Monday, 23 November 2009

If Self Publishing Really Is The Future....

During last week's outrage over Harlequin Horizons, one comment really caught my attention and remained with me for days. It appeared in the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog site but came in part from an earlier blog post. I reproduce it now with permission from its author, the brilliant Stacia Kane.


When self-publishing becomes the only option, only the rich will be able to publish. When publishers can make more money taking cash from aspiring writers than by selling books to the public, writers and readers both suffer. Writers who can’t afford to publish will be lost, or we’ll have to go back to the 18th century model and whore ourselves out to rich “patrons” who might agree to pay for our publishing—not pay us, but pay to produce the books themselves.

Imagine a world where the only books on the shelves are those written by people with enough money to pay to have them published. Very little quality control, no attention paid to whether or not the book is actually worthwhile. How much fun will reading be then?

From my blog:

We’d have books written exclusively by those who could afford it. Much like in the 18th century, when so many books were diaries of some peeress’s trip through Europe with titles like, “My Gleanings.” FUN. I know I can’t wait to read books written exclusively by the wealthy, with no viewpoints other than their own. I’m sick of hearing what baby boomers think already; I can assure you I don’t want to read more of their “Gee, the sixties were sooo great!” back-patting. I know I can’t wait for a world where books written by those from other cultures have no chance to be translated into English and released here, when we become even more ignorant of the lives of those in the world outside because there’s no way to get their books in front of English-speaking audiences. Oh, and of course, given that self-published books tend to be much more expensive, thanks to POD technology, I can’t wait for a world when reading and books are even less available to the poor. When they don’t have the same opportunities thanks to their inability to get hold of books.

Oh, what’s that you say? Oh, right. The internet will provide all of that. Of course. Because I know when I want something to read I’d much rather spend hours and hours slogging around online looking for something decent than just go to a bookstore. I know people who can’t afford books totally have the money for laptops and ereaders and the internet. So in seeking to democratize literature, what you are actually doing is STEALING IT from those less fortunate than you.

We’d also have a lot more unreadable books. I’m sorry, but it’s true. For every excellent work of self-published fiction–and they are out there, make no mistake–and for every one that’s not bad, just not terribly polished or professional or interesting, there are dozens of horrible ones. Really.

Let’s not forget that the way most people learn proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling isn’t through school. I mean, we do learn those things at school, but we develop those skills by reading. So you tell me, how literate will we be as a society when there are no professionally written books? When there are no people to judge if a work is even readable or not before it gets published? When anything goes? Would you like to go back to the middle ages, when words were just spelled however they sounded? Because I wouldn’t.

If you'd like to thank Stacia for this piece, buy her books.

36 comments:

Lauren Moriarty said...

I'm new in publishing and since I'm currently trying to map out a career path, this was encouraging. Personally, I have had read precious few self-published "winners" but the ones I did enjoy and admire were fantastic. I admit I wondered why the authors of these few hadn't been agented and subsequently published. And I must emphatically agree: it would be a travesty to cut professional publishing out of the picture. I hadn't even considered the ramifications this would hold for the poor. What might society be like if the poorer classes returned to being illiterate because of their denied access to books. Just an observation, but I suspect the wealthier classes might be missing something as well: an oral storytelling tradition that would once again become necessary and would once again hold important societal information.

Brenda said...

Speaking for the poor (this comment is being written on a laptop that’s a hangover from the days when I wasn’t) I think we’ll still be reading, just not much new stuff, self published, e-published or otherwise. I get my books from the library, second hand bookstores, charity shops and jumble sales. As long as dead tree publishing lasts, I’ll be reading.
Also, I have to point out that traditional publishing does not guarantee me a good read. Last week I picked up a book by a once favorite author and it was a travesty of her earlier work. If her publishing house expects to generate sales on the strength of quality gate keeping, they’ll have to do a much better job.

CoralBloom said...

If you want to know what society would be like, then look at the many African nations where those who want to read can only dream of getting their hands on a book.

What about a co-operative publishing house where people come together, publish a book and any profits are equally shared?

Lexi said...

'When self-publishing becomes the only option, only the rich will be able to publish' - I don't know what makes Stacia think this, when POD and e-publishing is cheap, often free.

'Imagine a world where the only books on the shelves are those written by people with enough money to pay to have them published' - hmm, celebrity novels come to mind; the famous pay for publication with their fan-base. No agent or publisher ever turned down a wannabe celebrity author, even if she hasn't yet written a word, even if it turns out she can't.

