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The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution Part 2

September 23, 2011

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.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2011 10:20 am

    I’ve also heard that selfpub taints you for the majors. Which is odd, because in movies and music it’s the opposite. In those areas, indie success is often a good way to the bigs. I wonder why the difference.

    • September 23, 2011 11:09 am

      The majors, as it were, aren’t totally averse to successful self-publishers. But the line that defines successful self-publishing, from the traditional publishers point-of-view, might be a bit different. Amanda Hocking, for instance, by all accounts has done phenomenally well, and trad pubs took note of that. But an individual author might consider fifty, or a hundred or a few hundred sales to be a success. To the trad pubs, that’s evidence that your star has set – their model is such that they can’t survive on authors who only sell a few hundred copies. The economies of scale demand that they move thousands of copies in order to make a profit. So it happens, but so far the evidence suggests you’ve got to prove bestseller status in the indie world before the majors will consider picking you up – and that’s not an easy thing to do. People who would’ve been successful midlisters before doing so in self-publishing are probably not, at least as it seems so far, endearing themselves to the trad publishers.

      So, part of this, I think, has to do with the nature of the physical medium. Blank CDs and DVDs are cheap, and printing them with any given bit of music likewise also cheap, even at low lot numbers. But there isn’t a single, uniform, mass-produced physical medium on which books can be cheaply imprinted. Rather, each book is unique: a different number of pages, different paper qualities, separate and unique covers, and so on, and they have to be bound after printing. Paperbacks come close, but they’re still not quite the same. So it becomes costlier to print books than it does to print music CDs except at relatively large lot sizes.

      Another part, I think, has to do with rhettoric. You don’t have a Kanye West or a Lady Gaga or a Kenney Chesney or Red Hot Chili Peppers or Eagles or whatever signing exclusive deals with iTunes and then blogging long and loudly about the death of the traditional music publishers, about how traditional music publishers are trying to rob musicians, and how they’re getting rich on iTunes, and so on. When writers part way with traditional publishers and do this, I think it creates an atmosphere of contention, and a false dichotomy between digital self-pubbing and traditional pubbing by painting the choice to self-publish digitally as an existential decision diametrically opposed to that of the traditional publishers. Fundamentally this is a lie, but it’s a lie that’s spouted loudly over and over by a lot of digital self-publishing cheerleaders, and it’s repeated so often that I can’t say I’m surprised that traditional publishers have started to believe it. Does the new paradigm mean that traditional publishers will have to adapt to survive? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that they are doomed.

  2. September 23, 2011 1:20 pm

    While I never lived in poverty, I didn’t own many books when I was young. I discovered the joy of books through the library (The importance of libraries are another thing I’m passionate about but it’s an aside). I think you hit on something that’s been bothering me as well. Not everyone can afford an IPad or an e-reader. Maybe one day this technology will be ubiquitous, and the internet free (I doubt it for a long time though), but for the moment it’s expensive. Should only those with disposable income deserve the luxury of reading? Hell no. Books are important. Also on another note, if we look outside of North American markets, how many people are reading on e-readers? I suspect the demand for e-books is a lot less elsewhere in the world for the moment.

    • September 23, 2011 1:38 pm

      I agree with everything you just said (except the part about not having many books growing up. While we may have bordered on poor sometimes, my parents still had to build a bookcase in one hallway when I was younger to hold all the books. Somewhere between half and two-thirds were speculative fiction of some kind.)

    • September 24, 2011 9:37 am

      I was raised by librarians, so our house was full of books, many of which had been discarded by the library at one point or another. They had a stamp in the front which said what year they were discarded, often decades earlier. None of it was speculative fiction, which I discovered on my own.

      • September 25, 2011 9:52 pm

        It’s a blessing to be raised around books. I’m grateful that I had so many around me – it really taught me the value of books. And I’m glad that so far it looks like my son, B.T., is having the same opportunity.

