The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution

So, I’ll start by saying that I see the arrival of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution as largely a good thing.  It’s more confusing than the old world – now instead of a comparatively straight-forward process of submitting to agents and editors and hoping for the best while expecting the worst, you’ve got a thousand different possible levers you can try and pull.  (Some of them you can’t actually reach.  Some of them don’t actually do anything when you pull them.  Some of them have an effect, but it’s hard to figure out what that effect is.)

But, largely, it’s a good thing because it gives writers and readers both new options that they didn’t have before. 

Still, I’m put off by the revolution’s cheerleaders who shout hurrahs: “The Revolution has come! Publishing is disintermediating! The Traditional Publishers are dying, and good riddance for they were made of EVIL and soon it will be complete freedom for writers and readers and puppies and kitties will rain from the skies forever! Amen!  P.S. And we’re all going to get so rich by writing!”

That’s hyperbole.  But the basic message is the same.  If you move in writing circles, you can’t help but read one or two such blog posts on various blogs per week. And that’s if you don’t actively follow Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith or others like them.  But their message puts me off, not only because I think it’s an unrealistic vision of the future, but because something about this vision seems a little off to me.

In the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a little better why I’m vaguely uncomfortable and unsettled about the digital self-publishing revolution.  There is something dark, something unspoken, something critically unexamined staining the underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution.  I don’t think these are things talked about enough, yet.

What follows are some links for your perusal and thinkifying gratification.

First up, Amazon has started testing the waters, with publishers, for launching an e-book subscription service.  They’re looking for publisher buy-in.  But the unasked question: what’s in it for the authors?

A couple authors decided to weigh in and answer that question, even though it wasn’t asked.  And their answers: not a whole heck of a lot.

What, I realized, was unsettling to me about this phase of the digital self-publishing revolution is the degree to which, as it is currently constituted, it overrelies on the “benevolence” of Amazon: a company which is not known to have been truly benevolent to writers in the past.  Right now, the vast majority of self-published ebook sales are through Amazon.  In effect, Amazon’s plan seems to be not to make it rain puppies and kitties forever and also to make you rich.  No, it is to become the one, the only, the de facto monopoly-publisher of all books. 

The short version: Amazon doesn’t care if you sell books.  Amazon cares if Amazon sells books.  And Amazon doesn’t care if you get paid.  And Amazon doesn’t care if you are the sole copyright holder of your work.  You are small potatoes.  What scares me: when Amazon is the only game left in town, what’s to stop Amazon from changing the rules for writers?  They’ve already demonstrated their willingness to screw the little guy (i.e. authors) on their quest to strong-arm publishers and get their way.  I don’t trust Amazon not to keep on screwing the little guy at every opportunity.

And so… the extent to which Amazon is the Digital Self-publishing Revolution: that unnerves me.  I’m not ready to embrace it.

And that’s what Scalzi and Valente are getting at in their posts: Amazon’s proposed e-book subscription service looks great on paper: for publishers.  But there’s no mechanism in it to support the authors whose works are being exploited.  It’s another push applied in the downward pressure to make the value of an author’s work indistinguishable from the number 0.  There are those who rationalize it away and pretend it isn’t happening, who have placed their faith wholly in “the new paradigm”.  (What’s hilarious about that last link: in a post where Konrath swats at flies, trying to refute the idea that there are significant downward pressures on the economic value of the writer’s craft, he later states: “[Writers] aren’t entitled to earn a living at their craft. Talent and hard work does not mean the world owes you. You have to keep at it until you get lucky.”  A tacit if indirect admission that world values what writers do, in an economic sense, less and less… unless you get “lucky”. You’re right, Konrath: you win the argument.  Talent and hard work are meaningless.  Ultimately, only luck matters.)  But I don’t think the new paradigm as earned that trust.  A year or two of happy times does not a long-term trend make.

I’m not saying I don’t think there’s a viable, and possibly even sustainable, business model in there somewhere.  I’m saying I haven’t seen the evidence, and given the past track record of the major players, I’m uneasy. 

Turning on a Tangential Dime, I find that’s only one part of what makes me uneasy about digital self-publishing. There are other factors that are equally disturbing.  But I’ve gone on long enough, for today, so tomorrow I’ll continue on this theme.

Bracing for deluge of comments from digital self-publishing cheerleaders, supporters, and fan-club in…






(Oh.  Wait.  I don’t really have that large a web presence, do I?  Sigh.  My site is too small to house a troll.)

Leave your own thoughts and comments and angry retorts on the topic.  Let’s discuss, shall we?

