A couple of commenters indicated interest in hearing my thoughts on the blistering array of publishing options currently fighting it out Pon Farr style in the contemporary world of letters. Before my time here comes to a close, I'll try to address it in some way I haven't before. I sometimes feel that with every post on self-publishing we draw closer to some millionth-customer trumpeting confetti-strewn alarum announcing THE INTERNET HAS HAD ENOUGH, NO FURTHER COMMENTARY IS NECESSARY. KEEP CALM AND PUBLISH HOWEVER YOU WANT.
But it's true that I've published with the Big Six and I've published on my own damn website, I started out in the small and micro press world and I've experimented with all the methods of getting my words into people's heads that seemed to make sense to me, so I do have A Perspective. I've talked before about my thoughts on the writing life in this age of uncertainty, innovation, and hyperbole--for never was there a post on why traditional publishing still has a whole lot to offer for those of us who never had any ambition to start a small press that only publishes one author that was not answered by gnashing of polearms and delighted furor insisting that Kindle will save us all, publishing itself is dead, or in some charming cases, that taking money from a publishing company in order to write a novel is akin to being a house slave in the American South.
I've also had incredibly negative publishing experiences and incredibly positive ones. I've had big giant presses treat me badly and drop my books down a Well of Forgetting that I'm convinced exists in the center of New York. I've had big giant presses stick by me and treat me like family. I've had teeny presses put out wonderful books and behave with kindness and professionalism; I've had teeny presses treat me like something to scrape off their shoe when no one is looking. I've had self-published projects that won major literary awards and literally made my name and ones that no one gave much of a crap about. You'll notice that it doesn't matter much what method was used to bring a book into the world--it can go poorly and it can go well in each and every camp.
Much of the blaggering about How to Publish Without Those Foul, Cackling Warlock-Publishers relies on the idea, which most aspiring writers have, though the smart ones keep it on the down-low, that there is some kind of magic Success Wand that can cast Accio Everything I've Ever Wanted over them and make them sell a million ebooks just like Amanda Hocking. No one would ever admit that they think this wand exists--they pay lip service to the idea that writing is hard work and you never know what will get traction in the market--and yet I get several emails a week asking me to share the secret of how I "made" The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland such a hit.
At the moment, the Success Wand is the Kindle. Why, it's easy! Everyone is doing it! Nothing could ever possibly go wrong! Why would you trust your work, the substance of your soul, to a greedy, Machiavellian, rapacious corporation that only wants to edit, package, and sell your book use you and screw you and when you could instead trust it to a different greedy, Machiavellian, rapacious corporation who won't do any of those things before using you and screwing you?
And you know, funny thing, that corporation just yanked thousands of ebooks because it wants to dictate contract terms to the 2nd biggest independent distributor in the US instead of negotiating like a normal fucking business whose official moral stance doesn't include: be a schoolyard bully and swing your weight around because no one can stop you (this year).
I know it's super boring to say: e-publishing doesn't change the fact that writing is hard work, editing is hard work, finding and legitimately paying for GOOD art and cover design is hard, copyediting is hard, marketing is hard, and it all costs money and takes a huge amount of time. I want to be a writer, not a small press--and that's been said before oh so many times, including by Our Host, but it's true. I barely have time as it is to keep writing books while handling the business of writing. I have no interest in taking on 6 other jobs. Yes, quicky formatting and slapping a stock image/stealing something from Google Images and hoping for the best on a book and uploading it to Amazon does not take very much work. But those methods do not fill me with assurance that the work itself has been crafted with skill, patience, or deep knowledge and feeling. There is a reason for the traditional publishing process. Yes, they screw up sometimes. Yes, they publish bad books. Yes, they can and hopefully will learn to speed up their cycles and administer erights in a fair way and adapt to a changing world.
