Rethinking Publishing, Rethinking Teal

I’ve written a book.

The book is called Teal, and it’s best classified as a YA sci-fi novel.  It’s 346 pages long – or more precisely, 102,282 words comprised of 550,713 characters.  (Characters meaning letters, numbers, and punctuation – not individuals in the story.)

I’m quite proud of Teal.  It took me some 18 months to finish the first draft, then another year to rewrite it in 1st-person instead of 3rd person (well worth it), after which came another year of reworking and rewriting the story to the point where I feel like it truly represents my best effort with these particular characters.  I’m a couple weeks away from having this latest draft done, at which point I can finally consider Teal “done”.

The road to finishing Teal has been…interesting, to say the least.  One of the high points in the experience came in 2007, when an early draft of the story was nominated as a semi-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition.  As part of the award, I was able to self-publish an early draft of Teal for free using Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing imprint.

If you have a copy of that self-published edition of Teal (with the red title and the misspelling of “apocalyptic” on the back cover), hang onto it, because that version is no longer available online.  A new edition of the book – with vastly improved writing and a new cover – will be available later this year.  If I’m ever famous, that out-of-print version of Teal may some day be worth a non-trivial amount.

(Or not.  Just to be safe, you might want to have a backup retirement plan.  :)

Another fortunate event in Teal’s short life was the opportunity to land on an excellent agent’s desk early last year.  The top agent on my list of “dream agents” asked me to send her a full copy of original manuscript – which was a dream come true.

Unfortunately, my almost-finished Teal rewrite is some thousand times better than the version the agent received, but I haven’t been able to elicit any sort of reply over the last year.

Maybe my original draft scared her off.  (I hope not!)

At any rate, this last year has given me a chance to reevaluate my feelings about writing.  I had originally planned to leave Teal untouched while the agent had it, but one minor fix led to another which led to another which led to a massive editing session that – I believe – has drastically improved the book.  All I know is that it feels much more “complete” than it did a year ago, and I’m finally hitting a point where I genuinely believe it’s gotten as good as I can get it without outside help.

Which gave me an idea.

<begin epiphany>

The publishing industry is seriously broken.  To quote one of a thousand articles on this subject:

…the publishing industry is in distress. Publishing houses–among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–are laying off staff left and right. Random House is in the midst of a drastic reorganization. Salaries are frozen across the industry. Whispers of bankruptcy are fluttering around Borders; Barnes & Noble just cut 100 jobs at its headquarters, a measure unprecedented in the company’s history. Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be “the worst year for publishing in decades.”

That was from a January 2009 article in Time Magazine.

Paul M. Denlinger provides an excellent summary of how the fundamental model of modern publishing is woefully out-of-date:

Looking at the book publishing industry today, it is a broken business model. From the author’s point of view, while writing a book is hard enough, the business side is even worse. First of all, in the US, one must find an agent and complete a draft and book proposal. The agent then shops the book to publishers, and then negotiates a deal with the book publisher, which usually involves the agent taking 10-20%. The publisher then may pay an advance (becoming increasingly rare), and then the author is paid a portion based on royalties for the books sold, which is usually 5-10%. The book publisher makes sure that the book is edited and makes its way into the book distribution system (dominated by 2-3 players) which gets it into book stores. However, the author is largely responsible for promotion. To make things even worse, bookstores in the US don’t really buy books; they sell on consignment. This means they can return unsold books to the publisher and get a refund, which cuts back even more on how much the author gets.

When you figure all this in, it’s amazing that there are any authors who make money at all!

Another, more philosophical take on the matter comes from the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin:

…the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.

Moneymaking entities controlled by obscenely rich executives and their anonymous accountants have acquired most previously independent publishing houses with the notion of making quick profit by selling works of art and information…

In those departments, beloved by the CEOs, a “good book” means a high gross and a “good writer” is one whose next book can be guaranteed to sell better than the last one. That there are no such writers is of no matter to the corporationeers, who don’t comprehend fiction even if they run their lives by it. Their interest in books is self-interest, the profit that can be made out of them—or occasionally, for the top executives, the Murdochs and other Merdles, the political power they can wield through them; but that is merely self-interest again, personal profit.

And not only profit but growth. If there are stockholders, their holdings must increase yearly, daily, hourly. [A recent] AP article ascribed “listlessness” and “flat” book sales to the limited opportunity for expansion. But until the corporate takeovers, publishers did not expect expansion; they were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly…

If you have the time, her entire article is well worth a read.

I hope every would-be writer is aware of these facts.  I hope authors everywhere have taken the time to peruse the swath of articles proclaiming everything from “books are dead” to “people don’t read anymore.”

Because if anyone can fix the broken publishing industry, it’s writers.

For hundreds of years, publishing houses have filled the necessary gap between “author’s manuscript” and “general public.”  Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, James Joyce, and every other pre-21st-century author required the services of a publishing company to make their respective works available to the public.

But with the advent of the internet, the gap between “author’s manuscript” and “general public” slowly disappeared.  In a matter of seconds, anyone with an internet connection can send a blog entry, status update, or tweet to a billion people across 100+ countries in just about any known language.  Instead of hunting for an agent who can hunt for a publisher who can hunt for a bookstore to present your creative masterpiece to the masses, you can present your novel directly to the public.

