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.
Was this article useful? Help support the How to Write Shop with a donation.
Want to learn how to Self-Publish yourself?
Take Self-Publishing for the Newbie Class with Formatting!