Bandwagons

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Here’s what I know about bandwagons…they’re noisy, crowded places.  It’s difficult to stand out, at least in a good way.  Depending on school rules, you may not be allowed to stand at all.

Yet at nearly every event I do, someone asks, “What’s hot?” and everyone leans forward in their seats, eager to hear the answer.  I did a piece on “The Next Big Thing” last year, but that was a year ago and, anyway, I’m talking about more than genres here.  There is one absolute; one thing that will be as true six, twelve, eighteen or more months down the line as now: original is hot.  That’s not to say your zombie alien steampunk murder mystery time travel romance is in.  While I know one or two brilliant minds who could probably pull that off, for most this would be a hot mess.  I’m not talking about those works that cross so many boundaries you can’t even see the passport for the stamps, I’m talking about the truly unique concept or protagonist that potentially defines a new genre or subgenre.  If you write young adult vampire fiction these days (guilty), you’re going to get compared to all those who’ve come before.  (The inevitable question in all my talks as author, “Were you inspired by Twilight?”)  That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about vampires if that’s what calls to you and you have a unique take.  However, you’ll have to be aware that given the popularity, there’s already so much fanged fiction on the shelves and in publishers’ inventory that your work might have difficulty finding a home.  If publishers can’t figure how to distinguish your work in their catalogues and on bookstore shelves, they’re going to pass.

If, however, you have an amazing concept or an amazing voice, your book will pop.  If you have both, you’re golden.  I’m going to offer an example from non-fiction so that I’m not playing any favorites among the fiction writers with whom I work: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  Intriguing topic…at least to me and probably to the gazillion or so people like me who watch forensic shows religiously and who thought Six Feet Under was a work of genius.  But her approach and the way she expresses herself are what make the book transcendent.  You know right from the introduction that this is not going to be any stodgy, intellectual discourse (though it is one of the most informative books I’ve ever read): “The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.  Most of your time is spent lying on your back.  The brain has shut down.  The flesh begins to soften.  Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.”

I see this same bandwagon effect with digital self-publishing.  There’s a lot of hype about those few authors who through extensive research and their own inexhaustible efforts have become self-published bestsellers.  I stand in awe of them, because I know the work it must have taken.  Amanda Hocking has even blogged about it several times (examples here and here).  But there are others who seem more interested in elevating their own stature by leading a crusade that indicates that all the pros do is take authors’ hard-earned money.  Very few talk of everything publishers and agencies do to earn their percentage.  In most cases, authors earn more money through the agent’s efforts and the publisher’s polish, distribution, connections, publicity and promotion than if they’d published on their own, even if they make a smaller percentage on each individual sale.  Note that I said most.  Some authors, as mentioned, have the skills or the platform to get the attention their work deserves.  But it’s difficult and it’s not for everyone.  The stories we don’t hear much of are those where the author has sold only a few dozen to a few hundred copies of their works and barely made back their initial investment in the cover, copyediting, formatting, etc.  And if an author doesn’t focus on cover and on giving the public a really polished and error-free product…well, they might sell that first book, but word will spread, and growing an audience will be unlikely.

I will assuredly get some of the e-book gurus’ disciples over here telling me that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong and that traditional publishing is dead.  Thing is, they’re wrong.  How do I know?  Royalty statements, offers, advances and my kid’s college fund. I can’t find any way to say this so that it doesn’t sound like bragging, so I’m just going to say it: our sales at The Knight Agency have increased every year.  There’s still a lot left of 2011 and we’ve already far outpaced our 2010 sales.  Our authors have lit up the bestseller lists and appeared on ABC’s Beyond Belief (Don Piper, author of the three-years running NYT bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven) and TBN with Matt & Laurie Crouch (Cherie Calbom, author of The Juice Lady’s Turbo Diet, also featured in Woman’s World and First for Women), Omaha’s The Morning Blend (Chloe Neill, author of the NYT-bestselling Chicagoland Vampires series).  They’ve been guests at national and international book fairs, like Imaginales Festival in France (N.K. Jemisin, author of the award-winning debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), the Rio Book Fair (Rachel Caine, author of the NYT-bestselling Morganville Vampires series), and interviewed in multiple publications.  I’m sure I’m missing a few dozen mentions here.

