The Precarious Portentious Perils Of Self-Publishing

(Warning: unexpectedly long-ass post incoming.)

(Turn away now.)

(No, seriously, you were warned.)

I like self-publishing. I like having my hands in it. I like knowing what’s going on. I like owning the work from snout to tail, and owning the results of my work in the same way.

Further, I’ve read some incredible self-published work. Work that may never have reached my eyes were it not for the option for the author to circumvent the pomp and circumstance and reach me semi-directly.

So, count me as a fan of the option. In fact, let me say this to all writers: you should be self-publishing. Not all your work. But some of it. Take the option. Try it out. Diversification is good.

Okay? Okay.

Now, all that being said:

Self-publishing ain’t an easy road to walk. Oh, it’s sold that way. A lot of the self-publishing advice out there amounts to all the fucking wisdom of a Nike slogan: JUST DO IT, they say.

But doing the DIY-slash-indie-slash-micropub-slash-selfpub route is a path fraught with perils all its own — perils different from those encountered by the writer going the “other” way. And I’d like to talk about some of those perils here and now, both in order to make new writers aware of them and, further, to ideate some solutions for the aforementioned perils. I say, “Here there be gators,” and you say, “I will now show you my bonafide gator-whomping shock-bat.” And then we both turn toward the camera and show off our Mentos-twinkling minty-fresh smiles. Right? Right.

Maybe some of this will lend itself toward an eventual “best practices” of self-publishing. I dunno.

So. Self-publishing perils. Let’s have it.

The 800-Pound Cuddly Gorilla Named “Amazon”

This past week, Amazon said: “Hey, we’re starting this lending library, which is kind of like a Netflix for books available to Prime members, and that’s pretty cool. Self-published authors can be included in this and they’ll gain access to some part of the total money, but to gain that access they must choose to be exclusive to Amazon for 90 days.” That, of course, is the KDP Select program.

First, you’re probably going to want to check out David Gaughran’s post on this subject: “How Much Do You Want To Get Paid Tomorrow?” He says smart things. So, go there. I’ll wait.

Back? Good. I’ll say up front I’m not a fan of KDP Select at present: I sell 30% of my e-book wares directly to folks via this site and using Paypal. The money granted to me from KDP Select is mysterious: nobody’s had any experience with it yet and they’re asking for a lot given the utter lack of results. Further, I, as a bonafide paranoid, see glimpses of a Spotify future here for writers: suddenly for us to be making any money at all we have to make sure that 1.4 million people “check out” our books year after year. Overly fearful? Probably.

Just the same, KDP Select (which isn’t really what I’m here to talk about) is emblematic of a larger issue:

Amazon is a fucking megalodon shark in these self-publishing waters.

I know, I know, blah blah blah Smashwords, blah blah blah Barnes & Noble Nook. Your mileage may vary, but Smashwords to me is a non-option: it’s as ugly and obtrusive as a broken thumb. And B&N, I sell maybe 10% of my total to them. Maybe, on a good month. For the most part, my e-book revenue comes in as 70% Amazon, 30% direct sales. (Direct sales are up these days, though, from around 23%.)

Now, I like Amazon.

I don’t have any grave issue with them as a company and I’ve heard that working for them is a delight. Just the same, as much as you hear the self-publishing acolytes screaming about the mythic non-existent traditional publishing monopoly you rarely hear them issue concern over how Amazon is slowly reaching out with its big shark-gorilla arms and sweeping all the pieces toward its open slavering maw.

Say what you will about Apple (and you could): at least on my iPad I can read all kinds of e-books. On a Kindle Fire? I can read… well, Kindle books. Then you’ve got Amazon mobilizing its own publishing arms and swooping up authors under an NDA, and then you’ve got KDP Select and whatever else lurks in the wings. You start to see one possible future, which is when Amazon finally finishes carving its own proper kingdom out of the mountain and can suddenly exile authors once more to the caverns and chasms at the mountain’s base: they can say, “Hey, we’re revoking that 70/30 split and demanding exclusivity and we also want you to email us pictures of your genitals. Just so we have them. It’s in the terms of service. We own your pink parts. Thanks!”

Now, again: paranoid, I know. Just the same, companies aren’t people. Companies are beholden to a bottom line above an ethical proving ground, and once Amazon gains and retains all the pieces, they’ve no reason to be author-friendly. Because the ecosystem will have been redesigned and rebranded with the Amazon logo.

So. That’s the challenge. What’s the solution?

For me, it’s selling directly. Having that 30% margin proves I could, if need be, abandon the larger sites and switch entirely over to my own distribution (where the split is, by the way, better than 70/30) — and that may be the future for self-published authors: becoming our own distribution centers.

Shaking Your Can-Cans In The Whore’s Parade

We’re fucked for good promotion. Just fucked. Twitter has turned into a near-ceaseless whore’s parade of authors showing a little a lot of tit and advertising their self-published books over and over again. And I say that as an offender dancing in that very parade. I try to do right with it — try to be funny and engaging and equal out my self-promo whore-tweets with just as many non-whore tweets to water down the acrid bite of my whorishness, but just the same, it’s hard. And here’s the rub: it totally fucking works. If I advertise one of my books directly, you know what happens? I get sales. The more promo I do, the more sales I get.

Which means, being a trashy sloppy self-promo slut-bot is rewarding.

At least, it’s rewarding to my sales. I can’t say it’s particularly rewarding to my self-worth or my likability or my, I dunno, street cred. Do I have street cred? I probably have no street cred. My beard might. Alas: that’s a conversation for another time. Point being, promotional efforts on my part translate into sales.

This isn’t to say traditionally-published authors don’t do the same thing and don’t experience the same sense of gloomy shame — but I will say that, having publishers for both DOUBLE DEAD and BLACKBIRDS means I can lay off the stick a little bit. And it works: more people have reviewed and are talking about DOUBLE DEAD than any of my self-published work and in a very short time.

So — self-published writers have to be (put nicely) self-aggrandizing salesmen. And that’s no fun, not really. Thus I ask: what’s the solution? How else can we spread the word (and I mean, spread the words beyond our own social circles and beyond the self-publishing echo chamber, which is a very real and very troubling phenomenon)? Buying ads? Earning reviews in major publications? Wuzza? Wooza?

