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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Self-publishing, digital books and a cautionary tale

Anthony Horowitz was on today's Guardian blog asking, "Do we still need publishers?" If you happen to follow any of the blogs that are proliferating like tribbles in the bow wave of the self-publishing explosion, you probably felt your heart sink a little at that news. But, unlike the vast majority of those, Horowitz's piece is actually worth reading.

Partly that may be because he's a proper writer, with multiple successes to his credit including Alex Rider, the Power of Five, Foyle's War and - if your memory goes back that far - even a few episodes of Robin of Sherwood. (Actually, forget those - he was just starting out, and had the impossible task of measuring up to the legendary Richard Carpenter. But the other stuff more than makes up for it.)

And, instead of just asserting a position and backing it up with hectoring bloggadocio, Horowitz considers the various possible futures of publishing and leaves us with some interesting questions. Thus, where many self-pub bloggers come across like doorstepping Jehovah's Witnesses, he's bringing the persona of an intelligent dinner party guest. Anyway, I urge you to pop over to the Guardian website and read the piece for yourself. Regular FL readers may be particularly interested in what he has to say about digital books:
"I'd love to write a murder mystery where you could actually tap on a bit of dialogue you mistrusted and discover that the character was telling a lie. Where the reader actually had to become a detective and where the last chapter, the reveal, had to be earned. Or how about a book with different points of view, where you could choose which of the characters became the narrator?"
The second of those ideas certainly did well for Ellery Queen eighty years ago, incidentally, so why not now?

I have my own story about self-publishing. I ran into a well-known author who wrote a very successful novel. It came out almost twenty years ago, but even so I'll bet you've heard of it. He saw me with an iPad and asked, "Do you think these ebooks and things will catch on?" It turned out that he still owned the digital rights in his novel, as those hadn't entered the picture back in the early '90s. The publishers wanted to do a Kindle edition and were offering him 25% of net receipts.

"Email me the book," I said. "I'll turn it into a Kindle file this week and you can have 99% of net."

"Isn't that like vanity publishing?" he worried. It isn't, in fact. Vanity publishing is where somebody runs off a limited print run and makes money by selling the books at a high price to you and your friends. But his point was that self-publishing still carries a stigma - and, of course, there'd be no publicity.

He should have done it. The book is already famous, and everyone knows he's a proper writer. But instead he went and signed with his print publishers, who must have been aching from the strain of holding back their Cheshire Cat grins as they walked him to the door. Ah, so foolish - but so many authors are still a bit befuddled by the digital age. Annoying, too. That one percent would have paid for me and Jamie to write a dozen books!


  1. I think the stigma of self-publishing will disappear with most of the printed word. Instead of publishers we may see large editing companies appear, as good proof-readers and editors are worth their weight in gold.

    I like potato chips, but I shouldn't eat them. Lately the price of potato chips has sky-rocketed and it is easy to say no to them. I love printed books, but I can buy 3,4 or even more ebooks for the same price, and not have to find a place to store them, just on the growing library of my kindle. I think there will always be potato chips and printed books, but I think there will be more pretzels, and perhaps carrot sticks, and many, many more ebooks consumed in the future than potato chips or printed books.

  2. It's interesting to read these views on self-publishing. It's a good question.

    For myself, I'm a little leery of self-publishing, even as a starting author. Perhaps especially as a starting author. Obviously, doing it yourself sounds appealing. No one to tell you no, you get to keep all the proceeds, etc. But there are two reasons I lean toward going with a publisher, myself (actually, three).

    One is because of the quality-standards barrier. I know there are some good self-published books out there, but I don't know how to distinguish them from the massive number of ones I'm wholly uninterested in. I know a pain point for new authors is how few new manuscripts get accepted, but honestly... there's a reason for that. Maybe it's heartless of me, but I'm not sure that *should* be changed.

