In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown

There has been a lot of talk lately about different kinds of publishing–traditional, legacy, self, hybrid, vanity, subsidy, reticulated, extra crunchy, so on and so forth.

To me, it’s pretty simple.  The publisher is the guy who doesn’t get paid if the book doesn’t sell.  That’s why the publisher is the one who should have the final say over every phase of the project.

The publisher takes ultimate responsibility for every facet of producing and selling a book.  Authors who sign a contract with a traditional publisher will have some input during the process, but in the end the publisher decides on the cover, the final edit, the channels of distribution, the selling price–pretty much everything.   If the book sinks without a trace, the publisher has made some bad decisions (which may have started with the decision to sign that particular author in the first place.)

When we decide to self-publish, it’s all on us. If the author is acting as the publisher, then the author only makes money after everybody else involved in the project gets paid.

There isn’t any way around that.  The publisher makes money by selling books.  Everybody else makes money selling something to the publisher.   Yes, there are royalties to traditionally published authors, and all manner of profit sharing plans, but the bottom line is that somebody is making money only from the sale of books and nowhere else, and that person is the publisher.  Other people might make more money if the book does really well, but get some kind of paycheck no matter what.

Now, I’ll freely admit that this is a very simplistic way to look at things, and I know that other people define “publisher” by the kind of work one does, but I think that for the purpose of defining “self-published” this definition is as good as any and better than most.  Besides, I’m a very simplistic kind of person.

So what are the implications of this analysis for those of us authors who sign checks on the front instead of the back?

First and foremost we don’t have to do everything, but we damn well better know how everything is done.  Because it’s our call.  If the cover is bad, it’s not the artist’s fault, it’s ours.  Maybe we hired the wrong artist.  Maybe we hired the right artist, but didn’t make it clear what we wanted.  Maybe we hired a bad print shop and didn’t proof the galleys.  Whatever–it’s our book, our project, and if it sinks it’s our fault.

The way I like to look at is that I am the General Contractor of my book.  A good GC doesn’t have to be a Licensed Master Electrician, but he or she had better know the difference between Romex and MC cable and know which one local code specifies.  You’ve got to have a good working knowledge of all the things that go into a building, wires and pipes and doors and windows and drywall.

Hiring someone to work on our book is like hiring someone to work on our house.  We’re the ones who have to live with the results.  We’ve all heard the horror stories–you might have your own.  Some sweet talking salesman shows you some pretty pictures and gets you to cut a fat check for materials, and the next day Mongo shows up to start tearing out the walls.

And then six months later you’ve got a good relationship with the clerk at the 7-11 down the road because you’re dropping by every morning to brush your teeth in his restroom.  Meanwhile the lawyer you hired says the company filed bankruptcy and the salesman’s forwarding address is in a country without extradition.

So how do we find a good editor, proofreader, artist, book designer, whatever?  The same way we find a good plumber or electrician.

Learn enough to ask the right questions. There are tons of places on the internet where we can find out the difference between margins and gutters and why both are important.  Go to Wikipedia and type in “book design” and settle in for a while.  Honest contractors like having informed clients, dishonest contractors hate them.

Big ads don’t mean good workmanship. The guys with the full page ads in the yellow pages are spending a lot of money on advertising–where does that money come from?  Their customers.  If somebody is spending a lot on advertising and also claims to have low prices, something doesn’t add up.  Also, the folks who do quality work for reasonable prices tend not to need a full page ad–they get lots of work from word of mouth.  Which brings us to:

Ask for referrals. If I need a roofer, I’m going to ask people I know if they know anyone who has had a new roof recently, and who did the work, and how was their experience. The same thing works for editors.  If you’re considering self-publishing, I hope you are getting to know other self-published authors.  Read what’s out there, and feel free to ask, “Who did your cover?” or “Who edited your book?” Most of us are happy to share information.

Beware package deals.  There is nothing wrong with getting multiple services from the same company, and a lot right with it.  If someone can do your proofing and your formatting, and is willing to cut you a deal for doing both, that’s good.  The kind of package deals I’m talking about are the kind where you don’t get to decide which services you want to pay for and which ones you don’t need.  Remember, you’re the boss here, and if you want to buy just a cover and e-book formatting, and a company doesn’t offer that without also including an e-mail marketing campaign, keep looking.  You’re going to out of pocket for everything that goes into the book–don’t buy anything that you don’t have to buy.

Get multiple quotes.  On everything.  Even if there is a cover that you fall in love with and only want that artist and no one else, get another quote.  Get a bunch.  That’s the only way to get a feel for what a job should cost.  Once you have an idea what most people are charging for a particular service you’ll get a little alarm bell that rings in your head when someone quotes you far too much–or far too little. 

You get what you pay for. Actually, you don’t always, but you never get more than what you pay for.  If somebody claims that she’ll edit your manuscript for half of what everyone else is charging, there is probably a reason for it.  Shop around, sure, and get the best price you can, but paying less for something that is worth nothing is never a good deal.

It’s your way or the highway. Period.  If you have a book of poetry and you want to break stanzas between pages because you like the way that looks, and you run across a book designer who says that Chicago Manual says that stanzas have to be complete on the page, explain that the Chicago Manual is not paying the bills here.  If that designer doesn’t want to do it your way, then that designer doesn’t want your money.

Now, with that having been said, let me hasten to add that part of what you pay for when you hire a professional is that person’s experience.   Always listen to what your contractors have to say.  This goes back to knowing enough to ask the right questions.  Take a look at other poetry books and get a feel for how different publishers have broken the poems.  You might just decide to do it the Chicago Manual way, because that does look better.  But it’s your decision, not theirs.  There is all the difference in the world between “I think you should do it this way and here’s why–” and “I always do it this way.”

In closing, I’d like to say that my decision to self-publish is closely tied to the fact that I work on my own car and fix my own house.  I’m a do-it-yourselfer.  And I will freely admit that I have sometimes screwed things up, on cars, on houses, and on my novel.  I am currently on my third cover of Catskinner’s Book and my second major interior redesign.

But, you know, that’s how I learn.  I know a thousand percent more today about the publishing business than I did a year ago, and what I still don’t know would fill several oil tankers.  I’m making this up as I go, and I will bet several of my internal organs that I have not made my last mistake.  So take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown

  1. lly1205 says:

    Subdivisions, by Rush! Are you a fan too?

    Sorry, I got so carried away at your title. I finished a novella and am trying to self-publish it, so this is really helpful. But I keep wondering if I should be applying to publishers as well. I’m not sure if I would be good enough at self-publishing


    • MishaBurnett says:

      I am a fan of a lot of music, but, yeah, Rush is good stuff.

      Novellas are a hard sell to publishers, so you’re likely to hear a lot of folks telling you that it needs to be longer. But there are definitely advantages to having a traditional publisher.

      I do believe that anyone who is looking to sell their writing in any venue should understand the basics of the book business, and I know a number of traditionally published authors who would agree. I’ve also read a number of posts from agents who complain that they have to educate authors–knowing what is reasonable to expect from the process is going to make working with an agent easier for both of you.

      Creating the content is only the first step, without a means of getting the content to readers there really isn’t much point. Somebody is going to have to take your words and make them into a published product, and no matter who that person is, the more you know about how it’s done, the better.

  2. A few months ago I self-published a literary short story collection titled “Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat.” I’ve never even tried to get my work traditionally published, especially this one seeing as the “literary short story” market could fit inside a matchbox . . . without taking out the matches first. So it was interesting to read your thoughts on the various forms of publishing.

    If you ever get the chance to check out my book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

    Julien Haller

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Traditional publishers are really feeling the squeeze right now, and by and large are reacting by becoming very conservative in what they choose to list. So, yeah, you’d probably have a better shot if you wrote something “just like” John Grisham or Steven King. But you never know until you try–there’s a reason book reviewers have a hotkey for the phrase “surprise bestseller”.

      Please don’t take this the wrong way, but my first impression of your collection is the cover, and your cover doesn’t really sell me.

      • No offense taken. I can’t afford to pay someone to make a cover for me, and I am not savvy enough to make my own beyond a few tricks in Microsoft Paint.

        Though I’ll admit it is disheartening to hear you reject my book based on its cover. I might be naive in saying this, but I would hope that my book would be judged on its literary merits, and not how “exciting” the cover is, because, truth be told, I’m a writer, not a marketer.

        But I appreciate your viewpoint. Perhaps when I get the money I will try and get the cover professionally designed.

        I hope this comment finds you well.

        Julien Haller

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Julien, you asked my opinion of your *book*, not just of your *writing*. The book is the entire package, and the cover is the first that I (or anyone else) sees.

  3. tracycembor says:

    If the publisher is the seller, then they should have the best marketing and distribution channels to the end reader. However, in the e-reader age, all distribution are equal. I can sell my book online to you just as easily as Tor. So it comes down to marketing, which we all know is being left primarily up to the authors already. Publishers, therefore, do not have the best marketing. I see no reason to take less money, lose control of my work, experience release delays, and take the risk of my book never seeing the light of day. For me, self-publishing is a no-brainer until authors are treated as business partners instead of supplicants by the legacy publishers.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Well, I don’t think it’s quite as cut and dried as all that, but you’re right, authors in general are in a much stronger position than they were even five years ago, and publishers seem to be slow in picking up on that.

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