In other words, we’re all still going strong.  I’m seeing adaptation much more than upheaval.  Now that the major rush and the first major wave of change has come through, things are settling out and we’re all learning how to successfully navigate the new waters.

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19 comments to Bandwagons

  • […] for me?  I’m over at Magical Words today with my monthly guest blog, this time about jumping on bandwagons. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  • “In most cases, authors earn more money through the agent’s efforts and the publisher’s polish, distribution, connections, publicity and promotion than if they’d published on their own, even if they make a smaller percentage on each individual sale.” I think this statement here is the key point that most people on the self-publishing bandwagon are missing. They don’t seem to get the math that says 70% of $1,000 is a nice percentage, but it’s still considerably less that 10% of $100,000. Is traditional publishing riddled with flaws and frustrations? Of course. But that doesn’t change the math.

  • Mikaela

    I have a short story that I intend to self-publish, mainly since it is 10 000 words, which is an awkward length. Magazines thinks it is too long, and e-publishers thinks it is too short. But I like the story, even though it needs another round of edits. But to me Amazon, and Smashwords are just another source of income.

    But then I tend to write stories that are 25-45 K, so traditional NY publishing have never been an option for me :)
    I have an Urban Fantasy novella that I like, and intend to revise and submit to various publishers.

  • (jumping on bandwagon) What a timely topic! Some of us here at MW have been chatting about this, offline, for a long time. Beatriz (waves to my roomie) and I had a long talk about it on the way back from D*C. My take?

    *Totally agree with you Lucienne!* (que cheering in background) Now (for my pals who have been self-pubbed) yes, there are times when self publication is a good thing. Backlists, for example. Or (agreeing here) for the writer with the time, knowledge, ability, and *money* to hire the necessary people to help polish a mscpt and to push a self-pubbed book, using that platform to get a traditional publisher. But most self-pubbed books are not ready for any market (e- or otherwise) and do more harm to a writer’s non-career than good.

    I too see the market swinging quickly back to the traditional format (altered to include e-books) because of the poor quality self-pubbed e-books out there.

    What I see as new and exciting is the emergence of the small press as a viable and strong part of the future marketplace.

    Hmmm. (thinking) Would you consider a post on that in the next few months, Lucienne?

  • I am in a position right now, as Thieftaker winds its way toward publication, of experiencing as I never have before, the potential benefits of a traditional publisher putting resources behind a book in a serious way. Tor is supporting the book, and I think that as a result it’s going to do very well. There is no self-pubbing substitute for that. It doesn’t happen with every book, but even more modest support from a publisher has tremendous value. So do the efforts of a good agent. Self-pubbing for the unestablished author may seem easy, but that doesn’t make it truly beneficial. Great post, Lucienne. Thanks.

  • From an agent’s perspective, is there a drop in publishers picking up new talent, not being willing to take a chance on a new author and sticking with what they know is making them money, as I’ve heard lately from many self-pub sites? This is one of those rallying points, I think, with self-pub and I was wondering how accurate it was. We’ve been hearing a lot that the market is getting tighter and tighter with publishers picking up less and less, and for those whose work is good despite not being picked up, I can see the appeal.

    I mean, if no one was willing to take a chance on me, I’d definitely be willing to take a chance on myself. I’m willing to do the work, no matter the platform, to get the job done and make it the best product I can. I know there are people out there who, frankly, think they poo roses and everything that comes from their fingertips is gold, but I’m not one of them. I know, even after many, many passes in beta and self revisions, it still needs that professional eye. However, if no professional’s willing to take a chance…

    And, if I have to hire a freelance editor, pay hundreds of dollars for someone to tell me why my work’s “not right for us at this time,” just to get that professional notice, I may as well go the extra distance and work for myself as well.

    I think, no matter the platform, the writer needs to go into it with a discerning eye. All of them can succeed, but you have to be willing to go the distance to make it happen. When you go into self-publishing, you may as well call yourself a business at that point and treat it as such, hiring people to help you create the best product you can, listening to those people, marketing, planning, having enough product available at the outset, etc, etc. Doing any less will probably see you languishing in anonymity.

