Random Self vs. Trade Publishing Thoughts

I think I mentioned that earlier this year I had discovered Michelle West’s epic fantasy books, which span three different series but are all one large interconnected story. I devoured them. Sixteen books, most around 800 pages or so. I finished the last one in July. They were meaty and complex and had characters I liked without having any main characters I hated.

(I find that sometimes authors make choices about characters to “keep it interesting” that push me right out of a series. These books aren’t light and fluffy by any means, but they somehow manage to include brutal parts of the world without being brutal themselves.)

Anyway. After finding and loving those books I was then surprised to see that she basically had to part ways with her publisher on the remaining books in the story (a new series, but the continuation of the whole big arc) because the books were just going to be too long. And perhaps too numerous.

Good epic fantasy (not just alternate world fantasy, but actual epic fantasy) is so hard to find that it was really sad news for me as a reader. So when she mentioned that she was starting up a Patreon to let her write that final series, I decided I’d support it. (You can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/mswest)

For me as a writer it’s been worth my money so far because she’s been posting really interesting discussions about her writing process. And it also gives me good mental fodder when thinking about trade vs. self-publishing.

I hope she won’t mind my quoting from today’s post, because I think this is an important thing to understand for anyone considering the trade publishing path.

“The Patreon has been enormously freeing. It’s been — I don’t think I can put into words just how much of a difference it’s made to the writing. I’m not terrified, at the moment, of writing these books. I’m not afraid of allowing the story to breathe and grow from the roots that have existed since¬†Broken Crown.”

From what I understand of what she’s discussed, she was finding herself constrained by the requirements of her trade publisher. They wanted the books to be under a certain word count. And they’d bought four books when the series was likely going to be six and if I had to guess may ultimately be eight to ten books.

And so the author was feeling like she couldn’t write the story she wanted. She couldn’t include certain characters or plot lines. She was trying to tell a full, living, breathing story with one hand tied behind her back because of publisher requirements and it was interfering with her process.

(To be fair to the publisher and her editor, it sounds like over the years they’ve really worked hard to let this series continue and be what it needed to be. But they just hit a point where that couldn’t happen anymore.)

I think this issue she raises is probably the biggest trade-off that authors need to recognize if they want to be trade published.

As a self-publisher I can faff around all I want and the only one I’m harming is myself. So I can write a book or not write a book, or write a book that’s three times longer than I planned or half the length I planned, and it doesn’t matter.

But if you go the trade publishing route, you need to meet the expectations of your publisher. That includes length of book, length of series, timing, etc. And if X does well, you better be prepared to provide more of X. If Y doesn’t do well, you better be prepared to start writing Z instead, assuming they give you another chance and don’t just show you the door.

Which can make self-publishing sound really appealing, right? Freedom! Creative control! Telling YOUR story!

But there’s the discoverability issue for new authors who self-publish. I know that if I hadn’t discovered this author’s works through her trade published series I wouldn’t be supporting her Patreon right now. (I also know if I hadn’t been able to read those books in a mass market paperback size that I would’ve never started the series either.)

The reality is that if some unknown writer said, “Hey I want to write an epic fantasy series, give me money to let me do that,” I’d laugh and say, “No.” I’d have no guarantee that they could write one nor that they could do so in any sort of timely manner. And I’d definitely have no reason to believe that it would be good if they did manage to write it.

Which means for a brand new author with no trade publishing track record to write a series like this one on the self-publishing side they basically have to self-fund and go all in and write the first story arc at least before they can expect any sort of traction. That’s a good million words probably.

Too many readers have been burned by unfinished series at this point for an epic fantasy book one to really take off, IMO. (I could be wrong on that, I mean I have started other epic fantasy series that were unfinished even though Melanie Rawn never finished what at the time I thought was the best epic fantasy series I’d ever read, but that was also long before some other unfinished or not-yet-finished series that have really put out readers.)

Writing a million words up front is a hard ask. And most self-publishers won’t hold back the books until the series arc is done. Which means they’ll put out Book 1 to crickets. Or friends and family sales.

And then…Do you keep writing 300K-word novels? Or do you write shorter novels that you can write faster? To get traction. To make money. To justify how you spend your free time to everyone who thinks you just publish a novel and start printing money.

Honestly, as someone who loves character-driven epic fantasy it worries me. Because if publishers AND self-publishers both focus too much on the short-term bottom-line profit, the trend is going to be toward more simple or constrained stories. Which means I as a reader am not going to get those great, sprawling, complex, intriguing fantasies I love so much.

Or I’m only going to get them from already-established authors. (Which I am grateful for and will read.)

I don’t know the answers on this one. I suspect if I myself were writing an epic fantasy series I’d try trade pub with it, even knowing how hard a sell it would be. But that’s also because I don’t think self-publishing print costs can compete with trade publishing print costs and I think print is still a strong part of that particular market.

Anyway. Just my random thoughts for the day.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

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