Start the e-revolution without me!

Last week the New York Times looked at the deal that the popular self-published author Amanda Hocking signed to have some of her books produced the old-fashioned way. It’s a good piece, but perhaps even more interesting is the blog post by Amanda Hocking herself, explaining why she signed the deal given that she is making so much money out of selling her books herself. The bottom line is that she is paying the publisher to do the things that take her an enormous amount of time (marketing, editing, cover art, formatting, etc) so that she can do what she wants to do most, which is writing. It’s a maturely argued post and well worth a read. Many of her previous blog entries attest to the amount of time and effort Ms Hocking has spent on being her own publisher, on functions that she has now (in large part) outsourced. (Mysterious Matters has recently posted on the value of “traditional” publishing, a lot more than 99 cents per book.)
On the same theme, but a different author and approach, Lee Harris of Angry Robot books describes on Future ebook blog how he came to publish a novel by Adam Christopher, essentially via a Twitter relationship. Again, it’s a great post and well worth reading as an example of how an author can constructively use social media to become published. Even though the “Twitter” headlines are appealing, note that this deal did not come about overnight! Rather, it seems, the author acted in effect as his own agent, and the rest of the story is quite traditional.
Not the end.
Neither of these two examples signals the “end” of book publishing. Both these authors have struck deals because they are writing good books, and have convinced a publisher of that fact. Very many people are publishing their books themselves, over the past few years as print on demand or e-books on sites such as Lulu, and more recently via Smashwords in a range of e-formats for platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle, allowing them access to a potentially huge ready-made universe of people searching for books to read. If you enjoy reading science fiction, “erotica”, horror, about the paranormal, fantasy, or non-fiction along the lines of self-help or business success, your range of choice has never been better!
For any discerning reader who has a necessarily limited number of hours a week in which to read, the idea that “more is better” is simply not true. Book publishers provide a filter for what they see as the “best” books. I choose what to read based on a mixture of factors, such as having liked an author’s previous novel, coming across an interesting debut via one of the book websites I regularly visit, trusting a publisher’s output, reading reviews, and so on. I would be very unlikely to read a book because it is on the “top 100” list of books available in Kindle format for 70 pence (or 99 cents), however many people have awarded a particular example 5 stars. Of course, in today’s economic climate there are many good authors who are unfairly not published, particularly if their first couple of books have sold modestly, and this is a pity. But it also has to be said that from the readers’ perspective, there are more than enough books being published to last anyone several lifetimes.
Peaceful coexistence.
For authors, I do not think it is right to suggest there is a war between “indie” (self-published) authors and those who have been published by an “external” publisher. This post at Kindle review sets out the terms of the publishing revolution as it sees it – that there is an unfair monarchy of publishers which is ripe for the French revolution to hack it down. I disagree. I am pleased that anyone who has written a book can now not only publish it him or herself but also promote it via hugely powerful sites such as Amazon. I am pleased also that some of them can make good money at it (though many others will be lucky to sell half a dozen copies). But I would not be pleased if I had no way of telling (other than by enthusiasts’ 5 star reviews) who, other than the author, had judged that the book is objectively interesting, or whether I’d be reading something that has been professionally edited. The publishing industry is not perfect; publishers annoy me intensely by practices for e-books that hamper the reader, such as agency pricing and nonsensical geographical rights restrictions. But publishers offer us readers a great service, producing engrossing books at a price that is usually very reasonable (compare the cost of a book with that of a cinema, theatre or concert ticket).

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10 thoughts on “Start the e-revolution without me!

  1. Maxine – Thank you for this thoughtful post! One of the major challenges of today’s climate of E-publishing and self-publishing is that it is, indeed, difficult for a reader to know whether a book is, as you say, objectively well-written or not. And although E-publishing means that books do not have to be expensive, you’re right that most readers don’t have a lot of time to spend on books that aren’t well-written. So it does make sense for an editor or publisher to do the “vetting” – or at least some of it. Being accepted by a reputable publisher also means that an author has access to much better publicity than most authors can pay for on their own. Hocking’s got a point, too, that promoting one’s work takes a lot of time, and when publishers do that promotion, this can benefit the author, too.

