Friday, March 11, 2011

Gatekeepers and Outliers

A lot of buzz these days about two subjects:

  1. Amanda Hocking's self publishing success is an outlier
  2. Gatekeepers (traditional publishers) are needed to keep the market from flooding with junk.

As to #1 - I agree...but...that's not to say that self-publishing is not a viable path to success. There are many people making more money self-published then they would with traditional: Joe Konrath, H.P. Mallory, John Locke, Amazda Hocking, David Dalglish, B.V. Larson, J.R. Rain, Michael J. Sullivan, Victorine Lieskie, Nancy Cartwright. The bottom line, if you write a good book and use techniques (even the dreaded and hated $0.99) you CAN make a very good living wage with self-publishing.

Yes, I put Michael there. I fully believe he'll make less money with his big-six deal - but that's not why we're going that route - we'd rather sacrifice some $$'s in our pocket for a wider audience through bookstores, libraries, and more foreign rights deals.

John Locke is hot on Amazda's heels (and maybe even passed her). His Saving Rachel has been #1 now for awhile and he had #1 and #2 for a bit. He has written 7 books in the top 50 (and 3 of the top 10!)

  • #1 Saving Rachel
  • #5 Wish List
  • #10 Lethal People
  • #19 A Girl Like You
  • #29 Lethal Experiment
  • #35 Now & Then
  • #47 Follow the Stone

So while Amazda is an Outlier - we now have to add John there which shows that repeating the pattern...writing a lot of VERY good books at low prices can succeed.

As to Gatekeepers...part of the problem with traditional publishing is they just don't have the bandwidth to release as many good books as there are. Many great ones have fallen to the wayside not because they were not "worthy" but because there were only so many slots to fill and decisions were made to do A rather than B.

The great thing about self-publishing is books that could never get traditionally published now are finding audiences. When I say "never get traditionally published" I don't mean - they weren't good enough. I mean that the chances were just too slim - and in some cases the material was not "mainstream enough".

For those that know, I have a small press called Ridan Publishing. And our second biggest seller (soon to be #1 with Michael's departure) is Nathan Lowell who has written an absolute fabulous series of scifi books about ordinary people living in the "Deep Dark". His Quarter Share and Half Share sell thousands of books each month but the chances of him being picked up by a big-six is probably pretty slim -- not because they are not good -- I ... and many others .... love them - it is because ... to be frank...not much happens. There's no interstellar wars, political maneuvering, or aliens bent on the destruction of mankind. They tell an ordinary tale, not unlike most that we live day to day and yet Nathan does it in a way that compels us to read the next one. We feel for his characters and want to see what happens next. If submitted to a big-six I think the response would be - seriously...but nothing happens. My response is a lot happens and I'm proud to have brought these books to an audience that they would not have had if only the gatekeepers controlled the reading possibilities.

I guess what I'm saying that being non big-six is starting to remove some of its "stink" of unworthiness. This is opening opportunities for both writers and readers. And a good thing.


Libby said...

Self-publishing is probably a lot like the indie movie revolution not that many years ago. Once cameras and editing systems became a lot cheaper, you saw a lot of "small" movies come out that would not have ever been made by Hollywood. And just like self-published novels, some are good and some are not so good. Also, distribution is and a saturated market plague both markets. The rise of ebooks seems to level the playing fields and makes the entire process more democratic. Just an opinion.

Anonymous said...

My epic fantasy, which I've just self-published on kindle, is 160k words long. Or 40k words longer than any agent would look at. When not receiving form rejections (which would arrive in my in-box in a matter of hours), the more helpful agents would send me a link to some article about novel word counts and how they cannot be exceeded if you expect to get published.

So is The Blood Gate not worthy of traditional publication? Hell if I know. But I do know it's too long. I like it better on my kindle than I ever did on my hard drive though. I appreciate the opportunity e-books have opened up for all of us.

Robert Bidinotto said...

Great post, as usual, Robin. And you make a crucial point that doesn't get the emphasis it deserves.

People are naturally going ga-ga over the sales figures and the income potential of self-publishing, and that is understandable. For a writer, self-publishing has become a far more likely road to financial rewards than traditional publishing has been. With the rise of ebooks, a significant number of writers now actually have a decent shot at making a decent living doing the work they love. And that is unprecedented.

But in addition to the possibility of financial independence, there's the issue of editorial and creative independence.

