Shortwave Magazine

Culture / Publishing

The History of Indie Publishing, Part 3

a look back over the decades
by David Niall Wilson

October 24, 2022
2,332 Words
Genre(s):

It’s a Brave New World

This article is part of a series. → Read Part 1

Up until now, we’ve been talking about the past. The only thing constant, of course, is change, so let’s talk about the current state of writing, and publishing. EBooks are fully established. Independent and self-publishing are an integral part of the book world. The number of authors has expanded exponentially, because it’s no longer necessary to be picked up by an agent or be chosen by an editor. Not every book published is being approved by marketing. With POD in full swing, anyone can hold a copy of their published book, peddle it to stores, readers, family, and the world. The big five, whatever that means these days, continues to pump out books by the top-echelon authors. They have supplemented their ranks from the indie bestseller lists, and their superior cashflow, distribution and advertising budgets are no less formidable than ever. With print books making a recovery, eBooks and audiobooks soaring, they are still primed to top the bestseller lists.

You can add to that the many Amazon imprints, like Thomas Mercer. Amazon has imprints they use to disguise from the general reading public that a large number of their top sellers are books and authors they have published. Those books sell a lot of copies, but still struggle getting into brick-and-mortar stores because Barnes and Noble and a growing number of independent bookstores do whatever they can to prevent buying from Amazon. It’s a wash, really, because with the marketing at their disposal, Amazon can pump out some books when they put in the effort, and they have access to millions of readers. It’s not a fair fight, and it’s never likely to be one. Ironically, the brick-and-mortar stores aren’t hurting anyone but authors and small publishers.

The good news is, that it doesn’t matter as much as it did. Stephen King and John Grisham have their world, but there is a growing small and independent press boom making waves, putting chinks in the armor of the NYC giants, and giving home and voice to a new generation of authors with serious talent, new inspiration, and forward-facing vision that will shape the years to come.

There is always the danger that the new presses will overextend. One of the biggest issues with independent publishers is their inability to control their enthusiasm. In theory, enthusiasm is a huge positive, but it has to be tempered with business sense, a good financial plan, and realistic spending. While there are a growing number of new presses, there have also been a depressing number of failed efforts. I know this firsthand because Crossroad Press has been careful to offer support to orphaned authors. We formulated a business plan early on, and we have avoided opportunities that risked toppling it. There are trade-offs, of course, but we’ve been around since 2008 and have three thousand titles. We know what works for us.

The number of services calling themselves publishers, promotion “experts” who take money but never earn out, websites promising tens of thousands of contacts will see your book, but not mentioning few of them will buy it. (Most of them are other authors and publishers just there to sell their own titles) has also increased. There are a lot of ways to advertise: click-through ads on Amazon, or Bookbub, featured deals, Book-Tok and Bookstagram. But like everything that works in this business, they don’t work for everyone, and most of them are not a one-size-fits-all sort of operation.

Click-through ads can work for an individual author or a publisher with very few titles, for instance, but for a publisher like Crossroad Press, paying the majority of royalties to the authors and having a lot of titles, it’s impossible to work out the cost vs. the return and then fit that into the royalty scheme. BookTok and Bookstagram can sell a lot of books but are more dependent on the following of the person posting the videos or images. It’s important to keep in mind that all of the promotions available are peripheral to writing, and to publishing. They are creating their own niche space but also have their own agendas. That’s fine. That’s how business works. My point is that, as an author or publisher, you need to study the available options. You need to find people who have used them – those who succeeded and those who failed – and figure out the best use of what budget you have.

Bookbub still stands out as the number one marketing tool for eBooks. They have added an audiobook system called Chirp but this, sadly, requires that a book not be exclusive to Audible or ACX. This isn’t feasible for most independent publishers or authors, which means you either don’t take advantage of it, or you do, and you cut your Audible royalties in half. (That’s the percentage you lose if you are not exclusive, and I have seen no evidence that anyone other than a big five publisher can make up that difference through Chirp, or other outlets).

Things have not been as wide open as they are currently for many years. A quick search of the Internet will find you any number of crowdfunded anthologies, featuring current popular authors as a draw, and offering open calls for submissions once the goal is reached. There are magazines, online and otherwise, paying professional rates. Back in the day, publishers would take pre-orders on signed, limited editions of a print book. Then they would print a set number of copies – usually twenty-six lettered and one hundred or so numbered – and that was how they paid back the cost of printing. Then, assuming things went well, they would print an unsigned, lower quality book and keep that on sale until copies ran out or were consigned to the garage.

Crowdfunding is the latest version of this. You can donate up front and be guaranteed a copy of the book, usually with any number of perks that apply to particular levels of support. This has been, I think, both a blessing and a curse. Some publishers have taken advantage of this, collecting large sums up front and then coming late on delivery, because they spent the money and needed to start the next crowdfunded campaign to fulfill the last one. It’s a vicious cycle. Used properly though, with a set budget for what you will spend, and a realistic amount of support up front, it’s a way for smaller publishers to afford more well-known contributors and better cover art.

