On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: The Rolling Stone is Gaining Speed.

The rolling stone of small and self-publishing is gaining speed as every day goes by.

Starting on last Thursday evening and running for three days, novelist Scott William Carter and I led a discussion with a little over thirty well-published professional writers on the reasons, the art, and the promise of both electronic publishing and POD (print on demand) publishing for fiction writers.

Fun doesn’t even begin to describe the three days we called “The New Tech Workshop.” Tiring would be a understatement. We worked with the writers on the ease of doing web sites, then worked on taking a story and making sure the organization and formatting were correct, then we spent about two hours while everyone in the room built from scratch a cover for their story. Then we worked them through getting that story on Amazon Kindle. And frighteningly enough, at that point we weren’t even halfway through the three days. We talked POD, marketing, building a publishing company and so much more.

And it went from there. Lunch discussions, dinner discussion, late into both nights snacking on chips and salsa and candy and talking. Thirty-plus well-published professional fiction writers stepping into the New World of Publishing. Well, not stepping, more like sprinting into the new world.

Wow, am I tired. Wow, was that fun. Wow, am I excited about this new world writers live in.


Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, large publishers started to have lots of meetings about the coming electronic books. Many of the meetings were planning on what they would do to both take advantage of the new way to sell books and also protect themselves from having electronic books put them out of business.

Then nothing happened. The sky hadn’t fallen, the sales of electronic books was so small as to not even count as a fraction of a percentage.

So a few years went by, more meetings, another electronic threat seemed to hit the publishers in the mid-1990s and there were even more meetings, more worry, and then nothing happened. Again the sky had not fallen. Lots of worry and discussion for nothing.

Again the wave of fear hit large publishers in the early 2000 and more meetings and more worry and nothing happened. Nope, not a sign of any pieces of any of the sky scattered around on the floor. Electronic books were still not even a blip on any percentage of sale chart.

And yet again in 2005 the sky was about to fall, but then nothing happened and by this time New York publishers and editors were tired of sitting in meetings talking about the coming problems that were clearly never coming.

Then Amazon came out with the Kindle and by this time a jaded bunch of New York publishers just shrugged. And did nothing. Who cared if a few writers got in and put some of their own work on the Kindle? It would make no difference.

Suddenly 8% of all books sold are electronic and that number is growing, headed for that nasty tipping point of 25%. Hundreds of different reading devices were announced or coming out, and the iPad smashed into even more places. And no one should forget that the kids, the next generation of readers, love to read on their smart phones.

Oops, the sky has fallen.

At the same time as the sky was tumbling down, publishers, being tight because of a distribution system collapse decided to save money and outsource the slush and finding new authors. Things got silly and tight. And the sales forces of most publishers took over the control of what was bought, only letting in clones of the very same thing that had sold before. And many writers got tired, many writers said why bother, and many others looked around and said, “Hey, I can start my own little publishing company and get into basically the same distribution channels as the large publishers.”

Really, really, oops.

The big publishers had lost control of their main advantage, the ability to distribute books, both print and electronically to readers. For two decades the big publishers had listened to the sky-is-falling stories and nothing had happened. When the sky actually did fall, they were caught by surprise.

And then to make it worse they made stupid decisions with how they acquired the very work they needed to keep their business in business. We all hate how the airlines have made it just flat horrid to fly. No one I know gets on a plane anymore unless they just have to. Big Publishers have done the exact same thing to writers, the very suppliers of all of their product. Not a really smart idea because now, with the new technology, we don’t have to play those stupid games anymore.

Really, really, really, oops.

The New World

I glanced at one point in the workshop at the thirty plus well-published writers, many with large backlists sitting in file cabinets, and realized there were at least thirty new publishing companies in that room. Publishing companies that can get books to readers in the same fashion and in the same way as a large publisher.

To use a really bad cliche, the barn door has been opened and now can’t be closed. There is simply no way large publishers can get their distribution systems back under their control. The readers like the new ways of getting books and the writers are starting to catch a clue, mostly forced out on their own by the publishing stupidity of outsourcing the purchasing of the very books and new talent that keeps publishers alive.

So, as one longterm professional has been asking at the bottom of his letters now for six months, “What service does large traditional publishers offer writers that is worth 90% of the money?”

Large traditional publishers in trying to answer that question now have reverted to such lame answers as “We do the editing.” Or… “We have great cover designers.”  Or… “We are quality control for writers.”

Okay, let me simply say this. Anyone in that room during the three days of the workshop could hire a freelance editor. (Some in that room were freelance editors, actually.) EVERYONE in that room designed and produced a professional-looking cover in two hours. And “Quality Control?”  Uhhh…publishers, remember you farmed quality control over new product to a bunch of agents fresh out of college who mostly wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them. And then to top that you let your sales force dictate to top editors what can be bought.  Sorry, not really believing that quality control argument anymore.

So what do traditional large publishers offer that any writer in that room with their own small publishing company can’t do?  How about getting the books on the shelves at Barnes &Noble?  Uhh, any small publisher has the same shot as any book out of traditional publishers, since a vast majority of traditionally published books don’t make B&N shelves. And with a simple POD book through CreateSpace or LightningSource, you can get into the exact same catalogs as any big publisher for Ingrams or B&N or ID stores. Oh, yeah, don’t forget library distribution through both as well.

So I ask the question one more time? “What do traditional large publishers offer that any writer with their own small publishing company can’t do?”

Answer? In 2010, Not much.

Remember my produce analogy? (You can read it here.) Large Publishers by their very profit and loss system, must treat books as produce. They must launch them hard and fast and hope they sell well quickly, then clear the warehouse shelves for the next produce to arrive. So those Large Publishers can drive a book into many reader’s hands. That’s what they can do. And they will pay the author up front some money as well. That’s a positive. And if writers have other books published under their own small publishing companies, the shove of the Large Publisher will help the writer sell more of their own products.  That is a huge plus.

So now my advice to writers is to play a balancing game. If the book looks like it might have a slot in big publishing, get it to editors. Give it a shot. If not, publish it yourself.

Getting into traditional publishing now takes either guts to send a package to editors directly or the writer has to find an agent who loves a book and knows what they are doing. And selling one book or three or five no longer means you can sell more to the publisher because the sales force, not your editor is now in charge. So keep that in mind as well. In other words, use the Large Publishers now to help you promote your own published books. Use their produce method to help shove your long term-books as well.

The Big Advantage of Selling Your Own Books and Using Big Publishers at the Same Time.

I can write anything I want and make money on it and find readers. Some of my stories and novels, long considered dead, can now find a new generation of readers. As writers, this new world has suddenly freed us up. If I have a new book, I might send it to a Big Publisher. I might publish it through a small publisher or do it myself completely. I have choices and I am no longer at the mercy of an agent or a publisher or a sales force.

I have never in all my years of writing been so excited about writing new work.

So let me say this clearly and simply. For all of you out on the front lines shouting about this new world, I want to thank you. Mike Stackpole, Joe Konrath, and others. Thank you from all of us. But I want you all to know that there are hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of professional writers who never say anything who are jumping into this new world as well. There were over thirty professional writers in a room on the Oregon Coast for three days this weekend. Thirty writers with hundreds of traditionally published novels among them, not counting mine. And we all got a story out to readers this weekend.

And those writers are all headed home to do even more, get more of their work to their fans.

And if that doesn’t scare the Large Publishers, I don’t know what will.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith

At some point, just as with the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series, I will publish this series as a book. And this installment is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean