David Farland: The Future of Publishing is Self-Publishing

By David Farland

In the past month, I’ve talked to dozens of new writers who are publishing their own books electronically.  Everyone is doing it.  In fact, I just put up six of my early novels along with several short stories.  Within the next three weeks I hope to post the last of my novels and short stories, along with a couple of textbooks from my seminars (Write that Novel and Million Dollar Outlines).

Of course, that’s the problem.  Everyone is self-publishing e-books.  Bowker Identifier Services said that a million people bought ISBN’s last year, and another three million will be purchased this year.  I spoke to one bestselling author recently who groused, “My neighbor came by last week and told me that he was a published author.  He put up an e-book and sold seven copies.  Then my paperboy told me that he was published, and he’s only fourteen!  If anyone can publish, does it really mean anything anymore to be a published author?”

Well, it means something.  It takes a lot of ambition and work even to self-publish, and as publishers keep cutting back on their own buying, it forces even known writers to move into that arena.

As an author, right now I have one foot in self-publishing, and one in the traditional markets.  That’s an awkward position to be in.

With my latest novel, Nightingale, I’m going Indie.  The standard contracts being offered by major publishers demand far too much from authors on electronic rights, and they really don’t give you anything in return.  It’s a money grab.

So I had the best YA agents in New York offer to take the book to major publishers, and I told them “No.”  I can’t in good conscience go that route.

So I decided to go indie.   But there’s a rub.  When you see an e-book from a self-published author, of course, you have to wonder if it’s any good.  Is there a reason that the author couldn’t sell to mainstream publishers?  Maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes publishers don’t take books that are perfectly good because the books don’t stand out.  Sometimes the books have major flaws.  Sometimes, though, the world’s just not ready for the author.

Tales are legendary of huge novels that had a hard time selling.  Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull are just a few of the classics that couldn’t get in print.  More recently, The Help did the same before becoming a bestseller and a film.  One can look back and find Nobel Prize Winners that couldn’t get published.

Years ago, I had one publisher ask me to look at their recent books and help decide which one to give the big “push” to.  I surveyed about forty recent novels and picked a book called Harry Potter.  The marketing department disagreed.  The book was considered “too long” for its intended audience.  I pointed out that it was written three or four grade levels too high, too, and said that they should push it anyway.  The publisher took my advice, and the rest is history.

But there’s a lesson here.  You as an author have to believe in yourself, and that’s what indie authors are demonstrating.

So I’m sure that great books will be coming from self-published authors.  In fact, a year ago in April, I predicted that the first self-published author would become a millionaire within a year.  It took about nine months before it happened.

But of course as book buyers, we have to worry that such books might have major flaws.  We need to find a way of making sure that the quality is kept high.  One way to do that is to join with other authors who vet the books.  You can also hire editors like Joshua Essoe to suggest improvements, and so on.

With so many indie authors coming out, the markets will be flooded this year, and this leads to a new problem.  Soon it will become harder and harder to stand out from the crowd.  Readers looking for great content will realize that too often they’re paying to read from the slush piles, and they’ll probably start turning back to their favorite authors and to bestsellers in an effort to find works that they like.

In other words, they’ll realize that the gatekeepers-the editors and agents-served a purpose.  Sure the gatekeepers weren’t perfect, but at least there was someone manning the guardhouse.  The readers might even want to hire them back.

But New York publishing is a mess, and it won’t ever be the same.  The big publishers are demanding so much of the profit from electronic rights that many of the best authors are leaving for good.

So readers will be looking for other ways to gauge novels.  I think that writing awards, bestseller status, and positive reviews will gain more importance for buyers.

With this in mind, it seems to me that authors need a way to show that they stand out from the crowd.

We can’t return to the past.  The overhead for paper publishing is tremendous-printing, storing and transporting the books is expensive.  Most of the profit goes to the bookstores.

As the price for good electronic readers continues to drop, everyone will soon have them.  School children will get them for school instead of books.  Frequent readers will recognize that with the low prices of e-books, it will be far cheaper to buy novels electronically.  Just as the whole country has switched to digital cameras, within five years nearly all of us will switch to e-readers.

So how will an author stand out in the electronic age?  The answer is with “enhanced novels.”  These are books that deliver text, but they can also deliver full-color illustrations, audio, film, games, and other components.  In short, we’ll have editors who make the books into a major production.

We won’t spend huge amounts on printing, we’ll spend it on creating a great product.

With my partner Miles Romney, I’ve just completed my first enhanced novel as part of launching a new publishing company.  It was an interesting and informative experience.

The novel is called Nightingale, and it tells the story of a young man named Bron Jones, who is abandoned at birth.  Raised in foster care, he’s shuffled from home to home.  At age 16, he’s kind of the ultimate loner, until he’s sent to a new foster home and meets Olivia, a marvelous teacher, who recognizes that Bron is something special, something that her people call a “Nightingale,” a creature that is not quite human.

Suddenly epic forces combine to claim Bron, and he must fight to keep from getting ripped away from the only home, family, and friends that he has ever known.  In fact, he must risk his life to learn the answers to the mysteries of his birth: “What am I?  Where did I come from?  Who am I?”

So this is a young adult novel, and we decided to go with interior art.  I didn’t want the art to be too much like something from a comic book, so we chose a more sophisticated style, similar to the art deco pieces that you might find in the New Yorker.  Of course we looked at the work of dozens of artists before selecting our people.  I didn’t want it to look like a novel that an amateur might put together.

We considered using a single artist, but we felt that that would take a long time, creating a bottleneck for production.  It would also limit us to a single style, which might define the novel too much in the reader’s minds.  So we opted to use several artists so that readers would be able to decide for themselves which ones came closest to their own personal visions.

We also wanted motion, and we considered some cool new styles of animation.  I very much liked a minimalist approach, where only a single element in a still is animated.  These are called “cinemagraphs,” and we could have made them with still photos, but instead opted to do it with illustrations.  The idea here was that we found that if we put film at the beginning of a chapter, it competed for the reader’s attention, pulled them out of the book.  So we made a game of having cinemagraphs in each chapter.

Now, it would have probably been easier and cheaper to film chapter headings, sort of mini-commercials for each chapter, in the long run, but we aren’t necessarily looking for the “easiest and cheapest” way to make a book.  That’s been done for centuries.  We wanted to “enhance” the novel, help bring it to life for readers who might find that visuals are helpful.  We thought that hiring half a dozen fine artists would be fun.

We also wanted music to enhance the mood and tone of the novel, so we considered how to do that.  Miles happened to know the head of the American Composer’s Guild, James Guymon, and so James came in to compose a 45-minute soundtrack.  He called upon some smoking-hot professionals for help, including guitarists, lyricists, drummers, and so on.  Since this is a story about a young man who dreams of becoming the world’s greatest guitarist, it inspired the musicians to put their best work out there.  I had hoped to get some music in the style of guitar great Joe Satriani, and the album really blew me away.  It’s much like the theme albums created by Pink Floyd or Joe Satriani himself.  Portions of the songs are played as intros to chapters, but one can buy the album, too, from places like iTunes.

Of course, an enhanced novel can do more than just show animations and give us music, so we did put in some film clips, but we restricted them to author interviews, which we inserted along with notes and photographs on the making of the book.  These are only visible if one reads the book in landscape mode.

Last of all we created the audiobook, hiring an actor to read it, inserting sound-effects and background music.  So that the vision impaired, busy moms, and long-haul truckers can enjoy the book.

Then we’re also printing the novel in hardcover, since a lot of people still actually buy paper novels, and we lined up national distribution with an existing publisher so that we can get the books in stores.

The idea with our company is to push the novel in every possible format.

It has been a lot of work, and I’m feeling wiped.  But our goal is to become an industry leader, to pioneer the next wave in publishing.  We don’t have unlimited multi-million dollar budgets, but that will come.

I know for certain that I could have sold this novel to a major publisher.  I did have the top agency for the genre ask to take it out to the big houses.  But I didn’t want to go that route.  This book is special to me, and I wanted to showcase it.

So the novel is out now, and Miles did one last cool thing.  The enhanced book was made for the iPad, though you will also be able to read it on just about any other pad or smartphone.  But Miles had his people create a web app so that you can enjoy the book on your computer-read a few chapters, take it for a test drive, or simply buy it for reading online.  You’re free to go check out the results at www.nightingalenovel.com.  If you like it, remember to “Like” us on Facebook.  Better yet, re-post our site info and tell your friends on Facebook.

Oh, and while you’re there, check out our short-story contest, where you can win $1000.

Guest Writer Bio:
David Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/.

20 responses on “David Farland: The Future of Publishing is Self-Publishing

  1. Brandon M Lindsay

    I agree. With all the dross that’s being put out there, writers will need something extra to stand out from the crowd. I know a lot of new indie authors are struggling with that. A well-made enhanced novel would certainly distinguish itself from just your average ebook. I look forward to seeing the kind of waves Nightingale makes.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, David!

  2. Ann Cooney

    This new world of publishing certainly breaks the rule that money should flow to the writer not from the writer. After investing years and countless words in perfecting the craft, it’s a daunting matter for emerging authors to now invest cash, understand the principles of graphic art to not only choose good artists but to know how to choose good cover art and then to learn and manage the business of product development, markets, plus promotion and sales to target markets. And that is where I think many good books will fail, not because they aren’t well written but because the author didn’t have the mentorship or support once provided by traditional publishers or agents. That support included perfecting the manuscript (a recognized vetting of quality) and having artwork and promotion strategies which allowed the novel to stand above mediocre works.

    I don’t believe that failure to thrive in this new environment won’t be because authors don’t believe in themselves. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be writing. Rather, I think it’s more about not being able to manage the new business model successfully. And so I wonder, will new business management agencies be created to help emerging and existing authors who prefer to spend more time writing than managing the business end?

    That said, it’s a new, exciting world and one which needs to be embraced as well as questioned. After all, we don’t know what we don’t know. And thanks for the ideas, Dave. What you’ve done with Nightingale is really cool!

  3. Evan

    I have to admit that I have my doubts about enhanced novels, so I will also be watching with interest to see what happens with “Nightingale.” I’ve often heard people talking about enhanced novels being the next big wave, and my response has always been that they hold little appeal to me; wouldn’t music, pictures, and video just be distracting? I would find them distracting. It feels like a product that’s meant to appeal to people who are more likely to want to watch a movie than read a book.

    I suppose this is great, in that it could open a new market, but as an established reader who’s quite content to read words — and only read words — I’m undecided. Maybe my mind will be changed as soon as I actually get a look at a real enhanced novel.

  4. Frank Morin

    I am really looking forward to checking out this new enhanced book! I think you’ve taken a bold stride out into the shadows beyond the comfort zone of the established and well-known. I hope it proves to be a step that will light the way for others to follow.

  5. Colette Vernon

    I can’t help wondering if the marketing aspect isn’t where these independent publishing companies will come in. As David says, the New York model is flawed. Some of the independent publishers, especially those that focus almost exclusively on e-books, offer a decent profit split with their authors and they take care of these marketing and book presentation issues.

    East India Press and Musa are the ones I’ve heard a lot about lately, but I think they may be setting a precedent. Maybe, if they do well enough, we’ll stop buying our books from places like Amazon, and we’ll buy our books directly from the publishers themselves, especially if they can present their line of books in a way that we know exactly what we’re getting. That would give us the gatekeepers, keep prices down, and give authors the percentage they deserve. I think it really might be a win-win.

  6. Will Entrekin

    “Sometimes publishers don’t take books that are perfectly good because the books don’t stand out. Sometimes the books have major flaws. Sometimes, though, the world’s just not ready for the author.”

    Sometimes publishers care less about quality books than about books they think will sell, and they’re frequently wrong about that bit, too.

    Your book sounds cool, and is open in another of my tabs, so I’ll check it out presently.

    I often say I hoped to get a publishing contract from my MFA but became a better writer, instead. I also learned a lot about publishing, and then I learned more about business when I earned an MBA in marketing.

    And now, well, in a way, I know too much about business and contracts to, in good conscience, give them up to corporate publishers who don’t really do market research and, more importantly, seem to be following an outmoded business model for publishing.

    Anyway, all best to you and your book.

  7. Dylan

    Very inspirational. I’m just getting my feet wet, and trying to figure out how to get my voice heard amidst the din. I’m going to have to look very seriously at self-publishing, I think, so it’s great to see how that may be done in the future. I’m like Evan, a little skeptical of the enhanced content, but only cautiously so.

    Best of luck!

  8. KDAlex

    You know, I’m looking around and seeing more and more of the book “apps” coming back into market. The iTunes/App store is currently filled with way too many of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” style books that I grew up with. Some now come with amazing art and music…and an interface that would make major companies stop and think about what they are doing wrong.

    In the same token, we’re also seeing an increase in books that function as an enhanced novel, such as was the case with the old Winnie the Pooh books that came loaded on the iBooks app for the iPad.

    And now Stephen King’s publisher just released 11/22/63 with an “enhanced addition” that includes a 13 minute video written and directed by Stephen King to fill in the story of the novel. This caught my friend by surprise, as he hadn’t heard anything about it until I pointed it out to him. He called Amazon to cancel his Kindle edition (which also came with “extras”) and bought the enhanced edition instead.

    I’ve considered playing around in iOS programming to create media tie-in type programs for my books, if I ever end up releasing them. 😉

    It’s kind of like how movie studios and game designers have been selling their product for years. It works great if you’ve got a built in “brand”, such as with the Warhammer books, designed to sell mini war models, the Magic books to push the M:TG card game, or even the latest movie-to-book and book-to-film editions like the new Johnny Depp”Rum Diaries”

    The concept of “enhanced eBooks” done right is fascinating. Like Sanderson’s web extras, imagine buying a small house’s space opera enhanced book and getting your own 3d images or blueprints of the spaceship, clicking on a link within the book to launch your own wikipedia version full of background info and the wonders of your world…

    The possibilities are endless. I wish Dave success in East India Press, and I’m anxious to see how it all works out and shakes up the market over the next couple of months and years.

    I hear that tablets are becoming the new desktop computer, and between those and digital readers..just about everyone will have one in their homes within the next five years. Kind of like television.


  9. Clancy Metzger

    This book looks amazing, David! I love that you are not just talking about what the future of publishing may look like but are actively influencing its future. This was a thoughtful article and I always appreciate your opinion.

  10. leigh

    I’m in awe, Dave, at how you’re able to handle every aspect of publishing a book, but I, honestly find the whole thing extremely intimidating.

    It’s interesting to me how it seems that writers are expected to be experts in every area of the publishing field. Is there any other field where the artist is expected to handle the creation, presentation, marketing, production, and so forth? It makes me wonder if the book industry will be moving to something similar to the movie industry, where we’ll see writers become the head of their own production companies – hiring a publicist, editor, art director, marketer, and all else to handle their works.

  11. KylieQ

    Although I’m excited to see what becomes of this brave new world of publishing, I’m also saddened at the potential loss of the paper novel. Despite the advantages of an e-reader, I still prefer to curl up in bed with an actual book in my hands. However perhaps the rise of the enhanced novel will change that. I’m waiting with interest to see how this all turns out.

  12. Elizebeth Gruwell

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. That is an extremely smartly written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and come back to learn more of your helpful info. Thanks for the post. I will certainly comeback.

  13. Aron White

    Whenever the floodgates have opened, there are those who worry about being flooded with too many options, but time and again society adjusts and things move along. There were those who worried several centuries ago about the printing press causing a flood of new printed books and overwhelming readers (we know how that turned out). In addition, writers publishing their own work (Twain, Dumas, Dickens, etc.) is not a new phenomenon and adding special features to enhance a book is a great thing, I don’t believe it will be necessary in order to stand out. If the author chooses to do so, great, but I would not view it as an act of desperation in marketing. Write the best book you possibly can, proof it, pass it along to beta readers and if you decide to self-publish and feel comfortable doing so, go ahead (trust me, self-publishing can be done for almost no cost if you’re willing to treat is like a business).

    Repeatedly I’ve heard concerns about there being too much slush if everyone can self-publish, but that sentiment also does a disservice to readers. I shop for independent fiction on Kindle all the time and trust me, there are ways to discern good material from bad (and I’ve never required a review from the New York times to know the difference). Plus, Amazon allows an instant return if you don’t like the books (how many times have you started reading a traditionally published book only to discover it wasn’t what you were expecting?)

    My intent is not to be hostile towards traditional publishing, but I often find traditional publishing can be hostile towards self-publishing. Both sides could benefit from rhetorical reduction in my opinion. Self publishing or traditional publishing: it’s your choice and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.


  14. Aron White

    Hi Leigh,

    Initially jumping into indie publishing can be intimidating and there is a bit of a learning curve, but once one does, there is also a profound sense of liberation (not saying one has to abandon traditional publishing, just keep your options open).

    To respond to your questions about writers being expected to handle multiple areas involving their book, I would recommend treating writing/publishing as a small business. For example, if you start a bakery, you might be expected to know how to bake your own bread, balance the financial books or work the front counter and provide customer service. It can seem intimidatig, but trust me, once you dive into the pool, the cold water turns warm very quickly.

  15. RD Meyer

    Aron – I completely agree. There’s a certain condescension from traditional publishers towards indie publishing, and some of it is warranted. However, it also demonstrates an arrogance that seems out of touch with the times. It reminds me of the guys in radio saying that it had no future.

    If there’s garbage out there, it will filter out, but the main concern of those in love with traditional publishing seems to be, “Eek! The peasants are storming the castle!”

  16. RD Meyer

    Aron – I completely agree. There’s a certain condescension from traditional publishers towards indie publishing, and some of it is warranted. However, it also demonstrates an arrogance that seems out of touch with the times. It reminds me of the guys in radio saying that TV had no future.

    If there’s garbage out there, it will filter out, but the main concern of those in love with traditional publishing seems to be, “Eek! The peasants are storming the castle!”

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