  3. September 25, 2011 9:04 pm

    Not to sound like a creepy spammer, Stephen, but there is a lovely, good news surprise for you over at my blog. Congratulations in advance. 😀

    • September 26, 2011 11:28 am

      Hey, thanks for the award! “Liebster” is a new one on me. Glad to see you find my posts “thoughtful”. I try, but I swear, sometimes I’m not nearly as thoughtful as I should be. I’m less inclined to pass these on than I was in the earlier days of my blog: there are a lot of worthy blogs out there, but the ones I recommend strongly don’t change much from week-to-week, and the list grows longer and harder to contain in the typical “nominate 5 other blogs” instruction. But it’s always great to see the sentiment expressed. 😀

  4. September 30, 2011 10:17 pm

    Pardon my tardiness in commenting on the threads for both part one and part two. I have a few thoughts to add to the conversation.

    What are the odds of the average aspiring writer to first land an agent, then have that agent land a publishing deal, and then have that publisher produce a hardback copy of the new author’s book? That is the dream that originally drove most of us still unpublished novelists. How much time does this take once your manuscript is finished? Up to a year to find an agent, another possible year to find a publisher, and at least another year to get an accepted manuscript printed and in stores. Where will these books be sold besides in online megastores like Amazon or B&N? Borders is gone. Barnes and Noble brick and mortar stores are struggling, but their demise has been at least delayed by what? Their Nook eReader and digital sales, at least for now. Are there any independents going to be around? Increasingly bestsellers are being sold at big box stores like WalMart and Costco. New authors, mid-listers and genre writers need not apply. I’ve read enough about diminishing advances, publishers’ insistence on owning and controlling all rights, including e-rights, forever, and other practices to worry me.

    Much was discussed about Amazon’s business practices, but like any big business, they are doing what other highly successful companies have done. Consider Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, or Facebook. How many have accused any or all of them of unfair business practices? So why single out Amazon? Apple dominates music with iTunes and iPods, but they have competition. Microsoft dominates operating systems, browers, and office suites for PCs, but they have competition. Google is huge, but Yahoo is a huge rival, among others. So do we stop using Google for searches? They’re the best, most convenient engine for most people. Do we stop using our iPods and iTunes because Apple’s store and devices are proprietary? Do we fear these big companies because of their achievement and market dominance?

    Are the decades old practices of big publishers any different? They have long held a monopoly on distribution of paper books and their methods were not benevolent by any definition. Do publishing houses really care about how many books an author sells? Just like Amazon, they care about how many books THEY sell. They’re a business, not patron of writers. That’s why they put very little PR and marketing effort behind new authors and mid-listers unless there is breakout potential. They do the minimum and the rest is on the author’s own efforts and dime.

    How is that any different than marketing and promoting for your own indie published book, whether print or digital?

    Ironically, I have that same dream of seeing my books in bookstores.

    But, I what that dream really means is that I want readers for my stories. If I can put my stories into the hands of the readers via a convenient and timely mechanism, whatever you want to call it, then why wouldn’t I take the opportunity while the barriers to entry are still low? What is that old adage, “Fortune favors the bold?”

    Yes, the whole industry is in flux and questions remain, but such transitions also create opportunities for those willing to take advantage. If we wait too long until things “settle” then many windows may close, some permanently.

    I can’t predict the future, but I can predict that I’d rather start selling my novel the day it’s finished and develop a readership than finish my novel and wait up to three years for publication IF my book is deemed worthy of print by the gatekeepers at the big houses.

    Really, what is the risk for aspiring/unknown/unpublished authors? We don’t have contracts that a slighted publisher can cancel. We don’t have agents to try to keep us traditional so they can get their 15%. We don’t have a reputation to harm by writing and publishing an unsuccessful book. If it doesn’t sell, is our career doomed? Really? Or course not. A book that doesn’t sell is just a book that doesn’t sell. Write a better next book and sell more. Write an even better third book and sell even more. Sell enough and more opportunities present. If that concern is too high, use a pen name. Many famous and successful authors have used pseudonyms.

    I don’t presume to advise anyone on the correct path. I haven’t gone far down either path to have much experience to share. But, I like the options, I like the potential, and I’ve waited too long in my own burgeoning career to keep waiting for either the industry to shake out or for the snail’s pace of the traditional process.u. I view the big publishers as author unfriendly entities in much the way this conversation has characterized Amazon.

