Late to the Party

I’m hopelessly late to the party about the piece in HuffPo condemning self-publishing. I almost wonder if it was written just to go viral because Gough knew there would be many biting responses (and possibly also many who agree). Well, FWIW, here’s another one.

Let me start by acknowledging that I’m a hybrid author. I use that term to mean that I’m both self-published and published by, well, publishers. (I think some others use “hybrid” to mean other things, and the truth is the terminology in publishing has become muddied overall and can be problematic, but that’s another blog post entirely.) While I’m pleased that some publishers have seen fit to take on my work, I’ve done better with my self-published material. By “better” I mean I’ve sold more. That’s one of the only concrete metrics we have when it comes to writing since it’s so subjective. We fixate on numbers—sales, units printed/sold, how many reviews/stars—because those are tangible. We take them as an indication of “good” or “not good” via a kind of sliding scale. But in reality, “good” isn’t quantifiable. It’s entirely based on personal preference.

Now let’s just look at some of Gough’s claims:

To get a book published in the traditional way, and for people to actually respect it and want to read it — you have to go through the gatekeepers of agents, publishers, editors, national and international reviewers. These gatekeepers are assessing whether or not your work is any good. Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it’s the best system we have.

1. This assumes that readers only respect and want to read traditionally published books. That’s clearly not true since some self-published authors sell plenty of books and make plenty of money. (“Plenty” also being subjective.) Someone is buying self-published books.

2. This also assumes that agents, publishers, editors, and reviewers hold the corner on what is “good” or not. As we’ve already discussed, that’s a highly personal matter. Even agents, publishers, editors, and reviewers don’t agree on what’s good. And what about all the self-published books that get rave reviews? Or are we going to begin arguing about which reviewers “count”? Are we going to say that some readers have “no taste”? That’s not possible. Everyone has taste, just not the same taste. And no one’s taste is more valid than any other’s. This is one time when it really is a matter of opinion.*

3. Another assumption: readers expecting books to be vetted before they buy. Well, yes, if I’m buying a book published by [insert Big 5 Publisher here] I have that expectation. If I’m buying a self-published book I certainly hope it’s been edited and all that, but I admit my expectations are not as high. Maybe they should be, but . . . I’m just being honest here.

4. “It’s the best system we have.” Really? It’s a system that is primarily worried about making money, not about promoting “good” art. So, in truth, something half-assed that will sell still makes it through over something really well written that has a smaller audience. Does that mean the well-written book doesn’t deserve to be published? Because that’s the system that’s being touted here.

The article goes on to talk about how a good writer must put in thousands of hours, years of work in order to hone his or her craft. Okay, with this I agree. You should not immediately go self-publish that book after the first draft. You need to get feedback, possibly hire a freelance editor, etc. But in the context of this article, Gough just sounds bitter that she took the time to “do it right” and others are doing it faster and still seeing some success.

Or perhaps, as she mentions being an editor, she’s sour that some self-published authors don’t use editors or an editing service of some kind. I agree that can be a problem. (I also used to be an editor.) But to condemn all self-published work because some isn’t well edited is a terrible generalization.

In fact, the entire article is a generalization. It makes a sweeping assumption that all self-published work is crap that couldn’t hack it in the “real” publishing world. As if there is such thing as “real” and “fake” publishing.

The only similarity between published and self-published books is they each have words on pages inside a cover. The similarities end there. And every single self-published book I’ve tried to read has shown me exactly why the person had to resort to self-publishing. These people haven’t taken the decade, or in many cases even six months, to learn the very basics of writing, such as ‘show, don’t tell,’ or how to create a scene, or that clichés not only kill writing but bludgeon it with a sledgehammer. Sometimes they don’t even know grammar.

Sure, some of these writers haven’t learned the craft and should probably do a bit more work before pushing that “publish” button on Amazon. But to say every single self-published book tells me she either hasn’t tried to read very many or has chosen the worst ones, probably just to prove her point.

She then quotes Brad Thor as saying, “If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.” Well, that’s nice, but it’s not realistic. As mentioned previously, publishers are looking for something that sells, which isn’t always something “good.” And as the big publishers merge and shrink and smaller publishers fold under financial stress, there are fewer shots at a publishing contract even for “good writers and great books.”

