Taking it to The People: Do You Need a Mainstream Publisher? by Josh Lanyon

This is Josh Lanyon’s first column as our Author Contributor in his new writing series called The Size of it. I will only do an introduction this one time since Josh’s new by-line will be a regular monthly feature. So, without further ado (as they say in the best  circles) here’s the first of what I hope will be many articles by Josh about the world of writing.

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It’s a brand new year and I’m guessing that you’ve got a number of plans for your writing career. One of those plans might very well be to land a mainstream publisher.

A while back KA Mitchell and I were comparing royalty statements and the conversation turned to publishing and the fact that so many of our writer friends keep urging us to move into mainstream fiction even though we out-earn a lot of our mainstream writing friends.

Of course it’s not just about money. If you’re in this biz strictly for the loot, let me tell you now that there are much easier ways — up to and including rape and pillage — to earn pocket change. Mainstream publishing brings other things. It brings wider readership and it brings respect. Even if your mainstream book is trashed by everyone, and her cat, you still managed to get published in mainstream (no small feat) and yes, that gets — and deserves — respect.

You may be beloved in indie and small publishing, but the sorrowful truth is you won’t get respect or even much acknowledgement from the publishing establishment (including all your traditionally published pals).  Not if you’re going to write explicitly about sex. Which brings me back to the rape and pillage.

But this isn’t a post to justify writing sexy sex or philosophizing about what real success means. A couple of days ago I received an email notice from All Romance Ebooks stating that they were lifting their minimum title requirement for sellers. I remembered my conversation with KA and I couldn’t help thinking…never mind do we need a mainstream publisher, the real question is do we need a publisher at all?

 (Quick answer? Yes, you probably do, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The last decade has been a frightening time for the mainstream publishing establishment, and it’s about to get a lot more frightening. It’s also getting a little scary for indie and small presses because technology combined with Smashwords, Lulu, Amazon, Goodreads, and a host of other sites and services make self-publishing viable in a way it’s never been before.

And I say that as a publishing traditionalist.

* * * * *

Because of Man Oh Man: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Ca$h, I regularly receive a lot of email from my fellow writers. I have to say I find some of their questions harder and harder to answer. The industry has changed so much that how I originally got published is barely relevant these days. It doesn’t work like that anymore. Self-publishing, ebooks, and the internet have changed how we do business — how we all do business.

Social media has replaced much of traditional book promotion and ebooks are the single fastest growing (exponentially) segment of publishing. But what does that really mean to you, the writer of m/m fiction?

Well, first of all, if your plan is to write m/m or gay romance for a mainstream press, unless you’re writing spec fiction or mystery or historical, forget it. And even if you are writing mystery or historical, you’re probably going to wind up at an indie press or the specialized imprint of a larger house — which means you’ll still have smaller print runs and you’ll be locked into the restrictions of a mainstream publishing contract. Oh! And you’ll have very likely paid an agent for the privilege.

Even now there’s a very good chance that your mainstream publisher will not recognize the vital importance of having your titles available in electronic format, which is unfortunate because judging by sales figures, the current readership for m/m and gay romance increasingly prefer to read ebooks.

Should you focus your energy on getting a mainstream publisher? Let’s consider the pros and cons.

On the pro side:

1 – You’ll likely get an advance. I love advances.

(I also love the monthly royalty checks that the majority of my ebook publishers issue)

2 – You’ll get an actual print run as opposed to the POD option, which means you’ve got a better shot of winding up on bricks and mortar bookshelves

(Except you’re writing m/m romance so yes and no. You’ll get on some bookshelves for sure, but most of the B&N fleet is still not going to carry you.)

3 – No promotional budget from a major publisher is still more promotion than you get from most indies or ebook publishers — plus there’s the prestige factor of being published in mainstream. There’s no question that being published by HarperCollins carries more clout than being published at Boy Toy Press.

(Social media and tireless energy is a great marketing equalizer especially if you’re not — and generally you’re not — getting a big chunk of promo dollars.)

4 – Your work will be both professionally edited for content and copy.

(Yep. Absolutely. And working with top-notch editors — content editors, in particular — is worth its weight in gold. There are great content editors here but there are many, many more in mainstream just given the logistics of size.)

5 – You’ll have access to mainstream reviews and print media

(Yes — keeping in mind that traditional review venues are falling like autumn leaves and you’ll be fighting tooth and nail with everyone else in mainstream.)

