An American Editor

November 27, 2020

Thinking Fiction — The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 1

Carolyn Haley

In the business combination of independent editor and independent author, especially in the realm of fiction, both parties quickly learn that there are no rules to the game.

Yes, there are best practices we should all consider; and yes, editors and authors must adhere to the legalities and tax responsibilities required by their locations; and yes, there are generally accepted ethical guidelines in conducting financial transactions for services.

Aside from those, indie fiction writing-editing-publishing is the new Wild West!

That’s because anyone can open shop as an editor, just as anyone can write a novel. There are no educational or technical qualifications to be either; no licensure mandated, no expertise needed beyond functional literacy. No official entity is watching or managing; no sanctioned organization or employer is mentoring, evaluating, or penalizing. Individual editors and authors must decide on their own how to operate together, and make personal judgments on what constitutes “good enough.”

This combination almost guarantees messy relationships and novels. The negative results are well-represented in the marketplace, and well-covered in other articles and blogs. This essay focuses on how to avoid those messes and succeed as an indie editor working with indie novelists.

First steps — understanding each other

It starts with understanding what “indie” means. On the surface, “indie” is merely shorthand for “independent.”

For editors, that means “self-employed” (aka “freelance”) versus being on the payroll of a publishing house.

For authors, it means essentially the same thing — they are not writing on behalf of a company, only for themselves. They might plan to self-publish their novel from the start or decide to do so after failing to interest traditional publishers in their work, or they might seek to publish traditionally and persevere toward that end. Any of these authors might seek indie editors to help them advance toward their goals. That’s why we can’t consider “indie publishing” to be synonymous with “self-publishing.”

Options and efforts

It frequently falls on indie editors to help indie authors distinguish between their options and guide their efforts. The main distinction between traditional and indie publishing is in which direction the money goes, combined with author involvement and control.

In the traditional publishing model, the author never parts with a dime. The publishing house bears all of the editing, proofing, production, marketing/promotion, and distribution costs, and eventually the author gets royalties on sales (after earning out any advance), at a modest percentage.

Actually, it isn’t quite true that no money ever comes out of the author’s pocket in traditional publishing (trad-pub). To gain access to the best houses, and often any house at all, novelists need to sign with an agent. Agents offer many valuable benefits to an author, but in exchange they take a commission of 10–20% of the author’s earnings. That indirect tap is often overlooked in the trad-pub vs. indie-pub decision.

Because trad-pub has become extremely competitive, with more authors struggling for fewer slots, many authors hire indie editors before submitting their work to agents and acquisition editors to help get their novels onto the playing field. They also might purchase help to navigate the bewildering maze of queries and synopses. Sometimes that pre-submission investment pays off — big time! — but most authors never recover their investments.

When their novels do get picked up by a trad-pub house, they’ll likely have to pay for their own marketing and promotion to keep their books available over the long term. Although this happens a lot with small publishing houses, it’s becoming increasingly true with big houses, too, so the original economic advantage of traditional publishing is slowly being eroded by changing market forces and consumer practices.

On the control and involvement side: In traditional publishing, authors (or their agents) must negotiate what rights are granted to the publisher for what terms. Assuming they reach a satisfactory contract, the book goes into production and out of the author’s control. They might have some say in the cover design or marketing campaign, and/or acceptance/rejection input over editorial changes, but in many publishing deals, authors are left out altogether between signing the contract and seeing the finished book.

Indie publishing is the reverse. The author pays for everything up front, but gets the full return of any income after expenses, and retains full control of rights, and full or semi-control during production.

For example, if the author is publishing through an author-services company, such as BookBaby, then that entity might perform tasks the author isn’t involved in (e.g., editing, design, production) as part of a purchased package. But most times, authors get authorization control.

Danger comes if an unsavvy author hooks up with an unscrupulous company, which might confuse authors into signing away rights out of ignorance and deliver a sloppy, unprofessional product as well.

Authors who pursue true self-publishing are their own business: a micro-size company with full decision-making authority and retention of all rights. These author-publishers are wholly responsible for hiring editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers, typesetters and formatters, audiobook narrators and producers, publicists, promoters, schedulers, accountant, attorney. Not to mention ensuring that all tasks are performed, and managing the outgo and income of the enterprise.

Real costs

Many new authors have no idea how much money publishing requires (thousands!), because for generations, those costs were buried in publishing house salaries and administration overhead — information not publicly available. When indie authors move outside that model to get indie help, they are often rocked back on their heels by “sticker shock.” This is a regular problem for indie editors seeking clients, because appalled authors who haven’t done their homework aren’t prepared to pay professional rates.

