Hello, everybody! Big thanks to the Seekers for asking me to come to Seekerville and talk about being a hybrid author.This will be quite a weird little ride, so buckle up and keep arms and legs inside the blog at ALL TIMES.
If you’ve been watching the publishing world at all, you know things are getting a bit more… fantasticulous. (That’s my word for it. Write it down.)
Some see the current publishing climate like this:
Incredibly dirty, messy, and ugly. Agents are becoming authors. Editors are becoming agents. Authors are becoming their own publishing companies and saying ‘so long’ to the small royalties and stringent rules. Everyone is trying to reevaluate. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, I think this can be a perfect time for us all to take a good look at where we are and where we want to go. Are we fighting through mud to get our stories out? Are we being shot down again and again? Is there a better way?
And once we find that way, is there any going back?
This is where the term HYBRID comes in to our lexicon. A hybrid author is one who has self-published and traditionally published. Three years ago, the most successful traditionally published authors were jumping ship and heading for self-publishing because of the huge amounts of money they could make. They had the following, they had the skills, they had the platform, and they often brought their own editors with them. Marie Force, Courtney Milan, even Stephen King, all decided that they could do BETTER than what they were doing with any of the Big Six.
Besides the question of money (article and article, blog after blog, study after study show self-publishing can be much more lucrative than traditional publishing so we don’t need to argue the point, I hope), there was a bigger worry. Was the traditional publishing bridge burned, never to be crossed again? Once an author left the fold, could she ever come back?
And then the answer arrived. Just as everyone was jumping ship, those same people were signing new (and usually quite significant) contracts with the very same industry they left! Some outspoken authors (JA Konrath, Barry Eisler) have written about how the decision to go back to the ‘slavery’ of traditional publishing can do nothing except harm all authors. I don’t agree. I think that the freedom to choose our own path can only benefit us.
Courtney Milan explained her decision to sign a traditional deal after self-publishing success:
“I haven’t given up self-pubbing at this point, and I won’t. But I do think that traditional New York publishing has value. I believe in diversification, and I wouldn’t have a problem signing a New York contract for a limited number of books under a limited set of circumstances. After all, book sales multiply with the number of books out. Having more books out–and having paper copies of books on more shelves–would grow my audience so that even if I make less on those books, I could actually make more money in total. So I am perfectly open to the possibility of a NY contract as a method of diversifying myself. That’s a business decision. You might disagree with my reasoning, but I’m surely not oppressed.
I have friends who have worked with utterly magical editors, who would sell books to those editors any chance they get. It’s a business decision to get a smaller percentage for the chance to work with someone who will help you produce books at the height of your capacity. I have friends who do not have the time, inclination, or patience to self-publish–and self-publishing requires a very distinct skill-set. It’s a business decision on their part to focus on writing.”
Things are moving so quickly that some people are feeling a bit of a whiplash effect. They’re getting frustrated. Tensions are high. I hear grumbles and mumbles. Snark is the tone of the day on blog after blog. There is talk on all sides of how publishing is going down the tubes, the quality of literature has dropped into the cellar, readers are being short-changed, and careers are being doomed.
There are serious concerns about readers being damaged by independent publishing. ("But, the books may not be GOOD.") As if readers are forced to read, as if books are shoved down our throats, as if the fate of mankind depends on whether Fifty Shades was a fan fiction or if the writer is a marketing genius. And there is deep, deep concern over “indiscriminant” and “hasty” Kindle publishing by those who have “not paid their dues”!
The sky is not falling. If a book is good, it will rise to the top. If it's bad, it will sink. Or not. Sometimes good books don't get noticed. Sometimes junk books make bazillion dollars. It's the way it's always been. Self-publishing did not change this. Honey Boo-Boo still got a multimillion dollar book deal from Neil Gaiman’s publisher and I have very talented writer friends who can't get an agent to answer their queries.
To those who are panicking, I offer this quote: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” –Cicero, circa 60 B.C. Take heart! Times have been “bad” for a very long time and we’re all still here.
