I’ve had some interesting reactions from friends when I told them I got picked up by a publisher, ranging from “Congratulations,” to “I thought you were already published.” The best though was probably, “Well, now you can make some money.”
Yeah, I didn’t understand that one either.
I can understand the one friend’s confusion though. I had already self-published The Sad Girl, so why had I gone to a publisher? Wasn’t I giving up a lot by going traditional?
Not really, because Booktrope isn’t a traditional publisher. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
Bear with me, though. This is a long post.
First, Write a Book
In January 2010, I wrapped up the first draft of Don’t Stop Believing after six years of effort. It took me another 11 months of rewriting and editing to get it ready for an agent. Even though I had one friend who was whole-hog into Kindle Direct and doing very well, I was still focused on traditional publishing at the time. It still felt like the right fit for me, and most of my contacts and colleagues were still traditionally published, so that’s the way I went.
I sent DSB off to an agent in late 2010, and she rejected it without finishing the story. I was already into working on The Sad Girl at this point and felt it was the better story, so I shelved DSB and continued my work on TSG. That one wrapped up in 2011, and I began rethinking my decision to go traditional.
I had gone through four drafts and one major rewrite to get the first book into shape, and the first agent rejected it quickly, although it wasn’t a form rejection. I know thousands of writers are rolling their eyes at that statement and thinking, “Oh, you poor baby! One whole rejection! The horror!” Yeah, I know. I wasn’t heartbroken about the rejection, but it did make me reconsider the whole traditional path. Did it really make sense for me to keep contacting agent after agent, hoping I’d find one who liked my story well enough and thought it would sell? And then turn over a fair chunk of what little I got from the publisher to this person? I knew several people who had great relationships with their agents, but I also knew there were a lot of shady or lazy or incompetent agents out there (just like in any industry or occupation, of course). At any rate, that rejection and further discussion with my self-pubbing friend helped me decide to go the self-publishing route.
Figure Out What You Don’t Know
Boy, was there a lot I didn’t know. ISBNs. Cover artists. Distribution channels. How to get your self-pubbed book into bookstores and libraries. How to market.
I spent what I thought was a lot of time researching what I needed to do to self-publish TSG. Learning about ISBNs took up a couple of weeks. The decision there has to do with what publisher gets tied to the ISBN; if you use a “free” number from CreateSpace, etc., it’s them. If you use any other option with them, the publisher name that shows up is whatever you make it. There are pros and cons to each of their four categories, but that’s beyond what I’m talking about here. I went with the Custom ISBN for $10, but it took me forever to decide that.
And that’s just one example of what I didn’t know. Consider this: what font do you want to use for the text in your book? Now ask yourself: are you legally allowed to? That’s not always a simple question.
There are dozens of other questions to answer: What characters are you going to use for scene breaks? Do you want to do the interior layout yourself, or pay someone to do it? Do you know how to lay out the interior of a book, and make sure the chapters always start on the right-hand page?
Then there’s cover art. Do you know a good artist? Can you do the work yourself (many think they can, and are very wrong)? If you’re going to hire it out, how do you choose a good artist? Are you writing a series though? Will that artist be around for book three? Book five?
And then there’s the editor, and figuring out what kind of editor you need, and making sure they know what they’re talking about. And marketing (which isn’t yelling “Buy my book!” across every social media platform twenty times a day, by the way).
It took me something close to two years to get through the learning curve, and I pulled the trigger in March of 2014. Looking back, there was plenty I missed out on. I told myself that I didn’t have any money to spend on advertising and marketing, and never thought about ARCs and promotional copies and blog tours and so forth. I didn’t have the e-book and print copies ready at the same time. Didn’t even contact the local paper for a little blurb.
The main thing I remember from this time was a feeling of going it alone, and it was one I didn’t really like. Way back in 2011, I posted about hearing Jonathan Maberry speak at the Pennwriters Conference, and something he said during his keynote still sticks with me. Paraphrasing, he said the fable that writing is a fiercely competitive and lonely existence is just that. It doesn’t have to be that way. That was true in 2011, and even more so now, five years later. I was ostensibly a member of Pennwriters then, in their all-inclusive “District 7,” but being on the road made it very difficult to get to meetings. The online interaction was great, but I needed that face-to-face personal contact.
What did all of this work and stress and sweat get me?
80 sales in 2014.
Obviously, mistakes were made.
I knew I had to do something different with the next book.
Learn From Your Mistakes and Explore Other Options
While The Sad Girl was sitting out there, selling a few copies here and there, I went back to work on DSB, because who’s really ever happy with their first novel? I did a pretty major rewrite, changing quite a bit of stuff in the first part of the story and getting things flowing a little better. I also got started on a sequel to the Sad Girl story.
But what was I going to do with either book? I really wasn’t happy with sales of The Sad Girl, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I was doing a lot of the wrong stuff (yelling “Buy my book!” across every social media platform I could access), but I didn’t know what the right stuff was.
I started reading more about marketing to separate wrong from right, and learn some new ideas, because the old ones just weren’t working. I noticed I was reading a lot of tips and suggestions from one or two people, and started following them and their ideas more closely. It didn’t have an immediately noticeable effect, but I think as I quit the shouting, maybe I started to repair the damage I had done from the shouting.
