On Self-Publishing and the Hugh Howey / Data Guy January 2015 Report

(Parts of this post originally appeared on my Google+ page and in the comments on Mike Reeves-McMillan's post on the report.)

You may be aware that Author Earnings, a data analysis site run by Hugh Howey and someone called Data Guy, recently released a report on ebook sales and the market share of those sales by the various publishing methods.  There is a lot of interesting information here, so I do recommend checking it out if you have the time.

As you may expect, I have some issues with the report and with responses to the report -- and to my questions regarding the report.  I should start by saying that I haven't bothered with the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate in any serious sense for years because I find the entrenched positions on either side to be, in light of the current publishing climate, monstrously stupid.  There are too many pundits out there trying to prescribe the "right" path for publishing while rejecting any alternative as viable; yet, so few of them have much in the way of hard, objective data to back up their arguments.  As it stands, most of the debates about which method is better are based almost entirely on anecdotes or reports like the one I'm going to talk about here.  Unfortunately, that invariably means these arguments are fundamentally faulty.
 
While I don't doubt that a lot of the data here is accurate (and interesting), there are two immediate problems that come to mind:


1) As a statistical study, it does a poor job of maintaining objectivity.  From the start, it is clear where the author's biases lie, and it's hard not to think that that perspective affects how the authors interpret and compare the data.  Given that Hugh Howey, a fairly staunch pro-self-publishing pundit, is involved here, that's not surprising.* That's a serious issue for me, because I find the debates concerning traditional publishing and self-publishing to be largely fought on ideological grounds.  When that ideology creeps into the data we're using to talk about either side, it will invariably change the way data is perceived either by the reader or the one doing the analysis.

2) The data doesn't actually tell us much in any usable sense.  Honestly, I don't know why data regarding sales is a valid metric for determining who is better off:  a self-published author or a traditionally-published one.  Short of instances where one author or another is clearly getting a raw deal (bad publisher or Amazon contract terms, for example), sales figures really don't paint a clear enough picture of the writing life for either group -- or the hybrids that arise from either end.  There are more factors than sales here.  How money is allocated, whether literally in the case of a traditional publisher or based on effort (or via a hire of some kind) for a self-publisher, is actually a more useful application of the data.  If the average self-publisher makes less / the same / more per hour on average than a traditional publisher, that tells us something useful.

I just want hard data without the bias.  Objective data analysis.  Given how long these industries have been in play, you wouldn't think that would be so hard.  But it is...

Obviously, part of this argument didn't go over well with everyone.  As I noted on Mike's original post:
There are very VERY successful people in either camp, and some VERY successful people who do it both ways.  Some have to do PR.  Some don't.  Some like to.  Some don't.  Some spend more time doing PR than they do writing -- to little effect; some have great success for the effort.

But basic sales data and market share doesn't divulge that kind of information.  I don't know if anybody actually knows how the two publishing lives compare, except via anecdote.  But I think we desperately need that data so we can have actual useful conversations about both forms of publishing.
Mike was receptive, stating that he thought that data would be of interest, too.   Another commenter by the name of Brian Rush was less enthused:
It's not valid to assume that indies spend more marketing time than the traditionally published. That's almost certainly not true.

Indies do spend more time and/or more of their own money on editing, cover design, and formatting than the trads, because all of that is handled by the publisher. However, for successful authors it's a trivial difference, because it's a fixed per-title cost, not a per-volume cost.

Look at it in dollars (although in fact you can trade time for money for a lot of it, dollars make it easier to calculate). If you go full-on professional in all three categories, you're probably talking about $2000 on the average.

If you sell 10,000 copies, that's 20 cents per copy. If you sell 100,000 copies, it's 2 cents per copy. See what I mean? Trivial, unless the book doesn't sell well.
I pointed out that unless you have hard data to back these claims, you have no way beyond anecdote and self-reported information to know how hours are allocated based on publishing method, nor how those hours change depending on publisher, format, sites used, etc.  Hours worked ≠ fixed per-title cost.  There's no available data to compare the average SP to the big name examples that are pointed to as "the successes," nor the same for the alternative OR for hybrids.

Without that information, any claim about either method that offers an analysis of its efficacy is faulty. We cannot use sales numbers alone to assess anything but the size and health of an "industry" in totally superficial terms. That would be like using touchdown numbers to determine how good your football team is.

Brian disagreed, resorting to tactics that are probably pretty tame by comparison to the kinds of verbal abuse faced on the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing debate:
Everything I said is easy to know, and you're just dumping out empty verbiage.

Anyone who's been in the self-publishing business for long knows ballpark figures for what it costs to get a book edited and formatted and a cover designed, That's not controversial and if you call that part into question you're just looking for excuses. The rest is just plain math, and again, if you're calling that into question you're just looking for excuses.

Which it's quite obvious that you are. You are trying to defend traditional publishing by making a very simple question more obtuse than it really is. And frankly, that's dishonest, and a bit contemptible.
This is, of course, an ignorant claim, since Brian does not know me from Adam.  If he did, he would know that in the past, I was staunchly anti-self-publishing, but that in recent years I've not only softened but become quite amenable to the idea of self-publishing, in part because the industry has changed so much that it actually seems a viable option.  It is also a far more honest industry today than it was six years ago, with more authors openly and proudly admitting that they self-publish and more people like Hugh Howey trying to put together the hard data on the industry.  
I have also supported numerous self-published projects and intend to nominate S.L. Huang, whose novels are self-published, for a Campbell Award (you should, too, because her novels are freaking amazing).  So the assertion that I joined the discussion just to defend traditional publishing is absurd; it is also a rhetorical tactic designed to make discussion impossible, since it implies that being pro-traditional publishing necessarily makes my points invalid.

I also noted that while it is easy to know the ballpark cost to produce a book, that only takes into account costs that are easily measurable in dollars, such as the cost to hire an editor or a cover designer or whatever. But without knowing how man hours translate into the cost of production for either side of the publishing aisle, the data about sales only tells us the sales. It tells us nothing about the efficacy of one format or the other, or the combination thereof. Self-publishers make a lot of money (sometimes), but does that money compare equally or better to traditional or hybrid publishing based on the total cost of production including man hours?  I don't know.  I desperately want that data.  Talking only about sales and earnings is a smokescreen.  It looks nice on paper, but it obscures the reality of writing life:  it's not just about gross sales.  
That said, any such data would not tell us whether any method is subjectively better than another. Some people might very well prefer to let someone else front the cost of production of a book. Another might prefer to do everything themselves. My take on publishing based on the data in hand is simple:   do what works for you, and don't moralize the decisions others make.

That's where I am on all of this.  The data is interesting, but without a more accurate assessment of the average writer for each publishing camp, it's difficult to make an honest assessment of either method.  In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that anyone using this data as objective support for one absolutist position or another is either deluding themselves to fulfill an agenda or patently dishonest.  The only options available here are subjective ones.  For someone like me -- the kind of person who publicized a fit about the lack of long term reliability studies of cars -- that's a serious problem.

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*Howey is not nearly as staunch as someone like Konrath, though, which may explain why I'm much more willing to listen to Howey than I am the latter.  Hence this post...

Self-Published Books vs. Literary Awards: In Response to Linda Nagata

I'm a little late to the party, but Linda Nagata kindly rebutted my original post on the logistical issues of literary awards as a rationale for the rejection of self-published books from the consideration lists.  Here, I'd like to respond to some of her arguments.

First, I'll say that I don't disagree with most of what Nagata has to say.  As an author who has traveled in both publishing camps, she of course understands the issue on a different level, and thus has valid points to make about the value of literary awards to SPed authors, etc.  My main point of contention surrounds this quote:
The way I see it, there are two main purposes to a literary award: (1) to bring attention to specific books and authors, and by so doing (2) to shape the genre. Whether (1) & (2) come to pass or not, neither purpose is harmed or diminished by consideration of a self-published work.
This may be an issue of wording, but I don't consider these two components as the purposes of literary awards.  While the "shaping the genre" is certainly an effect of an award, to some extent, it is also a somewhat ambitious concept to apply to an extremely focused practice, particularly since "shaping," as I see it, is organic rather than artificial.  We shape the genre by our reading choices and what we talk about as a community, not by recognizing works as "good" by a set of disparate, cross-purpose standards -- as all awards invariably are.  Awards certainly cross over with the trend-setters and shaping works, but I find it hard to imagine the genre shaped purposefully by awards as opposed to by side effect.  This is particularly true of populist awards, which certainly suggest some potential for shaping, but which themselves are fickle, shifting, and disparate in form.  What the public likes one year will not match what they like the next, and in the long course of time, what they liked in 1987 may have been forgotten in 2007.  Curated awards suffer from a separate issue, which I'd simply call the limits of critical focus.  (This is a somewhat truncated explanation, so I hope the reader will forgive me here.)

The first of Nagata's points is, of course, related.  For me, awards are not there to bring attention to works, but rather to recognize works that fit within a certain paradigm based on that paradigm's criteria.  This is where the wording comes in, as I see something different between "recognizing" and "bring attention to."  The first denotes the idea that this work deserves attention because it meets certain criteria, while the second seems to have a more directed shaping effect -- i.e., here's a work you should talk about.  Recognition, however, is about achievement.  In curated awards, it's an acknowledgement that your work successfully fulfilled the award's criteria, and is thus noteworthy.  In populist awards, it's the public's acknowledgement of the same, but with less stringent and often impossibly variable standards.

I suspect Nagata and I don't actually disagree here, though.  Basically, I see the literary award as contingent upon its established criteria, however nebulous, and the process of applying that criteria necessarily specifies texts and author.  For example, the Nebulas only recognize science fiction and fantasy works from authors who are members of the SFWA; from there, the awards themselves only recognize what that small community determines is "the best," which itself isn't a hard set criteria we can accurately describe, since it is entirely subjective.  As such, narrowing by publication method is just another set of arbitrary criteria.

The other thing I should mention here concerns the idea that the awards we have in our community are naturally open to SPed works.  While it is true that most (or all) of the awards are open to SPed works based on its given criteria for selection, there are few examples of such works appearing on lists from authors who themselves have not at one point, especially recently, had their work published traditionally.  This distinction may seem trivial, but I think it is important to recognize how our community applies validity to a given work.  In many respects, our community still does not look highly upon authors who have been published primarily on their own; it is far more forgiving when that author has a traditional publishing career either before or after the publication of an SPed work.  That's something we'll see change in the future -- possibly when SFWA raises its pro payment rate for magazines to $0.25/word (ha) -- but probably not after some form of mass culling or shift within self-publishing.

On that last sentence, I'd like to expand something I'd said before on the nature of the SPed world.  Nagata doesn't address at length my contention about the quality of SPed works (not that she needed to, mind), but she does say the following:  "[That SPed works are more commonly bad in comparison to TPed works] is still a common assumption, so credibility is extremely important for a writer who chooses to publish her own work."  I concur that recognition via an award is certainly good for any author, particularly since, as Nagata discusses briefly in her post, awards can have a measurable impact on one's career.  However, Nagata's track record is one that is fairly unique in the SP world.  In comparison to the sea of SPers, most of them are not also traditionally published and award winners.  Nagata, as it turns out, has won awards in the past -- the Locus for best first novel[2] (The Bohr Maker) and the Nebula for best novella (Goddesses)(woot) -- and she has most certainly had a decent career as a traditionally published writer of short and long fiction, though of late she has been primarily of the other stripe.  I don't bring this up to discount her argument, nor to poke mean fingers at her career or anything (a considerably one, actually), but rather to point out that while she has made a value judgment on the matter of SPing, one which has led her to self-publish her work (good work, mind), she has also seen things from the other side.  She has taken a unique pathway, and one even more unique based on the shape of her career.

In other words, Nagata has a track record.  Previous fans of her work, and new fans, can look back at what she has published before in various places and say "well, look at that, she's got all this going for her."  As a reader, I can assess her career and her previous work and limit my concerns that I might waste my money on a really shitty book.  This isn't a promise, of course, but I see the purchase of entertainment products as a sort of low-level form of gambling.  This is something that, as I only briefly suggested in the last essay, I can also apply to an established traditional publisher like Tor.  Sure, I've read some Tor books I really didn't like.  But I've also read some incredible books from them, so a debut author with Tor is likely to get my attention simply on the basis of being with Tor.  That's not unlike why I would give Nagata attention (and why I said:  she SPed The Red:  First Light, but we interviewed her because she's Linda friggin Nagata).  It just makes it easier on me.  I don't have to think twice.  And I imagine a lot of readers who don't appreciate the SP world are like me, though probably less so than I imagine.  It's an experiential apprehension, if you will.

And that's the real problem for me:  quality and effective consumer evaluation.  There are certainly a lot of great things going on in the SPed world.  I've read some amazing SPed books, mostly by chance or word of mouth, but the field is so overwhelmed with people hoping they'll be the next super rich SPer that it becomes nearly impossible to survey the field in any meaningful sense.  I can't effectively make those consumer evaluations because assessing the quality of a given work becomes nearly impossible.  What is this author's track record?  I don't know, because this is their first book.  How do I know they got their book edited?  I don't.  How do I know the words inside are better than the cheap cover on the outside?  I don't.  How do I know they treated the writing process like a professional?  I don't.  The gambles pile gets larger and larger...

In any case, that's the last I'll say on that (for now).

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[1]:  correction:  all works are considered; the voting/nominations are specific to SFWA members -- thanks to Linda Nagata.
[2]:  this originally said "best novel," which is incorrect; thanks to Linda Nagata for the correction.

Self-Published Books vs. Literary Awards: A Logistical Problem?

Back in August, The Guardian posted a column by Liz Bury entitled "Why is self-publishing still scorned by literary awards?"  The article doesn't exactly make an argument about the apparent snubbing of SPed books in the literary awards circuit, but Bury does essentially imply in the body of the article that the inability of these awards to address the widespread consumption of SPed books will not work on their favor.  I'm not sure that's true either, to be honest.  These same literary awards are just as relevant as they were before SPing became normal (lots of relevance or no relevance whatsoever -- depends on your view).

I, however, have a different perspective on this problem.  As a podcaster (The Skiffy and Fanty Show) and blogger, I get a lot of requests for reviews, interviews, guest posts, and so on.  On the
blog, I'm a little more lenient when it comes to everything but reviews.  But the podcast is an entirely different matter.  Throughout the year, we have maybe 25-26 slots for proper interviews, and perhaps another 25-26 slots for discussion episodes.  With the addition of a steady blog for the podcast, that jumps the number from 50ish slots to about 100.  One hundred slots for tens of thousands of SF/F authors.

Understandably, we're extremely selective on the show.  We have to be.  There aren't enough slots for everyone, so we have to think hard about who we want to interview, what we want to talk about on the show, and so on and so forth.  Inevitably, that means we tend to avoid self-published books; for me, it's for the same reason as always:  how exactly are we to wade through the drivel to find those good SPed books?

This is a similar problem, I imagine, for the literary awards circuit.  Granted, there may be a bigger agenda in place there, but they must be aware of the impossibly large field of published works out there, and so they make the decision, like us at The Skiffy and Fanty Show, to cut that field down to a more stable pool.  There's crap in traditional publishing, too, but my experience has always been that it's much easier to find good things in traditional publishing, whereas the inverse is still true in the self-publishing world.

There's also another question here:  cost.  On the podcast, it costs us nothing (mostly) to interview or host authors of any sort.  Even when there are costs, they are astronomically low and infrequent (a couple bucks here or there).  But the literary award circuit has to hire judges, whom they sometimes (or usually) pay.  Even if they're not paying those judges, the request for their time is high, since they have to read dozens of books or short stories, etc.  If you open the field further, you can imagine how much time (or money) would be lost just on going through the onslaught of TPed and SPed books sent their way.

Let's also assume that there might be a way to get around that by narrowing the field with various new criteria.  In the end, those criteria will be flawed and, in some cases, controversial.  They're not going to base things on sales, since popularity is never an indicator of quality anyway.  Personally, I can't imagine any valid criteria that would weed out the trash from the legitimately quality books.  In the end, it just makes more sense to cut the field in half.  In a game of numbers, the easiest criteria is the one that makes the job a lot easier.

But there's also one more question I have:  why would SPed authors want to win these awards anyway?  The field is large enough that they could easily create equally valid awards just for SPed books.  And if they did that, it might make the task of including SPed books easier, since you could use those other awards as a mandatory criterion for the selection process:  if your book was nominated for X award, it is eligible for Y award.  It may not be the best criteria, but it's a start.

In any case, the point is this:  it's a numbers game.  It's a logistical problem.  There are just too many damned books out there just in the traditional publishing world alone.  Expecting these awards to toss out their arbitrary standards to include another massive pool of literature seems counter-productive to me.  You won't end up with a better awards system, but an overburdened one.  And you may end up doing more damage than would happen if one were to leave it alone.

That's my two cents.  What about you?

My Current Thoughts on Self-Publishing / Traditional Publishing Gurus

To all the people out there telling me how I should publish my first book: please take your advice and shove it. You have no frakking clue what you're talking about. Anyone who says "there is only one way to do it" should be discounted as idiots. 

J.K. Rowling got rich publishing the old fashioned way. Amanda Hocking got rich self-publishing (and now she's got the old fashioned thing going). Lots of people have got rich doing it either way. Anyone who says "but my way is the only way" is full of shit. WTF do you know? Sometimes there is no right way. You just do what feels right to you and hope for the best.  Publishing is a crapshoot. Some of us make it. Most of us don't.

The only sure advice anyone can give is this: if you really want to make it, don't give up. Keep improving your writing and write better stories.

Meh.

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That more or less sums up how I feel about it all now.  My thoughts have changed a lot in the last few years.  Such is life...

(Originally posted on Google+)

“The book market be flooded with bad books,” said the Bookstore Man!

The following comment was left on John Ottinger's Grasping For the Wind.  Specifically, I left it on a guest post by R. L. Copple entitled "Wading Through the Crap," which is an interesting take on the "there will be so much crap" anti-self-publishing argument.  I take some issue with the logic, even if I now also take issue with the anti-SP argument being refuted, but the post is interesting enough to check out on your own (which I expect you all to do; go on, leave some comments!)

Here's what I had to say:
This post is just as riddled with fallacies, which is ironic when you argue that the post linked at the start is equally plagued by them. 
Two examples: 
1. You say: “Now let’s say with the explosion of indie books, it adds 20,000 new titles to the pile each year, giving the reader a total of 30,000 new books to browse through. And let’s say the average reader will only like 2% of those books, meaning among those 20,000 indie books, they would have 400 books they would enjoy reading if they came across them. That means among the 30,000 books they could wade through, there would be 900 they would pick up if they came across them, which amounts to a 3% chance of finding a book they like instead of 5%. If that scenario was true, it would mean it grew a tad harder to find a book the reader likes, but only by 2%.” 
While a 2% decrease seems minor, in the grand scheme of book “finding,” it’s not. When you take into account the time, energy, and other variables that go into book “finding,” that 2% decrease is substantial, particularly since it represents a 40% reduction in possibility. That’s nothing to scoff at. You’re using numerical trickery here to suggest something that isn’t such a big deal, but you leave out the primary thing that makes readers very unlikely to buy anything whatsoever: wasting their time. Even a 1% (or 20%) decrease would put off a substantial number of readers who simply can’t be bothered to put in the extra effort to find something they may or may not like (which, let’s face it, even when you take into account the various ways readers come to books, and, thus, choose them, that doesn’t include the time and effort it takes for that reader to actually discover if they got the right book; this implies that your model must take into account the percentage of occurrences in which a reader found a book, but discovered upon reading that it wasn’t to their liking — contrary to popular belief in self-publishing circles, most readers aren’t willing to read huge previews and the like; if you’re lucky, they’ll read a page or two, which explains why publishers are so adamant about those first few pages, even today). 
2. You spend a lot of time talking about slush piles and how readers see the demise of the slush pile as something good for them, since it means there will be more good books to find. The problem with this is that you earlier argue that the publication form is one of the least relevant methods by which readers come to books, and, thus, a direct contradiction of your earlier sentiments. 
Now, setting aside the lack of statistical support for most of what we’re talking about (nobody really knows how many readers care about the publisher and how many don’t, etc. only anecdotal evidence that suggests they avoid SPed books in bookstores), you still have the problem here of turning readers into slush readers. I hate everything to do with this concept, because the moment you make it my job as a reader to do a job other people should be doing and getting paid for (publishers, reviewers, editors, and related people, some of which may be related to non-traditional publishing models) is the moment you take all the joy out of reading, after which I’ll simply stop buying books. I’m not kidding. I will stop buying books completely, with the exception of things printed from the previous era of publishing. I have no incentive as a reader to participate in a system that wants me to do extra effort to find what I want. Most other markets don’t do this to me; in reality, most other markets have made it *easier* for me to find what I want to consume (think super stores, malls, online music stores with really good recommendation features, online music sites for streaming music, etc. etc etc etc etc etc). Yet it’s only in the book publishing world that we talk about making the consumer the worker. 
I wouldn’t be going out on a limb if I said a lot of readers who have recently come to routine reading would be equally inclined to leave the whole thing behind. Easy access isn’t necessarily a good thing (at least, it comes with consequences). It’s all about coupling easy access with tools that help the consumer find what they want without creating additional effort. The fact that SPers (and indies, trads, and other publishing models) are talking about a future which makes the consumer an unpaid intern is the most bizarre kind of archaic logic to me…
Don't tell me what you think on this post, though.  Go respond to me and Mr. Copple on John's blog.  It's an interesting discussion to have, methinks, even if I have made similar arguments elsewhere on this blog.