19 thoughts on “The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution

  1. I’ve always viewed e-publishing a little bit askance — not because I feel there’s anything wrong with it, in and of itself; on the contrary, it’s great to have the option. But when people start acting like they’re going to take their little e-readers and drive the collections of printed pages from our shelves forever, that’s when I start feeling edgy. I’m a fan of physical books. Scrolling down a screen vs. turning actual pages… bending and neck-craning to make out that title that’s caught your eye vs. clicking on this, that, and the other link… totally different experiences. If I could only have one, I would choose books over e-books, so if that option got bullied out of the business, I’d be sick with frustration.

    As for “[Writers] aren’t entitled to earn a living at their craft. Talent and hard work does not mean the world owes you”… *double-take* So, if we provide a service, we shouldn’t expect any compensation? The worker’s no longer worthy of his wages? The artists of the world are expected to just let everyone have the product of their blood, sweat, and tears for free? If it were any other area of barter, the world wouldn’t get away with it. The only reason they might be able to here is that artists probably don’t make for the best labor strikers. When creative self-expression half makes up the air we breathe, its kinda hard to harness walk away power. Writers will write, and we’ll share what we write, because the sharing is part of the process. And yeah, obviously we will sometimes allow ourselves to be varying levels of screwed over in the name of passion. But that doesn’t make screwing writers over *right*. “It happens” and “it’s fair” are virtual opposites, it often seems, and trying to console ourselves by believing otherwise won’t make it so.

    • I think I prefer physical books as well – although I say this without having tried an e-reader, so my opinion on the matter of which is better requires a significant amount of salt. Although, I also have a certain amount of gadget-lust for some of the slicker tablets. That’s an interesting dilemma you’re getting at, there. There’s certainly some apparent downward pressure on the remunerative value on the service that writers provide. How much of that is due to the fact that writers, by their nature and as an artistic imperative, often feel compelled to share their work even when they know there will be no remuneration? Because not sharing is a break-down in the artistic process for many writers. Hmm…

      • I’m very fond of my Kindle, but I don’t see it mostly as a replacement for books. Mostly I use it as a writing tool (don’t tell Amazon). I can load my WIP(s) on it and carry them around, adding comments. (Your story, too, I’ll send comments by tomorrow.) All of my other writings are on it, too (so I can easily check whether I already specified the color of a character’s hair or whatever). And it is absolutely the best way to read the NY Times every morning (and ideal for one-handed reading on the subway). And, when home Internet is on the fritz, I can check my email.

        Oh, and the writer’s imperative to share work even without pay is not always true of professionals. I have a friend who’s been a pro since 1972, and he expects to get paid. He doesn’t write for free.

      • An interesting use for the Kindle. I’ve heard it can be used that way – but that it’s not exactly ideal. As to professional writers – I expect that one of the main things that separates professionals from amateurs is the expectation of getting paid for their work. That said… I’ll wager that the vast majority of professional writers, if they were suddenly to be cut off from the gravy train (as it were) they would continue to write even without pay. Perhaps their output would decrease. But they’d still do it. And they’d share it. Because that’s part of who they are. If you’re not doing it for the love, or out of some deep and inescapable need, then money or no they wouldn’t keep doing it.

  2. I agree. I tend to preface a lot of my conversations about this topic with the phrase: “I don’t have anything against self-publishing, but…”

    Self-publishing serves a purpose. It’s a great option in a number of cases. Some examples that come to mind are: non-fiction book when the author doesn’t have a strong platform (yet), an established author’s shorter works, or a new author’s “not what we’re buying right now, but try again next year” novel.

    But I don’t believe self-publishing is a replacement for the traditional pubishing route. Publishers are not inherently evil. Agents are not in business to quash all creativity. I find myself feeling highly offended whenever I listen to/read a new “down with publishers, self-publishing is the only true way!” opinion.

    Oh, and in many ways I agree with Konrath. Talent and hard work aren’t *all* that’s required. Luck is an inherent part of the process. That is, if you use this definition:

    Luck = Preparation + Opportunity

    • I agree it serves a purpose – and I definitely don’t begrudge those for whom this is the better option. But it concerns me that one company virtually controls the e-book market. Whenever I see someone reporting their ebook sales, their Amazon number makes up almost all of their sales. Some don’t bother reporting sales from other venues because they’re so negligible or otherwise are 0. And Amazon has proven in the past that it’s no true friend of authors. I’d feel much more comfortable with it if there were a vibrant marketplace with many real choices.

      Also, I agree with the idea that “luck” plays in important part in success in this industry. What I find appalling is the crass way that Konrath chose to highlight the fact. It’s the part where he says we aren’t “entitled” (a poor and telling choice of words) to earn a living, and that neither talent nor hardwork means the “world owes you”. For someone who consistently brags about how rich ebooks are making him (and Konrath doesn’t fail to point that out in this article), I find it a telling admission that, in fact, his success actually doesn’t have anything to do with the great fundamentals of the ebook industry – no, the biggest factor affecting his success has been something else, entirely: luck. But he buries this little admission well below the lede.