    Second is the relationship between author and editor. For every horror story, there's two heartfelt thank-yous from great authors toward the editors who helped them become and stay great. Furthermore, I feel like I can often see the quality of excellent author's work actually decrease as they become famous, and I can only assume this is because they are now no longer beholden to listen to the advice of their editor.

    There's a third reason I want to use a publisher, at least for myself, and that's for the publicity. I know it's prosaic, but I don't want to wrestle with the beast of self-marketing as an unknown author when a publisher has a platform I can get on board with. Not that this excuses me from self-marketing, I just want to make use of every resource I can.

    All that said, I have to admit that it looks like there are cases when self-publishing would actually be an excellent option, like the situation of your author friend. If you have the name and reputation already, and your publisher is offering you a bum deal... yeah. It just makes sense.

    To bad we won't get to see those dozen books ;) Hopefully we'll get at least some of them!

  3. Jason, I think the lower price of (some) ebooks may be a false economy. I can only read so many books in a month, after all. How long do we typically spend reading a novel? A total of 6-8 hours, maybe? My time is sufficiently precious that I'd rather pay an extra $5 to ensure a good book. I'm perfectly willing to spend $15 on a two-hour movie, after all. The big if here, of course, is whether the higher-priced ebooks are always better quality.

    That touches on your first point, Ashton. Readers don't want to go panning for gold, so we hope publishers will do all that and just present us with the gleaming nuggets. And you certainly have a better chance of turning up a book that's worth your time from a publisher's list than from the cheap/free self-pubbed ebooks on Amazon. But a lot of good books do get missed by publishers. I told one aspiring writer that his chance of being picked off the slush pile was 5% if he wrote a great book and 3% if he wrote a mediocre one. There's always the chance that self-pubbing will save the next John Kennedy Toole, but more likely he'll get drowned in the torrent of a million works of trash.

    You both mention the importance of editors. And it's good that some self-published authors are hiring professional editors. Expecting to write a great book without the help of an editor is like taking a shot at Olympic selection without a trainer. But the snag with hiring an editor yourself is that they can only tweak what you give them. They can't turn round and say, "I'm sorry, this book just isn't ready to be published" or even, "This book will never be good enough; chalk it up to experience".

    Your third point, Ashton, is addressed by Anthony Horowitz in his piece there. When you most need publicity is when you're starting out, which is exactly when publishers won't give you any help at all. The only change I've seen is that nowadays they're honest about it. This New Yorker parody is uncomfortably close to the truth;

  4. I largely agree with Ashton, above. It's tricky for starting authors to gain any kind of readership purely through epublishing. About a year ago, I was approaching agents with my novel, 'Netherman'. As always happens, many said a polite but firm no. A few outright ignored me. But a small number said, 'This is really good. It's not quite what we're looking for, but send us whatever you write next.'

    And so I considered the ebook route. And yet Roz Morris commented well on the pitfalls of such a choice on the Nail Your Novel blog recently – I'm paraphrasing enormously here, but the spirit remains true: 'You can't put out an ebook and use that as a vehicle to make a reputation for yourself. That's doing things the wrong way round. You have to blog, guest-blog, make your voice heard – and THEN present your book to people.' And that's just not one of my strengths

    A year on, I've recently finished another, much better, novel, (well, I hope I have – I'm still waiting on feedback from my first test-readers), and I plan on trying to get published the 'old-fashioned' way. If, after a while, it seems I'm needlessly banging my head against a wall... well, we'll see.

    I don't agree that authors need publishers to ensure quality control. An author friend of mine often rows with his publisher because he feels they're underestimating their readership (I've read his books, and the books of the people being published alongside him, and I agree). Yes, a good proofreader is valuable – but can a publisher provide expertise that you couldn't find amongst, say, a trusted group of friends? One of my test-readers is a contractual lawyer by profession and, as might be expected, he is absolutely excellent at zeroing in on the smallest typo, or redundant sentence. Another is a somewhat feminist lecturer in sociology; she'll berate me if she feels that my female characters aren't strong enough. Perhaps a publisher might offer opinion on a book's commercial potential – and, as we've seen with Dirk Lloyd, might impose conditions to make it palatable for a foreign market, say. So yes, there's some validity in a publisher's role here.

