Big Publishers: What Are They Good For?

The New York Times recently ran an inspiring story about writer Amanda Hocking (March 24, 2011), a digital author who had earned by some estimates $2 million by publishing nine digital science fiction novels. She had just signed a multi-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, certainly a heavy hitter among the big mainstream publishers.

Let me say that again: St. Martin’s press bid for Amanda future work after she had already self published nine novels and earned $2 million. In other words, the mainstream publshers took note of her talent only after she had demonstrated her worth in the market place.

The deal is a great one for Amanda. As she told the Times: “I’ve done as much with self-publishing as any person can do. People have bad things to say about publishers, but I think they still have services, and I want to see what they are. And if they end up not being any good, I don’t have to keep using them. But I do think they have something to offer.”

And she’s right. One important thing major publishing houses can do is provide wide distribution for her work, far more than she can do on her own. This has always been the strength of these publishers.

What I thought was disappointing in the article was the lack of depth in the coverage. Amanda had been self-publishing in the true sense of the word: She wrote the books, designed the covers and layout, formatted them for digital release, and implemented all the marketing and publicity strategies. That takes time and resources, and she wanted to spend more time writing.

For established writers, that’s great and the major publishers will take note. What about the vast majority of writers that don’t have these platforms? The major book publishers have virtually abandoned what I call the “small book” market. This is the market for books that won’t sell tens of thousands of copies during the first print run because the authors are not well known, do not have a marketing platform, or developed a fan base.

These writers have more options than the 100 percent self-publishing route. Some publishers, most notably in my opinion Wheatmark (based on my independent research), have recognized that small books can be commercially successful if the content is solid and authors are willing to invest in marketing their work. To tap into this market, they have developed varying levels of “investment” by authors that completely up-ends the conventional view of so-called “subsidy publishers” or “vanity presses.” These publishers take on work they think can sell, and provide the institutional framework (including tools in some cases) to enable authors to effectively market their work. (Full disclosure: I have a publishing agreement with Wheatmark to publish my next novel, A Warrior’s Soul, due out July 2011.)

A legitimate and viable second tier in the publishing world has emerged, and this phenomenon needs to be recognized by authors. These publishers are likely to see their market share grow significantly as they pick up the authors of books that sell to niche markets or haven’t yet developed the platform necessary to attract the big presses. They’ve also figured out how to use technology to create high quality product in terms of layout and presentation that can compete with the mainstream publishers as well.

As the market becomes even more competitive, authors need to seriously investigate these presses. They are viable options for good authors.

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