And this time it’s me, writing about my various experiences in publishing:
TRAD PUBLISHING, SMALL PRESS, SELF-PUBLISHING, AND THE BACKLIST
I used to sell my books to some of the biggest science fiction/fantasy imprints. After eleven books (all but the first sold from a synopsis or outline, all but that one and one other part of multi-book deals) that is something I have no interest in doing again.
Don’t get me wrong. I have none of the usual complaints about working with the big publishers. Every editor I ever dealt with was someone who cared passionately about books. They liked me, they liked my books, they were incredibly patient about missed deadlines, and they always treated me with kindness and respect. They published books that they believed in by authors they believed in, sometimes continuing to carry authors whose books were profitable but not hugely successful, in the hope that the next book or the book after that would be the big break-out.
Unfortunately, as the big corporations took over more and more publishers, putting pressure on them to bring in larger and larger profits, this kind of “midlist” writer was increasingly squeezed out. It took only one book with poor sales for the sales and marketing departments (which grew more and more powerful) to refuse to even consider the next book. This happened to me, but fortunately, editorial liked the potential of my next book proposal. We talked about it, and decided to change my name, so that the new trilogy would not be carrying all the baggage that went with my real name and the previous book. Sales and marketing agreed to take a look at the proposal under that condition, and within a couple of weeks I (or rather, the elusive Madeline Howard) had a three book contract.
So why wouldn’t I submit my next book to one of the large publishers?
1. I mentioned deadlines. I am terrible at meeting them. Worse than terrible. Not only have I decided that I will be healthier and happier if I never have to face another deadline, but, to be perfectly frank, I am all but certain that I have already burned all my bridges with the major SFF imprints by missing so many of them.
2. At the larger publishers, books have only a short time to make an impact. If they don’t, they are given little chance to show that they have legs. Print versions may quickly go out-of-print. These days this is partly mitigated by e-book editions, but not all readers use electronic devices to buy and read books. A book may still be available, but not to all readers.
3. The backlist. One of the best ways to build a writing career is to build a backlist. It builds name recognition, creates a larger presence in bookstores, and gives readers who have just discovered an author a chance to buy up previously written books while their interest is high. But to do any good, of course, the backlist has to be available. Which in the old days meant that it had to exist in a print version. While a few publishers routinely re-issued all of a writer’s older books when a new book came out, I had never signed with one of those publishers. Book I in a series had usually disappeared from the bookstores by the time that Book II came out, and Book II was history before Book III was published. Many readers don’t like to buy the last book in a trilogy until all three books are available. If the first two books are no longer available, they are not about to buy the third one. Even though my original publisher went on buying new books from me, and I was making money off all the advances and the occasional royalties, most of my older books were no longer available.
4. The length of time between turning in the manuscript and seeing the book published and available for sales. From the time that an author turned in the finished manuscript to the time the book was published could be anything between one year and two. Since this is considered the most advantageous interval between series books anyway, this works well if the writer is turning out books at regular intervals. But if a book is late and the schedule has to be changed, it can be a long, long time between books.
Like many other writers, when my books had been out-of-print for a few years I invoked the reversion clause and was able to get the rights back. But what to do with the books after that? Chances of interesting another publisher in reprinting a book by a midlist author were very poor indeed, and self-publishing was hardly an option.
That last, of course, has changed, and self-publishing is a very real option. As is selling to one of the small presses that have appeared over the last decade or so, because some of the same technological innovations that make self-publishing so much easier are also favorable for small start-up presses.
Some writers have even started their own publishing companies to reprint their own backlist books, or joined together with other writers who wish to do the same. And some writers, successful, award-winning writers, have turned to the small presses, because the small presses can be more audacious than the larger publishers in the books they choose to publish.
When I decided that I wanted to see the books in my backlist back in print, I sold The Green Lion Trilogy to a small press that I thought really had a chance to grow and become a force in the field. They were successful with their first few books, but before they came around to publishing mine they had decided, for personal reasons, to go out of business. Fortunately, my contract was not one of those bad contracts that small presses sometimes offer, where the author gives up all rights forever and there is no reversion clause. (Not that I would have signed such a contract or that my agent would have let me. Still, many new writers are so thrilled that someone wants to publish their books, they are willing to sign anything. My advice if faced with such a contract is to sign nothing, make no deal, have nothing more to do with that press. Even if you could negotiate a decent reversion clause, these are not people to be trusted. Either they don’t understand the publishing business, or they are hoping that you don’t.) So the people who ran the press I had signed with, being honest and knowing the business, had provided a contract with a reversion clause. I recovered the rights to those books, and have now to decide what to do with them next.