Why I’m Going Indie: An Anti-Self-Publisher’s Perspective

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my harsh opinions about self-publishing.  The title of this post is intentionally inflammatory to highlight a point which I hope will be clear by the end of this post.

I consider myself exceedingly critical of the concept of self-publishing, not because I think SPing is inherently wrong or improper, but because the field of self-publishing, if one can call it that, is flooded with people who lie or misrepresent traditional- and self-publishing.  This is not something you see on the other side of the scale; there are so many writers and authors and editors writing about how hard it is to be traditionally published, and what you have to go through to get there -- it's a gruesome process, after all.  I have a tag devoted to these issues.

Perhaps this is why some of you may be surprised that I am doing an indie/self-publishing project (namely, podcasting the rewritten version of The World in the Satin Bag and putting together an ebook version to be released later).  Why would I put my feet into the self-publishing bucket when I've been so critical of it in the past?

There are a number of reasons for why I've gone indie with WISB.  I've never been interested in sending it to a traditional publisher, for starters.  The book has been sitting on this blog for years, and traditional publishers are generally averse to blog novels, unless it's extraordinarily popular (some podcasters have had their books picked up, but you already know that).  But I also don't
want the novel to sit on this blog and fester, which is what it has been doing for the last four years.  In a lot of ways, letting it sit as long as I did was a good thing, because by going back to it now to rewrite it has taught me how far I've come as a writer.  If you look at the old version, it is absolutely dreadful; the new version, which I'm now podcasting, is a million times better and reflects more of what I think are my strengths as a 27-year-old writer.

But now that I can see how far I've come, I don't want WISB to sit; I want it to be more productive for me.  But that isn't a terribly good reason (in my mind) to self-publish.  After all, there are plenty of things I've written that I'll never publish in any form, either because they're terrible or they're too damned weird or "literary" to have much of a place.  Maybe I want those stories to be found in my attic one day...Here's looking at you, Kafka.

The reality is that I'm self-publishing WISB as a podcast and an ebook because the field really is changing.  The more I read about all the work the major publishers want me to do on my dime, the more I feel like I should try doing it on my own at least this once.  I've written about why I think publishers are shooting themselves in the foot.  The way publishers have been treating ebooks and authors (not exclusively, such as in the case of Angry Robot, who seem to approach ebooks intelligently) is one of the many reasons why so many self-published authors are doing remarkably well without needing major publishers at their back.  We've heard the names:  J. A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and so on.  Even Michael R. Hicks, who I have begun talking to on Twitter, is doing astonishingly well as an ebook author, so much so that he is quitting his day job of many years to pursue writing full time (see his sales figures here).  I certainly don't agree with everything Konrath says (he perpetuates falsehoods more than he does truths based on my limited experienced with his writing), but it's hard to ignore how ebooks have changed what is possible for self-published authors.

There are still hurtles (many of them, in fact), and there are still crappy books, bad authors, and shady practices (though I think it's safe to say that vanity publishers are going to get even more unethical in their business practices in order to hold onto their clients, in part because it's so damned easy to release ebooks on your own through major ebook retailers).  But the field is not the same as it was two years ago.  Some of the same problems from the old days still exist, but now the new problems are good problems to have (how to be a better writer, communicating with readers, formatting books, producing quality material and product, etc.).

Traditional publishing has changed some, but most of the good changes have been made by the smaller presses, rather than by the big guys.  Big publishers are slightly less interested these days in quality material than in the value customers will put on it by spending their money.  This is not true of all imprints, as some of the best ones (Tor, etc.) produce some amazing works of fiction, but the more you look at what is on the bestseller list, the more you see books that critics would have used as toilet paper 100 years ago, not because the critics are pretentious assholes, but because a lot of published books are like comparing a McDonald's cheeseburger to a real cheeseburger.  When someone like Sarah Palin can make millions from a book that would give a fact checker ten brain aneurysms in a row, you know the quality of the industry has taken a stab in the heart.

That doesn't mean that I am throwing WISB out there as a podcast and ebook in order to be famous and to make lots of money.  The podcast certainly has a financial hope attached to it, but the ebook side of things is really my attempt to test the waters and do something with a project I was otherwise going to let die.  I'm still writing short stories and publishing them the traditional way.  I'm still going to write science fiction and fantasy novels and send them to traditional publishers.  But I'm also going to experiment and play around and see what I can do with an indie/self-publishing project, in short and long form.  This is true of The Altern Compendium too, which is still on hold until I finish with WISB.

And why shouldn't I try this?  Will it destroy my career?  No, of course not.  If I write good stories, I'll have a career no matter how I publish some of my work.  It might mean that WISB will never see bookshelves, but I'm surprisingly okay with that.  What matters to me is that I get to try something new and share my experiences with friends and readers.  If I fail, then I fail.  So what?  If I succeed with flying colors, then I'll jump up and down and scream "yippee."  Either way, I'll have tried something new.  And that's really what all this digital publishing stuff is about, right?

If you've ever done an indie/self-publishing project, whether fiction or music or whatever, let me know why you went that route, how it worked out for you, and so on.  I'd like to hear from you.

Shooting Themselves in the Foot: A Brief Reconsideration of Traditional and Self-Publishing

Anyone who reads this blog, or has in the past, knows that I am hypercritical of self-publishing.  In some respects, the entire industry deserves it, since it is full of shady practices, shady "gurus," liars, scammers, and so on.  In a way, self-publishing is an industry that allows for such problems to grow and fester -- not because SPing is evil, wrong, or whatever detractors want to call it, but because it is decentralized (there is no standard, no vetting, no gate-keeping, and so forth).  Traditional publishers have always been a centralized authority on "artistic" matters, determining what should and shouldn't be put on shelves, rejecting anything deemed "unpublishable," and maintaining a kind of minimum standard of production (though there is some flexibility here).  For the most part, this opposition was a no-brainer for people like me, who appreciate quality work, low-risk consumption, and so on.