  3. When someone says, “this is the only way, abandon all other paths”, I’m always skeptical. I agree with Jo, so I won’t type it up again. It’s also good not to reside in an echo-chamber though, so I do follow multiple blogs, and the ones you mention here. I think it helps to have some kind of sense of a bigger picture.

    • Agreed. Likewise when someone goes on and on about how the other side is “teh evil” and robbing people and stealing their babies (okay, they don’t say Publishers are stealing babies, but the other accusations are pretty accurate): it strikes me as hyperbole and it turns me off. I also follow most of these blogs (well… I don’t follow Konrath… I only see things he posts occassionally when they’re linked by others). But I’m keen to learn about the experiences of people on all sides of this changing industry, so I can better chart my own course.

  4. True, I’m not an author, but I’m encouraged by the increase in digital distribution of printed media. It’s easy to look at the music and movie industries and see the (continuing) result as cataclysmic, but the democratization of media has allowed talented people to find an audience who otherwise wouldn’t.

    Yes, it’s unlikely that self-publishing will result in any significant monetary gain for the vast majority of authors, but how much chance did any given non-published author have before? An author’s options were to continually mail (or email) their manuscripts to publishers waiting for a response or spending money out of pocket to print copies and try to turn a profit themselves. At least with digital distribution’s lower cost barrier to entry they have a shot to find an audience without needing a publisher. Of course, if they want to reach the largest audience, they’ll still need the marketing power of a publisher (and it seems as though publishers do pay attention to popular self-publishing authors), but digital self-distribution still seems to be a better (or equally valid) option than anything that an unpublished author had before.

    • The reasons you cite are why I say at the beginning of this article that I see this as largely a good thing. And certainly a lot of writers will make more money with digital self-publishing than with traditional: a few bucks from a handful of sales is more than a few bucks spent on postage mailing manuscripts in. But generally, yes, I find the democratization of the media to be a great thing for artists. But I’m concerned that this particular round of democratization is headed by a company that has proven itself no true friend of individual artists in the past. For Amazon, the plight of the disconnected artist is nothing more than an opportunity to make a little extra money in the long tail – and I don’t trust them to keep the best interests of writers at heart. Nobody should expect that, but this is exactly the charge that many of digital self-publishing cheerleaders level at the traditional publishing: that they don’t have writer’s interests at heart. It’s a disingenuous charge because at least those in traditional publishing have a bit of a financial incentive to encourage the success of their authors. Amazon has no such incentive.

  5. I think self-publishing is a great option (obviously, since I do it), but a) it’s not going to replace traditional publishing, b) anybody who self-pubs and sees this as a route to riches is crazy, about as crazy as people who think that contracts with a big publishers will automatically make them rich. It may happen, it does (very) occasionally, but that’s always the exception, and that had better not be why you’re doing it.

    As we used to say when I was in bands, “Dream big, but don’t give up your day job.”

    There are a lot of factors that go into the occasional success stories (skill, timing, connections, and definitely luck). But Branch Rickey was right, “Luck is the residue of design.”

    • I would agree that anyone who thinks they’re going to get rich doing this is crazy – except if that person is following someone like Konrath, they’ll run into statements like this all the time: “I’ll just keep writing ebooks, selling them for cheap, and getting rich.” In fact, in the article I linked, Konrath boasts about how much money he’s making selling ebooks at least five separate times. Someone who avidly follows a talking head like Konrath could be forgiven for embracing the mistaken belief that they’re going to make a lot of money selling ebooks. If you read widely – as I try to – you’ll find a lot more examples of people who aren’t making muc of anything – or even nothing at all – selling ebooks than of those who are getting rich. And you’ll find even fewer who are making anything more than pocket change who are doing it without having the advantage of first having been published traditionally. It happens, certainly. But Konrath seems to go to great pains to make it seem like it’s common, like it’s the norm, rather than the exception. Even when he admits that some authors will not make any money doing this, he downplays it or minimizes it. (For example, there are only two admissions that authors may not make money doing this in the above-linked article, as compared to the 5 instances of bragging about how much he and other authors are making.)

  6. I won’t troll! 😉 And will give you a link to sustain your theory – Amazon is nobody’s friend:
    I’m an indie author because I’m a control freak who is too prolific for her own good and I’m not in the business to get rich quick (although I’d love to be able to quid Day Job sometime, LOL). And I’m aware I could use a small trad publisher for some of my projects. Like my historical novel. Whenever I’m happy with it! 😉

    • I believe it (I still remember the Amazon-fail/Macmillan debacle, and how that hurt authors directly because of Amazon’s petulance). I’ve got another bit about Amazon, specifically, I’m posting today. It’s not related to ebooks, specifically, but is more about Amazon’s corporate culture, generally – or what can be gleaned about their culture based on their business practices. I think this indirectly impacts writers who are publishing via Amazon.

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