Just a week before Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) national conference, Julie Ortolon asked a question on her blog that got people talking. Pitching to Agents and Editors in the ebook Age: Should You or Shouldn’t You?
There is a lot of information being batted around right now about authors self-publishing, and I thought it would be interesting to sit down with a few that have tried both self-publishing and the more traditional route and get their thoughts on both.
First, let’s introduce everyone.
- Kathryn Shay: Hi, all. Kathryn Shay here. I’ve been published since 1995 with Harlequin, Berkley and Bold Strokes Books. I have 37 titles out in print, and more than 5 million copies of those books were sold to readers. I have 15 self-published books, four of which are original work. I’ve won five RT Book Reviews awards, four Golden Quills, four Holt Medallions, the Bookseller’s Best Award and several “Starred Reviews.” My work has been serialized in COSMOPOLITAN magazine and featured in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and PEOPLE magazine. I write gritty, emotional stories with flawed characters.
- Beth Orsoff: Hi everyone. I think I’m on the opposite end from Kathryn. To date I’ve only written four novels. The first, “Romantically Challenged,” was traditionally published by Penguin/NAL in 2006. When the rights reverted to me in 2010, I self-published that title myself as an ebook. Later in the year I self-published two other ebooks that had never been traditionally published.
- Doranna Durgin: I first published in ‘94 with the fantasy Dun Lady’s Jess, which won the Compton Crook for best first SF/F/H of the year. From fantasy I branched out into media tie-ins, romance (action-romance and paranormal), and mystery. I’m in the process of self-publishing my backlist–the fantasies, mainly, along with two of the action-romance books, while the mysteries are being handled by a small press. I intend to work on originals, too, and am mid-way through getting my short stories released. In other words, I’ve had a lot of experience across genres, no backlist support anywhere, and no truly happy publishing home.
- Patricia Ryan/P.B. Ryan: Hi, all! I’ve written 27 novels, a dozen of which I published as ebooks after getting the rights back from my publishers. My medieval romances have won the RITA and Romantic Times Reviewers Choice awards, and the first book of my Nell Sweeney historical mystery series, written as P.B. Ryan, was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. I’m thinking about writing another mystery series, which I might very well publish myself. 🙂
- Julie Ortolon: I have nine single-title contemporary romances under my belt, published by Random House, St. Martin’s Press, and NAL’s Signet Eclipse. Two of my titles have hit the USA Today bestseller list and I’ve won numerous awards including two Bookseller’s Best. My title Almost Perfect was both a Rita Finalist and a top pick by the readers of Affaire de Coeur Magazine.
Okay, let’s dive right in. Everyone here is both traditionally published and has tried self-publishing. How does self-publishing compare for you to your traditional publishing experience?
- Kathryn Shay: For me, self publishing is a lot easier, and more lucrative, than traditional publishing. I’m thrilled so many of my earlier books are getting readers (over 38,000 people have downloaded AFTER THE FIRE, which just went free on Amazon). And in some ways, writing is more enjoyable for me because I get to write about what I want and write the way I want to. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed working with editors in many respects. But I’d rather have control of the content and style of my work.
- Beth Orsoff: I’ve had much more success self-publishing than I did as a traditionally published author. I’ve sold many more books, earned ten times as much money, and I’m able to write what I want instead of what an agent or editor thinks will sell.
- Patricia Ryan: Self-publishing has been a revelation for me! I love having control over the packaging and distribution of my books, and the high royalties, paid monthly, provide a steady income, something writers rarely get to enjoy.
- Julie Ortolon: No comparision. I love everything about self-publishing. The freedom, the lack of stress, the control. That said, writing under contract for major print publishers was a great training ground. Succeeding at self publishing without that experience would probably be harder for me. Writing for a publisher taught me to think about the whole picture: the marketing, packaging, target audience. Working with editors and copy editors really helped me hone my craft. Does that mean I couldn’t succeed in self-publishing today if I were just starting out and hadn’t had that training ground? No. But writers who choose self-publishing need to know it’s not a short cut or easy out. You gotta put in the work. Sloppy craft just won’t cut it.
