What do Traditional Publishing and the Musical Annie have in Common?

More than you might think.

Image that you spent two years making something amazing, and beautiful and important. Imagine that is was a part of you, that you carried it around inside of you and it grew out of your life and your experiences. Imagine that you labored long and hard reworking and perfecting it, making it the best that it could be, and you’ve finally given birth to it. It is now a living, breathing reality. A finished manuscript.

Now imagine that as soon as it is born, you take that manuscript to the nearest orphanage (a good one, you know, because you researched it on the internet) and you dump it on the steps and you walk away from it, leaving it for someone else to name, and dress, and hone, and own, and raise.

First, you’ll be lucky if they take it off your hands, this most precious possession of yours. It may not be the kind of thing people want these days. It might be the wrong color, or flavor, or genre, or length. They may give it back and say it isn’t good enough or it just isn’t “what they are looking for at the moment.” They may tell you to put it back in your womb and work on it some more. But hey,  you treated it like something you didn’t want, so now they can too. It’s not like you could raise it yourself (or you would have), so you’re sort of at their mercy.

If they do take it, they’ll pay you a little something. A token payment. Something to assuage your guilt, but you’ll have to pay them back later when the book grows up and starts making a living. This isn’t indentured servitude, even if it sounds like it. That sort of thing is clearly illegal. This is called Royalties and, as you can see by the name, you should like it.

So, now they have your baby, but don’t worry. It’s going to be an “open” adoption. You will get to see your book occasionally. They might ask your advice on the title or the cover, but they probably won’t take it. You see, their marketers know best. The best way to make a book is to make it like all the other books out there that people like. Not too original. Not too different. This is a big orphanage and they don’t like to take risks. Their job is to move books, and move them when they’re still young, and new and cute.

Eventually, out your book goes into the world. Your name is on it, but it doesn’t actually belong to you anymore. You don’t get to set the price. You don’t get to choose where it sells and how. You don’t control how it is marketed. Sure you can drum up some promotion yourself. In fact, you better, because the orphanage has a whole lot of other babies coming down the chute and yours is already fading into the background. And as far as any money that book makes, you get a very small slice of the pie.

If your book is very fortunate, and it gets adopted by someone like that rich guy in Annie, (also known as the New York Times Bestseller List) obviously you have made a good choice in not raising it yourself. Your book will be the poster child for adopted books, and you will be the poster author. Everyone will look at you and say, “See, the system really works,” and there will be a rush of bright-eyed new authors hurrying out to dump their books on the steps of orphanages everywhere.

But more likely, your book will sell poorly to moderately well, especially if you are a new author and it is your first book. A book, and more importantly, a writing career, is like any worthwhile thing. It takes time to grow and mature and build it’s appeal. So, it is possible that your book will languish in the orphanage of low sales for a time, and that is a death knell for any book raised in traditional publishing. They don’t have much time or patience for that sort of thing. If your book doesn’t sell like gang-busters right away (generally, in the first month. Definitely, in the first year), then I hate to tell you this, but they are going to bury your book. Your child will not be Annie. It will be all the other kids in that orphanage that are probably still there. They are going to stop printing your book. They are going to stop marketing it. They are going to take the copies back from the bookstores, and yank their covers off, and give them away for free.

They are going to kill your darling with no more thought or remorse than any big corporation whose job is to make money, not nurture books. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Big publishers do nurture the “Annie” books that pay them big dividends right away. Dividends they can show share-holders and investors. But their primary goal is not to nurture your career or book. That is always secondary to their own business interests.

For years now, adopting out our books and putting ourselves at the mercy of the “orphanage steps” has been the only option writers have had, because we just didn’t have the resources to raise our books ourselves. And then when we finally did, we were told that real writers don’t do that. Raise your book yourself? How mundane. Obviously, only the poorest and most desperate of writers would stoop so low.

But recently all that changed.

Now, imagine a world where you could raise your book yourself. Not just one book, but an entire family of books. A world where all the resources you needed were at your fingertips. The same cover designers and editors and marketers that the big publishers uses, you can find them on the internet and hire them. And this time you actually get to have control of the people you are hiring to produce your book, rather than them keeping you out of the loop.

