Last weekend, I was a panelist at iMagicon in Minot, ND. I presented on writing and publishing epic fantasy, and during the panel, I said something I’d never have anticipated ten years ago: “Just focus on writing—publishing is the easy part. There has never been a better time to be a writer.” Until recently, I’d have said the exact opposite regarding publishing and writing. When I first wrote Warrior of Light, I imagined publishing to be the Mount Everest of a writer’s journey, an insurmountable goal that many attempted but few achieved. However, due to some shifts in the industry, there are more options and resources for publishing now than ever before.
Prior to 2007, the most straightforward method of getting published was to submit your manuscript directly to a publishing house. The slush pile editor would look at your manuscript, and after a few pages decide to either a) reject the manuscript, or b) pass it along for further consideration. If, after further consideration, enough folks agreed that the manuscript had potential, the publishing house contacted the writer and offered a contract. Most writers, myself included, never got past (a). Another method was to submit your manuscript to an agent in the hopes that they would represent you to a publishing house. If represented, your chances of success were often higher, but the likelihood of obtaining representation without prior publishing credentials was very low. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to these examples (either direct solicitation or agent representation) as “traditional” publishing. This is the gold standard for publishing, and it’s still very much in play today.
At the same time, there were—and still are—presses floating around called “vanity” presses. While not outright scams, these presses offered a more manipulative and less transparent form of publishing. When a vanity press received a manuscript submission, they’d make a call to the writer and state they were interested in offering a contract. After the writer finished breaking open the champagne in celebration, the vanity press would get down to brass tacks. Their pitch followed the lines of, “Now, because you’re a first-time writer, we will need an investment from you to cover the manuscript’s production costs. This investment will, of course, be refunded to you once your book earns it back.”
Well, as the mantra went, teachers get paid to teach, nurses get paid to nurse, and writers get paid to write. Traditional publishing houses paid the author for their manuscript, not the other way around. Vanity presses weren’t lying—they absolutely published the book, and even helped place it in bookstores and online—but asking a writer to submit an advance on his or her own work was a misleading (and borderline unethical) business practice.
In 2007 another player entered the game: Kindle Direct Publishing. Just like iTunes made it possible for musicians to distribute music without being backed by a record label, KDP made it possible for authors to release their book without being backed by a publishing house (traditional or vanity). The fundamental concept behind KDP was simple: the writer uploaded an electronic manuscript to Amazon’s KDP page and put a selling price on it. In return, Amazon listed the book in the Kindle store. Each time a copy sold, Amazon took a percentage (usually 30%) and the writer took the rest. While the author certainly did not receive any advance payment on the manuscript (which they would have received from a traditional house), they also did not have to pay any up-front fees (which would have been required for a vanity press). Writers called this new platform “independent” publishing—it wasn’t traditional, but it also avoided the stigma associated with vanity.
Independent publishing received a lukewarm reception at first—and perhaps rightfully so. For a manuscript to be traditionally published, it had to be vetted by one or more submissions editors before a contract was offered. In this fashion, the publishing house served as the gatekeeper to the business, providing a quality control process over the work being released. It was an imperfect process, to be sure, but by and large it worked. When KDP opened up the gates to anyone and everyone who could upload an .epub file, there was understandable skepticism over whether any of the titles from KDP—unedited, unvetted—would be any good.
At the end of the day, however, publishing is a business—and in business, sales numbers speak. When the Twilight-fanfiction-turned-BDSM-saga Fifty Shades of Grey was released through KDP, it became the first book to ever sell a million copies on Kindle. And with those sales numbers, quality of content—or lack of it—be damned; I may poke fun at EL James’ trilogy with the best of them, but I would shit a brick of pure joy if I sold even a tenth of the copies she did. After that, the dominoes started to fall: Amanda Hocking. Hugh Howey. Andy Weir (The Martian). With each subsequent success, the credibility of independent publishing increased. And with that success came a rise in supporting resources available to independent authors. Createspace—Amazon’s print counterpart to KDP—provides line-and-content editing services, copyediting, marketing assistance, and cover design. Third party sites like Fiverr list quality freelance contracts at low cost. IngramSpark, a print-on-demand subsidiary of Ingram, provides access to just about every bookstore and library in the world.
I’ll say all of this with a caveat, however: be wary of instant gratification. When it only takes a few clicks to publish a book, it can be easy and tempting to release a work that, quite simply, just isn’t ready for prime time. Vet the manuscript with fellow readers first. Take input seriously. Understand the difference between line-and-content editing and copyediting. Proofread. Design a quality cover. I was very much aware of KDP when it started in 2007; I had a completed draft of Warrior of Light at that time, and I could have published it—but I didn’t. It wasn’t ready then, it wasn’t ready when I rewrote it in 2010, and it wasn’t ready in 2014 before I committed to final revisions. Had I published it back in 2007, I would be nowhere near as proud of the finished product as I am of the book I released in November 2016.
Time will tell where independent publishing goes from here, but I only expect the options available to writers to grow. And while more choices may in some ways feel overwhelming, it’s certainly better than too few choices. There has never been a better time to be a writer, and I intend to make the absolute most of it.