But if they were so useless now that we live in the Publishing Singularity, Amazon wouldn't be setting up shop as a print publisher, cherry-picking already successful authors, and doing everything New York gets hated on for while insisting on exclusive contracts, listing books early, screwing bookstores, distributors, authors, and trying to replace an entire industry with itself like some kind of capitalist Absorbaloff.
Honestly, it's not so much that they do these things--that's what corporations do, and getting mad at them for acting like robber barons is like getting mad at rain. What continually frustrates me is the geek insistence that they are our friends, not only friends but savior and great democratizer, that they are more fair than other publishers despite their propensity for pulling books and the fact that the juicy royalty rate can change at any time and most probably will given that this is how robber barons work: lower prices and operate at a loss until no one else can compete with your deep pockets, then jack them up again when you've clear cut your industry and left only yourself standing. I mean, it's a classic.
Ebooks are most definitely the future, and they are very nearly the present. I don't think we'll stop print runs any time soon--when millions of copies of a product still sell, it's a little early to crow over the death knell of their manufacturers. But I don't see why I should put on my frilly come-hither dress for robber barons and count myself on their side. Amazon is and should be seen by everyone who lists their books with them not as a savior but as a brute beast that you can strap yourself to for the present, but never forget that they can trample you, and you may want to leave a knot or two lose for a quick escape. No one ever loved and feared iUniverse this way. Self-publishing has always been hailed as the great equalizer, and it has always had these exact drawbacks: uneven quality, overweening quantity, low profit margins for authors, and poor packaging. Only one of those--the profit issue--is helped by the current system.
But enough about Amazon. Part of my issue with the whole dialogue is that they dominate every conversation, and the whole part where we write books and love them and people care about those books gets lost, because it's all about the format, it's all about being more tech savvy that the next author, all about selling--when really, it's not any more likely to sell big numbers than before. Where Kindle shines is in its ability to sell back-catalogue books for authors who've had some print publishing. New Kindle-only authors are as unlikely as ever to make a big splash, though of course it happens, just like the NYT list happens, just like lightning happens. And now, it's probable that any Kindle stars will be snapped up by Amazon's print arm anyway.
So yeah, enough. We all have to work with them. They have a use. But they are not quite the neutral tool for forging the new world that so many seem to think they are.
But what I was asked was: how did it work for me? No one wants to hear there is no secret, it's luck, it's writing something people respond to, it's effort and time and work. SO BORING.
So here's some data points. In seven and a half years in the game, I have published five novels with indie presses, one with a micropress, six with New York presses (Bantam, Tor, and Feiwel and Friends), and two serial novels. Two collections with indie presses, five poetry collections with micro or small presses, a standalone hardback novella with a regional science fiction association, and one collection self-published via Kindle and Lulu.
That Kindle collection bears some explanation: since 2008 I have run a crowdfunded subscription project wherein I write a short story every month which is not published elsewhere, print it on archival paper and mail it out to readers all over the world. There's also an e-version, but interestingly, the vast majority of subscribers want the physical object. It's called The Omikuji Project, and I collected the first two years of stories into a single volume.
I'm sure there are ways and means of publishing I have not tried. But I've done most of it at least once. In every single instance, I have busted my ass marketing and trying to get those books in front of people, made all the more difficult by the fact that I don't really write easily-digestible thrillers. I have toured on my own dime, run ARGs, made book trailers (one of which got over 2 million hits, one of which didn't manage to top 2000), blogged unceasingly, done tie-in musical albums, thrown masked balls, anything I could think of. I have been nominated for awards, won and lost them, in fairly equal measure between traditionally published material and online publications, as far as anyone can tell Fairyland was the first self-published book to win a major literary award before appearing in print in any fashion. But I didn't get nominated for the Nebula until I did a standalone limited edition novella with the WSFA as part of my obligations as the GOH for a small regional convention.