Originally, all book editors worked in-house for publishing houses. Over decades of economic, cultural, and media changes, editorial staff began getting pushed off payrolls and forced to go freelance or change occupation. Meanwhile, computers and the Internet made it easier to work remotely, drawing more editors into the field from myriad directions.

This change was accelerated by the entry of Amazon into the arena along with other author-service providers and aggregators/distributors, which transformed indie publishing from a pure vanity exercise to an intentional option for authors. In turn, it has increased demand for editorial support outside traditional publishing houses.

Today’s indie editors are predominantly sole-proprietor businesses who might contract with a publishing house, or an author-services provider, or directly with an individual author — maybe all of the above — to perform specific editorial services at self-established rates.

Editing roles

When working for a traditional publisher or author-services provider, indie editors deal with an intermediary, who might be called any combination of production or project manager/editor/coordinator. The indie editor has no contact with an author beyond the back-and-forth of files (sometimes not even that — indie editor provides edited files to the coordinator and never sees or hears about them again). The institution pays the editor, under terms that may or may not be negotiable. Editors must adhere to house rules of process and style (sometimes flexible; most times not), and usually wait weeks or months for their paychecks.

In contrast, when an indie editor works directly for an indie author, nobody else is involved. It’s a one-on-one private arrangement with lots of room to go smoothly — or horribly. Both parties are responsible for communicating what they want and need and expect; for establishing and agreeing to rules of engagement, and adhering to them; and being willing to discuss changes in a grown-up and flexible way.

In other words, they must make their own rules.

Time and experience among indie editors and authors are establishing successful approaches. Still, choices must constantly be made, be they for basic operation or how to organize an individual project. See Part 2 of this column for insights into what those choices could be and how to navigate them.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Friday, December 4.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for theNew York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

July 19, 2010

Repurposing Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in the eBook Age

The consensus among the ebook seers is that in not too many years brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstores will cease to exist — all book sales will be online or wireless.

If B&M bookstores continue to look and act as they currently do, I think the seers may eventually be proved right. To save B&M bookstores, and possibly even traditional publishers, the bookstores need to be repurposed in the eBook Age. They not only need to be repurposed, but they need to change how they generate revenue.

I think it is safe to say that we are several decades away from an ebook-only world, assuming we ever reach that point. I believe we will never see a truly ebook-only world; pbooks will always be around, even if just as antiquarian throwbacks for social trendsetters. As I’ve noted before (see The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age), I think pbooks will retain significant value to a significant segment of the book-buying and -reading public, especially among scholars (see, e.g., eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite and Can eBooks Save University Presses?).

There is also another consideration. When the next Stephen King novel is about to be published, everyone knows about it — the B&M store is simply a conduit for getting the book to the reader. But the same isn’t true when the next Shayne Parkinson novel becomes available (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept for a review of her excellent series) nor is there an easy way to keep up with new releases of university press books, and these books — university press and independent authors — deserve the same exposure as the James Patterson books and need that exposure more than James Patterson books.

Repurposing of the B&M bookstore may be the way to aid independent authors, university presses, and small traditional publishers in the eBook Age.

Today’s B&M bookstores are blockbuster oriented and oriented toward the major traditional publishers. Except for local independent authors, indie authors and presses are not heavily stocked, and for good economic reason: they simply do not sell well enough to support the expenses of the B&M store. Perhaps instead of being corporate America bookstores, a cooperative of indie authors, indie presses, university presses, and smaller traditional publishers who currently struggle for bookstore shelving should be created to run B&M bookstores.

But if the Barnes & Nobles and the Borders chains are struggling, how can such a cooperative succeed? One way would be to act as fronts for print-on-demand (POD) pbooks and as a gateway to ebooks.

Yet this doesn’t address the new thinking that is required for indie bookstores to remain alive in the Internet age. Perhaps the answer lies in the creativity being shown by BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, TX (see “At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off Page”) and imitated by indie bookstores in Decatur, GA, and Brooklyn, NY. Although the idea focuses on a camping experience that involves using imagination and role-playing based on popular children’s books, there is no reason the options can’t be expanded. BookPeople’s Camp Half-Blood (based on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) had 450 available slots — and all slots were sold out within 90 minutes. Brownstone Books’ (Brooklyn, NY) Camp Half-Blood charges $375 per week for its Camp Half-Blood.

Using imagination is only a start. Perhaps indie bookstores could also become afterschool care centers for children or run tutorial programs. Let books become a partner in the enterprise rather than the dominant purpose of the enterprise. Doing so would give indie bookstores a new life and make them relevant again in the eBook Age.