But beyond the hand-wringing, there are those that are finding new ways of working within the changing industry. Jane Dystel, agent at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, has done very well for herself by picking up self-published authors and working with them (and for them) in a way that’s mutually beneficial. She says this:
"I think that this whole thing is a very exciting time in publishing but we don’t know what’s going to happen. The indie authors don’t know what’s going to happen and the publishers don’t know what’s going to happen. The publishers spending a lot of money on these indie authors have every reason to want what they’re buying to be successful. On the other hand, it’s a whole new ballgame here. If it doesn’t work out for the indie authors who are making these deals, they can go back to self-publishing. They have great followings, they know how to do social media very effectively. It’s very early days. There are some people who you see on the best-seller list who used to be self-published and are now on best-seller lists and who have done well but there are others who have not. It’s so early and everybody is trying something new. That makes what we’re doing very exciting. And we’ll see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something else."
This is from an interview she did over at Digital Book World in JANUARY! Almost a year ago! And things have gotten even crazier since. Crazy in a good way.
There are a lot of people trying to catch up right now. Some are getting there slowwwly. Some are seeing their mistakes and jumping in fast. (Some toppled into the deep end and, after dog paddling for a while, have decided it isn’t too bad.)
I can give lots of links to other examples, but why do that when I can just use myself? So, without further ado, let me give a quick run-down on the why, the where, the what, and the how I became a hybrid author.
I started writing in 2009, when I was pregnant with my fifth child. I was working at Whitman College’s Penrose Library and had an awful lot of time at the front desk. I’d just read ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ and LOVED it! Hilarious! Of course, I knew it was a Pride and Prejudice redo and that just added to the wonderfulness. But… it was… sort of crude. Okay, a lot crude. I loved it but couldn’t really give it to everybody I knew. It got me thinking about a sweet P and P take off, set in academia. So, I started writing.
Fast forward two years and I’d found the Seekerville blog. I’d finished my first book, written a second and was trying without success to get an agent. I won a query letter contest in Nov. 2011 and got a full request from editor Melissa Endlich of Love Inspired. Three weeks later I got a call! YAY! First book sold!!!
Here it is, in all its glory, my first baby.
It released Nov 2012. Yes, that’s a full YEAR from the book being submitted. If you don’t know this yet, traditional publishing moves slowly. Not quite glacier-slow, but maybe molasses-slow.
The whole process of writing and selling books is an odd one. We work so hard, write so long, give up so much time only to wait. And wait. And wait. If you’re a slow writer, that can work in your favor. Sell one or two books a year? Yay! Right up your alley! But if you write more than that a year, you may be left with extras. Add in all the books that get a pass, and you’ve got a hard drive full of stuff.
I wasn’t sure if self-publishing was a good fit for me, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time before I took the plunge. You know those little diagrams where you follow the arrows?
Well, let’s imagine one for writers who are thinking of self-publishing. A lot of people talk about being a square peg in a round hole. Or round peg in a square hole. Whichever. You’re there, you’re working to fit in, but it’s really not comfy. There are gaps and drafts and your edges are getting a bit raw. You just feel… off.
THE SQUARE PEG
My experience of being the square peg was the gaps between books. The gaps between contracts meant gaps between checks. I know some people consider their writing career a hobby. I don’t. A hobby is knitting. A hobby is collecting bottle caps. My writing is a business and I treat it like one. (Wait, don’t tell me you don’t care about money and you’ll always write even if no one buys your work. You wouldn’t commute to a day job every day for free. Nobody does that.) Of course, we’re talking money. The creative side is a whole other story. I would write even if I knew I’d never sell another book. I just love it. But, for the sake of this post, let’s talk about money.
So, there I was: six kids, a whole bunch of books and a whole lot of time between checks. I was putting in the hours, getting myself to the job day after day (night after night), and there wasn’t any paycheck, really.
I could either change jobs (get a real job in the outside world) or take a closer look at self-publishing. (On our flow chart, if you’re not feeling those drafts and gaps. Stop right there. You’re good for traditional publishing. If you’re feeling the breeze, we’ve headed to step two.)
DO YOU LOVE TO SHARE?
With traditional publishing, your name is on the book, but there are dozens of people helping you with the process. This is one of the strengths of traditional publishing. You have assistant editors, editors, copy editors, and line editors. You have cover artists, back cover writers, blurb writers, and promotional assistants. You have agents and professional reviewers.
You go through hours and hours of editing as a group effort and must collaborate. You get your author copies and open this book you’ve written… and it’s pretty much yours. A lot of people helped make it happen. That can be very good. Season of Joy was nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice for best debut in a series for 2012 and received 4 ½ stars. I have NO DOUBT it was due to editor Melissa Endlich’s awesome work. No doubt at all.