    That said, though, I agree with you that there is a place for indie and E-publishing. It is a way for authors to get noticed. It’s a way for readers to experience new authors and new genres and books they might not otherwise have tried. I see no reason why more traditional publishing can’t co-exist with the newer approaches to getting books out there. For an author, it means a lot of decisions to make and a proactive approach to getting one’s work out there. But that’s always been the case, I think. Writing and promoting a good book isn’t supposed to be easy…

  2. I agree, Margot. One point I didn’t make in my post is that (traditional) publishers typically only really market/push a book when it is new. They are not so good at promoting the backlist. Authors do a tremendous amount of marketing of their books using social media, at signings, talks and so on, even when they are published “conventionally”.

  3. Well-said, Maxine! You make a very important distinction there between the way publishers promote new releases more than they do the back-catalogue, even of highly bankable authors.

  4. I like your reminder at the end about the comparative cost of things – you are right the cost of the theatre tickets I bought last weekend was 3x greater than the most expensive book I have bought recently

  5. A small caveat from the point of view of a bestselling translator: I have Google alerts set for all my authors, and the number of times I’m notified about torrent download and other pirate sites offering all our books for free is appalling. When this happens, none of the people involved in creating the book get paid. Admittedly this is not much of a danger for indie self-publishers, but do see the cautionary article in the latest issue of The Author about how easy it is to pirate a book – and how prevalent it will become in the near future.

  6. You are right about the dreadful amount of online piracy, Steven. My comment in the post about agency pricing and geo rights restrictions was about this – these kinds of artificial constraints to the reader simply encourage more piracy and hence a loss to the publisher. Publishers need to be more aware of this, and more flexible in their e-book policies. Incidentally, in a “brave new world” of only “indie” authors, I suppose very few if any books would be translated at all ;-( .

  7. At his eBook related blog last week Joel Blacklock posted about the role of publishers in the new world and how they’re not really winning the hearts and minds of us readers – it prompted some interesting discussion (including a few rants from yours truly) – he would like to know that someone as discerning as your good self thinks at least a little kindly of publishers
    http://content.booku.com/blog/are-publishers-losing-the-hearts-and-minds-of-readers/2011/03

    I don’t actually despise publishers as much as it probably sounds like I do from my various rants, though I do think here in Oz we have been treated poorly by them for many years and now I find it hard to generate a lot of sympathy if they are struggling. I do agree that some of the services they provide – sourcing, editing, translating etc – are much needed in this new world of ‘everyone’s written a book and thrown it up on the net’. I’m less convinced their skills at marketing and selling are what is needed as they concentrate on the few and the new. I do not recall ever finding a great new author recommendation via anything a publisher has done to market the book (don’t get me started on those stupid book blurbs and pull quotes and “this is the next Stieg Larsson” rubbsih)

    On piracy I just think we’re heading into madness. Most people want to do what is easiest for them. If that is piracy so be it. In my case there are many eBooks unavailable to me in Oz, so my choice is to not have it or pirate it. If someone would sell me the damned things I’d be thrilled to bits and happy to pay. As it happens I have not yet pirated a book but I fully expect there will come a day when there is a book I want to read available only in eBook and it isn’t published here. I will have no qualms about pirating in such circumstances and if authors (or translators or editors) want me to do something different then they’d better start campaigning for the removal of geo-restrictions on their products.

  8. Thanks for the comment, Bernadette! I think it is worth distinguishing between what I see as an essentially good service from publishers- the editorial side in selecting, editing and publishing books – and what is less successful (and rant-inducing!), the business models (different set of people who don’t really have the reader mindset) who indulge in all these annoying barriers to access and who price books in Australia so high.

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  10. Yes, I agree. I think of publishers as a filter. I am sure there are some excellent books that are self-published (and also many book that are published that I would wonder why they have been – I know that some people probably think that about mine) but on balance I appreciate having a little pre-selection.

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