Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Hope Do We Have? (an Indie Life post)

Those of you who have been around here for a while may have figured out that Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors. Her first book, The Sparrow, is on my "Of Significance..." page and is one of the three books I think everyone should read. I reviewed both A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day and will be reviewing Doc pretty soon here. The Sparrow has been optioned as a movie three times (once with Brad Pitt as the lead), but a screen play that satisfied both Russell and the potential producers has proven elusive. It also won several prestigious awards. Her latest novel, Doc, is in production as an HBO series.

Russell is a good writer. When I say "good," I don't just mean "good;" I mean she's an excellent writer. Her prose is wonderful; she researches her topics extensively; her characters are real. And, yet, except for hearing me talk about her here, most of you probably have never heard of her. And that's too bad, because she has deserved better than she's gotten.

See, Russell has been stuck as a mid-list author for a big publisher, Random House, since her first book. We all like to think that if you are with a big publisher that the big publisher is going to do things for you. Things like distribute your book and things like market your book. The publisher is going to make sure that people know you're out there, right? Well, not so much. As it turns out, the only people that get marketing dollars are the people that don't need the marketing dollars; everyone else is just quietly shuffled aside.

Let me give you a more specific example.

Russell was with Random House for 15 years and 5 books. During that time, none of her books were ever promoted. Nevertheless, her books made money. I say that they made money in that they (the publisher) made back its advance and  the books continued to profit. But they were never blockbusters. Then, in 2011, just before the release of Doc, Random House let Russell know that they were not interested in any further books by her, and they dropped any and all promotional activity on Doc. They gave her no reasons at all. They were just finished with her. [Of course, I have to wonder if it would have gone that way if they could have guessed about the HBO series, which didn't happen until after the release of the book.] As she says it, it was like having your spouse throw you a huge 25th wedding anniversary party and serving you divorce papers for dessert.

Russell is not an exception to business as usual; she is business as usual. At least for Random House.

If an author like Mary Doria Russell can be dropped by Random House as easily as one might drop a tissue into the trash, what hope do the rest of us have? Random House (and one can surmise the rest of the big publishers) is only looking for the "next big thing;" if you're not that, they don't want you. There is no more development of the mid-list author, no promotion of authors who aren't already big, no more time or space for anyone that is not grand slam. So what hope do we have?

Well, I'd say that our hope is not and, in many ways, should never have been in BIG publishing. Unless things change, the future of publishing is not with Random House and the other large publishing houses. The present, the right now, of publishing is barely with them, and it's moving away. Fast.

All of the things we used to need the publisher for are available elsewhere, now. Except getting our books into book stores, and, as it turns out, they're not all that good at that and, actually, never were. Here is some suggested reading on the subject.

My point, though, is this:
As writers, our hope does not lie in the big, traditional publishing houses. If you think you need them, they don't want you. If they want you, you don't need them, although you may not realize it. [E. L. James certainly didn't need them. Random House only wanted her because she was already a success; they did not make her one. They just tacked themselves onto the end of all the work she had previously done so that they could get a cut of the profits.] Writing and, by extension, getting your writing out to people is hard work. Random House and their ilk are not interested in doing the hard work, so you're going to have to do that yourself whether you're an "indie" or with a publisher. If you're going to have to do the work, why pay them to take your money?

Just sayin'.

The hope of authors, at least until something else comes along, is in building a community apart from the traditional publishers.

This post has been brought to you by Indie Life.


  1. Nice post. Sad, but real--as is the way of capitalism. I have never heard of Mary Doria Russell, but I plan on looking her up, so you my friend just paid some good information forward.

    I don't think social media is perfect, but I think it helps that people like you and writes in general have a place to talk and discuss that reaches the whole globe. I hope more writers/screenwriters/musicians/artists get noticed this way, rather than the juggernaut of big business. I know I am an idealist, but I can't help but dream. I like your post and your sentiment very much.

  2. Reading this makes me soooo happy that I didn't hold out for a big publisher in the end.

    I sort of came to the same realization while I queried.

    The way I see it, the big houses want risk free. And if my book is risk free, I might as well take out a loan and do everything myself.

  3. Andrew, this is a fab post. Like Misha said, you've lifted my spirits and upped my happiness and confidence in my decision to do my own thing, setting aside the obsession I had with traditional publishing.

    And I am now scooting to Amazon to look up Mary Doria Russell. Thanks for the tip!

  4. I'd heard big publishers only promoted their biggest books. I'm grateful my small publisher does what they do as far as promotions, because it doesn't sound like I'd get any more being with one of the bigger houses.

