Monday, 18 March 2013

DON’T PANIC! – SOME THOUGHTS ON DIGITAL V TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING: Catherine Czerkawska

Long tails: Cally's gorgeous but naughty Hector and Dude!
It strikes me that now might be as good a time as any to summarize some of the more general conclusions I’ve reached over the past eighteen months, ever since I finally decided that the time had come to give up pursuing the impossible dream of a long term partnership with a publisher and go it alone.What follows are not writing tips. If you want those, there are courses and workshops in plenty, self help books and a million advice blogs. Just be careful that you don’t assume that everyone else knows more than you do. And while paying to be published is generally a Bad Thing, paying a demonstrably experienced editor, or paying for a dedicated course with like-minded people, especially if you’re a beginner, is often a very good idea.

There’s plenty of practical advice about various forms of publishing out there as well, not least here on the Authors Electric blog. Do remember that there’s a difference between being published and being distributed, although some of the big digital publishing companies and imprints cruising these waters like so many sharks prefer to blur the distinction. Beware of sites offering terms and conditions which – in return for some hypothetical ‘publication’ which looks a hell of a lot like ‘distribution’ to me  - involve you signing away all your digital rights, including rights for platforms which are still only a gleam in some developer’s eye, for the (long, long) life of your copyright. Read the small print.

But there are a few much more general, more emotional considerations, things to ponder during those inevitably sleepless nights.

You have to ask yourself, are you, at heart, a self employed person? I’ve been freelance for many years, I’m married to a freelance artist and I’m still making huge mistakes, still regretting decisions. But on the whole, I'm happy working for myself, with all that that entails. It may be, though, that you would be better with a day job so that you can write in your free time. You don’t have to look very far to find countless writers who have done this. Although I do think if your day job involves teaching creative writing it becomes extraordinarily hard to write for yourself as well. It’s possible to use up a lot of creative energy on other people’s work!

Are you still, at heart, wishing for a traditional publisher? Many of us are. I’m not totally exempting myself here, but that’s because I’m getting older, I’m getting tired, and I can just dimly perceive that it would still be nice to hand over the practical side of the business to somebody else. But, and it’s a very big but indeed, because I’m older and wearied by experience, I also know with absolute certainty that I have never yet had a publisher or agent who did what they promised in the way of nurturing, curating and promotion. Actually, much of the time, they didn’t promise anything at all. I just made assumptions, so I can’t even blame them. I was simply signing up to be yet another cog in the wheel and when I didn’t function as smoothly as they thought I should have done (i.e. didn’t make them enough money) I became expendable.

If you are going the traditional route, walk that road by all means, but do it with your eyes wide open and even when you’re writing what they want you to write, make sure you also keep on writing what you want to write at the same time. I’ve heard too many horror stories of writers who have been told ‘nobody wants...’ only to find that their idea was flavour of the decade, only a few years later. It has happened to me personally several times. Publishers always want to replicate the last big thing. Writers tend to be original thinkers. Far better to go it alone somewhere down the line with a backlog of pre-written work than with one manuscript which you have spent ten years rewriting to the successive and entirely different demands of a chain of people.

Don’t panic. Take every doom laden blog post with a large pinch of salt. These generally involve Chicken Licken type predictions that the sky is falling. Then another two dozen indie writers weigh in with expressions of shock and horror. Only a bit later, everyone discovers that the situation was not as clear cut or straightforward as the original post suggested. People either make genuine mistakes (which are eventually sorted out) misunderstand the way businesses work or try to game the system in various ways and then are surprised and upset when the system bites back.

We are small cogs in a huge wheel. Whether traditionally published or independently distributed, (unless you are one of a tiny number of mega successful writers) you are a widget. If you have gone indie, the big corporation which is distributing things for you - you know the one I mean - cares about you only in the sense that it cares about all its widgets and wants to keep the machine running smoothly as far as it possibly can. Unlike traditional publishing, it isn’t expecting you to make any fortunes (which is good) although it’s very happy if you do (and so are you). But, to switch metaphors and borrow a term first coined by the excellent Chris Anderson, you are a single secondary hair on a very long, very hairy tail. And when the dog’s brain decides to wag that tail, you are going to feel the turbulence. The large dog is quite amazingly benign, but never forget that it has teeth. And if you don’t like it, signing up to hairiness is entirely voluntary.

Closely linked to this is another kind of panic. Checking your sales data on a daily basis and expecting a totally glitch free update seems optimistic at best. It is already pretty damn miraculously consistent. The odd delay, the odd gremlin in the works, is a small price to pay for the service we’re getting. To be honest, I often wonder why that same big corporation doesn’t encourage all of us Indies to enter the real world of business, the one where you have to pay up front for services rendered, by requiring us to pay a modest amount to list books with them.

I’d pay it. Would you?

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15 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

I wonder if there's an interesting cultural commentary here as to whther people hear the words "don't panic" in the voice of either Clive Dunn or the radio verison of Hitchhiker's.

I love the thought that rather than being cogs in a wheel we are all widgets in a very large can of draught ale.

