Being a Hybrid Writer: The Goldilocks Method

A few months ago I wrote a post called “The Series Death Spiral and Other Unfortunate Realities of Publishing,” about how chain bookstores can kill a series by ordering to the net.  (You can read that post here.) One of my readers responded with, “That’s why I indie publish my own books, because then I’m in control and I never have to worry about a series going out of print.”

True enough. “But,” I responded, “try getting twenty hardcover copies of your indie-published book in any bookstore, much less every chain bookstore across the country.” There are some things the big publishers still do better. It’s a matter of scale.

I’m a “hybrid” author and proud of it. I have had many  major projects released by big traditional publishers, I’ve also had many successful publications as an indie author, and I’ve had some marvelous releases from mid-sized publishers. I try to decide which publishing method will best serve any particular title.

As Goldilocks said, is it too big?  Too small?  Or just right?  Let me lay out a few observations, pros and cons.

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHERS

Now, even though I indie publish many of my titles, I still do a lot of work for the major publishers—particularly Tor Books (the Dune and Hellhole novels with Brian Herbert, and my new Saga of Shadows trilogy) and Kensington Books (the Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series).  Traditional publishers established my career, gained me millions of followers, put me on the bestseller lists more than fifty times . . . but that was back when the publishing world was an entirely different universe.

I’ve read the postings of militant indie authors who see no worth whatsoever in traditional publishers.  I wouldn’t go that far (although the increasingly draconian terms I’ve seen appear in some new boilerplate contracts curl my nostril hairs).

Major publishers do some things well that indies simply can’t manage (at least not yet or not easily): large-scale distribution and costly advertising campaigns, for one thing, not to mention thorough production and editing services that many indie authors ignore at their own peril.

Traditional publishers pay a much smaller royalty percentage than I can earn on my own if I indie publish my novel, but if the conditions are right and the will is there [note the operative word “if”], a traditional publisher can move a lot more books, especially physical books.

When I publish a book through a traditional publisher—Tor, Kensington, Bantam, HarperCollins, Berkley, Penguin—they provide thorough, professional editing services at no cost to me.  If an indie author were to do that, standard rates for a full edit can run a couple thousand dollars, a detailed line-edit and copy-edit (additional necessary steps) can run another thousand dollars or so.  A professional proofread of the final manuscript, maybe another several hundred.

A traditional publisher also commissions the cover art (almost always an original piece) and designs the cover type.  They typeset and design the interior of the book.  They hire proofreaders, run ads, send out review copies, send sales reps to bookstores, take care of the online listings, do the copyright paperwork—again, all at no cost to the author.

Does every indie author do every one of those steps? No, but he or she should, and a traditional house does.

Warning, rant ahead:

Too often, indie authors take shortcuts, assuming they don’t need to bother.  Wrong! I’ve seen plenty of typo-infested indie-published books with poor typography and graphic design, and amateurish covers composed of a piece of clip-art with clumsy type slapped on top of it. (Don’t get indignant—you know you’ve seen them, too.)

If you don’t think you need an editor, a copy-editor, or a proofreader, or anyone with graphic-design experience to create your cover—think again. If you’re going to indie publish, please try to do it right.  Be a professional.  Just because your mom read your novel and thinks it’s the greatest thing since Times Roman font, doesn’t mean it’s ready for publication.

“Do-it-yourself” is one thing, but you have to know what you’re doing.

INDIE PUBLISHING

Now let’s look at the advantages of indie publishing. Many of my early books were out of print and unavailable except in used bookstores. I have a large base of readers who want to read those books, but the big traditional publishers won’t reprint them.

So my wife and I founded WordFire Press, an indie imprint that releases those backlist books in eBook and print format.  We’ve spent the past couple of years producing our own editions of Resurrection, Inc., Hopscotch, the Gamearth Trilogy, Assemblers of Infinity, and others.

