The Argh Interview: Barb and Jenny on E-Publishing, Part One
Barbara O’Neal (aka Barbara Samuel and Ruth Wind) and I have been talking about the e-publishing over the past week. Today and tomorrow we’re posting the transcripts from the chats (edited because we wandered off topic). Because we’re sure everybody wants to know what we think. And because we need blog posts.
Jenny: Hi. I’m Jenny Crusie. I’ve written twenty novels with traditional print publishers, and I’m watching what happens in digital publishing (especially author-originated digital publishing) with interest and not a small amount of envy.
Barbara: Hi. I’m Barbara Samuel. I’ve written forty novels in 3 subgenera of print publishing. I’m currently writing women’s fiction for Bantam as Barbara O’Neal. I’ve also dipped a toe into the digital market with seven backlist books.
Jenny: A toe? You’ve dipped a whole foot.
Barbara: It felt like a toe, but now it’s really a leg, I have to admit.
Jenny: In it up to the hip. Maybe that’s what we should call this post: Hip Deep in Author-Originated Digital Publishing.
Barbara: I love it.
Jenny: Please notice how careful I am to avoid the term “self-e-publishing.” Barbara and I have been having one of our traditional heated discussions online, this one on the phenomenon of authors doing their own publishing.
Barbara: We do have some heated discussions.
Jenny: How many years have we been arguing about things?
Barbara: Starting back on GEnie in what? Somewhere in the 90s.
Jenny: The point is, if you hear us yelling at each other later, we do that a lot.
With a great deal of warmth and respect (g).
Barbara: We do yell and scream and really disagree, but I think somebody has to disagree with her.
With love. Like sisters.
Jenny: Absolutely. So our current heated discussion began when I posted on my blog my thoughts about authors doing their own publishing digitally. Which I was calling “self-e-publishing” a clunky but still descriptive term.
Barbara: And I would like to it call indie publishing, which has become a standard, although some people dislike it, too.
Jenny: I think it’s confusing because I think it also refers to small press publishing, but mostly it doesn’t tell people what it is. Which is authors taking the publishing process back from traditional publishing houses and publishing their work themselves on the internet. Except, you know, shorter than that.
Barbara: I’ve never heard that term in reference to small presses, I’ve only heard it in reference to people publishing themselves in electronic format. Either way, we are referring to the same thing. Terms are important here because the paradigm is shifting, and language is a way to reflect that.
Jenny: I agree. Barbara raised a really good point during our previous discussion which is that “self-publishing” and “e-publishing” have generally not been highly regarded in publishing circles. So calling author-originated publishing “self-e-publishing” is kicking a brand new world of opportunity in both knees right off the bat.
Barbara: And I can hear a lot of the forerunners chortling in the background. Turns out they were right and they fought hard to get respect. Which they really did not get
Jenny: Well, I’ll debate “right.” E-publishing then is not what e-publishing now is. There was good reason that the current state of that kind of publishing wasn’t respected. It’s a whole new world now.
Barbara: They were right that things were changing rapidly and we would all be reading e-books.
Jenny: Yes, but they said that for fourteen years.
Barbara: Right. I would agree with that. It was not the same world at all, which is why we are having this discussion. Things have come a long way.
Jenny: I remember arguing with one group back in the day, telling them that they’d need a game-changer to make e-publishing really relevant. And they told me that all they needed was one big name like mine. So I published a short story on the net as a test. Sold five copies. The audience was not there. Of course, I’m not that big of a name.
Barbara: She said ever-so-modestly.
Jenny: And then came the Kindle.
Barbara: Kindle was the game changer. And I remember when I saw it for the first time, I knew it would be.
Jenny: I resisted it. It looked clunky. But you cannot pry my iPad from my sweaty little fingers.
Barbara: I, too, am completely besotted with my iPad.
Jenny: So now all of a sudden, e-publishing isn’t just viable, it’s taking over the place. Half of the sales of my first week hardcover sales were e-sales. That settled down to about 20% later, but that’s still a huge chunk. We were surprised (g).
Barbara: That’s an amazing percentage, and illustrates how fast things are changing.
Jenny: The thing is, we still don’t know if those who bought the e-version that first week are people who dropped the hardcover purchase to buy, or people who would have bought the paperback and went for the lower price, or people who just like e-books. Which is why this so fascinating. NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.
Barbara: Absolutely. Nobody knows ANYTHING. Which makes it all terrifying and scary and exciting and confusing, especially for people who have been in the business a long time and don’t have any other marketable skills.
Jenny: Except Barbara knows because she’s been doing this. One of the things I wanted to talk about was indie publishing for different levels of writers. So let’s start at the top with you. You’re a multi-published writers with bestseller status and a well-known name with many Ritas. How many Ritas? (For those of you not in the know, a Rita is the Oscar of the romance-writing world.)
Barbara: Six. And they’ve been a help in my digital adventures, since one of the books I have for sale is Heart of a Knight, which won the RITA.
Jenny: Six. Not that I’m jealous. So you were sitting around one day looking at your backlist and your significant other said, “There’s this thing called the internet . . .”
Barbara: He’s a computer geek. He kept chanting, “backlist, backlist, backlist.” I so did not want to deal with it. Too much trouble. Too many software things to deal with. Scanning…Covers….Ugh! I wasn’t going to bother with it. The thing that changed was that my blog and websites all crashed and I could not get them back. My cousin Sharon, a computer geek who happens to have lots of artistic talent, got irritated and went to bat for me.
Jenny: Went to bat. Tell me what’s involved in that.
Barbara: What’s involved in an e-book publication is first, an electronic copy of a book. Since my books were on older computers, I didn’t have copies, so they had to be scanned. Then proofread. Then turned into an electronic file. Then uploaded to three different sites in three different forms. See why I said forget it?? No. Freaking. WAY.
Jenny: When you say “scanned” do you mean face down on a plain old scanner, page by page?
Jenny: Oh. Argh.
Barbara: Horrible. I paid someone to do the first couple of books, In the Midnight Rain, I think, and A Bed of Spices, and they were EXPENSIVE. Like $700, so I said, no. That’s crazy. I have absolutely no patience for the detail work involved in proofreading. I hate it, so that wasn’t going to happen, either.
Jenny: $700 just to scan? I’d have rolled over in bed and said, “You know that idea you had? The scanner’s over there.”
Barbara: And the scans were horrible. There are much cheaper ways to do it now.
Jenny: Well, they were already proofread, right? Because they were published?
Barbara: No. They were not proofread, because the scans don’t read that easily. They have lots of glitches and there is no software to read and correct.
Jenny: Already, I hate this.
Barbara: Exactly. No way. I’m a writer. I LIKE writing. It’s my favorite thing to do.
Jenny: But you kept on going. Good for you.
Barbara: But I didn’t keep going. My cousin and my beloved kept going. They kept saying, “Let’s do this. Let’s find a way. I bet we can do it. Come ON.” So Christopher Robin, my beloved, talked Sharon into the scans and all that, and she hates it, too, but she’s detail-oriented and I paid her.
Jenny: It’s amazing what family will do for you if you pay them.
Barbara: She designed the covers, which I think are simple and clean and beautiful, but it took us many versions to find a look that we liked. (And there are issues, here, too, since there is not much artwork for historical novels).
Jenny: And that’s really important, even in e-publishing. It’s the first look at the book.
Barbara: The covers are extremely important. I see a lot of bad artwork out there. Not art that you might like and I don’t…just bad. It’s just not good for the format.
Jenny: I agree. It makes it look amateurish which is the impression you’re already fighting historically.
Barbara: Really good point. The art has to be better than what you’d find on a paper book. And you might not get it right the first time out. Learning Photoshop would be a very good idea, which my assistant did.
Jenny: So the first thing I’m noticing here is that you have back-up.
Barbara: A lot of it.
Jenny: All the stuff writers hate to do, you strong-armed family into doing.
Barbara: I also want to say that I had some money. Not a ton, but enough to hire help and buy good art and pay for somebody to do the annoying parts.
Jenny: That’s a really good point. You need capital to become a business. And that’s what publishing yourself on the net is, a business. You’re not putting on a show in the barn, this isn’t a hobby, this is part of your career, your brand.
Barbara: It is. You do need capital and you need assistance. You have to do good work and make it look good so you don’t drag down the rest of your brand. And, this comes later, probably, but because I had already been through a very rigorous editing process, editing, line editing, copy editing, I had a lot of confidence in the product. This is very specifically backlist publishing.
Jenny: More than that, READERS had confidence in your product. So now you’ve got scans and a cover. Then what happened?
Barbara: I uploaded most of the books over the fall, and they sold small numbers. Then–this is the classic Kindle story….I decided to experiment with lowering the price to .99.
Jenny: Wait a minute. “You uploaded . . .” ‘Splain that to me, Lucy. Pretend I know nothing. Because that’s what I know.
Barbara: I didn’t upload. I can’t explain it. My cousin, who is now my official assistant in all things web and e, and has a lot of experience, did it all for me. She uploaded the files to Kindle, Smashwords, and Nook. They are all slightly different, I gather. I have heard from others that it is not difficult. I just don’t want to deal with any of it.