    It's true that the ebook offers possibilities barred to traditional print. My own professional background is in translation and foreign language teaching. And I've been thinking a lot lately about how ebooks might be written for learners of English. Yes, for a long time we've had simplified readers, and dual-language books, and even books that have all the even-numbered chapters in one language, and the odd-numbered chapters in another. But I've been thinking about how the flexibility an ebook offers to the reading experience might be adapted for readers of books in foreign languages. At its most simple level, we can envisage translating a difficult word with the tap of a finger (perhaps this exists?). But I'm thinking more about structural changes to a book itself. The Anthony Horowitz / Ellery Queen idea of a detective novel is a good one, here. Access to certain parts of the book requires demonstration that the reader has understood a certain concept, a certain nuance. Why limit ourselves to murder? The reader must determine who the hero's wife is sleeping with (or, to please my lecturer friend, who the heroine's husband is sleeping with).

    Plus, many of the books for learners of a foreign language are just adaptations of classics – Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and so on. I love them, but they're not everybody's cup of tea. How about ebooks that are uniquely for foreign readers, that are relevant today, and that take into consideration expectations of a reader's level of fluency? How about ebooks that stand up to rereading, a big strength of gamebooks, as the reader becomes more comfortable with the vocabulary within?

    But then, this is where any publisher would point out that such a market might be very small.

  5. The whole publishing market, on a sales per book basis, is likely to shrink as self-pubbed works flood the market. People talk about the democratization of publishing, but we may as well say that graffiti democratizes signage. With a million new books a year, it will become time-consuming for readers to find the good ones, especially as high street bookstores disappear, and eventually the mainstream readers will switch to other forms of entertainment. The kind of books that will flourish are the "commodity" writing, read by those whose interest is focussed on a specific genre and who don't so much care about the quality as long as those tastes are fed. If you want a good book, you'll have to turn to the works that were published before the extinction event. I like Dickens, myself, so I'll have no shortage of reading matter!

  6. For my humble two pennies worth, writing books professionally means (occasionally) standing back and seeing your book as a product. If the quality, profitability, or some other return (such as reputation) will be improved by using publishers, then you would be foolish not to. If, on the other hand, you could turn out less polished work and make more money then that would logically be the route to take. For non-fiction, and niche genres this may be the better option.

    Personally, I like to take a bit of pride in what I do and would only offer work that is the best I can make it. If that means using a publisher, I'll use a publisher. If they don't want my book, then I would have to sit down and examine my options, is the cost of an editor and time spent marketing a self-published book going to give a worthwhile return?

    I don't think this ground change is anywhere near finished or that what we know of as the publishing industry will even be recognisable in ten years. I do agree with Mr Horrowitz, that publishers still offer essential services to the novelist: editing, marketing and some form of filtering. However, there is now room for smaller and more dynamic publishers to jump in and work with some of the more interesting writers that traditional publishing with their 'best-seller only' ideals have neglected.

  7. I agree, Simon, that there could be an opportunity here for smaller, more nimble publishers to step in - and, by being more cheaply funded, they needn't be so hit-driven. Though how they will make any money when the market is completely saturated with super-cheap (or free) self-pubbed fare remains to be seen.

  8. Incidentally there's a very good companion piece (though not designed as such) to Horowitz's article in the form of this analysis by Frédéric Filloux:

  9. Are you excited about this?

    Publishing funded by the readers themselves. And at 1,200,000$ I'd call it a success :)

  10. They've sure got a lot of enthusiastic readers!

  11. Two thumbs up for this worthwhile blog! Your views on self-publishing and digital books are great.