Discoverability And Filter Are Fucking Goofy

Related to the former challenge:

Discoverability and filter of self-published books are both crap. A giant, trembling termite’s mound of crap. Wandering a bookstore, I have a high quotient of browsing and I often find books I’d never have expected to find. Wandering Amazon just makes my eyeballs bleed. You’re practically browsing and filtering an infinity, and when you factor in the majority of self-published books, that means you’re going to browse a lot of covers that look like someone just ingested a rod of uranium and threw up in a clown’s shoe. (Meaning: revolting in the deepest, Lovecraftian sense.)

How do we change this? Do we need some kind of app that helps you discover books the same way an app helps you discover new music? How do we encourage the discoverability of our books? And us as writers?

Anecdotes And Edge-Cases Over Hard Data

Publishers have access to big data. Self-publishers have access to little data. Now, on a personal level, the little data matters and we need it — duh, we should know how much we’re selling. But what we don’t know is what’s going on outside our door. Yes, we hear the success stories, and we occasionally get numbers, but that doesn’t add up to meaningful data (though many of the zealots and cult leaders would have you believe that it does, but that’s how most Get Rich Quick schemes work).

We don’t know how successful self-publishers really are as a whole. Or why they’re successful, or what genres definitively work over ones that don’t, or how much contributes to sales. Big publishers have data that helps answer some of this: they have a much bigger picture (though an admittedly flawed picture at times) of the industry as a whole. Self-publishers learn only of their own little plots of land.

We operate in isolation.

Is anybody curating big data? And if they are, are they sharing it? How can we be more transparent with our numbers? Is it valuable to escape solitary and join the gen-pop in order to share bigger chunks of data?

Absolutely Zero Quality Control

All right, self-publishers, let’s get real for a minute.

Even after all that’s gone on in the last year, a lot of self-published books are still… well. Let’s just say they still suck a bag of dicks and then we all nod and frown and make sagely “mm, mm” noises.

Self-publishing has zero quality control. Zip, nada, nichts, bupkiss. Any goofy dillhole with a text file and a dream can punt his poorly-put-together-whatever into the marketplace to stink it up.

Now, I hear you, you have two retorts to this:

One: cream floats. To which I say: ennnh. Any browsing of the Kindle charts will show you that some truly execrable, objectively bad story-products find their way into the rankings.

Cream may float. But so does crap.

Two: traditional publishing has its equivalent share of stinkers. Yyyyeaaaaah-no. Not so much. If I take 10 randomly-selected books from the bookstore and then I choose 10 random self-published books, I genuinely believe that the bookstore books will at least meet the standards for being well-put-together and, to boot, will be books I don’t like based on subjective definitions. But I’ll bet you that at least half of the self-published books fail based on errors that any C-grade writer or publisher should’ve caught and fixed.

Let me just take a moment to share a post I saw on Authonomy:

“Virginia Woolfe – regarded as one of the most important women writers in history. — Self published

Mark Twain- The adventures of Huckleberry Fin- Originally self published.

A Time To Kill- John Grisham – self published.

Hmmm. You never know who else may be on that list.

I wonder what would have happened if that ONE agency hadn’t accidentally took home JK Rowlings Harry Potter. Do you think it would not have become what it is today if she had self published after so many rejections? I think it would have. The story people. That is what is most important to a 90% of your readers. I have read the perfectly edited MS of several writers and you know what, It’s so damn correct that it has become a basic cookie cutter pile of crap. But hey its perfect other wise. Writers are artists who do it for the pure joy of it and all I got to say about those who treat it like a buisness, following all the rules and etc just to make a dollar, you are not writers. You are not storytellers and you can self publish all day long and it wont matter. There’s no heart in it and the readers will know. What they won’t care about: oops. This sentence is missing a period. Oh no, they forgot the comma. Look, the dialog’s not indented. if the story is good enough, no one’s going to notice the small stuff. I’m not saying not to put effort into edting your work and making it the best possible, I’m just saying make sure your story is good because perfection is worthless to a reader.”

That’s all a little nutty. Isn’t it?

Writers can’t be businesspeople? Commas and periods and indentations are somehow too perfect? (And I keep seeing the myth that all these famous writers were self-published and so that means it’s totally cool, kay, thanks, bye. They usually miss that many of these writers were also traditionally-published and published in a very different ecosystem. And many were broke.)

Thing is, this attitude is pervasive in the self-publishing community — and nobody’s playing police officer and saying, “Wow, holy crap, that’s crazy. And, by the way, this is why we get less respect than we deserve.” Instead, you get the cheerleaders shaking their limp pom-poms, encouraging all the worst possible practices.

(For the record, that Authonomy thread was based on one of my self-publishing posts, apparently.)

This attitude is great for writers. “Who cares? Poop out a book!”

This attitude sucks for readers. “I just bought this book. And I think it’s made of poop?”

Why is this a challenge for all self-publishers? Because this is the stigma. Because this is what’s out there. This is your competition. What’s the solution? I really don’t know.

On one hand, it’d be great if Amazon and other sites had some kind of quality assessment, some objective scan of books to make sure that the covers don’t make me throw up and that sentences all have periods. But that’s never going to happen and, to boot, only puts more power in Amazon’s hands — and that gorilla doesn’t need to be jacked up any more than he already is.

If anything, it feels like this needs to come down to the community. Self-publishing no longer needs cheerleaders. It needs a dose of deep honestly and realism. It needs data above anecdotes, it needs new avenues instead of all of us being lumped into the same big sweaty room trying to hawk our flea market wares as if they were creepy dream-catchers we made out of tin cans and cat hair.

Your turn. Assess these challenges. Offer solutions. (Or debate the merit of their inclusion if so inclined — I’m just ranting over here, and will cop to that.) Offer your own challenges, if need be.

But let’s talk, yeah?

73 comments

  • “…covers that look like someone just ingested a rod of uranium and threw up in a clown’s shoe”

    Now that, THAT is the cover I’m looking for. I want that cover.

