or that the agent does not represent books like yours. 

Agents are becoming more and more specialized.  When my old agent retired last year, I went looking for a new one.  I could not find anyone who wanted to represent the broad array of book types that I write.  Now, I have settled on one who does my military thriller novels and another who does my historical non-fiction.  I am still looking for someone to handle my commercial and/or literary fiction.

Another option is to self-publish.  This method of getting your book out there has changed dramatically in the last few years.  Before, you would contract with a so-called “vanity press” to print your book and get it into the usual distribution channels.  You would, of course, pay for those services, as well as any additional so-called “marketing” they offered, which usually turns out to be minimal and decidedly ineffective.  In practically all cases, the author ends up with boxes of books in the basement, sizeable invoices from the vanity press, and nothing else.  If those phone calls you are getting are from companies like this, I would suggest you politely tell them to go elsewhere.

Now, though, it is possible for authors to publish through various on-line vendors.  You can not only do a paperback version of your book but various formats of e-books as well.  The major vendors include Kindle Direct Publishing (e-books for Amazon’s Kindle reader and other formats), CreateSpace (print-on-demand paper books) and SmashWords (e-books for other e-reader formats, including Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Apple Store, and more).  You can actually make your book available through these vendors with no cost to you whatsoever.  CreateSpace charges a one-time $25 fee if you want to put your paper book into what it calls “Expanded Distribution.”  This means the book will be in the catalogs of the major book distributors and can be ordered by any bookstore or library.  It also means the book will show up on and can be ordered from the web sites of Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and other online sellers. 

The only other cost would be anything you decided to pay to a book designer or artist to format your book and do a cover.  You can do that yourself if you are handy with the computer, PhotoShop, or other design software but the vendors maintain lists of people who can do this for you for quite reasonable rates.

Note that if you use CreateSpace, you can order books for your own use and sale much more cheaply than you can get books from some vanity press, or even from a traditional publisher that might publish it.  Example:  I can buy copies of my books published by Penguin/NAL—a major publishing house—for a 40% discount.  However, with my self-published books, I can order at a better than 60% discount off cover price.  That is because the books are printed-on-demand.  If someone orders a copy of my self-published novel THE SPIN today from, and if he pays for overnight delivery, that book can be printed, shipped and delivered to arrive tomorrow.  In my case, if I order books for an event, such as copies of my amateur radio book, I not only get them cheaper than any vanity press would print them, but there is no minimum order, and I can almost always get them in a week without paying a bunch for expedited shipping.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, if I want to, I can return books to Penguin/NAL for credit.  If I buy books from CreateSpace, I can't.  I own those until I sell them...if I can sell them.  But remember--no minimum order, so I can order as needed and don't have to keep a big supply in the basement.)

Now you see why the big publishing houses are a tad concerned!  Still, though, I believe for now they are the best avenue to get your book in front of the largest potential audience.  But you need an agent.

Incidentally, whether you self-publish through a vanity press or the online vendors or even if you sell your book to Random House or Simon & Schuster, you will still have to do much of your own marketing, including publicity, making readers aware of your book.  That is a whole other subject, and there are many books available if you go to Amazon and search for “marketing books.”  Again, I would avoid unknown companies who want to charge you an arm and a leg to “publicize” your book, or who promise placement in People Magazine or a guest spot on The Tonight Show.  There are many, many snakes lying in wait for you in that grass!

No comments: