I will try to get back to my “Back to Basics” series next week. I had every intention of writing a new entry in the series this week, but over the past several days I have been reading the comments generated by Stuart and Edmund posts about self-publishing, as well as responses to a Facebook post I put up on Friday about Google’s latest assault on authors and publishers (this is the same Google policy that Faith referred to in her response to Stuart’s post). When I sat down to write today’s post, I found that my heart wasn’t in it.
The growth of the ebook market, like the advance of global climate change, is happening faster and with greater ramifications than most people expected. Unlike global warming, the ebook developments have beneficial consequences as well as detrimental ones. (Well, I suppose if you live on the Cumberland Plateau, like I do, and you expect that pretty soon your yard will be considered ocean front property, I suppose you could say that global warming might be beneficial, too. Otherwise, not so much . . . .) Authors have more freedom to publish their own books, to take control of the packaging and marketing of their work. I believe that epublishing opens up huge opportunities for short story writers, not necessarily because they can put out collections, as Stuart and Edmund are doing, but because they can sell individual short stories for various platforms. Short story writers no longer have to depend upon the ever-shifting and gradually shrinking print short story market to sell their work. They can market individual stories on, say, Amazon, and even if they are selling their short stories for $0.49 each and getting a 30% royalty on each sale, they need only sell 1500 copies to make over $200.00 for the story, which is comparable to the revenue from short story sales in many SFWA-sanctioned print markets.
For novelists, however, I would argue that ebooks are a far less certain bet. And for established authors, I’m not sure that the benefits always outweigh the problems.
Let’s start by clearing up a few misconceptions that showed up in the comments this weekend. Contrary to what several people have said, traditional publishing with a big-name publishing house offers tangible and substantial advantages over both small press and self-pubbing options. One of them Edmund touched upon in his reply to a comment: advances on royalties. The idea of an author’s advance is that it gives an author something to live on while working on a book and during the time it takes to get the book in print. Yes, I realize that with ebooks, the lag between finishing a manuscript and seeing it in print can be greatly reduced, but this is another problem that I’ll get to later. The point is that even with a small advance of say $7,500.00 for a book, an author is getting some money up front. And a corollary to this is that when we publish with traditional presses, we have no publishing-associated expenses. We don’t have to invest any money at all in the process, except for the money our agent takes out of that advance. There are (or at least there should be) no out-of-pocket costs. That’s important to keep in mind because our traditional publishers do more for us than pay the advance.
Traditional publishers provide us with the following: 1) A professional editor who will read through and critique the manuscript, suggesting changes that will, without a doubt, make the book better. They will also shepherd us through the revision process, providing free online and phone-access technical support for our writing. No extended warranty purchase necessary! 2) A professional copyeditor who will further refine the manuscript, taking care of typos, syntactical errors, inconsistencies in plot, character, setting, etc. 3) Professional proofreaders, who will finalize the editing of the manuscript. 4) Jacket art by a professional artist. 5) Jacket design and layout services, as well as jacket copy (those plot summaries that we see on the backs of books) to help lure readers to the book. 6) Formatting, typesetting, and printing and/or electronic generation of the book, again by professionals. 7) (and the importance of this one simply cannot by overstated) Review copies compiled, printed, and distributed to journals, magazines, professional reviewers, and other publications often of the author’s choice, in order to garner reviews in advance of the book’s official publication. In addition, earlier in the process, publishers will send out review copies, or even bound manuscripts, to established authors in order to get cover blurbs that can be helpful in drawing readers to the books. 8.) Advertisements of our books in magazines, journals, newspapers, and other print and online venues. 9) Nationwide (and at times worldwide) distribution of our books to physical bookstores, online booksellers, and ebook vendors. 10) And finally, accounting of our sales, shipments, returns, etc.
Now let me say that not all publishers do all of these things well. Sometimes they royally screw up one or another of them. But it’s not as though if we do this stuff on our own, we’re going to get all of it right the first time. My point is this: those 10 things I mention are valuable services. They are worth something, and as an author with a traditional house, I have never had to pay for any of them. What is each item on that list worth? I have no idea. Let’s say for argument’s sake that their average cost is $250 (which I am CERTAIN is incredibly conservative, but we’ll go with it anyway). That means we’re not only getting that $7,500.00 advance, we’re also not spending another $2,500.00 on ten things that can help to make our book more successful. We’re now talking about an up front difference of $10,000.00.
Do we need all of those services to put out a book? Probably not. We can skimp on the art, on the editing, on the publicity and the review copies and all that other stuff. Someone said in a comment the other day that they had published their own books for no more than $300.00 per book. I believe that. But I also question how that book is going to compete in the marketplace without eyecatching art, without proper editing, without any meaningful publicity push. We can do any of this stuff on the cheap. But if the point of this is to sell books and make a living at this . . . well, that seems like a really tough road.
And I haven’t even started to address the gatekeeper issue. In a remark I made in response to Edmund’s post on Saturday, I took issue with a comment that suggested authors could be our own gatekeepers. The fact is, we can’t. The idea behind the need for a “gatekeeper,” or for what my fellow MWers and I call “vetting,” is that we are all imperfect judges of the quality of our own work. We need professional agents and editors precisely because we are all a bit myopic about the quality of what we write. I’ve been doing this professionally for a really long time. I’ve published a dozen novels, and while I trust my internal editor enough to do some preliminary revisions on my own, I would never self-edit a book and then put it on the market for general distribution. All professionals, no matter how advanced, need some editing. Those authors who convince themselves otherwise tend to put out crap. Small press and big press publishing provide us with that vetting process. Self-publishing does not. And for the record, readers are not gatekeepers, either. If we’re relying on readers to do the vetting, we’re too late. The damage has already been done.
Yes, there are trade-offs. I would love for the first Thieftaker book to be out already. The fact that it’s not, even though I finished writing it a long time ago, is deeply frustrating. But editing takes time. Building up the foundation for a strong publicity push takes time. I’d love to get my books out as soon as I finish writing them — the turnaround times with self-epublishing are very attractive. But I would be sacrificing things for that. I believe that the quality of the finished product would suffer, as would my ability to market the book.
I do not mean to imply with any of this that Stuart and Edmund are making bad choices with the publishing adventures they began last week. But that’s because they are going into their respective processes with their eyes open. They both know that by taking the roads they’ve chosen (self-pub for Stuart, small pub for Edmund) that they are making certain sacrifices. They are also making these choices as established professionals who are already known and respected in the field. It’s easier for them than it would be for a writer with no publishing track record.
Are there advantages to self-publishing and the small-press route? Absolutely. I give up a lot of control over the marketing and packaging of my books when I sign with a big press. I don’t deny that, nor will I deny that this can also be frustrating at times. But do not fool yourself into thinking that there is essentially no difference between the traditional big-press route and today’s tech-intensive alternatives. The differences are stark, they’re significant, and when you choose one approach over another, you should be fully aware of this.David B. Coe