    Seriouslyish, I find that I can comfortably self-edit short stories, even a collection, but for a full novel I need professional help. Well, it’s possibly true that anyone attempting a full novel needs professional help but it’s certainly true for me.

    So I self-publish shorts and collections and try to persuade a gullible publisher to take the novels. It seems to work, a bit, so far. Selling shorts to magazines was okay when I did it for beer money but it’s pointless now.

    Naturally I don’t publish anything as me. That would just invite the neighbours round for a stoning. I use my neighbour’s name, H K Hillman, because I don’t like him and want to see him suffer the wrath of the religious.

    Is that wrong of me? Did I mention I sometimes feel I might need professional help?

    Too late now anyway.

  • Oh yes, forgot to mention Smashwords. It’s no use in itself because it’s known among writers but not among readers. Readers go to Amazon and the like. Smashwords users pick up hundreds of my freebies but almost none of the ones I want money for. Fortunately all the freebies have ads in the back so maybe one day, they’ll realise they are taking the food from my own child’s pointy teeth and if they don’t get the wallet out he might eat his way through them to get it.. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you want to surprise him don’t hide anything behind your back.

    I see Smashwords as a portal. Put the book on there in a decent form and they’ll send it all over the place. Except Amazon. Amazon I do myself, Smashwords can take up the rest of them.

    Don’t ignore Kobo. They’ve just done a deal with a really big UK bookseller to have their gadgets on sale in the shop. Kobo has made sales for me already and nobody even knows who I am.

  • “You’re practically browsing and filtering an infinity”

    THIS ^

    Absolutely hate ‘browsing’ on Amazon so I don’t do it. If I know the book I’m looking for, great. If I’m just on the mooch for a new book then I’ll maybe try goodread’s or the blogs but never Amazon.

    Word.

  • As ever you are an astute man who laces his post with profane metaphors in the same manner I like my guacamole to be included in my burritos – intimately mixed in rather than layered on top (for others that’s fine as I can then steal their guac).

    If anyone is to publish, you’re right, they need to do so with the business in mind. Diversifying and pulling in as much money as well as balancing that was exposure is key. Ideally more exposure is equatable with more money. Some self/indie-published authors out there have discussed the balance of price points and it really proves how early in the game the entire situation is, that no one can really recommend for others what to do.

    But the aggregation of books/e-books is a difficult task online. How many different places can we go to in order to find books and with it we’ll find suggestions? Just about every book store has a site these days and an algorithm for telling us what next. At some point I, and I assume most others, don’t want to go to another site to find something. (A question pops into my head at this moment – If we were to create a site/app to aggregate author sales data so indies could have an idea of the developments going on, would we see competitors? If so how would one determine which site to look at?)

    For that matter is there a site even aggregating (aggregate is the word of the day) the discussions of the developments in the publishing industry? Or should I leave that to a Google news filter? And to be as paranoid as Chuck, why should I trust a Google filter that concerns one of their business ventures?

  • The problem I have is that for every honest review on a SP book, someone has paid money to read it, and I hate the ones that say “I paid £4.99 for this and I wouldn’t recommend it even if it was free”. The love of the craft has gone and people wanna cash in quick, rather than produce something that will actually have an impact on the reader.
    And yeah, I agree with how awful it is to browse for a new book online. It’s got to the point where I only bother if I hear about the book from a different channel, like a blog or a mention in a comment.

  • Really really great post, Chuck!
    For the record: you beard definitely has cred. A bartender in Texas just said it’s where baby rattlers come from. Not sure if that’s true–but …. Gives your beard cred.

  • I have several blog friends freaking out about Amazon. I’ve self-published a book–years ago–mainly because it was a collection of regional ghost stories and hauntings, nothing I would have be able to get a publisher to bite on (though I did try with a few regional presses first). I’m considering doing the same with another, since I’ve moved to yet another haunted place.

    But I have blog friends who ONLY publish online in e-book format, who roundly criticize anyone who doesn’t, etc. Yet they also make it clear they often publish whole books after spending more time formatting it through Smashwords than they do revising the first rough draft of the novel. It’s the rush I fear, for my first, second, and third drafts often SUCK and require either deep revision or rewriting (usually the latter). I don’t want my stuff just published. I want it to be AWESOME before a ton of readers see it. No desire to spread out my excrement. I don’t want to read it, so why would I feel okay with anybody else reading it?

  • Bravo to your first point. I twitter-ranted a bit yesterday about how the KDP program is bad for readers, too. Yeah, I know, Amazon’s ultimate aim is to have every person in America — the world! the universe! — reading on a Kindle. But I choose not to buy from them, while not-buying from them is still an option.

    Which means that authors who sell exclusively through Amazon might have omfgsuperbrilliant books, but I will never read them. Sometimes it’s a shitty choice to have to make, wanting to support someone whose work I dig without kicking money over to the giant. Luckily, most people I’ve talked to so far have had a direct-sell option. But the ones that are Amazon exclusives, well. Sorry, no sale.

    Case in point: if you didn’t offer the option to purchase from you directly, I would not have read Irregular Creatures and Shotgun Gravy. Which would have been sad.

  • Hey, this is so much more (and better) to respond to than the other one about “don’t.” Well done.

    You bring up a variety of good points I’m on board with. Can we talk more about Smashwords as non-option? Blech. And Nook? I’ve yet to see B&N put out a half decent e-ink reader (then again, it took Amazon three tries to get it right, and a fourth to fuck it all up again).

    Your random selection is important, too, but I do think that the game is stepping up. I’ve seen it in terms of cover design recently; as more authors step on board, they’re getting higher quality, well-designed covers.

    Which I think is merely a superficial indicator that many independent authors know they can step up the game, and are working to. Which is good, but which is also a learning process; for many, it takes a few tries before one starts getting things right. For example: the cover to my first collection. Definitely could have benefited from improvement. But then I went and learned a lot, and they’ve gotten progressively better. I think the covers I’ve done this year rock.

    I tend to avoid sites like Authonomy and Book Country. Many of the posts hurt my brain, and the whole writing community thing . . . I think the door needs to be closed when writing, but that’s a personal thing.