- Doranna Durgin: I’m not an instant lucrative success in self-publishing, but I know why–and I think it’s important to factor such things when making career decisions. For starters, my ability to focus on getting the books out has been severely fractured by real life, and that’s critically important. (Doesn’t mean I’d rocket to success otherwise, just that the odds are highly stacked against.) My epubbed books so far also reflect my eclectic career, so there’s been no momentum in any single genre. However, that being said, it’s still been a revelation. It’s brought a trickle of pocket money, a transparent sales process, and the sudden surge of creative delight–the anticipation of going back to those proposals that didn’t suit the market but which might well suit readers. I learned the industry ropes in traditional publishing and feel that was critical; I’m still involved with that–and want to be. But having the option to do my own thing, with regular payment (do you know, I waited a year to be paid on the most recent book?)–well, the infusion of hope and creative energy has been tremendous.
Do you feel your success in self-publishing is due to your “name” created by your traditional publishing history?
- Kathryn Shay: Yes, I do. I had fans who were waiting for a new Kathryn Shay book and many of them got my sales started. Since I’ve been in the business, people know my name when they see my books and buy them. And having a very popular firefighter trilogy makes way for a fourth book about firefighters in the same setting. Lots of people have asked for follow-ups to. But my new work is selling well, too.
- Beth Orsoff: Definitely not since I’m quite sure no one knew my name from traditional publishing. Many of the most successful self-published authors were not traditionally published (or if they were, were not successful at it) and had no name recognition before they started self-publishing.
- Patricia Ryan: I think my name helped me to a modest extent, because there was some buzz when the Nell Sweeney mysteries first appeared as ebooks last summer. But those books are selling much better as ebooks than they ever did as mass market paperbacks!
- Julie Ortolon: I’m right there with Pat. I think my name recognition from my print career helped a little, but no, I don’t think that’s why I’m succeeding so well self-publishing my backlist (with new stories on the way). Fans of my print books already own them, so they’re not the ones buying those same titles as ebooks. The ebooks are bringing me a whole new audience. From the fan mail I’m getting, these readers never heard my name before they tried one of my e-titles. Then they went out and bought the rest. It’s the writing, not the name, that helps an author win with ebooks.
- Doranna Durgin: I think my experience in the industry has made a big difference. My name, much less so–and ditto my publisher history. For instance, I put out a stand-alone book in my Hunter Agency series (formerly of Silhouette Bombshell) and I find that markets better without any reference to its history. That tells me I’m working with a different audience.
Do you see a career without traditional publishing in it as a viable option?
- Kathryn Shay: I don’t think so. I believe traditional publishing will adjust to this new publishing model.
- Beth Orsoff: I doubt I will traditionally publish again because I doubt I would be offered a contract where I could make as much money with a traditional publisher as I could self-publishing. That said, I don’t think traditional publishing is going away. James Patterson, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and others of that ilk are likely not going to start self-publishing their books, although they could and would surely make lots of money at it.
- Patricia Ryan: If a “legacy” publisher offered me genuinely fair ebook royalties, I would consider it, but I don’t expect that to happen. I think it’s very possible I’ll be happily self-published going forward.
- Julie Ortolon: I definitely see self-publishing as a viable option for me. In fact, I can’t imagine signing with a traditional print publisher at this time. Not unless they change the “industry standard” they are currently offering (25% of net). I’m making more money while enjoying more freedom, more control, and less stress. That, however, is the choice that’s right for me. For some authors, a traditional publisher is still the better choice, but the issue is too complex for any easy answer.
- Doranna Durgin: It depends–things are changing so fast. At this moment? No; traditional publishing is part of my plan. But traditional publishing needs to grow if it wants to meet my needs in the long term. It’s a matter of balancing the pros and cons of each, and doing it constantly. Ask me again in 6 months, and my answer might be different. (When I look back six months, the changes–!)
What do you think is the biggest “myth” about traditional publishing?
- Kathryn Shay: That once you sell a book you’ve “made it.”
- Beth Orsoff: What Kathryn said. One book sale to a traditional publisher doesn’t mean you can sell another book to a traditional publisher. And even if you do, with advances being what they are these days, you could sell multiple books to a traditional publisher and still have to keep the day job.
- Patricia Ryan: I think the biggest myth is that publishers will promote your books. Publishers do little or nothing to promote the books of midlist authors. They encourage those authors to self-promote, which takes time and costs money.
