We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here In Ebook City

Okay, so – as a commenter told me yesterday – why do writers still need publishers? What is the point? Why can’t writers self-publish on the web and be done with it?

Let’s dispose of the silly stuff, first. I have had people tell me they could never self-publish because they need “editors” by which they invariably mean copy-editors, btw; or because they need a cover; or even because they need to format it.

These are ridiculous objections because there are free-lance copy-editors. If you can’t afford that, find a friend who will do it for a dinner. If what you need is a REAL editor, you can hire those too. Ask friends or look through the adds in writers’ publications. Ditto for covers. Believe it or not most artists are not that expensive when it comes to using their illustration for a cover. Look over at deviant art or another place where artists post their work, hoping to be noticed. As for formatting, you can usually find instructions on line. (It has occurred to me that if I were unemployed right now and were marginally more tech inclined than I am, I’d start a business formatting books for writers, and arranging them to fit the various publishers/services.)

Now, the real objections – the first one, forgive me, I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon and I’m not. There is a point in any artistic pursuit when you think you are much better than you actually are. It’s in the nature of the beast. You have managed to put something of the picture that’s in your head on paper, in some format. When you look at it, you see what your original idea was.

I’m currently going through this with my drawing/painting. This is why writers groups are so important. A good one, will tell you about the stuff you left in your head. (I’m just not sure I want to take the trouble to get an artists group, since it’s a only something I use to focus the writing and for some publicity. Of course, if I got much better, I could possibly eventually maybe do covers. Um.) But even writers groups can get used to your flaws and blind to them.

I’m not going to say the current publication-process is flawless. I know for a fact that many, many people who are publishable and perhaps even marketable (not the same thing) are simply not getting in. For one, must publishers these days don’t have a reading/slush department and it goes through agents. Which means overworked agents have to find the time to read. I could write several posts on the flaws in that process, alone. Things that slip through, things that the system isn’t designed to do, etc. I won’t. There’s very little point. Suffice it to say it is difficult to get published and while there is an element of meritocracy in it, it’s not absolute.

However, what the element of meritocracy does do is weed out 99.9% of the absolutely unreadable dreck. Even more importantly it weeds out 75% or so of the “nearly there, but not able to keep anyone’s attention but the author’s” which is a subtler distinction. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are the VERY fortunate avoider of slush piles. Anyone who has struggled through a slush pile knows how absolutely horrible the dreck can be and also that a lot of what should be technically perfect keeps “popping the reader out” every two paragraphs. (I’ve learned, if I actually analyze those I find fairly large technical mistakes, like bouncing around between the heads of characters in one paragraph. Or contradicting your scene setting in two sentences, or… But on the grammatical and superficial level these stories look passable. Only, they’re not. They simply wouldn’t hold up.)

Now it is a perverse thing I’ve noted that at that stage of near-publishable most writers are more confident than publishable writers. It could be because people are funny… Or it could be because that too is part of the stage of learning any art or craft. When you’re at near the top, you see fewer flaws than after you study a bit and become even more proficient. Also, some people are naturally hard on themselves, which doesn’t mean they’re bad, and some people are naturally brimful of self confidence, which doesn’t mean they’re good.

I’ve found that amid self-published writers, confidence often outstrips the ability. Not always, mind you, but often enough that even though self-published is no longer a bad word, I like to read a bit of the book before I buy it – even at 1.99 on Amazon. When I disregard this rule, I often get into trouble. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Because self-published is anyone from the raw newby (and I’ve for my sins bought a couple of books that turned out to be just that) who hasn’t read a novel, but by gum hasn’t written one, to the near-readable writer who is often more frustrating, and who has decided he’s “good enough.” Yes, there are also pros bringing out long-lost books. There are people bringing out the one-off book the publisher rejected. And there are first time writers who are flawless.

The problem is distinguishing the gems from the muck. When – to quote Pratchett – gold and muck come out of the same shaft, how do you tell one from the other? Surely you know you’re not going to read EVERYTHING that’s self published.

This is not a problem for bestsellers. I’ll be painted purple if I understand why bestseller authors don’t just go “I’ll publish myself, now.” Unless it is because they want the advance in regular, scheduled payments. Or because a substantial number of their sales are paper. (Yes, you can contract with POD services, but I don’t think those are quite where the price makes them viable for small or one off print runs.)

Even for established mid-listers, the choice is fairly easy. Oh, you’re not going to get as many sales electronic as you would on paper. Yet. But that ratio is changing every month – perhaps every week. And for the occasional extra book or odd novellette, it’s fine. And people know what they’re getting with you.

For a relatively-recent, low-name-recognition mid-lister like myself, things are a little more dicey. If I started JUST publishing myself regularly, I probably could, in time, build an audience. Mind you, it MIGHT take me five to ten years, but I could probably make it. At any rate, it’s worth it enough that I’m starting to dip my toe in that particular ocean.

But what about beginners? How can a beginner writer start off the gate and establish himself? Someone earlier said that perhaps people couldn’t live form writing anymore. I don’t think this is true. Writing, like any craft, will always have a much larger number of hobbyists than professionals, but there will always be money for the exceptionally good. A writer – even I – can only write so much, and if you want him/her to continue writing, you’ll pay. Judging by the near-threatening letters I get (Mostly for the Musketeers Mysteries, but also the Shifter Series) demanding MORE books, I think there are at least some people willing to pay to ensure I continue writing.

