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ROFLMAO (and then I get serious)

John Scalzi on epubbing bingo.

I'm not opposed to e-publishing, and I'm certainly not opposed to publishing on demand.  What I caution against, though, and stand a shade aghast at is the number of people who think that the smart way into publishing is to end-run the entire publishing industry itself, seize the means of production, and self publish.  [insert glyph of glove-covered fist raised in defiance]

The desperation of some of the unpublished is both understandable and frightening.  I've talked to writers who have been trying to be published for years without success.  I've also talked to writers who have moaned about how tedious the process is because they've been trying to sell their novel for the last month, and they aren't a best seller yet.

Here's the real problem, I think.  WAY more writers believe they are ready for publication than are actually ready.  That has always been the case.  The old system, though, where almost all publication was controlled by the traditional print sources, cut the unready out of the publishing mix.  The unready who were persistent, kept working, polished their craft, and, if everything came together, joined the ranks of the published.  The unready who were not persistent or who couldn't improve their craft to a publishable level, weren't published.

I know, I know, I know.  As soon as I bring up this argument, someone evokes the ghost of John Kennedy Toole, whose posthumously published novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, won the Pulitzer Prize.  Toole, after failing at repeated attempts to publish the book, committed suicide.  His mother sold the novel, finally, several years later.

"Toole," the unpublished cry, "is proof that the traditional system is broken."  They conclude then that they must self publish either through print on demand or they go straight to e-books.

I think Toole is a great example of an outlier.  His story is not even close to typical.  It is possible that an unpublished author has written their own version of A Confederacy of Dunces.  It's also possible that I will will the lottery tomorrow.  Many things are possible.  It is way, way more likely that the unpublished author is not writing well enough yet, and/or hasn't found the right editor yet.

So, what would I do if I had an unpublished novel sitting at home?  First, I would find people whose literary taste I trust to read it and respond.  If someone reads it who I think has a reliable taste who likes it, then I would be encouraged to hunt down an agent to represent it.

What if all the agents I show it to don't like it?  That may be a clue that it's not saleable.  It may also be a clue that I need to find other agents, all the time being wary of scam agents.

If I meet an acquiring editor or publisher who says they would be willing to look at it, I'd let them see it too.

In the meantime, during the lengthy process of showing the book, I'd be writing another.  After all, if someone does like the book, they're likely to ask if I have other projects.  I want to be sure to say yes.

As long as I believe the book is worthy, I will keep showing it around.  I don't think it is possible to completely run out of people to show it to.  There is turnover in the industry: new agents, new editors and publishers, and new publishing lines.

I could, I suppose, even try something unusual, like, if I have a lot of readers on my blog, posting a chapter a week until the book is done, but I would only do that if all my chances were done, and I would do that with the expectation that the book will never be published any other way.  I wouldn't expect that, like John Scalzi, the book on my web site would attract a legitimate publisher.  I know, it might, but I might also score that Powerball ticket I've been pining for.  Scalzi is an outlier (who not only had a popular blog site when he started his experiement, but also possessed years of successful writing behind him--he was no rookie).

I could also, I suppose, work up a cover for e-publishing or print on demand, but once again I would only do it if all my chances were done.  I would be doing it for myself and for my friends.  I would never, never be able to claim the title as a legitimate part of my bibliography.  As far as legitimate publishers are concerned, I would still be unpublished.

So, why do I care if someone rushes to the easy self-publishing route of e-books or print on demand?  I don't know.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  Smart writers figure out eventually what they need to be successful, and that's where they focus their energy.  I'm not hurt when I run into someone who is proud of their self-published tomes that are languishing in obscurity.

Maybe it really doesn't matter

But it feels like it should.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 21st, 2011 10:46 pm (UTC)
Jim, I'm with you here.

Here is my take from about a month back:


Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:25 pm (UTC)
Hi, Barb. I missed your original post, somehow. Nicely said!
Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:45 pm (UTC)
Hi Jim. Thanks. I don't think you have me added to your "friends" list (smiles).

But . . . I almost never post anymore. I used to be really good about it, and lately I've just been so slammed with other things I've not been very good about posting.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 02:10 pm (UTC)
I think I post out of procrastination from other things I should be doing.
Mar. 21st, 2011 11:09 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I am a bit baffled by the energy many authors with blogs pour into defending the status quo and convincing new writers that they should follow the same path. Sure, lots of "unworthy" books are self-published. A lot of them are also foisted upon weary agents and editors. How is one thing worse than the other? And if a writer is, by chance, a genius, and gives up on the publishing industry too soon, and self-publishes, what is the worst that can happen? Maybe it will take her a few extra years to find her audience...or maybe not.

