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11.29.2011

Self-Published Books: the Digital Age Slush Pile?

Amazon Kindle Fire
Amazon Kindle has probably passed the one million mark in e-book titles as of now, considering that it stood at 750,000 a year ago, and adds as much as 1,000 titles a day!  

Much of it self-published (how much is not given to know) - thus giving self-published authors what they see as a "level playing field" with traditional publishers, both big and small. The digital revolution has wiped away the stigma of self-publishing, giving indies a unique opportunity to distribute their books and connect with readers without having to go through a traditional publisher.

Most certainly a unique opportunity but as I have already pointed out once before, full of pitfalls for the newbies (see here for my post on the subject). Not so for the already published author with a fan base: he/she has a much better chance "to make it", particularly on the marketing side, than an aspiring author whom no one has heard of.

This much is obvious. But there are other reasons, and I'm not the only one ringing the alarm bells. Here's a fascinating article published on The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003. The Millions has been featured on NPR and noted by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Village Voice, among others.

One of its staff writers,  Edan Lepucki,  recently made a list of reasons not to self-publish: 
1. Traditional Publishing is not Dead: 
This is an important point Edan makes right from the beginning, and something one should keep in mind when considering self-publishing:  
People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are “another bright spot” in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!) 
Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous — and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones...
And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away...I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do...As I said...“I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”
One of Edan's readers commented that this showed she lacked self-confidence as a writer - that she should need "validation" from a publishing house in order to find the courage to publish. 

Validation? Maybe. But it is still true that the publishing industry has a "slush pile" system to filter incoming submissions from aspiring writers and sift out the "outstanding" ms, the one that "will sell". Of course, what a publisher or a literary agent who is the front line in this slush pile filtering process thinks is "outstanding" is clearly an entirely subjective matter...

2.    Literary Fiction is Not a Big Seller in Self-Publishing on Digital Platforms:

Another point Edan makes, but perhaps misleading:
Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories.
Several people commented (including myself) that what sells is a "good story" rather than any specific genre. But it is equally true that "straightforward genre" - particularly Romance - trumps literary everytime, in both the digital and real world of printed books. Literary books make a lot less money on average, but it is in the literary category that "black swans" tend to arise more often - you know what I mean, the unusual book that sets a new trend in literature, like, for example, Tolkien's books that started a whole new genre, the medieval fantasy...

On a secondary note, Edan added:
Readers like me aren’t seeking out self-published books. Why not? That’s for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don’t see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon.
She also later in the article confesses that she hasn't got an e-reader - undoubtedly it partly explains the pro-traditional publisher bias in her list. But still, I believe that this list is not something self-published authors who have gone digital should dismiss or underestimate. Most people still read printed books!

3.  A Small Press is Often an Aspiring Writer's Best Friend: 

Probably based on her own experience with small presses, Edan has yet another point:
The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (nominated for this year’s National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house...

True enough but small presses can easily go bankrupt. I know mine did here in Italy, in 1991 when I published a children's book that was an instant success with critics and won three prestigious Italian  national awards  (that was the first time I made money off my writing!). I thought I had it made, I was euphoric until the press defaulted and never distributed my book anywhere in Italy. Just folded and that was that! I was working full time in the United Nations and didn't have the courage - or time - to pick up the pieces and try to sell it elsewhere...

4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published
Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he’s built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s much harder to create a readership out of nothing...
How true! And I would add that when you re-publish on a digital platform a book that has once been published traditionally, most of your book presentation and promotion problems are already solved. 

When you self-publish you are on your own: you have to decide the genre of your book, the sales pitch, the cover style etc etc. I know how hard that can be: my Fear of the Past Trilogy is really cross genre: historical (many characters are historical but the protagonist isn't - he's a computer whiz kid );  paranormal (in the limited sense that the protagonist meets his ancestors in a Place Out of Time in Book 1 and is trapped in the mind of his great-great grandfather in Book 2, in time to witness the collapse of his family) but there are no scary ghosts or gore. In book 3, the protagonist takes his own life in his hands and fights the Sicilian and Russian Mafia, trying to save both the woman he loves and his creation, a social network that is an innovative cross between Facebook and Second Life. Thus, you could argue Book 3 is both a romance and a techno-thriller and all three books are focused on the protagonist's self quest and his attempt to rid himself of the burden of his family's past.

So what genre is it? Does that make it Young Adult (age group, 14 to 18)? Strictly speaking no, because the protagonist who's 17 at the start of the trilogy is 22 when it ends! So I guess it's general fiction for general reading, hum...

Perhaps a better title for the Trilogy would have been Fear of Failure, because that is the fear that haunts and paralyzes this brilliant young man who doesn't really know who he is and what he can achieve...a fear, I believe, that besets not just the young but all of us. Imagine! Here I go and self-publish a book and once it's up there on the virtual shelf, I have second thoughts and doubts about its very title!

