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Writing Wednesday: The Power of Perception

April 27, 2011

I wrote my first draft of this post about three weeks ago.  That came after a Blogger I follow wrote a post questioning whether it’s better to self-publish or small publish.  Then on Facebook someone I know from an online writing group wondered if she should self-publish.

One of the Facebook people answered this question pretty well.  (I’ve left the typos intact!)

“NO. NEVER. Imagine i was a filmmaker. Imagine i was selling my HOMEVIDOES of my CATS becuase i felt they were great. Would you PAY to see them?”

See, that sums up the kind of prejudice you face when you self-publish.  The perception is that if you self-publish then your book is probably terrible.  It’s probably riddled with typos and terrible prose.  Why else would no real publisher publish it?

And truth be told there are a good number of those out there.  The stereotype isn’t just something made up by the publishing industry to protect its profits.  Some people do just toss out some piece of garbage without looking at it.  Or they just aren’t capable of correcting their mistakes.

Now more than ever we live in a world where perception is reality.  That’s why all this “Birther” crap won’t go away, even though Obama’s been president for over two years now.  With all the social networking, you can spread conspiracy theories and lies far and wide.  Enough people buy into it and it becomes a “fact” even if it’s not.

So is it better to try a small publisher than self-publish?  Absolutely.  Sure the small publisher can’t really pay you and they aren’t likely to get your book on the shelf at B&N or Borders (for those who still have those) and their marketing budget isn’t much better than what you can do with your own money, but they give you credibility.  The idea that someone else thought your book was good is the best benefit of even a small publisher.  That gives you the perception of quality and perception is what matters.

For part two of this entry I got to thinking that if I can’t find a small publisher, maybe I should just start my own.  How hard can that really be?  Well for just me by myself it might be tricky.  But maybe if I pool resources with some other people it would work better.

For my hypothetical example, imagine that me and three of my semi-regular readers—Briane Pagel, Michael Ouffett, and Ethan Cooper—decide we’re tired of getting kicked in the pants by The Man and so agree to form our own company.  Since there are four of us we decide to call ourselves Four Aces Publishing.  (And it doesn’t matter that none of us have ever met in person or that we live in different states.  It’s hypothetical!)

We divide the labor up like this:  Briane’s a lawyer so he handles the legal stuff like contracts, I’m an accountant so I handle the money and taxes, Coop lives in New York so he can meet with any agents/clients there, and Michael can handle our technical stuff.  (If any of you are reading this, maybe you want to do more or less or something different, but again it’s hypothetical, OK?)

The real hitch other than a lack of money would be if we want to print books.  But maybe we can outsource the actual process of that to a third party and just get our company logo on the spine.  That would be something to research.  Let’s just say we can do that.  All we have to do is create a website and start spreading the word.  Four Aces Publishing is in business!

Our first couple books would probably be from our own stuff.  I mean, that was kind of the point, right?  Eventually we could take on other clients to expand the business.  The real problem would be getting the books listed on Amazon, B&N, etc.  That would be something else to research.  Maybe it’s not that hard.

Anyway, assume that all works out and now my book hits the virtual shelves saying “Four Aces Publishing” instead of “CreateSpace” or “Lulu.”  Does that make it better?  In reality probably not, but it’s the perception that’s the key.  In the buyer’s mind even though we’re actually just four people who probably don’t know what we’re doing we’re a legitimate business.  And that’s worth a lot.

(Incidentally, if you buy a paper copy of either Where You Belong or my short story collection The Carnival Papers I have on there the logo for my fictitious company D.e-Press.  I actually came up with that for an accounting class back in college where we had to create financial statements for a fake business.  If that appeared as the publisher on Amazon, do you think I’d have better sales?  Probably.  I’d probably also be on P&E and Writer Beware as a vanity publisher to avoid!)

Friday is an entry inspired by a movie–and a movie review…

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17 Comments
  1. Oh, the hypotheticals are so much fun, aren’t they? I love playing the ‘what if’ game!

    But, you are so right. Perception is everything in the publishing business.

  2. Mmm, for a small publisher to be successful I think you need to have “on board” someone with a ton of charisma that can network with people. My charisma meter hits about a 5 on a scale of 10 and yours is about the same. Tahereh Mafi has a charisma meter of about a 9 on a scale of 10–that’s the kind of person we would need that was working for the publisher. Someone that goes out and just gathers friends. It’s something you’re born with and cannot manufacture and more women seem to have it than men. That’s just my opinion on that. But the “charismatic” is the person that sells the product while the other people work behind the scenes and do the job.

    That’s if we wanted to be successful at publishing. Oh and let’s not forget that this is a ton of work. I don’t think I’d want to work that hard lol. I’m kinda fat and lazy and enjoy t.v. too much. Plus there are a ton of small publishers out there already barely makin’ it. For an almost full list, check Piers Anthony’s website out. He has something to say on just about everyone.

    • 5 out of 10? I resent that. My charisma meter is -5 at least.

      Anyway, this was a hypothetical exercise (as I said twice at least), the point being that a small publisher has more credibility, even if that credibility isn’t deserved.

  3. Ethan Cooper permalink

    Sounds like a pretty good business plan. And, yes, I’m in NYC. But to use Michael’s terminology, I’m not really blessed with business charisma. In fact, I am much closer to a charismatic black hole, which certainly contributes mightily to my fate as a self-published novelist.

    Probably the best course for this incipient small publisher is to put yours truly in the mail room, where I’ll fit right in.

    Maybe Judith Regan is available.

    • So we’re all agreed that we need someone with charisma. Incidentally, this is probably in part why most self-publishing authors fail. How many authors are really charismatic? Probably not that many. I mean writing is not exactly the best occupation for people pleasers because you spend a lot of time by yourself doing the writing–unless you’re James Frey and hire someone to do it for you.

  4. You know, some people have the knack for building their own business. Alas, I do not have that skill.

    As far as hypotheticals go, if there’s a will there’s a way…but you also need $$$$.

    Ands lots of planning. And guts. And luck.

    I guess you need those things with pretty much ANY endeavor, eh?

    (You really got me thinking on this one. Nice job!)

  5. I found you from Twitter. You showed up on my list of people I follow who aren’t following back. Now after reading this post, I will continue to follow even if you don’t return the favor cuz this was great stuff. In fact, there’s a well-known publisher who was everybody’s favorite upstart a few years ago, publishing lots of books that got some awards. Then they started ignoring the authors under contract and working on their own stuff. One of the complaints about them was that they knew nothing about publishing, just had tons of charisma and sales savvy, and had basically formed the company to promote their own books anyway. They had lots of financial backing with money thrown at them due to the charismatic founder. Then it all fell apart, because there needs to be more than $$$ and charisma– there has to be substance, talent, perseverance and most of all, a business model that can work even when the economy, the industry and the book selling habits of readers go upside down.

    Great post! I am RTing it.

    • There, now I’m following you on Twitter. I try to periodically check on followers vs. following, but sometimes I forget.

  6. Great post – thank you. On your early point abt perception – sad but true. I have read some books on Kindle – including those coming from publishers – that have been riddled w/typos and I find that so annoying. I’ve also read two self-published works so far – one I liked, despite some formatting issues, and one, I thought, okay, you’re the kind of person that gives self-publishing a bad name.
    Again, thanks – got me thinking.

  7. I think publishing with a small publisher would be better than self-pub mainly because the publishing company acts like a filter. I think any type of screening, or adding another layer of editing, helps the publisher AND the author. But I haven’t published a book yet, so what do I know? 😀

  8. So…. I am with you on self-publishing so far although the self-published authors (and that is not a few) I have met in the past were abrasive and not terribly great writers. I think you have to go into it knowing that that is what has preceded you. I think you are also right you have to have some business acumen, a great deal of planning and maybe some charisma but perhaps that is not as important as you make it sound. The first thing you need is money to get the book published obviously. Getting it onto Amazon is not that difficult. In fact it wouldn’t be that difficult at all. And then you need to get it reviewed by reputable reviewers- maybe a local neighborhood newspaper, librarians and school reviewers- This is why the book has to be good!!! A good review from a librarian in a large school district could mean that many schools then purchase your book and if librarians recommend the book to teachers… well, the ball is rolling!!! But I am getting ahead of myself. The point is there is a way that self-published authors can get the ball rolling for themselves but it will never happen if they don’t have a GREAT PRODUCT!!!!! And it has to be better than the average book the publisher is rolling out because the publisher has marketing and flash and money and BIG NAMES!!!! in their favor!

  9. This is so funny. I was just thinking the same thing–why not get a few writers to go in together and start our own on-line pub company? It only makes sense. Sites like Muse it up Pub are a perfect example. And it would give authors that stamp of approval we need.

    Lots of particulars, but I think it’d be worth it. Let me know if you decide to roll with it.

  10. I think the real benefit of having a publisher that pays for your work is the validation it gives the writer, it means your story is good enough for someone who isn’t you immediate family tell you its good, not to mention the copy editing that generally comes along with it.

    I’m all for you starting a small imprint. Instead of four aces you could call yourself hypothetical books… hey, are guys accepting unagented submissions?

  11. Ahhh! I had a whole comment and then closed the window. So my previous comment now exists only in another dimension and was very smart, and you should all try to contact your other selves to see what I said there.

    I’ll try to recap:

    All book sales, like all sales of everything people sell, depends on getting people to notice you and then want to buy you. Your “charismatic person” is a sales person who can charm book buyers for major chains into getting 100,000 copies of your book, and then stacking it near the door in excitingly-shaped displays that get people to buy them.

    So small publishers are not much better than self-publishers (or “indie publishers,” as I like to call them because it sounds better.) A small publisher gets you a little credibility, but not much more because nobody’s ever heard of it. Can you tell me whether “The Trouble With Roy Books” is better than “Calyx Books,” and which of those might be a “real” publisher? Most likely, you can’t.

    If you look around, there are as many as 100 books in print…

    … if you don’t read my blogs, you probably won’t get that joke, so just move on…

    … and most of those go unnoticed in favor of “The Law of Nines,” which was a book that got lots of hype and which I bought remaindered for $6 and never finished reading because it sucked, thereby disproving my theory that “you can’t go wrong for six bucks.” You can.

    Your small publisher still has to sell you, or your book will molder the way many indie-published books molder.

    If you want to sell your book the EASY way, craft a query letter that gets an agent and/or a major publisher, have them back your book in a big way, and sit back while they book signings and TV shows and radio spots for you. But few make it that way.

    Others rely on their own hard work. The guy who wrote “COOP” about a year spent farming (a guy who followed my tips on how to write a best-seller) came around Wisconsin last year doing readings and improv nights and he has a website and apparently works very hard at not working at all. Read Neil Gaiman’s Twitter and you’ll see how he’s never stopped moving. Small-press authors and indie publishers have to do their own publicity.

    And I know whereof I speak: I managed to get my local newspaper to do a piece on my writing (having a blog about Lesbian Zombies at the time didn’t hurt) and feature my book. I got on a local comedian’s show (“The Dan Potacke Show.”) And I sent many many letters to many many bookstores trying to get them to stock my book. I also sent copies to reviewers (and got some reviews) and to friends.

    None of those have (yet) made my book a best seller. I suspect that if I put 40 hours a week into promoting my book, and invested some money into it (buying a Google TV ad, for example) I might make even more. Do you think, after all, that people buy Glenn Beck’s books because they’re such taut, suspenseful thrillers? Or because he has a zillion viewers and if 1 in 10 of those buy his book, it’s on the NYT best seller list, which will then spur other people to buy it?

    Four Aces Publishing would work provided that (a) the content is at least acceptable to readers — and “acceptable” includes things like “LOLCatz” books, and (b) there was a sufficient push to get books into the bookstores and promote them. But that same push/content level would work for any single author who’s willing to do the time.

    What banding together CAN do is help word-of-mouth publicity. I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll mention it again: when you know someone who writes/blogs/plays music/sells pizza, etc., you should support that person. Not that you need to be a cheerleader and send them $10,000 (although you should do that for me) but that you should mention their books to friends, buy them as gifts for people, buy them yourself and read them and comment on them, and should comment on their blogs, etc.

    We may all end up, as Garrison Keillor said, be limited to 12 readers and an annual income of $1.87, but those twelve readers can leave 12 comments a day on our blogs and can occasionally buy one of our books and can mention our books, etc., on our own blogs.

    I’ve done that for Rogue a few times — as I do for ANYONE who comments regularly on any of my blogs… hint hint… — and I recently managed to invest an whopping $0.99 to buy his book “Virgin Territory” and mentioned it a lot on Twitter. When I finish it (I’m 78% through) I’ll give it a Rum Punch Review and comment on it at Amazon.

    And Rogue, in return, has taught me how to get Twitter followers and comments on my blogs (which i appreciate, even when he suggests that I’m a desperately lonely man who’s scanning the background of commercials for hot chicks)(the only thing wrong with that sentence is “desperately lonely”, as I’m happily married to the Hottest Extra ever.)

    I kind of lost the thread here. There’s no surefire way to bestseller/Stephen King-esque heights: every famous/rich person takes the same path: A little talent, a lot of time, and some luck. But indie stuff can benefit as much as studio stuff: “The Shack” was a self-published book. “The Foot Fist Way” was self-published. “Petty Cash,” the movie I starred in:

    http://www.troublewithroy.com/search?q=ross+bigley

    (using ‘starred’ loosely) is self-produced but landed Bai Ling in it, and now just needs a distributor, and then will likely take off and be a big hit.

    One of the guys behind “Petty Cash,” by the way, was friends with a guy named Rob Schrab, who parlayed a semi-loved self-made comic book into a chance to write the script for “Monster House” and then became a writer for The Sarah Silverman Show. Meanwhile, “Stuff White People Like” and “SH*T My Dad Says” became books and TV series, and against all known logic and reason Diablo Cody continues to have a career.

    So I’m pretty confident that good writing/talent will win out, if it can get noticed. Which isn’t to say that I’m not in favor of Four Aces Publishing, and if people want to think of a cooperative way to publish books that spreads the work/publicity out, I’m all for it.

    Seriously.

  12. Also, if anyone ever meets me in person they cannot tell Sweetie that I called her an “Extra.”

    • Whew, that is a tough act to follow. If this were a “Family Guy” episode I’d introduce Mr. Conway Twitty right now.

      Certainly one way for “indie” authors to get some sales is for other “indie” authors to buy their books. It’s much the same Marxist principle as the Four Aces Publishing–pooling our resources instead of every man for himself like pure capitalism.

      There’s one thing I’m following on Twitter called the Indie Book Collective. I haven’t looked much into it, but that might be what’s really needed; a place for “indie” authors to gather and let each other know about their books and such. Maybe that can go a step further and people can exchange favors–of the non-sexual variety. Like I could offer to write some blog posts or something for someone in exchange for cover artwork. Or I could give someone an edit in exchange for writing a review of my book. Or we could offer to help set up book signings in each other’s areas.

      There would still be a couple of hitches. For one thing you’d be kind of creating a bubble, where sales are propped up somewhat artificially–like the stock market! For another, cooperation might start to break down if Random House swoops down and picks up your book but ignores mine.

      But overall working together is probably more beneficial for all of us than going it alone–until Random House swoops down to pick us up and then it’s every man for himself!

  13. You make some great points; I’m sure that you could find some other Blogging writers for this endeavor. The problem with small publishers (I recently learned from a Podcast), is that they may go out of business, keeping your publishing rights in limbo. I asked a veteran Podcaster (Mighty Mur Lafferty) and she said to stipulate in the contract that if the business folds, that the rights revert to the author. Solid advice, and worth repeating. That’s why she’s my favorite Podcaster (“I Should Be Writing” is the Podcast, if you’re interested).

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