As a newer author with unpublished novels I want to sell, I am open to different options. I'm trying the major publishing houses, but I am also very aware that it's quite a runaround, and have seen a lot of my friends royally screwed by publishing houses. I WILL self publish before I accept a crap advance and a crap print run with a crap contract.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 02:06 am (UTC)
Please take a look at my post linked in the comment above. The worst that can happen is that a very good book will never be noticed--when it could be.

If you have a decent agent, you won't sign a shabby contract.

And in my opinion (and only in my opinion) advances don't matter. JC and I had a comical advance for Dhampir. What mattered was the royalties we earned after our publisher got the book placed properly in the bookstores.

Mar. 22nd, 2011 02:19 am (UTC)
Meh. Do you really think that worthy books are NOT being overlooked by the publishing industry? Are you kidding me? I've seen fantastic books that sank like a stone because the publisher gave them a 10,000 word print run and zero promotion. If newer writers want to experiment with epublishing, I see no reason they shouldn't. If it sells only 12 copies, they can still try marketing it to publishing companies. Everyone has to find their own way into the business, and there's no guarantee of success whatever route you take. The best advice is to try everything, actually. Write a book. Send it out. Write another. Send it out. If someone wants to insert a "publish on Amazon" step in there somewhere, more power to them.

I don't know how self-publishing is any more delusional than assuming that the big houses will "somehow" figure out how to stay profitable in the changing publishing landscape. As authors, our only job is to keep writing and keep trying to find our audience.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 05:24 am (UTC)
I think the reason there's so much attention devoted to this is because authors feel that self-publishing is extremely tempting (to those whose holy grail is "get my book out") and extremely self-destructive (because it bypasses all the oversight and improvement mechanisms that real publication should provide, and because it usually ends in an amateurish product wallowing in obscurity).

They're warning people off. Same reaction as a person might have if he saw droves of friends joining up with pyramid schemes and MLMs... except dealing directly with their art and craft.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
That's pretty condescending, actually, to tell new writers that their book will never be any good unless they work with a big publishing house editor. And it's not true, either. Some new writers are very excellent at what they do. In fact, publishing houses rely on writers to provide them with great product. No editor can turn a piece of crap into a best seller. It has to come from the writer. Do some of them benefit from working with an editor? Sure. But to say categorically that every writer is producing crap unless their work has passed muster with a publisher is just really condescending.

Sure, a lot of unpublished manuscripts are crap, but that's just Heinlein's law at work. There's no sense in telling new writers what to do with a manuscript that is crap. There is no good way to get a bad manuscript published. There are many good ways to get a good manuscript published, and for a really good manuscript, and for a writer willing to roll up her sleeves and dive into the production end of the business, there is a decent chance of success.

Now, I don't like to see writers choosing indie publishing because they think a new writer can't break into the business without connections. That's certainly not true. But I do think every writer should choose the best market for her product. They should get the best price they possibly can. The average advance for a new science fiction/fantasy novel is $5000, and the average novel doesn't earn out its advance. If that's what you're looking at getting from the big publishers, why not go it alone?
Mar. 22nd, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
I should say "around $5000."
Mar. 22nd, 2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
I think there's a lot of information out there on small press and e-published dollars that indicate $5,000 would be an epic success in those venues. Almost all small press and e-pubs make considerably less or lose money.

If the choice was between a $5,000 (or even $1,000) advance from an established publisher or going it alone through self-marketing, the unestablished writer would certainly be making a better career move to go with the established press.

This dynamic changes if the writer is established. If the writer has an audience because of previous publishing successes, then it's much more likely that their self-published work will find and audience and make money.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
I do not have a novel published yet. I am shopping one around and working on another. I will trunk it before I accept a typical $5000 first novel contract, and there is no way I'd consider selling my book for a $1000 advance. Yes, the advance is not the whole shebang, but if they are not willing to give me a decent advance, I know they are not going to invest in promoting it and it is either not a very good book or not the right time to publish it. I make six figures writing nonfiction. I don't need $1000 bucks from a publisher. If that is the best offer I could get, I absolutely would go indie.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:07 am (UTC)
Like you said, not everyone is ready to be published. Many think they are, but they are decidedly not.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 12:22 pm (UTC)
Hi Jim --

Very interesting post. I do get the sense that a lot of writers are impatient with the traditional route -- which is understandable, because it takes time. But I think it's worth the extra effort, and the wait, and the heartache of those multiple rejection slips, if in the end you land a decent publishing house (and/or agent) for your novel.