For many reasons, traditional publishing has become bogged down in conventionality and conformity. Led by MBA-waving bean-counters from non-book backgrounds, who stare myopically at quarterly balance sheets rather than seek creative opportunities, Big 6 publishers (and many smaller imitators) too often play it safe in their acquisitions. They tend to be guided by past consumer tastes and buying trends, rather than take chances on innovators with fresh perspectives and unique styles that might upset applecarts.

Thus, even the rare authors who are accepted these days by the Legacy Press gatekeepers find their unique worldviews and voices -- not to mention their plots and word counts -- homogenized and reduced to the formulaic. A novel must fit a specific genre pigeonhole; within that genre, it must remain within the parameters of a particular word count; it should conform to a "three-act arc," with crises occurring at prescribed intervals; etc.

I call this Procrustean Publishing, with books being stretched or chopped to fit the reigning industry dogma. Knowing this, many desperate authors feel compelled to write to fit the industry model (or fad), instead of writing the story that they truly want to tell. How many path-breaking works and creative careers are strangled in their cribs by this smothering blanket of conformity?

The Big 6 argument is that their gatekeeping has been essential for literary quality control. Rubbish. The tales of now-legendary authors whose stellar careers began with years enduring Big 6 rejections are legendary. Tom Clancy. John Grisham. Vince Flynn. Amanda Hocking. And how many rejections did J.K. Rowling endure before finally being picked up by Scholastic? All had to prove their merit through self-publishing or small presses before the Gatekeepers finally paid attention. An industry that rejects so many authors who go on to write so many bestsellers is, to put it kindly, dysfunctional.

The Self-Publishing Revolution, made possible by the new technologies of ebooks and Print On Demand, has liberated authors to seek creative as well as commercial fulfillment. It has smashed not only the barriers to entry in the field, by letting authors bypass the Gatekeeper Gauntlet; it also relieved writers of the self-conscious anxiety of shaping their work to the Gatekeepers' dubious tastes and priorities. Permitted at last to say exactly what they want to say, writers can now seek and find the niche audiences uniquely interested in their work.

In short, the Self-Publishing Revolution is allowing writers to be themselves. Creatively, we can all be "Outliers" now.

--Robert Bidinotto

Unknown said...

Hi Robin -

I very much enjoy reading your posts. Having read most of the authors you mentioned and a few others that fit your category that you didn't mention I can say this is an absolutely fabulous time to be an avid reader!

I agree with your assessment of Quarter and Half Share. I recall getting to the end of Quarter Share and considering the incredible lack of action. To my simple mind it was all world-building and exposition. I loved every page.

To me the joy of being around in the second decade of the 21st century is that instant communication is the big equalizer. We don't need gatekeepers because a producer's online reputation will throttle their success just fine.

I am not a bit offended by the big companies making good decisions to bring a select few superstars out of the muck. Previously this was a problem because a fabulous but overlooked writer might get missed and decide to throw in the towel. It just doesn't seem that this is as likely today.

Keep up the great work!

Best Regards!

J. R. Tomlin said...

Robin, I'm posting a link to this on the Critique Circle forum where I think a lot of people will find your comments very useful.

Thanks for posting.

Jennifer Hudock said...

Interesting post, Robin. I think it's great that Nathan (and others) has found a way to reach a wider audience beyond big 6 publishers. When good books are turned away from traditional publishing houses, it can be frustrating, especially when compared to the amount of crap they do push through the gates.

I've known a lot of amazing writers in the last twenty years, many of whom found themselves turned away for one reason or the other from a large scale publisher only to be picked up by a small press just a month or so later with enthusiasm and praise. While many of the small presses don't have the resources to back a massive promotional campaign, I am always excited when I see new and indie press markets appearing on the market and giving it their all to spread the word about the authors under their wing, while teaching them to fly.

I love how the world of publishing is changing.

Suzanne said...

Another good post, Robin. Thanks for commenting on my recent Kindleboards thread that delved into this topic.

Times, they're a'changin'. Gatekeepers, they're a'changin'. Much of these changes are due to the ebook revolution. When you can indie publish your book, why waste your time and money on a "literary agent" who disappears from his agency's web site two days after he accepted pitches at a writers conference?

Suzanne Adair

Joan Reeves said...

"...never get traditionally published" I don't mean - they weren't good enough. I mean that the chances were just too slim - and in some cases the material was not mainstream enough."

Well said, Robin! I have many friends who fit this description, as do I for most of the manuscripts I wrote after having 7 books published.

Most of us still in the game are all going the indie route now.