I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried to write the blog post that is to follow. As I pull it together now, I recognize that I am taking a risk of looking like I am pointing a finger at individuals who have placed their confidence in my work and gotten it to market. But at this stage of the game, this post isn’t so much about my experience in particular, but the troubling recurrence of certain issues I have been hearing from many authors across multiple publishing houses.
To be clear, my own books are small-press published, and in that process, I have made some great friends with some excellent people. In most cases, the way my works got to market was the right fit for where I was at that moment in my publishing journey. But as I seek to grow my writing career, I’ve hit a few bumps in the road. Had I been the only one to hit these snags, I’d let them pass quietly. But since there seems to be something of a quiet sickness going around, I feel the time has come for someone to talk about the elephant(s) in the room. Am I a fool for being the one to open my mouth? Maybe, but here we go anyway.
An Open Letter to New POD Publishing Houses
Dear small publishing entrepreneur,
Let me start off by saying, how fabulous that you are taking the risk of starting a publishing house. I applaud your pioneer spirit and your willingness to wrestle the conflicts, the slow return, and many sleepless hours editing, tidying, or worrying about books in order to get stories you believe in into the hands of readers. You’re going after something you love, and I admire that.
Secondly, let me also say that some of you are doing a bang-up job, and not a whole lot of this applies to those of you who are. Thank you to those of you who demand excellence, are responsive to your authors, and make the publishing process one where your writers come away confident the book you release for them is the best book it could possibly be. Thank you for being willing to wrangle us emotional artistic types over the peaks and through the valleys.
One final point before I truly begin: I know a lot of what people gripe about in terms of what publisher are or aren’t doing boils down to money. This is something that needs to be addressed—yes, POD publishing minimizes a company’s risk, but if there’s no start up capital slated for each book in the lineup, there’s a deeper-rooted issue to discuss there. It’s probably a subject for another post, written by someone better with money than me.
So, all that said, if you run an independent publishing house I hope you will keep reading and receive this in a spirit of mutual learning.
Challenge 1: About editors and editing…
Many of us are looking for that magical fit of author and editor. Most of us haven’t been in that relationship before, so we don’t even really know what it looks like. But when it’s not there, we can feel the lack. And if it’s really bad, it makes us question why we even write at all. As you endeavor to take authors’ beloved children (their books) and put them through the necessary paces to grow them up for the world, please make sure you have people on your staff of sufficient technical and emotional maturity to handle this. We authors are terrified of what we don’t know—we need to feel like the person who is guiding us through the minefield of publication and marketing isn’t oblivious to the mines. We need someone who is going to be firm on craft (and by that, I don’t necessarily mean ‘rules’) while sharing (as much as possible) the author’s vision for storyworld canon.
Can your editors bring experienced molding the manuscripts placed into their care? Or are they frustrated authors picking up some freelance while they hope getting ‘on the inside’ will get their own work published? We’re jealous of the Brandon Sanderson/Harriet McDougal relationships out there, and we desperately want that kind of skilled pruning ourselves. Even if we whine while it’s happening.
A trucking company wouldn’t hire a driver who doesn’t have his CDL. Please don’t do the equivalent with your editorial staff. Good, long-term experience breeds confidence. We need that mentor-apprentice relationship to nurture into us the boldness that will set us apart from both the self-published droves and the mass-produced formulas in ‘big publishing.’
Challenge 2: Cover art…emphasis on the word “art”… (I’m going to get in trouble on this one)
Even if it’s going to make our books take a really long time to earn out, please pay someone to do our covers. A professional illustrator, graphic designer, or photographer is beyond price. Free stock photos suck. Paid stock photos suck marginally less. A random girl posing on the cover in costume is not an illustration, it’s a portrait, and unless it’s the Mona Lisa, portraits are not compelling. And typography is an art. Please enlist a professional to build a masterpiece.
Oh, and please don’t let us put phone selfies on the back cover of our books as an author headshot. That makes us both look bad.
Challenge 3: Promises, promises…
Don’t promise us the moon if you can’t lasso it out of the sky and deliver it on time. On the other hand, don’t avoid all promises so no one can say you missed a deadline or didn’t deliver on a tangible point of agreement. Be concrete, be realistic, and if something starts to look like it needs to be adjusted in terms of delivery, say so very early. I’d much rather hear, “Oh, great news! The bad scenario we thought was coming—it worked out,” than “It’s going to be fine” long after I know it’s not. It’s like waiting for a doctor to arrive and pronounce your friend deceased while the nurse stand beside you and says, “Pay no attention to that flatline. Someone will get things straight soon.” In return, we as authors promise to be reasonable and flexible, because as we know, the unexpected is inevitable. If the unexpected swells into the drama-of-the-day, maybe we need to re-examine how equipped everyone is to actually do this right.
That touches on the “biggies” of what we want: a mature edit, experienced guidance, a cover that sells the book, and an honest, clear, professional relationship. We will do our best to offer you amazing stories that capture readers and keep them begging for more. Oh, which leads me to add one more thing we ask: if our stories are NOT already brushing the edge of amazing, please reject us. No, really, please do. It’s a cutthroat market out there, so saturated with garbage even non-readers can smell it. If we have a couple of years and a half million words of writing to do before we’re really ready, please don’t pull us into a fixer-upper relationship. (Better for us to be embarrassed now in private than later in an avalanche of bad reviews. Better also to forgo the fights that will break out when you tell us you need to change 80% of what we've written.) Force us to do our homework, keep the bar high, and we’ll all benefit in the long run.
Authors who really want to partner with you, who admit they are neurotic and temperamental