If the indie bookstores banded together under a single associative umbrella, they could easily tap the creative talent of hundreds of bookstore owners and employees across the country and develop these competitive models that would repurpose the B&M bookstore and extend their lives significantly. But closer cooperation, which is the key, I think, to survival is tough to come by: people own their own businesses because they want to be wholly independent and it is difficult to think about giving up some control. I do not think another trade association is the answer; I think what is needed is a mix between the rigid top-down governance enforced by say a B&N corporate-structure chain and a franchisee relationship. Indie bookstores need to maintain individual character yet they also need to band more closely together if they intend to survive the eBook Age.

The true test will be whether indie bookstores, indie authors, and indie/university presses are willing to band together and whether they will cede some control in exchange for a future. If they are so willing, it will be beneficial to all book lovers as well as to the indies themselves. Although the creative ideas of indie bookstores like BookPeople can provide a small shot in the arm, I think there is a need to broaden the creativity pool. One idea — no matter how good it is — will not save the indies.

June 23, 2010

Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting?

I know the article title is a bit odd, especially having been written by a booklover, but the question has been bothering me the past several weeks.

In the past, I went to my local Barnes & Noble at least once a week, sometimes more often, and always walked out with 1 new book and often 2 or 3. But for the past couple of months I have had no desire to visit the store and the one time I did, I bought 2 books rather than the 5 I had originally picked up (i.e., I put 3 back on the shelf after first having decided to buy them). Even more telling, however, was that I had gone to the B&N only because my wife needed to pickup some B&N gift cards for neighborhood children; otherwise I wouldn’t have gone at all. And even more telling was that in the past I loved to browse the shelves looking for books; this trip I was impatient to leave.

I’m not buying fewer books; in fact, since I was given my Sony 505 Reader 2.5 years ago, I’m buying more books than ever. But what has changed in my buying habits is the number of fiction books I am buying — from a handful each year pre-Sony 505 to hundreds each year post-Sony 505 — and how I am obtaining them.

As those of you who have followed my On Today’s Bookshelf posts (On Today’s Bookshelf, On Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III)) know, I still buy quite a few nonfiction hardcover pbooks. But whereas before I would largely find them by browsing the bookstore bookshelves, I am increasingly discovering them through ads and reviews in The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the book review sections of various magazines to which I subscribe, such as The Atlantic and Smithsonian. If I read a review of a book that intrigues me or see an ad for one, I simply go online and order the book.

Fiction books, however, follow a different trajectory. For those few authors whose new books I buy in hardcover (e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, David Weber, Terry Brooks), I go to an online site, check the coming soon category for these authors, and preorder the books. For those fiction authors whose books I do not buy in hardcover, the process excludes the brick-and-mortar bookstore because these aren’t authors I am likely to find on the shelves — they are independent authors. And the largest growth area in published books is books by independent authors whose books are only available online.

I discover independent authors via online forums like MobileRead and by looking through the multiformat section at Fictionwise and Smashwords. At Fictionwise, I wait for the big sales because I am unwilling to spend too much money on an unknown author; I usually get to Smashwords via a recommendation at MobileRead and often with a discount coupon.

But even then independent authors are losing out — at least as far as my buying goes — because I simply do not have the patience to sift through lists of books. Neither Fictionwise nor Smashwords makes it very easy to scroll through their offerings. There is no way to stop for the day, return tomorrow, and pickup where I left off — I am forced to start from the beginning of the list yet again, which rapidly becomes tiresome. And it doesn’t help when what I see is poorly designed cover art; at least in the physical bookstore browsing is much easier. (See Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers for an earlier discussion of my ebookseller frustrations.)

The brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstore suffers from an inability to compete either in price or selection. Independent authors are increasingly (or so it seems) pricing their ebooks at $2.99 or less. Knowing this makes me reluctant to try a new author I find at the B&M bookstore; it is one thing to gamble $2.99 on an unknown author and quite another to spend $12.99 or more.

So what is there to attract me to the B&M bookstore? As each week passes, I find it a greater struggle to want to go to the B&M bookstore. I’m not interested in the pastries and coffee; I rarely ever peruse the magazines; I can buy the same books online for less (in Barnes & Noble’s case, its online bookstore undercuts its physical stores on pricing so why buy at the B&M version?).

Are ebooks quickly making B&M bookstores uninteresting destinations? In my case, yes, because there is little incentive to shop at the B&M store, especially for fiction. Unfortunately, the online ebooksellers aren’t making their sites must-go-to destinations either. I think there can be a great future for B&M bookstores, just not in their current guise. I’m not sure what guise they need to undertake, but it is certain that they do need to make the experience an interesting one and they must become must-go-to destinations.

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