- Julie Ortolon: All of the above. People think once you’ve sold that first book, you’ve “made it.” No. Selling that first book is akin to being Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz dropped down in a strange new land. You’ve survived the tornado that got you there, but you’re only at the beginning of the yellow brick road. Like Dorothy, after you travel that road and face all the challenges, at some point you discover the Great Oz is really just an ordinary person who might not be any smarter than you about how to make your story succeed. And they darn sure don’t care about your story as much as you do. Bottom line: signing a print contract is no guarantee your book will succeed. But then, going it alone is no guarantee either. Hard work, good writing, and some marketing savvy are what make any story succeed, whether you’re doing it all on your own, or signing with a publisher who will actually get you some distribution.
- Doranna Durgin: Shoot. This is where I get to say, “What they said.” That and…publishers are not your friends. Your editor may or may not become your friend, but publishers are about business, and they’ll make unemotional decisions that are in their best interests, regardless of what it means for you. In the big picture, that might be obvious, but it’s a pervasive attitude that insinuates itself through the process. They’ll also do whatever they can get away with–meaning undesirable contract terms, late payments, late editing, and production chores that go undone until suddenly your next step lands on your desk with a blithe request for an emergency turn-around–regardless of what’s going on in your life. And intensely overworked editors, no matter how you adore them, can’t always insulate you from these things. So, yeah. Publishers aren’t your BFF–and they shouldn’t be. But right now it feels like there’s also a certain amount of necessary respect missing.
What about self-publishing? What is the biggest myth there?
- Kathryn Shay: That ninety percent of the books being self-published are dreck. I’ve never written, nor will I ever write dreck.
- Beth Orsoff: That self-publishing is some type of get rich quick scheme where you’re going to upload your book and instantly be earning a six-figure salary. It’s just as hard to be successful as a self-published author as it is as a traditionally published author. The difference is, if you’re successful self-publishing you might actually be able to make a living at it.
- Patricia Ryan: I’ll go back to the subject of promotion. Some people think if you self-publish, you’re going to have to spend more time promoting your work than if a traditional publisher puts out your book. As I said before, publishers don’t promote midlist books, so unless you’re a major lead author, you’ll be spending the same time, energy, and money on promotion either way.
- Julie Ortolon: That the only reason an author would “choose to” (aka “be lowered to”) self-publish a manuscript is because it wasn’t “good enough” to sell to a print publisher. SO not true! For a novel to be profitable to a print publisher, the number of copies it has to sell is in the hundreds of thousands. For an ebook to be profitable to an author, it only has to sell tens of thousands. That means that a print publisher’s #1 question when considering a manuscript isn’t the quality of the writing, It’s the broadness of the audience. Brilliantly written stories get rejected all the time because the major print publishers don’t perceive them as having blockbuster potential. That has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Those same stories can be hugely successful and profitable for the author if put out as an ebook. The big winner in all of this isn’t just the authors, it’s the readers. Ebooks equal variety.
- Doranna Durgin: I think the biggest myth–and one that I don’t want to propagate in spite of my eager embrace of self e-publishing–is that anyone can do it successfully on a career level. Sure, if you mean anyone who gains an understanding of the industry as a whole, the level of craft, the persistence to go through writing and editing and finding the very best services for production, and then the persistence to promote, support, and do it all over again… Self e-publishing offers opportunity, not automatic career success.
What advice would you give someone considering signing with an agent or a publishing house?
- Kathryn Shay: Negotiate the ebook royalties and reversion of rights clauses carefully.
- Beth Orsoff: Read your contracts carefully and understand what you’re getting and what you’re giving up.
- Patricia Ryan: What Kathryn said. The big issues are ebook royalties and reversion clauses.
- Julie Ortolon: Carefully weigh what you’re giving up and what you’re gaining with either choice. Some authors are better off signing a print contract. Others are better off self-publishing. There is no one answer for everyone.
- Doranna Durgin: Understand enough about both facets of the industry–and about your own personal needs and goals–so you can do what everyone else here has said and weigh the pros and cons in complete context of what’s best for you.
Would this advice be different if this someone was previously unpublished?
- Kathryn Shay: No.
- Beth Orsoff: No.
- Patricia Ryan: Nope.
- Julie Ortolon: No.
- Doranna Durgin: Unanimous!
Thanks to all of these authors for stopping by! Please post questions, if there are any I missed.