There's nothing inherently 'wrong' for me about self-publishing, but I do think it's harder for the author, in the sense that it means a lot more work in things that take us away from the writing itself, and in the sense that the lack of marketing support will make it that much harder to have decent sales (especially for a first-time author with little or no audience). When new authors ask me whether to self-publish, I generally advise they at least try the traditional route first. Though I never respond with an outright 'No' to self-publishing, because it is a route that works for a lot of authors.

Maybe the reason if feels like this should 'matter' is the sense that self-publishing is being 'sold' to authors -- especially new and aspiring authors -- as the 'easy way' to go, and it's just not that easy. Both self-publishing and the traditional route have advantages & disadvantages, both are hard for different reasons, both have their 'lottery' elements, and the author has to weigh the options with great care if his or her novel is to succeed in the market place.

Mar. 22nd, 2011 12:38 pm (UTC)
Nicely put.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 02:07 pm (UTC)
This is the problem
Change. Published authors want to hold the wall that is keeping unpublished authors out of the castle. Sure, there might not be much room inside, but a lot of the people in there don't deserve to be there.

Did some agent and publisher like their book? Sure. But that doesn't mean it's good. It simply means they (publisher and agent) thought they could make money off of it.

The publishing world really isn't about quality anymore. Look at Hollywood. Self-publication gives authors a chance. It lets them go right for the public without having to deal with the BS of picky businessmen.

And what's it matter if I self-publish my book? If your book is as good as you think it is, then you won't have a problem making your "fair share."
Mar. 23rd, 2011 01:18 am (UTC)
I think this post should be obligatory reading for anyone who wants to be a writer.

And I think it matters because a million self published books will eventually cause all the readers to walk away in disgust - leaving the authors who did make the effort no market in which to sell their work.
Mar. 25th, 2011 10:47 am (UTC)
ok, so :) i am a self-published writer whose tomes are languishing in obscurity, as you put it -- i've sold about 30 copies of my (too long for the market) novel, and 9 copies of the (new!) chapbook (of genuinely unpublishable, some might say unprintable) "transgressive" work. i've sold some stories and poems to paying markets, and i write scientific and textbook and engineering stuff according to the traditions of those fields (nota bene, they don't pay!) -- but my bigger work is typeset by a friend, handbound by another friend, lovingly decorated and generally sold by yours truly.

i'm not proud of being unpublished. i'm not even proud that i am too wigged out by the whole publishing deal, and have watched too many good-writer-friends (imho) tear their hair out in it, that i kind of just never wanted to go there. but here i am, and there ya have it.

so, i do ask you: why *do* you feel like this matters? i doubt the world is losing out on pulitzer-prize-winning material here, and i make my living doing other stuff, and this way it's still mostly mainly fun. why should i wear myself out trying "all the chances" at "legitimacy"? i don't think i need a publishing company to legitimate my work; my readers say they like it, and that's been awfully nice for me.

your comments or opinions sincerely solicited!
Mar. 29th, 2011 08:33 pm (UTC)
Hey lyonesse :)

I think you've misread Jim here. In his opening, he writes:

  • I'm not opposed to e-publishing, and I'm certainly not opposed to publishing on demand.

  • What I caution against, though, and stand a shade aghast at is the number of people who think that the smart way into publishing is to end-run the entire publishing industry itself, seize the means of production, and self publish.

It sounds like you're firmly in the first camp, not the second. The problem Jim says he feels should matter is the writer who wants the perks of publication, but thinks self-publishing is an "easy" way to get them. Part of the reason he's likely to think so is because A) self-publication is available to him; traditional publishing isn't, so self-pub is "easy", and B) a lot of vanity presses deliberately prey on writers, misrepresenting self-publication as a simple shortcut to success.

Successful self-publication is certainly possible. Jim's problem is with people who think it's easy - and may waste their work, or others', based on that assumption.
Apr. 1st, 2011 01:25 am (UTC)
hmm. well, i don't e-publish (i have a typesetter and a bookbinder) and i don't publish on demand (i try to keep a backlog of a dozen copies or so of everything in stock). i do have a fancytastic two-sided printer, and my typesetter has a giant staple gun, and i don't know what half of my bookbinder's tools are for :)

so i think i have succeeded in seizing the means of production. i don't use a vanity press, because hey, i like doing artwork, and i think in the long run the printer's been more useful anyway. but nobody misrepresented anything to me.

i also don't work all that hard at this -- i have about four or five other microbusinesses, and i don't expect the books to support me, just pay off the occasional sf con or whatever. and they do fine for that.

but i think the assumption that i fall into the not-end-running, not-seizing-means camp is wrong. i think that is exactly what i've done; i don't think i could have put it better myself :)
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )