Responding to Self-Publishing Comments by House of Anansi

Published Categorised as News, Publishing

CBC News interviewed House of Anansi’s Sarah MacLachlan about self-publishing today after a discussion with big-name authors and established publishers at Luminato on the same subject. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to have the big guns talk about something they don’t need and/or they’re in direct competition with. But OK.

As I read what MacLachlan had to say, I felt the urge to dissect it. So I did:

But for everybody else, my question is, “OK, you write a book, the thing you traffic in is ideas, do you also then want to become your own manufacturer, your own sales and marketing department, your own shiller of your idea?”

Years ago, I learnt a lot from published authors — not the big names, but the middle ones, the ones who sold well or not so well — about just how little publishers do to market a book. These authors did their own marketing; had to buy their own books (at cost) to sell to readers. This was before self-publishing hit the big leagues, before ePublishing began. As the traditional publishers cut back, these authors had to become their own sales and marketing department. Even if publishers did more than an initial flurry of publicity, they were unwilling to put in the long-term effort needed to sell books month after month, the kind of effort need to put a book into the backlist. With ePublishing, getting a book into the backlist may not be so important anymore as there will be no such thing as out of print. Still, traditional publishers expect authors to put in the bulk of the publicity effort without commensurate compensation. When I read about an author on the Times Bestseller list earning $25,000 while the publisher earned $250,000, the disparity really hits home.

As for the manufacturing, with POD, the Espresso Book Machine, ePublishers, really, how hard is it? The worst aspect of it is formatting a book, but you can hire good people to do good work (something I can’t say about some books from traditional publishers) from editing to cover design to interior design. And unlike with a traditional publisher, the author doesn’t have to compromise. Then companies like Lulu or Smashwords will distribute your physical and eBooks for you. Distribution really is the hardest, but even that can be taken care of for you.

We put a stamp of approval on something by accepting it and by saying, “Yes we want to get behind this and put our resources behind it.”

That’s true. But from everything I’ve read, most publishers do this only for a short time and only if it proves fruitful. Once the 3 months of “getting behind this” are up, then what? The author is still left with the grunt work of long-term marketing. Yet the author receives no extra royalties for the abdication of this role by traditional publishers over the years.

…but what happens on the day when Amazon decides not to pay you or takes two years to pay you? You’re still a lone ranger out there trying to get your money back from them.

Well, that’s a bit rich coming from a publisher. Traditional publishers don’t pay quarterly, they pay every 6 months. And they pay peanuts. They don’t always pay on time either. The author has to play lone ranger to try and get their money from them or even their rights back when they want to make something of their book and the publisher is holding them back. I’ve heard the horror stories. One of the reasons an author needs an agent is because part of what an agent does is to get traditional publishers to pay up and on time. So while traditional publishers bank your money, earning interest off your money, Amazon and Smashwords and iUniverse are sending you cheques.

…we have somebody devoted to web marketing because that is where we can get an audience that is knowable, trackable, with whom we can interact, which is a very important thing for us, to know how people are responding to the books we’re putting out into the marketplace. There’s no question that we will be coming up with ways in which to sell and market books that exist online and that will probably be online.

I can’t speak to House of Anansi, and I follow agents more than publishers, so this assertion is something I need to look into more. But as a casual reader and a big Twitter user, I see far more Americans online than Canadian publishers and agents. I also see that the Americans understand the point of Twitter (and thus social media) better than the Canadians. And I find the Americans are the ones who interact. There are some exceptions. But I wish Canadian agents and publishers would get off their duff and start being more enthusiastic and interactive on the web, not just put announcements out there like that’s what we really care about. Announcements are good but only in the context of actually talking and responding to your readers. The Toronto Public Library has been stellar on that front. Plus, publishers are assuming most readers prefer particular publishers. When I read a book a day, I didn’t pick them based on the publisher — I’d run out pretty darn quick if I read only certain publishers — I picked them based on first the genre or content and second the author. As I grew older and needed to look further afield for books, I began to care less about who published it, especially as publishers cared less about doing a good editing and proofreading job. I suppose Harlequin readers do stick to their favoured publisher, but that kind of publishing stream doesn’t apply to non-romance books.

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I do believe that, yeah, we have to be able to offer things to writers as publishers that they may not be able to handle doing themselves, and might not want to handle themselves.

That has always been the best value a publisher brings to a writer. But more and more, publishers do less and less, yet want to hog most of the price of a book to themselves, along with the retailer, without monetarily reflecting their offloading of responsibility onto their authors (except the big ones). Anansi says that as an independent house, they don’t give up on a book after so many months. If all publishers went back to that model and, as well, upped their royalties, writers wouldn’t be looking to eBook publishers and self-publishing.

Self-publishing still has a kind of… it’s a little bit pejorative.

It’s kind of funny thinking that when well-known writers from long ago started off in the hinterland of self-publishing. I’ve also seen a change in the last two to three years in the way self-pub is viewed, going from marginal to mainstream. My readers also never said to me because Lifeliner is self-published, I don’t want to read it. It was more about content than how and who published it. Does that mean publishers are losing cachet? Is it becoming more about the authors and/or the books themselves? And with so much dreck in the traditionally published canon, is that another reason self-publishing is seen as more on par? In that case, self-publishing and ePublishing becomes even more attractive to the author.

…if you’re an indie band and you get published by Arts & Crafts or Maple Music, there’s probably a little bit more of a good stamp. I think a lot of the indie music scene and doing your own thing is a reaction against the big, giant music publishers. That could happen in books because they’re not dissimilar kinds of creatures.

Very true. And moreso if traditional publishers insist on locking eBooks with DRM and following the music industry down that self-destructive trail. Authors want their books to be read and if going through an eBook publisher or doing it yourself is the only way to ensure DRM-free eBooks, then more will do that as word spreads across the Internet.

And that’s really the key. Today, the Internet allows authors and writers to share, talk, learn from each other and so become more independent from publishers. It allows them to see there are choices. And those choices mean that publishers have to compete with different models and ideas about publishing, not just with each other.

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