The third way, of course, is to go completely artisan and sell direct, handling one's own distribution of physical and electronic goods.

Bill Kirton said...

Great blog, Catherine. Sums it all up very clearly. I suspect that you speak for the majority of Indies, too, especially in the secret wish to have a biggie take the marketing chore off your hands. I hadn't heard the secondary tail hair analogy before - it offers great scope, doesn't it?

Lydia Bennet said...

great post Catherine. it's a constant question, all the time indies spend promoting and distributing which could be writing time, vs trad publishing with less power over our own work and anyway lots of trad published writers say they get no promotion and are expected to do it all themselves! we simply need to clone ourselves to be our own PR/PA.

Chris Longmuir said...

Great blog, Catherine, but please, please don't let you know who read that last couple of paragraphs - don't want to put ideas in their heads!

CallyPhillips said...

The dogs are proud to be featured artists (especially since one of their sisters is a Crufts winner!)
Lydia (Val) I always think that the promoting time vs writing time is a bit of a false problem though, because as an indie I don't reckon I spend more time doing the 'marketing' or promotion than I ever spent chasing agents/publishers/broadcasters or doing spec work and the like. At least I have CONTROL of how I use my non writing time now. And control of WHAT I write.

But I do agree a clone would be handy. Any progress on that one please? I'd pay for that. I wouldn't pay to list. No way. I'd take Dan's route and go fully indie on distribution. Actually, if you go with a distributor (aggregator) then you probably are paying to list and actually, if you think of it, what is the 30% except a sort of listing fee?! But that's business now isn't it!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Good comments. I thought I might open a large can of worms! (More changing metaphors!) When I thought about this post after I'd written it, the thing that really struck me was the time wasted on the endless submission, rejection, submission, rewrite, submission, rejection treadmill. Years of my life. It still bugs me. At least I just carried on writing what I wanted to write most of the time, so I have a lot of work which I can now polish and publish. I was talking to a much younger writer last year who had wasted several years of good writing time being strung along by a publisher who published his first book, told him not to write the sequel he was desperate to write, advised him to write something else, but then turned it down when he did.

Dennis Hamley said...

Dan, I can hear both manifestations of 'Don't panic!' Does that make me some sort of polymath? My own publishing carer tarted with extreme frustration which morphed into a long fool's paradise and then back to frustration worse than the first time round. Catherine, the sheer wasting of time that you mention is, for so many, a personal near-tragedy. Not for me. luckily. But yes, I think I would pay, if I could be sure of good returns. I'm quite happy to pay for other writing services rendered - covers, copy-editing, text conversion - so why not listing, especially if it leads to actual and observable advantage.

Jan Needle said...

interesting stuff, catherine. i decided to follow your blog, as invited. clicked the button. it asked me if i wanted to 'subscribe in a reader.' you WHA'? clicked another button, got equally incomprehensible questions/instructions. ah well, i'm sure you won't miss me. i do find it sad, though, that these new media wallahs have cavalierly invented and introduced a language, which i have no way of understanding unless i happily click buttons which don't tell me what they're going to do with me or my life/information. god bless the bic!

John A. A. Logan said...

I started calling those Doom Prediction stories (Is Epublishing All Over Already?) Chicken Licken stories in my mind too...starting in January this year when there seemed to be a spate of them all around...
I think in America, this chicken goes under the name of Chicken Little (but make no mistake, this is the same chicken! I got on a few bandwagons with this chicken and his fans a few times in 2012...this year, I've crossed the road to avoid him...and should he ever follow me across that road, I will be certain to ask him why!)
(BOOM BOOM!)
(For viewers outside of the United Kingdom, or the 1970s, BOOM BOOM! was the famous patented trademark punchline statement of a puppet fox named Basil Brush...partial to a bit of chicken himself, I'm sure)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Jan, you don't have to do all that 'follow in a reader' stuff. My mistake for using the word 'follow'. You can just 'join this site' and you can sign in with FB to do it if you like, and it will update you. John, how right you are!

Jan Needle said...

thanks catherine. tomorrow i burst into the cyber world! tonight, i watch the telly...

Catherine Czerkawska said...

No you're not. You're sharing hoax pictures of GIGANTIC spiders!

Susan Price said...

Historical Note: before 'boom boom' was the catch-phrase of Basil Brush, it was the catch-phrase of the music-hall comic, Max Miller - and he, in his turn, was imitating the double-bang on the drum that, traditionally, marked the punch-ine of a joke.

'They don't do repairs on the ocean.
They don't do repairs on the deck.
So for three blessed years me trousers was hung
From a wart on the back of me neck - boom boom!'

These lines are an heirloom passed down from my grandfather and indelibly engraved on my memory before I had any idea what they were about. (I don't have much idea now.)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

LOVE that, Susan!

Reb MacRath said...

Catherine, I still have horrific chills from the hair analogy. And I wonder if Susan intended a pun on hair in her 'heirloom' reference. Terrific bit of writing here and a stern reminder on the need to remember the business of our art.