So why don’t authors do this?

Some might argue that it’s too difficult for the average writer to distribute a book electronically, but that’s simply not true.  Between services like WordPress and Facebook, let alone even simpler tools like Twitter, any human being with enough tenacity to write a book is 100% capable of setting up a website or online community that he/she could use to share AND monetize his/her work.

Some authors may not be aware that tools exist to distribute books electronically, but that is equally unforgivable.  In an age where very few publishing houses accept traditional mailed queries or manuscripts, anyone hoping to be an author must be aware of email and the internet.

And if you’re aware of those technologies, you’re halfway to building your own site.

Honestly, at the end of the day the answer to “why do publishing houses still exist” really boils down to one thing.

Writers are chicken.

(Chicken meaning “scared”, not “delicious bird”.)

Let’s face it: publishing houses exist because authors allow them to exist.  Without authors, publishing houses disappear.

The converse isn’t true.  Without publishing houses, modern writers can still exist, and they can continue to write as brilliantly as they have for thousands of years.

Every “you can be a writer too” essay/book/blog takes the opposite stance.  According to them, agents and publishing houses hold all the power.  They are the gatekeepers – the royalty – and without them you will never be successful.  Self-publishing is a hiss and a byword, something left for crappy authors who are too weak and inept to appease the mighty publishing overlords.

Would-be authors are told to simply accept this situation because “that’s just how it is.”  The same mediocre advice circulates on how to woo the mighty gatekeepers by prostrating yourself before them, begging for their acceptance and pleading for their blessing.  All this is done on the premise that maybe – just maybe – you will someday become one of the lucky anointed ones, an author with an agent AND a publisher.  As a prize for your newfound status, you are allowed to keep 5-10% (or less) of the profits made from selling your book.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?  </sarcasm>

Thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Authors don’t have to spend their lives begging for approval from the publishing overlords.

I first started worrying about the current publishing paradigm when I participated in the aforementioned ABNA contest.  While there, I had the privilege – no, the honor – of trading reviews with ~30 other contest participants.

It was a mind-blowing experience. Of the 30 first chapters I read, at least 10 were good enough that I would have paid to read the full story. Even now, two years later, some of the stories retain an indelible impression. One of my favorite contest entries told the story of “Evil Outfitters, Ltd.” – a company with the specialty of supplying evil masterminds with wardrobes, equipment, and accessories befitting their world domination plans.  The premise was fascinating, the style intriguing.  I’d never read anything like it.

Has “Evil Outfitters, Ltd” been published?  Not that I know of.  In fact, after hunting through those old Amazon forum posts, it looks like most my fellow writers have disappeared from the face of the earth.  Almost all their listed websites are defunct, and since Amazon has removed the contest entry pages their books are nowhere to be found.

This is tragic.  Absolutely tragic.  Using standard publishing odds, it’s doubtful any of those 30 individuals have gotten a formal publishing contract (though I hope otherwise!).   Far more likely is that each of their manuscripts lies on an obscure folder on a hard drive, or in a forgotten drawer in an office, or in a dusty box in a dusty attic.

How many brilliant novels and songs and films are hiding on hard drives or in attic boxes?  Thousands?  Millions?  It sickens me to think of all the creativity this world loses because it cannot be quickly and efficiently monetized.   I hate the thought that I may be one of only a handful of people to ever read the stories written by my fellow ABNA contestants.

So I’m doing something different.  Rather than hiding my novel manuscript until a publishing overlord deems it “worthy” of attention, I’m releasing Teal under a Creative Commons license and posting it online in its entirety.  The prologue and first 4 chapters will be made available tomorrow (May 2nd), with each subsequent chapter appearing each Sunday until the entire book is available.   Assuming I can maintain a chapter-a-week pace, the final chapter should appear some time in October.  Releasing the book serially will give me time to finish the rest of my edits, as well as finalize preparations for the new-and-improved self-published version

I know that some will inevitably view this as a concession that I’m just not good enough to break into writing “the traditional way.”  Bullshit.  The traditional model is broken – plain and simple.  The traditional top-down approach of publishers controlling and disseminating creativity is changing, and the only way to hasten that change is for the creators of art to start replacing “tradition” with “common sense.”

If you’re writing/composing/drawing in an attempt to get rich, go ahead and stick to the “traditional” way.  If you’re writing because you’re passionate about sharing your creativity with others, spend an afternoon researching Creative Commons and jump on the “non-traditional” publishing and distribution bandwagon.

You may be surprised by what happens.  The internet is full of commercial success stories from authors who used non-traditional means to eventually catch the eye of a traditional publisher.  This will continue to happen, because it’s the way publishing houses should work – they should help facilitate distribution of the very best creative works available, the ones so good that they deserve a spot on store shelves everywhere.

Because there is still a place for publishers in the world – a very important place.

See, publishers should not be “gatekeepers.”  They should just be the “icing on the cake.”

Stay tuned for Teal.  I hope you enjoy it!

Update: Teal is now live! Check it out here: http://www.tannerhelland.com/teal/