Right up front, at the tip-top of this post, I'm going to plead for civility in the comments. You see, I'm about to talk about self-publishing, and few things bring out the flame in all of us like that phrase. The fact is, I just finished a novel for one of those dastardly traditional publishers, and I'm still kind of tired and grumpy, and I'm in no mood. Disagree, sure. Flame? No. That said.
As the whole Amazon/Macmillan thing has progressed--and make no mistake, as of this typing it is still progressing, as no links have returned--I keep hearing the same thing pop up in discussions of ebooks and Amazon and the iPad and the like.
HOORAY! TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING IS DEAD! (which old witch, the wicked witch...)
To which I say: what?
To be sure, technology is changing. To be sure, the world will be different in five years than it is now. But I do not understand the joy with which a sizable portion of the internet is heralding the "death" of the industry that employs most of the writers they know and love, and a whole lot of other people besides. I do not understand how people can be waiting with bated breath for publishing to die, unless they genuinely hate books, storytelling, and quality, and just really love reading the slush pile.
The general meme seems to be this: with the advent of ebooks, which are definitely going to be the dominant form of book publishing forever and ever, there will no longer be any need for traditional publishers. Each writer will become something of an autonomous press, self-publishing through Amazon and Apple, who are totally awesome indie champions of the little guy, unlike those horrible corporate presses, hiring their own editors, copyeditors, typesetters, marketers, and artists, and putting up their work directly for sale online. Then: profit!
I find this to be a horrifying dystopian future, and I'll tell you why.
Now, I'm not actually trying to be a shill for The Man, here. I write for several different presses right now and my books are unaffected by the Amazon idiocy. I am living, breathing proof that those evil NYC presses will buy weird, not terribly commercial work, and will keep buying it. I also have a vested interest in online publishing, as I've had a lot of success with it. So listen to me now and believe me later: you do not want this to happen, either.
As has been pointed out many times by people better with numbers than I am, the costs of publishing an ebook are not zero. That is, if you have any interest at all in a quality product. No one goes around suggesting that everyone should become their own autonomous cheesemakers and cheering the death of the cheese industry. Why? Because that would result in a lot of shitty cheese. The idea that we should all be hiring our own massive staff of personnel instead of letting the publishers do it is bizarre on the face of it.
First of all, it's financially ridonkulous. Professional editors of the level I work with now make money. Grown-up money that I cannot pay them, because I am not a rich person and never will be. Let alone copyediting, typsetting, and cover art (which is vastly important, don't be fooled). I have zero interest in paying out $7000-$15000 before the book gets published, and almost certainly seeing minimal profit (especially since that 70% Amazon deal everyone's so sweet on has a whole lot of strings attached). I like it when someone else does that. Publishers are risk-assesors, and they assume the risk, which is not insignificant, while I create the book. The "hire your own editor" handwaving strikes me as the strangest of this whole memescape. Really? Hire my own? With what money, without an advance? I suspect there is a pernicious undercurrent here that editors and copyeditors and artists and typesetters might not really need to be paid either. We're all in it for the love, after all, and most people aren't clear on what those behind the sceners do, anyway.
Not to mention, a beginning writer on their own has no idea who the best heads in the business are, who to hire even if they had the money, to make their book better. What is far more likely is that they'll get taken in by the many scams out there, spend the money anyway, and still have a terrible book. It takes experience and time to know who to work with--and experience and time are exactly what people seem to want to cut out of the process.
Publishers also, very importantly, pay me an advance. This is how I live and eat. I like advances. I don't get big ones, but I still get them, and that's damn important. I do not like paying the equivalent of an advance to others in order to publish my book. Because then I wouldn't have any money with which to live while I write the book, see? Banks do not write checks to under-30 chicks who want to write about fairy tales. The idea that writers are going to make more money by getting Amazon's royalty rate, when most ebooks a. sell a tiny fraction of what print books sell, and b. sell fewer than a hundred copies, when not backed by a publisher, is sort of hilarious. We are not even there technologically yet. Most people can't afford a $300 machine on which to read books. And we'll probably never be there culturally, where reading is held at such a premium that there's millions to be made for everyone.
Also, most writers, in this wonderful future, won't bother with that staff of experts. They're the ones who say that $7000 number is ridiculous. Why? Because they don't think editorial matters. It's extremely expensive and most people don't really think they need editing anyway. To the author him or herself, their own work shines. Every syllable. But what happens when a writer refuses editing? I think we've all seen it, with Anne Rice and others that have claimed this right: too popular to edit. The books are crap. Editing is a good thing, a highly necessary process, and perhaps if we discussed our editors in public more, they wouldn't be seen as so expendable--and by the way, an editor does not merely suggest setting this Hamlet thing in Denmark instead of Spain and correct your spelling. They advocate for your book, and have their hands in every decision down to the type of paper used to print it. Did you like those Kaluta illustrations in The Orphan's Tales? Well, my editor conceived the idea, got the artist, and got him paid. I could never afford Kaluta on my own. If I hear one more person toss off editors like their completely irrelevant to the process, I'm going to have to smack an internet. This is not an auteur kind of gig. It is a team effort, and that is a good thing. What happens when one person has all the power to make artistic decisions without input from anyone else? The Phantom Menace, that's what happens.
The author is generally the worst person to edit or copyedit their own work, and almost certainly the worst person to package it. I have seen self-published covers, my friends, and they would wake the dead. Bad photoshop, bad colors, stolen art...it's bad, kids. Bad. But all we authors see is our baby--because we haven't gone to school for graphic design or marketing. I heard a writer quote his own Kindle book as having cost him $70 to create. Well, that means it's raw off his hard drive, and that scares me.