What I didn’t realize when I released TSG was that I had missed the self-publishing tide that many early indie authors discovered and rode to some success. Those early adopters built a solid following, and are seeing consistently good sales numbers now. But the seemingly instant success that so many crowed about? Yeah, I missed that boat by years.
So I knew I had to do something different, and wasn’t quite sure what it was. Some late-night Google searches brought up the idea of hybrid publishers. When my favorite social media maven got involved with one, I started digging a little deeper and learned more about hybrid publishers in general and Booktrope in particular.
What’s the Difference?
At the moment, many people assume there are only three kinds of publishing options for most writers. They can self-publish, they can go with a traditional publishing house, or they can use a vanity publisher.
Vanity presses are the ones that make you spend thousands of dollars to end up with hundreds of books in your garage. Avoid vanity presses. Money always flows from the publisher to the author, never from the author to the publisher.
The traditional publishing path involves an agent, query letters, dealing with editors, and lots of people taking a bite from the money pie. With larger publishers, you tend to have less flexibility with pricing, cover art, and so forth, but you do gain, in theory, the oomph of a publisher’s name and marketing department, although these days, there’s not always a lot of support from the latter. While smaller publishers, sometimes called indie presses or indie publishers, give you more flexibility in many areas, some of them have failed dramatically and given that part of the industry a black eye to many people.
Also, a traditional publisher gives you (typically) little to no input on the cover or the artist (unless you previously got a really good agent who put that in your contract), and little to no marketing support or budget. People at a traditional publisher get paid the same whether your book sells one copy or 100,000. There may be performance bonuses, but books sales don’t typically directly affect their salaries.
Self-publishing is where the author takes on all of the responsibilities, all of the risks, and likewise, all of the rewards. You hire your own cover artist (or do it yourself if you’re really good), your own editor, and deal with all of the minutiae yourself, like ISBN decisions and costs, distribution channel decisions, and all of the marketing. There’s a lot more work this way, but the rewards are also all yours. Oh, and you have to pay all of these people for their work. Up front, before you’ve sold a single book.
I spent close to $1,000 to self-publish The Sad Girl. I mentioned the sales that brought me earlier. Not a great ROI.
Enter hybrid publishers. There are some who will tell you that hybrids are the spawn of the devil, and are just a different name for our old nemesis, the vanity press.
I think it’s the best of both the traditional and self-publishing worlds.
At Booktrope (my publisher Gravity is an imprint of BT), I get to build a team. And it really is a team, because we’re all working together with a vested interest. Nobody on the team gets paid unless and until the book sells. It’s basically a profit-sharing plan. Booktrope gets its cut. Then authors get a certain percentage, book managers get another percentage, cover designers and proofreaders get so much as well. But that pay is a percentage of sales, not a weekly paycheck or a huge upfront outlay from me.
Consider cover artists as one example. I may never speak to the cover artist who does my cover at a traditional house. But in the self-pubbing path, I have to choose one from thousands, and I have to pay them up front. There are some incredibly talented artists out there, along with some tremendously affordable packages. Sometimes you’ll even find both items together. But the really good artists cost money. Yes, you can find some good artists on sites like Fiverr, but sometimes, you get what you pay for.
At BT I still get to (have to?) choose my own cover artist, but I get to choose from artists who have been vetted by the publisher. Booktrope currently lists 112 cover designers in their team. Half a dozen of those artists work especially with Gravity (but are free to work with Booktrope’s other imprint, Vox Dei). And just like me, they don’t get paid unless the book sells.
There’s that continuity issue, too. Is the freelance artist you found going to be around in two years when you’re ready to publish the next book? Mine wasn’t. She did a great job on the first cover, but cover art was a sideline for her, not a fulltime, put-money-on-the-table gig. And that’s fine – if both sides know that going in.
But the best thing I gained by going hybrid?
I have an imprint manager, an editor, a book manager (who also did my proofreading), and a cover artist. They are awesomely talented ladies. But they are also willing to listen to me vent about something. They celebrate with me. They commiserate. They challenge me.
And my team isn’t unique at Booktrope, or within Gravity. I read comments all the time about how great team members are. More importantly, I see that from people who aren’t on my team. I had a Facebook launch event a few weeks ago, and one of the authors who took over wrote erotica. Another wrote Christian fantasy. They were with Booktrope, the parent of Gravity. There’s a sense of support and friendship and family that I’m not sure exists at other publishers. I follow a couple of well-published authors on FB, and have even asked one of them for some private help, which he willingly gave. But I’ve noticed that anyone involved at BT goes out of their way to help support each other. Is that something that happens at other publishers? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like it from what I see.
Knowing what I know now, how would I have done things differently?
I’d have pushed myself harder to get the books out sooner. I missed out on a lot of sales by waiting so long. But that’s another post.
I’d have pushed myself harder to learn more about marketing, and sooner.
And I’d have looked harder at the different publishing options, and signed with a hybrid sooner.
They’re not for everyone. But Gravity is the place I need to be right now.
Note: Booktrope closed in May 2016.