I understand the general frustration of seeing poorly written work for sale online. But let’s look at this in terms of movies. Is an independently produced film—one funded by the writer and/or director using actors trying to make names for themselves—any less of a film than one produced by a major studio? Sometimes they’re bad, yeah. The quality can be lacking. But sometimes they’re wonderful and unique and couldn’t get a break with the majors because the majors all want blockbuster superhero films. And sometimes the majors make really terrible films, too. So it is with books. There are great little self-published books and dreadful ones. There are splashy traditionally published books with big names on them and atrocious ones where you wonder what they were thinking when they made it. And you can argue that you’ve seen more bad indie movies than bad studio films, and maybe that’s true. But you can’t honestly say there are no good indie movies ever. Nor can you say that of self-published books.

*Excepting grammar. Spelling and grammar are not a matter of taste or opinion.

Indie versus Self

There are a couple publishing terms that some people use interchangeably and that can be a tad confusing. “Self-published” is pretty clear. It means you published something yourself without the aid of a publisher of any kind. But what does “indie” mean?

For a lot of people, “indie” is the same as “self.” In other words, they use the term “independently published” to mean they published their book independent of a publisher. Maybe they use “indie” because it sounds less like vanity publishing. Maybe they use it because the film industry uses it, too, to good effect.

But then some people use “indie” to mean “small press.” In the same way some indie films are still produced by small production companies rather than a solo crew going out to make a movie whether anyone will want to see it or not.

An independent press would be one that doesn’t rely on a huge corporate machine. Just like an independent production company would have no studio ties. It goes to distribution, too—an indie publisher may not have wide distribution for its books, nor does an indie production company usually have wide distribution outlets for its films. Which is why you have to go to that one weird cinema to see them. (Or, in the case of the publisher, that one INDIE book store to find their titles.)

I don’t think there’s any right or wrong label here. I’m not going to say, “You’re using it wrong.” I do prefer clarity and specificity when writing or speaking, so I generally will use “self-published” and “indie published” separately rather than lumping them into one ball. But the truth is, we’re all trying to get our words out there. We have a common goal. We’re not stepping on each others’ toes; we’re marching forward together.

So if you’re self-published but prefer to use “indie” for whatever reason . . . I’m not going to tell you not to. I can now call myself a “hybrid” author, which is kind of fun. (That’s the term for people who have been both self-published and then also published by a publisher—of any stripe.) Bottom line, though, is that we’re all writers. Authors. Wordsmiths. Nothing in the world is made better or stronger by dividing it. Let’s not use labels to weaken ourselves. Let’s be one powerful force in the world, a force in which everyone counts, no matter how they distribute their words to the world.

Tri-Valley Writers Conference I: Self-Publishing

I spent all day Saturday at the first ever Tri-Valley Writers Conference. It was small—no agents, just a handful of speakers and ample opportunity to meet and chat with other writers. We got breakfast and lunch out of it, too.

Registration opened at 7:30, and I got there at 7:30, which was earlier than strictly necessary. I had author friends attending as well, but I was the first of us to arrive, something I generally hate. The breakfast was the usual hotel buffet of bagels, muffins, and some fresh fruit. Since I don’t drink coffee and am allergic to orange juice, I was stuck with water. (My caffeine of choice is soda, something I eventually went to buy from the hotel “store,” which was just a cooler and a rack of candy bars.)

Being the first of people I actually knew, it did provide the opportunity to sit and meet people I didn’t know. That’s probably good for me, but really, I find it painful. Still, I did meet a lot of great, interesting people. Most of them were members of the Tri-Valley Writers Club, or some other branch of the California Writers Club. I am not. I’ll consider joining, though it’s not yet clear to me what the benefits would be. I already have a great critique group.

Anyway, after some opening remarks, we broke out into sessions. The offerings were limited; there were, at most, three sessions going at any given time, and sometimes only two. Also, for some reason the first session was 90 minutes long while every other session was only 45 minutes.

For my first session, I opted for a self-publishing “bootcamp.” Smashwords’ Jim Azevedo was the speaker, and he was very personable, but did not really tell me anything I didn’t already know. I’ve self-published a couple things, and it’s looking more and more like Peter might go the same way, but since it’s been a while since I last published something, I wanted to see if anything had changed. The answer is: maybe a little. Nothing major. I mean, we all know that ebooks are gaining market traction, but it was nice for Azevedo to provide the data. In 2014, ebooks accounted for slightly more than one third of books sales (in $). Now, how many of those ebooks were self-published books . . . I don’t know. I’m sure a big chunk of them were the e-versions of Stephen King’s latest whatever and so on. But since self-publishers generally go digital, it’s nice to know readers are embracing ebooks.