    I don’t care about Amazon. I’m not pro-Amazon or anti-publishers. They currently offer the widest possible customer/potential reader base and that potential is tough to ignore. And ultimately, any successful business needs customer. Whether we like it or not, a writer is a business owner and the products are the written word.

    P.S. This all my opinion, I don’t offer any evidence or references to support my views, I simply offer counterpoint for discussion.

    • October 1, 2011 7:59 am

      I think it was Courtney Love who said that record companies resented Napster because Napster ripped off artists and the records companies thought that ripping off artists was _their_ exclusive right.

      • October 1, 2011 10:07 pm

        Which is a little facetious: record companies may have ripped off musicians, but at least musicians got paid. With Napster, there was no such possibility…

      • October 2, 2011 12:23 am

        She was being provocative (she is Courtney Love, after all), but she also had a very good point, since it is _not_ always true that musicians got paid when signed by a record company.

        One scenario I saw more than once:

        1) Band got signed.
        2) Band went into a studio to make a record.
        3) The record company laid out the money for the recording, but this was all charged against future earnings.
        4) If the record tanked, the band would end up owing the record company money.
        5) They would have to tour heavily just to break even (let alone make a second record), and sometimes they’d end up worse than when they started.

        Not to mention the artistic impact, both because the constant touring would leave little time to make a _good_ second record, and sometimes the record company would use their leverage (and/or threats to withhold promotional money) to pressure the band to record specific songs, to use specific producers, to collaborate with specific songwriters, even to fire or hire specific members. I saw those scenarios play out more than once, too.

      • October 3, 2011 10:52 am

        Hmm. Well, you know more about the music industry than I… but this isn’t really how the traditional book publishing model works at all – so I guess it makes for a bit of a poor analogy. There has been a well-known adage among writers that “money flows to the writer”, which was used by professional writers to steer younger proteges away from scams and vanity presses (and until the rise of the ebook revolution, it was still a very useful adage – mostly it still is, with certain important and increasingly obvious caveats). I guess, perhaps, that’s partly a reflection of the fact that writers have historically been more business savvy than other kinds of artists, which gives them a slight edge in influencing the evolution of the publishing and distribution of their works as compared to those other artists…

    • October 1, 2011 10:06 pm

      Well. That’s quite a lengthy comment. I’ll try to address your points as best I can. But let me start by saying that it is not my intention in these posts to criticize or denigrate those who have chosen to take the digital self-publishing path. On the contrary, I have a great deal of respect for those who attempt this: I think it very courageous of them. As I said at the beginning of the first post in this group of posts, I generally find the “revolution” to be a mostly good thing – with the caveats that I bring up here.

      Now, to the points you bring up. First, it seems your argument against traditional publishers seems to come down to four points – and these appear to be common points:

      1) Traditional publishing takes too long.
      2) Traditional publishers have gone power-mad and are screwing writers by trying to grab all rights in perpetuity.
      3) Traditional publishers don’t publish enough new voices, or otherwise are very difficult to break into.
      4) Traditional booksellers are dying.

      The first point I’ll have to concede: traditional publishing does take a long time. That said, I’ll argue this is a feature, not a bug, with respect to the quality of manuscripts. If nothing else, the long lead-times make for plenty of opportunities to fully edit and vet each manuscript. Even so… it does still take forever… and that can be problematic at the outset of a writing career.

      On the second: I’ve heard no credible source claiming that publishers are grabbing all rights in perpetuity. The only one that seems to be of concern is digital/e-pub rights, and that’s only a concern because of the nature of the digital product. All other rights, as I’ve seen from a number of traditionally published authors who are still publishing the old-fashioned way, have industry-standard reversion clauses, just as they always have. In time, I don’t think publishers will be able to continue to demand digital rights in perpetuity, though… because that will drive authors away and will hurt their business.

      The third point, again, I’ll argue is a feature, not a bug. I don’t think we, as readers, want publishers to publish just anybody who wants to be a writer. Now, I accept the argument that a lot of worthy, high-quality writers are filtered out by the current system – and that’s problematic. But the main function is also to filter out those who haven’t really mastered the skills and craft they need. The problem with the new paradigm is that it gives many of these people who would be better off honing their craft for a while longer the false hope that they’re ready for the big time. Many are in for some disappointment when their work fails to sell.

