Vee Hav Vays Und Means

So, ebooks throw the publishing field wide, but have some drawbacks.

The first drawback is giving readers a way to weed out the truly awful. Not that readers can’t weed out the truly awful themselves. Of course they can. I weed out bad books by the score any day of the week. I read two pages and put them down. Or download the preview from Amazon, then erase it.

The problem is even getting to the point you know the book exists – the equivalent of browsing your favorite brick-and-mortar bookshelf and finding new books. Amazon “people who bought this also bought” does that, if you make it a regular practice of browsing those – I do – and of downloading the free samples for the kindle. I think – it’s been a few weeks since I bought from them, and the holidays and my anniversary happened in between, so it feels like years – fiction wise allows you to download free samples as well. However the “people also bought” is limited.

What we need in that respect are the equivalent of the books they used to publish, called “what do I read next”. I understand the kindle boards do some of this. That’s a beginning to the solution.

Of course the other part of the solution is for writers to do extensive self-promotion and perhaps there some sort of co-op or banding together (I’m suspicious of co-ops on an instinctive level. They take extraordinary organization to work) to cross promote. I’ve been the recipient of recommendations from my fellow authors – notably Larry Correia, who is an excellent writer, himself (well, my sons think he’s better than I 🙂 ) and Dave Freer, ditto and Ilona Andrews, also ditto – and given the same sort of help when I can. Something like that on a greater scale can help.

Also perhaps websites that hold an “eternal sf convention” where panels are posted on you tube? Or mystery convention, for that matter? Surely there are some of you fans out there who aren’t devoting every minute of your lives to promoting authors! My question to you is “why not?” and my advice is “get to it!”

The problem of gatekeepers and what I’ll call for lack of a better word “recommenders” is more of a problem.

You see, publishing houses have fulfilled two very important roles traditionally. Recently they’ve fulfilled one middling well and the other in general (with exceptions that vary depending on the field) very badly.

The one they’ve done very well is the one of weeding out the sheer unreadable stuff. If you think they haven’t done such a good job at that, you haven’t looked at what they’re culling from. If they err there – and of course, they’re human and they do – it is in using their power to “improve” the readers, which biases them in favor of the less-readable-but-more-moral (for their definition of moral, of course.) Which results in very few Yas with male protagonists, say (because boys SHOULD read about women. Never mind that they don’t as a rule.) It also results in passing up “readable and entertaining but fluff” because they’re looking for the worthy. But in general, if it’s between the covers of a major house, it’s not raw slush. (Oh, there’s one or two, but not usually.)

The function at which most houses today fail spectacularly is that of creating a ‘brand’ and ‘feel’ for their output. In fact, in science fiction, I can think of only one house with a distinctive output – Baen. And that was because Jim Baen molded it to his personal tastes. It’s something that large corporations have trouble doing – no reflection on individual editors.

I don’t need to explain to anyone why the gatekeeper function is important. Well, maybe I do to some of you but that is ONLY because you’ve never read slush. TRUST me on this, ninety percent of it makes your eyeballs boil in their sockets.

Yes, there are side-evils to gatekeepers, particularly if they’re all concentrated in one geographical location and all attend the same parties, etc. Particularly if the job doesn’t pay much. The problem is that greed is one of the cleanest motives human beings can have. Greed and attempting to get sex. Yes, I know that’s heresy, but it’s true nonetheless. If you deny the search for those, you become embroiled in things like power games and prestige which twist the human mind much more than the craving for material goods or satisfaction can.

So we need widely distributed gatekeepers, from various geographical locations and points of view – as varied as the readers would be great, thanks – who have some claim to knowing what they’re doing (there can be many claims) and who can make a living from this. Ideally, these gate keepers would have some means of self-promotion and of promoting their authors – and also of introducing authors to each other and allowing them to form impromptu alliances, which is very needed because writers are often solitary people.

