I’ve been on the road a bit this spring to SF conventions and such, and I’ve noticed a minor frenzy about self-published ebooks among writers, both published and unpublished. There are many blogs and newsletters out there that claim to be following a revolution, and I read several of them regularly. I’m also daily involved in the acquisition and publication of ebooks myself.
On one hand, I’m happy to see turmoil, as it frightens the hidebound publishing industry into attempting new things, which helps authors and readers. On the other hand, it seems to me that there’s a cultural bubble that has formed. There is certainly a big change, driven by the Kindle and the computer tablets, that is going on. But it is going on within established publishing for the most part. In a way, this is as it has always been. Printing technology has been relatively cheap for thirty years, and self-publishing is well within the means of anybody with a decent job and some savings. But distribution of books is not.
This is not some industry conspiracy or technological limitation, but the fact that nobody, no individual reader, wants to read through a giant mountain of crap to find a couple of gems. They surely don’t want to pay ninety-nine cents, or two or three dollars, per book for the opportunity to do so. These essentials have not changed. Now a couple of friends of mine, such as Bob Kruger of Electricstory.com, are working on automated vetting systems (with a human component) and other ideas of various sorts that are totally legitimate and have a lot of promise. Maybe technology can come to the aid of a reader trying to make a good selection on what book to read next.
But, and I say this with utmost conviction: most of the various ebook services—perhaps particularly the well-funded ones that look great and talk revolution, and may even be connected to mainstream publishing in some manner—are nonsense enterprises. I don’t think they are crooked; not at all. Just deluded.
At the moment, in a general sense, self-publishing your ebook will make you next to nothing and nobody will read it. Even if you are the world’s best self-promoter, I would ask: are the people you gin up into buying the thing going to tell others to read it? This is the real power behind publishing, for all its idiotic cronyism and decrepit practices. It generally doesn’t put out absolute dreck. Oh, it puts out a lot of dreck. No argument there. But it is generally trustworthy enough for a reader to take a chance on its products. That reader then recommends the book to an acquaintance who crosschecks the friends judgment by determining if the book has a familiar publisher. And, since I’m convinced word-of-mouth sells ninety-five percent of all books, that moment of real, actual, not made-up legitimacy, is a huge advantage.
So I would say think three times about self-publishing. Then think again. And then, just as you’re about to press that “send” button, don’t do it. Unless, that is, you want to start the small business of being a publisher yourself. That is a different story, and it involves a commitment of years of effort that is not writing effort. Most writers think they can do anything, of course, and are convinced in romantic fashion that they will have infinite energy to do so. Some do. I know a few successful small press entrepreneurs, such as, for instance, Patrick Swenson of Fairwood Press. They are a rare breed. I know many others who have thrown away money best spent elsewhere. I don’t know the path ahead, but I understand the current moment well enough. There’s a bubble that is about to deflate because there is just not enough money—which, despite desperate social analysis to the contrary, generally signifies interest from readers—to sustain it.
Tony Daniel is an editor at Baen Books, which is distributed by Simon and Schuster, and has an ebook retail site at Baenebooks.com. He is the author of seven science fiction novels, and several award-winning short stories.