Friday, November 13, 2009

If No Publisher Wants Your Story, What’s An Author to Do?

So you’ve written a science fiction romance. You’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into perfecting the manuscript. Your premise is strong; your query shines. Once you bestow a final spit and polish, you submit it to agents. Then, you start to notice a certain pattern:

Every agent rejects it (maybe you even garnered some personal rejections).

You send it to mainstream print publishers that accept unagented submissions.

Every one of them rejects it.

You make the rounds at small press/digital publishers.

Every one of them rejects it.

Now a heart-wrenching choice must be made: shelve the manuscript for another time, perhaps when the market is more favorable? Or are you doomed to locking it away in the dark recesses of a trunk, never to see the light of day again?

Typically, authors in this situation are stuck with having to shelve a story until a more fruitful time, one which may or may not come. These days, however, the digital landscape seems to be creating a niche for content avidly sought by readers with a voracious need to read in a digital medium. A highly motivated author can take advantage of such an opportunity with the right tools and a quality product.

Many stories truly don’t warrant a publishing contract. Many manuscripts are deemed “unpublishable” for a reason. But not all: check out this First Sale story at Dear Author. The moral of the story is that on occasion, the publishing gurus will be wrong.

Unfortunately, there are solid and even great stories out there that will never be sold in a bookstore near you or me if an author relies on traditional methods of publication. But self-publishing has a huge stigma. Many readers aren’t inclined to purchase a story that doesn’t seem to have been vetted in any way. It can be difficult to judge a self-published work, especially without stellar buzz (not to mention an excerpt to sample or facts to Google). And even with excerpts available, a perusal of the first page will tell a reader all she has to know.

However, I think the scenario might also depend on who is doing the self-publishing, and in what context. Many niche genres develop tight-knit communities among readers and authors. If an author with a quality product were to be an active part of such a community, might that alter our perception of the author’s work? Might we be more willing to take a chance on such an author?

In other words, if such an author demonstrated proof in other ways of her ability to write and entertain, such as a platform, blogging, tweeting, articles, etc., and became a known entity in said community, might that be a decent predictor of her storytelling ability?

Let’s entertain the idea for a moment that a number of authors are making books available to the community. If readers are the ones deciding on which books succeed and which fail to profit, this dynamic could even approach the equivalent of a publisher endorsement/validation of the authors work. Few readers will read poor quality books, even for free, hence, the readers would become the gatekeepers (albeit on a much smaller scale than traditional publishing). For established authors dropped by publishers, such a strategy could mean connecting future books directly with the consumers.

Again, let’s underscore the importance that an author must deliver the goods regardless of platform, and still, the platform must be an effective one with a wide reach. She also has to be realistic about the results. Do science fiction romance authors (especially aspiring ones) have the goods to bypass publishers? More importantly, without standard distribution channels, have they established the readership to support the necessary sales? There’d also be certain unavoidable costs such as for cover art and possibly freelance editing.

Authors have choices, but they aren’t easy.

But consider the profit margin of such a venture. Some are concerned that with Big Name Retailers slashing the prices of hardcover and bestselling books, publishers and authors will suffer financially. But in response to Options in the Price War Over Books, Mark McElroy notes that:

“Actually, this could *increase* royalties and income for one class of writers: those who take advantage of the latest advances in technology and publish their work for themselves. 55-60% of $9.99 is greater than 10-15% of $25.00. With digital tech making self-publication and self-promotion an increasingly viable option (especially for niche authors), I think publishers need to be re-evaluating their position in the information-supply chain.” [emphasis mine] (Link via Dear Author)

And this from Nathan Bransford:

“Meanwhile, Mike Shatzkin surveys the landscape and considers the implications of a gradual publishing transition to smaller print runs and greater electronic market shareThe winners according to Shatzkin? Agents and the top 500 authors, who will be able to sell e-books directly because of their personal brands.” [emphasis mine]

Hmm…there’s that word “brand” again.

Some are questioning if all authors will even need an agent if they are pursuing publication using an alternate/digital publishing model. Under this type of model, an author could upload stories to the Kindle (because, as you may recall, “Kindle readers purchase more books than most heavy book purchasers). Or she could give Smashwords a try. Some sites will even assist with e-book conversion and distribution.

An author could build a strong Web presence and sell ebooks through her site (giving some away for free is an optional loss leader strategy). Tools like videos and MP3 downloads can further help her connect with readers. A competitive pricing structure might also help, say, $2.99 or even $1.99 for novel length works. Potentially, a reader could end up with a story for $1.99 that’s worth $7.99 in the traditional market, and the author’s profit margin is potentially—please note I said potentially—higher than if she accepted an average boilerplate contract.

Now, I can’t stress enough that this avenue isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. It’s merely one of many different paths to publication. The endeavor would involve astronomical amounts of work, possibly over the course of many years, to reach a point where it would be financially viable. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. But for a few science fiction romance authors, it may open doors previously closed.

Joyfully yours,