Why I like the “gatekeepers” of book publishing

So while I was going through the Great Uncertainty over the past two months — the will-they-or-won’t-they of the Skyhorse/Night Shade deal — a few folks opined that I should just grab my rights and self-publish The Daedalus Incident on my own. Some were simply being encouraging and wanted to see the book published somehow and anyhow.

But there were a few ready to raise the tricolor over the battlements and sing out in defiance of traditional publishing. Why did I even go down the traditional publishing route, bowing in subservience to the Great Capitalist Machine instead of embracing both Art and Personal Freedom by self-publishing? Surely, the Night Shade near-debacle was a warning sign of the Terror to come.

Obviously, I’m being somewhat snarky here, not to mention a bit too referential of Les Miserables. And in fact, I’m not anti-self-publishing at all. As you may see in the weeks and months ahead, I personally believe a hybrid model of traditional and self-publishing may serve myself and other authors quite well.

But I did go the traditional route for my debut, The Daedalus Incident, and I actually liked working my way through the “gatekeepers” of the publishing business. Here’s why.

There are a lot of self-published titles out there — more than 200,000 in 2011 alone, the last reasonably accurate figures I could Google, and those were just the ones that bothered to get IBSNs. And while there were 17 self-published titles on the 2012 Top 100 Kindle sales list, they were nearly all romance titles.

Now, surf on over to io9.com, Locus, Tor.com, Fantasy Faction or whatever your favorite source of SF/F literature news and reviews happens to be. Find a review of a self-published debut SF/F author, or news about a pending release from such an author. Go ahead…I’ll wait. It’ll be a while. Rightly or wrongly, self-published SF/F authors have a very hard time breaking out from the pack. Only Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking come to mind as very successful SF/F authors who got their start via self-publishing.

Well, OK…but hey, you might publish less, but you get to keep more, right? Isn’t that worth something?

Sorry, but I’m fairly certain that the math won’t work in my case. Let’s say I self-pubbed The Daedalus Incident and sold, oh, 500 copies at $8 each. That would qualify it as a modest success in self-publishing terms. Now, Amazon’s gonna grab $2.40 of that, leaving me with $5.60 each, or $2,800. Less art and editing costs of, say $1,000, and that leaves me with a net of $1,800.

Given that I was able to join SFWA, which requires a minimum $2,000 novel sale for membership, you can figure out easily that I’m already ahead of the game in traditional publishing…even before the book’s out.

Of course, there’s no guarantee I’ll sell more than 500 copies of Daedalus now, even with Skyhorse behind me. Except…let’s go back to that search I talked about earlier. Now search each of those sites for the title of my book. If you don’t feel like doing that, just click on the media tab above.

Because I ran through the gauntlet of agents and publishers, acquiring one of each successfully, people listened to me and paid attention to my book. Library Journal would not have reviewed a self-published title, but because Night Shade sent them a copy, they reviewed mine…and gave it a starred review. A more established author told me that pretty much guaranteed a heap of sales from libraries alone. Fantasy Faction and Tor.com wouldn’t have reviewed Daedalus as a self-published title, either.

You’re going to see a lot more media coming out in the weeks and months ahead, now that the Night Shade deal is completed. Yes, I hustled to get that, but if I was self-publishing Daedalus, how many of these outlets would’ve listened? In fact, I would venture to say that the Night Shade/Skyhorse delay will actually benefit my book in the long run. Skyhorse’s decision to include my quote in its press release announcing the sale closure led to the single biggest week of traffic this site has ever seen, and my Amazon pre-order numbers climbed noticeably as well.

Again, rightly or not, fairly or unfairly, the books that go through the traditional publishing process get noticed. That’s because professional agents and publishers — people who judge books for a living — find books to be worthy of their time and financial backing. Anybody with a couple hundred bucks and time on their hands can put a book out on Amazon, but a book has to have a baseline of competency to be published traditionally.

As someone who wants to be successful in the business of being an author, this is important. It’s not how much I’ll make on the sale of each book, but how many people will hear about it, see it on shelves, read about it on their favorite sites, and pull the trigger to buy it. And as someone who wants to be successful in the art of being an author, going the traditional route has garnered me reviews (and positive ones) from some major reviewers, and brought my writing to more people.

