Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

The Freelance Leap: Elephants

Elephant SafariIn about five months time, I’ll be taking a year away from dayjobbery, and seeing how close I can get to generating a full time freelance writing career. For these five months, I’ve the luxury of preparation time, trying to figure out how to make it work and putting some things in place that will pay off down the line (maybe). Then, at the end of September, I’ll take the leap and give myself a year to see how close I can get to earning enough doing what I love to actually live on (including paying half the household bills!). It might be a doomed experiment, but I’ve an unusual opportunity to try. I’m tracking it every Friday, here, and at the moment am working out the basics. Last week, I covered how self-publishing forms at least part of my plan, and this week I’ve been thinking about traditional publishers.

So, what’s the point of publishers? Do they have any place at all in my own business plan? The nature of the relationship an author and a publisher can have has changed spectacularly over a very short space of time. Until very recently, publishers were the only route to readers. If you couldn’t interest somebody in publishing your book, it would never be read. The value a publisher brought to the relationship came from that sole monopoly on readers, and it was a painful and time consuming process addressing it. My first novel Cuckoo went to eleven publishers before it finally found an editor who wanted to take it on. That process took two and a half years. I didn’t see any money off it for another eighteen months. Three and a half years, to see any income generated from the work taken to write it.

In 2011 it took me about two months to format and prepare the same novel to self-publish. It started selling immediately, and covered its setup costs within weeks. At the moment it’s my bestselling title in terms of numbers (though Thy Fearful Symmetry will probably overtake it this year), and has generated as much income as I ever earned from the two publishers who had it before.

The basis on which publishers had value to an author has pretty much vanished now that self-publishing is being better used by authors, and the industry is struggling to replace that value. I don’t need a publisher to release a book, distribute it widely, and have people find and buy it all over the world. I can do that myself. Although publishers often still offer advances, these are usually small amounts, and if you have the patience to play the long game they don’t add up. As a relative unknown, I’d be lucky to get an advance equal to a month’s salary from my dayjob, and that’s after all the time spent finding somebody who wants to invest in it in the first place. That advance could well be split – half on acceptance, half on publication many months later. About two weeks income from my dayjob each time.

Compare that with what I said about Cuckoo – after less than two years, it’s more than halfway to earning the same amount I’d expect as an advance. I expect it to be all the way there in the next eighteen months. Side by side with the timescales of finding a publisher, then having it actually be published, it looks set to earn me the same money in about the same time, and will then keep on earning beyond that. Some authors command larger advances of course, even first time authors if the publisher thinks they’ve found something special, but that’s rare. If I’m building a business plan, I’ve got to do it on worst case scenarios, not wish fulfillment.

So what value can a publisher offer me, personally, that makes partnering up with one worthwhile? The big publishers are a write off for me, at least right now. They’re so far behind the curve on how readers are finding books that they offer no real value at all. They don’t promote much beyond their biggest hitters, and much of what they put out sinks or swims on the efforts of the author to make a go of it. I can do that myself, and be earning more per sale from each book because I don’t have a publisher taking a hefty cut of the book’s profit. Big publishers are elephants – they’re solid and impressive from a distance, but they aren’t agile, and the current publishing landscape needs agility. That’s why they’re in so much trouble. A change happens, but they’re big beasts. They can draw up a plan and implement it, but that takes lots of departments, many meetings, and a serious period of development. By the time they launch anything, another eight changes have made their adjustment irrelevant.

However, traditional publishing as a whole isn’t a write off. While the big international publishers are about two years behind the curve, and falling further behind, there are smaller independent publishers who are finding that their very size makes them much more nimble. What they can offer somebody like me are as follows:

  1. Reach. Reviews in places I can’t otherwise get them (national magazines and periodicals mostly). As a self-publisher, I also can’t arrange for my books to be in bookstores, supermarkets, airports, etc. Those remain the sole preserve of the traditional publisher. The value of both is in visibility – more people finding my stories. However, it only balances out if the publisher pushes that book hard. Without the extra effort, a few single copies of a given book might end up on a shelf in a store, but they’re not going to be in a pile at the front, in an eye-catching three for two offer that Joe Bloggs might notice when he wanders in. Unless they get a push from the publisher and bookstore, having them on a shelf where the chances of them being found are reasonably slim when they’re next to eight copies of everything Stephen King has had published doesn’t seem worthwhile to me. It might impress friends and family (unless my book is in a window display in Waterstones, I’m fairly sure my mother will never be sure that I’m doing it right). I would love to partner up with an independent publisher that works to make the books they release truly visible. I’ve four of those on my wish list who might be interested in the sort of thing I write.
  2. Inbuilt readerships. Big publishers try to be all things to all people. They throw a lot into the pond and wait to see what sinks and what swims. With only a few exceptions, they do the publishing, and then the author is left to get on with it. However, there’s a growing wave of smaller independent publishers (they’ve always been there, but they’re finding themselves in a surprisingly strong position now) who are cultivating what they love. They’ve usually got a much narrower focus, and build lists of high quality books within specific areas of interest. They then cultivate a readership of their own, who learn to trust that they really like the (say) steampunk novels that Publisher X puts out. Next time they want a steampunk novel, they’ll go straight to that publisher and try out their other books. The independent becomes a trusted brand. For this reason, they’re very picky. However, they’re not closed shops either. They look for new voices and ideas to expand their own readerships, while offering the in built readership they’ve developed to the author. At this stage in my career, I want to partner up with some of these independents, if they’ll have me. I’ve about six that I’m really interested in submitting a novel too, four of which are also the publishers I mentioned in point one.
  3. Intellectual Properties. Writing on spec, for worlds you don’t own. I’ve dabbled with this with my Iris Wildthyme and Doctor Who stories, as well as an upcoming City of the Saved tale (more on that very soon). Again, the benefit lies in an in built audience. These stories, as well as being terrific fun to write, are also an introduction to readers who might work their way back to my other titles. Creatively, I also really like the challenge of them (though it can be a nightmare when you find one that you can’t mesh effectively with your own style, as I found last year). I’m not actively pursuing these opportunities at the minute, but I’m keeping half an eye out for them, and need to work out how to be proactive in finding the ones I’d be a good match for and pitching myself to the publishers in question.

And that’s about it. Six publishers I really want to work with, with research needed to see if I can find opportunities in the intellectual property sector. I’ll be finishing two novels this year that I’ll hold back from self-publishing, because I hope they might meet the needs of one or more of the publishers that excite me. Because there are so few I want to work with, it won’t take too long to get a yes or no from them (the novels won’t be in limbo doing endless rounds of slush piles for years), and if it doesn’t work out then I know I can still produce them independently later on. No loss, but quite a lot of potential gain. It’s a way to find out if I’m right about this anyway – it’s one thing observing the industry, but another to experience and learn from it. You can only really do that from the inside, so I’ll have a go and see what happens.

A tentative fusion approach then. A lot of self-publishing (at least four books in the next twenty months), with a couple of things aside that might give me the chance to work with publishers that I particularly admire. That’s a world away from ten years ago, when I would have taken any publisher at all if it meant I could release a book. It’s bizarre to think that for a relative unknown like me, self-publishing has become the least risky way to build an income as a writer, with the gamble now being traditional publishers. Oddness, but I actually think it’s true.

So, that’s eighty per cent of what I’m going to do. Next week though, I’ll be having a look at playtime. As much as I need to be looking for viable approaches to make freelancing work, I think it’s vitally important to remember to play. That’s the fun of it after all. For me, playtime is about stories being the world in odd ways. Neil Gaiman gave an excellent keynote speech at the London Book Fair about trying things that are allowed to fail. I liked it a lot. Next Friday, I’ll be working out what I’m going to make of my own Dandelion Time, and how you can help if you want.

As ever, your comments on this – particularly if you think I’m getting it badly wrong – are very welcome. Some of the above only settled into place after discussions that took place after the last entry (thanks Kevin, Brian, Lincoln, and Glen, particularly). Even if I don’t agree with what you want to say, it’s hugely valuable having the discussion. With all this theory (we’re still at the early stages) it’s easy even for me to forget that I’m going to actually put this into practice.

April 2013 Summary: With a few days left to go, April’s books don’t balance. A couple of royalty payments on Cuckoo and TFS came in, which was nice, but that didn’t cover my expenses for the month. They’ve been higher than usual to be fair – as well as standard costs like the hosting of this website, I bought two promotional slots for May, both for TFS (a month long ad at the well browsed Apex Books website during May, and a targeted email mail-out called BookGorilla that reaches readers who sign up for it, according to what they say they want to hear about). I’ll be keeping a close eye on whether they pay off, so I know whether either are worth doing again. The shortfall is actually pretty small – less than the price of a couple of cinema tickets. If I hadn’t decided to take a chance on Apex and BookGorilla then I’d be in profit, albeit not very much. Looking forward, May is going to be a bigger miss. I’ll be paying for the layout and editing on Craven Place, as well as the cover for the book, before the month ends. It could be June before I see another month of actual profit, then. It will be interesting to see how things add up over the first financial quarter, April to June.

April 2013 Update: And a day after I wrote the above, the month broke even thanks to an unexpected payment from Smashwords on all ebook formats other than Kindle. Excellent.

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