The problem as I see it is some sort of imprimatur – some sort of label that distinguishes books that have gone through SOME form of gatekeeping, not nearly like what we have today (couldn’t be anyway, to the extent that it will be a lot harder to control distribution.) Just something that assures the public that someone other than the author has read this book and thought it marketable.

It could range from basically a publisher (I am in fact working with a micro-e-publisher right now, or perhaps I should say involved with it, since it’s in the nature of a cabal of friends) who does the proof reading/editing/cover/coding and at least a modicum of publicizing and who, for its pains takes, say 50% of the profit (which is far more equitable than what we get from established publishers, royalties running around 8%) to simply some form of “certification system” – the literary equivalent of the labels on port wine bottles that say “purveyor of Port to her majesty the Queen since…”

I have some ideas on how this could be accomplished, which I will write about tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here In Ebook City

  1. Thanks for this discussion, Sarah. I just dipped my toe in these particular waters by creating ebook versions of my YA SF novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star, which came out in print in 1999, and the sequel, Andy Nebula: Double Trouble, which was left unpublished when the publisher (Roussan, based in Montreal) went out of business. There’s been an extensive discussion of the pros and cons of self-publishing/micro-publishing/ebook/POD options on the listserver of SF Canada, the Canadian association of professional speculative fiction writers, and I’ve given everyone there a link to your post.

  2. For self-publishing to work well I think it needs two things. One is, as you mentioned, a gatekeeper of some sort. Something that says that while 90% of everything is crap, this isn’t part of that, for at least some sane person’s definition of crap.

    The other thing is some way of letting me know that it exists. I see JA Konrath talking about how this author or that has a top 20 in some Amazon category. Do people really use those? I find them essentially useless. For example, I read a lot of military science fiction. Amazon doesn’t have a category for this. The two closest are probably SF->Adventure and SF->Space Opera. Things like the Honorverse get called Space Opera from time to time, so let’s check there. the first three books listed are, “Enders Game”, “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” and “Brave New World”. What the…? None of those are even close to space opera, and none are remotely similar to each other. I don’t see anything mil-SFish on the first page. So maybe SF->Adventure is better. I go there, and here I see that the top book is by a guy I haven’t heard of, for book one of a series, special-priced at 99 cents, and book 2 is #2 on the list. So this is actually useful, that tells me that a fair number of people who bought book one on the special liked it enough to buy the second one. It’s not really what I’m looking for, but that’s enough for me to tag a sample on the first book. Paging down, judging these books by their covers, they’re at least somewhat closer to what I’m looking for, and a good number of the folks I’ve never heard of. But then there’s “Fahrenheit 451”. Yeah, I remember that one as a rousing SF adventure from when I read it in class in high school.

    Right now, if I want mil-SF that’s good my best bet is to look for something Toni at Baen bought and published. If you take away that role I really don’t know how I’m going to find the folks I like to read.

    1. Skip — but the ONLY house that has that type of recognition is Baen. Other than them, people will look by subgenre and read samples.

      I agree with you — to an extent, but there are alternatives.

  3. I agree with everything that Sarah said. A very insightful analysis. Let me add a couple of quick points. As a development editor, I see two kinds of “nearly there” writers: those who are excellent, but suffer from some fatal flaw; and those who have no real identifiable problem except — their books just aren’t that engaging. The most common fatal flaw is the one Sarah identifies, where the writer has left more of the book in their head than on the page, but there are lots of other bad habits the crop up — having all the character’s using the same speech patterns and using the same expressions, for example. But these are relatively easy to fix: I identify them to the writer, and they go do a rewrite. But the other group, the ones who have no obvious flaws but you can identify, but it somehow just never jells, or you just don’t care about any of it, that is so, so, so much harder to deal with… The real fix is to say, “That’s your first novel and its a fine practice run, now go write five more and there’s a chance it will start to click about novel 7” but this is not something authors care to hear.

    In response to Skip’s comment, readers finding the books we want to read and writers targeting the readers they wish to reach is indeed a key problem in the emergent world of mass self-publishing. But Skip is projecting his buying strategies on to the majority of readers, when it only applies to fans. Most readers do not target a subgenre and search online (though this may be changing.) Most book sales are to people who walk into a drugstore or airprort and think, “hey I need a book” and go grab the first shiny cover they spot. When I ask colleagues who their favorite authors are, 9/10 can’t name an author they follow. I can sometimes get vague categories like “Like a mystery now and then” out of them, but mostly they just buy randomly on impulse. Getting to these readers is almost impossible for self-published because self-published authors can’t get onto drugstore shelves (unless, you know, their aunt owns the drugstore — but one store won’t do it for you.)

    What we need is an Expresso book machine attached to a 42 inch screen that flashes random selection of covers at 15 sec intervals at passerbys, and when they see a cover/blurb that catches their fancy, the slap a button and the book is printed out there and then. But until that tech shows up at your local starbucks, really going to be hard for self-published authors to be found.

    1. It took me ten books to get it “all together” — or maybe I should say eight, since two written years ago have now been published.

      Actually what we need… um… I’ll just write the post, shall I? There are several things that WOULD work.

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