Can you be happy with someone else’s fingerprints all over your baby? Are you happy with sharing the vision, the work, and the pay? (Remember your agent is getting 15% of the 6% your publisher is giving you. Did you follow that math? ) If you’re good with this sharing, excellent. Traditional publishing is a good fit for you. (I’m okay with it, too, so that’s why I still submitted to Love Inspired after my first book.)
If you don’t feel comfortable with that process for any reason, follow the arrow to the next box.
YOUR WRITING IS A HOBBY
There are people who write to publish but also it’s a hobby. As I said before, that’s not me. My husband works a hard job and we’ve got these kids who want to eat every day. If you’re independently wealthy, don’t need the income, or plain don’t care about money, this step doesn’t really apply to you.
If you write as a business, then sit down and look at how much you’re earning. Will selling one or two books a year be enough? Remember, this isn’t how much you can write. Don’t care about money? You can choose whether to keep going on our flowchart.
Money is one of those things in short supply at your house? Go on to the next box.
YOU’VE GOT GUTS
Someone asked how you get over the fear that no one will read your books if you self-publish. I sort of laughed at that because NO PUBLISHER can guarantee that someone will read your books. You get a contract, go through the above process, and… your book may not sell. You may get four reviews and three of them are ‘meh’ comments.
I’m not sure about you, but I battle that fear every time I put my fingers on the keyboard. What if I write it and nobody likes it? HUH? What THEN?
If you’re gutsy enough to claim the title of writer then you’re gutsy enough to get past the fear.
I mentioned the guts as near to the end of this flow chart as possible because guts matter. You can hate everything about traditional publishing, but if you don’t have the nerve to do it yourself, better stay where you are. It’s not easy. There’s nobody holding your hand. If it fails, you can’t blame your editor, your cover artist, your publicist, or your cat. You’ve approved every step of the process, no matter how many people you paid, so the failure (and success!) will fall on you.
Got guts? No? Stop where you are. Nothing is going to get you past the hurdles of self-publishing if you’re not brave enough to try it. People are going to look down on you. People are going to tell you that you’ve doomed your career. You’re going to get snide remarks and eye rolls. IT WILL HAPPEN.
No one is going to be patting your back. (But people will certainly be patting you on the head as they make ‘tut tut’ sounds!) No one is going to support you except the people who were supporting you all along- your friends.
Feeling GUTSY?? Awesome! Let’s keep going.
All of those boxes on the flowchart led me to this point in January 2013. My husband had been laid off for a few months and although we had a wonderful Christmas because it’s about family and not presents etc., etc., etc. it was still sobering (okay, it was downright frightening) to look at our non-existent bank funds. It was almost an entire year since I sold my debut book to Love Inspired. And I had more. Lots more. But it wasn’t happening. For a lot of reasons. I was the little hamster in the wheel.
I prayed that God would give us what we needed and He said, “You’ve got it.”
I waited, confident in that answer.
He said, “No, you’ve really got it. Already. In your hands.”
I stared around a little. (You can imagine God heaving a big sigh.) Then I clued in. RIGHT! I had books.
So, in January 2013, I didn’t know anybody who was self-publishing (besides just a few names on facebook). I didn’t know anything about formatting or getting a book ready to submit to Amazon. I didn’t know about platforms or file sizes or covers.
Sounds like a recipe for success, right???
Hm. Well, on January 1st of 2013, I put up a book. My kids were watching a Christmas movie. My husband was taking a shower. I wasn’t nervous about putting it up on Amazon because I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING!
I’d created a terrible little cover from a free site. (This is not it. I won’t show you that one.) You could hardly read the title. I’d formatted it with Calibre (which apparently has the worst record for formatting anything, although it’s free). I didn’t have it edited because I didn’t want to pay anything out of pocket.
Are you sensing a theme? I did it all for free, because basically I had no money.
Cool. There it was. And no one was buying it. So, after a week of no sales, I checked out some sites like J.A. Konrath’s blog. He talked about free runs. Oh! I didn’t know I could do that! I enrolled in KDP (Amazon’s exclusive program) right away.
On the next weekend, it was downloaded two thousand times and I actually got a good review!! And then I got bad reviews. The formatting was terrible. There were typos. The cheese grits never really appeared in the story.