My next move, a few years later, was to try self-publishing. I was not interested in making a lot of money—I had, after all, been paid advances and royalties on these books when they first came out. But I wanted the books to have a second chance at life. I wanted them to be available to readers now and in the future.
With self-publishing, a book can stay in print as long as the author chooses. It has forever to find an audience. Meanwhile, with POD and electronic versions, the author is not stuck with a garage full of unsold books. When the next book in a series comes out, the first book is still available. With minimal outlay of money, an author with many out-of-print books can bring out his or her entire backlist within a relatively short amount of time. It is advisable to pay for professional quality artwork and for proofreading, but the books have already been professionally edited, so there is no need to pay for an editor, unless (as is sometimes the case) the writer has taken this opportunity to make some revisions.
As my first foray into self-publishing I chose my novel Goblin Moon, and the plan was that I would publish the sequel a few months later. With the help of some friends I was able to come up with a cover that I liked, format the book, and upload it to Lulu to publish the paperback POD, and to Kindle and Smashwords for the electronic editions. I had never been pleased with the name of the sequel, The Gnome’s Engine, and because it was a short novel (especially by modern standards for fantasy) I decided to publish it in one volume with three short stories and name the resulting omnibus/ collection Hobgoblin Night.
For various reasons, some of them related to coming up with the cover art I had envisioned, I never did get around to self-publishing Hobgoblin Night. But that’s another story for another day. Eventually, I imagine, I would have gotten around to it
Goblin Moon sold about as well as I thought it would, considering the minimal amount of promotion I felt like doing. Since my main motivation was to see the book back in print, I was satisfied with those sales. Anyone who seeks to base a career on self-publishing, and who wants eventually to make a living wage so that they can write full-time, had better be willing to do a great deal of promotion—possibly, in the beginning, spend more time promoting than writing. I had no such ambition.
But about the time those sales started decreasing, Gary Compton at Tickety Boo Press expressed an interest in publishing both Goblin Moon and Hobgoblin Night. I liked the contract and signed. Sarah Swainger was chosen as the cover artist. She took the cover from the self-published edition of Goblin Moon, cleaned it up, changed the colors, and generally improved it, and she created original and excellent artwork to grace the cover of Hobgoblin Night.
At Tickety Boo, sales of Goblin Moon went back up, and have remained fairly steady. Hobgoblin Night has just recently been released. I was able to do some light revisions, and Sam Primeau did the copy editing. It’s a lovely edition.
So will I try self-publishing again, now that I have gone back to traditional publishing, (although with a small press rather than a large one)?
Most definitely. I want to see all my OP books back in print, and I think I can manage that more expeditiously if I publish at least some of them myself.
Also, there is the matter of my short fiction. Most magazines and anthologies buy the first serial rights, which, essentially, means that after a given period of time—usually about a year from publication—the rights automatically revert to the author. A prolific author may eventually gather together a dozen or so of his or her stories as a one-author collection and sell that, but I never wrote enough of short fiction to make up a collection (though three of my stories, “Rogue’s Moon,””The Ghost in the Chimney,” and “TITANIA or The Celestial Bed” did go into Hobgoblin Night). Some stories are resold to anthologies, but for most anthologies either all the stories are reprints (for instance, best of the year anthologies) or none. This makes selling old stories to anthologies difficult, though not impossible. I did sell one story, “A Wreath of Pale Flowers for Vitri,” to Tickety Boo for Malevolence, Tales From Beyond the Veil, edited by J. Scott-Marryat.
But many, many writers—old writers, new writers, writers of every stature—are publishing electronic editions of their short fiction. For 99¢ many readers are willing to pay for a short story or novelette, up to $2.99 for a novella. They may, also, for that price take a chance on an author unfamiliar to them, and if they like the story go on to look for novels by that same author.
And for that reason, I am right now in the process of preparing a pair of short stories for publication: “Dying by Inches” and “Captured in Silver.” They are both set in the same world, so I plan to publish them together as one 99¢ ebook. I could publish them as is, but I am taking this opportunity to revise them. Each was written for a theme anthology, at the invitation of the editor, but in each case there were approximate word limits. Since I no longer have to worry about word limits, I think the stories have some room to grow, and I plan to give it to them. Will I sell many copies? I have no idea, since self-publishing my short fiction will be a brand new venture for me. I know that to a large extent it will depend on how much promotion I am willing to do, and I have neither Jo’s energy nor her motivation. But it will help to rebuild my backlist, and that in itself should be an advantage.