I've read the slush pile. And in this Orwellian post-publishing dystopia, you will be, too. The mass of ebooks will be unedited, badly written, and horribly presented. And while this is an unpopular thing to say, that's pretty much the state of self-publishing now. There are a few great self-published projects, and they are buried in an Everest of trash. Essentially, a reader acts as an acquiring editor, sifting through the mediocre, offensive, awful, and laughable for one good book. And readers will usually give up after a few burns. If you think this isn't so, ask yourself: why isn't publishing already dead, when ebooks have been available and viable for more than a decade, when POD has been thriving and Amazon has been encouraging people to self-publish through them for some time? Because there's more to writing a book than typing.
Quality alone does not penetrate the signal to noise ratio. And what will happen is not some anarcho-syndicalist commune of happy writers doing all their own work. Scams to prey on the dreams of what seems to be just about everyone to be published will drastically increase, and many writers who can make a small living today will have to quit or become hobbyists with drastically reduced output, because they will not be able to afford marketing and editorial for their books out of their own pocket. This seems obvious, but I guess it's not. Remember how money flows toward the writer? I do not want to live in a world where instead of being paid to write, I pay to write.
Now, what about Fairyland, you say? Wasn't that a huge success for me? Didn't I make that work, donation model, online publishing and all?
Yes, I did, though you'll notice not through Amazon. Why people think that one giant corporation is better than another is beyond me. But here's the thing about Fairyland that I don't think is widely grokked: I don't think even I could repeat it.
Fairyland was what the kids like to call a perfect storm: financial crisis, quality product, an already established name that is associated with quality fiction, and an internet wildfire that spread the word like crazy. If any one of those things fell out, it would not have succeeded the way and to the extent it did. There are a whole lot of crowdfunded project out there that didn't get that kind of publicity, or picked up by--wonder of wonders--a Macmillan imprint. You know, that company that's "afraid of ebooks" and "terrified of the future."
And people still sent me my spelling mistakes every week. Because I am a crappy copyeditor.
I have a another completed YA novel cooling its heels on my hard drive. I couldn't sell it. I could put it up online or I could wait and try again with a rewrite down the road. And maybe if I put it up it would be a success and maybe it wouldn't--though almost certainly not a success on the level of Fairyland--maybe I could even get my own editor. One that would do it for the love, you know? And maybe I will, at some point. It's a choice I have, in this industry--the choice is mine, not Amazon's, not Apple's, not geek culture at large already deciding that there's only one choice. But it's still a better move to wait, because many more people read print books than online books right now. We in Geekville often forget that our gadgets are not universal. And especially more kids read from the library and from paper books. Publishers will get you into bookstores, and that's still important. They will get you read. And they will pay you to keep writing. And they will pay editors and everyone else, and so many people will eat.
Where I stand right now is a pretty good spot--I take the hybrid approach, using both traditional and non-traditional models. But that would be impossible if I had not already established my name through paper publishing. Or as near to impossible as makes lightning and lotteries. So while I've been told many times in the past week that I should chuck all those mad, bad, and dangerous to know publishers and go it alone, it's really not in my interest to do so, since I still live advance to advance. And it's not a viable option for most writers just starting out out there. I'm not just thinking about me, here.
Now, look. Publishers have a lot of problems and they need to improve. The status quo has a lot of crap in it. Where I think change could best happen right now is on the contract level. If, for example, e-rights became a subsidiary right I could administer separately, like audio rights, then you'd see a revolution in ebooks as we all experiment. Right now, however, you more or less cannot sell a book to a major publisher without giving them e-rights, and that sucks. But babies and bathwater, you know? Publishing has brought you literally every book you've ever loved, and the party on their grave is not only pre-mature, but in pretty bad taste.
So why leap over all the fascinating intervening steps and crow that publishing is dead? Frankly, it feels ghoulish and threatening. It feels like a lot of weirdly sour grapes. It's definitely ignorant of just about everything involved in producing a book. But hey! If not for those damn publishers, everyone would have a book out and be super successful and keep all the money for themselves, mwa ha ha! There's a lot of kind of nasty subtext out there to the tune of: if the publishing industry doesn't work for me, it doesn't work at all.
But the world isn't built that way. There's no conspiracy to keep good authors down. Amazon and Apple are not your Robin Hood. They don't care about you or your art. They want to make money, and so do publishers, and so do I. I think some of this comes from the idea that it's distasteful to make money off of art. That idea is offensive to me. I can't make art without food and a roof. Turning up one's nose and declaring that an ebook should be free or minimal cost because well, one doesn't like paying for mere data, that sounds like enemy action to me. People pay for programs from Microsoft and Apple and independent developers. That is also mere data. It's all mere data, in the end.
So my stomach's been in knots for a week, not because my sales are in danger, because they aren't, but because reading the comments on blogs, on Amazon, I keep seeing people taking delight and joy in their own fantasies of how my livelihood is going to die in a fire.
Funny thing is, if this future came to pass and the market were nothing but self-published autonomous authors either writing without editorial or paying out of pocket for it, if we were flooded with good product mixed with bad like gold in a stream, it would be about five seconds before someone came along and said: hey, what if I started a company where we took on all the risk, hired an editorial staff and a marketing staff to make the product better and get it noticed, and paid the author some money up front and a percentage of the profits in exchange for taking on the risk and the initial cost? So writers could, you know, just write?
And writers would line up at their door.
Rules for Anchorites
Letters from Proxima Thule
- The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)