I wrote this in response to a blog post by a midlist author, Michael Mammay posted here where he talks about the lessons he’s learned in the last 4 years as a midlist science fiction author. These lessons apply to all authors working with a traditional publisher. Here is the blog. So:

You have a realistic view of things. I’ve been making a living as a writer for three decades and few people have heard of me. True, I did write under 5 pen names for a while. But, like you, I learned all these lessons the hard way. I had no idea what to expect when I signed my first book deal in 1991. No clue my advance was tied to where I would be on the list and what my print run would be. In essence, my future was pretty much determined before the book even came out. There are exceptions to that, which I’ve also experienced, but generally, if a trad author tells me their advance, I can predict what will happen to the book.

I had to laugh when you said no one is “bottom list” although, yes, someone has to be. I’ve experienced the spectrum of treatment by publishers from bottom list to top list, NY Times bestselling, and they are very different worlds.

One key is they offered you a new contract so you’re not doing the higher percentage sales, lower print run death spiral, but I suspect that’s changed because of eBooks which is a positive. A publisher can recoup a lot of investment now with little capital output in terms of printing because of eBooks. So authors who bitch about Amazon need to realize that Amazon is keeping a lot of this business alive. And a lot more authors alive. Indie bookstores are great, but they are not focused on mid and bottom list authors. That’s a harsh reality few want to admit publicly. Barnes and Noble is a friend, but is slowly losing shelf space and stores.

I’ve said what you’re saying many years ago to publishers, editors and publicists: just tell me the truth. Which is usually: We’re not committing much at all to publicity for you. If anything. We’re throwing the book out there. There’s too much smoke blown up author’s asses on that. Too much vague promising without follow through. I finally got a publicist at Random House to be honest after all the vague promises turned out to be nothing on one series that ended up selling over a million copies in paperback. She said they put the vast majority of their marketing money behind their bestsellers. At first, I was outraged. But then I saw the light. They really can’t “make” a bestseller, although they think they can. But once they get one? They can ride that sucker forever; even beyond the author’s death. In fact, bestselling authors subsidize the mid and bottom list to a large extent so we can’t complain they get the big bucks and the publicity.

The only marketing money that made any impact in years past was placement. Where you were racked. The same is true now even with eBooks although it’s via AMS and Bookbub ads and the like. All else is fluff.

I’ve found science fiction as a genre to be behind the times in terms of the business of publishing. I’ve hit bestseller lists in several genres including scifi. The savviest genre? Romance. Where I’ve also hit the lists. I’m not slamming scifi, but from the outside it just seems really inwardly focused and cliquish. I’ve been a member of SFWA and it’s gotten better but it could do a better job of teaching new authors. Then again, RWA which did a great job has turned on itself and is imploding.  Bottom line—the info is out there but hard to find among all the background noiae.

The few times I’m around scifi authors at conferences (I don’t get invited to cons– no one knows my name although I’ve been #1 in science fiction on Amazon numerous times—I even got told at one con hat I wasn’t a science fiction author which was humorous). I listen to them talk and realize most are woefully uninformed. I tell any midlist author that if they aren’t indie publishing at the same time, they are pretty much doomed. Unless, of course, lightning strikes, and they break out. That’s a whole ‘nother story, though, which I don’t have the time to cover here.

I’ve been published traditionally, 45 titles, and by 47North which is Amazon’s scifi imprint when it was first starting out, 9 titles, and indie published. Luckily, I got the rights back to all my trad books. Which means I failed in trad publishing. But that turned out to be a great blessing in disguise. The day I got my rights back to my Area 51 series from Random House, I told my wife that I got a good chunk of our retirement in place. Which has turned out to be true even though I signed those rights to Amazon Encore when it was first starting out since I got a spectacular royalty deal since it was the golden age of eBooks. I did as well with that as if I was indie publishing those books and I have the added advantage of Amazon promoting those books. Plus, I then continued the series with indie titles. That was a designed plan on my part that has worked well. Which is key: have a long-term plan to have a wide income base. I’ve also invested over $80,000 in Audible ACX titles over the years. I ran my own indie press for a while. It took three years to learn how to indie publish correctly. It’s not as easy as people think.

That’s one thing to do—can you indie publish titles that are in the series your publisher is doing? Or, at least, ancillary to the series? I’ve heard horror stories of publishers not allowing that, even though it’s a win-win for both. An author making 70% eBook royalty every month on a book is a hell of a lot more invested in promoting than one who hasn’t earned out in a trad deal. At the very least, indie publish in the same genre.

I applaud the fact you aren’t blaming your editor, agent, publisher but simply saying: “Tell me the real deal and let me work with that.” Exactly. You have the right attitude and it will stand you in good stead in you publishing future. All the best.