Skater: the cover
Vermeer's Woman in Blue and Borschland

Indie publishing, still a gold rush?

Jack-London.1Recently I left a comment on Dean Wesley Smith's blog reiterating in a tongue-in-cheek way that indie (self-) publishing is a gold rush. In his next post, Smith wrote this:

So I have a few start-of-the-year suggestions for indie publishers: 

1... Stop thinking of this as a gold rush. We are now in the new normal.

Image: Jack London, chronicler of the gold rush and successful writer

For writers and publishers like Smith, this line of reasoning rings true. He is a publishing veteran with dozens of novels under his belt. His publishing company, WMG Publishing, has equipment, employees, and tons of momentum.

But to continue with the gold rush metaphor for just a bit longer: Smith is no longer a solitary panner working a claim. He is an established mining concern with a big heap of placer behind his sluice box.

In that respect, for him to call indie publishing the new normal is the result of looking in the mirror. For him, the gold rush is over. Now he is simply running a business.

For the individual writer, however, indie publishing still resembles a gold rush. More and more writers are staking their claims in the literary fields, digging for a finite number of readers. Even to get to the fields to prospect, you need to have done a lot of work, and to have spent some money. Like a forty-niner who had to travel to California or a sourdough to the Klondike, the writer has to have a commitment, an investment, and infrastructure. You start off with a rapidly-dwindling stake that you're hoping to win back someday.

Also, as with the real gold rush, those who offer the services to writers-- instruction and coaching, editing, cover and interior art, publicists and promotion-- these are the folk, like the grocers and outfitters of long ago, who make the reliable money. The writers mostly make nothing.

(Smith, by the way, offers seminars on self-publishing and sells books on the subject. So he's not only a miner, he's also a dealer, vertically integrating his business. Smart man.)

Gold rush or not, the individual writer looking to succeed in publishing still needs to figure out what to do. Smith offers methods, and tons of useful information on his blog. But he focuses on the individual.

Here's something in which I'm currently investing: a writer's co-op.

A writer's co-op is more than one individual trying to struggle on his own, and less than a traditional publishing company that takes most of an author's rights and royalties. In the co-op, members buy in with an investment to a joint name, website, and mission. They

  • provide mutual support to each other as they write
  • offer to read and edit each other's stuff
  • promote the heck out of each author's published work

and whatever else they all agree to do. Based on their mission, they can keep individual proceeds, websites, and even publishing companies separate, or go all in together. They also can decide whether or not to add members or take on the bigger job of publishing from submissions. It's not a publisher-- it's a publishing co-op.

I do not know of any successful writer's co-ops yet, and I suspect the idea is still a new one for 95% of writers. But the idea makes sense to me, and I'm going with it.

I am the type of writer who works best when I know someone's already out there waiting for me to push that content out. And I don't yet have a bunch of readers waiting for the sequel to Skater in a Strange Land. So working with colleagues makes sense for me.

And it makes the endeavor a lot less like a gold rush, and more like a civilized endeavor. Something we should all hope for, even if you don't read this hair-raising Wikipedia article about the negative effects of the California gold rush. (Seems to me we're overdue for a high quality TV series with a more realistic view of this incredible time in history.)

One more thing from Smith that helps to drain the gold rush metaphor of its relevance: he claims that, unlike gold, readers are in huge, huge supply, especially internationally:

Exclusive, no matter in what form or for what reason, is your enemy in this new world and this new year. The world has become a place to sell in hundreds of different markets and forms. Distributors (both paper and electronic) will try to rope you into exclusive agreements. Don’t go for any of them. And don’t let a traditional publisher rope you into a contract that will force you to write only what they want when they want it. The phrase for 2013 should be “Spread Out.”

In other words, our claim is not a 6x6 square next to the Feather River up in the Sierra Nevada. It's the entire blessed world.

So take heart, you literary forty-niners. That mansion in San Francisco isn't as out of reach as it seems. You just have to work your tail(ings) off.

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