    I think the solution to the stigma is simple: quality. Also, the competition. When drafting business and marketing plans, competition is one of the considered factors. For me, personally, I don’t think “The Prodigal Hour” is a great indie novel; I think it’s a great novel, period, and would, in a heartbeat, put it in the ring with pretty much any book ever.

    I also think really highly of several other indie authors stepping up. Chris Meeks, Martin Lastrapes, and Miya Kressin come immediately to mind. Your “Irregular Creatures” is a pretty great example, too. Darcie Chan got a lot of attention last week, but I haven’t seen anyone mention how actually good her novel is–which it certainly is.

  • My brain starts to feel like it is full of bees if I read those writing community sites too often. It’s hard enough writing something well without having to simultaneously worry about a world of what-ifs.

    The only thing that would make that Authonomy quote any better is if it were in all caps… or maybe I am the only person who saw it as all caps in my brain as I read it.

  • What there needs to be is a sense of empowerment – that authors great and small can actually produce their work and actually find the best system to deliver to readers. Not every avenue is best for everyone, as there are going to be some people who will thrive under KDP, and some who will totally rock Smashwords…and some who will enjoy selling out of the back of their car in clandestine meetings at diners and motels. Or something.

    I will, as always, point out that the line between cream and crap is editing. Some people will say it’s all about the cover art, but I thought we weren’t supposed to judge things by covers….but whatever.

    This isn’t a matter of flaccid pompoms and saggy cheerleaders, this is about feeling the writer can climb out of their foxhole and throw down with their big enemies of doubt, ambition and fear. Talent, training and awareness coordinated into action so that people can…..do what they want to do and find a system of reward that encourages them to do it again.

  • Curation, curation, curation. Sounds snobby and jizzy and Soviet oppressive and all that sloppy shit that makes young’uns want to pull out their now soggy Occupy The Gap signs and shriek like banshees all night for absolutely everyone to hear and no one to care, but honestly, we need someone who knows the difference between shitty “Weee! I’m an author, too!” vomitude and really ballsy prose that makes your privates tingle. And that means curation. And curators of curators, even. You don’t *have* to give a wooly rat’s ass about them, but they and great apps that make finding new books as jiggly as visiting one of your favorite, no-longer-in-existence bookstores and checking out the New and Recommended racks. Oh, and same goes for news.

  • Great post.

    Solution: don’t throw sticks at me, but I believe the answer may be branded, guild-like organizations formed by writers; the members vet each others’ work for quality, pool promotional money/efforts, etc. It would be something like a publishing house imprint only owned and managed more as a writer co-op…

  • Wow, as a self publisher, you post hurt my feelings. That must mean there is some truth to it. Does that mean I am going to stop self pubbing? Probably not.

    Discoverability of decent books is a real problem. Goodreads is making a start, and we’ll see how it grows.

    What can I do? Not much. What will I do? Write the sequel to my self pubbed book and pimp myself out as much as is tasteful (and maybe a bit beyond). Then write other stuff, and write more stuff, cause that how we roll in writerland.

    I also have a day job, so I can experiment. I also live reasonably close to Chuck, so I can pull in his awesomeosity with a good antenna. :)

  • “honestly, we need someone who knows the difference between shitty “Weee! I’m an author, too!” vomitude and really ballsy prose that makes your privates tingle.”

    The problem with curation is simple and two-fold: readers and subjectivity. What makes my privates tingle may be different from what makes other people’s privates tingle, and that’s not even mentioning what sells well.

    The Da Vinci Code didn’t make my privates tingle. Nor did Twilight. And with two books, I probably accounted for, what, 75% of retail business during the past decade?

    What makes writers’, agents’, and editors’ privates tingle is often different from what makes readers’ privates tingle, perhaps due to proximity.

    • I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with subjective curation, though — reviews, word-of-mouth, these are all curation of a sort.

      What it translates to for me is that self-publishing needs greater access to traditional media outlets in terms of garnering reviews and press. And it needs more traditionally-bent book bloggers, too.

      But therein lies the rub: I’ve spoken to a number of book bloggers who opened themselves to self-pub but then had to close it down again because of the crap that kept getting thrown at them. It was like opening the sewer drain and taking a big ol’ stinky cupful.

      — c.

  • Now this is a great post to read in the morning. Something to make this Monday suck a little less.

    I totally agree with your points on discoverability and quality control. Those two things make self publishing a complete nightmare for me. Once I have a finely crafted and revised and editting story that actually has quality and merit, formated to match whatever e-reader suits your fancy and uploaded for the world to see, how in the hell do I get people to find it let alone read it when it is stuck in the quagmire of complete crap that is out there? I would like to agree with Chris Kobar and say that finding someone that would be a curator to act as a quality control and thus also as a way to get discovered is a great option. But unless someone knows a person with a mass of money and time to throw into going through the slush/vortex of crap that is self published books on amazon in order to find those great self published books I don’t see it happening. Mostly because I think that a majority of self published people are doing it with a goal of getting as much money on their return as possible. And the only way for a curator to be able to set up shop is to make money at being said curator. And no self publishing writer is going to pay for that. Not to mention once the word got out that the curator is getting paid by the writer to read the book the entire thing goes into the outhouse to be used as paper. Not to mention how do we get that curator know well enough to have the common guy off the street look there for a good thing to read instead of just going to the bookstore for a look.

    All in all I think that it is a totally fubar situation that is going to take time to figure out. I know that no one like that as an answer. But there are enough people out there that want to figure out a way for the self published market to be less of sorting through the hay after it came out of the back side of a horse in order to find the needle that is probably lodged in the stomach of the horse in the first place. Hmmm that metaphor is darker then I thought it was going to be. Back on subject, there are enough people that are inventive problem solving people that want this to happen that it will happen. And when it does it will bring all of the creative people that can’t figure out a way to solve a problem outside of their novel along for the ride.

  • Yup, aggregators and curators has to be the way ahead, cos like the banksters people won’t self-regulate and somebody has to wield a Big-Ass Stick over the huge censorship-of-cacophony poopfest of the net. Whether that’s going to be a Michelin guide to writers, or some kind of global starring and review system, is far too early to say. But increasingly I look to Amazon reviews and review site aggregators to do at least the basic filtering for me.

    There’s probably a role for agents in this chaos. Like, you know, you get an agent who takes a cut in return for publicity and aggregation, and in turn stamps your book with their reputational seal of approval. Agents who consistently recommend crap will themselves see their reputation tank…aaaand maybe we need agents for agents, aggregators for aggregators, and quis custodiet custodes all over again.

    Screw it: what I need is a frigging AI. It knows a good book when it reads one, and it knows what I like to read. And it spends all its free time (when its not zooting around me) surfing the web for stuff it knows I’ll like. Now just invent one already, someone, damn ye.

  • Some good points. I will say that I threw up a couple novellas that I have just to see what will happen. No promotion, so I relied all on this elusive discoverability. I made more money than I thought I would, but less than amazing, about a hundred dollars in a month. I am planning to continue with it, actually, and write a couple more novellas that I think will sell well, based on what I learned from that experience, and also maybe bump the sales of the existing ones up. So it’s a success. However, I am not planning on self-pubbing the two novels that I’m working on, not now anyway, they are still getting shopped.

    You mention quality, and yes, it’s a big problem in the self-pubbed world. But it’s a big problem for digital work everywhere. I buy all my books digitally and regularly find typos in NY pubbed books, both grammatical errors (original book) but more often scan errors (digital only). Formatting is often f*cked. I mean, if the big guys can’t get this right, how can Joe-Shmoe be expected to? There are multiple problems muddying the water, but a lack of standardization and tools for digital books are something that effect all of us, big and small.

  • Quoting you on your own blog: “once Amazon gains and retains all the pieces, they’ve no reason to be author-friendly.”

    Um, yes. THIS. Exactly.

    It’s starting already. Like their e-book returns program that makes me break out in a bad rash just thinking about the authors they’re screwing with that one. Amazon is quickly going the route of “you peons should be kissing our ass with happiness” to be self published here. Meanwhile, they keep nibbling away at the author’s share of the pie.

    Now Amazon is finding itself in a pretty mess with their shopping comparison app, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next hit to authors pockets will come in the form of sales tax Amazon is forced to collect and pay.

    Compile all these little nuggets, and I wonder how the heck the vast majority of authors are supposed to make any money selling on Amazon? This is not necessarily about whether cream or crap is going to rise to the top. Not everyone is going to sell thousands of copies. That’s reality. Yes, the lending library can be good for promotion. It can get your name out there. However, thousands – even tens of thousands of downloads – of a book you offer for free does not guarantee you will make a single cash sale down the road.

    This is where I have a major problem with the exclusive clause Amazon has attached to this foul behemoth of a deal. First things first, they have limited pool of money they are willing to pay from to X amount of people, and based an author’s cut of it on an unknown percentage. Say you end up with $10.00 from 90 days entrapment and decide to pull your book from the program so you can attempt to make money with it elsewhere. You will loose all sales ranking attached to your, which may have been the only thing that turned out to be the only thing worth the headache. If the book is still on Amazon, why should the sale rank be affected?

    Yes, I get it. It’s Amazon’s sandbox and they can piss in it if they want to. Most of us will still sit in it even when it starts to stink. But if someone else comes along and builds another sandbox, one that’s a little more author friendly, I will definitely be picking up my toys and going elsewhere.

  • When I was in QC, and spotted a potential problem down the road, management would tell me not to yelp unless I was hurt (even though I was often right). Amazon megalodon shark *might* be lurking in those dark distant waters, but there might also be a large pod of megalodon dolphins looking to hunt that shark if it tries something, or a megalodon Kraken, or something yet unseen. Owning your own distribution center is a good idea.

    Thanks for the dialogue Chuck and David Gaughran. This is needed, even though heads get hot at times.

    I’ve noticed a tendency to mock certain self-published covers, but then seen raved over professional covers that weren’t a bit better. Definitely a sheep thing going on.

    In my memory, Angela’s Ashes didn’t have *one* quotation mark even though folks talked to each other all the time. It was traditionally published.

    I like when these writing blogs open up for self-promotion. When you did that the other day, I bought a couple of books.

    • @Darlene:

      Glad you like the pimp days and that you buy stuff out of it. That’s good to know.

      Re: Angela’s Ashes versus self-pubbed books. Yeah, ennnh, thing is, a writer who makes stylistic choices like McCourt or, say, Cormac McCarthy is an entirely different scenario from a writer who wouldn’t know proper writing style from a Denny’s diner menu. And the worst examples of self-published book covers have no match in the traditional realm. This is what I’m talking about, this false equivalency. If self-pub wants respect, then the authors need to start acting professional.

      — c.

  • Even though it was an aside to the overall point of your post, I wanted to thank you for your clear-headed assessment of the KDP Select lending program.

    There’s bit an astonishing amount of absolute dipshittery propagating among various folks out there since its announcement, most of it based on half-understood dribs and drabs that the propagator heard second-or-third-hand from somebody else — ALL of it doing little more than solidifying the impression that most writers (self-published or otherwise) have about as much business savvy as a rabid marmot.

    • @Gareth —

      Actually, that aside was my impetus to write this post, actually. It kind of started there and — well, suddenly I had a 2000+ word post in hand. Er, oops.

      KDP isn’t insidious or anything, but I’m not fond of what it asks of writers at the same time it offers little certainty. Seems to be they might’ve been better getting 3-6 months under the KDP Select belt before offering up some of those restrictions. Then again, nobody likes change, so that might’ve been met with greater consternation.

      — c.

  • Thanks for your great post!

    So, I was a best-selling author with Penguin Books, yet decided to self publish my new inspirational series. Two done. At least three to go. Have had to start publicity, marketing from square one. Publishing business is experiencing a tsunami of change. Opportunities are out there and for months I’ve been chronicling my personal good, bad and ugly of this incredibly challenging journey on my blog, starting with “The Why of It” http://nelliejacobs.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/my-journey-to-self-publishing-the-why-of-it/.