    And I agree with Faith, I’d like to hear a bit about small press. Right now I’m awaiting word from Samhain Publishing, because I felt, despite being a smaller publisher, they were a good fit. We’ll see what happens.

  • Daniel, I hear you, and for the person with the right mentality and the time, talent and energy to make it happen, there are certainly options, including smaller presses, as Faith mentioned. Samhain is a good one (they publish my uf Bad Blood).

    As far as publishers buying new novelists, they certainly are. As mentioned in my Market Insights piece for Clarion (http://clarionfoundation.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/market-insights-lucienne-diver-the-knight-agency/), we’ve sold seven debut novels in the past year, some for six figures and one a young adult novel with a gay protagonist (note recent PW article that some have experienced problems in this area http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/genreville/?p=1519&cpage=3#). I’m in the process of marketing an excellent debut fantasy novel right now. Two of my recent debut novelists have received a =lot= of attention: N.K. Jemisin, who was just interviewed in PW and whose debut was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/genreville/?p=1544) and Vicky Dreiling, whose first historical romance has been on Bookscan bestseller lists and made Booklist’s Top 10 Romances of 2011 list (http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=5010705&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1). So, debut fiction is doing well and publishers, especially given these successes, are definitely still willing to take chances.

  • Mikaela, as long as something is very well done, polished, edited, provided a professional cover and appropriate pricing, etc., I think its a valid option for works of problematic lengths.

  • Thanks for this post, Lucienne. It’s nice to hear some optimistic numbers (especially about new acquisitions).

  • I think it is undeniable that trad publishers / agents will continue and will continue to adapt as markets change. I also think that in all things, to earn $x you need $y effort. The effort can come from one person or a team, but it is still needed because money is an abstract of applied resource. I am of course speaking in general terms since it is also possible that luck can be turned into money, but I’ll discount that because that’s much like relying on the lottery for your retirement plan.
    All the genuinely successful self-published authors I’ve read about credit their success on equal parts effort, time, the right connections and luck. Pretty much the same points made by successful authors published in the more traditional way.

    But now I’m conflicted: is going self published “jumping on the bandwagon” or is traditional publishing “jumping on the bandwagon”? Is there a third option?

  • sjohnhughes, I think jumping on a bandwagon is doing =anything= just because everyone else tells you you should. However, reading advice from pros, gathering information and running everything through your own internal analysis is exactly the right thing. And not just because I said so .

  • sagablessed

    I wonder about the possibility of my novel after reading the link to PW. My protagonist is gay, and I hope I have a new take on the rules of magick in urban fantasy. But it has been on my mind that having a gay protagonist might be a detriment to getting the novel published.
    (I could honestly care less about the “new thing”, no offense meant). My story is more about the protagonist dealing with the death of his husband: everything else is frosting in my eyes. But with the current marketplacing becoming more conservative in all aspects of the word, and less concerned with character growth than action, it seems my work may be doomed in going the traditional route.

    I also wonder if Lucienne or another author here would make an entry on what to do if your stuck. The editor I sent my manuscript into said “write 150-200 *more* pages”. Without doing too much ‘tell’ this seems to be a, pardon me, kick in the hoo-hoo’s.

  • sagablessed

    Sorry about the spelling of ‘your’ and not you’re. Puppies are trying to type for me. It happens too often.

  • @Edmund: Your math is an interesting point. 70% of $1000 is less than 10% of $100,000.

    But it’s a lot more than 100% of $0.

    Which is what a lot of frustrated authors are making by sending their novels through the traditional channels – and that’s part of the appeal, to them, of the new self-publishing paradigm. Getting paid something, even a pittance, has a lot more appeal than constant, faceless rejection and no writing income.

    Daniel’s point is the other side of that equation. There are a lot of voices talking about the contraction and belt-tightening in the traditional publishers – suggesting there is less and less room both for new voices and for old-fashioned midlisters. One or two anecdotes either way don’t really clarify whether this is really a trend or just the experiences of a few authors – and unfortunately anecdotes the other way can’t really, definitively disprove the assertion either. So that’s cauldron in which a lot of the self-publishing stew is boiling.

