E-publishing is a rapidly growing and changing field* and we’re all learning and adapting. Or, at least, we should be. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my least favourite things.
1. Sloppy conversion and lack of checking. This one really bugs me. As owner of an electronic publishing imprint and a book reviewer – and, hell, as an ordinary reader – I see a lot of ebooks, and it still staggers me how poorly they can be produced. With electronic publishing being such a democratic endeavour, this is hardly a surprise: just because someone has mastered the technology for self-publishing their writing it doesn’t mean they’ve also mastered the basics of formatting, proof-reading, etc. But what really bugs me is how frequently I buy an ebook from a major commercial publisher only to find that it’s full of conversion errors. These include characters that have been converted into gibberish, paragraphs split in the wrong places, screwed up alignment and indents, and more. This kind of thing happens all the time when you convert from, say, a Word file to an ebook format. And if you give the slightest little toss you check for them and fix them. I’ve lost count of how many books from major publishers I’ve seen that still contain far too many of these errors and clearly haven’t even been checked after conversion. Which brings me to…
2. Pricing. Too many big publishers still charge far too much for ebooks, sometimes even more than the paperback edition. This irks even more when the amount of work – and checking – put into ebook production has clearly been kept to an absolute minimum. But while some publishers still try to charge too much, audience expectations that they should be able to buy a complete novel for 99 cents, or even get it for free, are particularly damaging to the livelihoods of writers, and therefore to the future availability of their work. Is it really better to get a free novel that, to be frank, probably isn’t very good, rather than spend $5 on a novel by someone far better? To some people, the answer would be “yes”, which is depressing, to say the least.
3. Poor covers. So many ebooks just look… well, pretty crap, don’t they? Do you really think it’s okay to spend a year writing a novel only to put it out with a cover that looks like it’s been made by a 12 year-old with a copy of Paint and ten minutes to spare? Actually, and I’m in danger of arguing my way out of this one, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, after all. If someone thinks that crappy cover is a good advertisement for what’s inside, chances are they’re right. Maybe this is one of the filtering mechanisms that are slowly emerging: a good cover only means the self-published author has found a decent cover designer; a bad cover says far more.
4. Poor quality control. So much of it comes back to this. Self-published authors can’t be good at everything, and the successful ones know when to call in help, be it for cover design, production, editing, proofing, or whatever. But have I mentioned how much it bugs me when the big commercial guys get it so badly wrong, too? They’re cheating their authors, and their readers. When a publisher clearly doesn’t give a toss, it’s so much harder to give the book itself the chance it deserves.
5. Alternative revenue models, aka screwing the authors. I’m all for exploring alternatives – anyone familiar with my work at infinity plus over the last fifteen years could hardly question that. But one sub-current in the e-publishing/self-publishing/indie world that I really don’t like is the tendency for authors to start exploiting other authors. At its best, writing and publishing is a huge collaborative endeavour; I owe so many people in the business huge debts, and I’ve been told more than a few times that others feel the same about me. But this whole business of authors, for example, building up successful blogs and then asking other authors to pay for their work to be reviewed there, or even to get an “other books we’re vaguely aware of” mention there… well, I don’t feel that it helps me as a reader in the slightest, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Worse, most readers aren’t aware that this is going on, and so take mentions and reviews on these blogs as recommendations, or objective listings. Is this any worse than the common practice of bricks and mortar bookshops charging publishers for display space? Perhaps not, but it’s so far removed from the mutually-supportive culture of writing and publishing that I’m accustomed to that, well, it’s another of those things that bug me.
6. I’ve got a book and I’m going to publish it. One of the great things about modern publishing is that authors can get their work out to small niche audiences, through the concept of long tail publishing: while the big commercial publishers concentrate on the books that they hope will sell in the tens of thousands and more, there are still a lot of people out there with more specialist tastes, the long tail that will never shift huge numbers. At infinity plus most of our books fall into this category: short story collections rarely sell enough to interest the big trade publishers, for instance, but steady sales of smaller quantities both satisfy that niche audience’s demand and provide a nice little income for the authors. Another category of book that fits the long tail model, is the early trunk novel. Lots of successful authors have very good novels that, for all kinds of reasons, never found a trade publisher, and e-publishing gives us opportunities to finally make these available. This is a Good Thing. However, most authors don’t sell their first novel; or their second. The key thing is how we determine whether the value in an unsold novel lies in the interest it has for that author’s fans and the fact that it won’t damage the author’s career or if the book’s value only resides in it having been a learning exercise and it rightly belongs back in that trunk in the attic. It’s a tough one to call, and we’re back to quality control again.
7. Ignoring the big guys. I’ve criticised the big commercial publishers here a little, haven’t I? And deservedly so. However, one of the big mistakes authors make now is in the rush to self-publishing. I feel the pull myself. When I’ve finished a new novel it can take a year or – usually – more before a big commercial publisher can bring it out. At infinity plus I’ve received a book’s final content and had it available for sale within a couple of weeks or so, on occasion. It’s hugely attractive to authors to be able to make their work available so quickly. But I’d argue that such impatience can be a dangerous thing. While I think commercial publishers have an awful lot to learn from this new environment, I’m a big advocate of working with them while they do so. For a start, you get to work with designers, editors, copy-editors, proof-readers, marketing teams, sales teams and far more – professionals; experts in their area, all of them. You get bricks and mortar distribution. You get far more coverage and publicity. You get the kudos of having a big publisher, that sense of validation that you’re working to the kind of standard that means a major international company is willing to invest significant money in your work. As a writer, if you break into commercial publishing, you get to learn and improve so much faster than if you’re out there doing it on your own. Yes, writing careers can be forged through indie publishing, but far more successful writing careers are still being launched through the traditional trade route, and whatever publishing models emerge in the near future I reckon that writers would be short-sighted to ignore it.
So… do these things bug you too? Have I overlooked anything? And yes, I’m just waiting for that first response to point out a typo; it would only be fitting when I’ve gone on at such length about quality control, now, wouldn’t it?
*And blog posts like this do a lot of stating the bleedin’ obvious.