Written by: Alan Baxter
Publishing has never been a straightforward business, but in the old days it was less confusing. The avenues to publication were restricted and everyone had to follow more or less the same procedure. The “gatekeepers” established the rules and we had no choice but to dance to their tune. These days, more opportunity than ever exists to get published, but more isn’t always better. More opportunity can be better if you arm yourself with knowledge. I’m certainly no expert – in all honesty, no one really knows all there is to know about publishing any more – but I do have a wide range of experience, spanning all kinds of deals over some fifteen years. My takeaway from it all? Hybrid is best.
I’d had some moderate success in the small press with my first two novels and with some short fiction in the early years of my career. I’d also dabbled in self-publishing, initially with my first novel, then that got picked up by a US-based small press, and I subsequently self-published a novella and a non-fiction book.
Then, in 2013, I signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins under the Voyager imprint here in Australia. That’s my “Big 5” legacy publisher series. Since then I’ve signed a variety of deals with a variety of publishers of differing size, most recently a third book deal with Grey Matter Press in the US. I plan to continue chasing Big 5 deals, I will continue to publish with the small press, and I have other self-publishing plans for the future too.
There are dangers and benefits of building a career with all these methods, but I think the biggest danger is building a career with only one of them.
As a caveat, this is of course all based on my personal experience and observing the business going on around me. Other people will have vastly differing experiences and opinions and they’re probably not wrong. I’ve screwed up and I’ve got lucky, as have many. It’s good to remember that old adage: If you can’t be a role model, be a warning to others. It’s always been a truth of publishing that there are no hard and fast right ways of doing anything. People have seen success and failure with a plethora of approaches.
What decisions should you make and why? Breaking into the Big 5 can be really hard. Staying in with the Big 5 can be equally hard! There are a literal metric fucktonne of publishers out there in the small to mid-sized indie playing field. Some of them are kicking goals and building fantastic author careers. Some of them… are not. Then there’s self-publishing with all its inherent problems and benefits.
So how do you figure out where to go with your precious word baby? It partly comes down to what you’re willing to do, and what you’re willing to accept. If you plan to hold out for the Big 5 deal no matter what, good for you. Best of luck! If you’re keen to be an entrepreneur and business-person as well as an author, self-publishing might rock your world. If you want your work out there but can’t crack the Big 5 and don’t want to do all the business and technical side, building a name in the small press might be the route for you. Over the years, as your career and your back catalogue builds, you might find yourself like me, with a finger in all those places.
When it comes down to it, the only thing that will give you a career is people talking about your work. That leads to people reading it and buying more and talking about it some more, and the feedback loop is under way. This is why I exhort people to always talk up books they’ve enjoyed. Word of mouth from enthusiastic readers is worth more than any marketing budget most of us will ever see. If you’re trying to get noticed in the online marketplace, that’s a sea of noise to navigate. You need other voices to amplify your own. A lot of books either aren’t noticed at all or they flare young and die, rather than bursting onto a scene and growing. All the books you know about are the ones which did well. All the others, and there are SO many, well, you don’t know about them, do you?
So really, any career in writing is about getting noticed. Think about the options, learn about the different paths you can take, and the pros and cons of them all, then make informed decisions that best suit you. You’ll make mistakes, but learn and move on. The only single truth of any publishing route is this: The successful ones didn’t quit.