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Thanks for the great, balanced interview, ladies. I was a little hesitant to click in over here, because while I have some self-pubbed books that are doing well enough to make me want to write more, they are in no way making as much money as my traditionally published books, and so I was glad to see this interview included a more balanced perspective, rather than the kind of “everyone should self-publish and get rich” talk about self-publishing that seems to make the rounds.
Personally, I see self-publishing as the same as trad publishing in that way – you never know what book will be a success, which one won’t, if you will suddenly have a book that will “break out” or such. For me at the moment, I wouldn’t leave trad publishing because I enjoy it, but also because it’s where the main source of my income is. However, I too plan to put up more self-pubbed books — finding time for all of it, as you mention, is also the key.
I wonder, what do you think makes any particular author “take off” in self-pub at any given point, and do you think those sales numbers can be maintained over the long haul, or is this more of a short-term thing? If you have met with particular success with a particular book, or at a particular point, why do you think that happened, and do you think your trad pubbing contributed?
What an interesting discussion. Thanks for sharing your perspectives. And how great to “see” so many familiar faces!
Like Sam, I like traditional publishing and intend to stick with it, but also have self-pubbed some backlist titles – Deborah Cooke remains in NY, while Claire Delacroix is self-pubbing! I do like the control over covers, but at this point, have no time to self-pub any new work. (And I still have backlist to get ready.) I’m really impressed by your success, though, and excited by the possibilities for every author.
Also like Sam, I’m curious about the “spark” – but then, it might be as hard to identify as it is in traditional publishing. You never know what’s going to go big or resonate with people.
also writing as Claire
I don’t think we’ll ever figure out the “spark” any more than anyone’s done that in traditional publishing. The crap shoot factor is high! One difference is, though, that if you have an idea you really believe in but know that it colors outside the lines, you don’t have to wait years while shopping it around. If you have a financial situation that allows you to put time into writing it…then write it!
I think sometimes it’s easier to figure out what prevents the spark–such as the factors I mentioned in my intro–but even then, there’s always someone in the same circumstances who will do just fine. *shrug*
Good information. I’m back from Thrillerfest and one thing I’ve changed my tune on a little is going exclusively indie. I think being a hybrid author with a foot in both indie and trad publishing is the way to go. Publishers are changing and the ebook competition is going to heat up as they finally start dropping prices. We’re going to see ebooks from trad publishers under $5 soon, if they aren’t already out there. That’s going to diminish a big advantage for indie authors.
Anne Victory / Arkali
Thanks, Lori, for putting this chat together, and thanks, ladies, for taking the time to offer your insight to changes taking place in publishing. It’s definitely a whole new ball game 🙂
Sam–I don’t know what the spark is. In some ways, it’s like traditional publishing. First you have to write good books. You have to be persistent, keep at it, have faith. Luck enters into it. Good ideas for promotion. I guess I think there are a lot of sparks.
Since RWA, I’m hearing from more and more authors who agree that a mixture of both indie and traditional publishing is a good path. Right now, all indie is still best for me, but I’m encouraged to hear some authors say that publishers seem to be coming around on a few issues. Like pricing. I’m still working on my first, full length straight-to-ebook contemporary romance, so who knows. By the time it’s finished, things may have changed enough for me to ask my agent to shop it.
I think as with traditionally published books, ebooks have a sales trajectory as well. The difference is, they don’t necessarily pop when they’re first released. Sometimes it takes time for the book to find its audience. That’s the advantage when you self-publish. No one is pulling it from the shelf. You have time to find and build your audience.
That said, it’s still the rare book that stays on the top of the bestsellers list forever. As with traditionally published books, self-published books rise, peak, and slowly decline. You can run promotions to give it a pop, but eventually it will return to its natural path. As with the traditional world, you must keep feeding the beast.
Great interviews and information!!!
Thanks for being so honest about your experiences…
I agree with Beth: it can take time for a book to find its audience. That’s been the case for my books.
I’m thinking about this topic a lot. I’m an indie author, and I’m doing fairly well–not selling enough books to make a living, but close. (I live cheaply.) I was recently approached by a major agent–we’re talking on the phone tomorrow. I still believe (as Bob says) it would be great to have a foot in both worlds.
Your thoughts are appreciated.
Beth, if something does evolve with the agent, I’d thought of contacting you for advice.
