E-publishing: Think Three Times – a guest post by Tony Daniel

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SF conventions and such, and I’ve noticed a minor frenzy about self-published ebooks among writers, both published and unpublished.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.

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

11 responses to “E-publishing: Think Three Times – a guest post by Tony Daniel

  • Guy Hasson

    Mr. Daniels, although I have no doubt that 99 percent of what you have to read in your job is not fit to be read to vegetables, can you honestly say that any gem that reaches you (or Baen’s editors for that matter) is published? Can you honestly say that books that are self-published or published by very small publishers do not, through having been published, reach a bigger publisher, and through that the wide audience they deserve?

    Moving on from that very big subject, I would like to ask you, Mr. Daniels, for some insight about something you mentioned. What is the element or elements that make people talk to their friends about a book they read? It’s true that if something is published by a famous publisher it makes it easier to buy, but it doesn’t make people tell their friends about the book. From your experience, Mr. Daniels, what is that thing that makes people recommend a book to their friends?

  • nicolecushing

    I’ve never self-pubbed, but I think self-pubbing CAN (and does) work for some projects and authors. (Do casual readers really check to see who has published a book before they make the purchase? Maybe. But not as often as this blog post assumes.)

    A hybrid model seems to be emerging in which authors self-pub some projects, work with publishers when it makes sense, fund through kickstarter when THAT makes sense, etc. In other words, authors can (and do) both. I think this is probably what we’re likely to see moving forward. Not either/or, but rather both/and.

  • baeneditor

    Guy, there is no S on my last name. :-). I think that if 500 of your closest friends want to read your book, then by all means self-publish it. I can honestly say that that is about all you’re going to get out of doing so. Probably. Jesus, I’m not trying to trample on anybody’s dreams here, I’m just trying to inject a note of reality into the whole process. I certainly don’t think that books published by small presses are not significant! On the contrary, they can be the springboard too much greater things. Or be great things in themselves. And dear lord no I am not saying that we never reject stuff that’s pretty good. I believe I stated as much in the piece.

    From my experience the thing that makes a person tell a friend to read a book is a combination of whether or not the book is entertaining, whether or not a book allows a reader to identify with a particular social group or social status he or she desires to fit in with, and whether or not a book is truly good.

  • baeneditor

    Nicole, sounds great. I have my doubts about that model, however. It still involves a great deal of wishful thinking, seems to me. But I could very well be mistaken.:-)

  • Ron Miller

    Among the several things that makes me purchase books much more often from a traditional publisher than a self-publisher (and this applies to print as well as ebooks) is that I know that the book has run a gauntlet. Or, perhaps better yet, has passed through a series of sieves, or gradated screens extracting some precious ore: acquisition editor, editor, copy editor, fact-checker, expert reader, proofreader, etc… All to say nothing of the fact that a publisher feels confident enough about the quality of the book to make the kind of investment this entails. This goes a long way toward giving me confidence regarding the quality of what I am about to read.

    Few if any self-published authors can afford an editor, let alone any other professional help. And I have long been convinced that no author can edit their own work, let alone copy edit or proof it. Objectivity is needed for those things. And knowing that a book lacks this sort of objective input always makes me a wee tad leery about reading it.

  • Deb Potter (@wirdmonger)

    I think your title needs a wee edit. I think you meant ‘self-publishing: think three times….’

    There is a lot of dross out there I agree. And a lot of that dross is self-published.

    Readers aren’t dumb though. They are pretty savvy. In the amazon shop (I hate the word store) they can look at reviews, look at a sample for free, and read about the author. Reading the kdp author chat I know that every month readers pay for books and return them for a full cash refund. If they are fast they get to read books for free!

    Indie publishers and regular publishers both suffer from the same problem – it is difficult to get noticed in the sea of available books.

    I do notice however that the indie publishers I know seem to be a lot more savvy about how Amazon works than traditional publishers. For instance they will work hard to get reviews. They will contest unfair reviews. I have seen awful biased one star reviews on novels that have won literary prizes which the publishers don’t seem to be monitoring.