    Now researching how to format for various e-readers. Any suggestions? What about using http://www.bookbaby.com rather than Smashwords?

  • Chuck –

    This crystalizes for me while I probably won’t ever self-publish. To do so, one has to be both writer and entrepreneur. Frankly, I don’t have the time, the interest or the energy. Granted, if I get a traditional publishing deal, I’m still going to have to do much of my own pimping. That’s bad enough. But I’m not up do doing it from the ground up.

    Dan

  • Hi –

    I have always thought that editors would be the next gatekeepers/curators. So that if something is edited by a certain individual, readers would know that the book in question was of a certain standard quality. After that, the reader decides if the subject matter and genre appeal to them.

    This is how trad pubbing works for readers. If it’s in the bookstore, it will adhere to a certain standard. After that, it’s up to them to make a choice.

    Thanks

    X

  • Wrote a big comment and lost it all. Dangit.

    I think that book-reviewers will become the new quasi-gatekeepers, and those who establish sites where an author can purchase an affordable review by a credible site/reviewer will prosper. People will look to these places for guidance, especially if these reviews can be found by googling the author or title. They will snuff out the flaming bag of dogshit on our collective doorstep of self-pub slush. We may even see a “Carfax” type environment spring up, where manuscripts will be evaluated for grammar, punctuation, form, etc. Authors would have to pay to get their books on it, and readers could find it a reliable way to weed out some of the crap. Subjective book reviews by the public (like they have on Amazon) are not the same as those that could be performed by (sorta) impartial professionals. Goodreads might be on the right track.

    Amazon KDP Select is a big power grab designed to cutthroat their competition, not some boon to authors. Stick it to the man, people, and don’t let them bully. If they become the only game in town, they will get greedy and not just rob Barnes and Noble, but after they have consumed everyone, their feeding-frenzy greed will cause them to turn to the authors with murderous hunger next, and there will be no one to stop them. Believe it.

    One of the things I like about Smashwords is that when you get your book in there, they will squish it back out to you in all possible formats. Not just PDFs you can sell on your own, but mobi files that you can sell to Kindle peeps directly, without Amazon or their commission.

    I think it will take several more years of confusion and battle to see how this all sorts out, but I expect it will.

    One factor will be how much of a whore we are willing to be, and after 15 years in real estate, I like my chances in that contest. If you want to whine and not whore yourself, don’t come out to my street corner. I’ll take all the business. I’ll hike up my miniskirt and get all the action. And I’m a dude.

    There are only so many books that will be read by humankind in the span of a year. It is a finite market. We will see some dilution of proceeds, naturally, and less millionaire authors. This is news that can be good or bad, depending on where you stand on the battlefield.

    Another thing is the 99 cent issue. It blows my mind that all the blood, sweat, tears, and vomit, and the hundreds of hours of work can be had by a casual reader for 99 cents, and I will only get about 35 cents of that if Amazon helped me sell it. This price point alone may drive out the posers and wanna-bes who don’t write well. It just won’t be worth it, and the battle of the next few years may bear that out to some degree. Perhaps readers will determine to become more discriminating with their 99 cent silver pieces, as I expect they are already.

    Ebooks and self-publishing is not going away. .

    So. Low price points. Credible books and reviewers. Shameless whore competition. I think that’s what we have to look forward to. Survival of the smartest and sluttiest.

    May the best writers/whores win.

  • @Chuck: “that aside was my impetus to write this post, actually.”

    See, that’s the difference between us. You see something and generate a 2000-word blog entry. I see the same thing, and tweet a correction that ends up getting me jumped on by somebody’s overzealous S.O.

    :)

    • @Gareth —

      To be clear, I think what happened on Twitter there was more a case of a) the brevity of form and b) how you say things. Approaching conversations like that it helps to try to be instructive rather than corrective, in my experience. It’s a tricky line to walk, and I’ve overstepped it plenty here, but the power of 2000 word blog posts is that I have plenty of room to be self-deprecating and to (er, hopefully) come cross as at least somewhat humorous or tongue-in-cheek.

      — c.

  • @Chuck–

    A case of brevity, how I say things, corrective rather than instructive…. and also my all-too-easily-pressed button: my belief that if a person is actually *paid* for marketing expertise, they should occasionally demonstrate that they actually *have any.*

    OOOOOH SNAP! I WENT THERE. (Went there? Hell, I live there.)

  • On the problems of quality control/rating and discoverability, I think the magic bullet you’re looking for is a better rating/recommendation system than we currently have. What we have now is essentially anonymous and subject to poisoning, either inflating the rating for self-promotion or punishing the rating for spite. Also, it doesn’t really mean much to me if JoeReader198 liked the book. I don’t know Joe, and I don’t know if he likes the same books that I do. He could be the author himself, or he could simply have bad taste. No, I want to know if my friend Willy liked the book. Of if my wife did, or my friend Rose did, and so on.

    Certainly, for my immediate friends, I can just ask, but they don’t always read the kind of books I’m interested in. (Notably, they’re all a little short on the space opera genre.) But the key is that they have all earned a good reputation with me. Their recommendations come with a high value attached to it. Certainly if one of them recommends a book, I give it serious consideration.

    But between them all, they probably only read 500-1000 books a year, and they miss a lot of books I’d be interested in. There is a real limit on how many books my immediate friends can discover for me. However, I’m sure there’s a Jimmy out there who recommends excellent books to his friends, and they all consider his recommendations seriously. He has earned a good reputation with those friends. Now I don’t know Jimmy from JoeReader198, but a good rating/recommendation system would know about Jimmy’s good reputation with his friends, and that should count for something, even with me.

    So let’s I say I’m looking for a good book, say a space opera, and I list some favorite authors like Cherryh or Moon. A good recommendation system would look at who also recommended books by those authors, and whether they have good local reputations. It could then look for other things they had recommended, like Nathan Lowell, and suggest it to me.

    So I buy one, and I read it. If I like it (which I did), I give it my thumbs up. Then not only is it recommended for the folks listening to me, but it also means that Jimmy has earned a bit of credibility with me. When he recommends someone else, the rating system will take note of it when I’m browsing for recommendations. If I don’t like it, then both the book and Jimmy earn a black mark.

