All this talk about ebooks and the new tension (or is it an axis?) between traditional publishing and self-publishing (or, as I’m seeing suggested elsewhere, “legacy publishing” and “indie publishing”)… it’s hard to know what’s going on from a seat in the bleachers, with pundits and firebrands drawing conclusions from the roughly aggregated actions of hundreds of writers. So let’s step into the trenches for a moment and talk with someone who’s actually doing it; when there’s no universal narrative to be found, individual accounts become all the more important.
Long-term readers may remember Doctor Ian Hocking as a member of the now defunct Friday Flash Fiction crew, regularly linked to from these pages. Doctor Hocking, tell the nice people of the internet about yourself and what you’re up to.
IH: Hello, people of the internet. My name is Ian. It’s a long story – why I’m going down the self-publishing route, that is. A few years back – in 2005 – I published my first book, Déjà Vu, with the UKA Press. There were a few obstacles in my path (some laid by my publisher, many by me, some by the way that publishing works) but it was, by any objective measure, a success. I had great reviews in the Guardian, blurbs from Ken MacLeod and Ian Watson, and the odd bit of fan mail. (For completeness, I should say that I was treated to an absolute stinker of a review in Interzone – this guy seemed perplexed to the point of rage, like someone who ordered ice cream and got fruit salad.)
Anyway, while I started to finish the sequels, I garnered some interest from a traditional publisher, picked up an agent, and then, when the publisher pulled out, my agent began hustling. That hustling has been happening for five years or so. Last summer, I decided to retire from writing to concentrate on my career as a psychologist. There are more details in this blog post.
My plan is to finish editing the novels on my own and put them out as ebooks. I have two more in the Saskia Brandt series (the first of which is Déjà Vu; second Flashback; third The Amber Rooms) and comedy novel set in Cornwall called Proper Job.
After a disappointing result with regular publishing, and a recent decision to quit writing, what’s changed your mind all of a sudden? Would a certain newsworthy person who shares your surname have anything to do with it?
IH: I’ve quit writing and I’ll stay quit until something in my soul re-aligns itself, and I don’t see that happening for a very long time. The decision wasn’t made quickly. In short, nobody in the publishing industry (with the exception of my agent, John Jarrold) valued my work, so I stopped writing because nobody was ever going to read it. Déjà Vu is now out on the Kindle (and iBooks, with a bit of luck) and its sequels will follow. The sequels are not new books. They’re books I’ve written while waiting for Déjà Vu to take off from its particular runway – or, to quote Stephen King, to either shit or get off the pot. So I’m not writing. I’m editing.
The newsworthy person who shares my surname does indeed have something to do with it. When I first published Déjà Vu, it was so difficult to get hold of that it was barely published at all. This wasn’t a disaster; I still got a good review The Guardian, blurbs from writers I admire like Ken MacLeod, and these things matter.
About Amanda Hocking. Her success represents a watershed moment. To recap: Hocking has made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling her books as digital downloads, predominantly through Amazon (for the Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (for the Nook). Now, her success is not something that should make a sane person spit out their tobacco, shout ‘Gold!’ and run for their spade – but it does suggest that there is a market.
Various statistics have been bandied about showing that while growth in physical book sales is slowing, growth in ebooks is accelerating. As a person who owns a Kindle, it’s easy to see why. The buying is immediate, cheap, and frictionless; the device weighs less than my watch (so I have a heavy watch).
At the same time, I was emailing with fellow authors Michael Fuchs and Stephen J Sweeney about their experiences of ebooks. I decided to put Déjà Vu out for the Kindle. My intention was, and is, to ‘park’ the book. Get it out there and off the pot so I that can concentrate on the sequels.
In the first week Déjà Vu sold about ten copies. It’s now the second week (March 24, 2011) and it’s sold 120. As I write, it’s at number eight in Amazon’s science fiction best-seller chart. If it stops selling tomorrow, the experience has already been more than worth it.
Déjà Vu was dead; now it isn’t.
There seems to be a mad rush to re-brand self-publishing: my Twitter stream is full of talk of “legacy” vs. “indie publishing” (which, if nothing else, seems to have negated the existence of a thriving small press scene, but hey…). Are you self-publishing, or would you call it something else? Given Déjà Vu was published “traditionally”, you’ve got a good get-out if you need (or want) it, but the sequels – how would you respond to accusations of them being little more than a low-budget vanity project?
IH: Yes, the legacy vs. indie dichotomy is a strange one, etymologically at least. I’d call my original publisher (the UKA Press) an indie. It isn’t much fun being an indie in the traditional publishing game, as anyone who has to deal with a bookshop chain will tell you.
Labels – and, if you will, schmables.
