Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is self-publishing the minor leagues?

By Steve Weddle

So, I was wondering whether self-publishing is to publishing what minor league baseball is to the big leagues.

Skipping to the end, let me say that I don't think so. I think they're all in the same ballpark.

But let's look at Jeff Shelby, fellow #TeamDecker member, who posted this week about his publishing history.

Jeff said that years ago he'd sold his Noah Braddock series to Big Six. Two-book deal. Hooray. Two books come out. They don't hit the top of the NYT best seller list. No one wants the third. A few years go by. He writes more, gets a new agent. Gets a new deal for the third book in the series and sells another series.

But what's really amazing is this: He self-pubbed a book on Kindle. The book takes off. (Details here.) And then, once the book hits the top of Amazon and hangs out there for a good while, as he says,
I’m the first to admit this has all caught me unprepared. I didn’t expect for people to be clamoring for the next book in the series. I didn’t expect for people within the publishing industry – digital and print – to show interest. I didn’t expect for so much to change in such a short amount of time.
It's a struggle. The two-book deal in 2006 plays out. Eventually, with a new agent, he gets more action. And then he really hits it out of the park once his self-pubbed book takes off.

Now, knowing a little something about "self-pubbed" books, I know it's a bit of a misnomer. Jeff may have worked with private editors, including his uber-talented agent. He may have hired his own cover artist. I don't know. (I could find out by email and surfing, but if I leave this text editor, I may never make it back, so shut up.)

But here's the deal -

Have we gotten to the point where putting your work up on Kindle is like playing at the AAA level?  Maybe it's like playing college ball.

Are publishers now acting as scouts, trolling through the best seller lists on Amazon to find the next Bryce Harper? Um, I mean, Amanda Hocking?

Let me clear here. I'm not saying Jeff Shelby was sitting alone in a bus station, upped his dragon romance onto Kindle, and is now playing for the New York Yankees. Hard work. Support and help from talented folks. Timing. Hard work. More hard work. (Check out his LIQUID SMOKE from the good folks at Tyrus Books.)

But what we have is a market in which publishers are having a tougher time making money. So, doesn't it make sense that they'd see what works before offering money?

Maybe self-publishing isn't minor leagues at all -- maybe it's just a different team.

Ten years ago, maybe the scouts did travel around, see who the agents were pushing, meet players, um, writers at conferences.

But now, I guess, there's only so much money left. Snooki is still going to get her money, of course. So when publishers and editors want to find what will work, maybe they're not travelling to Birmingham to see a young supposed phenom. Maybe they're looking across at the box scores for another team. Maybe they're looking at Amazon sales, seeing who is batting .400. Maybe there's going to be of that going on.

Maybe when the New York Yankees are looking for the next new thing, they watch middle relievers from other teams.

From what I'm told by Teh Olds, publishers used to sign up writers and watch them develop. Maybe they set them up on a AA imprint before pulling them up to the big leagues. But they writer would be given a few books to develop the craft. Not so much anymore, it seems.

Now publishers and editors want you to be able to knock it out of the park your first time at the plate. Signed to a two-book deal and your first book doesn't make it out of the infield? Um, no promotion for your second book, pal.

But if publishers can see that your self-pubbed ebook is topping the charts, heck, let's have a little chat about a contract. It's like going on Let's Make a Deal and waiting to choose until they've pulled all the curtains back. Take the car, not the goat.

It's like waiting until Tuesday to buy Monday's lottery ticket.

Look at Albert Pujols and Janet Evanovich. Once Pujols delivered, once he showed that he's tops in the game, the Anaheim California Angels of Los Angeles signed him to a 20-year deal worth France. Meanwhile, over in publishing, once Evanovich showed she could fill the stadiums, she got her $50million deal. Not while they were developing. Once they'd proven they could play.

Maybe publishing doesn't have minor leagues anymore. Maybe there is not money for developing talent.

Maybe self-publishing isn't the Desert City Rattlers after all. Maybe self-publishing is the New York Mets.


Thomas Pluck said...

I'm eager to see how things play out for him. If he makes more money self-pubbing, why would he take another contract? Warm fuzzies?