    Now, I’m not advocating self-publishing (on my own blog today I just finished up a two-part piece about why the biggest digital self-publishing cheerleaders make me feel uneasy). As I said there: my “goal”, as it were, is to have physical books in libraries. When my books are on library shelves, I can say I’ve made it. That’s not something most self-published writers are doing, yet, unless they get picked up by traditional publishers.

  • Sagablessed, I can say from direct experience representing authors who write gay or bisexual characters and sometimes polyamorous relationships that it can be done. I won’t say that there aren’t difficulties. Sometimes you will meet opposition or someone who’ll give you a bad review not based on your work, but on their subjective “morality.” However, it can be done. Like everything, the trick is to do it really, really well (like Lynn Flewelling in her Nightrunner books or N.K. Jemisin in her Inheritance Trilogy). I want to point out one potential pitfall in what you said above — though, of course, take it with a huge grain of salt, because I haven’t seen the novel. “The story is more about the protagonist dealing with the death of his husband: everything else is frosting in my eyes.” This might be a problem not because it’s his husband, but because urban fantasy has to be at least as much about external conflict and the larger stakes as about the internal/personal conflicts. You may just mean that this personal loss is what drives the hero, but if the book truly is about that more than anything else, you might have difficulty placing it as uf.

  • sagablessed

    Lucienne: Yes I do understand your point, and the external conflict is the main theme as you said, but it is the death of the husband that is not a driving force, but rather colors the perceptions of the protagonist. I may have spoken in error when I said all else is frosting. I liken the character more to Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel, or MZB’s Regis Hastur and that relationship with Danillo. (No, I do not claim to be in MZB’s caliber, lol: I wish). My main issue with most uf is the emphasis on action, rather the character actually becoming more than what s/he already is. I hope that makes sense. I am going to have to find the Flewelling or Jemisin books. Thank you for the suggestions and the advice. Both shall be taken into due consideration.

  • Meg

    Jumping into this, I find myself going over in my head previous arguments for both pro and con on the whole self-pub issue. A few years ago I was reading a book on writing fantasy literature which cautioned me about going the self-pub route, that it makes it look like you have “given up” on fighting the good fight on the road to traditional publishing. However, I have also seen up-sides. For instance, I have a cousin in California who just had his first novel published by Hellgate Press (I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At, by Kyle Garret), and a few years before that he had self-published a collection of three short stories entitled, Unrequited. These two events may have no direct correlation, and of course that’s not the only thing my cousin did, in between he was attending conferences and workshops, etc. Plus he just managed to find the right market, Hellgate Press.

    Also, there is the issue of establishing platform. I have thought about self-publishing a book of fantasy poetry, as a kind of homage to the genre. I also just read a book by Christina Katz about how to build an author platform, but even then I have very little idea about where to begin. I’d also like to begin a blog, and I have a few ideas in mind, so I suppose I’ll just have to test the waters to see if that might develop a following. But all the while I’m still working on short stories and poetry for magazines, in all genres, not to mention making my third attempt at the Writer’s of the Future Contest.

    Meanwhile, I guess similar to sagablessed, my novel is new perhaps in that takes on the lore of witches and wizards to a new angle, but in addition to that, I feel like I cross a lot of sensitive boundaries concerning ethnicity, religion, politics, etc. Though it’s all in an attempt to encourage a better sense of brotherhood in humanity, with an emphasis on environmental issues. Though it may not seem like it, I think I’ve got it airtight and boiled down as the editing process winds down, but I’m still apprehensive about sending the query letters, not just because of the content, but simply because I have really no platform established (except for perhaps my writing on Suite101.com), and it seems like even publishers and agencies interested in new writers are only interested in those with a well-established platform. Sigh, just when I thought I was ready, I found out there’s a whole new facet to this process! Not that I’m complaining, it makes sense after all, it’s time I got out there and got really proactive, attended a few conferences (expensive though well-worth it as they are), but it does create a sense of frustration and confusion, though I’d like to think that I’m getting more and more clear-headed about it.

  • For non-fiction, a platform is essential. For fiction, what matters most is the work itself. It’s not necessary to have a platform before you can sell fiction, just as it’s not necessary to sell short stories before you can market a novel. Those are potential paths, but not the only ways to go.

  • Meg

    Oh really? I guess that takes some of the pressure off. Thanks for the info!