Jenny: Ah, the excellent staff. Okay, moving on. How many books did you upload at once? And did you experiment with the price point with all of them?
Barbara: They went up a couple at a time. They sold modestly, but gathered steam as we posted more, and now we have six historicals and my first women’s fiction. We started experimenting with price, lowering the price on half of them to see what would happen. Those books caught, then brought the numbers up on the others. You have to understand, I had no expectations whatsoever. This was–is–just play for me. I have my traditional books and they are doing well, and I love writing them. But I wanted to see those historicals available. I loved them and the market wasn’t right for them at the time they were published.
Jenny: Why do you think those caught? The lower price point? How did that get them to the readers’ attention?
Barbara: I don’t know. That’s the honest truth. Nobody knows why things work, why that works, and then doesn’t work. NOBODY KNOWS.
Jenny: What I was fishing for was, did the $.99 price point put you on the e-books bestseller list
thereby alerting readers that you were there?
Barbara: It did. And then they bought like crazy. There are lists that alert people to cheap books, too, and the 99c point seems to be an impulse buy, like a song on iTunes.
Jenny: And now CR goes around singing, “I told you so,”
Barbara: Boy, does he ever.
Jenny: LOL. Did you do other promotion? Your blog? Reader lists? Goodreads? Mention it on Smart Bitches? Interviews?
Barbara: When a book went online, I posted to my blog and Facebook, but that’s it. I am not a marketing person for the most part. It takes too much time.
Jenny: So it was pretty much the price point that got the word out.
Jenny: This also sounds like it got you new readers, not just Barbara Samuel fans who wanted the chance to glom you in e-versions.
Barbara: A lot of new readers. And I know people howl about this, but honestly, at 99c, I’m getting the same royalty I got per book in print.
Jenny: Let’s talk about the howling tomorrow because that’s interesting, too. Right now, I want to talk about how this is going to have a terrific impact on your traditional publishing, too. Except for CR gloating, it’s a world of win out there.
Barbara: I hope so. I hope it draws readers to my print books, to the new titles.
Jenny: This explains why you’ve been wearing that T-shirt that says “ASK ME ABOUT INDIE PUBLISHING!”
Barbara: (Laughing.) I don’t think I have been wearing the t-shirt. I think I’ve just been arguing that there are some opportunities there. And I think you ARE jealous, mi amiga.
Jenny: Why would I be jealous of a six-time Rita winner living with a cute Englishman who’s making a fortune on her back list? Jeez. So this has been a huge success for you. Do you think that indie e-publishing is always better?”
Barbara: I do NOT think indie publishing is always better. Or even most of the time. But in some cases, it’s a very smart, real, deal. Especially with backlist.
Jenny: So what kind of things would traditional publishing have to offer a writer for her backlist to make it better than indie publishing?
Barbara: The pluses in indie publishing are speed of publication (the books can be published next week instead of next year), the speed of payment…getting paid within 60 days instead of the next 12 years, and getting money every month in a reliable way.
Jenny: It sounds to me that unless the publisher is going to sweeten the deal considerably, there’s no upside to traditionally publishing your backlist. Of course, that’s assuming you have the resources to do it well, but we’re assuming that. I don’t own any of my backlist or I’d be trying it, believe me. Next topic: Would you publish a new book this way?
Barbara: I don’t know. I loved doing historicals so much, and in indie publishing, I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to attract such a HUGE audience. I could publish my medievals and find the readers I love. Or finish the Georgian series I had completely mapped out.
Jenny: So one of the benefits is not worrying about sales. I mean, a lot of sales are nice, but your career isn’t over if they’re not huge.
Barbara: Right. The downside is editorial.
Jenny: Agreed. I don’t want to write a novel without Jennifer Enderlin.
Barbara: My editor is one of the big reasons I’ve had success. She’s brilliant and she pushes me. I also have an agent who is brilliant and pushes me and holds me back from the cliff. I don’t know how you find that without traditional publishing. That’s a grave concern. I’m not sending a book out raw—I want a really good editor to read it and help me shape it.
Jenny: I agree absolutely. That’s where some of my skepticism about indie e-publishing wiping out traditional publishing comes from. Editors and agents are not decorative, they’re necessary.
Barbara: Amen. And they are not a dime a dozen. You can find copy editors all over the place, but a great editor has a particular talent and ear that’s quite rare.