    I spoke to three publishers about my books. I asked them about their marketing strategies and they didn’t have much to offer me. They were not giving me a big cut of the profits and they owned the rights to my books long after they stopped promoting them. On my own I can build a stable, maybe pull or rework eary editions and market indefinately.

    What a publisher will do is tell you if your book stinks, is redeemable, or good to go. That is what is missing perhaps and you’d hope the good Indie will pay for and solicit enough of this opinion before self-publishing. I say hopefully but of course it is too easy to self-publish. There is a lot of dross.

    Back when the printing press was invented however there weren’t publishing houses and editors and marketing systems – it was hand-bills in the street. We are seeing the pendulum swing back that way a little. We live, and write, in interesting times.

  • Ron Miller

    Deb brings up a few points worth discussing.

    It is absolutely true that many self-published authors will work hard to promote their books. But they are doing all their own marketing in lieu of having a publisher do it. That, I think, is time that might be spent in writing another book.

    I wonder what three publishers Deb talked to if all three demanded all rights to her book. This is not something you will find the vast majority of traditional publishers asking for. Of the fifty-odd books I’ve had published by half a dozen or more traditional publishers, there is only one to which I do not have the rights, and that was a strictly work-for-hire project. It is true that every contract I’ve ever seen does give the publisher certain rights (not copyright, however: that is always mine), but these rights all expire if the book is out of print for a specified amount of time.

    The fact that Deb spoke to only three publishers before giving up is something I’ve heard many, many times in self-publishing forums. I think perhaps it shows a lack of homework (an hour or two spent with the latest edition of Writer’s Guide is always worthwhile) and a lack of perseverance (there are hundreds of legitimate commercial publishers).

  • Enupnion

    An interesting blog post, to be sure. And no matter what one feels about self publishing vs. traditional publishing, the article’s content should be considered. However, I will take a minor exception with one point.

    “That reader then recommends the book to an acquaintance who crosschecks the friends judgment by determining if the book has a familiar publisher.”

    I’ve been an avid sci-fi/fantasy reader for decades … since at least the late 1970s. I can remember standing for hours in Waldenbooks and other book sellers simply looking at the selection of books, enjoying the cover art, and reading the backs. I’ve read books that are crap and books that are simply fantastic. In all those decades, I never noticed who the publisher was. Not once. It wasn’t until rather recently, as a result of writing my own novel, that I began to pay attention.

    If a friend recommends a book, I normally get it based on what they’ve told me about the book. At no point do I care who puts it out. Today, the same goes for whether the book is self published or not.

    I don’t completely agree with word of mouth being the end-all of selling books. Sure, it is a great way (and perhaps the best way) to sell books, but big publishers will get books known to readers in a variety of ways. There are book trailers. If you start seeing the same book enough times, you become curious … even if none of your friends have mentioned it. Publishers get placement for specific books in the brick and mortar stores. If I see the book promoted at the front of the store or in the New Releases section of my favorite genre, I tend to look at it. And there is a good chance I will purchase it. Website advertising, Facebook, and a variety of other media will let you know when a new book has hit the shelves. Again, word of mouth, a recommendation from a trusted friend, these are not replaceable. But other methods work, too. After all, just because a friend recommends a book does not mean I will get it because they may not enjoy the same genre that I do … or even the same writers.

  • Kevin Lomas

    I also do not look at who published a book. Does it even say who a publisher is on e-book ‘covers’? I know it does not on mine, or even on my print-book covers. I for one do not admit to being a self-publisher because it still carries a stigma, and I just hope that it’s not obvious that I do self-publish, unlike many self-published books that I have had the horror of viewing. Having said that, I have also seen many books from major publishing houses that have the odd one or two proofreading errors in them.
    BTW: I am sure I posted another comment here, but I see no sign of it!

    • keith brooke

      Hi Kevin – sorry: can’t see any trace of a previous comment here (sometimes WordPress incorrectly identifies comments as spam, but there’s nothing in the spam folder from you).

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