6 – There is more prestige being published in mainstream.

(We covered that above, but yes. There is no arguing with this one. For what it’s worth, there is greater prestige in being published by a mainstream publisher.)

7 – You’ll have a better chance of hitting the national bestseller lists.

(If enough bookstores will carry you, yes.)

8 – You’ll have a better chance of winning prestigious literary awards.

(Yep.)

9 – You’ll have a better chance of moving up the publishing food chain.

(You could be dropped — the midlist migration of genre authors to ebooks is due to wholesale slaughter at a number of big houses — or, you might get another shot under another pen name OR you might thrive and succeed.)

10 – You’ll earn more money.

(Remember, we’re not talking about selling The Cowboy’s Secret Baby here. We’re talking about your m/m romance as marketed and packaged by a mainstream publisher — which could be akin to watching the Incredible Hulk attempt needlepoint.)


On the con side:

1 – You’ll need an agent to make a sale

(But that’s not a bad thing — especially if you’re willing to write the kind of stories that sell well in mainstream)

2 – You’re not happy about the inequities and restrictions of mainstream contracts

(Yeah, no kidding. But not every indie publisher is run by Sir Galahad. Some attempt to usurp the same rights as the big guys — without being able to offer the same advantages. If this is your deal breaker are you ready to consider the logical third option?)

3 – Isn’t it better to be a big fish in a little pond than a guppy swimming with sharks?

(Doesn’t that depend on other variables in the ecosystem?)

4 – No creative freedom

(There’s a lot of variety in New York publishing — even in mainstream genre fiction — and as ebook and indie publishers get more eccentric and restrictive about everything from cover art to house style guides, you may find you prefer a more even-handed approach.)

5. Your stuff doesn’t fit mainstream

(Ah. It’s true that an author who really knows his specific niche market could generate greater sales and make more money through indie publishing — or even by self-publishing — rather than risk having the work mishandled by a mainstream press.) 

6 – You’re not ready for prime time

(Shrewd! It’s true that you can hone your craft in relative privacy while earning supplementary income in a specialized market and when you feel you’re finally ready, take your show on the road. With the sales figures to back you.)

7 – It will take so long for your book to ever get published.

(Actually, indie and ebook lead times are stretching too. Yes, the absolute shortest mainstream turn around I’ve seen is about nine months from submission to publication, but more and more ebook and indie publishers are requiring a minimum of three months — and six months is increasingly typical.)

8 – Mainstream publishers keep the lion’s share of profits.

(Yep. In theory that’s okay because you can sell more units through a mainstream publisher rather than an indie or on your own.)

9 – Mainstream presses are impersonal corporate giants for whom you’re just a number.

(And indie and ebook presses have more than their fair share of nut jobs. Companies are made up of people and people come in all shapes and sizes. Some are helpful and knowledgeable and professional and some are not. You can’t just dismiss the hundreds and thousands of people in an industry because they happen to be part of a conglomerate!)

10 –   Please, Mother. I’d rather do it myself!

(There are more and more tools to make self-publishing viable — especially in a niche market — but, well, one is the loneliest number.)

There are probably more pros and cons to indie versus mainstream publishing than I’ve been able to think of, so please feel free to offer them up for discussion. Like sharing royalty info, the more we talk and exchange information, the better for all of us.

* * * * *

For myself, I like to mix and match, so if it sounds like I’m discouraging you from trying for a mainstream publisher, no. I’m not. I’m only suggesting a mainstream publisher may not be the answer to your prayers.

Did you ever hear of the Long Tail theory?  Essentially, when applied to books and publishing, the Long Tail theory means there’s good money to be had in concentrating your efforts in a niche market. Good money for everyone but, in particular, the author.

The current mainstream publishing paradigm consists of an advance against carefully calculated print runs based slightly under an author’s previous sales performance and a shelf life span of about one to three months. Royalties are held (for years in some cases) against book store returns.

It was always a flawed system and it’s become more and more obsolete as online sales increased. Now with the sudden explosion of ebooks and electronic formats, all bets are off.

