Author Karen Traviss has published a slew of successful books, from her own Wess'har Wars series to a number of Star Wars, Halo and Gears of War novels. But for her new techno-thriller Going Grey, she decided to walk away from a mainstream publishing contract and self-publish. She explains why.
"Nobody else is going to do it for you."
It was deceptively simple advice given to a group of aspiring writers at the MSU Clarion workshop. The wise words about taking charge of your own career came from author Suzy McKee Charnas: and one of the writers was me.
Brace for a few numbers. I like numbers. After 24 novels with Big Five publishers, 12 of them NYT best-sellers, I took Suzy's words to heart and withdrew my 25th novel – Going Grey – from the schedule of a Big Five house and released it independently. The whole Ringer series will now follow the same route.
When my first book was published ten years ago, the technology to do that didn't exist. The ability to sell e-books, paperbacks, and audio editions globally without the need for a middleman is something that's only recently become a realistic alternative. If you're a musician, an artist, or you work in comics, independent production's been part of your professional landscape for much longer. Nobody thinks third-party validation is necessary; everybody knows it's about creator control.
But mention indie publishing – direct publishing, self publishing, call it what you will – and you'll still trigger knee-jerk frothing among writers in opposing camps. Some of that is fuelled by partisan reactions to Amazon, the main driver of the rapid growth of the independent sector. One camp claims Amazon is the evil empire that destroyed bookstores, and all the indies it's spawned are people who can't get published any other way: the other camp says Amazon has dismantled the Berlin Wall of giant publishers and retailers – "Big Publishing" – to give more freedom to more writers.
Readers rarely care or even know who your publisher is, though. Why should they? Publishing is packaging and distribution. Consumers' rational concerns are what's in the package and how much it costs.
I'm in neutral territory, or at least I've seen both sides of the razor wire. I'm a commercial author who's sold a lot of books through the Big Five. But I'm also an ex-journalist with a critical eye on big corporations, and I've had my share of bad experiences with traditional publishing. What follows is a non-partisan account of why more writers like me are finally waking up to another way to do business.
Initially, my decision to publish Going Grey independently related to a specific problem; it was taking too long to get it on sale, and I wasn't willing to wait any longer. It was only after I acted that I realised how much the industry had changed, and how naive I'd been to think Big Publishing would look after my interests because I made money for it.
The traditional publishing industry is getting a serious kicking these days. It's a common pattern in business. An industry enjoys a protected existence for years, mergers force the eggs into fewer baskets, and the players get complacent and flabby. They overlook new technologies and bolder business models creeping up on them – in this case, Amazon. Publishers thought they were the creators of books and that their customers were the book stores. They forgot that that authors are the sole source of books and that the only paying customers are readers. Everyone else in the food chain is replaceable.
Pulling Going Grey from the publisher was a straightforward choice with a specific aim. After a number of changes in the schedule, I was now looking at a 2015 release for a book that I'd already had to rewrite because real-world events kept overtaking it as time dragged on. I couldn't risk more repeats of that. I needed the book out ASAP, by which I meant summer 2014, still six months away.
The publisher said they couldn't do it so I handed back the money and walked. I found another publisher who could get the book out on time, with a profit-sharing deal instead of royalties. But a chance conversation I'd had the year before made me hesitate.
I'd been talking to someone at Audible, a chat which led me to investigate all the other things that Amazon did. I realised a little late that I could publish Going Grey myself. Suddenly all I could see was ten years of being jerked around on someone else's chain with little to show for a lot of sweat. I needed to do it myself just once, if only to feel I had some control over my career again.
Let me put this in context. I've had some unpleasant experiences with publishers, including breached contracts and books left marooned "in print" but unobtainable, but I've fared better than many other writers. I've never had to languish in a slush pile, I've had advances well above the average, and I've never really been stopped from writing what I wanted. I never reached the stage where a publisher wrecked a book or buried my career, unlike friends I've seen sunk by inexplicable decisions and foul-ups.
But I've made more in royalties from one moderately successful, short-run franchise comic series than I've made in ten years of royalties from novels, more than half of which were best-sellers. That illustrates the reality of traditional publishing even for apparently successful authors. Unless you're one of a small handful of mega best-selling writers, you're not the one getting rich off your work.
Big Publishing was a gatekeeper, not for quality (boy, that's a feature on its own) but for distribution. It effectively controlled entry into the big book chains, especially in the USA, the largest English language market. Without Big Pub, you were going nowhere. Now the chains are vanishing, e-books are booming, and Amazon sells it all anyway. It was my wake-up call: it wasn't just Going Grey I had to worry about. I now had to consider whether publishers could do anything for me in the future. All I could see was an industry getting slower, clinging increasingly to what worked in the past, and doing less for authors.