I traditionally published in nonfiction and self-published in fiction. 10 and a half weeks ago, I self-published my two sweet historical Westerns, and have sold 6400 books. I wrote them ten years ago, and in spite of the first one being a Golden Heart winner, 2 agents couldn’t sell them because they weren’t sexy. I think they’re doing well (without much marketing on my part) is because there is a niche for traditional romances and a niche for Westerns. My agent wants me to write a contemporary “sweet” Western to shop to NY. I’m going to finish writing and self-publish the next historical Western and then see what I want to do. The best thing is that writers have CHOICES! YAY!
I’m with Debra. It’s great to see that writers have choices and are taking control of their careers again. Right now, I see traditional publishing as one heck of a promotional tool. However, it’s not my number one choice anymore. Indie works best for me and my hectic schedule. Just ask my 19-month old. 😉
One thing that has always bothered me about my writing career is that I had so little info about/control over the decisions that were made (other than inside the covers of the book, of course). On the one hand, this is why writers want publishers. On the other, if something isn’t going right, there’s no real time way to intervene.
The info I get from Kindle/Nook is immediate, allowing me to fine-tune things to optimize the PR (which most writers don’t like to do, let’s be honest).
The second thing I like is not being dependent a publisher’s bottom line (like you say, publishers need to sell hundreds of thousands to consider an author an asset). If something happens (shrinking print run, dying booksellers, disappearing library budgets, etc.) it is the author who gets the blame and gets cut.
I agree with Julie that I’d like to wait out the transition before I sign any new deal. I would also never consider agreeing to stop publishing my own work on Kindle/Nook. While I completely understand why an agent/editor/publisher may find some of my books too risky for their bottom line, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try them out on my readers…especially when it can be a year or two…or three…between releases!
What a great post – I really love seeing more and more people realizing that there are choices out there. Both routes have positive and negative attributes but the good news is that the more the self-publsihers succeed the more traditional publishers will have to adjust to attract or retain top talent.
Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing
@Bob – I’m very interested to know more about what you found at Thrillerfest. I’ve been waiting for NY to ‘wake up and small the coffee’ and I think what I hear you saying is that they are starting to.
Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing
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Yay for all the authors doing so well with self-publishing! That’s so exciting to see. My own experience slef-pubbing my backlist has been pretty similar and it’s completely changed the way I view my writing career.
I do want to say though, that a print book does not need to sell hundreds of thousands to be profitable — lots of midlist books. even ones that don’t earn out, still make a profit for the publisher and that’s with very very modest print runs.
Likewise, an eBook doesn’t need to sell tens of thousands to be profitable to the author. At a 70% royalty an eBook that sells only a few thousand would still make the author a tidy sum.
Thanks for generously sharing your stories and all that great info. This is exactly what writers need to survive in this business–good information.
I’m thrilled to hear that there’s a chance for writers to make a living after doing all the hard work of writing, promoting, etc.
I’m also thrilled for the opportunity to make my own deadlines and set my own publishing dates! How cool is that?
Thank you so much for this post! I am at the crossroads as a new author, wondering which way to “jump.” Most insightful
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I loved this! We need to hear more from authors who have crossed over, so we can hear both sides of the story. I did a blog post about it referring back to here. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks so much for this wonderful post! It is so amazing that writers actually have choices now, and that stories that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason in New York can find an audience through self-pubbing. I just released my first e-book in October and am having a blast. Thanks again for sharing your stories!
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Nancy C. Shour
I turned up this discussion when I searched “more Nell Sweeney books?” for 2 purposes — one, to see if the series was being continued, but also two, were they being republished. Fortunately, I came upon the series from the first book, and as it developed I was always confused & frustrated by how poorly this excellent series was promoted and (not) distributed. And when I wanted to purchase the entire set for several friends, even while Book 6 was on recently released, it was almost impossible to find the first book in print. I’m sure this was demoralizing for the author, as it showed so little faith by the publisher in a series its readers were almost rabid about. Seeing that the author is now e-publishing the series is good news for those who have made the move to e readers. But if you haven’t, and have no plans to, you are now excluded from new works by authors or about characters you have followed for years. It really is a conundrum for author & reader alike. I feel very strongly for Patricia Ryan, that such an exceptional narrative received so little sales support & certainly hope that e publishing will bring Nell & Will the audience they deserve.