An extremely pro-traditional publishing friend of mine just pointed out, after conceding many of my points on the new publishing landscape, that there is no “universal answer” on how to publish.
This is the last redoubt of those who do not want to admit that self-publishing is a superior option for the vast majority of writers. It’s an appeal for equivalence, which should be victory enough. I mean, who would have thought that anyone entrenched in the publishing industry would ever fall back to: “Hey, traditional publishing is still at least as good as self-publishing.”
But I’m not happy with an appeal to equivalence. When someone says “there is no universal answer” what they really mean is “there are always exceptions to every rule.” Which I’ll grant. Out of all the authors who debut this year, one or two of them will hit it big. They’ll look like geniuses for going with a publisher. And nobody will ever care about or mention the authors who didn’t make it.
Bestselling author Val McDermid admitted this today in this amazing story in The Telegraph. Val broke out with her fourth novel, and she knows that no publisher would have given her room to grow these days. She would have been dropped like a steaming hot potato. Literary agent Jonny Geller (joint CEO of Curtis Brown) was on the same panel with Val and agreed.
So let’s not equivocate. The chances of these two publishing paths being equal is a fantasy. That’s like flipping a coin and claiming the thing will land on its edge. One must be better for more writers than the other path. Forget the exceptions, what’s the general answer? According to Val McDermid, Jonny Geller, and myself, the answer is to start your career with self-publishing.
Here is how we know this to be true: Self-publishing is the new Top-Down Approach.
What does Top-Down Approach mean? It means you leave your options open. You start with the path that leads to any other path you care to take in the future. Five years ago, the Top-Down Approach was to query agents first and only resort to self-publishing if all else failed. Self-publishing was the very last resort. Because to self-publish under your own name was to commit career suicide. Practically no agent or publisher would touch you after.
We know for a fact that this is no longer true. People move from self-publishing to traditional publishing quite often. Which means: The former bottom of the Top-Down Approach is no longer a deal-breaker. But wait . . . it gets even more interesting.
Five years ago, publishers didn’t value backlist and e-books like they do today. Backlist books went out of print, but this is no longer true thanks to POD. Or backlist books disappeared from bookstores, but now most books are sold online. Because of these shifts, publishing contracts that once allowed rights to revert to authors are getting stricter. These days, reversion of rights are getting less likely, because books are worth more for a longer period of time. Also: non-compete clauses mean that you no longer have the freedom to publish other works how or when you choose. Because of these trends, the former top of the Top-Down Approach no longer leaves open other paths.
You can self-publish and still do whatever you like later in your career. You cannot traditionally publish and do whatever you like later in your career. The Top-Down Approach has completely inverted.
The quickest way to ruin your career these days is by publishing with a major publisher and having your book not do well. Five years ago — going back to what Val McDermid is talking about — if you published a flop, your publisher might give you a second, third, even fourth chance. That is no longer the case, and one of the most powerful agents in the business admits as much.
This is a very real shift in the way both publishing options work. It was this revelation in 2009 that made me put a contract for my second novel in a drawer and strike out on my own. I was blogging about this inversion even then. It hit me like a lightning bolt that signing lifetime rights away removed all further options, but self-publishing left open every future choice.
Which leads us to the big reveal: Signing with a traditional publisher is as risky today as self-publishing was ten years ago.
Let that sink in.
Of course, if you focus on the one or two authors who debuted in bookstores this year and hit it big, you’ll miss this. These exceptions become the equivalency. You can say “there is no universal answer.” Which will continue to lead thousands of authors astray. But who cares about them, right? Not publishers. And not pundits.
I care about advice to authors, not publishers. Pundits and publishing peeps will deny the truth of the new Top-Down Approach and continue to gamble on thousands of authors in the hopes that one of them hits it big. They’ll drop the other authors and reload next year. Val McDermid knows this. Jonny Geller knows this. Anyone with a clear mind knows this.
There used to be a path that allowed authors to nurture themselves, to hone their craft, to make mistakes, to grow as writers, to establish a following and a backlist. That path has changed dramatically in the last five years. That path used to be querying agents. Today, the path is self-publishing. It’s the absolute best way these days for the vast majority of writers. No equivalency. No appeal to exceptions. For the overwhelming majority, the surest method is similar to what other artists do: Produce your best work and make it available. Rinse, repeat, and grow. Start at the new Top. You can always fall back on a traditional publisher if all else fails.