Agents and publishers as guardians of the written word, maintaining the quality of books on sale to the public? I'm all for that. It's an appealing idea.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Interesting post. I have self-published two children's books and about to publish a third, am a pensioner, and find you don't need a fortune to do this, just need the ability to be computer literate and from google learn the skills. The books are selling and I'm my own publicity agent. Cheers....Carole.

The Voice said...

What it all boils down to is whether or not an audience follows. Most of those getting the big royalties look as if they have it made, but the royalties have to be paid back.

I can't see the poorer classes becoming illiterate because of the lack of books it would have to be because of the lack of the knowledgeable using word of mouth. People are smarter than they used to be. One can always learn from another.
I love books and any traditionally published book can fit closely with the poorly edited self-published.
We will just have to man our own gates if all fails. I love the idea of coop publishing.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you, Jane, for airing this 'interesting' point of view. Whilst I am with Stacia in that I also worry about the quality of the majority of 'self-published' books, I think her view of the future is alarmist and somewhat hysterical.

As others here have pointed out, there are libraries (assuming local councils haven't got rid of all their books to make space for cafes) and other means for people to get their hands on good literature. And trade publishers will not die.

Nor was the eighteenth century literary scene as elitist as she paints. (Let's face it most of the population was illiterate before compulsory education became law and only the rich bought books anyway.) Those badly-written solipsistic memoirs haven't survived but the good stuff has. The eighteenth century was a 'golden age' of dictionary making , essay writing, poetry and drama. The novel first emerged in that century too.

Of course, good writing can be missed by agents and commercially minded publishers but there are independent presses that only accept the best writing and use traditional methods. And yes, bad writing by celebrities get mega-buck deals today but the bottom-line is whether people will pay for it. If nobody bought celebrity tat, then publishers wouldn't produce it. (Just look at the queues when our Katie Price turned up to sign the books she never wrote.)

But people who might buy her books and others like them are not killing good writers. Have you heard anyone walk into Waterstone's and say. 'Oh bother. They've not got the latest Hilary Mantel. I know, I'll buy Katie Price's book instead.'?

Cream will always rise to the top and good books will still get published by trade publishers. E-books, internet, vanity etc etc will still be with us--perhaps in greater numbers. So what? Their ilk always has but it won't turn the world into a book-less desert.

Incidentally, there were fears in the late nineteenth century that if horse-drawn traffic increased any more than it was doing, the streets pretty soon would be knee-deep in horse shit and disease would be rife. Nobody realised then how the internal combustion engine (already invented but only affordable at the time to the elite and the eccentric) would come along and create its own set of problems.

Let's be sensible about this.

Derek said...

I agree with Lexi that self-publishing is cheap (around $10 on CreateSpace or Lulu), and with Sally that this post is alarmist and unrealistic.

The big problem for writers, though, is not the existence of self-publishing or e-publishing.

The problem is the simple fact that there are just too many books around -- more than anyone could ever read, and more than anyone could even be aware of.

Nathan at Curtis Brown often remarks on his blog that his problem is not a scarcity of great manuscripts.

His problem is that he gets more great manuscripts than he can possibly handle.

In simple terms: The pie isn't big enough for everyone who wants a slice to get one.

behlerblog said...

Hear, hear, Stacia! Not only will the rich be the only voice heard, but the quality will be horrendous because there is no incentive for the vanity presses to produce a quality book.

steeleweed said...

With POD, the cost of publishing is within reach of most writers. However, we are left with two other problems.
First is marketing - getting all those books in front of potential readers. I foresee sales organizations specializing in books, possibly a spinoff of the 'book packaging' companies already there.
Second, readers will have no way to judge quality. 40 years ago, book clubs did that, before they turned to maximizing profits. I suspect book reviewing will boom, with various bloggers followed according to how their tastes match some segment of the reading public.

The future of publishing is like the future of anything else - 905 think it won't work, the other 10% find a way to make it work.

At 72, I've seen a lot of 'that-will-never-work' turn out to work just fine. Stop worrying so much.
As Sinclair Lewis once said: "Go on the hell home and write."

GK said...

@Lexi: No agent or publisher ever turned down a wannabe celebrity author, even if she hasn't yet written a word, even if it turns out she can't.

Wanna bet? I turned down 2 in the past month, and they were the only celebrities I heard from in that time. Believe it or not, for every celebrity book you hear about being published, there's a whole lot more that never see the light of day. Fanbase can get you far but it can't get you everywhere.

So please, next time, find a few facts before you go ahead and insult thousands of hard-working people who are barely making ends meet trying to produce the best books they can. We're human, too.

--E said...

Much like in the 18th century,

Nail. On. The. Head.

