The Million-Dollar Question

A really cool question arrived via Tumblr. Rather than send back an essay to answer it, I’m quoting part of it here, and answering it the best way I know how.

 I’m wondering, do you have to “know the right people” to be tradtionally published; and can anybody with an amazing novel make it big if they self-ePubished?

Wow, that is THE million dollar question. Seasoned professionals would LOVE to be able to answer this with something absolute, but even they don’t always know.

(You are understanding, I hope, that I’ve not published either way yet. I am not working in publishing, I’m not an agent or a lawyer or a breakout success yet; so my knowledge is limited. )

But you asked (sweet!), so here’s my take: 

1. Does knowing the “right people” help get your work trad-pubbed?

It can’t hurt to network. Get to know people at conferences, meet those friends-of-a-friend, etc.

Is this the only way you’ll ever get published? Nope. I’ve met folks who started out with the queries and the agent and went from there without knowing anyone on the “inside” who have books on the racks.

Knowing insiders can only get you so far, though.

If the work won’t stand up to the marketplace, unless you know about a million buyers, or you’ve got a NAME, you’ve got a tougher sell to break into the business. You’re a higher risk for a publisher.

dollar question

2, Can anybody with an amazing novel make it big if they self (e) publish?

Tricky question!

Tricky Answer: Yes. No. It depends.

Yes, it’s possible to do fantastic sales on e-publishing even with an (ahem) less-than-amazing novel. I’ve read the backstories of some breakout epublishing authors; it’s interesting to see how they went about their work. Some were known in other industries. Some had a great social network. Seems to me none of these people just plunked down their stuff out of the blue and made it work. Check them out and see what you think.

No, most people do not make it big in e-publishing, in the sense of the mega-millions and the Hollywood contracts and so forth. Check out the Amazon stats. Check out Mark Coker’s (Smashwords) Guide to Publishing: it states very clearly most e-novels do not have super-fantastic sales records. Those folks with already-established reputations who are big proponents of the e-publishing wave harp on the need to build sales over time, continue writing good stuff, take advantage of good pricing models, etc. 

It depends. Self-publishing is a business, if you mean to make serious money. That means developing a varied skill-set, or hiring out. This includes cover-design, editing, proofreading, formatting, sales analysis, keeping books, filing taxes, discerning the value of marketing packages etc. Like any business, doing a good job means continuing to develop new material and getting it into the marketplace while maintaining the older stuff and looking after customer service, too.

3. I think what you may be asking is what YOU should do.

(Wow, I wish I knew what I should do, too. Why is the effing crystal ball not working today?)

Zen/Shakesperian answer: know thyself

***Here we are assuming you’ve got that polished, proof-read, road-tested Amazing Novel of Awesomeness ready to head out the door.***

Not all writers are in the same place. We have different responsibilities, health challenges; we’re at different points in our lives.

  • If you’re desperate to make a living at novel writing, it’s a different story than if you’re just hoping to break even for the time spent, or just get something into print.
  •  If you’re in your twenties without dependents, you might be willing to roll the dice on a ten-year ramen-noodle-based diet, live on the floor of your brother’s garage rent-free, and toil through traditional pathways or borrow a couple hundred bucks to set up and really work on the small business that self-publishing can be.
  •  A ninety-year-old may not feel s/he has the years to play the trad games, and might enlist help setting up an e-book with a view to just getting the darn thing published, because success means just that. No thought to writing another book.
  • With limited resources in the publishing world, everyone’s looking for a breakout winner to improve profits, so starting up with someone brand new to the world (no celebrity-sized following) has got to look less appealing than someone with an established reputation to them. Be aware of this.
  • If you’re thick-skinned and willing to set up an e-book to see how it rolls, you can do that. If it doesn’t have big-number sales, trad. people might look at that and say there’s not a market for it. If you trad. pub and it doesn’t do well, you might have a struggle getting back the rights to e-pub it.(note: Best advice from the Pros who Know: hire an IP lawyer to go over every contract including agency agreements and publishing offers, to find the hidden snags that could mess you up later.)

So, what? If you’ve got a sense of your abilities and your goals and how you gauge success, then research the marketplace. Interview some people at conferences. Make some decisions and take action. Might be the wrong path; be willing to make a different choice. 

Closing thoughts: keep reading about the business of writing. That means watching out for scams and protecting yourself, too. There’s plenty of info out there to help you weed out a lot of trouble.

Hey, you know what, this is pretty darn good advice. Which means, dang it, I’m going to have to take it. And you know what? I will let you know what happens next.

—-Elizabeth Ellen Everson