Fence Straddler

As someone who straddles both sides of the publishing paradigm – I release books through traditional publishers and also publish my own – I have found that the straddle model really makes sense for me. Let’s see if it makes sense for you, too.

Broadly speaking, I publish two types of books, novels and how-to non-fiction. The novels are more suited to the traditional publishing model because they need the boost of reviews, national media marketing, and (even in this day and age) bookstore distribution. With my novels, then, I make common cause with a boutique publisher, sharing revenues 50/50 and using the combined clout of our marketing, publicity, and social media efforts to grow and build my fiction brand.

On the how-to side, though, I find that it’s much more effective to indy-pub, because the kind of how-to books I write are the kind of books that people go looking for. It’s a rare reader who wakes up one day and says, “I wonder if John Vorhaus has written any new novels.” But it happens every day that someone wakes up and says, “I need to learn how to write better,” and her internet searches lead her to me. In the case of the novels, then, I’m pushing content toward the reader. In the case of the how-to books, the reader is pulling content to herself. Since such a reader will come looking for my books, I don’t have to work so hard to market them, and I don’t need the marketing muscle, or the distribution functionality, that a traditional publisher offers. Thus I indy-pub and keep most of the revenue for myself.

Note that I use the phrase “indy-pub” instead of “self publishing” to describe my efforts. This is by design because, for better or worse, the latter phrase still carries the stench of vanity press, at least to people of my generation. When you say, “I self-publish,” people (well, some people) will think, “Ah, you’re not good enough to get a ‘real’ publisher.” Annoying, right? But if you say you indy-pub, suddenly you’re as cool as any alternative rock band. And not for nothing, but I hope you’ll join me in my campaign to remove “self publishing” from the zeitgeist. It isn’t helping us, and we would all be better off if we were perceived to be as cool as rock bands, yeah?

With that said, there is still a strong prejudice among writers for going with a so-called “legitimate” publisher. But consider this: a publisher, at the end of the day, is nothing but a content delivery system. It may be that this content delivery system is the best one for you, but don’t assume that it is, just because it has perceived prestige. That prestige is fading fast. In another generation readers will be completely opaque to the source of the content they absorb – if, indeed, they are not already. There will be no more prestige associated with having Random House as your publisher than, say, Nonrandom House, or my own Bafflegab Books. All that will matter to the market of tomorrow is efficiency. You want the content delivery system best suited to putting your words where people can find them.

It makes some people sad to see the death of traditional publishing, but when you appraise it through the filter of efficiency, a different picture emerges. The historical model, after all, involves so many cumbersome steps. A writer wrote a manuscript, physically printed it on paper, and sent that paper through the mail to a publisher. The publisher had the manuscript typeset and reproduced. Physical copies were printed, warehoused, boxed, and shipped to book stores. They were placed on shelves by people in hopes that other people – happy coincidence – would come along and pick them up, take them to the checkout counter, buy them, and carry them home. That’s an awful lot of physical manipulation of something that is not, at the end of the day, at all physical: words.

Contrast this to my indy-pub model. I write a book. I create ebook and print-on-demand versions of it. In the case of the electronic version, the content is instantly available. In the case of POD, the content is produced in physical form exactly once for exactly the person who wants it. That’s maximum efficiency in content delivery.

Yet even as I write the words “content delivery,” a little part of me dies inside. When did words – stories and books – become mere “content?” When did reading become “content acquisition?” Am I not, in some sense, degrading the entire notion of authorship by couching it in these terms? Or am I being overly sentimental in this? Should I not just accept the current reality and try to make the most of it? Wouldn’t that be the “efficient” thing to do?

To tell the truth, I’m torn. I still have dreams of publishing super-stardom, where I’m being interviewed on The Daily Show, and Jon Stewart is holding my book up to the camera. He can’t do that with an ebook, and no matter how many copies of that ebook I sell, the experience won’t be the same. On the other hand, I’m a practical man, and I know that I must sell to survive – to continue feeding the addiction that is the writer’s life. So I adopt the following business model: Go off in all directions at once. You’re bound to arrive somewhere sometime.

Go off in all directions at once. You’re bound to arrive somewhere sometime.

Can I recommend that business model to you? Go off in all directions. Continue trying to attract the attention of big publishers. Make common cause with small ones. Publish your own titles. Build your brand. See what works for you. One thing is for sure: we are in a time of flux. Those who adapt to the changes are the ones best positioned to profit from them.

Is it just me, or do you have that “vanity press” bugbear in your head? What steps do you take to make that annoying voice go away?


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!