And then I read this (about cuts of editorial positions at traditional Canadian publishers):

“We just couldn’t afford it,” said Gaspereau co-publisher Andrew Steeves, adding that he is happy to do the work himself. At the same time, he worries about the ultimate effect of industry-wide downsizing. “How do you cultivate a professional publishing ethic it you’re farming everything out?” 
Authors, finding today’s downsized publishers increasingly unwilling to invest their own resources in the often laborious process of polishing rough diamonds into marketable gems, are now often forced to hire their own editors – before even before submitting their manuscripts for publication. Toronto literary agent Anne McDermid saw the landscape changing two years ago, when a publisher told her, “I cannot purchase a book I need to spend 40 hours editing.”
As a result, McDermid added, “we are now advising our authors that the material they present has got to be closer to the final draft than it ever used to be.” Sometimes the agents themselves act as pre-editors. “Or, for those authors who can afford it,” McDermid said, “the biggest-growing sector in Canadian publishing is the freelance editor.”
First things first:  I get it.  It costs money to edit books, and while I think 40 hours of editing really isn't that much, it is still a lengthy process.  Publishers want to trim back and choose books that are more "ready to go."

But reading something like this makes me really wonder the following:  what exactly do publishers have to offer me if they're not even willing to put in the time to help make my book better?  A distribution model?  That's quickly becoming useless from an economic position; ebooks are growing fast and I suspect they will overtake, or at least match, print books in the next ten years (on the outside -- five on the inside).  Authors increasingly don't need publishers to make books available to a large reading market.  In fact, the only barrier beyond a professionally-designed product for authors today is obscurity, but that's a problem that traditionally published authors also face, though to a lesser degree.  So what exactly are traditional publishers offering me, as a writer, that I cannot acquire for myself?  If I'm going to be asked to pay for editing services prior to submission, then why wouldn't I just hire a whole crew to put together a professionally-designed book and sell it on my own?  You can't run an entire business on distribution and book covers.

In an increasingly competitive market, it seems like publishers are only shooting themselves in the foot.  They're looking at the market around them and saying "well, let's just cut back and hope nobody notices."  Anyone paying attention sees that and thinks, "they're reducing the value of their 'service.'"  This might be the first time I've actually thought that the big publishers might, in fact, fragment and die.  I don't think all publishers will go down the tubes, because there are some truly amazing small presses out there (at least in the SF/F world) and some imprints will certainly survive in some form or another based solely on the quality products they produce.  But the rest are asking to die.  You can't go into a competitive market, offer drastically less than you ever did before, and then expect that your economic model will a) continue producing significant profit, or b) look appealing to authors.  Maybe a) will stay true, since many publishers are flocking to celebrities just like TV producers are still flocking to reality T.V.  But that's not the reading world I'm going to be active in.

The sad thing for traditional publishers is this:  self-publishers, in general, have and continue to be innovative people, and it's not a big stretch to think that they will figure out how to help readers find the quality products that they want (i.e., reduce the risk of buying books that don't even meet a minimum standard of quality).  Needless to say, self-publishing is looking more and more appealing to me.  I haven't made a full 180 yet, because the side of me that is bothered by self-publishing is still opposing the new paradigm, but if things keep going the way they are, you can bet I'll start looking at things very differently.

Now, I think it's fair to acknowledge that the piece I took the above quote from is only talking about Canadian publishers.  A quick Google search didn't produce anything about U.S. publishers, though there were plenty of cuts during the Recession.  If anyone has links that show the same about U.S. publishers from a reliable source, I would like to see it.

It also seems ridiculous to have to bring up the age-old saying again, but it's impossible to ignore:  money flows to the writer.  Period.

What do you all think of this?

The Best Liars: Self-publishing and My New Dilemma

I've become tainted against self-publishing. That is probably clear to those of you who read this blog, since I've written a number of posts about self-publishers (see this label for others), but it has now become clear to me on a different level. I've said numerous times in the past that there are good self-publishers out there who produce good books, have honest production practices, and are friendly. But they are an astronomically small minority when set against all of the rest who are effectively some of the best liars and manipulators of any stripe (they give FOX News a run for their money in the spin department); the good folks are like the Maldives in a global warming world--the more the sea keeps rising, the more likely those tiny little islands are going to get buried under water. (Bear with me on this. I'll get to my fully-developed point towards the end; I need context first.)

For me, this is a huge problem, because I want to be able to trust that self-publishers can all be honest people. My experiences, however, have shown that the opposite is true. I've been approached too many times to count by people claiming to be traditionally published,
who, upon further inspection, are anything but; I've met people who try to tell me and others things about traditional publishing that are patently false (or not representative of anything but a severe minority), who then shrug off reality as if everyone else is ignorant and needs to learn the valuable lessons of Mr. Hoity Toity; and I've read dozens and dozens of blog posts and (about) books on self-publishing that make glorious claims about self-publishing, deface traditional publishing by showing only the darkest sides of the worst of them, and generally offer lists of lies, half-truths, or misdirections, which creates a vacuum that makes it very difficult to know where to look to find honesty about your options as a writer.