Jenny: Yep. I’ll leave Enderlin when she pries my cold dead fingers from around her editing hand. So even for well-established writers, indie publishing is going to be a risky route for new work. Of course so is traditional publishing, but I think the risk is great in indie. Backlist is almost a no-brainer, but the new stuff would take some careful thought.
Barbara: It would take a support structure I’m not sure exists at the moment.
Jenny: But tune in tomorrow because everything is changing so fast. So enough about writers with names; let’s look at midlist. These are authors who have been published in traditional publishing, but haven’t established the name and the readership that you have. And a lot of them are hurting because mass market is dying underneath them. Midlist has always been purgatory for writers, but now it’s more like hell.
Barbara: It’s a very tough place to be writing.
Jenny: So a lot of them are looking at indie publishing. Which is where I start to get worried. Because they are less likely to have the money to get that support group you’re talking about and less likely to know publishing well enough to know how it works let alone indie publishing which is a whole new ball game. I’d never say, “Don’t try it,” but I think a lot of the evangelists for indie publishing are promoting it as a can’t-lose proposition, and that’s not true. So pros and cons for the midlist writer who wants to go indie. Over to you, Barbara.
Barbara: What I would say is that there are probably some possibilities in indie publishing that don’t exist in mass market, and there are chances in mass market that don’t exist in indie publishing. The biggest advantage to writers in mass market is the access to editorial guidance. I know some formerly midlist writers who are doing amazing things with indie publishing. One of them, Bella Andre, showed up in the Washington Post, talking about the challenges and rewards in indie publishing. (Note how hard she works!)
Jenny: I saw that. She’s clearly loving the whole experience and having a lot of success, but as you say, she’s working incredibly hard. I was glad the Post journalist did her homework on the success rate in general, though, like the Smashwords founder pointing out that they have fewer than fifty writers making over fifty thousand a year, and that many of their authors never sell a single book. Which brings us to the question of how is the midlist writer is going to sell books on the net if she can’t in print?
Barbara: The same way she sold mass market books–by being compared to other writers like her, by being reviewed by online publications, by showing up on blogs. She can be referenced by listmanias and show up on recommendations.
Jenny: But if that didn’t work for her in traditional publishing, why will it make a difference now?
Barbara: I personally find a lot of books through the recommendation lists on Nook and Kindle…”you bought this so you might like this book, too.” Remember, it doesn’t have to be as many books to create success in the epublishing model.
Jenny: Yes and no. It doesn’t have to be as many books to make as much money, certainly. But if you define success as readership, then it does have to be as many books/readers.
Barbara: Does it? Why?
Jenny: Let me rephrase: If you define success as the money you make, yep. If you define success as the number of readers you get, then it’s the same problem as mass market. Unless there’s something about e-publishing that makes it easier to get readers.
Barbara: What if you define success as reaching the readership that will love your books and making enough money to live on? That has not been possible in the current marketplace for very many writers, while it could be quite possible in a digital world. That’s part of this discussion, though–that success as it has traditionally been defined is not necessarily the way it will be defined.
Jenny: I think every author defines success his or her own way. There really isn’t one yardstick. I’d rather have fewer readers and less money and the freedom to write whatever I want.
Barbara: Of course. But I would say that artists define success by supporting themselves by doing the work they want to do. Would you agree? I have that now and that’s success to me.
Jenny: Nope. I would not trade making a living at this for having the freedom to write what I want.
Barbara: What if you could have both? Not riches, necessarily, but a living wage.
Jenny: Are you saying that e-publishing can give me that? (Although I have to say in the interests of accuracy, SMP is giving me that and has been giving me that for a number of years. ) What I’m not seeing is how indie publishing is going to give that to those midlist writers. It’s worth trying, sure. I just don’t see how their chances are better in indie publishing than in traditional publishing. They both have the lost-in-the-crowd problem. So what would you tell the midlist writer who’s frustrated with her career and sees mass market slowly disappearing?
Barbara: I would tell her to give indie publishing a try. But to do it judiciously, and hire editors and good help. If she can’t do that, go the traditional route because traditional publishers have some things to offer, like distribution and the chance to make a name for themselves. That’s big. And if they’re going to do indie publishing, remember : covers, editors. Covers, editors. Covers, editors.
Jenny: I think a lot of midlist writers think the traditional route has disappeared. In which case, they’ve got nothing to lose. But I think they do have something to lose if they don’t remember, quoting you now, covers and editors. And marketing. If they don’t do indie publishing well, they’re going to look unprofessional.
Barbara: They will.
Jenny: Because indie publishing really is still fighting that stigma you were talking about, the idea that if these authors were any good, they’d be in print. That idea is obsolete, but it hangs on. So I think indie publishing actually has to be shinier and more professional that print publishing.