With a few exceptions, I find the entire canon of 18th and 19th century literature utterly unreadable. I know there are people who love Walpole or Hawthorne, but those people are clearly deranged. ;-)


For every excellent [or not bad] work of self-published fiction... there are dozens of horrible ones.

-->Such an optimist, you are! I think you're off by an order of magnitude, at least.

Excellent rant.

Voidwalker said...

I think there is way too much opposition to self publishing to allow it to fully take control of the market. While self publishing isn't necessarily evil and has its place, I personally would much rather read something that wasn't self published.

--E said...

As a publishing professional, I want to make a key distinction here:

With POD, the cost of PRINTING is within reach of most writers.

Printing is not publishing. I am head of the production department of a legitimate press, and if printing the book was the only thing a publisher did, I would be queen of the company. I wouldn't have all these coworkers in the editing, marketing, and sales departments.

If a self-publisher wants to be their own sales and marketing force, more power to them. If they can sell enough copies to make enough money to live on, then they should consider becoming a full-fledged publishing house.

Welshcake said...

I think GK has a point. Agents and publishers aren't the enemy. In fact,they're our colleagues. We all want the same thing in the end - to make great books that people will enjoy.

I've met a couple of editors and agents in the past six months or so. They have, without exception, been passionate about what they do and enthusiastic about finding fresh talent.

catdownunder said...

What's a laptop? Oh, and can someone please tell me what an e-reader is? Machines for writing and reading books? The machines must be very clever. I'll have to take a catnap and think about that.
Purrhaps it is time for a government funded publishing company solely for new writers. It could be seen as a launch pad. Other areas of the arts get this sort of assistance. Why not writing? Purrlease tell me what's wrong with the idea.

Sally Zigmond said...

The government (the UK one at least) does 'support' writing through the Arts Council which hands out money to all kinds of arts projects, writing included.

Whether it does any good or hands it out to the right people or not--and who's to judge?--is a matter for a different debate.

JFBookman said...

Jane, I really appreciate you reposting this. It seems to me that part of finding our way through the muddle that publishing is sinking into is being open to all the voices in the room. All sorts of proposals and viewpoints are emerging and I think that's terrifically important to having a discussion that might actually result in something positive.

The "self-publishing" phenomenon has had an incredible democratizing effect, rather than restricting publishing to the rich. When you had to print offset, you really needed several thousand dollars just to get into print. Now, you can do it for nothing.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that great swaths of self-published books are simply very bad, and when their authors cannot discern this, it makes it difficult for everyone.

Lexi said...

You're right, GK, I should have said that going by the celebrity books on the shelves, it's difficult to believe agents ever turn down a celebrity.

But where are these facts of which you speak? Obviously, I don't expect you to name the two celebrities you rejected, and nor would other agents.

By the way, is there some reason you don't sign your name?

SleepyJohn said...

I don't recall the sky falling in when bands discovered garages and tape recorders, and I rather doubt it will now writers have discovered PDFs and POD. Communication by the written word is changing dramatically, by the minute as I type. Who of us can profess to know what will become of it?

My son studies Future Problem Solving at school and he said the other day that some huge percentage of the jobs that will be available to him and his classmates have not been invented yet. Personally I think we live in exciting times. The opportunities that the Digital Age offers ordinary folk in the developed world are quite staggering, and it is that very same Digital Age that will enable those very same opportunities to one day reach the developing countries.

There never was a 'Golden Age' in the past, literary or otherwise; but with the help of digital technology there might be one in the future.

Margaret Adams said...

For me self-publishing is very interesting. It complements other forms of publishing.

I can add value to our training programmes by giving our participants "real" books to use and to take away. I can also offer e-learning versions of our programmes with e-modules and teleseminars to supplement the book.

If I have a programme that will run a few times and thus, if I can justify a print run of at least fifty, I see self-publishing as a great development.

Self-publishing and lateral thinking are a superb combination.

Jane Smith said...

Lexi wrote, "No agent or publisher ever turned down a wannabe celebrity author, even if she hasn't yet written a word, even if it turns out she can't."

Lexi, you're wrong, I'm afraid. As you might know I used to do some ghost-writing, and a couple of years ago I was approached by a celebrity who wanted me to write his "autobiography".

I didn't want to: I wasn't interested in him, I'd heard quite a lot of negative things about him, and I am a lot less interested, these days, in ghost-writing anything.

So I turned him down. He spent a few weeks trying to persuade me to change my mind and when he realised I wasn't going to, he tried to do what I'd advised him to do: find an agent or publisher, who would find him a ghost.