Sure I could pay an editor to go over it (I have actually) and give me advice. But can I really trust the advice since I'm the one paying? Isn't that person going to be tempted to tell me what I want to hear? Or perhaps not give it much attention since being freelance, there are plenty other jobs beckoning out there?
   
5. Publishers Add Value to Your Books

Here, to make the point since Edan is not yet published herself, she got one famous author's opinion:
I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he’s ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he’s a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he’s a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike... He told me:
True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I’m not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher...
Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish?
 
Exactly right. You can't, can you? 

As I just said above, if you're the one paying, the temptation is great for the editor and copy-editor to just get the job done as fast as possible and move on to the next client. 

Now, on the other hand, if the editor is part of the publishing house's structure he/she has to think of his/her career. The job has to be well done because the editor is part of an institutional structure that demands quality books.

That's a very big plus provided by traditional publishers to their authors.

Ditto for book covers of course.  Some authors have problems with their publisher's book covers or illustrations (I know I did - for my children's book the illustrator the publisher selected was awful and I was lucky with my second book in 2007: the publisher agreed to use one of my paintings for the cover). But overall, publishers aim for a certain style/brand and that can only be helpful in the long run.

6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don’t want to be Amazon’s Bitch

Edan here used a strong word: "Amazon's bitch" (I didn't - the subtitle is entirely hers) and she goes on:
Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can’t see myself taking that route, however, because I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway… I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn’t be able to buy my own book — I mean, shouldn’t I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6″ for “The Big 1.”
As you my readers know, I've gone "digital" and so far no printed version of my Fear of the Past trilogy exists but I'm working to upload one on CreateSpace (will let you know when the printed version becomes available). But honestly, I don't believe there any reason to fear becoming “Amazon’s bitch”. Why fear Amazon? Why use the degrading term "bitch"? If there is this (bizarre) possibility, you could argue that there is equal danger in becoming anyone of the Big Six Publishers’ bitch! In any case, one can always go (as I have) to another digital platform: Barnes & Noble (the Nook), iBookstores (for the Ipad) or Sony Stores or even sell the books directly on one's website like Rowland is doing on Pottermore. Indeed, it is highly advisable and makes total economic sense to publish on as many platforms as you can. Amazon is not the only digital player, and worldwide it may never become The One (but that's the subject of another post!)

7.  What Happens When the Digital Revolution Swells the Number of Books to the Point of Making it Look like a Slush Pile? Is it Best for Readers?

 Edan is very clear on that:  
As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with. 
One can only agree with her: I'm also busy "putting my head back to the grindstone" and writing my next novel. That's why we're writers, right? But to argue that an avalanche of self-published books is a bad thing per se...Well, I don't agree. 

First, the cream will rise to the top. It always does: word of mouth is still the best and time-honored way to spread knowledge about good reads. It may take time, but trust me, good books will always be discovered, sooner or later.

Second, in the Digital Age, clever electronic ways can be devised to speed up book discovery. Amazon already does a remarkable job of it and indeed that is why it is fast becoming a major publisher, perhaps even (as I once posted - click here) the Next Big Publisher. 

But, as Seth Godin says (see article below), book discovery on e-readers is still in its infancy. He acknowledges readily that the success of his Domino publishing project was based on a core group of 50,000 subscribers. He reportedly has just shut the project down not because it failed, but because it seems he wants to get involved in other things, saying this was merely a "project" and as such should "come to an end". And there is little doubt that Konrath's success in selling his thrillers has a lot to do with the success of his blog (500,000 visits a year, so he says).

Publishing Perspectives recently reported on one small bookstore's fascinating quiz to help readers find their next read in function of their tastes  (yes, bookstores still exist and are very innovative and dynamic - indeed, if they weren't, they wouldn't survive in the Digital Age...) I took the quiz just to see how it works - it was fun to take by the way - and I was amazed at how well it worked! It immediately suggested a book of the kind that I really like to read...  But I didn't buy it because this book was not available...on the Kindle! Still, I'm convinced that quiz would work wonders on Amazon or any of the other digital platforms: fun to take and effective in identifying attractive titles!

I would love to hear your reactions to these points! Do you believe the days of traditional publishers as "gatekeepers" of literary taste are over? Will ways be found to avoid turning the mountain of e-books on Amazon (and elsewhere) into a "slush pile" discouraging readers?
 

, on The Millions's staff, is a fiction writer and instructor living in Los Angeles. Her stories have been published in major magazines (McSweeney's, Narrative Magazine, Meridian, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, among others). Learn more about her writing classes at writingworkshopsla.com.
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