The landscape of publishing has changed. And it’s still changing as we speak, metamorphosing into something entirely different. But, unlike other industries in which the ideology is changing along with the processes and practices, the publishing industry remains strangely religious in its observance of certain tenats which just plain and simple don’t work any more. Let’s be real here, the days of glorious £20,000 advance payments, 50% royalty deals and months of marketing and advertising are now over, except for a select few. Only the top names with proven sales records get that kind of attention. For the rest of us, the middle and light-weight writers, we have to make do with the odd pocket-money payout, zero marketing and next to nothing support. This is not the fault of the publishers. Nothing is ever entirely one person’s fault or another. Publishing houses are being squeezed harder than ever, giving greater and greater margins to distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and selling less and less books as we get more and more hooked on TV and visual stimuli. There’s nothing wrong with great television, of course. I admire the writers adapting Game of Thrones and Dirk Gently and all those top-quality HBO shows. I similarly do not begrudge video games their recent billion-dollar industry status. They deserve it, and interactive narrative is becoming a powerful tool for storytelling on an epic scale.
But where does that leave books? Are they dying and can they be saved?
The answers, I hope, are maybe and yes.
Our new technological age of corporatisation and automation has, in part, created the problem writers now face. Virtually anyone can write a novel with a cheap second-hand laptop and an internet connection. Virtually anyone can send in their manuscript to an email address on a website. Once, these manuscripts were handwritten/typed, laboriously edited, typed up again and again, then sent via post to agents who reviewed them, who then passed them on to publishers, who then mailed the writers direct. Only a handful of people had the skills, energy and patience to do this, but in our digital age, anyone can with relatively minimal effort. Of course, writing a good book is still hard, and one must never overlook the massive achievement of setting down 50,000 or more words, whether it’s publishable or not, but this process has been made easier and more accessible. This is good and bad. Good, because it’s allowed disadvantaged people a chance to get their words out there. Bad, because now there are millions of writers clamouring to be heard, and many voices are getting lost in that ocean. The competition is the highest it’s ever been.
Even those that do get published professionally often find themselves disillusioned by the results when their books sell next to nothing (the average literary fiction novel published by a major publisher in 2016 sold 260 copies) and they make next to nothing from the pitiful royalty offering. Often publishers say it’s the best they can do, and in many cases they are telling the truth. So, the situation would appear to be pretty bleak.
However, as with all things, there’s two sides to the coin. Our technological explosion has also brought with it alternative solutions, including self-publishing and crowdfunding. Six or seven years ago, self-publishing was looked down on by the industry. Publishers would outright reject writers who had taken the self-publishing route. Now, as self-published writers generate ever greater sales, and reputable artists (across all mediums) increasingly turn away from big corporate productions in favour of doing more radical independent work with complete creative freedom, publishing houses and agents are coming around to the idea that writers can be self sufficient and there’s money to be had in letting them have control. Some publishers even use self publishing as a proving ground for writers. If you can sell 2,000 copies of your book off your own back, what could you do with a full team and financing behind you? Here’s two important pieces of information to further explore this reality. The legendary alternative rock/EDM band Radiohead and heavy metal alternative rock band Avenged Sevenfold both dropped their record labels in the last three years and released self-published albums, to massive sales and critical acclaim. They did this to throw off the shackles of studios and producers trying to make their sound more palatable and mass-market, and it’s achieved a starting result. In fact, they’ve become more successful, as their reputation and following loyalty deepens in appreciation of their true art. Similarly, many major writers now also self publish books alongside their main titles. In addition, the quality of production between pro-published books and self-published is negligible. In fact, many publishing companies use the same tools as self publishers, such as CreateSpace and Lulu, to print their books. So really, what’s the advantage of publishing, unless they are going to market you extensively?
My books are a mixture of professional and self-published work. My first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published in 2014 by Dark Hall Press, a professional horror publisher based in New York. I adore this little book, but ironically, it’s probably my lowest-quality title in terms of production value. My most spectacular book in terms of production quality is NEKYIA. NEKYIA is a 720 page epic multiverse horror novel in the vein of King’s The Dark Tower and told in a poetic style reminiscent of early 80s Lustbader (The Ninja, Black Heart). This book was produced via Lulu, and lovingly worked on over a period of five years. I wanted the physical print to match the scale, theme and vigour of the prose. It’s printed on parchment-quality paper, and has cover art I designed myself using imagery created by Grand Failure and modified in Paint.NET. As you can see, the effect it’s possible to achieve using simple (and free) tools, and putting the hours in, can equal and surpass what many pro-publishers can do. The fact is, when it came to releasing NEKYIA, I knew I wanted it to be a special book. Most publishers would have advised splitting it down and releasing it in parts (it’s 170,000 words long), but I knew the story would lose impact and people would see through this as a cheap money-grab tactic. So, I released the novel as one big tome, in the way of King’s The Stand. I don’t pretend it’s as great a novel as King’s biblical masterpiece, but I certainly wanted people to experience it in the same way.
The other advantages of self publishing, quite apart from creative control, are greater monetary cuts and increased visibility. I get far more money from the books I’ve self published, sometimes £2.00 or £3.00 of the cover price (not always though), whereas with traditional publishing, I see barely 50p most of the time, and that’s only after the publisher has deducted their expenses. Similarly, I don’t have to wait for a report that is often out of date, or even incorrect, to know how many books I’ve sold and where and who too, I can merely log-in and look it up. This is a very powerful tool for understanding which of your books are making the biggest impact.
The other alternative is crowd-funding. Now, the two of these work very well together, and are really a crux upon which writers and small indie-publishers can build empires in our modern world. They call it “online democracy” and while this is technically untrue given the fact that those with more influence, money for advertising, or followers will probably get more backing, there is certainly more democracy to crowd-funding than winning over the whims of an individual editor or publishing house. So, what is crowd-funding for those who’re new? Crowd-funding is where a platform, such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, allow a creator to set up a page to obtain funding for their project, whether it be book, album or any other creative endeavour. People give money to these campaigns and in exchange are offered rewards. These could be as simple as a “thank you” in the acknowledgement of the book, or a printed and signed copy, or T-shirts, merch, you name it. People get very creative with their rewards, and that’s part of the fun and challenge, because creative rewards will generally draw more backers. Campaigns can run for various time periods but it’s generally 30 days. Kickstarter is “all or nothing funding” which means if you don’t make your target, no money is taken from anyone, and you are not funded. IndieGoGo offer both “all or nothing” and “flexible” funding, which allows you to keep whatever you raise.
I’ve used both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. I used Kickstarter to crowd-fund my novel Across the Bitter Sea in 2015. I raised £520.00 (my goal was £500.00) and delivered 22 rewards. This was my first ever foray into crowd-funding, so I wanted it to be humble and achievable. Most people who backed were interested in the more outlandish rewards such as original artwork (ink illustrations done by me), T-shirts and limited edition hardback runs of the book. In early 2017, I raised a more ambitious Kickstarter for my publishing project, 13Dark, with the aim of raising £32,000 to publish 13 incredible writers of dark, supernatural fiction. This work would be accompanied by conceptual art by Grand Failure and the comicbook veteran Shawn Langley. We raised £4,500, which was an amazing achievement in itself, but sadly didn’t meet our goal. You might think that my ambition was over-reaching here, and perhaps it was, but the combined followings of all the writers and myself put together was over 60,000 people, so I thought we were in with a shot. Always remember, the percentage of people who will actually give money to your crowd-funding campaign is always less than you think. If you have 1,000 followers, probably only 50 of them (5%) will actually be willing to support you financially.
However, we didn’t give up with 13Dark, I was privileged to be working with writers who believed in me, even some of the big name authors who could well have bowed out at that point and found other homes for their work. We received an overwhelming influx of support. I spent time selling special book bundles and offering writing coaching, two of the rewards we offered on the original Kickstarter. After a while, we had enough funding to breathe some new life into the project. We ran an IndieGoGo campaign for a modest £700.00 just to Fund Issue #1 of 13Dark, which will publish the first 3 stories. We now find ourselves with £912.00 of backing as of writing this article. What’s more, we are now InDemand, which means our campaign is still going despite the time period being over, with people able to use our IndieGoGo page like a digital marketplace. We can add new rewards and edit old ones. It’s very exciting. Our latest goal is to raise £1,000.00 (we’re only £88.00 off) in order to add a fourth story to Issue #1 of 13Dark. Issue #1: Dead Voices features work by a host of new and talented writers, and is definitely worth checking out if you want to experience a new type of fiction.
Let’s take one more example. Most recently, STORGY magazine, a London-based publisher of quality short stories (Chuck Palahniuk said STORGY is “Keeping the short story alive”, what better recommendation could you want?), ran a kickstarter to fund their epic EXIT EARTH anthology, a collection of 22 stories, including 4 works by the editors, 4 works by big names, and 14 stories by writers shortlisted in a story competition judged by Diane Cooke. I miraculously managed to win third prize in this competition with my story “When the Tide Comes In”. This kickstarter was a huge success, raising £8,000, whereas it only needed £6,000 to be backed. EXIT EARTH is now going to be taken to print and will be available in bookstores across the UK. Within 30 days, STORGY went from a popular online magazine to a fully fledged publishing house. Part of the reason STORGY were so successful, I believe, is their teamwork. Not just with each other, but with their writers, and with their community of readers.
Crowd-funding is, as you might gather from this brief story, A LOT of work. It requires you to be a marketing guru, artist, graphic designer, business director and writer all in one go. It’s easier if you have a team of people (and the bigger campaigns do). But mostly, it’ll be you on your own. The potential is tremendous and my campaigns are certainly at the lower end of the spectrum. The genre-defining board game Kingdom Death: Monster has currently made $12,393,139 on Kickstarter. Of course, not every idea is going to take off into the stratosphere and capture the imaginations of thousands like this game has (take one look at the design and ambition of it and you will see why even if you’re not a board game nerd like me). Not every creator has the time, energy and resources to commit to creating something as sprawling, and indeed, it can be hard to find your audience, people who are predisposed to this kind of content. Before going into a crowd-funding campaign, you have to carefully plan out what you can and are prepared to deliver. And throughout, you have to be honest about where you are at with the project. Give realistic time-frames and expectations and your audience will understand.
13Dark is only in its infancy despite going through two campaigns, but each time, we get stronger and stronger (and I get more knowledgeable too, which helps). We’re soon going to re-launching the campaign for our second issue, once the first has been delivered, and also potentially releasing some other unique creative projects via the InDemand page. I’d recommend crowd-funding to anyone who’s interested in taking their own destiny into their hands. If nothing else, you’ll get a sense of just how many people might be interested in your work and ideas. From there, you can start to build a fan-following. One of the best pieces of advice I could give is work with others. Don’t just run a campaign for your own book. Unless you’re Neil Gaiman, it’s unlikely to be successful. Do a collaborative project with other writers, or publish their short stories as a preface to your novel, or team up for a graphic novel production, or perhaps do a joint double-novel release with another writer, cross-polinating your fan-followings. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination, and the audience is there, even if they are getting harder and harder to find.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Sale is a novelist, writing coach, editor, graphic designer, artist, critic and gamer. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. Since, he has authored Seven Dark Stars, Across the Bitter Sea, Orifice, The Meaning of the Dark, Nekyia and more. Under the pseudonym Alan Robson (his grandfather’s name), he won third place in Storgy’s Exit Earth anthology competition, judged by Diane Cook.
He is the creator of †3 Dark, a unique publishing project born in 2017 showcasing the work of 13 writers including Richard Thomas and Moira Katson; each story is accompanied by original concept art from Shawn Langley and with cover art by Grand Failure.
His short fiction has appeared in Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine, as well as in anthologies such as Dark Hall Press’s Technological Horror and Storgy’s Exit Earth. In 2014 he was nominated for the Sundress Award for Literary Excellence.
In his spare time he plays badminton, watches Two Best Friends Play and puts on his DM hat, concocting fiendish dungeons for his friends to battle through.