Azevedo made the case for using Smashwords as distributor because it streamlines the process: You format and upload your Word document and Smashwords can convert it into various file types for iBooks and kobo and a number of other outlets. Your book can be available in a matter of minutes. Smashwords does not do Amazon books, though, because Amazon requires them to manually upload each book individually, so if you want to have your self-published book on Amazon (and you should; it’s still the biggest retailer), you’re better off doing that one yourself. Azevedo of course warned against going with Amazon’s KDP Select program, which means your book can only be available on Amazon. It’s the biggest, sure, but why put your book in only one store?

Still, Smashwords can’t help you if you want a print version. Azevedo said most of their authors use CreateSpace (Amazon again) for that.

I spent the second session in Azevedo’s continuing self-publishing talk, which was called “New Things to Expect from ebook Publishing.” I was hoping for new information, but what I got was Ten Trends:

1. Bookselling is moving online. We all know this; brick and mortar stores are disappearing as more and more people shop online for their books because online retailers are often cheaper.

2. The rise of ebooks. As mentioned before, more people are reading books on devices. They like the changeable font size, they like the convenience of traveling with many books under one lightweight device, they like the ability to sample before buying.

3. The democratization of publishing (aka the rise of indie authors). More and more authors are self-publishing, which means there’s more out there to choose from.

4. Indie ebook authors are gaining a competitive advantage. They can put books out faster, distribute globally, revise easily, have control of their work, and never go out of print. They have lower expenses for their publishing, so they can sell their books for less, which means more readers are willing to try their books. And they earn more per book sold than traditionally published authors.

5. Meanwhile, traditionally published authors are suffering from higher prices. Consumers have gotten used to paying $2.99 or $3.99 for a book, so they balk when faced with a $24.99 hardcover.

6. Print is dying for most self-published fiction authors. But note the qualifier: fiction. Non-fiction still sells in print, as do souvenir and specialty books.

7. Ebooks are going global. Apple’s iBooks distributes to 51 countries, and almost half of Smashwords’ iBook sales are international sales.

8. Even the big NY publishers are entering the self-publishing market. They’ve realized the trend is not going away. On one hand, it’s nice to have the validation. On the other, these publishers have made some questionable alliances (says Azevedo, though he did not elaborate, so it’s something I’ll have to research), and it really is another way for publishers to take money from the authors.

9. The self-publishing stigma is disappearing. It was once a last resort, but more authors actively choose to self-publish. Authors are now asking, “What can a publisher do for me that I can’t do for myself?” (I’ll admit, it was the question I had to ask when offered a contract from a small publisher for Peter, and the answer was they weren’t offering me anything I couldn’t do on my own.)

10. Indie authors are taking market share from traditional publishers. They are landing on bestseller lists right alongside big publishers’ books.

Azevedo mentioned that Smashwords does an annual survey and has learned that $2.99–$3.99 is the sweet spot for offering full-length fiction to readers. Non-fiction can charge $5.99–$9.99. And readers prefer buying full-length books to short stories or novellas. So Azevedo advises against breaking your novel into a serial.

But keep producing. It takes about five books before authors generally really start to see traction. It takes that many books to find and build a regular readership.

At this point it was lunchtime. I’ll post about the afternoon sessions in another post.

Amazon vs. Publishing

Or maybe it should really be “Amazon vs. Traditional/Legacy Publishing.”

I was reading this article and trying to decide where I stand. As ever, I can see both sides of the argument. Instead of making things easier, that actually makes them more difficult. Is there a right and wrong here? Or is this just a difference of opinion?

Amazon is hardly the first huge corporation to encounter people who dislike its business methods. Wal-Mart has haters. Nike. Any time a company gets big enough and starts wielding some power, it’s going to become a target.

But in Amazon’s case, it’s not the target of the “little guys.” Big names are coming against it, both in terms of big-name publishers and big-name authors. What does it mean that a huge book retailer has made an enemy of one of its sources of income?

And, yes, I realize Amazon is no longer only a bookstore. So it can afford to irritate a few publishers and authors. Not only because it has become an online warehouse, but also because authors are a dime a dozen, and there are a lot more self-publishing authors than those being signed by publishers. The big publishing houses have responded to the self-publishing revolution by shrinking and putting out fewer books, which means Amazon has less to lose by alienating them.