It's like when you get a great job, and recruiters start calling. "Hey, I can help you out..." You already did it on your own. Why split the take?

It's like the agent who said "If you sell 10,000 books in a year- not free- I'll be interested." Of course you would, but the author already made $3500 on the book (99 cent price) without giving you 15%, so why would they want you unless you can pony up a $50k advance? a $10k advance over 3 years minus 15% is $2833, and they're selling more than that. If they sold the book for $2.99, they made $20,900 in one year. You'd need a $72,000 advance to make that in one year (minus 15%, split over 3 years).

Now the right agent can capitalize on that success, of course. You may want an agent to assist in getting to the next level.

I still don't think it's the same game. But maybe the baseball metaphor is not apt. How about boxing. You got your flashy pro fighters, and you got underground "amateurs" who may be better, but have their own audience, who aren't afraid to get dirty and hunt down what they want. I think it's more like that. The best talent may never see the limelight, that doesn't make them any less great.

John McFetridge said...

My small press publisher said to me, "All we have in this business is our judgement." if publishers give that up to try and be the Yankees, to wait and see what sells before throwing even more money at it, that's their business. But it certainly removes any last smidgen of stigma from self-published if that's now where everyone is looking for new writing.

But since the Expos died (were murdered, there's a mystery novel in that) I'm a minor league kind of guy.

Dana King said...

The minor league baseball analogy works better if you think not of how the minor leagues are run today (farm systems), but as they were 80 years ago, when they were independent entities competing for championships just as important in their on way as the pennant was to the majors. The only real differences were in the sizes of the cities and the budgets.

Those teams found their own talent and played to win. Scouts from the majors came to their games to see who they wanted, and then had to purchase or trade for their contracts, just as they do now for major league players. (Yes, in those days major league players were trader to the minors.)

I think that's pretty close to what we are evolving into.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I've half-jokingly referred to Snubnose as the minors. And all I mean by that is that I hope I can give some new writers a chance and if they have the opportunity to take a bigger and better deal with a bigger company then they should take it.

Self-publishing has a long and different history in the comics industry. It isn't and never was frowned upon. Folks would self pub a a book and it was viewed as a calling card to try and parlay it into a gig with a big house.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Brian, like indie movies or indie music (though maybe the goal wasn't always to make a calling card for Hollywood or a major label like it seems to be now, maybe it used to be more like Dana describes the old minor leagues).

Only publishing has had this indie stigma.

Of course, if he were a film director, Stephen King would be the most award-winning, honoured, respected guy in Hollywood - he'd be Speilberg, I guess.

Man, publishing is weird.

Ricky Bush said...

Bottom line--you've got to be able to hit the curve balls to make it to the bigs. Baseball or publishing.

Steve Weddle said...

Mr Pluck, Yes. I think it's wild that folks are now saying "Ah, I see you are making money with your book. Perhaps I can help you with some of that cash."

Dana, Yeah. The Olde Tyme minors or the Negro Leagues makes good sense. Something from "back in the day," as these young punks say.

John and Brian, I still think part of the reason publishing has the "indie stigma" is because with film and records you need a group of people believing in the thing. With self-publishing, you just need the one person.

Ricky, They're all curves now, right?

Steve Weddle said...

Mr Pluck, Yes. I think it's wild that folks are now saying "Ah, I see you are making money with your book. Perhaps I can help you with some of that cash."

Dana, Yeah. The Olde Tyme minors or the Negro Leagues makes good sense. Something from "back in the day," as these young punks say.

John and Brian, I still think part of the reason publishing has the "indie stigma" is because with film and records you need a group of people believing in the thing. With self-publishing, you just need the one person.

Ricky, They're all curves now, right?

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Well, I sort of feel like I'm stuck in semi-pro ball in some dusty county in west Texas where the major league scouts don't show up.... It certainly makes sense for publishers to use self-pubbing as a scouting system; takes a lot of the risk out of the game for them.

Jack said...

I don't think the minor league / major league analogy works. For one, in order to get to the major leagues you have to be a great player. In publishing, in order to publish with the big 6 you just have to be lucky. Sure, you have to know how to write a coherent sentence and maybe have the very basics of storytelling down, but that' s only 10% of the package. 90% is luck. It goes without saying, you certainly don't need to be good to publish with the big 6.