The point of that little infodump is to say: everything is always and forever unpredictable. I had no idea that the serial novel I put on my website in 2009 to pay my rent would become my breakout book. I had no idea my deeply strange surrealist sex novel would get me my first Hugo nomination--I wouldn't have bet a dollar on that. Is "the secret" to publish with Tor or Orbit or Bantam or DAW? Is it to put a children's book on your website and not even bother to list it in the Kindle marketplace because that's a lot of work (actual reason for Fairyland not serializing on the Kindle)? Is it to publish with WSFA? No, because those were all very specific circumstances, and if you ask any writer, you will find that very specific circumstances, impossible to manufacture, predict, and often repeat, govern just about every success story. And I've easily had as many failures as successes, all governed by equally specific and unrepeatable circumstances.
You simply cannot know what, when you are a working writer, will take off and what will flop. You do not know it anymore now that ebooks are on the rise than you did before. The ebook marketplace is the slushpile, and it is just as long a shot to be plucked out of it as it ever was. You cannot know when someone with a lot of influence will read and like your book, or when a juried award will pick yours out of low-middling performance obscurity and make your name, you cannot know if the cover of your book will sell it to people who've never heard of you and don't even like fantasy. It's not that you have no control over it. It is gameable, but chaotic. The system is not rigged, but it is slanted--publishers can put a tremendous amount of energy behind a book to make it a success and it can work most of the time, but it fails, too. And there is very little you can do to determine whether your book is chosen for that infusion of life or not, whether the thousands of Kindle-available books will part like a sea to reveal your perfect pearl of a novel to the millions of readers looking for a .99 fix.
Art, it turns out, is hard.
So we wrap around to a point I made at the beginning of that massive four part post about writing advice. Since you don't know, and likely are not in a position to game it with much skill, you might as well write what you love, write what you believe in, and use every trick to get it out there. Start with the big presses because they are still the best path to growing as a writer (you will be edited and this is not a bad thing, it's not cramping your pure vision, it's not violating you as an auteur) and making your book available in multiple venues (not locking you into exclusivity with one website or bookstore). If it doesn't work, write harder, write better, become more awesome at it. Then try again. Try smaller presses. Get an agent--or don't, I sold four novels before I got one. But I couldn't live without mine now. If you still can't sell, hit the e-market, Kindle, Smashwords, your own site, give it away for free in hopes of going viral or charge what you think the market will bear.
Hire someone to edit you, hire someone to copyedit you, hire an artist/designer or buy good art legitimately, maybe learn to design yourself, but always have people to tell you if your design sucks. Be creative, advertise with content: for every bit of advertisement, supply an equal bit of interesting content so people don't get irritated. Do the best you can, and then do it again. Pay them money, because if you think writing should earn money, if you think it's a job that you should be compensated for, then what editors and designers do should also earn payment, is also deserving a slice of the riches you hope to pull in from Amazon's royalty rate. At least barter. At least, if you're going to make yourself into a small press, behave with the professionalism toward your own work that a press would.
There is no one answer. Do it all. Try everything. Be canny and aware. Protect yourself and don't trust any company to have your full interests at heart--even if they do, the company itself can fail, as so many did in late 2008, which, combined with other companies failing and laying off my husband, is what forced me to start serializing a weird kid's book to begin with, which turned out to be the best thing I ever did for my career.
Be a hybrid, leave no tool unused.
We are in a transitional state in this industry. No one knows how it will shake out. Greater forces than we stalwart authors are at work. All you can do is be like unto Boxer: work harder. Decide what it is you want. Do you want to Be a Writer? Or do you want to write? Is it not good enough if you're not on the NYT list? Or enough that one person somewhere was touched by your book? If you can do the work, some level of success is available to you. There are many paths to it, and no one of them are easy, but the raw fact is that the world wants good books, and if you can make them, it is very likely that you will find a way to one of those levels. Beyond that, there is luck and there is brutal bloodyminded drive and stubbornness and there is work. Work, as the Daft Punk kids say, is never over.
And no matter what new thing is being waved about as a Success Wand for the new era, there is no shortcut around that work.