101 TIWIK #73: How Should I Publish?

Yesterday I offered some perspective on what may be the most important question a writer can ask, when is my book finished? Today, I’m going to take a step back and ask what is most likely the second most important question: now that I think my book is ready, how should I publish it?

Full disclosure of bias here: I am an indy publisher, and I have some strong beliefs about the merits of independent publishing. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to make references with the assumption that the reader will be following in my footsteps and publishing independently. But today I want to step away from my own bias and examine the big picture of publishing, to offer some perspective on what is still an important question to many writers.

By examine, I actually mean, gawk in morbid fascination at the slow-motion trainwreck.

Or, if you prefer to look at it a more positive light, let’s observe the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly through a transparent chrysalis.

The publishing industry today is a cataclysm of change. If you want to hold a magnifying glass up to the chrysalis–or play back the trainwreck in slow motion–I highly recommend losing yourself for a day or two in this insightful blog called The Business Rusch. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a particularly good resource for this question because she has published both traditionally and independently, and has a lot to say about both routes.

Since the author of that blog states everything pretty clearly there, I’m not going to repeat it here. I’ll just state the most important insight I have gleaned from the articles: Publishing is a business. Those who succeed in publishing, whether they are a huge New York publisher or today’s unknown author clicking “publish” on KDP, do so because they use smart business practices. In today’s industry, foremost among those practices is the ability to adapt to the opportunities presented by today’s publishing market, rather than holding too tightly to the way you think things should be.

In that light, here’s the hard answer to today’s question, how should I publish my book:

Publish your book in whatever way makes the most sense based on your business model and long-term strategy.

I know, I’d rather be writing too. Not spending time on business models and long-term strategies.

And that’s an option. You don’t have to publish your book at all. You can write for the fun of it and not worry about things like breakeven and Amazon rankings. You can still share your writing with a community of readers, be it a local writing group or on Wattpad or just posting it on your own blog, without the intent to make money. That is a perfectly valid thing to do, and if you choose to go that route, you may find it infinitely more satisfying than trying to think like a business person.

But if your goal is to be a career author, you have to publish with the bottom line in mind. The moment you cross over from being a writer to being a published author, be it through a publishing contract or uploading your word document to Smashwords, part of you ceases to be a writer. Part of you must become a publisher, or perish.

If you are thinking, “not if I have a traditional publisher, after all, that’s what they do, right?” I strongly urge you to read a bit of Rusch’s blog. Especially with a traditional publisher, you have to understand the industry from a business perspective. You have to have a firm grasp on contract law, and an equally strong head for math, so you can understand exactly what “25% of net” works out to in terms of can you make a living as a traditionally published author.

So yes, before you can effectively answer the question of how to publish, you should have a business model and a long-term strategy.

Having a useful business model in publishing is challenging these days, because the butterfly hasn’t quite dried out its wings yet. Things are still changing rapidly, and they will continue to change as the giants (Amazon and the big five) fight over the market share while we all scramble to adjust. Still, you can learn from the successes of other authors. Kboards is a great resource to see how other authors are managing their writing business.

If you’re still stumbling over the term business model, let me try to take some of the fear out of it. Simply put, a business model is a clear statement of what success would look like to you in financial terms, and what methods you are going to use to achieve it.

How much do you want to make in a year? How many print books would you have to sell to make that, with a traditional publisher? How many ebooks would you have to sell to make that, if you were independently published? Are there other ways you can make money (giving talks, audio books, a backlist, movie rights, etc)?

What model makes sense in terms of your own strengths and weaknesses? If you are excited about talking to people face to face, you might choose to try for a traditional contract and focus on author events in bookstores to move your books. If you’re more of a social media networker, it might make more sense to use your skills to energize certain online communities to boost your ebook sales. That’s not to say you should limit yourself–usually, the best models combine several methods of marketing and distribution–but it will show you where to focus your efforts.

These are the kinds of questions you want to ask when developing your business model. Equally important is your long-term strategy. Any business person worth their salt knows that you don’t necessarily break even in the first year of starting a new business. It takes time to grow a business, and without a long-term strategy, you are likely to make decisions that seem lucrative up front but are actually damaging in the long run. For example, say a publisher offers you a great-sounding advance, but asks for ebook rights indefinitely. You need to be able to calculate the difference between taking the advance now, and earning at indy-published rates on your backlist for the rest of your life.

Time is another consideration in your long-term strategy. I made the decision not to spend much of my time on marketing after I released my first book, in lieu of finishing and publishing the second book. Now that I’ve started marketing Book I, I’m seeing sales of Book II follow my marketing efforts. Having a large backlist is an important part of a long-term strategy, and you may need to allocate time to creating that backlist even when it’s tempting to spend your time doing things that might create more immediate satisfaction.

There’s a good chance that once you start to examine your business model and strategy, you’ll realize that the question isn’t really, how should I publish. The question is probably more like, which books should I try to sell traditionally and when, and which books should I retain all rights to in order to make the highest profit. I know authors who have sold books that were previously independently published to tradition publishers several years after being on the market. And I know authors who were so displeased with their traditional contracts and treatment by the large publishers that they fought to get their rights back in order to independently publish their own books.

When you’re standing there with the manuscript of your first book in hand, this can all be a little overwhelming. You’ve spent ten or twenty or thirty years writing this book, and the very idea of writing a second book, let alone having a backlist, is probably slightly nauseating. You’re looking at terms like business model and thinking, “but I’m a writer! I don’t do business models.” You’re probably thinking, “I came here for an easy answer to this question,” and all I’ve done is confuse and terrify you.

I was standing in that same place three years ago. I think when we are standing on this precipice, the urge can be simply to jump. Just send that manuscript out to the agent, or just hit publish on KDP.

Here’s the thing: I jumped. And you probably will too. And then you’ll go back, battered and scarred, and learn all the things about business you should have learned in the first place. I’m in the process of doing that now.

But, to return to my admitted bias, when you jump, I urge you to aim for the publish button, not the traditional contract. Here’s why: If you jump unprepared into a contract, the very worst thing that might happen is that you find yourself in a legal battle with a company whose lawyer’s shoes cost more money than you’ve ever seen in your life. If you jump on the publish button, the very worst thing that might happen is–nothing.

Independent publishing is perhaps the most forgiving endeavor in the world. Your book can sit at three millionth in the Kindle store for years and then suddenly soar upwards with a little bit of marketing effort. Nobody knows or cares that it sat there for years. While you might not gain anything by jumping into independent publishing, you don’t stand to lose much, either. With a caveat: if you start spending money on the process, I strongly urge you to get your business model in place so you’re not throwing that money out the door.

To recap: difficult answer: how to publish depends on your business model and long-term strategy, and will likely include some combination of traditional and independent publishing.

Easy answer: independently publish your book today, and learn the business as you get tired of seeing your book suffer underneath three million other books.

For those of you who have decided to independently publish, ready or not, the next part of this blog is a nuts-and-bolts miniseries on how to go from manuscript to book. If you were traditionally published, your publishers would make the decisions that I am going to cover next, but when you are independent all of these questions lie in your hands. 

In 101 TIWIK #74: From Manuscript to Book: Creating Your Template, I’ll start with an overview about how to take your amazing story and turn it into a professionally produced book, both print and digital.

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