      The fourth point is a matter of speculation: and there’s a ton of uncertainty surrounding it, still. Borders is dead, and e-books are part of the reason. But they’re not the whole story. B&N’s margins are tight… but they’ve always been tight – that’s the nature of the bookselling business. For myself, I’m not ready to laugh off independent bookstores, either. There is a lot of potential for the internet and “disintermediation” to actually make independent booksellers stronger. Regardless… it remains to be seen what long-term impact the death of Borders will have on the market, and calling it one way or the other is more than a little premature.

      With regard to your complaint for my singling out Amazon, I find the argument specious at best. I’m not complaining, in these articles, about other companies with monopolistic practices because their monopolistic practices have nothing to do with publishing or ebooks. And inasumuch as what they do continues to have a minimal or non-existent impact on writing/publishing, I’m likely to continue not writing about them, seeing as how writing is sort of the main focus of my blog, and not corporate-crusading. So yes, Microsoft has done some naughty-monopoly things. And they’ve been sued and punished for it. Google’s going through investigations as we speak. So far, no governmental watchdog that I know of has investigated Amazon. (And for the record as well: no, I don’t use Apple devices precisely because of what you mention: I’m not a big fan of the proprietary nature of their services. I like a little bit of freedom in my device. I love the look of them and drool over them, but when push comes to shove I buy competitive brands because freedom is important to me.)

      Your point that the old, big publishers have a “monopoly” over production/distribution is also rather specious. That’s like saying PC manufacturers have a monopoly over making PCs, or television manufacturers have a monopoly on TVs. There are something like a half-dozen large publishers (the so-called “Big Six”) and any number of dozens more small, independent traditional publishers. That’s what we call a healthy market for competition: not a monopoly.

      So yes, they’re businesses. But you’re wrong: they’re also patrons of writers. They invest a lot of money in the careers of writers. And yes, they often put very little into PR/Marketing. But they put more into than Amazon will in most cases (which is to say: nothing). The fact is, with traditional publishers, a writer who has signed with them will have a personal, specific relationship with the publisher, vis-a-vis the developmental editor. I agree that I think traditional publishers probably don’t invest enough in their writers (and that they’d see better returns if they invested more heavily). But they do invest, and that means all of that work isn’t coming directly out of the writer’s pocket. With digital self-publishing, it does. And that’s a new kind of barrier-to-entry for writers. So it’s not all rainbows and butterflies there, either.

      Anyway: I’m glad writers have the option, now. I’m glad they’re able to make decisions about what’s best for their own business as a writer, and have options that differ not just in terms of which publisher is offering more money, but fundamentally different business models. All that is a good thing. But when a writer is making that decision, I think they need to take into consideration all the facts: and if they’re considering entering into a business relationship with Amazon, they deserve to know what kind of company they’ll be in cahoots with. Maybe they don’t care that Amazon has a lot to answer for: that’s fine, that’s their choice. For me… their dirty business practices make me uneasy… I don’t know whether that will stop me from ever selling ebooks via Amazon – very likely at some point in the future it won’t. But understanding this does enter into my rubric of decision-making. And for those who have chosen this path, they have my commendation, because whatever happens, they’re doing something pretty incredible.

      On top of that… you know, I’m still worried about what this transition means for the reading poor. I’m not sure I can embrace and support a future where the poor have no options for reading new and vital books… and so I’ll continue to hold out hope that the digital revolution is not the be-all and end-all of books.

      • October 2, 2011 12:08 am

        Just a couple of comments:

        1) On the rights question (second point): no matter what, before you sign any contract, have it reviewed by a competent lawyer. If the contract means you give up things you don’t want to give up, don’t sign it.

        2) On the end-of-books point, television was supposed to replace radio, movies were supposed to replace theater. Generally this doesn’t happen (CDs did pretty much replace LPs, but LPs actually had no advantages, which is not true in the other situations). Old mass media mostly become niche media when something new comes along, but they don’t vanish completely.

        I like books for durability, too.

