If you’ve done any financial investing – and if you’re planning to write for a living, I sincerely hope you have – you know one of the secrets to success is diversity. It’s common sense. One of the earliest bits of homespun wisdom we receive is don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Whether forming lunch room friendships or sending out college applications, we’re cautioned not to pin all our hopes for success on one single person, place, or thing.
So it is fascinating to watch so many authors falling headlong into the trap of exclusivity.
No matter if it’s working with one publisher or signing up for Amazon’s KDP Select program, many, many – maybe even most – authors seem strangely willing to trust their fortunes to someone else’s vision and diligence. For all we talk and blog about taking control of our careers and treating writing like a business, an awful lot of us seem peculiarly eager to have someone else – some one else – be in charge.
Part of that dependency is a holdover from traditional publishing. In the old days you signed on with a publisher and that was pretty much that, unless you were dropped, or your editor left, or you got a much, much better offer somewhere else. Of course, in those days most authors were only writing one or two – at most — books a year.
Part of the dependency is due to the fact that it’s just easier and simpler if we’re dealing with a smaller cast of characters. It’s certainly less complicated to keep track of the stylistic idiosyncrasies and personalities of one publishing house versus five. And there are practical reasons for building a solid backlist with one publisher; not least is the hope that our loyalty will be rewarded with good release slots and promotion dollars.
And the final part of that dependency is likely due to the writer temperament. When you consider what a writer does all day – dreaming and imagining and then trying to formulate those dreams and imaginings into stories others can understand and enjoy – well, it’s not surprising to hear that a lot of writers are more creative and emotional than they are shrewd business people. Submitting to another publisher – or any publisher — means taking the time to put together a proposal, it means risking rejection. Writers prefer to write. That’s one thing that has never changed and never will.
So if you’re happy with your publisher or with self-publishing, why do you have to have to worry about diversifying?
First, because things change. Think about how much publishing has changed in the last six years. If you weren’t publishing six years ago, that’s your answer right there. It’s also the reason you want to be careful about signing any lengthy contracts right now. Publishers come and go very quickly these days. Granted, Amazon isn’t going anywhere, and most of us are earning most of our income from Amazon, but both Apple and Amazon recently applied for patents to sell used books. That may be another game changer. The fact is, none of us know what the future of publishing looks like. The only thing we know for sure is that publishing is changing and will continue to change. You want – need — to have some options.
Secondly, when you’re first published – in fact, this will remain true for most authors in any genre for the majority of their career – you don’t have an author brand. You have a genre and you have your publisher’s brand. Even now, with Amazon dominating the digital market, a significant percentage of readers shop their favorite genre through their favorite publishers, even if they ultimately buy those titles through All Romance Ebooks or elsewhere. Think about the type of books Carina Press puts out versus Loose Id. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but from cover art to copyediting, both houses have their own distinct style. They have a readership, and that readership really likes the flavor of that particular publisher.
On the other hand, you have readers and reviewers who don’t like a particular publisher. Whether that bias is fair or right is beside the point. If you want to reach those potential readers and reviewers, you’ll do it by publishing with other houses. It stands to reason that the more exposure you can get, the more readers you’re likely to find. Being published by a variety of top notch publishers gives you credibility and visibility. The very act of being published by a good publisher is in itself promotion. Add to that the promo efforts of each publisher, even if minimal, and you can see why diversifying is to your advantage.
We all want and need more readers.
You might be thinking that it’s disloyal to write for somebody else after your publisher has been so good to you. Well, keep this in mind. You’re writing for yourself. Your publisher accepted your manuscript – and continues to accept your manuscripts — because your work is worth investing in. It’s a business arrangement, and should your work no longer sell, your publisher will be the first to remind you that it’s nothing personal, it’s simply business. The good news is, you build your personal brand by publishing widely and getting known for all that makes your work unique. Once you do establish your author brand, all your books sell better – and that’s good for all your publishers.
I’m not saying all your publishers will have the wisdom to see it this way. Even Amazon and Apple don’t have the wisdom to see it this way. Which brings us to reason three for diversifying – which is a mix of the practical and, well, the philosophical.
It’s no news that Amazon wants all the marbles in the publishing game. They give considerable incentives for publishing exclusively through the Kindle Select program (though data increasingly suggests that freebies and dirt cheap pricing no longer guarantee transitioning to regular priced purchases). And as they add new countries into their global distribution, they are limiting the seventy percent royalty to titles exclusive to Amazon.
Apple is just as bad (and with fewer author incentives) but in the case of Apple, it’s moot because no one else supports .ibooks format.
I’ve listened to authors on a number of publisher lists fretting about the fact that publisher site royalties are way, way down – and of course Amazon royalties when received through a publisher are much less than Amazon royalties when you publish direct, making it harder for our indie publishers to compete with the Zon either as retailers or publishers.
I’m not going to be hypocritical and pretend I’m not grateful for my Amazon royalties. The royalties off my backlist were what enabled me to afford last year’s sabbatical. But there’s a reason I’m preparing submissions to publishers right now rather than choosing to self-publish all my new work.
Partly it’s a relief once in a while to let someone else worry about cover art and formatting and distribution; partly it’s because continuing to work with good publishers gives me credibility and visibility; and partly it’s because I’m not comfortable having Amazon control my entire financial future. I don’t do Amazon Select. None of my titles are exclusive to Amazon. I do not believe the sales that I would lose by removing my titles from other platforms would be made up at Amazon.
Mainstream publishing got into trouble because of its stupidity and greed, and it became greedy and stupid because there were no other options for authors. There was no real competition. Everyone in mainstream publishing operated the same way. But then along came epublishing and Amazon, and the playing field was leveled. It’s an exciting time in publishing and it’s a lucrative time for authors. More authors are earning a living writing fiction than ever before. I would like it to stay a lucrative time, and I believe the most likely way that will happen is if Amazon continues to have strong and viable competition. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s no different in publishing than anywhere else.
So, yes, my position is a philosophical one, but it’s also a practical one. In the long run, it’s in my best interests – as it is in yours — to do what I can to help keep competition alive and all my options open. Don’t succumb to the pressure to go exclusive. Diversify, diversify, diversify.
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