I'd spent more than 30 years in different branches of the media. As well as writing and editing, I'd served my time in PR, marketing, production, advertising, and corporate branding. I'd been a TV producer and I was used to working with voice artists as well, so I could handle an audiobook. Hell, I even had a retailing qualification that I'd completely forgotten until then. I could process a book in any format from the first word on the page to the finished product. I just needed to get a grip and harness all that for myself.
The downside; I'd have to rebuild my readership because I was shifting genres from straight SF to techno-thriller, but that would have happened whatever route I took. I had to kiss goodbye to advances as well, but those come at a near-Faustian price. Big Publishing wants all your rights for the lifetime of the copyright. That's 70 years after you're dead. Marriage may last as long as ye both shall live, but even death won't release you when you wed yourself to a publisher. And if they screw up, you can't normally take your business elsewhere without an expensive lawyer.
So what about distribution and exposure in stores? E-books were a level playing field; no problem there, then, and at very least, paperback editions would be available via Amazon and B&N's site. But I'd forfeit a short time on the shelves of B&N's dwindling number of branches – short because most books don't have long before they're removed to make room for new titles. Eventually, customers end up having to order online or via a store anyway. So if I published direct to Kindle and iTunes, and used Amazon's CreateSpace printing and distribution for the paperback edition, Going Grey would be as visible as it would have been after a few months via the traditional route.
The only issue left was money. For e-books, I'd get 70% of the list price. For paperbacks, the income varied depending on the channel, but the bulk of my sales are the US market, which appeared to give me double the royalty rate that I'd get from a publisher for a hardcover. Number crunching showed me I'd only need a small fraction of my usual sales to break even on what I'd lost from an advance. It would be spread over a longer period: an advance is paid in three or four chunks over a year or more. So I had little if anything to lose. In fact, I stood to make much more.
As an indie, you can see every sale accounted for individually each day and you know exactly how much you'll get. It's a percentage of the list price that you decide to set and can choose to change at any time. It's not derived from discounted prices you have no control over, don't know about, and can't check, and it's not that mystery figure called net. Unlike the average royalty statement from a publisher, the data is transparent, and the terms are straightforward and available to everyone. So I opted to self-publish all editions of Going Grey except audio. Audible boughtthe audiobook rights for a fixed term and optioned the rest of the Ringer series.
The only new skill I had to learn was using graphics and typography apps at short notice when the book designer I'd hired didn't deliver and I had to do the covers and interiors myself. A web designer friend gave me a crash tutorial in vector graphics and kept a watchful eye on me. I added it to my skills list and enjoyed doing it.
That was in June. I've now published two indie books. It's too soon for a verdict because this is a long-term game, and you learn every day and tweak your operation accordingly. It's not a panacea: getting readers to discover books is just as tough as in traditional publishing. The whole thing takes effort and a mind-set some don't have or even want to have, but you can hire freelance help for any part of the process. The point is that the decisions are entirely yours to make.
I realise some writers want the validation of a publisher. Please take it from someone who's had it that the only approval that counts is the reader's. It's the point at which free market economics meets the pleasure of storytelling. Even minority interest books that no publisher wants because the market's too small can be viable for indies. It's a time of creative freedom for writers and choice for readers. Amazon (because it really is Amazon that led the charge) has done more for creative diversity than the most high-minded New York publisher.
People warn that Amazon's dominance might send it down the same author-unfriendly path as Big Publishing. Yes, it would be better if its rivals upped their game. But even if it turned into a kitten-eating monster, the technologies that underpin this tectonic shift are here to stay. You can build a mailing list and sell digital editions from your own web site if the worst happens, and readers are smarter than ever at finding what they want. That's the real change. Distribution's been taken from the hands of a few big-budget players and made available to everyone.
So until the next publishing upheaval, I'll probably take my chances as an indie. The only difference readers might notice is an absence of my franchise novels – buying licenses for those is the preserve of publishing companies. I'm writing more comics and scripts, though, and I finally have enough control over my schedule to write all those original books I had to put on hold.
Producing Going Grey was immensely satisfying. Now I'm enjoying writing the sequel, Black Run. It's been quite a few years since I've been able to say that about any book. As we say in the UK; result.
British author Karen Traviss is a military novelist, games, and comics writer whose credits include Halo, Gears of War, Batman, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars. A former defence correspondent and TV journalist, she's the author of the award‑nominated Wess'har books and is currently writing Black Run, book two in her new techno-thriller series.