Traditional vs. DIY Publishing: Putting Passion into Print
Get used to hearing the word “no”. Fall in love with it. Cradle it in your arms. It’s the most commonly used word in the entertainment industry, no. No? Don’t believe me? In commerce, the bottom line for any thriving business is about the almighty dollar. Every billboard or commercial ad you see is about how to get into your wallet. We’re all salespeople, period. Some are just more blatant about it whereas the rest will try to finesse their way into your wallet. The publishing industry is no different.
Traditional publishers don’t care that you’re a nice person, devoted spouse, and writer with a passion for print. They want results. They want a book that sells and a face attached to it with zeal and appeal. They want someone that can bring steady business into this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately industry. As the adage goes, “if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense.” Claudia writes wonderful books about her knowledge of gardening through the furious Floridian summers. In her last book, How to Florida, she talks about how to maintain your garden in the stifling heat. She’s also a great role model for the kids and has a heart for dogs. Blah. Claudia may be a sweetheart, but can she compete with Micah’s book below?
Micah writes books about snakes. His latest book, Venom On My Heart, is a nonfiction book about surviving the fanged bite of a Texas rattlesnake, and how he spent eighteen days in a coma. People want to know about that. Peril ignites our curiosity. What did it feel like when you were bit? What were you thinking? Did you think you were going to die? People want to know that stuff. So, which of the two books is likely to generate more consumer interest? Is it Claudia’s How to Florida or Micah’s Venom On My Heart? If you’re a major publishing brand seeking new talent, which manuscript would you most likely consider? That’s how it works. That is the question every publisher must face. What sells? You can say it’s different genres until you’re blue in the face if you want. But each month, publishers receive thousands of manuscripts from solicited and unsolicited writers seeking to get on. To stay in business, you need books that sell. Oprah Winfrey can sell 500,000 books about hanging up Christmas lights in October because she’s Oprah Winfrey. You love your book about your vacation in the Colorado Rockies. You adore that book. It took you six years to write it. It could’ve been three years had it not been for the divorce, an accident, and the fact that you lost your job. That’s neither here nor there; the book is ready to launch. It cost you a fortune to have that book professionally edited. Finally, after six long years, off to a literary agent it goes. Three months later, you get a polite rejection letter in the mail. Sorry, but at this time… the bottom line is “no.” So, you send it elsewhere and they say the same thing. “No.” Pretty soon, you have a desk full of rejection letters from literary agents to publishing houses who don’t believe in your story. So, you get depressed. The hell with writing. The hell with it all. How dare they?! But let’s say you do finally get on with a traditional publisher. Then what?
Sorry to tell you this, but love isn’t enough, nor is getting on with a traditional publisher. It doesn’t end there, family. You still have to do your part. The average publisher is not going to invest millions of dollars to propel you into stardom without considering the return of their investment. Not when they have other authors who can generate sales. So, guess which squeaky wheel gets the oil? So, you with your refined book can be sidelined while the publisher focuses its attention on Susan’s series about robotic earthworms. You think the publisher is nuts, but the bottom line is that Susan’s series about earthworms invading our society is bringing home the bacon. That’s what a publisher cares about. The bacon. It’s not personal, it’s business. Not to mention, depending on your contract, you may sacrifice some of your creative control. Publishers are very finicky about what book they choose to put their name on. You loved that chapter in your book about making peace with your ex after the divorce and how the two of you ended up becoming best friends. You love it, but the publisher doesn’t. So, guess what happens to that chapter? That’s right, it’s gone because Mike in marketing says “we know what sells.” Anything that doesn’t sell gets nixed. That’s business. It’s unfair, but it happens, and if your book doesn’t sell, you go out of the door with it.
For those who can stay in the good graces of their publisher, you’ll be paid a royalty for each book you sell. If your book costs $20 a pop, you have to pay the cost of the book’s production which varies depending on the publisher. By the time that $20 reaches your bank account after 90–120 days, you’ll be lucky to see a third of that $20. Some publishers will pay the author an advance which in other words is what they think the book is worth. It’s essentially a loan, however, because if you’re paid $20k but you only sell $10k, you’re still on the hook for $10k. So, it’s not free money to spend, at least not yet. You also will still have to promote yourself. You will have to take the initiative in your career. The publisher may have the outreach, but for it to be effective, you will have to do more of the leg work. Even then, you still run the risk of being dropped because unfortunately, you don’t bring in the sales. A lot of talented authors have had this happen. The music industry operates the same way. Companies are into what products sell to their consumers. It’s cut-throat at times and unfair, but it’s business. The bottom line is the almighty dollar. Depending on your contract, there also may be some debate about what rights you own on the work you created.
When I began writing Beyond Poetry in April of 2019, I wrote it from my heart and not of the mindset of what some publisher would think about it. By then, I had been a writer for more than half of my life. I had written several books to no avail and was ready to give up. Beyond Poetry, although a work of urban fiction, was about me. The hell with a publisher. The hell with trying to finesse an agent into believing in me. If I was going to quit writing, I thought, I’m going out in style. I didn’t want my validation to come at the heels of some publisher or agent telling me whether or not my book is good enough.
Months before the book was set to release on June 9th, 2021 I built an email list of potential readers. I tightened up my social media accounts and followed a woman named Jenn from Mixtusmedia.com. I followed Jenn’s self-publishing advice on her instagram page. I saved just about every post she created and took notes. I lived on YouTube. I watched videos of website design and learned how to create a decent website. I read books on self-publishing. I researched and found an editor, interior designer, and graphic designer. Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but I learned from them. I also learned how to properly connect with the new followers on my IG page, some of which later became buyers. I still keep in touch with many of them.
As far as the bottom line, I did okay for myself. I made enough to hold my head up high. I didn’t have the pressures of a traditional publisher to sell books to stay aboard. I sold when I sold, and when I didn’t, I didn’t. Most importantly, I had fun while I was doing it. Last I checked, I had twenty or so reviews on Amazon and several messages in my inbox. Before I knew it, I had created my own business doing what I love to do. I also own the copyright and distribution of my work. I decide when and where the book gets sold. And at any time, If I want, I can pull my book from print. If I want to change the cover, I can do that. Change the price? No problem. Add a new chapter? Of course! Everything beneath the cover of Beyond Poetry is 100% mine. That also means higher royalties and fewer middlemen. It’s entrepreneurship at the end of the day. And as long as there’s a passion for me to write, I’ll never go out of business — not unless I chose to. I can even offer signed copies of my books to whomever I want.
This isn’t a bash-the-publishing-industry article. This is a hold-your-head-up-high-because-it’ll-be-okay article. You don’t have to go traditional if you don’t want to. For me, I prefer the self-publishing route because it gives me joy. I decide the final product that gets released, and I don’t have to worry about being dropped or being told my work isn’t good enough. Although I had heard the horror stories on both sides, I picked the poison that would kill me softly.
Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you’re good enough. If you genuinely believe you have it, go get it!