So on the one hand, I can see Sullivan’s point that these authors and publishers coming out against Amazon just smacks a bit of classism. These authors can be imagined—accurately or not—having an interior monologue of, I worked hard to get to the top, and now just anyone can do it. That’s hardly fair. And these authors, rejected by traditional publishers (because they’re not any good), are making more per book than I do? REALLY not fair! Meanwhile, the publishers are cast in the role of being desperate to keep their livelihoods and pertinence. There are fewer actual bookstores these days, after all, and even still, more people will order online to get a book for way less than frequent a book shop where they’ll pay full retail price. Yes, in that respect Amazon really has ruined book selling. We now expect our books to be cheap.

Amazon, like any bookseller, has the right to decide what stock to carry or not carry. How they make that decision, well . . . We may not like it. The way Amazon has handled Hachette, there’s definitely something extortionist about it. So on that hand, I understand the anger. It’s like dealing with a Mob boss; if we let Amazon do it to one, it’ll open the door for them to do it to others. I can’t fault publishers and their authors for wanting to put a stop to it. They do stand to lose a lot if Amazon squashes them.

And maybe that’s more power than any one company should have. That, I think, is the root of the fight, isn’t it? Should one mega online retailer have the ability to bring other companies, possibly an entire industry, to its knees? I, for one, don’t think so.

Of course, Sullivan’s article was more about the coverage of the fight, which goes back to the classism I mentioned earlier: The way the NYT gives more voice to the publishers and the traditional authors than it does to Amazon’s own authors and/or people who sign online petitions. It flat-out says those self-published authors, and the ones Amazon publishes, and the everyday men and women don’t count for as much. Wow. Why don’t you go shelve yourself under Snooty Assholism, mmkay?

These agents and publishers have set themselves up as the saviors of literature. They can tell the good from the bad, the worthy from the worthless. And their authors have already made it inside the gates. They’re being told they ARE worthy, and they have bought their own hype. They look down from their parapets at the rabble outside the castle walls and are convinced the walls are necessary. Allow the peasants onto the grounds? Never!

As is so often the case, the answer lies somewhere in between. Traditional publishing needs to change, and Amazon does too. The publishers and traditional authors are right that Amazon should not have so much power, nor should it use the power it has to bully, but on the flip side, Amazon has provided a great outlet for authors who have been rejected by the big houses. Amazon offers a service for which there is great demand. Maybe even a need, given that so many voices would go unheard if traditional publishers had their way.

For further reading, see my post on Barry Eisler’s keynote at SFWC.

Self-Publishing: Forest/Trees Phenomenon

The self-published writing scene is getting more and more difficult to navigate. Why? Because there is so much content out there to shovel through.

In past posts I’ve likened it to fan fiction. Back when you could only get fanfic through zines, you had to order or attend conferences, and there were only a handful of options. Now fan fiction is all over the web and finding anything decent to read is a taxing, time-consuming activity.

The same is true of all the self-published books and stories out there. Like with fan fiction, word of mouth is still the best possible way to find anything worth reading.

But authors pinning their hopes of success on self-publishing are only going to continue to find it increasingly difficult. One only makes so much per book (if one wants to be competitive, one must price relatively low and hope to sell large quantities). And so the author must put out a lot of content and hope it catches regular, faithful readers. But the faster one writes, the less time one devotes to quality. A lot of authors will say they can write well and quickly, but my overwhelming experience as an editor is the faster it’s written the sloppier it will be.

And then, with these authors putting out a book every couple months, the market only becomes more crowded. Competition gets fiercer, and it gets even more difficult to get your stuff discovered and read by the masses.

I hear self-published authors often bemoaning the fact they must take so much time from their writing to also market themselves. Twitter, Facebook, blogs . . .

Not that traditionally published authors typically get much more marketing support from the publishers. BUT. As traditional publishers cut back, each of those authors will begin to be more visible. “Deforestation of traditional publishing,” let’s call it.

This isn’t an argument against self-publishing, mind you. I’ve done it myself. This is really just an articulation of the phenomenon. Those trees that were planted early have grown tall, but they are casting so many other, smaller trees in the shade. Can they all find the light? Is there a way to thin this forest? Or is it better to let it grow unchecked? It’s easy for those who are established to say, “There’s nothing wrong with this system; it works fine for those who will put in the effort.” But what would the less satisfied self-published authors say? Or are they all satisfied? Is just having their work out there—whether anyone reads it or not—enough? If a tree falls . . .