By Mike Calvert
Ten years ago, the aspiring writer’s dream was simple. Spend two years of your life in hibernation writing a 300-hundred page novel, scrounge up a few dollars from the few friends who still knew you existed, print and mail copies of your manuscript to publishers across North America, and then pray. Pray that out of every 200 poor souls doing the same thing – let’s call them “authors” – you’d be the one lucky and good enough to make it to print.
And if you turned out to be one of the other 199? Well, it was either back into your cave, where you’d have to downgrade from Kraft Dinner to no-name noodle soup and turn the thermostat from 13 to 11. Or worse: Consider living in the real world.
Those were the good old days — when authors were authors and publishers were king, and if you wanted to buy a book, you went to the mall. But just as the music business has gone through an upheaval that began about the time Steve Jobs introduced iTunes, publishing is in the throes of radical change. Not since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-1400s has the book world been so vastly and so quickly transformed. Tradition has given way to technology, indie bookstores to Amazon.com, and hardcovers and paperbacks to Kindle and Kobo.
The result is a slimmed-down industry. “In Canada, the retail bookstore market, which is still the biggest repository of new books, has been contracting for many years,” notes veteran Vancouver publishing agent and consultant, Robert Mackwood, via e-mail. “Add in a consumer with increasing choices for their entertainment dollar, and more recently the advent of e-books with a brand new business model, and the results are a marketplace that makes acquisition choices even more discreetly and definitively.”
But while the writing may be on the wall for old-school publishing, no one seems to know what business model will replace it. Insiders find themselves scrambling to discern where the industry will go next, how they’ll fit into the new system, and how far up the food chain they can position themselves.
And where does this leave authors entering the fray in 2013? Scrambling right along with them.
Many unproven writers still envision toughing it out the old way. “I think I’ve romanticized the whole publishing process,” says Angela Cowan, an aspiring novelist who sent her first manuscript off to a literary agent. “I’d love to work with an editor, and see a professional team do the cover design and layout, and at the end see this amazing little piece of art that is my story made real. One of my biggest dreams is to be able to walk into a bookstore and see my book on display.
“My first choice was to get connected with an agent from the beginning. I would much rather have someone on my side to help me navigate contract details, foreign rights, or even movie rights. If you’re going to dream, dream big.”
Mackwood, however, is a realist about the odds for up-and-coming writers going the traditional route — even with an agent. “[It’s] harder than ever and verging on impossible,” he says of attempting to sell a new author’s work to a traditional publisher. New Zealander Oli Hille, an e-publishing guru and Amazon #1 bestselling author, is also wary of old school approaches. “Half the books printed by the publishing industry never reach 1000 units sold,” he says in an online webinar. “By the time every middleman has had their cut, [the author] will be doing well to make two dollars on any physical book [they] sell.” Considering the average book takes two years to write, that hourly wage makes even no-name noodle soup an extravagance.
Still, the big thing a partnership with a traditional book publisher can offer authors accepted into their stable is the transference of risk, where the publishing house takes on the costs of editing, printing, designing, and distributing a quality book, while providing the author with a small advance on what is usually a 10% royalty.
Joy Gugeler, a publishing instructor at Vancouver Island University and online with Ryerson University, encourages writers to ask questions before they sign on. “If you go with a traditional press, what’s its track record? Have they successfully published work like yours? Talk to other authors. Have they had good editorial experiences? Are they getting their royalty cheques regularly? Have they done a good job marketing the book? Do they invest in authors over the long term?”
But Mackwood says “the time for many authors to ‘go it alone’ is here. If we agree that publishers’ acquisitions are down and not expected to increase — in fact, I would argue they will never come back to pre-eBook levels — then authors will have no choice.”
So what does “going it alone” really mean? You can e-publish, or you can go through self-publishing houses like Millcity Press, Blitzprint, or Lulu if you still want the artifact — that physical book — to hold in your hands and call your own. In the past, these self-publishing houses were known as “vanity presses,” more often than not printing limited runs of books for authors unable to sign on with a publishing house. Several writers, including Ernie Zelinski, David Chilton and Dan Poynter, have made it big by going this route. A recent Canadian self-publishing success story is Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue, launched in May of 2012 after her high-profile firing from The Globe and Mail. Wong has already sold over 5000 print copies of her book at $21.99 (shipping included), and also sells the e-book for $8.49 – $9.99.
But “going it alone” also means an investment by the author, not only in time but money as well. All of the costs associated with publishing the book, and there can be many, fall into the author’s lap. Wong is reported to have invested $35,000 of her own money in publishing of Out of the Blue. And this is where it gets tricky for inexperienced writers. These self-publishing houses are not your “partners” in the same way as traditional presses, who have a joint interest in the success of the book; these guys get paid by you, the author, up front, and whether or not even a single copy sells.
Some of these houses also have reputations as “author mills” – presses who take on hundreds of authors, charge for a quality product, and then deliver an inferior one. You also have to make sure you know what you are getting. Millcity Press, for example, advertises that authors get 100% royalties, but the contract’s fine print states that they must absorb any trade discounts taken by wholesalers, distributors, or online retailers, the printing costs (per book, because the printing fees generally include no more than a handful of “complimentary copies”), shipping costs, and sales tax (if applicable) of each book. That is 100% of the net revenue, not 100% of the royalties, and there is a big difference between the two.
Prices for these services start at $1,500 for basic packages up to $25,000 at the high end from Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing. Zoe Grams, a Vancouver publicist who has represented authors for five years, advises that those who choose to self-publish “should be aware that their costs will be great, marketing and promotion especially. It’s hard to succeed these days without that.”
Below: Author Joanna Penn on why she returned to print publishing.