Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

The Overhead of Radiohead and the Indie Author Upstarts

Posted on Jul 6, 2012 in Blog, Publishing, Writing | 0 comments

Author John Green says more self-published authors means fewer authors who will make a living.

I am almost making a living off of my first book. My debut novel. About lesbian werewolves. That I self-published.

I’m just one author. He’s just another one. I’ve got the scrappy upstartness, he’s got the cache and career. It seems natural we’d disagree, so let me explain why exactly I think we do.

Of course, the first reason Green’s assertion isn’t true is that self-published authors make far more per sale than traditionally published ones. The profit margin is up to the author to create. I make between $3 to $10 per copy I sell. As a debut, no name, niche author, that’s hands down unheard of. If I had gone through traditional channels, I would stand to make $1 per copy. At that point it becomes a numbers game: Would I sell 3 to 10 times as many books if I went with a traditional house? Perhaps, but I’m not convinced.

But I don’t think Green is really suggesting it’s a numbers game. I think he’s talking about the nature of the art itself, and how many people you have in your corner.

He says his career was built with the support of some very engaged publishers that supported and nurtured him and his work:

But in fact, my career is an example of precisely the opposite: My publisher invested tons of time and money into me for a very long time: They paid for tours that hemorrhaged money. They paid for advertising. They fought to get me distributed in mass market channels even though my books were “literary.” And most importantly, they provided editorial support and guidance that made the books themselves far better than they would be if I published them by myself.

That’s all well and good, and I believe that a great publishing company can do wonderful things for an up-and-coming author. But this is a little like talking to an A-list movie star about how easy it is to get roles in Hollywood.

In the past year that I’ve been touring (on my own dime, natch), I’ve met many authors, most of them early in their careers, starting just as the publishing companies began to fall apart. Of these dozens of people I’ve met, I’ve talked to two- TWO- who felt that they got good support from their publishing companies (both of them write genre fiction). Of course, they still aren’t going on fully-funded tours or getting advertising. But they did get advances and are getting some press. That’s success these days.

The rest of these dozens of writers were humiliated, shocked, or just disappointed with how they were treated. I’ve spoken with authors who had to fight with their publishers to send out press packets. Some of them tried to fund their own tours only to have their plans squashed by disinterested or overly-concerned editors. Some of them were midlisted out of the gate, never made advance back and proclaimed dead in the water. Is this a case of overly high expectations? Perhaps. Many of us grew up with the idealized notion of the author’s life, with the multi-city book tours and author attachés, and six figure advances. Unless your last name is Rowling, those days are gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.

But I think it’s an increasingly common story. Publishing companies are trying to figure out what to do, and some of them are doing right by authors and readers alike. They’re learning to adapt. But others are clinging to the old ways, and feeding their cash cows all the hay in the barn while the rest of their stock starves.

The publishing companies that figure it out will survive and continue to nurture great artists. Others will likely hold on by treating their authors like crap, relying on their name cache for as long as they can. And most of the rest will die. Welcome to capitalism.

There’s a reason we call editors and agents gatekeepers. They keep the riff-raff OUT. The riff-raff here are unpublished authors. The people with the dusty memoir on the shelf, the MFA novel buried in the hard drive. But now there are fewer gates and a lot of the good stuff is on the outside anyway- stuff like distribution, support talent, social media, ereaders, indie bookstores.

Fewer professionally published authors doesn’t mean fewer authors. It means more. Many, many more. There will be much more crap, much more noise, much more unedited, untypeset disasters. There will be much more conspiracy theory and crackpot nonsense and human insanity on parade. There will be more misplaced modifiers, typos, and awkward POV shifts.

There will also be more voices, more opportunities, more people writing weird amazing stuff that no one who’s ever lived in NYC will ever understand. But that weird stuff will get to a few weird people who need to read it, and they’ll share it with their weird friends. And their weird friends will write slashfic about it, and that first weird author will learn what it’s like to have fans, friends, people who understand.

Green is right when he says that fewer books will be cultivated to their true potential – fewer as a percentage, not as a total. There are more books published now than ever before, and of those, I don’t think nearly enough of them got a rigorous edit. I would have loved to have gotten a schmancy, top-tier NYC editor for my book. It would have made it, undoubtedly, a better, slicker read. But small and mid-sized publishing houses don’t have much time for rigorous edits anymore. Again, only the special few get the five-star publisher’s treatment.

The editors and publicists that are getting laid off as the publishing houses hemorrhage and die aren’t just evaporating. They’re going right back into the work pool, for authors like me to hire, to make our work as good as it can be, without the need for major houses.

Bookstores will learn to curate, indie authors will learn how to find their super-fans, and the folks who don’t adapt, strive, and learn will die.

Green used Mike Doughty’s post on the financial reality of bands as a spring board for his own thoughts on publishing, but this is a false comparison. I don’t doubt Doughty’s numbers or conclusions. But I’m one person who doesn’t need a roadie (though it’d be nice) or gear to succeed. I need me, my personality, and my book. I was able to publish my book for $2000 and tour for much less. Comparing making a living as an author to the overhead of a touring rock band is just silly.

I didn’t need a publishing company to create more than most authors who work with publishing companies get.

And this is the Scariest Thing, the thing that most people will rail on me for saying: We don’t need you.

Now of course, many authors do need publishers. They don’t want to balance their own books, or cold call bookstores, or arrange readings, or throw release parties. They don’t want to hire a proofreader and a graphic designer and spend nights typesetting their own book. Green says, “There is no Looking for Alaska or The Fault in Our Stars without the people who work at Penguin.” And that’s great for him. I’m glad Penguin treated him right. But my book exists and I’m proud of it, and I didn’t have a deal to rely on. I had my commitment to making my voice exist in the world. Plenty of authors bust their asses to write, edit, hone, and produce quality, moving, interesting books without a publisher, simply because they care. They care enough to make their art live regardless of who says ‘no.’

To survive, to make a living, authors need to learn how to read a balance sheet, budget for travel and meals, contact groups that might like our work, make schwag, ask for Bookstore X to carry our book, chase down consignment checks for $3.50, and respond to weird fan emails. We need to adapt too, because the fans are saying the same scariest thing: we don’t need you.

As an author striving to make a living doing Our Favorite Thing, we need to prove our worth, not to a New York City agency, but to our readers. We have to make our voices indispensable. We should strive, not to make another Twilight knockoff, but to create an authentic experience for a reader, something that can’t be filled by the same old shit.

The new author is an entrepreneur, who understands not only the product (the art), but everything that goes with it. If you’re going to bemoan any major shift in the publishing model, don’t cry for Penguin, cry that you have to write your own marketing plan.

Maybe it’s my Generation Y cynicism, but I don’t really trust advice from the person cashing the biggest checks, or the one who has nothing but praise for a crumbling (restructuring?) industry. I trust my readers and my community of enthusiastic creators who are making livings doing the weirdest kind of art, because that’s all that matters to them, and they’ll do anything it takes to make their art live.

So what does it mean to make a living? Is it about paying your bills? Sending your kids to private kindergarten? Never having to do anything but write for the rest of your life?

Ultimately, I don’t think Green is talking about bottom lines, he’s talking about living fulfilled life as an author. And in my case it means making enough of a living to keep marching forward. Getting a royalty check from Amazon lets me write another day, getting closer to the completion of my sequel so it can buy me the plane ticket to the next conference and two days of enough mental and financial freedom to contact a few of my bookstore contacts and say, “Hey, I wrote another one, and it’s even better than the first.”


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