[Full disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I want to say that up front because I'm going to be citing them as authorities in this column. I have always said I am a writer because Dean and Kris took the time to beat me sensible. Dean is for the most part an affable bear who's up for anything (his life is full of episodes that "seemed like good ideas at the time") while Kris is five-foot-nothing of absolute focus. They bring an uncompromising dedication to excellence in the craft and business of writing and their physically exhausting and emotionally brutal workshops will kill you. But you'll be reincarnated as a better writer. When you finish reading here, go explore their sites.]
Those of you familiar with my stance regarding vanity presses (which is to say intractable and unrelenting hostility and the firm conviction they are best dealt with using fire, salt, and a solution of 80% chlorine bleach) are probably expecting me to come out against indie publishing. That's because most people -- enthusiastically encouraged by the traditional publishing industry -- conflate the terms. Laura Resnick did a wonderful job of explaining the difference back in 2009 on the Novelists, Inc., blog.
To be clear:
1: My attitude toward vanity presses has become more distilled and potent in direct proportion to the rise in independent publishing.
2: Vanity and indie are completely different things.
Indie publishers who declare they've slain (or are in the process of slaying) the dragon of traditional publishing are at the very least overstating the case. The big traditional publishers are still earning billions in profits, so they're not going anywhere. While the writer going indie may have slain their personal rejectosaurus rex, they are not impacting the major houses to the extent they think they are. In fact, they're helping the big houses consolidate their ownership of traditional publishing; the guys getting hit the hardest are the small and medium presses that were barely getting by to begin with. In the past most writers started with Penguin or Simon & Schuster and worked their way down, eventually reaching the small presses. Now writers who bounce of the big houses go indie (or bypass traditional publishing altogether). To a small but significant extent indie publishing is helping WalMart and Tesco wipe out the mom-and-pops.
(In related news: Big-box traditional bookstores are getting out of the traditional book business. And I don't just mean Borders going broke. Our local B&N recently moved to a bigger store, nearly 50% bigger. They now sell DVDs, games, Nooks, and Starbucks coffee. Also some books. The have fewer books and less space devoted to book shelves than they did at their smaller location. Everyone's buying online. Independent booksellers are going under in droves. When you finish reading here, shut down the laptop, go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a book. Pay full price. Invest in our allies. Or in yourself: independent bookstore owners will be more likely to display your PoD books if they already know you as a loyal customer.)
Up until a few years ago -- in fact, up until the beginning of this year -- some independent publishers were leveraging their independent success into lucrative contracts with big house publishers. Instead of submitting manuscripts, they were sending editors high-quality PoD trade paperbacks, complete with testimonial blurbs on the cover, sometimes with reviews by Kirkus or ForeWord if available, and always with a letter saying the writer was selling e-books and PoDs of the novel (no sales figures!) and stating the author would cease both if the publisher offered a contract. Today this clever marketing tactic is not good strategy for a writer's career.
Once upon a time traditional publishing contracts involved specific rights for set periods of time. For example American hardback rights until five years after the book goes out of print. The writer was free to sell rights to her work in Europe and Asia, negotiate separate contracts for paperback, audio, and e-editions, etc. And, if the publisher stopped printing the book, in five (or two or seven, depending on the contract) years the hardback rights reverted to the writer and she could market them elsewhere. Established writers and new writers who have the sense to hire an intellectual properties attorney rather than an agent can still get contracts like this; but they'll have to fight every step of the way. Because in the new age of electronic publishing, the big house contracts ask for global rights for the life of the copyright. (Writer's life plus 75 years.) That "out of print" clause is still in there, but only to distract the writer and lull her with a false sense of security; as long as the publisher carries the e-book in their catalog the book is "in print." (For some fascinating reading on publishing contracts, read the Passive Guy's educational series of blogs on the subject.)
Publishing contracts did not change because the big houses got meaner. Publishing contracts changed because the way information and intellectual content is disseminated and accessed has changed at a fundamental level. Publishers are struggling to regain the control they had five years ago (not likely) and retain their profits (very likely).
What should a baby-seal new writer do in this sea of orcas? Stay out of the water. As Dean Wesley Smith eloquently explains the publishing industry is undergoing so many fundamental changes there is no clear path forward. He predicts two years until the landscape will again be navigable, but admits that's a guess. What does he recommend we writers do while hunkered in our novel bomb shelters waiting for the storm to pass?
[Footnote: The above advice applies to novels. If you write short stories the market is wide open.]