Follow-up to the eBook and publishing post

See the original post here, and pay special attention to the thoughtful and informed comments (which are a pleasant change from the usual Internet fare). They also bring up some points I’d like to address:

1) I don’t think publishers will go away altogether, even if they persist in some as mere quality signals or brands. Among the millions of self-published books coursing through the Internet, making informed decisions as a reader gets even harder than it is now. In the previous post, I mentioned the problem of false negatives—books that should’ve been published but are rejected—without reiterating that most negatives are true negatives—that is, books that are rejected because they’re bad. Readers are having and will continue to have problems in this regard. As Laura Miller says in “When anyone can be a published author: How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?“:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

2) As a result of 1), I wouldn’t be surprised if “publishing” morphs into a much smaller, broader-based business in which editor-agent hybrids take on promising writers in a somewhat traditional manner but don’t offer advances or some of the conventional “perks.” Instead, they’ll work with writers to improve the writers’ writing, structure, and so forth, in exchange for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 – 20% of the book’s profits.

Be very wary of writers who say they don’t need editors. Maybe Nabokov didn’t need an editor, but pretty much every other writer did and does. And editors are expensive—I know because I’ve looked into what hiring one would cost—and writers, especially young, untested writers, don’t have a lot of money. So I don’t think lump-sum upfront payments will work for most writers, particularly fiction writers. Editors might judge who is worth investment based on signals like, say, blog posts.

Laments like this one by Kristine Kathryn Rusch make me wonder about what function editors are performing now; I can’t excerpt it effectively, but it observes the extent to which junior editors at publishing houses treat her like an idiot. If the experience described in her post is routine or commonplace, I think it bodes ill for conventional publishing houses (assuming, of course, there’s not some mitigating factor she’s not describing in the post).

A lot of writers say publishers aren’t doing that much to promote their book as it is, which may be true, but they do at least send a quality signal. I wonder, though, about the cost of books—especially hardcovers, and still think this cost is going to fall. Which leads me to. . .

3) I think self-published writers are, over time, going to put pricing pressure on conventionally published books. If you’re a random mystery reader and don’t have especially high quality standards for prose quality or prose originality and consume a very large number of mysteries, self-published ones that aren’t as polished as commercially published fiction might be just as good. If you’re buying books for $2.99 on a Nook instead of $5.99 – $9.99 via Nook or mass-market paperback, then you get a lot more word for your buck. This is especially true, it seems to me, in genre publishing, where series are common and so are relatively rapid and similar books.

Being the kind of “informed” reader discussed in # 1 doesn’t stop most people from being not very discriminating.

4) Desperation is underrated as an inspiration to change. Jeff observes in a comment: “As an author just barely at the bottom of the midlist, if my choice is between self-publishing and not publishing and all, I’ll choose the former.” Me too, although, like him, I’d choose conventional publishing at this point in time, given the choice. But writers without a “choice” will increasingly lean towards self-publishing.

5) Blogs and other non-publisher signals of quality may become more important over time. If readers are debating an author’s merits, looking at their blog or other online writing may be a useful way to decide whether a writer is worth the time it takes to begin a novel. I suspect most non-established writers know or suspect this by now, but it’s worth reiterating anyway. These days, when people say things like, “I want to be a writer” to me, I ask if they have a blog. If the answer is “no,” that signals they’re probably not very serious about writing. Even if the blog only has one post a month, if that post is a substantial or interesting one I take it as a positive sign.

6) If you’re interested in how the publishing industry works now and why, despite the media portrayals, it works better than it’s sometimes depicted, take a look at Charlie Stross’s series of posts Common Misconceptions About Publishing, which were last updated in May 2010 but are still required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

7) I don’t think most of my analysis is terribly original, and you could find similar analyses elsewhere. Nonetheless, I find the changing business interesting both as a reader and writer / would-be writer.

8) I’m not sure much, if any of this, matters to readers, but it should matter a lot to writers who care at all about making some money from their work.

3 responses

  1. I read some fan fiction online a few years ago, out of fascination, mostly. (I never knew such a thing existed.) At first, I found myself in a giant slush pile. But many fanfic writers’ profiles linked to other writers they enjoyed reading. I followed those links and was soon reading better material. I wonder if that model that might work its way into self-publishing.

    And I wouldn’t be surprised if the editor-agent hybrid you describe adopts the job title “professional beta reader.”

    Thanks for the post!


  2. First of all, Nabokov most certainly did need an editor! Pale Fire? Ugh, I simply could not get through it. One of the few books I gave up halfway through. But more to the point …

    I enjoyed this post (and the one that spawned it). These are developments I’ve been following with much interest, and more than a little anxiety. You’ve already touched on the signal-to-noise problem, so I won’t belabor that issue.

    But let me say this about traditional publishing houses — at least, those specializing in genre fiction …

    First, I am astonished at the quantity of books coming out of mainstream genre-mills like Ballantine, Random House, HarperVoyager, etc. As editor of a newsletter that publishes reviews in this space, I receive an average of ten, sometimes twenty new books every single month. And this is just from a handful of publishers. If I were to get onto more publishers’ review rotations, I’d be snowed under! It’s not uncommon to see writers publishing an entire trilogy in a single year now. It just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming — making me really wonder whether they’re turning anything down! And yet, the mere fact that it keeps coming means either that (a) readers out there are still rapaciously gobbling it up, (b) the cost to produce new books is much lower than even we think it is, or (c) both.

    And second, I am also astonished at the quality — by which I mean the lack of it. The overwhelming majority of these new books is (by my standards) dreadful. Yes, that’s what I said: the genre fiction being published by the traditional publishers is dreadful, not very much better than most self-published books I see. Nine out of ten books I receive for review I would not waste my time reading. I dutifully read the blurbs and then the first page or two, then invariably toss it aside. In general, I find the standard in today’s genre fiction — regardless of its avenue to the reader — to be depressingly low.

    I’ve read a sampling of Amanda Hocking, and she’s no worse than anything being published by the brick-and-mortars — but she’s no better either. The last thing I want is to come across as promoting an elitist cult of reading, but I sometimes wonder whether the ease and ubiquity of reading made possible by all these gadgets isn’t making reading too “easy”, hence, making readers, collectively, too undiscriminating.


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