I would call this self-publishing. I knocked up the cover myself, typeset the book, and made all the decisions about its appearance. It’s fair to say that I didn’t edit the book myself. (I’m not sure if self-editing is possible – insert warnings about blindness here.) One of the gifts of being traditionally published is that an editor was assigned to my book – the redoubtable Aliya Whiteley – and treated it like a hot-shot editor parachuting in to sort out a 10-hour rough cut of footage into 90-minute movie that would get bums on seats. And, boy, did my novel need it. There are few that don’t, I’ll wager, and they are easy to spot.
Are the sequels a low-budget vanity project? Ultimately, I suppose so. I’m the publisher (or Amazon is; depends how you look at it); I’ve made the decision to publish the books; and I’ll make all decisions about the layout. I do have one trick up my sleeve: Flashback and The Amber Rooms will be professionally edited. The proceeds from Déjà Vu should soon cover that cost, which is a nice bit of bootstrapping.
Vanity is an interesting concept. If it means that the books don’t deserve publication and the narcissism of the author warps his or her judgement, then let’s call it that: a book that doesn’t deserved to be published. Not a good thing, we’d probably agree. But if means that other people don’t the book is worth publishing despite the confidence of author…then we’re including a lot of books. Let’s call something a vanity project in retrospect and be optimistic in prospect.
This series of books is not a vanity project. They will either sell few copies or many copies. I’m defining ‘many’ as a very small number, because I only want that number to be non-zero. Zero is the number of readers the books currently have.
A refreshing lack of illusions! Zooming out from your own personal intentions, where do you stand on the afore-mentioned semantic schism between “legacy” and “indie” publishing?
IH: Well, the words don’t really make sense, but the ideas of a ‘pre’ and ‘post’ publishing distinction might have some worth. It’s certainly the case that something like The Guardian Review – which was part of my reading ritual every weekend – seems to be drifting away into something less relevant. There is, I think, a real distinction between the publishing model that involves giving an author a loan (i.e. the advance), front-loading all the publicity, kow-towing to the somewhat cheeky constraints of booksellers like Waterstone’s, and crossing fingers that an author can break out in something like J. K. Rowling warp speed, allowing all concern to laugh on the way to the bank, and a model that is more gradual, sensible and gives an author time to apprentice himself or herself. The former sounds like a caricature but it’s not too far from the truth. Traditional publishers need to make a lot of money. They are slow to adapt. They cling to older models because these offer certainty, and certainty is what keeps a business going. But it isn’t something that allows for growth.
Those ‘post’ publishing outfits – what you might term indie – are closer to the ideal of what a publisher should be for most people. How many cookbooks and celebrity memoirs come out of indies? ‘Philip Schofield Presents His Top Ten Tea-Time Treats’ – screw that. They are smaller, hungrier and more ready to adapt to new technologies.
One of the strangest things to observe over the past few years is that publishers haven’t really got behind ebooks. They are doing so now, and this is in large part due to Amazon, who have created a huge market for them by exploiting their position. It’s almost as if the traditional publishing industry is trying to emulate the death of record labels. It isn’t the 1970s any more. We don’t need the middle men to take the major slice of a retail unit. The distribution is free and it’s the Internet. Traditional publishers can still play a role – in editing and packaging – but they needn’t arse around with print runs (i.e. educated guesses of demand) and returns (the measure of much you got the demand wrong).
Would you care to re-don your science-fictional cap for a moment and speculate about the next five years of publishing? (Not to hold you to as a prediction, but just to get your opinion on self-publishing as viable strategy in the long term.) Is the new landscape starting to emerge yet, or are we only at the beginning of the Great Flux?
IH: That’s a good question. I’m sure there are many people in the industry better placed than me who are paid a great deal of money to think ahead like this…but I think the Kindle has changed the game. Remember that it isn’t *this* Kindle – the one on my desk, which I’m tapping. It’s the Kindle brand and the Kindle attitude. The device is only going to get sharper text, a better contrast ratio, and probably cheaper. We’re seeing something approaching that hateful phrase ‘iPod moment’. Technology presents the consumer with a possibility, and the consumer demands more ebooks.
This isn’t a younger/older generation split either, I think. When people like my grandmother see an ebook reader and understand they can get obscure books instantly, can increase their text size, and the rest of it,they tend to get excited. An ebook reader is a better technological to long-form text than dead trees (not in all ways, but most).
Five years’ time: Much the same as now, but with no growth in physical book sales, greater growth in ebooks, lower priced ebooks, more writers, and fewer mega-star writers.
There you have it, folks. I think it’s fair to say Ian’s a fairly unique case at present, but given the way things are moving, that may not be the case for very long. You can buy a copy of Déjà Vu for your Kindle for just £0.70 in British money… and whatever your position in the “how much should a fuggin’ ebook cost, anyway?!” debate, I think you’d find it hard to disagree that’s a price with very little risk attached to it from the reader’s point of view. 🙂
Are you a self-publishing genre author — whether completely independent, currently without a traditional publisher or just re-upping your backlist off your own back? Would you like the chance to take the mic here at Futurismic and talk about why and how you’re doing it? If so, please drop me a line and let me know.