  5. Between this and L.Diane's book, I don't want a big publisher anymore. Of course, I need to finish the book...but the world is changing quickly. I'm glad we have Goodreads and other such sites, and that ebooks are becoming the norm. Yes, I like "real" books, but I can afford more and store more with my Kindle. Not to mention that my arthritic hands can hold it longer.
    Great stuff here, Andrew.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  6. It's good to know Random House does as much as my "publisher", ie nothing. Instead of agents and publishers, authors should just be looking for publicists because that's where it's won or lost for books these days, in who can get the word out to mobilize people to buy books. In a way it's like politics where you can make all the speeches and air all the commercials you want but at the end of the day it's who can get voters to the polls who wins.

  7. I would like to know how much money people are making in the Indie market. I've been curious about that for a while, but no one talks about it.

  8. Anne: Some indie authors are having success and talking about it, you just have to poke around quite a bit to find it. E.g. http://www.lindsayburoker.com/ - she's able to support herself full-time, though it doesn't sound like she's living a lavish life or anything, she's just doing what she loves. I've seen some polls here and there of indie authors who are making money, but you're right, there's no aggregated data. Suffice to say, though, it IS possible.

    Those of you who are going to check out Mary Doria Russell, she is also one of my favorite authors. Her writing is brilliant and beautiful and poignant, her characterizations are probably the best I've ever read. I have total writer's envy of her! I'd encourage anyone to check her out, unless they ONLY like super action-filled reading (she can do action, but her books are sometimes not a thrill a minute).

  9. Great reflective post on what traditional publishing means for authors.

  10. Jean: My biggest issue is that the treatment is just wrong. It's the kind of behavior I would scold my kids for if they did that to a friend.

    Misha: They do want risk free. But, even more than that, they want authors to pay them for the privilege of being published.

    Alyssia: You know, I really don't understand why so many people remain obsessed with traditional publishing. I get the validation thing, but still...

    Alex: You might actually get less.

    Tina: Now, if only so many e-books didn't cost more than their physical counterparts!

    PT: That's true.

    Anne: Last stats I saw showed that the indie authors were making more per year than traditionally published authors. On average.

    As Sarah says, Russell's books are completely character-centric and character driven. It's all about exploring them with some of the best writing I've ever read.

    Michael: I'm not really sure what you mean by that unless you mean that traditional publishing doesn't mean anything for authors.

  11. Excellent post and a wake-up call for those of us who hope for that too-good-to-be-true book deal. Sad that writers work that hard only to be thrown aside because they're not selling millions of books.

    It saddened me the day I woke up to the fact that no matter how well-written a book, no publisher is going to buy it if they think it won't be a mega-selling crowd pleaser.

  12. Yeah, most people are fairly shocked when they hear big publishers don't market most of their books. I've heard a similar story about an S&S author, but she wasn't content to let their lack of marketing efforts affect her book. She took it upon herself to market her book and has succeeded in selling half a million copies. So in the end, if you're going to do 99% of the marketing, then you might as well opt for another way to publish.

  13. Sad that traditional publishers treat their authours this way but writers need to be vigilant and do research. Also sometimes a small publisher is better than a big one.

  14. I have an author friend who's books I love, her name is Glenda Larke and she is Australian, she has published three trilogies and a singleton, but she had the devil's own job finding a publisher this time because her last book "didn't sell well" maybe because the publishers didn't push it well. Her books are great but I guess she is like Russel in that she doesn't get pushed by her publisher.


  15. I wish to be a voice of mild dissent here. My question is, would you have heard of Russell at all if Random House hadn't published her? Would HBO have taken her work up for a series? Is there any precedent for television to be made from an indie book?

    It is early days for indie publishing yet. I am sure that movie rights and tv series are coming down the pipe for indie writers. I just don't think a 100% indie route is ideal for everybody, nor is it necessary for anybody. We can all choose to mix and match, or not.

    But Chuck Wendig, who published both traditionally and independently, makes this argument much better than I do.

  16. J.L.: Yeah, it used to be a feather in a publisher's hat to have award-winning authors even if they weren't mega-sellers. They don't care about that stuff anymore.

    Cherie: Exactly. If they're going to make me do the work anyway, why should they profit from that?

    Sheena: Small publishers are spotty at best. There may be good ones out there, but most of them are just trying to cash-in in the same way as the big publishers.

    Jo: If she's out pushing herself getting herself known, it's unlikely that she's going to sell well.

    Elizabeth: Yeah, actually, I would have, because I heard about her word of mouth and have never seen her books in B&N or anywhere like that.
    And I get that traditional publishers may be the right direction for some people, BUT... well, there are too many buts. My point is that you can't actually trust a big publisher to keep you even if you're making money for them. If you can't trust your publisher to stand by you, what good are they?

  17. You are so right. Good post!

    Hugs and chocolate,

  18. Here, here! (Or is it hear, hear? Now I'm just confusing myself.)

    I have to agree that it's word of mouth that sells books, and since publishers don't even bother marketing most of their authors, the authors might as well cut out the publisher and keep all the money they earned.

