Panel questions for a writer’s conference

Today I’ll be attending the 2014 Maranatha Christian Writer’s Conference on behalf of Discovery House Publishers. In addition to giving a workshop, the conference organizers have asked me to sit in on a panel discussion. They sent us the questions we’ll be asked ahead of time.

I have written my answers and have posted them here as means for preparing for the discussion. I can’t be sure that I’ll get to say all of this today, as panel discussions ebb and flow in real time, but I thought there might still be some value in recording these answers. If you’re interested at all in my thoughts on the future of publishing, or if you are considering self-publishing or non-traditional publishing, then this post is for you. Enjoy! -AR

1. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the world of traditional publishing in recent years. What do you think the most important changes have been, and how have they affected authors? What additional changes do you think we might see in coming years?

The power of social media to sell products has changed publishing books, at least in part. Social media puts greater pressure on authors to help promote their work and to continually create new things to read. Social media, by its very nature, is personal and personality driven. Corporations (like publishing brands) are at something of a disadvantage. For instance, readers are more interested in following their favorite author on Twitter than they are in following the author’s publisher. This makes the author the promoter of their books in ways that authors were not before. 

2. Many authors are testing some of their publishing ideas—testing very short novels, for instance—by bringing them out first independently as just an ebook, with no print edition. What are the pros and cons of that?

There are pros and cons.

Cons It’s hard to control the perceptions of both editors and authors. Poor marketing, poor visual elements, or poor production create negative perceptions around a project before it’s even read. Self-published books can easily look less than professional, which makes them less interesting to editors, even if the content inside is good.

Pro: The ability to build an audience and show publishers hard numbers is a real asset to authors who are shopping book proposals. Publishers can be swayed if they see a history of strong sales.

3. Is there a downside to doing an independently published edition of your book before pitching it (or having your agent pitch it) to traditional publishers? Will it make publishers less likely to sign your book? On the other hand, what would be the benefits of doing this?

Again, perception is a problem. If a book is done badly the first time it can be hard for editors to visualize it being re-worked and re-released. However, if an author can demonstrate that he or she is meeting a felt need, independently published books can be beneficial for gaining a publishing contract. It’s a case by case thing.

4. For the author interested in pursuing independent publishing, how do they manage to afford it? Are there effective ways to raise money, say through crowdfunding like Kickstarter?

I’m not sure how to answer this one. It’s outside my work experience. From what I’ve seen elsewhere, Kickstarter is great because niche resources can be produced less expensively. It’s worth mentioning, the fact that something is a niche resource does not mean it’s not good. On the contrary, it could be excellent. When something is niche, that just means the audience and the need are typically small and particular. This often means the project won’t be viable for publishers to produce it, not that the project is bad. So, in this sense, crowdfunding is a great idea!

5. What’s the future of the ebook? Have sales leveled off? Do we expect to see additional technological innovations in ebooks soon? New types of e-readers? More people reading on smartphones?

My answers are purely instinctual here. I don’t have hard facts. So, for what they’re worth: Yes, I think sales have leveled off for now. Yes, I think we will continue to see new innovations in ebooks, and new types of e-readers. Yes, I believe more people will read content on their cell phones and other mobile devices. As new generations grow into adult readers, and as new tech is developed, I think it’s possible that we could see significant growth in ebook sales. For now, for the current adult generations, I think it’s leveled off a little bit. 

6. What’s the future of the print book? Will it survive? If so, where and how will it be sold, given that bookstores are struggling to stay in business?

(If I knew the answer to this question I’d be rich.) It’s hard to imagine that print books will one day go away forever. Print material is used in all sorts of settings: religious services and ceremonies (Bibles, books of prayer, other sacred books); printed music books for students of instruments; print manuals (think of the glove compartment in your car); public areas (waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, etc.); and other areas I’m not thinking of.

As to the future of bookstores, that’s hard to answer. Most people make most purchases based on convenience and price. From where you buy your milk and gas, to where you buy your books, convenience and price are usually the determining factors for you. Bookstores will need to meet those two needs in order to survive. There’s lots of other great things that bookstores provide, but those two basic needs are what drive purchasing decisions by most consumers.

7. Is Amazon the big bad wolf or Glinda, the good witch? Are they destroying publishing or saving it? What is your opinion of the lawsuits between Amazon and Hachette? Is Amazon intentionally harming Hachette authors in order to win the lawsuit?

I’m still uncertain about how I’ll answer this one. Here are some helpful posts I’ve read to prepare:

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/15/amazon-its-friends-and-critics/?action=click&contentCollection=Technology&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/15/technology/in-latest-volley-against-amazon-hachettes-writers-target-its-board.html?_r=0

8. Can an author survive in today’s world of publishing and bookselling without a traditional publishing partner and without substantial distribution into bookstores?

Sure, but it depends on what you mean by survive. Traditional publishing partners offer quality editing, production, sales, distribution, and brand recognition. They also offer a future with all of these things if your book sells well and if you keep producing good material. (For instance, Scribner continues to sell and produce quality versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s material. He wrote great content and got himself connected with a publisher who is in the business of diceminating and maintaining great content. No doubt the Fitzgerald estate continues to benefit from this arrangement to this day.)

Authors can certainly achieve the things mentioned above and “survive” without a publisher. However, it will be harder to find these things without a traditional publisher – a lot harder in some cases. I think it depends on how much the author wants to do themselves and pay for themselves. 

9. Is indie publishing a temporary fad that developed in response to changes in the traditional publishing world, or is it here to stay, a major force in remaking the world of publishing?

I think it’s here to stay. It was here already, before the digital revolution. Indie publishing has just gotten a lot better and cheaper in recent years. All in all, I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think it will replace traditional publishing. It just forces traditional publishers to be even better at what they do. 

10. For the author interested in indie publishing, who are the essential team members they need to partner with?

An editor, a designer, a person to handle technical needs, and a street team of some kind to help promote the book. The street team could be friends at church, it could be your family online, it could be your twitter followers and blog readers. It will likely look different for every author, but every author will need someone.

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