So, my little book nobody loved started to sell. Not really quickly, but in the next few weeks I made about $400. To me, that was HUGE. Why? Because I did it myself. And it felt really, really good.
A month later, I put up a historical called All The Blue of Heaven. I wrote it back in 2010 and it had never found a home. It had a terrible cover (again, I didn’t want to spend any money yet) but I had better formatting, my sister edited for free (love her!!) and I put it up for free right away since that seemed to be the right way to start sales.
That first run it was downloaded 15,000 times. When I put it up for .99, it went right to the top of the historical Christian fiction charts. COOOOOL! As I write this, it’s #2. That’s eight months on the top of the charts. Besides the obviously much needed income, I feel like this book finally got a chance. The message I wanted to give, of strength after tragedy, is reaching the people who needed it the most. The notes and letters I get from readers have touched my heart in a way that is hard to describe. They tell me the book has blessed them, but their notes have blessed me.
In March I got call from Shana Smith of Love Inspired, offering to buy the second in my series (and another book, unwritten), the sequel to the book that came out Nov. 2012. It’s set for Nov. 2013.
In April, I joined the self-publishing loop on Yahoo and learned there was a method to this madness. Beyond the usual ‘write a book and publish it’, there were all sorts of tricks and tips to sales.
What did I learn? I’ll condense what I know so far, which is a very tiny part of what the really big movers and shakers know and practice on a daily basis. You can say this is just an opinion, but every time I’ve tried it, on every book, it’s worked. I have five books now on the top Christian fiction romance lists, and it’s not by accident. What Marie Force has shared ( along with many other NYT bestsellers) on that loop has been nothing short of a crash course in how to market and sell your books.
A side note: If you don’t believe this will be helpful because you’re going to traditionally publish your book, you might want to stick around anyway. A lot of the self-publishing tricks are being picked up by traditional publishing, including have a perma-free first book and using Bookbub ads.
For example: recently literary agent Janet Kobobel Grant blogged about how free doesn’t sell books. There was a lively discussion in the comments, with a lot of self-publishers weighing in, and a lot of other authors claiming that free books devalued their content. But then she attended a meeting with one of her client’s publishers and changed her mind .
“I had a recent conversation with individuals in a publisher’s marketing division that has given me whiplash. They generously shared charts, graphs, and details about how their free digital marketing functions, and the statistics are downright impressive. This department has worked the analytics masterfully. I found myself wishing other publishers devoted the same attention to what works and why. So you may consider this is my official recognition that, when it comes to this publisher, I was flat-out wrong. And happy to be so.”
I found this very interesting. Self-publishers use free book runs to sell books. People who can’t see the sales for themselves don’t believe it’s helpful. In fact, other authors feel it is lowering the value for their own books. Traditional publishing houses (which are in the business of selling books) try the practice and find, when done right, it works, and works really well. Agents are confused about why their client’s books are being given away and object. Publishing houses put in the time to explain the marketing behind it. Meanwhile, self publishers are… giving away free books in order to sell books.
LOW PRICE: You can make much more by selling two hundred copies a day of a .99 book that sits on the top spot, than by selling ten copies a day of a 5.99 book that is invisible. You keep .35 (about what I get from my Love Inspired books) of .99 but that makes $70 a day. You can’t imagine giving away your baby for less than $3.99? You keep $3 of $3.99 but you’re only selling ten, so you’re making only $30 a day. People talk about fair price. I like to look at the bottom line. Unless I’m famous and a NYT bestseller, I’m not going to get away with pricing my book above .99.
And since I actually make more that way, it’s all good. See how this works? I don’t feel like I’m giving my book away. I’m feeling… like I’m making some money.
Update as of 10/25: I’m finding I can keep a book at 2.99 if it’s the second in a series and has only been out a few months. This is good news. This means my sales are getting stronger and my series’ can support a higher price. Yay!
- GOOD EDITING: I still get slammed when people get around to reading an old copy of that first book. It’s cleaner now, but that won’t help those one stars. Once I had money coming in, I paid for editing. Every book still has typos. Even my LI books have typos. But it’s cleaner than trying to find them with just me and my old eyes. Kathryn Frazier edited my historical series and she did an amazing job. She caught things that I looked over a dozen times, and never saw. It’s worth the investment and I wish I had done it sooner.
