two hilariously contradictory views on the publishing industry

Pat Rothfuss: Why I love my editor…

Penelope Trunk: How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway

OK, they’re really only “contradictory” inasmuch as Rothfuss is impressed by and grateful to his publishing overlords, whereas Trunk is full of mockery and scorn. And of course they emphasize different things; Rothfuss basically lived in poverty and squalor until he hit the big time, whereas Trunk has been super-successful in a few industries and spends her life thinking about how businesses succeed and fail. You might not necessarily expect a fantasist who lived on ramen for most of his life to have the same priorities as a kick-ass entrepreneur. (I worry that I’m painting Rothfuss as a schlub or a failure here; that’s not my goal. Penelope Trunk is not likely to write anything, ever, that hits my heart as squarely as THE NAME OF THE WIND. Which, by the way, is not except possibly in the broadest sense “what people [were] looking for.” I think people are most affected by things they didn’t know they wanted until they had them. I would never have sought out a contemporary British comedy of manners, but MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND is one of the ten best books I’ve read in the last ten years. And I’ve read a lot of really good books in the last ten years.)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a traditionally published author say anything but (apparently sincere, and quite warm) good things about their publishers. But fiction authors probably don’t know as much as Trunk about marketing, and they’re probably happy not to know; it isn’t professionally useful for them. There are at least some genre authors who could use their blog as a sales platform the way Trunk is doing it, but most of them owe that capability to traditional publishing. (Exceptions: John Scalzi, Amanda Hocking, E. L. James, Howard Tayler, presumably others.) I do still wonder why no one’s run the numbers and jumped ship, though. Maybe because they figure there’s no going back? But how can that be right? Maybe DAW wouldn’t take Pat Rothfuss back if he scorned them, but someone would. That’s not true for a midlist writer, obviously, and then I guess the interesting question is whether a midlist writer has less or more to gain from jumping ship.

I wonder if it’s down to the view of the craft. Penelope Trunk doesn’t need to spend all her time writing to produce a good book — in fact, she’d better not; she has to demonstrate success in and leverage insights from some non-writing field to give her books any credibility. But, for a fiction writer, any time not spent writing is time not spent honing a craft that is at least mythologized to be incredibly exacting and time-consuming. (I sometimes wonder about this. Then I realize how crappy I was five years ago, when I started writing THE DANDELION KNIGHT, and how much better I am now, and how good I’m still not.) And, for fiction writers, writing is all they’re selling; it’s not a summary of insights from some other accomplishment, it’s just itself. Anything Penelope Trunk learns about marketing, or accomplishes in marketing, is both useful for itself (in part because she already knows a lot about marketing) and potential book material. Anything Pat Rothfuss learns about marketing is maybe useful for itself, except that he already has the services of specialists who know more about it than he does, but he can’t use it in the book — unless the last Kingkiller installment takes a seriously sharp left.

I sure would like to hear more on Norman Spinrad’s self-publishing experiments. But I worry that no news is bad news there.

5 thoughts on “two hilariously contradictory views on the publishing industry

  1. Cogent analysis. I have become much better at marketing, book cover design, blurb writing, Facebook promoting, tweeting, Amazon analysis, blogging and so forth. However, none of that has helped my fiction writing other than garnering sales (which some might argue is the whole point, others might say is incidental).

    However, for every Patrick Rothfuss that loves his editor and marketing team there are fifty midlist authors who have no marketing budget assigned to their latest novel, who are expected to maintain their own website, promote their own books, etc. Sure, they don’t have to design their own covers, but I bet some of them wish they could when they see the poor work that is sometimes sent their way.

    So I think it breaks down like this: if you are a new author you can gamble on having your novel be the Next Big Thing, and get the royal treatment. Most likely it won’t, and you’ll be one of those folks who gets three weeks of shelf time before disappearing and living off middling ebook sales. You’ll then do all the heavy lifting marketing wise and hope that after four or five books (carefully released on the publisher’s schedule of 1 a year or so) you’ll garner enough fans to warrant better treatment. If you don’t by book 3, you’re done.

    OR you can go it yourself, keep all the rights, keep everything out there, and plug and push like crazy to get a little attention and little sales in the hopes of generating word of mouth and reaching some fabled tipping point that will turn you into the next Amanda Hocking, or at least make enough cash each month to stay in the green.

    I dunno. I’ve clearly gone the self-publishing route, but it’s a tough road. Some people love marketing and blogging and tweeting and take to self publishing like a fish to water. I’m not one of those, and thus the struggle. I’m starting to wonder though: perhaps the best course for a new writer is to try and get one novel traditionally published, and hew to that path for a set series, while publishing other work independently so as to benefit from that level of publicity and ostensible quality approval?

    • I think the dual route might make a lot of sense. THE DANDELION KNIGHT is in what’s meant to be an exhaustive round of queries right now, but if that doesn’t work out, I think probably I put it on Amazon and start serious work on one of the other books that have been composting for a while, and that may have more commercial potential since they’re a bit more high-concept. If TDK ends up being successful, then I prioritize writing Book 2; otherwise I finish that after I have something else in queries.

      It would probably be worth trying to publish some more short fiction too, get my name back “out there.” It’s just never been where my heart is.

    • Also meant to say that, for whatever reason, I never seem to hear from writers lower on the publishing totem pole (i.e. who isn’t so well treated by his/her publisher). Probably for the same reason you never hear assistant professors criticizing their institutions. :/

      • Have you checked out J.A. Konrath’s blog? If you haven’t browse through the archives for some good info on author’s self-publishing experiences (including some heavy hitters that went rogue)

        Rushing out the door, so more anon.

  2. Pingback: “I’m awed at how much time I’m spending on MySpace lately” « the pulchrifex papers

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