Traditional and indie

Ah, traditional publishers.

Indie authors tend to get irate at them. Formerly well-published traditional authors tend to get irate at them. Formerly well-employed publishing professionals like me sometimes like to get irate at them.

And sure, there are reasons for indies to feel superior to the big six. Traditional publishing houses must chase revenue and profit targets for their corporations.

This can result in a lot of trend following, the egregious milking of cash cows, and committee-itis — a reluctance to try new things, or to try them and then drop them too quickly if they don’t show signs of paying off soon.

On the plus side, though, they have to chase revenue and profit targets.

I’m serious. That can be a good thing. Because, to get to that point, traditional publishers have developed a track record in the market. Their divisions — if they are well managed — have deep experience in acquiring and selling books. They try very hard not to waste a lot of time and money.

A caption-less cartoon from The Independent Publishing Magazine.

This is something an indie author should think carefully about, because the time and money an indie author might waste is her own.

(Besides, indies do plenty of egregious cash-cow milking and trend following, too. Have you noticed that suddenly everything that possibly can be has been turned into a series? Have you noticed all the titles suddenly having Amazon-friendly key words added to them, like The Dingo Ate My Baby: A Cozy Novel of Romantic Suspense?)

I’ve been thinking about all this during the last exhausting week of my life as an indie author and publisher and budding (wilting?) playwright.

Because writing and publishing is not my day job.

My day job is teaching four composition courses as an adjunct professor. My composition courses are pretty heavy on writing. (How else can people learn to write?) I enjoy it, even though the pay is terrible and there is zero job security and no benefits to speak of. I just love teaching college-age students. What is better than helping students find their voices?

But that doesn’t mean I love grading four Composition I classes all in one week because midterm grades are due. (Even full-time professors will confess to all sorts of procrastination when faced with a stack of papers to grade. Apparently it’s the prime time to clean the house.)

This was also the week my short play Nude with Bearded Irises got its premiere along with six other shorts as part of the Sand Lake Center for the Arts/Circle Theater Players second original one act play festival. Surely a little basking in glory was called for?

However, I was so busy grading I could only go see two of the shows, and couldn’t even hang around for the cast party.

I saw one early show for a senior home, which was a very small but appreciative audience. On the last day of the run I had the pleasure of seeing a full house, and seeing how a production that had started out strong had gotten even stronger. I got to see people laughing in all the right places, and my play placed in the prizes, which is very nice for a first time playwright.

But after the first act I had to sneak out so I could go home and stay up into the night doing more grading.

And that’s just going to be the deal for the foreseeable future. Teaching pays bills and also allows me flexibility that a full-time job wouldn’t. People are sometimes surprised by this, but writing really doesn’t pay, not unless you’re one of the lucky ones (this is true even of traditionally published authors). I’m still in the hole and don’t expect to get out of it any time soon.

In fact, I really don’t want to calculate my own bottom line (like Rachel Thompson recently did), although doing my taxes will no doubt force me to do it.

But publishing is a business, and businesses require investment. For indie authors, that’s their own hard-earned money. How much can they realistically expect to make back? For most, it will be nothing. I’ve already beaten the odds in some ways — at least partly because I was willing to invest in advertising. So I’m feeling optimistic, but not enough to pour my savings indiscriminately into this enterprise.

The deal I have with myself is that If I save money in another part of the budget, then I can spend it on this. In fact, we plan to sell this lovely house and live much more simply so that I can focus more on writing and less on making the mortgage, and seriously try to make a go of this. (Or, at least, not lose any major ground in the process of trying — and it’s time for us to simplify, anyway.)

Real publishers cut costs where they can, too, of course. Sometimes quite brutally…

But there’s nothing like trying something yourself for a while to build up a little respect for the real professionals. So here’s to traditional publishing: Here’s to having people who get to work all day at publishing, and get to draw on expertise all over the building.

Long may they prosper.

And, in four or five years, maybe I will, too.






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