For my money, the most apt institutions to step into this role would be literary agencies. Over the last few years they’ve done pretty much all of the manuscript selection, anyway. More and more they’re scattered all over the country and if they’re not catering JUST specifically to NYC there will be even more of them. And the best and largest ones already have in house publicists. IF I were head of a literary agency right now, or even a successful literary agent in an agency, I’d be looking very hard at transitioning to e-publisher. Perhaps dip my toe in with a few books/stories that I think are wonderful but which won’t fit the very tight market currently.

Publishers could do it too, of course – and here is a great opportunity for medium to small publishers to grow very large, just now. Here I must mention that Baen Books were pioneers in e-publishing and would be the logical house to transition to a bigger part of its inventory online. (OTOH I’m not the publisher, I don’t know all the details, and, no, Toni, I’m not telling you how to run your business! This is just my view from the outside.)

Then there is the function of “recommenders” – less is needed for this, because one presumes someone else has selected the book, had it cleaned up and published (even if self-published.) This would just be a person who recommends certain sorts of books according to his or her taste and creates a “brand” which makes it easier for people to find books they’re likely to enjoy.

This doesn’t require an institution or a reading staff. It requires a fairly devoted and fast reader, with strong opinions and tastes.

Honestly, given time and money and starting right now, there is an opportunity for common citizens, and even mildly-successful writers to do this right now, either by establishing a small publisher or by simply starting some sort of “imprimatur” business, where they give books they approve of a way to put “selected by xyz” button or label on their ebooks. Probably would have to do it for free initially, but a judiciously managed “brand” could be a valuable commodity in two or three years. People probably would pay to get evaluated to maybe get it, since it would add to their ability to sell. Kind of like the “good reading seal of approval”. There would have to be several caveats, of course, like having a set and equal fee for everyone wishing to be read and considered, and I’m assuming a smart evaluator wouldn’t JUST be bribed, which would dilute the brand.

(So, Sarah, why don’t you do it? – you ask. It’s a valid question. Mostly because I don’t have time. I’m too busy writing my own books. Which is why I’m only a silent partner in a micro publisher – because I don’t have time or emotional space to deal with the nitty gritty of day to day work. Also because it’s a long-term, work-towards-the-future job, and I already have one of those.)

This would, needless to say, be easier for someone who already has an online presence, or whose judgement people already value. Someone who has a review blog, say. But he or she would have to be willing to read a lot and put in the work day in day out – oh, and convince the authors to first accept the “brand” for free, and then to pay some amount for it – an amount I expect would increase with the fame of the recommender.

And finally – and this distresses me, because though I belong to two group blogs, I really don’t tend to ingratiate myself with groups of my colleagues (I suspect it’s the too opinionated by half feature of my personality) – there are formal or informal alliances of writers. For instance, I – if/when I put out full novels on my own (I simply haven’t had the time to do it) – would be more than glad to give “back of book preview” space to Dave Freer or Larry Correia, or half a dozen other authors I enjoy.

As for the idea that there is no money in publishing – or there won’t be if there’s so much competition… nonsense. The best ten percent will still be the best ten percent. People will still pay to see more of those writers. And then there is the sheer differential (because of production costs) between writers’ income per volume. If I made, say, $2 per book, I would only need ten thousand people to buy each book (given that writing two books a year is easy) to make a passable income. Right now, to make that income, one needs more like fifty thousand readers. Now, making money in the millions of dollars might be harder. However, even that I’m not sure of, and I suspect time will prove wrong.

However, the “scrum” at the bottom might get bigger and noisier. That’s okay. To an extent maybe the field will become more of a meritocracy. We’ll never eliminate the luck-factor completely, but maybe we can reduce it to something less than all powerful.

In other words, I see an open future of more competition and of potentially far greater rewards for a lot more people. Whether it will happen fast enough that I benefit from it is something else again. I am already benefitting as a reader, though, by being given a far more ample choice.

I am open, btw, to other comments and questions about what can be done to facilitate the transition and better match writers and readers. If some of it interests me enough, I might even do a couple more posts on this.

8 thoughts on “Vee Hav Vays Und Means

  1. This can also get organized from the bottom up, as in something like the Science Fiction Book Club. The readers join a club that has monthly, or even a rolling list of ebooks. The club handles the billing and download of books from that month’s list.