    Publishing is a business and I don't fault the publishers for trying to make money, I simply think their methods are no longer advantageous for most authors. Maybe publishers will adapt and maybe they won't, but I've grown rather fond of being indie, anyway. I don't think I could easily give up the control I have now. I mean, just hand over my book and have no control over what it's titled, what the cover is, or how it's marketed? No, thank you.

  19. shelly: Thanks!

    Jennifer: (It's "Hear, hear!" As in "Hear what I have to say.")

    I get the making money part, so I would understand dropping authors that aren't pulling a profit, assuming the publisher has done its job of marketing the book (a big assumption); however, dropping a profitable author because she isn't bringing in enough money is just ridiculous.

  20. Man, scary, and crappy that they did that to her. Hopefully, she continues to find success on her own.

    Also, when you posted about how to be a werewolf, I hadn't heard of drinking the water out of the footprint before. I've now seen that a second time on the Netflix original show Hemlock Grove. Good stuff!

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  21. Great post.

    I think I'm going to have to check out The Sparrow. It sounds interesting.

    Anne: Here's a list of over 170 authors who have sold over 50,000 self published ebooks as of a year ago. It would probably be significantly longer if it were updated for this year:


  22. I've learned to embrace the Indie lifestyle. It has worked for me. If a Big House publisher picks me up then great! But I can go it alone and still be successful.

  23. I don't think we have to tell you our feelings regarding Random House.

    It's just nice to know that we're selling more books now with our blog and our networking and our marketing skills than we ever would have if we had signed with Random House without yet having any of those tools.

  24. Great post, Andrew. I've been surprised to see writer friends continue to cling to the dream of being escorted through that shiny gateway that is BIG publishing…and in the meantime, they could be making money with great books they already have written. GREAT books. I don't understand the waiting if you have a GREAT book. Really.

  25. Traditional publishing is an important option for those who want to have someone else do all the hard work (cover art, editing, formatting, etc). But more and more those things are being pushed back on the author anyway.

    Authors are being asked to do their own research for stock photos, hire their own editors, do their own marketing. If you're going to spend 500 hours for a 5% share, why not spend that 500 hours for yourself?

    Elizabeth, movie rights are part of marketing. I know several very successful indie authors who have made movie sales. The fact just isn't screamed from the housetops.

  26. It seems like a lot of traditional publishers and agents these days are out of touch with what the public wants to read, and with how many writers feel about the process of writing. I've decided on indie or e-publishing rather than try to find an agent and then wait like 10 years to be deemed "worthy" of publishing one of my superlong books, after already sitting on so many manuscripts for over a decade.

    There are so many classic books that would've had a hard time finding a publisher these days, because they were outside of too many genre lines, didn't stay in one age-based category the entire story, or were longer or shorter than some supposed "word count" standard.

  27. Shannon: She does have a new publisher for her next novel, which is actually a sequel to Doc.

    I haven't seen Hemlock Grove, yet.

    Sarah Mc: It's a great book.

    Stephen: It would have to be a pretty spectacular offer from a publisher to get me to sign on with one.

    ABftS: Can I borrow your networking and marketing skills?

    J.R.: Yeah, I really don't understand it. I know it's about the validation of having them say "you're good enough," but I still don't understand it.

    Lauren: Well, yeah, if the big houses were still offering those services, it would make sense, but they're really not offering those services to first-timers anymore, so what's the point?

    Carrie-Anne: Some of my favorite books would never have been published, which I've talked about before. Some of them (The Hobbit) were barely published as it is.

  28. Great points Andrew. It's a whole new world for authors these days.

  29. Maurice: It is... a wide, open world.

  30. I am on a Kindle so this will be short. I contributed an essay to a book coming out in the fall on this topic. If you like to write, write. And if you are a writer, read other writers. Comment on their posts. Review their books (and buy them.) Tell everyone you know about everyone you know.

    I write because I like to tell stories. It's nice to make a bit of money doing it. But I have many times in my life given up the promise of more money in exchange for the certainty of enjoying what I am doing, and as a result I am happy, if not rich.

    Writing to get published -- doing anything solely for the money it brings in-- is like looking up at the night sky solely for navigation: you may get where you are headed, but you will miss all the beauty and wonder of the journey.

  31. Briane: I like that last bit. It's like that part of the beginning of Men in Black.

  32. So true! I think the publishers do what they need to do for the least amount of money. When it doesn't look like they will get what they want, they're outta there. I do think they put in the required "work," however, when they find a piece that allows them to "work smarter, not harder," as in, some sort of "hook."

  33. Kristen: See, for them, I don't think it's working "smarter;" it's just... greed. Sure, it's "smart" to hook onto something like 50 Shades and make pocketfuls of free cash, but it's not something that's going to help them in the long run.