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? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Rewards of Your Efforts

Last time, I ended contemplating a question: that given a large number of aspiring fantasy and science fiction novelists – and I suspect this may be true of writers of other genres as well – relatively few will ever succeed in actually seeing their work in print.  And of those who do not reach this coveted station in life, there will be many who are talented and determined to succeed, but meet time and again with failure in spite of their talent and determination.  What do you make of this disconnect between effort and the rewards?  I’ve thought and read a little about this.

The job of editors and publishers, I believe, is not unlike that of a casting director for a major Hollywood film.  In that role, you’d undoubtedly be exposed to any number of young, talented, and physically gifted  actors-to-be who lack nothing but for a chance to break out big.  Maybe some of them might even be extremely well-suited to filling the role you are casting for.  And yet, with huge Hollywood bucks on the line, time and again you opt for the big-name stars to fill your roles.  Why is this so?  Because a big-name star comes with a guaranteed box-office draw.  People will flock to see a movie more readily knowing their favorite stars are gracing the scene.  And that kind of certainty is often well-worth the extra cash you’ll have to pay the big stars.

So, too, goes it with the editors of large publishing firms.  The fact is, these firms are only going to print so many books in a year – and they want every one of those books they print to sell.  And so, given a choice between buying the rights to, say, Stephen King’s latest novel, or the rights to some new, unproven author’s contemporary horror, a publisher of horror is going to go with Stephen King every time.  Because Stephen King’s name on a book sells those books.

I’ve over-simplified the situation a little, of course.  There are contractual obligations involved with the big-name writers.  There’s lots of back-room wheeling and dealing.  And slots do open up for new authors in a publisher’s lists from time to time.  Even when that does happen, though, there are still other hurdles to overcome.  A publisher also only has so much money to budget for promotional efforts.  Again, the publisher is incented to devote the majority of that to the Stephen Kings and Dan Browns – because those investments will pay off in book sales in a very predictable way.  Investing promotional dollars on a new author, even one the publisher has chosen to publish, is still a risky proposition.  Sure, some editor liked the new writer’s work.  But it remains to be seen what the reading public will think of it.

Which leaves us with a certain catch-22 for new writers: even if you do obtain the dream, and your manuscript is picked up for publication, your dream may be short-lived if you can’t move copies of your book.  But how is your book going to reach a large audience without the promotional dollars to support it?