Writing for publication has always been tricky–not to mention challenging, exhausting, unpredictable, and demoralizing. Continue reading Two Roads Diverged in the Interwebs: Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub
Lately I’ve been looking, for the sake of my sanity, for some principles of writerly success that I can really depend on. These are a tad elusive when the publishing world is being shaken up by the complete redefinition of self-publishing and the whole eBook thing. I don’t know about you, but I look at all this and say “Hey, how am I going to make a living as a writer in this mess–or even just find a readership–when we don’t even know what the publishing world will consist of in five years?”
Uncertainty is a terrible motivator. Continue reading Three Pillars of Writing Success for Any Publishing Environment
Via Chairman Bruce, here’s a very interesting post-and-comment-thread combo at Self-Publishing Review. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the aforementioned comment thread, which contains (gasp!) spirited disagreement conducted with a rare degree of civility, but the big central point is one I’ve danced around a few times before: when the barriers to publication are negligible, will definitions of quality shift considerably by comparison to the old “gatekeepered” model? Or, more simply: when anyone can get their book in front of potential readers, will we find that “good writing” doesn’t actually matter to a lot of the audience? Because that’s what appears to be happening on the wild frontiers of the ebook boondocks right now…
From the original post itself:
At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers. Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.
If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.
The (currently) final comment makes an important counter-argument, though:
This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.
Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.
As mentioned before (by me, and by many far smarter folk from whom I’ve wholesale stolen the riff), gatekeeping is all over; curation is the new game, but the rules have yet to be written. The argument above, though, pretty much crystallises the root source of panic in the big publishing houses: all they’ve ever had to show their superiority to vanity presses and one-man-bands was their insistence on selecting for “quality” – though it should go without saying that “quality” is defined differently from one boardroom or editorial office to another. But all of a sudden, there are hints that “quality” may not matter to the biggest slice of the market pie… and when your entire philosophy of business is anchored solidly to that notion by a chain of centuries-old tradition, well, you’re going to struggle to swim with the tide.
Personally, I think it’s too early to say definitively that “quality writing” is a dead scene; the market is too new, too chaotic, and the metrics currently used to assess the market’s assessment of “quality” are utterly subjective – I really don’t place any faith in Amazon reader reviews whatsoever, for instance; an effective crowdsourced curatorial system will be much harder to game, and perforce deal with a much smaller slice of the total market (niche verticals, long tails, blah blah blah). But of course, Chairman Bruce has a long-game grenade to throw into the punchbowl:
The unseen literary player here is machine translation. It’s getting “better” fast, and we may soon be in a world where on-demand machine-translated texts become major literary influences. The real web-semantic breakthrough would be a machine-assisted ability to painlessly read texts outside one’s own language. At that point we’ll have entered an unheard-of state of linguistic globalized electro-pidgin.
It’s not that the slushpile is profitable; it’s that there is no longer an analog dam against which the slush can pile.
If the dam is gone, then the would-be curator must discover a new method for catching fish. Trying to work the whole river would be madness… but finding a little pool or slow-flowing channel to focus on might reward you with fish of consistent species and health.
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.
Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:
This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.
The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?“
That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.
And as P D Smith remarks:
But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.
Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).
Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)
A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?
I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…
… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?