You Never Know

It’s an interesting time to be a writer.

In the days B.K. (Before Kindles), there were basically two paths to publication for fiction writers: the traditional way and the self-publishing-via-subsidy-press way. In the first case, a writer could send out lots of query letters to try to attract an agent, possibly acquire one, and then hope that the agent was successful in convincing a publisher to pick up the book. This resulted in (usually) countless rejections from agents, followed by rejection by publishers. The odds of getting published weren’t good, and they still aren’t.

In the second case, the writer assumed all the duties of the publisher–producing his/her own Kindle-4(hopefully) quality book and paying a subsidy press to print and distribute it. There were virtually no e-books, so print was the way to go. The writer would then try (often in vain) to promote the book to bookstores, sell it out of the trunk of the car, go to conventions and other places where readers gather, and so on.

The traditionally published authors were (generally) well thought-of, and the self- published authors weren’t. In fact, writers were told that self-publishing would wreck their careers. They would be permanently stained with the shameful taint of the vanity press. No one would ever, EVER take them seriously.

Now, I know there are still those who believe that, but they are fast losing ground. The data don’t support this contention any more. And the rules of the game have changed- -in fact, the very nature of the game has changed. There are now countless paths to success as a writer, only some of which involve traditional methods. These days there are a lot more players–more ways for publishers to find quality authors/books, many of which have already proven themselves with big sales in the marketplace.

Life Is Good

Gone are the days of the self-pubbed author investing huge amounts of money in trunk-loads of $20 paperbacks. Of course, even with e-books one should have invested in editing, formatting, cover art, and so on, but there’s virtually no production cost. And distribution? Wherever there’s a computer with internet access to Amazon.com. Before e-books, there were a lot fewer channels through which one could build a marketing platform. Now we have bloggers, who love to review and discuss books, as well as discussion boards like Goodreads and Kindleboards. These venues reach thousands of potential readers. Life, as they say, is good. And for those who want to produce print books, there’s every option–from complete DIY to Createspace to subsidy publishers like iUniverse and everything in between.

There’s even the option of creating one’s own publishing company. With the increase in marketing opportunities, many writers are choosing this method. But what about those who still want the advantages of traditional publishing? There certainly are advantages to be had. Having a publisher invest in your work is worth more than personal validation–it’s nice to have access to their marketing, editing, and production advantages. But is there still only one way to seek that goal? Not anymore. The truth is that, for the first time in a very long while, publishers might come looking for US.

It seems that every time I turn around, some “indie” has announced a book deal with a traditional publisher. Might be “Big Six” or a smaller press, but it’s not the rarity it once was (twenty years ago, I reckon this would have been about as common as a total solar eclipse during an earthquake set off by volcanic eruptions during an ice age). So, what’s changed?

Well…a lot of things have changed. Self-published books are selling–some very, very well. This gives the books greater exposure than a million query letters could. They’ve got writing samples, reviews, and reader recommendations. If they make a big enough splash, the publishers are likely to notice–they will know a good risk when they see one, and they now have their early marketing trials already done for them. Even modest sellers can be offered unprecedented opportunity, and the point is that one never knows where that opportunity is going to come from. Sometimes circumstances just fall into place–the right person sees your work in the right way. Let me give you an example.

An author of epic fantasy books decides to self-publish, and puts out three volumes in about four years. At first print-only, the author sells a fair number of $20 paperbacks (considering the costs involved in promoting them), and actually builds a modest fan- base. But no publisher would touch the books, because the author is living in the world B.K., when it’s assumed that no one who self publishes will be taken seriously. In fact, the author has suffered scorn at the hands of some book-buyers, agents, and so on.

Undaunted, the author then steps into the Kindle-zone, uploading all three titles over several months (allowing each book to gain a following before introducing a new one, thus providing a ready stream of purchasers). Sales are brisk, but nothing fantasmagorical. However, the readers are sharing their reviews and recommendations, and there is a “buzz” going on that not even the author is aware of.

After a really serendipitous moment where the first volume appears on the front page at Amazon, sales go through the roof. The books are ranked among the top ten in fantasy titles. Of course, this surge doesn’t last, and the author settles back into more normal expectations as the year progresses.

Then, one day, an e-mail arrives in the inbox. It’s from a publisher. The publisher wants copies of the books, because it is considering picking them up. Not NEW books, mind you–previously published ones! Unheard of B.K. and still really rare–most publishers won’t touch a book that’s been in print already.

The author, without too much hesitation, sends the books on to the publisher. The result is positive–the author signs a deal for re-publication of the trilogy, with an eye toward future titles. The deal includes comic book and graphic novels to be produced as well. The author has broken into the traditional world…and never saw it coming.

Getting the Deal

This is a real story, and I know it because it’s MY story. I shared it with you because it’s interesting how it came about. One of the questions I asked the publisher was: “Why my books? However did you find them?” I mean…let’s face it: there’s a sea of fantasy books floating around out there looking for homes. Many of them are excellent! How did Elfhunter get the nod? It seems one of the execs in the publishing house is a fan of epic fantasy, and (as all good marketers should) he keeps current with the book world via the internet. Seems one of his regular book bloggers was reviewing Elfhunter (favorably, thank heavens) and he was intrigued. Then, when he saw another of his favorite bloggers discussing Elfhunter on the very same day, he knew he had to check it out. There’s a large writing sample of each book available on Amazon, along with over 100 reviews, book description, and so on. When the exec read the sample, he was hooked. He pitched the books enthusiastically to the rest of the folks involved in acquisitions, and they agreed to negotiate the deal.

This is not the way things used to happen. This came from nowhere as far as I was concerned, but it would not have happened had I not attracted a large enough readership to bring the book to the attention of the bloggers in the first place.

I also have an agent–a very good one who is highly respected in the publishing establishment. She came to me via recommendation and word of mouth–she doesn’t even accept query letters. Again, this is not the way things used to happen for self-published authors.

When your methods don’t appear to be working, sales are flagging, or you don’t think you’re gaining the recognition you hoped for, stay positive and keep at it. You never know what will set the dominoes in motion.

Publishing now is a swirling mass of possibilities, not two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Call it serendipity, call it karma, call it luck…I have managed now to travel both, and that has made all the difference.

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