Jenny: And now we come to the people I’m really worried about: unpublished writers. They’ve always been the most vulnerable, and the people who are holding out indie publishing to them as a path to millions make me . . . angry.
Barbara: I agree with you. I am more worried about the new writers than anyone else.
Jenny: So what would you say to a new writer?
Barbara: This is very similar to the things I always say about agents. A great experience is nirvana, but a bad one is worse than not having one at all.
Barbara: It’s agonizing to be aspiring, and fear you might not ever publish, but far worse to publish work too early.
Jenny: Or badly.
Barbara: One of the worst things that happens to a new writer is the Freshman Rush, when a newbie is rushed by a publisher and gets a lot of money and attention and then…the book doesn’t perform. It could be for any reason… Bad timing, bad cover, bad editing, bad whatever… But the author is then scarred for life.
Barbara: You can never redo your first book. It’s hard to get published. It’s always been hard. But it takes time to learn what you need to learn. Takes time to hear your voice. Find your stories.
Jenny: Just plain learn the craft.
Barbara: I worry so much that new writers of great talent are going to be demolished by the ease of self-publishing and no editing. Maybe they will find their voices in public, but ow. So my advice is to stick with the traditional method for as long as you can. Traditional publishing does have cachet, after all. And access to things digital publishing does not.
Jenny: One of the things traditional publishing tells you is that you’re not ready yet. They’re not always right, but a lot of the time, they are. I’ve been eternally grateful to every editor who turned me down in the beginning. I would not have wanted those books to have been made public even though I thought they were great.
Barbara: Oh, me, too!
Jenny: But sometimes you’ve written a good book and they turn it down because they think they can’t sell it. Even if your book is good, you’re going to need good production values. And no matter how good you are, you’re going to need an editor. You can’t edit your own stuff. It’s like taking out your own appendix. It doesn’t work.
Barbara: Editors. Editors. Editors. They do not get the attention and appreciation they deserve. [Yawns} I need to call a halt pretty soon. I turn into a pumpkin at 10.
Jenny: Okay, let’s wrap this up for today. My advice to a debut author would be to spend a helluva lot of time researching how to publish a book. Then find a good editor (more research) and a good cover designer (more research) and if you can afford it, a good marketing team. And then work your ass off promoting the hell out of the book everywhere on the net following that marketing guidance. And then when you don’t sell as many books as you’d hoped, you pick yourself up and do it again with the next one. And the next one and the next one.
Barbara: Very good.
Jenny: Because indie conventional wisdom says you need about seven titles before you’ll stick. And those need to be GOOD books so that people come back.
Barbara: Really? I didn’t know that.
Jenny: Also, you are not Amanda Hocking.
Barbara: Just as you are not JK Rowling or Stephanie Myers.
Jenny: Give me time. I have this idea about a wizard that sparkles. But really, every time somebody says, “Amanda Hocking made millions from her first novel so I can, too,” I want to say “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France; even though you have a bicycle, I don’t see you doing that, too.”
Barbara: She’s very lucky and very smart and very, very determined.
Jenny: She’s amazing. A phenom. And she worked her butt off for that success. The stuff that makes me crazy in all of this is the idea that this is EASY. It’s not easy. It’s just a different kind of hard.
Barbara: I love her blogs. She’s the real thing. She’s so devoted and so intense and such a WRITER.
Jenny: And so damn smart. And she took a publishing contract for her next series.
Barbara: Smart choice, IMO.
Jenny: The take away I’ve gotten from talking about this all week is that all of these venues are options, and writers should take advantage of every option they can. But do it with open eyes.
Barbara: The more you know, the more choices you have. All of us have. That’s true even of publishers.
If you choose indie publishing you need as much information as you would if you choose traditional. Indie means INDIE. You’re doing it, all of it. That’s money, but also so much work. Like a restaurant owner.
Jenny: Traditional publishing isn’t dead. Indie publishing isn’t the grail. But indie publishing is very exciting (g). Okay, I am jealous of you. Satisfied?
Barbara: Well, I guess. But I’m still Crusie.
Jenny: No, I’m Crusie. You’re Samuel, Wind, and O’Neal. Lucky CR. It must be like having a harem.
Barbara: Still NOT Crusie. LOL I’m fading.
Jenny: We’re quitting for tonight because Barbara can’t remember who she is, but we’re going to do this again tomorrow because we have more aspects of indie publishing to talk about, specifically the emotional aspects of the revolution.
Barbara: More! Later! When I have a brain!
Jenny: And goodnight all.
Barbara: Good night.