Our last Popular Fiction II class for the semester was held last night over on the University of Washington campus. I arrived well after dark, which is about 4:30 here in the Northwest. Walking in from the parking lot was like a scene from a horror movie--all I needed was the scary music to get me to break into a run. The only people I saw scurrying for the safety of cars and light were just as trepidatious, not wanting to make eye contact with a six-foot geezer they didn't recognize. I was glad to find that the classroom was well lit and not populated with zombies.
Pam Binder (New York Times bestselling author) was our course mentor, professor and chocolate-enabler. Last night she included a lively discussion about electronic publishing as we contrasted the "traditional" publishing houses with the new print-on-demand, Kindle and other small-press and eBook publishers. I thought I would share part of the discussion here.
Unlike anyone else in the class, I have a dozen titles under my belt. The first three were, indeed self-published in 1992 when this was rarely done. Unlike others in the class, these books were what I now call "technical fiction". After all, I was writing about (and kidding about) Microsoft software, typically pretty boring stuff. My books used a light-hearted approach to the technical subjects, interjecting (terrible) puns, side comments and my now-famous IMHOs that poked fun at the technology, Microsoft and myself. I learned by trial-and-error about marketing, promotion, sales and shipping. I got to know the UPS driver and my on-demand printer by name. Unfortunately, having a dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles published gives me no points with young adult publishers, agents or editors.
Once Hitchhiker's Guide to VBSQL got popular (it was selling 20 or so a week out of my house), Microsoft Press came to me. Yes, they had initially turned the book down. What they really wanted at the time was a book on PowerBuilder (a competing product). But once my books got popular with Microsoft Consulting Services and IT developers, my readers wanted Microsoft to cash in on my success. I subsequently published the 4th, 5th and 6th editions of Hitchhiker's Guide to Visual Basic and SQL Server with Microsoft Press.
Today, I'm taking the same route with The Owl Wrangler. I had it edited, bought illustrations (from Sarah Livingston) and the owl on the cover (from David Hemming) and produced it myself like so many other new (and some experienced) authors have done. Pam encouraged us to make sure the book was edited before taking self-publishing. She also said that aunt Martha's review did not count. While flattering, her "It's just marvelous dear," would not help catch the complex issues that a serious editor would find, nor the missing quotes and commas (and misspelled words) that Word's autocorrect might have missed.
We also talked about the new reality of eBooks. IMHO (there I go again), I don't think it would be the end of life as we know it if I change the text of my POD or Kindle versions as I find issues. I have an avid reader in my church choir who discovered some typos that the editor (and I missed). I plan to post these changes to the text before the next print run. I've also read the first chapter about twenty times to middle-school English classes and discovered a few other changes that might make the text read more smoothly.
Could I have waited and tried to get these issues worked out before I released the book? Sure. In an ideal world that would make sense. But consider that the feedback I'm getting from readers, while mostly glowing has driven me harder to get the second book underway. And the negative, constructive comments have made me a better author. I also I live day-to-day, as if today is my last day on the planet. I wanted to leave behind "The Truth" as I see it for my kids and their kids and their kids' kids. So no, I don't want to spend another year polishing the gold off the spoons in an attempt to make the book better. The next time you download or buy a POD version of The Owl Wrangler, you might find that the words are a little different than an earlier copy. I certainly hope this does not push the planets out of alignment.
Another point we discussed in class was that traditional publishers are scrambling to adapt to the new reality of eBooks and POD. Some publishers and agents have told writers that if they self-publish they can forget getting their book into "real" publication. I think the market will determine the reality of this threat. I also think that smart publishers will take the best of the best eBooks and try to latch on to their success.
In this light, we discussed Darcy Chan's anecdotal success story from a recent Wall Street Journal article. I akin this article to a talented college kid making it into the NBA. I think the lessons Darcy learned should be taken to heart by aspiring authors. Pam mentioned that Darcy had not decided on a publisher yet because the deals being offered were not that great. To an unpublished (and inexperienced) author, any deal might seem great. Speaking from experience, I know (having worked with three mainstream publishers) that contract terms can really rope one down if you don't have an agent to help advocate for you. My 15% royalties seem pretty skimpy compared to the 70%+ that I get from self-publishing but they were far better than the 9% that other authors were paid.
I have my share of horror stories about how publishers don't always work to help author's succeed. However, I also know that a good publisher (and there are all kinds), will earn their 85% of the pie by marketing, promoting, fronting printing costs and getting the book into bookstores and trade shows. Doing all of this myself is a lot of work. Every hour I spend marketing, selling, blogging, twittering, planning and going to book signings are hours I'm not writing. So sure, I would welcome a discussion with a mainstream publisher. Any takers?