There is a problem though, and it’s not a new one. When the old specialty press boom started, there was a big, healthy buying market for signed limited editions. Then, over time, the market started to saturate. Lesser-known authors were getting limited collections and novels without having built any real following. Sales dropped. Publishers shifted and cut back. What I’m saying is, if these crowd-funded projects are to continue, there has to be good marketing attached that builds the demand. If the same fifteen or twenty people show up in thirty anthologies in one year, all of the readers who are their fans are not going to be able to support or buy all of those books, and eventually there will be a tipping point. When that comes, I suspect fewer books will reach their funding, and the new cast of bestselling authors currently supporting them will have mostly moved on to work on novels and manage their work through their agents. It’s a pattern, and it’s clearly repeating, but that doesn’t mean it has to end the same way.

That said, the number of presses making it onto bestseller lists with diverse, amazing new horror fiction is growing. Some are failing, but there are a growing number pushing past the barrier into profit, getting great reviews and front-facing displays in bookstores. It’s important to support them. If there is a future where the NYC publishers don’t rule, it’s through independent presses who manage to compete, and new voices who manage to stand out.

It's been a long time since the bestseller lists in horror had a major shift in names, but that torch is being handed off now. Some of the older authors have simply stopped writing. Others are still wondering why copies of books they wrote twenty-five years ago aren’t still selling. Relevance is an important part of writing. People will always read the classics, but to compete in today’s publishing world, you have to make yourself aware of what is working, and what is not. It’s not an easy thing. Books and stories are exploring meaningful, important topics, stretching out to new boundaries, and opening doors that have been closed for decades.

It's an amazing time to be an author, and it’s an even more amazing time to be a reader, and a publisher. So much has changed in the world, good and bad, so many attitudes have changed, and curtains pulled back, allowing worlds of stories and inspiration into the world that have been ignored, bottled up, and marginalized all of my life. This is going to end up being a seriously important time in literature.

Along with the new voices, and the new publishers, there are agents and agencies who are active, aware, and selling books. This is important, because there has been a long period of time where mostly the older agencies and agents were trying to work out their place in a changing world. Their ranks dwindled rapidly over the past few years, and many of the icons of the business have retired or handed the reins of their operations to others.

This is an important shift. The dynamic of agent and author has been as misunderstood over the years as that of the publisher and author. In theory, it’s a partnership. Agents represent authors they believe in, work with them on projects and present those projects to editors and publishers. Somewhere back in time that shifted. Authors have lived in fear for a long time that if they pushed back on an agent, or a publisher, there might be backlash that could ruin their career. Instead of a partnership, it became more of a dictatorship, where agents made decisions about things that authors should have maintained, parroting editors who were being ruled by marketers. Authors simply did what they were told, and it seldom worked out. Now agents are interacting on a personal level. You can go to one of several pitch sessions on Twitter and pitch directly to publishers and agents several times a year. If you work hard, and write well, you can find representation that actually has connections to the newer publishing world, options beyond the big five.

The same rules for your sanity and career apply. Publishers pay authors. Any situation where the author pays the publisher? It’s not a publisher. It’s either a service, or a scam, and they are only after your money. Patience is paramount. E-mail, social media, text messages, have all created an unrealistic expectation for responses. These newer publishers, most of them, anyway, have day jobs and families. They have other authors they are dealing with. If they have had an open call on an anthology, and they are treating the reading seriously, it is a lengthy process. Be patient. Write other things and let it go. One of the surest ways to not get published is to become an annoyance to a publisher.

Watch for the danger signs with publishers. If they are putting out way too many titles too fast, do some digging and find out why. Check with other authors to see if they are being paid regularly, if the contract is fair, how things have gone with their books, and their sales. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It takes time to find your voice, time to find an audience, and time to break into professional markets. Rejection is a horrible word for the process used to select stories for a magazine, or an anthology. The same is true of novels. Think about your own reading, and then think about the number of others who disagree with you. It’s like trying to get cast for a part in Hollywood. It’s not about how many of those who audition can act, it’s about which ones fit the particular part. The rest simply move on.

You may believe you don’t need an agent, and probably if you are just starting out, you don’t. But if you begin to sell regularly, or you finish a novel and are considering signing with a publisher, everything changes. Agents manage the things that are not writing. They understand contracts. They protect your rights. Just like when choosing a publisher, you need to do your research. Find agents who are active, communicative, and who are representing authors in your chosen genre who are successful. Read their guidelines. Spend time on your queries and submissions. Ask other authors for help or advice if you aren’t certain. It’s a community, more than it has been in a long time, and we need to curate that.

Publishing, books, and stories are entering a really important period. The world needs them, and there are myriad voices ready to fulfill that need. If it’s just a hobby for you, or you just want to hold that book in your hand with your name on it, that is a very honest, viable thing. But if you want writing to be your profession, or even your second profession, it requires thought, help, planning, and a good dose of patience. If you are an experienced author finding it difficult to get traction in this new paradigm, sit back and pay attention. Get back to the times you wrote, and wrote, and wrote and did not assume your place in the system was established. You are not owed anything. You have to earn every story, and every sale. Butts to chairs, fingers to the keyboard. Let’s change the world.

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About the Author

David Niall Wilson is a USA Today bestselling, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of more than forty novels and collections. He is a former president of the Horror Writers Association and CEO and founder of Crossroad Press Publishing.

His novels include This is My Blood, Deep Blue, and many more. Upcoming works include the collection The Devil’s in the Flaws & Other Dark Truths, and the novel Tattered Remnants. His most recent published work is the novel Jurassic Ark – a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story… with dinosaurs. David lives in way-out-yonder NC with his wife Patricia and an army of pets.

davidniallwilson.com
crossroadpress.com

Copyright ©2022 by David Niall Wilson.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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