- RE-INVEST: Whatever you make, take 30% and put it back into your business. Maybe that means your office, supplies, chair, massages, lattes, whatever. For me, it meant great covers. (Mine are done by The Killion Group.) They cost about $235 a cover and I love them. LOVE. I don’t think my books would have gotten to the top of the charts (free or paid) with the old covers. Despite what you hear, people will not download just anything that is free. It still has to look good. Kindle space isn’t infinite. You put your book up for free and if it has a bad cover and typos in the blurb, you’re not going to crack that all-important top 100 Free list.
- SERIES: set the first for free WHEN you put out the next in the series. Really, it works. The second time I put up a book for free in March, I paid for a Bookbub ad. It was $120 and I had 70 THOUSAND downloads. You read that right. That’s like a Times Square billboard. And on the self-pub lists, they say you’ll get about 1% of those reviewing. I went from 28 reviews to 210 in 3 weeks and they’re still coming in. The book sells about 100 copies a day at .99 so I can’t tell who’s reviewing a free book and who’s not, unless they say that, but I’m just glad I’m getting any reviews at all. With self-publishing, reviews are gold.
In May, I released my second Austen Takes the South book. I posted the question on the self-publishing loop and the seasoned professionals were very happy to tell me how to time the release. It was a huge success, debuting in the top ten of contemporary Christian fiction the very first day it was for sale. For a book by an unknown author (truly unknown, since they’re under a pseudonym) it was a testament to how this method works.
There’s also a certain percentage of those downloads of the first book, that will buy the second in the series.
You see the method to the madness? I was starting to clue in. I needed to work on these series but I also had books on the hard drive that I needed to get off my mind. So, I’m alternating between putting up books in a series and stand-alone books from the hard drive.
My traditional contract has a non-compete clause, so all of these recent books had to be passed by my Harlequin editors. So when the next title was sent back as not quite right for
Love Inspired, I was free to put it up on Amazon.
In July, it started with a free run. It’s a single title, not part of a series, so after two days and 12 thousand downloads, I put it up for .99. It sold 150 copies a day, from the very first day. On July 14th, it was number one on the Christian romance charts and sold 600 copies. (Right now it’s #13, almost four months after it came out. It would be higher if RUTH LOGAN HERNE would get out of the WAY.)
In September, I put up the second in my historical series, called Purple Like The West. It’s selling well, and I haven’t dropped the price yet. More than this, the messages I’ve received from readers have truly touched my heart. It’s a story of courage and owning up to our mistakes. It was a very important story for me to tell, and I’ve been thrilled that the story has helped other people find their own courage to be what God has called them to be.
(While this is all happening, I’m also working on my contracted titles for Love Inspired. I think hybrid is Greek for “juggler”.)
So, here we are, back again at why I’m doing what I’m doing and if it’s right for you. (Are you a square peg in a round hole?) There are many kinds of self-publishing, but this is the one I chose. I’ve never regretted it. Not for one single moment. It’s been life-changing for my husband, for my kids, for our family, for my extended family and for myself. I can see this as a business now. I can see a lot of things that I just couldn’t imagine even ten months ago.
I’ve earned ten times what I earned last year alone, only counting self-publishing. No waiting six months for a royalty check on numbers of sales I can’t see. No more wondering how much the check will be. I can see my sales in real time, and get a monthly accounting.
But besides the money, it’s opened doors that were closed before. It’s given me the freedom to look at traditional publishing again and make an informed choice. As a hybrid author, I’m free to move back and forth, to weigh offers, to choose a deal or to say ‘no thanks’.
(I was hoping to make an announcement today but it will have to wait a little longer, even though I’m bursting with excitement.)
But let me just say that being a hybrid author means trusting your story and trusting God. When God is nudging you to write a story and bring it to the world, don’t listen to the negative voices. As someone on here said, ‘ignore the noise’. Do what you need to do to bring your story to life. And the only thing that will keep you from making a traditional deal, or self-publishing, in this business, is yourself. It’s your decision. And that’s the way it should be.
Thanks for having me on Seekerville and I’m offering two copies of my Love Inspired November 2013 release, Season of Hope!
You have to comment to for your opportunity to win a book! Winners (two of them) announced in the Weekend Edition
|The Party Ends in three days!|
Virginia Carmichael can be found on Facebook, Twitter, her blog The Things That Last and she is also the Fresh Pioneer at the Yankee Belle Cafe.