For those of us in specialized, or niche, publishing, we do particularly well because we’re selling a hard-to-find item to a dedicated audience. It’s a comparatively small audience, but it’s sufficient to our needs. Remember those old math problems with the pie slices back in grade school? Picture romance publishing as a bunch of big, juicy pies. The bestselling pies are straight romance lemon chiffon, and romance publishers sell a lot more slices of lemon chiffon than they do gay or m/m romance. Their big money makers are those lemon chiffon pies. But from the standpoint of the bakers –er , the authors, there’s a lot of splitting and then more splitting and then more splitting the profits of selling lemon chiffon. Whereas for those of us in, um, the blueberry pie business, we’re not splitting so many pieces or so much profit. Maybe we’re selling fewer pies overall, but our share is bigger.

Anyway, enough with the Simple Simon analogy. If you’re a popular mainstream author you’re doing great. But if you’re a popular author in a small, specialized market, you could also be doing great.

What I’m getting at is that while it’s natural to think moving up to a big mainstream publisher is the only way to go and the single best possible career move a writer can make, if you love what you’re writing, it’s perfectly conceivable that you can do better working with niche publishers in a niche market than you can working with a mainstream publisher who really doesn’t know or understand the market.

The only really important thing is that you love what you’re writing and that the work brings you satisfaction.

 

77 comments

  • Thanks for the article Josh!

    I fell into M/M by complete accident and haven’t looked back since. Every once in a while I get a faint urge to dust off a GLBT YA manuscript, but then I remember how many ideas I have for this beautiful, sexy niche, and remind myself I don’t need anything else.

    • GLBT YA is a niche healthy niche too! And it’s growing all the time. So if you decide down the road you want to branch out, why not?

      I never thought I’d write spec fiction, either. ;-P

  • Great comments, Josh. I have been published in mainstream & indie, and have gotten much better content & line edits in the indie world.

    One thing I love about the e-book world is the fast response in terms of sales & royalties. Alyson’s contract, like many in mainstream, only provides a royalty statement about 15 months after publication. Until then, the author is flying blind.

    However, when I published Three Wrong Turns in the Desert with Loose Id, I had a statement in 3 months that showed readers liked the book & were buying it. That motivated me to write a sequel.

    With Amazon’s daily sales stats, I can see which of my self-pubbed books are selling and which promotional strategies are working. I couldn’t do any of this with my mainstream books.

    • One thing I love about the e-book world is the fast response in terms of sales & royalties. Alyson’s contract, like many in mainstream, only provides a royalty statement about 15 months after publication. Until then, the author is flying blind.

      Loose Id does a particularly good job on the accounting end. Their statements are accurate and they’re in-depth. They’re some of the best offered by any indie publisher I’ve worked with.

      Figuring out royalties from a mainstream publisher? Good luck! Especially when you throw in basket accounting. Even my agent (back when I had an agent) didn’t seem to really know how to explain those statements.

      Which is another thing I like about indie publishing. In general you’re not going to have publishers attempting to hold royalties against POD books.

      Why? Because, as we’ve established, bookstores aren’t buying these indie books by the case — so the publishers certainly aren’t getting caseloads of returns — which means holding 40% royalties on POD books against possible “returns” is absolutely unconscionable.

      Doubly so in the case of publishers whose royalties already reflect monthly returns. It means regularly dinging the author while holding onto earnings against some imaginary tidal wave of possible future returns. The system is already stacked against the author, so that’s just plain old greedy using a mainstream business practice that simply doesn’t doesn’t apply to this brave new world of publishing.

      The tools Amazon provides — including the excellent royalty rate — guarantees I’ll be dabbling more and more with self-publishing myself.

  • JL–I find myself more concerned with the lack of content editing in our genre. There’s an odd emphasis here on copyediting over content editing — as though all writers were born knowing pacing, plotting, developing character, etc. So long as there’s enough hot sex, to heck with character arcs!

    NK–I think that’s because copyediting has a defined set of rules and source material whereas content editing is extremely difficult and has no handbook to cite to the author, so editorial persuasiveness is important. What I have noticed is that there exists a notion that all editing is an necessarily antagonistic activity that the editor or copy editor or line editor must win in order to be “professional.” And I think it’s impossible to edit for content with this attitude. (That’s just me, though.)

    JL– I have a suspicion that attitude arose from the fact that many of our original m/m publishers started out self-publishing, so while they were open to being copyedited (which was a frequent complaint of readers) they were more resistant to the notion of a good content editor sending them back to the drawing board.