Those books were just gathering dust, not earning me a penny.  Now they’ve done so well that in some instances I’ve earned more from our WordFire Press editions than I ever got paid when they were originally published.  I earn 100% of the net income, rather than 25%, and I can set my own prices at a reasonable level ($5 or so) rather than the high prices many traditional publishers charge for their eBook editions.

Regarding my rant above about professionalism:  When we do it ourselves, keep in mind that I’ve been a professional, bestselling author for twenty-five years. I have decades of personal experience in graphic design, book design, and typography.  My wife is an experienced professional editor—an overall editor, line editor, and copy editor.  We have proofers on staff so that when WordFire Press releases a book, it’s clean and professionally produced.

WordFire Press has expanded dramatically. We now have over eighty titles up for sale and are increasing that number as fast as we can get the books ready.  We’ve moved beyond my own out-of-print novels to include new and esoteric works, and we also publish the works of other authors, such as Brian Herbert, Neil Peart, Bill Ransom, Doug Beason, Brad Torgersen, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning political novelist Allen Drury.

WordFire has released every single one of Frank Herbert’s previously unavailable novels, as well as two (soon to be three) completed but never-published novels.  The Herbert Estate informed me that WordFire Press is their fifth largest income-generating publisher worldwide.

Speed is a factor too in indie publishing. Even with just a few staff members, WordFire is nimble enough that we can put a completed property through production and have printed books on sale in a month or two.  Major publishers take a year or more to make that happen.  Indie published authors can start earning royalties immediately, a full year ahead of when a traditionally published book would get on the shelves.

MID-SIZED PUBLISHERS

Back to Goldilocks. Traditional publishers too big? Indie publishing too small?  There’s another alternative. For special projects with high production values and a well-defined, but niche, audience, I might choose a mid-sized house.

One of my novels, Captain Nemo—a personal favorite—is the life story of Jules Verne’s famous captain of the Nautilus. A steampunk, fantastic historical . . . but it had a terrible time finding a traditional publisher. No one could figure out how to market it. The novel was finally accepted by a major house, then my editor left the company right when the book was released, with the wrong cover and no support, so the novel quickly died.  As did its companion novel, The Martian War (a tandem story about H.G. Wells and the Martian invasion).  I eventually got the rights back.

Then an editor at a mid-sized publisher, Titan Books, fell in love with Nemo and suggested they could re-release it with care and a new design, especially a new cover that played up the steampunk aspects of the story.  The book is gorgeous and the re-release was a great success; the Titan edition of Captain Nemo continues to be one of our bestsellers at convention appearances. On the coattails of that book, Titan also released The Martian War and my anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, with distinctive new designs.

Last fall, my novel Clockwork Angels, a steampunk fantasy adventure based on the concept album by legendary rock group Rush, came out in a lavish edition from Canadian publisher ECW. Before writing the book, I approached several major mainstream publishers, but they didn’t understand how a novel and an album could work together.  But ECW understood the concept—in spades.

Rush is one of the most popular bands in the history of music, with legions of fiercely dedicated fans, and ECW knew they had a special project on their hands. Oh, I could probably have applied pressure on some major New York publisher to print the novel, but it would never have turned out the way ECW produced the book.

Clockwork Angels is an amazingly designed novel with lush full-color illustrations done by Hugh Syme, who has painted most of the Rush album covers.  The paper is heavy, the entire production a work of art, in full color, with a brilliant design.

No major commercial publisher would have done half as extravagant a job.  And it’s also well beyond my capabilities at WordFire Press to do so. I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out, and now ECW will be releasing a special 25th anniversary edition of my first novel, also Rush inspired, Resurrection, Inc.

•••

I’m a hybrid author, and I approach every book project with an open mind.  I go with a major publisher when a major publisher would do the best job.  If it’s appropriate for my indie WordFire Press, then I release the books that way.  Sometimes a mid-sized publisher is the best alternative.  My friend and fellow author Phil Simon wrote a blog along similar lines, which you can read here.

It’s all about options.  One size no longer fits all.

 

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