Some rambling thoughts about self-published ebooks

One of the most interesting (and entertaining) things I’ve read about the publishing industry is Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Slushkiller. It deals with the manuscript submission stage, where authors send their work to a publisher, and an editor decides whether they should publish it. Teresa gives a blunt yet whimsical list of reasons a manuscript is typically rejected:

  1. Author is functionally illiterate.
  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

  1. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
  2. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

Stage 14 is not a rejection, but rather “Buy this book” — the point at which the publishing house decides to put the book into production.

The reason this list is on my mind is because I have recently read two self-published ebooks that are probably 13s, specifically Twenty Palaces by Harry Connolly, and A Real Piece of Work by Chris Orcutt.

The interesting thing about stage 13 books is that they are good enough be published, and importantly: good enough that a certain number of readers would enjoy them, and pay cash money for the privilege. If an author knows that their book is at stage 13, it may make sense for them to self-publish and try to reach that audience directly. Here are some reasons that can stop a book from being published, but that would not stop me from buying it:

  • Books in a series I enjoy that has not sold as well as the publisher hoped it would. (E.g. Twenty Palaces)
  • Books of a genre and type that home in on my taste like a guided missile, but where the author hasn’t yet convinced a publisher to take the financial risk of launching the series. (E.g. A Real Piece of Work)
  • Books that have been published before, but are now out of print, and whose rights have reverted to the author. (What was popular in the 1970s might not be mass-marketable any more.)

As a reader, I like the idea of these stage 13 books being available for purchase, in the same way that I like artists releasing music directly on soundcloud or bandcamp instead of (or as well as) through a major label album publishing deal. (My favourite examples right now: Slimes and Big Moves.) Just looking at it on a purely numerical basis, the fact that authors are willing to put stage 13 books on the market directly means that there are more books available that I might really like.

For the record, I don’t think that all authors should publish this way, and I don’t think that in the future all authors will self-publish. Authors write. They don’t necessarily do editing, artwork, typesetting (yes, ebooks do improve with proper typography), marketing, sales support, or any of the other numerous things that come into play when you start to sell books in volume. Right now, publishers act as a one-stop shop for all these services, and I’m sure they will continue to do so. I don’t know exactly what the future of publishing holds, but I imagine that the shift towards ebooks will create scope for new ventures: smaller-scale niche publishing houses, writer’s collectives, and blue-sky innovative startups.

Of course, if authors can put stage 13 books on the market, then what’s to stop them from sticking any old slush into an ePub and calling it silver? How do I know if a self-published ebook is a 13 that a publisher regretfully declined, or if it’s the laughing-stock of every editor in the business? Amazon doesn’t require you to have purchased an item before you can review it; most people can convince friends and family to drop a couple of 5-star reviews on them. But market distortion like that is hard to keep up in the long run. I think that in the end a little bit of general-purpose bullshit detection will help me steer clear of the worst dross, just as reviews, blogs, and word-of-mouth will steer me towards the best stuff. Which sounds pretty much like how I find most of my books already.

So although self-publishing holds benefits for me as a reader, whether it’s a good thing for authors is an entirely different matter. Self-publishing is going to enable a much deeper long tail of books in print than we have right now. This does not mean that we will all read more lesser-known works, and fewer bestsellers. The “recommendation problem,” described in great depth by Paul Lamere in his article “Help! My iPod thinks I’m emo” applies to books as well as music. I reckon that self-publishing will bring fame and fortune to a lucky few, but only the satisfaction of craftsmanship itself to the vast majority. As with any lottery, one should beware of selection and confirmation bias.

So if writing is a hobby for an author, and a previously rejected novel can be enjoyed by a couple of hundred readers around the world, is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Does it sap the author’s ambition to strive for something greater, or does it bring them hard-earned satisfaction? Does it diminish the popularity of a well-loved full-time writer who sells books by the tens of thousands? Does wider availability of “good” reduce the reading public’s appetite for “great”?

Personally, I don’t come to the end of a good book and think, “There! My work here is done.” The end of a good book leaves me hungry for more. That’s really what makes me happy: more of what I like. I’m inclined to think that self-published ebooks work in my favour here.

One thought on “Some rambling thoughts about self-published ebooks

  1. Martin:

    Your thoughts about e-publishing, like your review of my novel, are very perceptive, and I agree with your assessment that A Real Piece of Work fell into the Number 13 category among the publishers and the one movie studio that considered it.

    There are two things that I really like about e- or self-publishing: 1) the control I have over the finished product and 2) the lack of wasted energy associated with it. Especially number 2.

    For too long, too much of my energy was wasted in queries to agents, worries over whether “they” were going to like my work, despair over the rejections, queries to more agents, research on the marketplace, etc.—none of which contributed to what all of this is really about, which is writing well, continually improving your craft and connecting with readers.

    I was expending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to get through the publishing gauntlet when it finally occurred to me that the matter of who publishes something is irrelevant. “Publish” comes from the Latin publicare, which simply means “to make public,” not necessarily to make public via a large publishing house.

    Not engaging in all of those “please publish me” activities anymore has freed up entire days for writing. Whereas upon completion of a novel I used to have to begin my agent siege, I can now refine the work myself before making it public, and do what I really want to do, which is write something new.

    Yes, there is promotion and marketing work associated with self-publishing, but I don’t consider that wasted energy; my efforts have some effect on sales and word-of-mouth. On the other hand, I wish I could get back the thousands of hours I spent laboring in the quest to find an agent and a publisher. Unless you count it as character-building experience, it was all wasted.

    I am so thankful that e-publishing is now an option because I was dreading having to start the traditional process again. And I have to believe that more and more writers are going to come to this same conclusion. (And that’s even without factoring in the 70 percent royalty available to authors through the Kindle platform.)

    Thank you for a thoughtful essay and for giving a reader/writer the chance to vent a little bit.

    Sincerely,

    Chris

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