For every one good self-publisher I have met (honest people who don't lie about their publishing status, who are dead honest about what it takes to self-publish, who say that self-publishing is not for everyone, etc.), there are hundreds of bad ones. The fact that the second group is actively fighting to make changes go in their favor is disconcerting, because what they are ushering in isn't a world of quality-variety, but just any-old-variety. They want a world where readers become the filter; considering that these are the same people who claim that traditional publishers publish crap, it's somewhat self-defeating--turning literature into a game of "who has the most resources" or "who can play popularity bingo the best" is not necessarily going to produce quality literature.

And all of this creates a lot of problems for me, because there is nothing within self-publishing, with the exception of the chosen few, that I feel I can trust. It's mired in a sea of lies and misinformation that nobody seems interested in dealing with or is actually equipped to do anything about. Everywhere I look, the same things appear. It makes sense to me why so many people have come out of the woodworks with an anti-traditional view of things: when all you have to look at are half-truths or flat-out lies, you start to adopt those views too.

People like me take all of this and become even less friendly to the entire industry. Maybe we shouldn't, but it can't be helped. I personally don't appreciate being lied to or deceived; I want to know what I'm getting into before I actually get into it, to a certain extent (obviously I don't want to know the whole plot of a novel before I read it). For self-publishers, this might pose a problem, particularly ones that mean well and probably are quite good at what they do (in terms of the writing). I have no doubt that I'm missing out on a great number of good books by self-published authors, but the problem for me as a consumer is that finding these gems is not an easy task; I either have to do a lot of work to find the stuff worth buying, or I have to take an unnecessary risk. Most importantly, though, is that even with this one huge flaw in the self-publishing model, there is the greater flaw of the body of unofficial representatives who have done a fine job tarnishing the self-publishing name in the eyes of people like me (and there are a lot of us).

The question is: what can be done to bring people like me back into the fold? I used to read self-published novels, but after too many bad experiences, I stopped. What ways can self-publishers change the way their game is played so that people like me can feel some sense of trust in the whole "indie" thing?

I have ideas, but I don't think those ideas are favored among self-publishing types. Some folks have rejected the idea of creating a filtering system of some sort for self-published books, and others have thought me crazy for suggesting that creating your own press and not making it clear that you're self-published is deceptive. Plus, defacing traditionally publishing is not a good strategy; it might be an effective one, but it's also an intellectually dishonest one, since it does more to suggest that there is less "right" with the side that wants to be "right" than it does to suggest that the other side is "wrong." Are there campaigns for self-published authors that aren't in some way centered on or a part of the anti-traditional camp?

Lastly, what can self-publishers do to make me think there's value in what they do? I realize that writing is important to most self-publishers, but that is a reason for most writes in general, regardless of publishing status. What really makes what self-publishers do valuable to consumers?

I'd also really like to know what strategies are being done to make self-publishing look different, to give it a new face that reflects what it is actually supposed to be. Right now, I'm just not seeing it. But maybe I'm crazy and someone can point me to the magic places where things are right as rain.

Self-publishing Fail: Achieving Weak Goals is Meaningless

I'm still on my anti-self-publishing kick, primarily because there has been a lot of really crazy things popping up on the Internet as of late, such as B&N's decision to get their hands into the self-publishing pot. One post that bothered me the most recently was The Book Designer's 26 Ways to Win At Self-Publishing. Overall, the list is quite poor, with the majority either failing completely as praise-worthy goals or falling short of being impressive, and only a few falling into the "good goal" category. Some of the "wins" seem to have more in common with the 40-year-old man who still lives in his mother's basement who is going nowhere fast than with the guy who tries to run for President. They're not goals so much as really sad ways to feel good about yourself when you've essentially achieved nothing. It's sort of like saying I am proud of myself for waking up and breathing today, an action that, for most people, requires no effort whatsoever, and which pretty much everybody else did today.

The list starts pretty much on the lowest scale possible and jumps around from meaningless to semi-praise-inducing. Take, for example, the first item:
You finally get the book finished, printed and in your hand: you win.
Explain to me why this is something to be proud of. Anyone can do this. I can waltz over and print out a book from Lulu and have it in my hands in five days, with very little cost to me (in effort or cash). Unless you live in a country without the Internet, or you have no arms and legs and had to type your whole novel with your nose, then I fail to see what is impressive about this goal. It's a non-starter. To get excited about printing out the book that you self-published is like getting excited about finding your seat on the airplane. It's on your ticket, dear...The only thing praise-worthy about this is that you wrote a book. That's it. But even that is becoming less impressive these days, because anyone can write a book. Most people can't write a good book, though, and if you manage that, then maybe you can get a little excited.

The list doesn't get better after the first item either, with the second being just as meaningless:
At last you have a chance to fully explain the ideas you’ve been thinking and talking about for years: you win
Couldn't you have done this before you self-published? Why do you need to have a self-published book to tell people about your ideas and thoughts? There's no magic barrier that can't be crossed without SPing a book. Unless your family and friends don't listen to you, in which case I'd wonder why you hang out with them, then really there's no reason why this goal is even worth mentioning.