I've now been told by seven agents and editors that they've since turned him down, for much the same reasons as I did.

Publishers like the sort of celebrity that sells (not surprising, really, as they're in business to sell books). But celebrity alone isn't enough to sell books, and there are plenty of celebrity books rejected which we, as readers, hear nothing about.

Jane Smith said...

Carole Ann Carr, I'm glad that self-publishing is proving to be useful to you: I'm especially impressed that your books are selling well. Would you consider sharing your sales figures with us? Because that's where the whole self-publishing process often falls down: the sales that can be expected are far lower when you self-publish, and I'd like to hear how your sales compare to mainstream levels.

Jane Smith said...

The Voice wrote, "What it all boils down to is whether or not an audience follows. Most of those getting the big royalties look as if they have it made, but the royalties have to be paid back."

Um, no. Advances never have to be paid back unless you fail to deliver your manuscript, or you have a seriously bad contract with a seriously shlocky publisher. None of the reputable publishers, large or small, expect advances to be paid back if they're not earned out.

Jane Smith said...

Sally Zigmond, you win a prize.

What I thought that Stacia did very well in this post is echo the rhetoric that's common in so many of the "publishing is broken, self-publishing is the future" articles that I've read. It's a tone which rarely appears on the blogs of those in favour of mainstream publishing, which is partly why I wanted to use this. I like Stacia's rhetoric, I like her passion and her imagination: she's a good writer. But I agree with you that her scenario just isn't going to happen--because I don't think that self-publication is a threat to mainstream right now. The two businesses barely ever meet, because they have such different focuses.

Jane Smith said...

Derek wrote, "I agree with Lexi that self-publishing is cheap (around $10 on CreateSpace or Lulu), and with Sally that this post is alarmist and unrealistic."

Derek, if printing were the only thing you paid for in publishing, you'd be right on the nail. But there's so much more to it than that: it's an expensive business. I met with a publisher yesterday morning and was discussing the cost of bringing a book to the market: her costs for a paperback novel (they're higher for an illustrated book, or for a hardback), excluding writers' advances, are a minimum of £5,000. She spends that much on design, typesetting, printing, proofing: then she has the cost of review copies, sales discounts, distributors: it's not a cheap thing to do if you do it properly, and the cost of using Lulu is just one tiny part of it.

Jane Smith said...

Steeleweed wrote, "With POD, the cost of publishing is within reach of most writers. However, we are left with two other problems.
First is marketing - getting all those books in front of potential readers. I foresee sales organizations specializing in books, possibly a spinoff of the 'book packaging' companies already there."


Steele, you're right: as I've already pointed out to Derek there's a lot more to pay for than just the printing of the book, and marketing is just one of those things.

There are already specialist sales agents who sell books to bookshops: publishers who don't have their own sales-force use them all the time. But those sales companies won't usually consider self-published books, as they're usually not good enough for the bookshops to consider, and even when they are (which doesn't happen often) the publisher doesn't have the resources to support the sales staff--they need to know that there are books in a warehouse somewhere, with a whole distribution system ready and waiting to fulfill the orders that they drum up. And how many distributors do you know which are willing to consider publishers with just one or two (or even five) titles under their belts?

(Also, you seem to be a little confused about the role of book packagers in publishing--you might want to click on the "packager" label on the front page of this blog--I think there are a couple of articles for you to read.)

Jane Smith said...

Voidwalker wrote, "I think there is way too much opposition to self publishing to allow it to fully take control of the market. While self publishing isn't necessarily evil and has its place, I personally would much rather read something that wasn't self published."

I don't think that self-publishing struggles because there's too much opposition to it: I think it struggles because there are too many dreadful books in the self-publishing sector, too many people who self-publish without understanding how publishing really works, and too many people who self-publish without sufficient funds or expertise to enable them to compete with the big boys.

Jane Smith said...

Margaret Adams seems to me to be the perfect fit for self-publication. Based on her comment here she has a built-in market for her books, she knows her subject, and she's creative in her approach to it.

But what is very interesting is that even she doesn't think that self-publishing is going to kill off mainstream: she wrote, "For me self-publishing is very interesting. It complements other forms of publishing."

Interesting, no?

Carole Anne Carr said...