      • October 3, 2011 10:48 am

        With regards to your point #1, this is one of the areas where I have come to agree with Dean Wesley Smith (who argues against the use of agents). In the past, writers have relied most heavily on Agents to negotiate contracts. But as more and more agents are switching up their models to offer ebook self-publishing services (or even full-fledged ebook publishing houses in some instances), thereby creating at least the appearance of a conflict of interest or worse, there are fewer and fewer agents to choose from. When I was a kid growing up (and looking forward to a future career as a writer) I always assumed I’d want a lawyer to look at my book contracts… then when I was a little older I assumed a lawyer was too expensive, and then I learned about how agents work, so I figured I’d do that. Now, I’ve come full circle, and I’ve learned that IP lawyers really aren’t too expensive, can do the negotiation for you, for a fixed-fee (no % of revenues in perpetuity)… so I rather think I’d probably want the assistance of an IP lawyer on book contracts with traditional publishers. It remains to be seen whether I’d also want an Agent – depending on how I come to feel about the other value an agent adds… The main value I see, right now, is that they are still the industry-accepted means of soliciting manuscripts to editors, but they do provide other value, as I understand it.

    • October 1, 2011 10:13 pm

      I forgot that I also wanted to point to this article, in which a digitally self-publishing author of modest success (not Amanda Hocking-level, but apparently nothing to sneeze at) turns to traditional publishing because of some of the benefits accrued there that presently are not available to the self-published. In the midst of this conversation, it’s well worth a read:

      http://www.magicalwords.net/faith-hunter/coming-in-out-of-the-cold-john-g.-hartness/

      • October 2, 2011 12:31 am

        I will point out that this was about signing with a small press, not a major. 🙂 If I fit into a niche where there were small presses, I’d be all over them.

        I wrote a blog post about all this yesterday, BTW, mostly directing people over here, and also explaining why I won’t be producing an e-book any time soon.

        And anybody who would write a book called A Hard Day’s Knight ought to be ashamed of themselves.

      • October 3, 2011 11:07 am

        I keep reading about these sorts of small presses that do interesting, niche products – and by all accounts they typically do a very quality job – so I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility. That said, I’m mostly familiar with this from the Speculative Fiction side of things – I don’t know so much about the mystery side of things.

  5. October 2, 2011 8:35 pm

    Let me say that I’ve enjoyed this conversation. It feels like a few writers sitting in a coffee shop trying to convince each other of the best path to publication. There are many valid points on both sides, some more emotional and less founded in evidence or fact than others. I think we actually agree on more points than we disagree. That is the beauty of such conversations. All points can be explored and considered and every side of a topic can be covered.

    Ultimately, the paths are many and each writer’s journey will be story until itself. We must each decide our course based on the winds, weather, seaworthiness of our vessel and the capabilities of our captain and crew. We must navigate towards the goal we have in mind.

    A couple last points for I move on to read some of your more recent posts.

    First, I come to your blog for the well-reasoned and articulate presentation of ideas and perspective supported by sufficient references to ensure a level of credibility that validates your stance. Thank you for that. It often counters what I read of the “cheerleaders” of digital publishing your so affectionately dubbed them.

    Second, we can’t really compared traditional publishers directly to Amazon digital publishing because Amazon isn’t really a publisher for digital indie published works, they are a distributor. The author is actually the publisher and that is, as I think you alluded, a different business model. Author as publisher requires new and different skills and demands on the author’s time and that path is not for everyone. Although many famous and historical authors self-published (as was not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th century), the latter 20th century publishing culture turned self-publishing into a negative connotation dubbing the process “vanity” publishing. That culture has changed and the technology is now available for an author to write and publish an eBook for literally no cash investment, if he/she can do all the publishing tasks themselves. This again a valid and increasingly respected path for writers. Not a better path, another path.

    Third, the quality of work published varies with both traditional publishing and indie publishing. The overall level of quality is arguably better, due to over a century of professionals investing their careers into the industry. But even that doesn’t guarantee quality. How would you as author feel if your big break into traditional publishing came with assignment of either a neophyte editor or musical chairs of editors, each less invested in your story than the previous? I don’t have data to support, just enough anecdotal evidence to validate that it does happen. This partially invested editor navigates the publishing process poorly and your book gets a rushed copyedit, a cover you hate, a title change you don’t agree with and publication with little or now marketing push. Your book is published, it’s on a few bookshelves? But now what? How do you sell enough to earn out your tiny advance? Especially in genre fiction? This isn’t the only possibility, many authors have great experiences, but getting through the gatekeepers a new unknown author doesn’t get you the attention of the publisher’s A team, either.