And then there's the fourth, eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth, seventeenth, twenty-fourth, and twenty-sixth:
You send a copy of your book to your ex mother-in-law: you win
You gift wrap a copy and hand it to your mother, watching her unwrap it: you win
You send an autographed copy to your 8th grade English teacher: you win
You overhear coworkers talking, and one mentions that you’ve published a book: you win
Your dad pulls you aside at the next family gathering and tells you how proud he is that you dedicated the book to him: you win
A friend at a party asks if you’re still looking for an agent, and for a moment you don’t understand the question: you win
You start to think about other books you’ve always wanted to write and can now publish: you win
So, if this list is getting at anything, it's that you should be really proud of yourself for gift wrapping or sending your book to people, or proud that people you know paid attention to you long enough to soak up the fact that you "published" a book. This is starting to sound like a list for the underachiever, someone with very few serious goals in life. If this is what makes you happy to exist, then maybe you need to reassess your priorities. Children find these kinds of goals exciting, not adults. Why? Because these are the kinds of goals that children try to achieve. They don't know any better.

But perhaps most pressing and most misleading is number fifteen:
Every one of the people you care about tell you how much they love your book: you win
If American Idol has taught us anything, it's that praise from the people who care about you (or that you care about) is not always reliable. Look at all the idiots on American Idol whose family didn't have the heart to tell them that they sucked. We know they suck, but they didn't because their family never bothered to be honest with them, thus sending them out to be crushed by the judges and the public (who gets so much pleasure out of their misery). If everyone is telling you they love your book, then maybe something is wrong. Even if they all are being honest, praise is meaningless if it isn't accompanied by constructive criticism. If all you're told is "this is wonderful," how can you ever expect to improve?

If you cut the list down to ten items, it's not a bad list. There are some good goals, but, for the most part, the list is dominated by awfully pointless and plain stupid goals. Having low standards for success doesn't suddenly make you a winner. You don't see football players saying "if I manage to hold onto the ball for three seconds, I win." Why? Because there's nothing about that goal that is remotely impressive. It's a weak goal, and weak goals are worth about as much as non-existent goals. Short of impressing your cadre of weak-goaled friends, saying you win and doing something that pretty much anyone can do is a waste of energy and time. Achieve something real, and then start jumping up and down.

Self-publishing Lies and Myths: Deception and Unethical Practices

I've railed against this idea before in smaller form, but I wanted to address this particular self-publishing issue directly. A whole lot of self-publishers and the people that support them have been advocating the practice of creating individual "imprints" to market one's book. Sue Collier recently blogged about this very concept, albeit rather briefly, in response to another blogger's rejection of self-publishing. While I agree with Collier that self-publishing is a better route for non-fiction than fiction, I take issue with the "imprint" model that so many self-publishers have now begun to use, and for good reason:
In addition, if you self-publish properly—start up your own imprint, purchase your own block of ISBNs, and have the book well edited and well designed—as opposed to going the subsidy route (often incorrectly called “self-publishing”), reviewers should have no idea you are self-published. Your book is simply a title from a new independent publisher. And there is no stigma there.
The problem with this very idea is actually its goal: "reviewers should have no idea you are self-published." That, obviously, extends to consumers of all stripes, and the practice is woefully unethical. The idea that a self-published author should go the extra step to essentially trick the consumer on the foundational level into thinking that a particular book was published by a real publisher is nothing short of deceptive. Why?

Of all of the self-published authors I have seen doing this, none of them are open about the fact that they are self-published. They play the "I'm published just like *insert NYT bestelling author here*" role, despite having done nothing remotely similar. Some of them even lie when confronted about it, so desperate to keep up appearances that they won't even admit the lie when all the facts are laid out in front of them (I'm looking at you zombie lady, whose "publisher" has a website made by her husband and thinks I'm too stupid to put two and two together).

The problem with pretending to be traditionally published is that it is disingenuous. People who do this are not traditionally published. Yes, they might have produced a good piece of fiction in a nice exterior package, but they did not submit the manuscript to a publisher or an agent or go through any of the numerous processes involved in traditional publishing. Nobody sat with the manuscript and decided it deserved to be in print. Consumers are not always aware of the processes, but they do know that there is a difference between traditionally published and self-published, even if they don't always get those differences correct. Most consumers would avoid a self-published book, perhaps to the detriment of an author who actually produced something of value. But that's part of the game.

Misrepresenting what you are is quite literally a deceptive act. I would liken this to putting a science fiction book in a romance novel package. When a customer buys that book, they expect a romance novel, not a science fiction one. It's one thing to create a nice product, but it's another to pretend that that product is something it is not. I would even go as far as to say this is no different than lying directly to the consumer, and consumers really don't like to be lied to (as we've seen before with authors who have lied, such as that fellow that Oprah endorsed, and Sarah Palin--although, perhaps people liked Palin's lies due to the hilarity they created). As far as unethical business practices go, this is one step from the top of my list--right below flat-out lying by self-publishers to authors about self-publishing and by companies who do the same. Publishers publish other people; self-publishers publish themselves. It's a simple distinction.

The solution to this practice is perhaps not as radical as one might think after reading all of the above. Creating an imprint is entirely plausible, if done right. I think the best way to do it without reaching into the unethical/deceptive spaces is to create an imprint that is your name. Consumers are smart enough to put two and two together. But, I doubt anyone will buy into that solution. There's so much fear over the legitimate stigma attached to self-publishing that, for some, being deceptive and lying is much easier than trying to battle for respectability--stealing it is quicker and less painful.

What this has all taught me is to be very cautious about the books I buy. If I've never heard of a publisher, I look them up, and dig. I do this because I don't appreciate being lied to or deceived. Ever. It's a pain in my backside, but I'm not willing to throw my money on something unless I know who the publisher is and that said publisher is legitimate. Self-publishing can make purchases of books a risk to the consumer, and I know a lot of people, right now and in the past, who don't like to risk their money. And nobody wants to risk their money on something that was presented to them as a lie.

Thoughts? Let me know in the comments.