by Ryan J. Doughan
Why Indie Publishing?
With the release of my debut novel, Mist Falcon, I’ve been asked why I decided to indie publish. Inherent in the undertone of this question lies a second question, perhaps more to the point: was my book not good enough to be “really” published? Couldn’t you find a traditional publisher to work with?
In truth, I didn’t look for a traditional publisher to publish my book. I have been a part of the business world in several different arenas over the last decade (I know that makes me sound old; it makes me feel old too). In that time, I haven’t seen an industry that has changed and is changing quite as much or as quickly as the publishing industry.
First, a bit of background knowledge—hang with me; I’ll get to indie publishing in a minute. I worked for a printing company for a couple of years right out of college. There were two main types of printing we did–offset printing and digital printing. Offset does just what its name implies. It offsets the per piece cost of a printed document (books, flyers, etc…) by printing a bunch of them. Digital printing, on the other hand, functions much like a super laser printer. In part, because you are using toner instead of plates for printing, your per piece cost remains fairly universal.
For years and years, the only option for printing was offset printing since digital hadn’t been invented yet. The publication of a book was a pricy endeavor. Someone had to put up the funds to print the books before they could sell. Thus enters the traditional publishing’s birth place. The author would partner with the larger and more financially sturdy company. The publisher would front the cost of printing and binding the book, along with offering editorial services and the like. For this, the publisher took a larger percentage of sales and profits. It was, and is, essentially a business partnership between two entities. At the time, this seemed the best and only route for book production.
In many cases, blockbuster books and large quantity printing, it still makes the most sense to print 10,000, 20,000, 100,000, or more copies of a specific title from the get go. If the demand is there, it is simply more cost effective to print offset. However, upon the arrival of the digital press, the game changed. With the per cost printing of a book remaining the same, a book can be sold one at a time without the upfront cost and inventory of thousands of books.
This doesn’t even take into consideration the discussion of ebooks that have started taking the publishing world by storm over the last several years. Other than the upfront cost, and extremely minimal delivery fee, the production cost of ebooks drops for all intents and purposes to zero. We are then left with a publishing environment where fresh, unknown authors are expected to build their own author’s platform through websites, blogs, facebook, twitter, and other social media. These new authors are then given next to no marketing through a publisher since they are untried. Tell me, in this situation, what purpose does the publisher play when they have no production costs?
This last was a question I wrestled with for some time. The answers I came up with are this. A publisher offers some services: editing, formatting, book cover design, etc… More than that, a publisher offers their stamp of approval to an author and their book. The first of these is easily resolved since there are any number of companies, that have grown out of the changing environment of the publishing world, that offer these services exactly. The second one is the larger of the two.
For years, literary agencies, and then the publishing companies themselves, have functioned as the gatekeepers, deciding what was good enough for publication or not. I don’t mean to demonize publishing companies in anyway with this. There are a finite number of books any company can produce, and more than that, as I stated before, authors and publishers function in a business partnership. Assuming you want to make money and stay in business, you’re only going to go into business with someone whose products you believe will sell.
Just the same, it is incredibly difficult for a fresh author who is published with a large traditional publisher to make it past the first six months on the bookstore’s shelves. As Hugh Howey puts in in his article My Advice to Aspiring Authors, “Working at a bookstore was a dream job but also a sad job. I saw how books sat spine-out on a shelf for six months, were returned, went out of print. That’s a narrow window in which to be discovered…The vast majority of books traditionally published never earn out their advance. They go out of print. They are now dead.”
If an author doesn’t make a magical splash in their first few months, their book is dead, and what’s worse, at that point they don’t even own the rights to their book to pick up the shattered pieces and try again. They signed away those rights with the heaven-sent book contract that they so fervently sought. An indie published book stays in print forever. You don’t have to worry about the publisher cutting their losses if you haven’t been fully discovered immediately.
Howey goes on to argue that the stigma of indie publishing is gone. I don’t know if I’d go that far. After all, I’m still writing this article. But it is true that traditional publishing companies have started mining the indie published books to try and partner with a launch on a grander scale.
I think that we will see a publishing world in which indie publishing may be the new first step in publication. In many cases, it may be the only step, but for some there may be an additional movement to large existing imprints.
In a lot of ways, the publishing gates have been blown off their hinges. This is fantastic in some ways and less so in others. It means an author has a far easier time to bring their work to market. It also means that the market is saturated with new titles, some of them mindless drivel being produced and published. There are fewer eyes on many works being produced which can mean less quality. It can mean that, it doesn’t primarily mean that. The quality of a work does not change with the stamp of a big five publisher emblazoned on the spine and title page. The words of the story don’t shift to or away from earth shattering. They remain just as they were.
It may mean we the consumers of fiction have to watch closer what we purchase from Amazon, but there are terrible books put out from big name publishers in equal proportion to those indie published.
I’ve digressed a bit from the question at hand, and as I do, I’ve become long winded. I’ll try to sum up. Why, Ryan, did you indie publish?
In truth, I’m an entrepreneur—not a big fan of signing away my rights to anything. The opportunity is just too great in the current publishing arena for me to give the rights of my book to another company when they aren’t offering a whole lot in exchange. This is not to say I wouldn’t be interested in working with a traditional publisher in the future.
As I said, I think offset printing with a traditional publisher makes the most sense when dealing in huge volume, but if I make that switch I’d like to enter a partnership from a position of strength and not as a beggar. Right now, I’m a small business. I’d love to grow into a large business, but for now, I’d like to take full advantage of the maneuverability that being small offers.
That’s the long and the short of it. I’ve had some great excitement and success with the launch of Mist Falcon, and I’m stoked to continue.
Guest post contributed by Ryan J. Doughan. Ryan grew up on a steady diet of Narnia and Middle Earth and quickly fell in love with the magic of fiction. This love of stories led him to Northwestern College where he received an English degree in Writing.