    They keep a precent of sales, the books get exposure to a larger audience, the readers get what they want.

    Kindle and Nook book stores could easily organize something like this, splitting by genre and highgrading their list. But then they’d have to have readers with expertice and preferences in those genres. It may well be that reader reviews (apart from the occasional massive self-promoter) and ratings from purchasers will serve the same purposes.

  2. Not sure where this fits into the picture, but one of the news shows here in Japan was talking to someone about the growth of ebook readers — we’ve got a bunch — and he pointed out that one of the major advantages of a reader is the ability to have “multimedia” stories. Then he showed some examples, from text with background music through combinations of picture/video with text (kind of a manga with panels you could click to play — very odd to me). His view was that more and more “readers” would be demanding “enriched” stories. Not sure I’d agree with that, but it’s an interesting point. Maybe we’ll see the lines between children’s illlustrated books, adult “just the text,” graphic novels, movies, and whatnot start to blur?

  3. Pam — a great idea, but I don’t have time (or desire) to organize it. I’d love it if someone or several someone’s did. Perhaps a mil si fi club, a regency club, a cozy club, etc.

    Mike — sigh. This has been around so long. No, I don’t think it will fly. Reading is a different sensory experience from the other stuff. They’ve tried “enriched content” books and people find the other stuff distracting. Of course, Japan might be different. They are a different/very different culture.

  4. It’s the sort of thing that take a business and IT background few authors will have. Not to mention the time, which would be taken away from writing for, as you say, another long-term, work-toward-the-future job.

  5. I think we will<have enriched books, but it will become another genre, or medium, unto itself, existing alongside unenhanced books. I released my book, The Unfinished Song: Initiate as an ebook, and as trade paperback (POD), but I plan to also bring out an enhanced ebook and an illustrated larger paperback. Honestly, though, I don’t expect those will the majority of my sales, although it will be interesting to see. The field has changed so much so fast. I never thought I’d self-publish either, because that used to be a sure sign of crap, but given the success of indie writers like Wanda Shapiro and Amanda Hocking, I think that has changed.

    Unfortunately, it does mean I have a greater battle than when I published my previous two books traditionally to show that my book is not crap. Right now the main way I do this is through offering the reader lots of opportunity to sample my work. On my blog 500 Words, I excerpt my own (and other writers’) work. And I keep the price low, so readers will take a chance.

    Nonetheless, I think you have a good point about agents being positioned to become a different kind of gatekeeper. Many agents have established their own “brand” already through their blogs. The question is whether there is a happy medium between a writer surrendering a high percentage of royalties to publishers and purely indie publishing.

    Perhaps if a publisher/marketer/agent took 5-15% royalties purely for “vetting” and publicity for the book, but left the copyright in the author’s name, it would be a workable model.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

    1. Oh, yeah, it is no longer a sign of crap — but it is difficult to differentiate. And I agree with you on 5-15% for agent/marketer. For publisher it’s something else. Even on line, the publisher HAS to promote AND be compensated for his work. The nepharious cabal behind Naked Reader Press agreed to 50% split on gross intake. Now, mind you, I wanted 75/25 Author/publisher, but heads better equipped than mine to make this calculation decided that would be insufficient for the publisher to cover a)someone to do reading and editing and copy-editing b) covers and c) our main function — publicity and general day-to-day pushing. I believe that they’re right, at least for now. Now, once the venture has some wind in its sales, we might be able to do the split I originally wanted.

  6. Agreed. I tend to think that we are textual, visual, maybe audio oriented — and really don’t easily mix those. From the author/director/artist to the reader/viewer/listener, trying to mix them just results in messes. I know I tend to be text oriented, and adding in bits and pieces (music, video, even illustrations) doesn’t really work very well for me. But if the next gen really goes for mixed mode, I suppose we’ll work out ways for people to produce them. Kind of requires a team approach, though. Interesting that people somehow think these magical mixes will be more attractive.

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