    Fourth, with the low barriers to entry with digital publishing dreck will be published by authors who are not ready and haven’t honed their craft enough. To me, poor sales and poor reviews are in some ways more timely and more useful feedback for a prematurely published author than several months worth of form rejection letters from agents or editors. With digital, you can take the book down, rewrite it, re-title it, recover it and repost it. With little or no cost. If you hate the title or cover of your traditionally published book, good luck getting it changed.

    That’s all. My goal is not to debate but to counter what I perceive as a wariness and caution of the digital publication process and the current players. I went through that cycle of doubt awhile back and can no longer the exact moment I decided to go digital. Actually I do.

    A member of my writer’s group came back from a conference and reported to us that editor and agents were communicating to new authors that fantasy manuscripts over 125K words were no longer being considered. I confirmed this with an email to the editor of Pyr books. I was at 90K words and only halfway through an epic fantasy novel meant for a trilogy. The estimated total would be 180K plus. I spent ten months on this manuscript and now the market wouldn’t accept it, regardless of the quality.

    So I put the story on hold, and went back to the drawing board, drafted a prequel that would be a shorter, more compact introduction to the trilogy (in the same was The Hobbit is a shorter, more linear, simpler story that introduces Middle Earth and key players).

    To my shock and surprise, after using the Snowflake Method as advised by Randy Ingermanson, my scene list and outline estimated my supposedly shorter prequel to be 175K words to tell the story right.

    It was then back in February of this year, I think ,that I decided the books could be as long as I wanted if I published digitally. So, having made the decision, I started researching how to do that successfully.

    That’s my point of view and why I made my earlier points. I am not really trying to negate your points, but am mostly intending to present the concerns and fears some aspiring writers have about the traditional publishing model and the great opportunity I see for creating my own publishing company and distributing my works via available channels, Amazon, B&N PubIt, Smashwords, Overdrive, and possibly LightningSource for printed copies of my books.

    I like the future, as uncertain as it may be. I will have more wisdom and insight once I’ve actually gone through the process, but for now, I’m willing to try. I feel the risk is worth the attempt right now. That may change if the whole thing shakes up again, but for now, this new model seems to be an open window.

    • October 3, 2011 12:35 pm

      I have to say that I agree with pretty much everything you just said: although my reaction against Amazon isn’t really so much an emotional one but one based on principled ethical concerns. If it were truly emotional (we humans being an emotional species) it’s likely I’d actually stop shopping at Amazon and would foreclose any future opportunity of doing business with them – but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I like to t hink that I sit in the middle between the “Traditional Publishing Now, Traditional Publishing Tomorrow, Traditional Publishing Forever” crowd and the “Down with the Traditional Publishing Overlords! Vive la Revolution!” crowd. There really are pros and cons to both, and things are changing so rapidly now that it’s hard to guess exactly where things will end up. Anyway, the points you cite here are exactly some of the reasons that I haven’t discounted the possibility of going the self-publish route in the future.

      As for the word-count limit on epic fantasies at traditional publishers, first, I think this applies only to new authors, not to those with an existing track record of success (based on releases within the last year that clearly violate the 125K rule several-fold), and second, I’ve blogged quite extensively about this issue recently (well… it was only one blog post – but it was a blog post of epic size). You can read my conclusions there, or you may have already read it before, but the short form is this: at some indeterminate point in the not-so-distant future, partly as a consequent of the rise of ebooks, traditional publishers are going to begin relaxing this length constraint. Of course, it’s possible I’m wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time a large corporation ignored obvious market signals (see also: Recording Industry, Napster, et al) to their long-term detriment. It’s also possible that I missed some important but overriding factor in my analysis. But barring the latter and assuming the publishers are under the direction of logical actors interested in the long-term viability of their businesses, those standards are going to fall away, because the evidence says they’re not good for business.

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