    It’s not really that different from having respected book bloggers take a look at your book, but it no longer requires the effort or focus of the publically acknowledged opinion makers. It turns every reader into a book blogger, and it helps you know which book blogger to pay attention to. It would do a lot to automate word of mouth.

    Of course, none of that gets your book into Jimmy’s hands in the first place. For that, you’re back to the whoring, and for that, you’d better have a pretty mouth there, boy.

  • Chuck,

    When it comes down to it, we have to be better consumers. I hear a lot of readers go “click happy” on Amazon, meaning they accidentally purchase a book because they click to buy so many titles. I mean, really? You can’t control your finger to click a button? Look at the cover, look at the blurb, read the sample. Seriously, read the sample. If it doesn’t entice you to buy the book, then don’t. People need to be pickier with what they choose to read when it comes to self-published works. This is one way to make sure the cream rises to the top, and not the floating poo poo log.

    • @Peter:

      While I don’t disagree that consumers need to be savvy and smarter, from the writer’s end, I see that as troublingly lazy — I’d rather writers write and publish better books than relying on readers to vet the stink-puppies from the quality reads.

      — c.

  • “Do we need some kind of app that helps you discover books the same way an app helps you discover new music?”

    THAT. Pandora for books. Someone needs to make it happen. In a user-friendly way that doesn’t keep recommending all the books you’ve already read.

  • This attitude is great for writers. “Who cares? Poop out a book!”

    This attitude sucks for readers. “I just bought this book. And I think it’s made of poop?”

    Christ, yes. I have had childish tantrums about this mindset. There’s no overall quality control with self-publishing, so writers have to be their own quality control. And, you know, who the hell wants to do that? Nobody wants to think that their OWN work might still be too shit-slimed to release into the wild.

    A (former) tweep on my Twitter list enthusiastically advocates for finding whatever writing you have lurking in the dusty corners of your hard drive, cleaning it up and publishing it via Amazon. Why in Satan’s name would you courage people to toss their seventh-grade poetry in with the books that people have cried, bled and puked over for months or years? You make an excellent point about this practice being bad for readers. It’s really bad for everybody involved for so many reasons, not the least of which is the idea that you should just hock your wares for some spare cash rather than actually putting effort into it. Don’t devalue your work and don’t devalue the efforts of others.

  • i think the title of this post should be changed to “Self-Publishing: Who Cares! Poop Out a Book!” Biggest laugh I’ve had today. I also enjoyed the image of amazon as a shark gorilla with a slavering maw.

    In all seriousness, this whole fiasco is one of those things that digital as thrown into upheaval and will be solved…eventually…after many casualties.

  • At last! What I have been thinking (and saying) for some time is starting to become mainstream. “Poop out a book!” I’ve been given several such poops to read a

    I flatter myself that I write decent stories, that the covers look a little less like semi-digested uranium nestling cosily inside a clown’s shoe than so others, and I take the trouble to have them edited and checked over by people who will express their true opinions. Do they sell? Reasonably well, but the effort of making paying customers realize that there are genres other than vampires or zombie apocalypse or any other of the paranormal genres that seem to dominate lists right now is considerable.

    Another problem is the pricing – I see the $0.99 Kindle model as a disaster for serious writers (great for Amazon, though). Authors with pride in their work may give it away free – but the 99¢ model is an insult for writers who’ve sweated to produce decent quality material. But it seems that the Wal-Mart model of buy a lot of cheap crap now rather than save up for a smaller amount of decent stuff applies to customers for writing, as much as it does to customers for other goods. Shame.

  • Sorry, hit Submit before finishing 1st graf.

    “I’ve been given several such poops to read and I am amazed that anyone would be so lacking in self-knowledge and objectivity as to think that these drafts were worth sharing with friends, let alone ‘publishing’ via Kindle or Smashwords, etc.”.

  • Off the top of my head, I’m wondering about the idea of co-ops for self-published writers. Where writers themselves would form groups, based on genre, and the writers themselves would be vetting the works, and all in the group would have to vote on who the group lets in or endorses. And somehow editors would be part of the group. Or the group would pay dues to pay professional editors. And the writers would all be required to promote each others work (so much less creepy to talk up someone else’s book). So if a reader knew they were buying a group from say, the Full Soul Ahead! Writer’s Co-op, they would have a reliable and good expectation of what they were getting. That kind of thing.

    Pie in the sky?

  • Chuck,

    Great post, Chuck.

    Those book poopers annoy me too. I actually know one. A screenwriter friend who saw my self-publishing success and dashed out a book in a couple of months. He self-published it with NO editing except for his girlfriend, who thought it was brilliant. I offered to edit it for him, but he didn’t want to wait. No matter what I say to him, he won’t take it down and fix it. He says it’s his “experiment.”My only comfort is anyone reading the sample will see in the first three paragraphs what they’re in for.

    As for .99 books… The first books in each of my series are priced that because I’m an unknown author. It’s worked for me–about 20,000 sales of one book in seven months. So, my hard work did pay off. That’s how I look at it–over all instead of by each sale. Not to mention that readers go on to buy my more expensive books. I’ve made more money in that time than if I’d sold to traditional publishers.

    For Dan … I plan to have the first book in my space opera out by Christmas. I’m waiting for the rest of the edits from my editor and for the cover. :)

    As for readers finding your book …. Reviews matter. Yes some are written by friends and family, but many aren’t. You can often tell the difference. People are more apt to purchase your book if it has a lot of those gold stars next to it.

  • @Samuel: “book-reviewers will become the new quasi-gatekeepers”

    I want to believe this, too. But that future doesn’t look too bright. SP books on Amazon are deluged with paid reviews (whether bought with actual money or compensated otherwise, e.g. you 5-star my book, I’ll 5-star yours). When it comes to blogs, SP books are often reviewed by–surprise!–other SP writers. It’s rare to find someone without a horse in the race who’s willing to brave the slush and review honestly.

    And why would they? What’s the incentive? What self-respecting, well-read reviewer wants to pay 99c for a book that has a 99% chance of being terrible, then expend the energy and time it takes to explain why?