    NK–Again I think that this might be because of the weird “Editrix” attitude leading to the issuing of directives rather than substanitive discourse on the work. Plus nobody likes to be told they have to do more work. There’s another factor too. As a person who has tried to give constructive criticism–on rejections, for example–the most common reaction is something like, “This is mine. I like it the way it is. Pay me first and I’ll butcher it how you want me to. I can always just put it up on Lulu,” which is fair, I guess, but doesn’t generally lead to expansion of a writer’s skill set. And ends up being a catch-22 situation for the writer who keeps getting rejected but doesn’t know why.

    • NK–I think that’s because copyediting has a defined set of rules and source material whereas content editing is extremely difficult and has no handbook to cite to the author, so editorial persuasiveness is important. What I have noticed is that there exists a notion that all editing is an necessarily antagonistic activity that the editor or copy editor or line editor must win in order to be “professional.” And I think it’s impossible to edit for content with this attitude. (That’s just me, though.)

      I’ve only come across it twice with content editors and I know for a fact that one of them had no idea how aggressive she came across. I think one thing that would probably help is to take a leaf from mainstream where the word “suggest” is almost always used. Right there it changes the tone of the exchange.

      Also, on no account, no matter how extreme the provocation (and I’m sure it’s often extreme) should editors mock or be sarcastic in their comments. Not only is it unprofessional, it’s just waving a red flag in front of a bull.

      Example: Sunrise at six a.m. in London? On what planet?

      This is usually followed by the author digging up ten web pages of charts with sunrise, sunset, tides, etc. proving their point — and followed with an equally snotty comment.

      It really shouldn’t be an unpleasant, nervewracking experience for anyone involved.

  • Kim W–I had never heard of content editors before this article. Copy editors, yes; content, no. They sound like a gift from the heavens, someone to help streamline the pacing and straighten out the plot, like fairy godmothers/godfathers with red pens instead of magic wands. I wonder if many good ones exist in the indie publishing area.

    NK–According to one of my mentors, very few good content editors exist at all, anywhere. It’s a weird skill-set.

    Sometimes its like you’re the lawyer for the characters: (Editor to author:) “Why won’t you just let Mike kill Louie? It’s all he’s been talking about for 357 pages? Why are you withholding that from him now? I’m not saying that you can’t–I’m just saying that I don’t know how holding out on Mike supports the book’s master effect. Are you mad at Mike for some reason?”

    Other times you plead on behalf of the reader for less auctorial opacity, “Can’t you be compassionate to the reader? Give her a fighting chance at understanding what the character is thinking in this scene? In two sentences you could lessen the reader’s burden so!”

    Still other times you advocate for the whole work to the author, “Don’t second-guess yourself. It’s uncomfortable, but stay the course.”

    And sometimes you are the necessary straight shooter, and first-reactor to the MS: “I stopped reading closely on page 59 and skimmed until page 73. I think this section might benefit from some special scrutiny.”

    And a whole bunch of other stuff like that. If you want to know more about it, pick up “The Fiction Editor, the Novel and the Novelist” by Thomas McCormack.

    Kim W–….and this is in Omaha, Nebraska…..And the local Borders had Nicole Kimberling’s Ghost Star Night and Somebody Killed His Editor on a well populated GLBT literature shelf. I say “had” because they were bought quickly. ^_^

    NK–Hey thanks for that purchase! But did you just say that you bought my book from a store in Omaha, NE? No way! Never have I imagined actually being in a store in my natal state. (Sorry, about being off-topic here, but that is just wild. I was born in Scottsbluff, BTW.)

    • NK – …sometimes you are the necessary straight shooter, and first-reactor to the MS: “I stopped reading closely on page 59 and skimmed until page 73. I think this section might benefit from some special scrutiny.”

      – Honest and brutal. Like a friend that will admit “Yes, that makes your butt look fat. You should change.” I will definitely check up that book by Thomas McCormack.

      NK – But did you just say that you bought my book from a store in Omaha, NE? No way! Never have I imagined actually being in a store in my natal state. (Sorry, about being off-topic here, but that is just wild. I was born in Scottsbluff, BTW.)

      -Indeed I did! ^_^ Seeing it on the shelf was a surprise for me too. *Checks Borders inventory online* And it looks like they still have a copy in store for another lucky reader.

  • JL–but Nikki reminds me of editors you used to read about in books.
    ;-D

    Though maybe less eccentric.

    NK–Aw, shucks…

    That’s because I modeled myself after
    1) fictional characters and
    2) editors who last worked 65 years ago and so might as well be fictional characters from a contemporary perspective

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