From a Dinosaur Publishing in a Digital World … by Chris Goff

Photo by Mark Stevens
Photo by Mark Stevens

Okay, I admit it, I got into this game long enough ago that my first words were scribbled on white tablets, with mistakes scratched out and arrows drawn to indicate where whole passages needed to be moved. Later, I typed stories on a manual typewriter, keeping copious amounts of Wite-Out on hand. Later, because an IBM Selectric typewriter was too expensive, I bought a Brother’s typewriter that could actually “delete” up to 300 characters using Wite-Out tape. Then, in 1987, when my mother died, I inherited her IBM PC. One of the first, it had 256K of RAM and a 1.2 MGB floppy disk drive.

Jump forward 30 years and I’m typing this at 33K feet in the air on a Surface Pro 2, on a Southwest flight to Seattle, while hooked up to the internet. I could be watching a movie, but instead I’m blogging—and extolling and lamenting the direction publishing has taken with the advancement of technology.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology.

Now I can correct my mistakes, move passages around in my documents, delete unwanted text OR accidently save the new paragraph of my latest novel over the master file of the book due next week, with no backup and only the hope of piecing the book together from the pages I’ve sent the critique group over the past year or year and a half.

I can also research anything. With a few keystrokes, I can pull up the weather in Kazakhstan, a picture of Kiev in March OR I can get lost surfing the information highway and lose entire days to finding a plant that grows in the Amazon and smells like a zombie to make stinky car “air-fresheners” for my much younger brothers who love The Walking Dead.

But, while the benefits of technological advances are obvious, they come at a cost. Digital publishing has changed the face of the industry.

Goff_Dark WatersWhen I locked down my first publishing contract, a writer’s only options were through a traditional publishing house or a vanity press (the dinosaurs’ equivalent of self-publishing on the internet). And, just like today, there were some self-published who made it big. The difference—back then, if you didn’t hit, you ended up with a basement full of boxed books you couldn’t sell instead of being 2,996,254 out of three million on the Amazon list.

Today, the list of large traditional publishers has decreased to five. And while the number of small publishers has increased somewhat, the number of people digitally self-publishing has skyrocketed. The tendency of many of these authors is to put their books for sale online for $.99. No doubt many of these are quality books—well written, well edited, and well received. However, a large number of these books are not worth the pennies paid.

For that, the industry has suffered. Advances from traditional and small publishers have not increased. In fact, advances have for the most part have decreased, along with the value placed on writers.

Why? In my estimation, it’s due in large part to the sheer volume of material for sale out there; due in large part to the sheer number of “writers” whose primary interest is not to make a living writing, but simply a desire to see their work “published.”

Additionally, the digital world has become one in which a writer must not only find a venue for their work and have a dynamic website, but also requires a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Goodreads. It’s not enough just to write a good book, a writer must now master the art of social networking.

Does this sound the diatribe of a “dinosaur?” No doubt. But it’s the reality of the world anyone who still dreams of making a living writing is faced with.

So, what’s a dinosaur—er writer—to do?

1. Suck it up! This is the reality and it’s not going to go away. We must learn to master technology, learn to utilize the web, learn to social network. For my part, I asked my kids to help me. Who better to show me the ins and outs of Tweeting and Tumbling?

2. Write a great book! and don’t trust Wikipedia. Put your new found technological skills to work, and fact check. We may be fiction writers, but a truth runs through it.

3. Publish well! Not your choice if you go with a traditional publisher, but there are things a self-published writer can do. Invest in an editor. (Note to dinosaur: this is not the time to turn to your kids. Hire a professional.) Design a great cover. Solicit some great cover quotes. Value your work. Price it like it’s worth something. Sure, take advantage of the discounted promotions, but for the most part, don’t undercut the market. In the long run, that only drives down the value of the product.

4. Enjoy it! There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your book in print and having someone who's not related to you read your book and love it. Bask in the moment. Share the excitement! (Note: we’re back to social networking here).

5. Start the next book!

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Chris Goff is the award-winning author of five environmental novels and a new international thriller series. The bestselling Birdwatcher's Mystery series was nominated for two WILLA Literary Awards, a Colorado Author's League Award, and published in the UK and Japan. The backlist of the Birdwatcher's Mystery series was re-released by Astor+Blue Editions in November 2014 and a sixth book in the series A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is scheduled for October 2015. DARK WATERS, her first international thriller, will be published by Crooked Lane Books on September 15, 2015. For more information, please visit Chris’s website.

You can follow Chris on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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17 thoughts on “From a Dinosaur Publishing in a Digital World … by Chris Goff

  1. If you’re a dinosaur, Chris, I’m not sure what that makes me….my first typewriter was a little manual portable in a hard case I got in high school. It weighed about 20 times more than my new laptop. I was lucky, though, because over the years I worked in companies that introduced new technology right away and trained employees well. And, of course, marrying a computer geek didn’t hurt. The rest I learn as I go. I love the changes in the publishing world even if a lot of books get published with bad formatting and lousy editing. The wonderful part is the great authors who can now see their books come alive when they would have died a dusty death on a closet shelf in the old days.

  2. Thanks for the memory trip! Wouldn’t it be GREAT if we could make a living selling books, considering it’s one of the most challenging job anyone could ever do. Despite all the changes and frustrations, I’m looking forward to the changes in the next 5-10 years. It can only get better, right?

  3. Good advice in the end. But to comment on the title and stated premise of the post:

    “Digital publishing has changed the face of the industry….Today, the list of large traditional publishers has decreased to five.” Can we really lay the international consolidation of publishing conglomerates over the past several decades at the feet of digital publishing? Consolidation was happening long before the Sony reader, let alone the Kindle. And doesn’t the decrease in advances reflect, at least to a large degree, the decrease in competition that comes from consolidation combined with the mainstreaming focus towards blockbusters that will sell in grocery stores and Wal-marts (with less focus on mid-list)?

    It seems only natural that when an alternative emerges that allows people to make an end-run around these bottlenecks, it takes off like wildfire. Entrepreneurialism at work. We’re in a surge right now. We have (a) a bunch of entrepreneurs who have just entered the game (only a few of whom will be able to sustain it over time), (b) enthusiasts who are in it for fun (and may tire of it once the novelty wears off, or deafening silence dampens that enthusiasm), and (c) no real effective way to filter through the crap. I find it ironic that this article and my comment are on a blog, because 10-12 years ago people were saying the exact same thing about blogs (versus the “real” journalism vetted as fit to print). This will adjust over time. The only thing we know for sure is that this industry is still in major flux.

    The question I would ask: Would writers really be better off if all the only options they had were getting published by one of the Big Five or going the vanity route with vampire companies like Author Solutions, and the only entrepreneurial paths would require hundreds of thousands of dollars of up-front investment?

    Yes, it’s a jungle out there. But to me, it’s preferable to a zoo.

    • I appreciate your comments. I would like to clarify my thoughts. I may not have expressed myself clearly on a couple of points.

      First, I’m all for the increased venues for publishing. I don’t have a problem with small presses. I just sold my thriller to a smaller press. I don’t have a problem with “traditional digital publishers.” I just sold my back-list to one. I don’t have a problem with indie-pubs and the e-book venues, or the people who choose to use those venues. But, while the consolidation of the publishers has shrunk the venues for publication and restricted the advances, the proliferation of books published by the “enthusiasts” with no way to sift out”filter through the crap” at a price point of $.99 means there’s a huge amount of words out there for sale. I still think it makes it harder to sell my work for the money I need to in order to sustain myself as a writer, because it means there’s always someone out there willing to sell something for less AND a buyer out there who is only interested in getting the words for $.99 or less. I can see how some might feel that’s entrepreneurial and free enterprise, and how eventually people may tire of wading through the drek and turn to reviews or recommendations to choose their reading material, it also floods the market with cheap fiction. A publisher (indie or traditional) has to compete with that price point. If the gas station one block down is selling their gas for $.99, I’m going to struggle if I insist on selling my gas for $1.99.

      As for blogs–unfortunately, they are not journalism. Having pursued a degree in journalism, and having made a living as a newspaper reporter, journalism is supposed to be a reporting of truths and facts WITHOUT bias. Blogs, in reality, are more like editorials–though, I’ll grant you, we’re seeing more and more biased reporting in newspapers and on TV than we’ve ever seen before.

      The best thing, however, is the debate and the discussion and the hope that writers start thinking about the impact they have on the industry through their publishing choices.

      • Thanks for the reply. Just to clarify: I didn’t raise blogs as a vector to get into the various failings of traditional journalism as practiced today, but rather as an example of how things change over time. Ten years ago, blogs were everywhere, and we as readers had almost no way to discern who was who, what was what. We relied upon poor filters like Yahoo search results, which had lots of spam, and blogrolls, which ended up being little more than circles of online friends. How to find the good stuff? And the cry from many was, “Who said they could say anything?” Indeed, who said?

        But blogs continued, and over time, things started to sort themselves out, such that today we have a wide variety of blogs and nobody is confused as to what they’re reading or has much trouble finding interesting content. We’re familiar now with the various types of blogs. There are corporate blogs and personal blogs, newsy blogs and silly blogs. Some bloggers have been hired by news organizations because of the high quality of their work. Some journalists have gone indie. There are blogging ventures that have gradually become more like news organizations. Other bloggers ended up providing better news research and analysis than traditional outlets — such as Nate Silver with his data-crunching analyses of recent political campaigns.

        I hope for and expect similar things to happen with the explosion of independent publishing. Again, people cry, “Who said they could publish?” They didn’t get permission (and a paycheck) from one of the big corporations, so they haven’t been “vetted.” But really the problem as I see it is not the “tsunami of crap,” as it’s aptly called, but a matter of filtering. How do we parse through the sheer volume of content to find the things we want to read, things we value? That will come with time and experience and tools. We can no longer depend upon multinational corporations as tastemakers to vet our books. And people are realizing that even “smart” algorithms such as that employed by Amazon can get them only so far. There are new ventures we’re reading about that are in the works simply to help readers find the books they want. And so far sales seem to be up, even as they move outside of the pathways where traditional metrics are based. It’s early on yet. So I am hopeful.

  4. OMG! Chris! How are you doing? This is Cal from your old WRW days (I was late for work, so didn’t have time for a bj from the girl in the car next to me). I have a signed copy of your Death Shoots a Birdie mystery from 2007. It’s great to see you finished that Israeli thriller you talked about. I will buy it immediately.

    For those of you who don’t know Chris personally, she is one of the brightest, sweetest, and funniest people you will ever meet.

  5. First, Cal, hello. Thanks for checking out the blog post. Great to hear from you.

    Second, everyone, I just discovered (via my friend, Libby Hellman) that this blog was picked up and reposted by “A Lawyer’s Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing” and has over 26 hits there. Clearly the topic struck a nerve–some quite vehemently in support of self-publishing. I just want to reiterate – I didn’t say I was against self-publishing. I just think that there are too many people churning out manuscripts who haven’t taken the care with their work to cast themselves as serious writers.

    That said, the world has changed and there is no way to turn back the tide. There are things happening that will help all serious writers. The self-published community has started to be reviewed and promoted through venues that connect with booksellers and the publishing community. The self-published editions of PW, for example. The best of the indie-pubbed are reviewed and word gets out. Good for the best of the indie published, and good for the traditionally published (and I’m including the Big 5 and all small publishers here). There are more independent editors out there to proof and indie manuscript; more cover designers; etc. Additionally, there are more digital publishers, who act like traditional publishers, springing up. They give a larger percentage of the profits to the authors, while providing traditional services: editing, cover design, marketing, etc.

    Mostly, I want to encourage those that indie publish to take the care and time with their work to improve their chances for success. Too many writers I know have thrown their work out and not seen the return they expected. Perhaps with a little more investment in time and, possibly, money, they might see a better response to their work. For those traditionally published, the small publisher can provide a venue for their work that may provide better return than publishing with a Big 5 publisher. What we all need to consider is how we can help each other get the return we deserve so we can afford to keep writing–and so we have the quality work we deserve as readers. Because, ultimately, it’s the reader that matters!

    • What great news to have your post (and therefore the RMFW blog) get this extra attention. An extra thanks to you, Chris, for sharing your thoughts on this topic and drawing a crowd.

      These days I don’t think anyone knocks self-publishing, although we might pick on the writers who throw out poorly edited and formatted work and expect readers to pay for it. If we’re buying books, we want to spend our money on the good stuff.

      The best of both worlds, being a hybrid author, is now the goal of many who launched their careers with traditional publishers. And the really good indie-published authors will get enough attention to snag a traditional publisher if that’s what they want.

  6. Just chiming in to say great post & great discussion. I believe we are now fully into this new world. There will always be publishers who screen and select (somewhat carefully) the writers they want to publish. Those same publishers will sometimes bring a new writer to wide acclaim. And readers will decide. At the same time, due to all the new tools at the disposal of writers, new titles will find their way into the hands of readers completely outside and without the help of “mainstream” folks. I believe 99 percent of readers do not care (one little lick) about the reputation of the publisher. They want a good story to take them away–and that’s it. They want it well edited and they want it to feel good in their hands (if they are reading an actual book). Other than that, I don’t think they are all that fussy. The big problem self-publishers have is distribution and creating a good buzz. It can be done, but it ain’t easy. Still, it starts with a quality story and a high-quality production for a smooth reading experience.

  7. Hi Chris, Great post!

    If we’re playing dinosaurs, can I be Sara the triceratops from “Land Before Time?” I do want to stomp my feet and go all cranky over the difficulties of making a living writing. The “noise” created by everyone who wants to get into print without going through the fires of pre-published life can be irksome to say the least. And please don’t get me started on those fifty shades.

    But part of the issue is that “the big five” are so closely held that many newer authors who do indeed take writing seriously don’t have the old alternatives to big pubs — newspapers or magazines–to put out their stories in serial form (remember Charles Dickens?). Self-Pub does provide an option, yet I agree that so much of that work could be improved with better editing, better promotion and better graphics.

    I wonder if all this independence is ushering in a new lifestyle not only for writers, but for workers in general. The virtual office has taken hold, and, unless you’re into manufacturing, there is less and less reason for us to go to brick and mortars to work. I just wonder what that will do to our societies as we learn to connect more over the Internet, and less in face-to-face situations.

    Good luck with your great writing. Long live a good story.

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