That same “loan” or advance you were going to get. You can give it to yourself, or source it from friends and fans through venues like Kickstarter.

Those beautiful, shiny paperback books and slick e-books? You can have them made yourself.

The book title. You get to choose it. The cover. You get to help design it. The marketing and promotion. Yes, you have to  get to do it.

If your book sells a million copies right out of the chute, Yay for you. You get to keep a majority of the money (instead of a small stipend). And, you still own the rights! Forever.

If your book takes a while to build an audience, there is no one breathing down your neck threatening to pull that book from production. No one discouraging you to write the next book in that series. Or pushing you to write it too fast. No one steering your career in the direction they think it should go, instead of the direction your writerly heart wants to go. No one saying you can’t write in another genre, or you can’t endorse that, or you can’t sell your book in that venue.

And yes, the down-side of raising your own books is that the responsibility ultimately lies only with you.

The good news is, if your books aren’t doing well, you have the control and power to change whatever you want without asking anyone’s permission. You get to learn how to raise your own baby the best way you can as you both travel the journey together.

Will that take more work than adopting your book out? Undoubtedly. Will it be more rewarding and fulfilling. I think so.

For myself personally, I was the most depressed I have ever been in my writing career when I started “farming” my baby out to agents and publishers. And of all my writerly friends who have published traditionally, I can honestly only think of one who is openly happy with the outcome.

Contrast that with this. Of all the people I know who have indie published, I haven’t heard one say they were unhappy they’d gone that route. Maybe that is simply because when we choose something and we have control over it, that choice belongs to us. We have OWNERSHIP of it, and that alone makes us happier with the outcome. I don’t know.

I can tell you this. Since I have decided to indie publish my YA novel Ghost Hand, I have been more excited about the project than ever before, more excited than when I was writing it (and that was pretty exciting). I had a blast helping design the cover. I have enjoyed networking and  researching the resources. I feel like the fate of my book and my writing career is in my hands, and they are capable hands and becoming more capable daily. I am confident that I am currently building and investing in skills and knowledge that will serve me for my entire career. A career I will direct and control in my own time and in my own way.

Is raising my own child and grabbing control of my own fate worth trading 12.5% royalties for 70% royalties?

Seems like a good trade to me.

What do you think?

Stay tuned for the next post in my Indie series coming soon: When Agents Fail.


3 Responses to “What do Traditional Publishing and the Musical Annie have in Common?”

  • Matt:

    I have a lot of respect for writers who have the necessary skills to self-publish and self-promote. The rewards are obvious and in some cases substantial.

    I also have a lot of respect for parents who love their children and enjoy raising them when they’re young then send them off to daycare (Early Childhood Education) and return to work. They see their kids in the morning and afternoon, spend holidays with them, maybe have more kids later on, and trust that their children will flourish in the capable, experienced, trained and caring hands of their teachers.

    A friend of mine is considering home-schooling her daughter. I’m a high school teacher. I think there are huge benefits to the personal touch that a committed parent can bring to a child’s education just as there are benefits to having a specialist English teacher, Science teacher and so on who share a staff room. It’s always good to see a parent do what’s best for their precious baby 🙂

  • Ripley:

    Matt, obviously this is a metaphor and one I played quite liberally with.

    I also was a teacher in private and public education once. And I have home-schooled my kids at various times when circumstances dictated. I certainly don’t think that anyone who traditionally or small press publishes is wrong to do so, if it meets their needs and desires, serves their career, and gets there book out the way they want it.

    For myself, currently, however, this metaphor made a lot of sense.

    I do think the climate of how books are published is seriously changing.

    But yeah, I exaggerated my metaphor. My kids say I do that all the time. And they’re right. It also happens to be a skill I use often when writing:)

    Thanks for weighing in and adding your perspective.

  • I really love your site.. Very nice colors & theme.
    Did you develop this website yourself? Please reply back as I’m attempting to create my own personal blog and would love to learn where you got this from or what the theme is named. Cheers!


Ripley Patton lives in a 22-foot camper in the woods of Southern Illinois with a cat named Lemmy. Her two young adult children, a daughter and a son, are her favorite people. When Ripley's not out exploring nature and getting her hands dirty, she's usually reading or writing a book.

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