I was sitting at my desk last Monday, working on my new manuscript (okay, kind-of working, kind-of surfing the internet) when Tweetdeck alerted me to the fact that Random House was offering my second novel, Time of My Life, at a promotional price of $1.99 . I was as surprised as I was elated: namely, very. Surprised because I parted ways with Random House (amicably) when my imprint was shuttered (R.I.P. Shaye Areheart Books – I still love you!), and these days, they have no further obligation to boost any of my books. And elated for this very same reason: I’ll repeat – we had parted ways, and frankly, since then, I’ve gone indie. A move which doesn’t always endear you to your former colleagues at the Big Six. (I guess it’s the Big Five now?)
But their willingness to promote a backlist book of mine is one reason that I frequently ask myself, while reading the latest industry news or Twitter skirmishes between factions or Amazon-demonizing from just about everyone: why can’t we all just find a way to work together? I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish, and I don’t mean to imply that, like, we should all return to our Montessori roots (though my mom was a Montessori teacher, and actually, maybe we should). But what I really mean to say is that I truly believe – having published four books at the big houses and one on my own – and having managed to maintain good relationships with many of my former editors or colleagues – is that these days, it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Or perhaps better said: it shouldn’t have to be an either/or. You shouldn’t have to be exclusively indie. You shouldn’t have to sneer at the traditionals and tell them they’re old dinosaurs. And you shouldn’t have to go traditional or bust. While I’m sure that some will (and can) argue with me, I honestly believe that flexibility and creative thinking on both sides could go a long way in changing the industry for the better. Here’s why and this is what I know:
1) Self-publishing The Theory of Opposites  was one of the best and most gratifying professional experiences I have ever had. I wouldn’t change it for a second. I had complete ownership of every decision made, from the cover art to the price point to the advertising to all of the people I hired to help me (editor, jacket artist, publicist, copy editor, etc). At this stage in my career and after dealing with frustrations in the publishing process with my fourth book, it was exactly what I needed. I will never regret a second of that decision, and I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was one of my higher selling books in years, and that we sold a slew of subsidiary rights: foreign, film, audio, large print. I was no longer at the behest of a schedule I didn’t love, of a publication date I knew was a stinker, of a cover that left me cold, of a price that I knew would turn readers away. Every single book I have written and published has been an invaluable learning experience, but this book at this time in my life was something I needed to do on my own terms. It felt important to me as a person, and that made it important to me as an author. And I think readers knew this – I think they saw it in my joy, whether that joy was contained in the writing or in the promotion. And because of all of these factors, the book (The Theory of Opposites) opened up a new audience for me and led to new readers, which…brings me to my next point. And back to my old publishers.
2) Because of the success of Theory, readers discovered my backlist. I could not HAVE my backlist without the traditional publishers with whom I have previously worked. I’ve tried my very best to maintain strong relationships with many of my former peers at those imprints because I sincerely value what they did for me and my books, and because I recognize – FULLY – that coming up in the traditionals made me the author I am today. I can’t emphasize this enough: whether or not I had grown disenchanted with the current environment, I owe a lot to where I came from. Whenever people ask me if they should self-publish, I ask them how well they know the industry; how much they know about getting a book to market-ready shape; if they understand how many rounds of edits a book needs to endure; if they have thought about promotion and marketing beyond, say, tweeting. My time with my publishers taught me all of that. So that my backlist is being rediscovered is a benefit to both of us, and a benefit that I, quite obviously, couldn’t have without them. But this rediscovery also means more sales for them – I’ve earned out on several of my books, so this is nothing but profit for my publisher. Either way, new eyeballs = win.
3) Which is part of the reason that those same publishers are still happy to collaborate. This is where that either/or notion gets shot to hell. Both HarperCollins (who published my debut, The Department of Lost and Found, almost eight years ago!!) and Random House (who did Time of My Life and The One that I Want) have offered $1.99 promotions of my books in the past six months. I may no longer be a current author in their wheelhouse, but they’ve been generous enough to still try to sell the heck out of my books. Again, win-win for everyone. Of course, there are plenty of disgruntled writers who complain that their publishers didn’t do enough for their books at the time (and trust me, I can add myself to that list…which, as I’ve alluded to, is part of the reason I went indie), but when this type of collaboration continues to thrive, it’s a reminder that what we all really want to do is get books into the hands (or onto the e-readers, I suppose) of readers. As authors stress about sales and advances and numbers and all of the things that aren’t being done for them (again: BTDT), and publishers stress about sales and advances and numbers and who to blame when a book underperforms, I feel like this is often forgotten. What matters is getting books out to readers, even if that means dropping the price and (gasp) paying for ads. Again, everyone wins.
4) All of that said, I don’t think I could ever give up the e-rights to my books again. Why? For one: price point…it’s not a coincidence that Theory sold well when it was priced at three bucks. I know that some argue that books shouldn’t be priced so inexpensively, but I ran my numbers and budget and knew what I wanted to get out of it. I also knew that, as I noted in my second point, it was more than just about the one sale of one copy to one reader. It was about establishing readership loyalty. So $2.99 it was. But even as I dig in my heels over my e-book rights, I’m not opposed to thinking outside the box. Getting a hard copy of your indie book in stores is still a high hurdle, so – in the spirit of axing the either/or mentality – why not consider a model where authors turn over paperback rights over for a higher royalty rate? Or accelerating the speed of the snail-like pace of the current publishing process? (One benefit to self-publishing is that you eliminate all of the middle-men and can turn out the same quality book in about half the time that the publishers do.) Or find a way to hybrid the process: as I said, I hired everyone I worked with for Theory, but there were times (certainly), when I would have been happy to have, say, Random House’s typesetters lay out my book or taken advantage of their savvy editors or copy-editors or whatever. But I wasn’t willing to compromise on price or pub date. Maybe there’s a middle ground where a publisher takes a small percentage in exchange for services provided. Or the publisher bundles your indie book with your backlist online? I DON’T KNOW. These may be terrible suggestions. Truly. You may all be rolling your eyes at them and thinking: girlfriend has drunk way to much spiked kool-aid. Maybe. But none of that changes my final point:
5) Something has to change. Honestly, right now, everyone in this industry is being forced to adapt to a brave new world. Without getting too Darwinian, those who do, those who adapt or find creative ways to change, are going to be the ones who thrive. I was unhappy with my lot, so I adapted. And I (at least so far) survived. The publishers who aren’t afraid to stop doing what they’ve always been doing have a fighting chance too. Amazon, certainly, isn’t afraid to think outside of the box. I’m not even sure they know what that box is. (And if they do, and you pay for Prime, that box comes with free shipping.) If this means that we all have to put our collective heads together and come up with a way to emerge better, stronger, more accessible to readers, more supportive of authors, then I am in. I’m more than in. I’ll lead the way. In the meantime, I’ll be happily tweeting about the lovely $1.99 promo that my old publisher was savvy enough (and generous enough) to offer. A win-win. Not something you hear about all too often these days in our little corner of the world.
What do you think? Who has ideas for collaboration between the indies and traditionals? Anyone? Anyone?