Obviously, Self publishing lets everyone in, including writers who have not yet the minimum requirements needed to publish with the big 6, and I think that is the reason a lot of people look down on that path. But there are a lot of very good writers self publishing who just haven't been lucky.

There's also the fact that you have a better chance of making money and writing for a living if you self publish. Unless you're one of the .00000002% of writers who scores a huge advance (something that happens less and less every day), you're basically writing for pennies. If you add up the thousands of hours it took you to go from blank page to finished book, and you divide your $5K or $10K advance accordingly, you'll see what I mean.

About the only thing a big publisher can offer these days is prestige, but even that doesn't mean as much anymore. What you have are massive, immovable corporations selling books when there are less than 2000 bookstores in the country, and that number is shrinking every day. In a year or two when B&N closes, that number is going to be less than 1000.

I'm not a self publishing proponent by any means, but I am trying to be logical and open minded about the changes in the industry. If I let myself be blinded by the ways things have always been, and tell myself that big 6 publishers will always be around just because they always have been, I'm going to be one of the legion of writers left out in the cold in the next few years when the industry collapses.

The big 6 writers who want to survive what's coming need to take self publishing very seriously. The more ingrained you are with ebooks and the new publishing model, the further ahead you'll be when every writer is scrambling for a spot.

Don't think baseball, think biblical.

There's a flood coming, and ebooks are the ark.

John McFetridge said...

There is a lot of space between the big 6 and self-publishing, though.

As Steve pointed out, movies and music usually have a group of believers - well, so do indie books now, places like Snubnose and even print publisher like Tyrus.

And it takes some luck to make the majors, too. Sure, future Hall of Famers get noticed but past the starting line-up there are a lot of guys on the major league rosters no better than guys on the minor league teams.

That's the midlist in publishing.

Fred Zackel said...

Once I realized my career was impervious to advancement, my approach to writing changed. A couple years ago I had this, ah, epiphany where I realized I had free speech and free will and no one to account myself to. I can write whatever I want and pop it up on Kindle. Once that epiphany hit, well, hell, I went happy happy joy joy. I don't have to make money to keep some publisher happy enough to keep me. I am not selling big, but the sales are sort of there. Enough for me to find a sense of accomplishment. Since I don't facebook, twitter or tweet, blog or have a website, and cannot market worth crap, I am even happier. I have fun. Free speech and free will and fun? Whoa!

Steve Weddle said...

Even though Fred Zackel doesn't Facebook, Tweet, Blog, or, um, Web, you can find him here:

Unknown said...

Publishing is publishing is publishing.

My attitude lately has been as long as I'm putting out a book length work every six months or so, whether it's through a small/micro press or one of the big boys, I'm content.

At this point, it's all apples and oranges.

Jeff Shelby said...

First off - let's get one thing straight - I hate the Yankees. I am a Padres fan. Langston's pitch to Martinez in the '98 WS was a strike then, it's a strike now and it always will be a strike. No way that was ball three. Yes, I hold grudges:)

Anyway, what?

I think both the baseball and fight analogies work. Talent evaluators in any sport or medium are always looking for new places to find talent. But it's also hard for them to break their old habits. I found it really interesting that one of the Big 6 was interested in TOH after passing on it initially. I found it even more interesting that they passed again, telling me, that despite the great sales...I still didn't know what readers wanted and that I would have to change the direction of the series if I really wanted it to continue. I was dumbstruck by that. So I will just say this - while I am in no way closing any doors, I am very leery of giving up control of this series. To do so, I'd have to be offered some pretty favorable terms and really feel like I was on the same page with people. I won't get left out in the cold again. As several have already mentioned - I've done much of the legwork here. I don't feel the need to turn it over to anyone else just to do so for the novelty of it. At this point in my career, there isn't much appeal in that for me. I'm looking to reach as many readers as I possibly can, so however I can do that is what I want to do.

I'm happy being the Mets. As long as I don't have to contribute to the Madoff settlement.