    Hell, what self-respecting, well-read reviewer is going to do the same for some pulpy mass-market paperback penned by the likes of Steel or Patterson?

    When there are so many good books that have already passed basic quality assurance tests by being traditionally published (and not just by the Big Six, but by any of the various awesome small indie presses that are putting out good edgy shit), what’s the incentive for READERS to delve into the sewers of SP?

    Because the SP conversation seems to be revolving in a frighteningly self-absorbed way around writers. And writers need readers.

    I find it ironic that the SP revolution seems headed inevitably for a gatekeeper model, just like the old behemoth whose corpse we’re so gleefully dancing upon.

  • @Chuck

    The quote below is from the link you provided in this post (“they still suck a bag of dicks”). I posted it here because I figured you’d be more likely to see it.

    (By the way, when we comment on an older post, do you get a notification? Or does it go unseen by you unless you happen to be browsing comments from two-year-old posts?)

    “This is in part because it’s a lot harder to put an album or a film out into the world. You don’t just vomit it forth. Some modicum of talent and skill must be present to even contemplate such an endeavor and to attain any kind of distribution.”

    Obviously you haven’t listened to / heard of sub-(-sub-sub) genres of music like:

    ambient black metal (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVq8W_d_MZQ)

    or goregrind / pornogrind (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7HzHsmVE3s&feature=related).

    Now aren’t you glad I posted this comment TWICE on your blog? Heh.

  • For the record, failure to put appropriate commas, periods, and indentation will stop me reading pretty much instantly. It doesn’t matter how good a storyteller you think you are, nobody’s good enough to keep me reading through repeated basic editing mistakes. It’s like trying to read with a blood pressure cuff on—one or two squeezes isn’t a problem, but keep squeezing and my arm will inexplicably no longer hold your story before my eyes.

  • I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.

  • Your narrative, your choice of words: I am enthralled. You have inspired me to purchase your work and to try and be more than a fraction of your genius.

    Unfortunately I don’t have any money, so I’ll just have to read this blog and imagine it’s your novels.

  • I agree with another commenter here: curating is key. It’s fine to have, in terms of quality, the .99 cent bin that is Amazon and other e-book mills, but there should be some consortium or union of authors that can put a seal on a book and say “Hey, this is Good Books Union approved.” It doesn’t have to be the traditional publisher scheme or anything, just something that carries the weight of credibility.

    Editing is, of course, also important but I also sympathize with the argument that seemingly over-editing the book and making it pristine can kill some of the magic. Indeed, I’d say it could kill innovation in literature and writing. Most great modernist writers wouldn’t have even gotten out of the gate if we were totalitarian in editing terms. With that said, a good writer argues with their editor. They present their case if they’re vehement that their editorial decision was right the first time — and that means backing up your argument and maybe having the courage to alter old ideas. I’ve combed through some author’s letters back-and-forth from their editors, and it’s some of the most illuminating discussion I’ve seen over editorial practices, and it’s made me realize that writing a novel is quite a team effort and the editor is almost as an important part of the process as the author is. From what I’ve seen, anyone who claims they don’t need an editor is lying or they’re delusional. Jack Kerouac was able to pull that shit for decades and say he never goes back and re-writes his stuff and didn’t let an editor touch it. Of course, we found decades later, that was crap. “On The Road” was heavily edited cause the original MS was crap. Hemingway’s maxim holds true with everyone; “The first draft of anything is shit.”

    So, tl;dr: an editor is key, also. If nothing else, they serve as a sounding board and a well of best-practices. The author should probably have a good relationship with their editor, or, at least, a productively adversarial relationship. Which means you need good editors, not just any editor. Still, most of us are novelists and short-story writers… not journalists, at least not primarily. The urgency to get everything grammatically pitch-perfect isn’t the same. There needs to be room for art, invention and, sometimes, revolution.

    I think authors — authors who care about the quality of their story, getting the message or characters or situations right, readable and relatable — should perhaps start forming cooperatives. If you have a unifying topic, or if you just have some friends who want to be published along with you, then get everyone together and start a collective money pot for marketing, PR, art, editing, or, better yet, DIY! Take some hints from the old punk scene or the new underground rock scene:

    Crass started their own record lable: they had a unified image, so while the art could be different, it had to be similar in style; they had one or two producers they collaborated with; they all went in on touring and getting their music out there, etc. There are modern rock collectives that have done the same, like Neurot Recordings and Hydrahead Records. Not only does this have the benefit of propagating good, challenging, artful music (IMO) but it allows for a lot of good experimental cross-pollination between the musicians. I think an author collective could do the same, and there are some distant examples of where that’s true… look at Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and the circle of authors they published.

    More than anything, authors need to be a circle of friends and admirers. It’s fine that so many people want to get into it, but I don’t like that it’s kind of devolved into individuals, taking on all the monetary and artistic stresses of writing a book and then — seemingly — washing their hands of it in the marketplace, when the end-product needs refining… much more refining. We used to have close or somewhat close circles of authors, little movements, and they would talk to each other. Or you’d have authors who avoided other writers but associated, still, with another massive group of people, like what Cormac McCarthy does. He doesn’t like hanging around writers… he spends his time with mathematicians and scientists.

    Anyway, this is getting too rambling and off the point. I think my main point can be rounded out as this: curation, editing (having occassional fights with your editor), collective support. There’s so much more that goes into a good book than people realize, and while it’s a solitary making for the author, those influences are also what make a good novel. Just some other things to consider, I guess.

  • Again, why should anyone waste time listening to anything a self-pub says? There’s nothing backing them up. I’ve never seen a selfie even list their educational background. Hell, even a credit as yearbook editor would be better than “I uploaded a file! Praise me! Give me money! Pretend I’m real smart!” The whole thing is nauseating for readers, and a major, major waste of our time. I just want the selfies to go away. I keep a list of approved publishers from the ITW and MWA handy so I can check “marketing.” I haven’t even begun to make it through the books I want to read from publishers I trust. No one, anywhere, has given me a good reason to spend one second on a selfie book. Not. One.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds