Originality And Risk

Traditional Publishing is risk averse. There, I said it. Now allow me to explain. When an editor accepts a manuscript, he is counting on a certain number of copies selling to offset production costs. It’s not cheap to turn a manuscript into a printed book, and it’s not cheap to make it look good. There are a lot of steps and a lot of people to pay to get the job done.


Because of this, a lot of decisions are made to minimize risk. This means a number of things. First off, the editor needs to choose books that will still be popular next year—because that’s when books he is choosing now will come out. Secondly, the editor will tend to pick books that are less risky—which means more of the same year after year—because he knows he needs to sell thousands of copies to break even. Third, the editor will prioritize popular writers that he already has under contract since they have a loyal fan base. Fourth, the editor will encourage certain genres and multi-book series because those are less risky.


Certain types of books will not fit this criteria regardless of the quality of the book. The editor is not going to accept a Post-apocalyptic Culinary Mystery. He’s not going to accept a short-story collection from an unknown writer. He’s not going to accept novels that span too many genres. What he will accept is a set number of books in each genre he publishes, each year. Period. If something truly exceptional shows up he might, just might, make an exception. He has a lot of money riding on each book.


Fast-forward to today. With the self-publishing model, the risk is low. A book that doesn’t sell never has to be printed. A book that doesn’t sell costs only pennies to store on a hard drive for a very long time. Because of this, books that would never have seen the light of day—due to the traditional publishing business model—can now be made available and sold online. This is a terrific thing for writers everywhere.


Which brings me to my main point: originality. Years ago I realized that my favorite kind of music had changed. It didn’t change from hard rock to soft rock, or jazz to classical. It changed from “heard that before” to “original.” I can barely listen to rock radio stations anymore because it’s all the same, over and over. And I feel the same way about books. Traditional publishers won’t take risks, so everything they print is safe. I hate that. And I’m not going to read the same formula crap with a different name on the cover over and over.


It is my belief that the best way to be successful in the new paradigm is to be yourself. There is no arbitrary limit on the number of fantasy or science fiction or mystery books that can be self-published each year. The virtual shelf-space is essentially infinite. There is no editor, with bills hanging over his head, who just read a hundred piles of crap before he got to your manuscript. This allows you a great deal of freedom. Use it.


Now I’m not saying don’t have your book edited. And I’m not saying any old cover art will do. And I’m not saying go nuts and write in Sanskrit. You have to be professional and take great pride in your work. It’s all on you now. Which is scary. And great. There are great people and resources available to help you. Use them.


I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: what you are really selling isn’t stories. You are selling you. Your voice. Your style. Your innermost thoughts and emotions. Your sense of humor, and honor. No one else writes like you. No one. And readers pick up on that. The story is important. Yes. But the way you tell it is what makes them come back for more. Be true to yourself. Be true to the story. Everything else will follow.
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