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