The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution Part 2
Last time I started talking about what I called “the seedy underbelly of the digital self-publishing revolution”, by which I mean all the things I’ve been learning about it that leave me feeling uneasy. Specifically, last time, I talked about Amazon’s proposed e-book subscription service, and my general unease with Amazon’s hegemony in the digitial self-publishing world. But that’s not the only part about this whole thing that makes me worry about it. Here are a few more posts that gave me further pause.
When one traditionally-published author decided to digitally self-pub some short stories her publisher decided she’s in breach of contract. The Passive Guy relates the tale here and here. The long-story-short of this tale: making this move on her own spooked the publisher – rightly or wrongly is not the point – and apparently on some level the publisher was offended. Many of the most prominent cheer-leaders of the digitial self-publishing revolution will take stories like this as further evidence of the EVIL nature of the traditional publishers – a point that must surely be bolstered by the fact that some agents have written in support of the publishers in this case, as opposed to the author. I don’t take it that way. I take it that publishers are human. And that they’re beginning to buy into the rhettoric of the digital self-publishing cheerleaders that this is an existential dilemma for them.
The story, itself, wasn’t the least surprising to me. I’ve heard warnings from established, traditionally published authors warning of something like this well before I read this story. Self-publishing, they have said, is the kiss-of-death in the traditional publishing world.
The real point, then, that I wanted to make was this: if in the long-term, traditional publishing is your goal, is now the time to rock the boat and go-it-alone, in the hopes that later the traditional publishers will overlook your self-published history? Sure, you may say, Amanda Hocking did it, and it worked for her? But this story is a good counterpoint. An established author did it, and had her contract pulled. One can argue that the nullification of the contract wasn’t above-board or strictly legal, wasn’t moral, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. But that’s the way the business is, currently. Is it worth it to potentially piss off the current “powers-that-be”? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something writers need to seriously consider before taking the plunge.
Now, many writers don’t have a traditional publishing career as their goal. And for them, this whole hullaballoo won’t change a thing. And that’s great. For me – I still have as my goal getting published in some way that bears a close resemblence, as far as the consumer is concerned, to the traditional way. That means professional-level editing and guidance. That means marketing and PR. That means lots of handsome, hardback books on bookstore shelves. That means high production values. That means copies in libraries. All of that, theoretically, can be done independently, in self-publishing. But assembling those sorts of resources without a traditional deal is punishingly difficult. So, for all its shortcomings and foibles, I still want a traditional deal. And that means, by and large, playing by traditional publishing rules.
Eventually, those rules are likely to change. Market forces are reshaping the industry. But for now they are what they are. I don’t have to like it, and neither does anyone else. But things being what they are, I am extremely hesitant at this stage to take the self-publishing plunge.
And one more link for your consideration, and this one strikes home in a different way. Author Seanan McGuire talks about what it’s like being poor, especially vis-a-vis reading books. The key take-away: in the past poor people had access to books in libraries and to used book stores and other low-cost venues to obtain books. In a post-traditional-publishing world, where everything is all e-books all the time… where does that leave the poor? They can’t afford expensive equipment to read books – and unless e-readers drop to the low-low-price of basically free the poor are unlikely to be able to afford e-readers for a long time to come. A significant percentage of the poor lack access to reliable hi-bandwidth internet. Another difficult hurdle for obtaining books in the all-e-book future. Basically, this bleak future is one in which the poor are unworthy to read, because they can’t afford to.
This last one really hit home for me. I am not poor now. But in my lifetime my family has skated on the edge of poverty. Growing up, we often did without the luxuries and niceties that were common in the middle-class homes of my friends because we couldn’t afford them – such as e-readers might be today. On a few rare occassions my parents had trouble scraping by enough to feed the family. One or two Christmases were on the charity of others. I don’t consider us as having been poor, but we came close. Those brushes with the poverty make me significantly more sensitive to issues that negatively impact the poor than I would be otherwise. And I have trouble, philosophically, embracing a future where books cannot be accessed by the poor: that is a moral anathema to me.
Even today, Dear Wife and I do without many of the common luxuries that most of our middle-class friends – who are otherwise in roughly the same socio-economic status as we – enjoy. We don’t own an e-reader, for instance. We don’t have smartphones (data plans are still prohibitively expensive). We don’t have cable TV (or cable TV equivalent). We have the lowest-possible high-speed internet. Our goal is to live frugally, within our means. And especially thanks to my MBA we have a lot of student debt: paying that off takes fiscal priority. That means continuing to do without such niceties at least until the balance between income and debt shifts considerably.
At the end of the day, I realize it would be almost hypocritical to go the digital self-publishing route for my own work when I don’t even own a device on which to read e-books. It would be like sending the signal as an author that I buy into the fundamental premise of the digitial self-publishing revolution – that e-books are the future – when in my personal life I haven’t bought into it, yet. And while I recognize that in the future the majority of books will be consumed in this format, there’s still a gulf between where I am today and that shiny future. And in that gulf there are some important philosophical and practical differences that I am not yet prepared to overcome.
I agonize over this question periodically: to be or not to be – whether ’tis nobler in mind to publish traditionally and suffer the slings and arrows of uncertainty and long lead times and loss of control, or to self-publish digitially, and by so publishing, end the foibles of traditional publishing. Okay, I made an awful hash of Hamlet, there. I don’t foresee the time coming soon when I’ll cease agonizing periodically over this question. For now, I find the cons to digital self-publishing – of which these are but only a few – far outweight the pros. So for now, I don’t anticipate taking the plunge any time soon. Eventually, however, my calculus may change. But the things outlined here are pretty significant issues, and I’ll probably have to see some change or movement in these current trends before I’ll be ready to embrace the change that’s coming.