People with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.
(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)
There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.
A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.
Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.
You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though.
Self-publishing is changing the landscape, and fast. When you self-publish, your publisher will never get sold off or closed down. When those things happen in the Big Five, your sales team changes dramatically, and you probably lose your editor, too. Lots of the former Big Five editors are freelance now. Many are even freelancing now when they do their work for the Big 5. Anybody who knows HR knows how little most corporations like to hire employees.
Experienced editors’ eyes glaze over when you start to ask them about the book business. It’s all changing so fast. I was on a webinar Thursday where an editor said she’d rather have authors focus on making the best book they could. Good advice. The primary differences between traditional (agent+publishing contract) and self-pub are
1. In traditional, no money is needed up front from the author. The publisher provides the team: editing, production, publicity, sales. These days a debut author rarely gets an advance. You take a small share of the sales, and give 15 percent of your take to your agent.
2. There are fewer gatekeepers in self-pub. Not zero, but fewer. You trade this reduced judgement for building your own team. You’re usually head of sales and marketing. You invest in people, talent, and communications. If you don’t know what BookBub is, or how to advertise on and deploy a Goodreads presence, you should be looking at those — or even better, hiring out for talent that does.
I can go on for days about this. I spent 30 years in the tech industry writing about that business from the enterprise-level customer and vendor perspective. Books are changing almost as fast today. The time needed to create a book is the same as it ever was: longer than the author would like. Those stories of locking yourself in a room with 15-minute breaks three times a day, when on deadline, are commonplace.
Is that work? Let’s ask ourselves: how much do you want to publish a book?