By Johanna Edwards
I sold my first novel to Penguin Books when I was 25 years old. It was whirlwind experience, the kind of thing every writer dreams about, but few ever get to experience. My agent submitted my novel to publishers on a Monday; by Tuesday morning we were already receiving offers. If I sound like an annoying braggart, bear with me: The crash is coming.
This was back in December of 2003, although it might as well have been 1903 when you consider how different things were back then. When I first started out in publishing, eBooks had already been declared dead on arrival. It seems odd to bet against technology, but in a way that's what happened. And at least one agent I know dropped a writer because they couldn't come to terms over electronic publishing rights. The writer felt eBooks had a future, and were worth including in the contract. The agent disagreed, and it got so ugly they parted ways. These kinds of stories, while not common, weren't exactly rare, either. Few people were even thinking about eBooks as a viable property.
In fact, eBooks were deemed so inconsequential Barnes and Noble had officially decided to stop selling them.
A decade ago, if I told someone I was an author, I was immediately deluged with questions about how to land an agent or find a publisher. Now, people's questions tend to run along the lines of: "How does Amazon self-publishing work?" or "Do you know how I can get my book to be as big as Fifty Shades of Grey?"
That last one comes up pretty regularly, and it always makes me laugh. If I knew how to sell millions upon millions of copies of a book, don't you think I'd have done it by now? You know, like, with my own books?
Which brings us to the "crash" portion of the story. This is the part I've been dreading, because it involves a few uncomfortable confessions and some harsh truths I honestly don't want to face. It's much easier to reminisce about the good old days, but nostalgia gets you nowhere. Actually, it gets you worse than nowhere. It gets you stuck.
Which is precisely where I've been for the last chunk of years (please don't make me count them). Publicly, I've blamed writers' block, but the truth is that's only part of the story. The other part of the story is that my last novel, a beast of a thing called How to Be Cool, didn't exactly do so well. And when your work stops selling, your options begin to shrink. It was a miserable experience, so miserable I don't even want to link to the damn thing.
The part that still gets me is that I was willing participant in this nightmare. I wouldn't go so far as to say I orchestrated it, but I didn't do anything to stop it.
And I knew it needed to be stopped. I knew from the moment I sat down to write How to Ge Cool that it wasn't working. And the further I got into the book, the worse it got. Every writer has been there before. Most have the sense to pull back, or at least course correct. I just kept plowing along, trying to pretend that everything would be fine. I was writing a lackluster book, but this was the plot Penguin had agreed upon. Changing ideas mid-stream was terrifying, and could have potentiality put me in legal trouble. At the very least, I'd have owed Penguin something like $150,000 to off-set the costs the'd already spent on publicizing the novel.
I didn't now much, but I knew this: I did NOT want to loast y book deal . This was the book I had signed on to write, and by the time I knew how much trouble I was in, we'd passed the point of no return. I wanted to scrap the thing and start from scratch, but that wasn't an option. I'd exhausted a number of deadline extensions trying to make the story work. We were out of time. My options, as I understand them, were to hand in the book or lose my contract. You see which one I picked.
So if you read How to Be Cool, I have two things to tell you:
1.) I'm sorry.
2.) I know it sucked, too.
The sales reflected as much, although in hindsight, it actually didn't do that bad. But the embarrassment of having my name splashed across something stayed with me. It's not a lot of fun to stand up in front of the world hawking a product you know is bad. It's like being Nickelback, minus the millions of dollars.
But the truth is, there were other factors at play. The tide was already turning. Out of nowhere, unknown writers like Amanda Hocking were emerging from the woodwork. And they were doing the impossible: Moving huge volumes of books without the backing of a publisher, while simultaneously putting eBooks on the map. At the height of her rise to fame, Amanda Hocking was selling 9,000 books a day. To give you some perspective on just how huge that is, the vast majority of books don't sell 9,000 copies in a week.
Oops. I believe I typed that incorrectly. I didn't mean to say in a week -- I meant to say, in the entirety of their print run.
It's a statistic so bad, it's almost hard to believe: Only 2% of books ever sell more than 5,000 copies. In other words, 98% of all books published essentially "fail." If you think I'm exaggerating with these numbers, think again. Those numbers include people who have major publisher backing. They include celebrities. They include people like...deep breath...Billy Ray Cyrus.
Yes, it's true. Even Billy Ray Cyrus fell victim to low sales, as he his major-publisher-backed memoir moved a whopping 40 copies in one week. Now, this might be understandable if it had happened back in, I don't know, 1998. But this was in 2013! The Miley Cyrus bump alone should have netted him at least hundred copies. But, alas, his experience is far from unusual.
One high profile case study Kyle Smith's Love Monkey, the novel that was supposed to put "lad lit" on the map. Love Monkey was significant for several reasons. Not only did Kyle Smith receive an enormous advance and lots of publisher backing, but he was the book editor at People magazine at the time he released his novel. He had some pretty nice odds stacked in his favor, and yet...read on.
Hailed as the male equivalent of Bridget Jones, Love Monkey received the kind of publicity most authors can only dream of: Reviews in every major publication, including two features in The New York Times (it's rare for an author to get even one); major TV exposure, including features on CBS News, The Today Show, CNN, and 60 Minutes, to name just a few. Kyle Smith's publisher, an imprint of Harper Collins, paid or prominent bookstore placement in major chains (yes, those displays are paid for), and they sent the author on a multi-city tour. The result?
Now, to be fair, that 1,716 figure (which was widely quoted) only accounted for the first six weeks after Love Monkey was released. Kyle Smith is the exception to the rule, in that his book continued to receive press -- and was even turned into a short-lived TV show -- well after its debut. In most cases, those initial numbers would stand. It's kind of like how a movie gets judged by its opening weekend. The same is true for books, except they're typically given an entire month to succeed or fail. After that, you started getting pulled off the shelves and thrown into the dollar stores and remainder bins.
BUT WHAT OF EBOOKS?!
Yes, what of them?
DIDN'T THEY REVERSE THIS HORRIBLE TREND?
The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think. While it's true that eBooks have opened the door for anyone (and I really do mean anyone) to self-publish their own work, it hasn't been quite the kumbaya experience you might imagine. If you're familiarity with self-publishing begins and ends with Fifty Shades of Grey, then I can understand where the confusion comes in. In theory, it sounds so damn simple. Write an eBook, design a cover, and then upload it onto Amazon. Sit back and wait for the millions to roll in.
But the reality is not so simple. In a revelation that we journalists like to call "burying the lede," I will go ahead an confess this to you now:
I've done it. I've self-published on Amazon. Not under my own name, mind you. I carefully constructed a pen name, which I then hid under an LLC. It was insanely easy to do. The entire process only took a few weeks...and I actually went about it "the hard way." I paid someone to design my covers, copy edit the text, and put up a website. If you're skipping those steps (and that's entirely possible) you can have the thing up in a matter of hours. This assumes, of course, that the actual writing process has already been completed.
But for most writers, that not the problem. It's not a lack of ideas (nor lack of time) that keeps us from releasing more work: It's a lack of confidence. It's an inability to let go of the work we've been tinkering with for eight years and finally accept it will never, ever meet all of our expectations. So in that respect, the writing process is never truly finished. You eventually reach the point where you are completely out of extensions and must hand in your book or risk losing your contract. Or you hit the proverbial brick wall one time too many, and finally decide you have to stop being a control freak and just let the damn thing go.
I've experienced both sides; I'm not sure which one I prefer.
To quote Wally Lamb, I don't have a lot of certainties, but I know this much to be true:
There is no greater feeling than seeing your book in print, on the shelf, of a bookstore.
There is no greater pressure than seeing your book in print, on the shelf, of a bookstore.
Dr. House famously said, "It's never lupus." Well, the same is true in publishing. It's never Writer's Block. I hate admitting this, but it's the truth: Writer's Block is nothing more than a catch-all term to describe any number of symptoms or excuses to explain why a writer stopped...you know...writing. Why did your favorite author fade into obscurity? Why did the literary one hit wonder take 10 years to complete his second book? They suffered from the dreaded writer's block, of course! But in reality writer's block is more a figment of our collective imaginations than an actual malady. Which brings me to:
EBooks are easier. Self-publishing is easier. Is it less rewarding? Yeah. For me, at least. But it has provided a steady paycheck every month for the past three years, and it's given me an outlet to release my work without having to deal with the myriad of --
Ah, screw it. It's just not the same. No matter what anybody tells you, self-publishing an eBook just isn't all that satisfying. Unless you knock it out of the park, Hugh Howey-style, it feels like throwing a party and having nobody show up.
With that said, there's a lot of middle ground. While it's true that people like Hugh Howey and E.L. James receive most of the attention, there are thousands of self-published authors who are carving out some pretty gnarly careers. Hugh Howey penned an excellent piece on this very thing, which is a must-read for anyone considering e-publishing. (Really, go read this. I promise you it's that freakin' good.)
So where does that leave us? There's a lot of distressing information out there, and it isn't always easy to sort out where to go next. I suppose the truth of the matter is: we can't. I have friends who still work in traditional publishing, and vow to never leave. I admire that. It's the side I've traditionally taken, and I never imagined the day would come when I'd change my mind.
But this really is a new era. And for every encouraging article (print books are on the upswing!) we can't ignore the facts. Bookstores are folding. Publishers are increasingly opting not to renew contracts or to fire authors outright. A friend of mine found herself in that very situation not too long ago. Her major publisher canceled her book, and no other house wanted it. She had one offer, and it was from an e-publisher. They offered her a contract with no advance, but the promise of big royalties should her book take off. She wanted to sign with them; her agent most people told her she was off her rocker. She listened to her gut and went with the eBook deal.
A million dollars later....
And, yes, that's really how this story ends. She took the eBook deal and her novel caught fire. She wound up making more from that one release than she'd made in her entire career.
She calls it "the greatest decision I ever made," and it's hard to disagree. I intentionally saved her story for the end, because I wanted to close this piece on a positive note. It's hard not to get depressed when you see bookstores closing. It's hard to remain upbeat when publishers cut jobs and authors lose their book deals. But at the end of the day, it's not the books that are going away. People are still reading. They're just reading via different platforms, and in a different manner, than what we've been traditionally used to.
But they are reading.
And as long as there are readers, books will never go away.