Thanks, Jane, my progress has been slow but steady, using money from my pension to fund the next purchase of books and then using money from sales to continue. This has only been possible because I have done everything myself, apart from the printing of the books. I began this project in January this year. Since the summer I have sold close on a thousand books and still have sales. I aimed for a niche market that worked, I write historical fiction for children and have been picked up by a kindly distributor who is placing my books in boookshop in English Heritage sites throughout the UK - there are very many. This is recent, and now I should sell may more. I sell 50 at a time to the bookshop in Bamburgh Castle, and on the island of Lindisfarne where one of my books is set. My next book is set in the Ironbridge Gorge - a 19th century mining story with a pit pony driver as young hero, it will sell very well in the five museum bookshops in the area. This has been achieved by a good product and very much by constant networking. I'm off tonight to meet up with the group Women in Rural Enterprise, I belong to the London Society of Authors...I'm on Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, on local radio, in local magazines, in schools and libraries, one book is being studied in an American university and I have hopes of Atlanta library taking my books, many many booksignings, getting into one main bookshop and many independent ones by selling myself..........

Kind regards, Carole.

BookBod said...

I personally don't think POD will be the only option. There's a revolution happening in the 'print' world.
Ink is, for the first time in centuries facing a serious competitor. e-readers are the thing of the future & POD is just a side issue.
I believe Dickens tried being a publisher as did lots of others who were very effective at self promotion and getting their print babies into the world's libraries.
I can think of some renowned authors whose books are, in my view awful but people still buy them....surely they can't be reading them as they are truly awful. (e.g. some of Du Maurier). Having a big name publisher/editor/agent doesn't guarantee anything. Unfortunately, discerning librarians and their libraries are dying - it is they who filter the good from the bad.

steeleweed said...

Sally: Novels predate the 18th century, although they were few and far between.
:
My mother wrote two books of local history (American West) which will never sell in large quantities but will sell forever as local history by a local writer. My aunt wrote two short memoirs which I have combined.

POD is ideal for these books because the marketing is virtually nothing (and I haven't the skills, time or inclination to market).

About 20 businesses in Colorado order as necessary. Last year they sold about 350 books as I recall and I think a few got sold thru Amazon.

Joseph said...

I got a bit confused by this argument.

"When self-publishing becomes the only option..."

It is never likely to be the only option because there will always be entrepreneurs trying to profit from talented writers.

"Writers who can’t afford to publish will be lost..."

Everyone can afford to publish these days. As a reader I'm downloading a lot of free and very cheap books written by young people with vibrant personalities who know how to spell. I'm having a lot of FUN.

"I know I can’t wait for a world where books written by those from other cultures have no chance to be translated into English and released here..."

Independent translation services are incredibly easy to find on the internet and they're not expensive. Who are the demons who are trying to suppress them?

"Self-published books tend to be much more expensive, thanks to POD technology..."

The POD books I've bought have been about the same price as other books in the same genre. Self-published novels can be very cheap, especially when the authors make them available as e-books.

"I’d much rather spend hours and hours slogging around online looking for something decent than just go to a bookstore. "

I'm lucky enough to have some very good bookshops in London but there are many places around the country that don't. Even in London using the internet is much easier than taking the tube to Charing Cross Road, especially on the weekend when much of the rail network is closed for maintenance.

"So in seeking to democratize literature, what you are actually doing is STEALING IT from those less fortunate than you."

I don't understand this. Does this mean people who publish their own books rather than waiting for approval from a profit-driven corporation are behaving immorally or breaking the law? Oh, I see in her own blog the brilliant Stacia Kane says

"I have, as I’ve said here before and as I said on the show Friday night, absolutely nothing against self-publishing. There are some excellent self-published books out there. There are a lot of writers who feel that this is the way they want to go, and is the wave of the future. And that’s fine."

Phew! That's all right then.

Is my comment too long? I hope you are not going to censor me again, Jane.

Joseph said...

I really don't understand how Stacia Kane can believe that self-publishing will make it harder for non-Americans to get their voices heard in America. A couple of days ago I came across a book written by a man living in Germany (I think he is Dutch) who was very excited about being able to launch his book in America through Amazon. If you go to his blog you can see that he gets most hits from Germans, with Americans second. I don't know if I'm allowed to link to it here but his book is called Two Journeys and his name is Clemens P. Suter. I think he can spell but I have no idea if the book is any good.

BuffySquirrel said...

Seems to me that the only difference between GK and Lexi is that the latter has a blog profile with no other name on it and the former doesn't. *shrugs*

Jane Smith said...

Joseph wrote, "The POD books I've bought have been about the same price as other books in the same genre. Self-published novels can be very cheap, especially when the authors make them available as e-books."

They might be similarly-priced to mass-produced books at the point of sale; but they're much more costly to print, per unit, than books printed with a reasonably long offset run; which means that authors who rely on POD can't offer such good discounts to booksellers, which means that they have a much harder job to do when it comes to selling on to retailers--both on and offline.