I’m not looking to be a breakout author here, though that would be nice. I’m just looking to place my book in as many hands as possible, both for business and artistic reasons. And as a first-timer, I think traditional publishing’s gatekeepers did that for me admirably. I’ve gotten far more traction than I would have self-publishing, and the results of my foray into fiction will be more readily apparent, and sooner, than if I had self published.

In the (possibly near) future, I may embrace a hybrid model of publishing, in which I’ll write novels and other major works for traditional publishers, and self-publish much smaller works on my own for whatever fan-base I acquire. But for my debut, I’m very happy I went the traditional route, because frankly…we wouldn’t be here talking about great reviews and release dates and seeing my name on press releases.

For all the kerfuffle around the Skyhorse/Night Shade deal, I wouldn’t have it any other way.



Filed under Books, Publishing

10 responses to “Why I like the “gatekeepers” of book publishing

  1. Really well put, Michael, and I agree with you on all counts!

    • Thanks! I recognize not everyone would agree here. I admire folks who self-publish and have a lot of success, especially if the traditional system failed to see the good in their work. The system isn’t perfect. But I’m still glad I went through it successfully.

  2. I’m a supporter of the hybrid approach, but I must take exception to something: you don’t see us on io9 or tor.com or wherever because no one will review us. I have a book with 145 reviews on Goodreads and an above-4 average both there and on Amazon, but few review sites will take a look. I’m locked out.

    I understand the New Slushpile outlook. Nevertheless, there are also New Gatekeepers, aka readers. They’re the people who pushed Hocking and Howey (outliers in any paradigm) so high the rest of the industry HAD to take notice. That shouldn’t be what it takes to get a book reviewed.

    • I agree that there are great self-published books out there. And I do think books that are successfully self-published should garner more attention. Your book may be quite good, but you’re feeling ignored by reviewers. That’s possibly because reviewers have been approached with a lot of sub-par self-published work, and they trust the agents and publishers to produce work of a baseline quality.

      The system isn’t perfect. I think we’ll all agree there. Good works are ignored. But there’s just a ton of self-pubbed work out there…it’s hard for even the most dedicated reviewer to even find it all, let alone read and review it.

      • Then trust the readers. Allow consideration of books which garner a certain amount of positive feedback, especially on the much more brutal Goodreads. You can’t take out an ad on Bookbub if you don’t meet that criterion, for example, which is why readers respond to ads there. I don’t have 145 friends, or enough money to buy them. 🙂

      • I agree with you, for what it’s worth. I don’t know if that will change anything, but I agree….!

        I know that there are folks in SFWA looking to open up membership to self-published authors, though we’ve not set any criteria or anything. Personally, I feel like any author with 1,000 unit sales on a given work ought to qualify. But that’s just my opinion. We’ll see what happens.

  3. One more thing: your net would be $1800 the first year. After that, assuming static sales, $2800.

  4. As someone who reviews books myself, I’ll say there’s a definite reputation for specific publishers – and that’s not just limited to excluding self-publishers. Some publishers (and their publicists) are easier to work with than others, and some just have better books for my audience. There are also many self-published books I’d never recommend on my site or on my Goodreads because of the editorial quality, which is much higher from traditional publishers. Self-publishing is also a lot more work, and if you don’t have the time to commit, it’s not always a wise choice.

  5. One aspect of “gate-keeping” that pisses people off — is that it raises the bar. Yes, it does. When you seek an agent (I’ve had five and two NF books commercially published) and an editor/publisher, you are asking seasoned professionals with established reputations and networks to put their rep’s on the line for you. Every book is a gamble! So having fresh/tough/critical eyes on your ideas and work is not a bad thing. It may hurt. My last proposal was roundly rejected, both annoying and a big waste of my time. It happens. It’s how the game is played. Learn the rules, step up and no whining!

  6. Getting an agent and being in receipt of some pragmatic tough feedback meant that I improved as a writer, I want the structure of that to help me develop as a writer and make better books and the cachet of a book published by a company that has invested in me and my stories. Thank you for saying this.

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