Somehow, weeks have slipped away from me since my original post about the challenges faced by the industry, as well as some of the serious problems inherent in self-publishing. Because it's a topic I care so much about, I kept track of the comments posted in response (both here and in other forums that link to this blog occasionally), meaning to write a coherent response.
But just as writers must cleanse themselves of distractions to do what they need to do - write - I have to focus on manuscripts. It's been a pretty busy manuscript season, but it's slowing down a bit.
I have to say, I'm a little depressed by what I've read. Usually by this time of year I've bought three or four manuscripts. To date in 2012, I've bought only one. The other editors here are experiencing a similar dry spell.
Before I go on to part two of the vanity publishing debate, let me just say this: Since March, I've read several quite good books and queries. Unfortunately, almost all of them fell into the mixed-genre category. You know, things like "supernatural mysteries," "paranormal thrillers," and the like. I really, really don't see any significant market for these books, though I may not be looking in the right places. I wish so many of the aspiring novelists whose work I've read recently had chosen one genre and stuck with it - they might have had a chance. Mixing up the genres like that is asking for trouble ( = rejections). Despite vampire-mania, a friend of mine who writes horror novels (though I'm told the new term is "dark fiction") tells me that even diehard fans of that genre are buying fewer books.
Anyway - given the response to my recent blog entry, in which I was accused of everything from "bitterness" and "jealousy" (of what, I have to wonder), to carrying a torch and a pitchfork, to egotistical short-sightedness, to a general incoherence in my ability to frame an argument, to the speculation that my entry was a "satire," I thought I'd try to set the record straight on a few matters.
1. I don't work for one of the Big Six fiction houses. I work for an independent press. I see myself as one of the good guys. My company allows open (unagented) submissions, and we read everything we get. And, most of the time, we respond with a personal note offering some sort of comment or critique on the work.
2. Certain responses indicate that I don't "point the finger" at commercial publishing in a "shame on you" kind of way. Um, I would suggest that those who think that read a bit more of this blog. Listen, I work in the industry and I love it. But I've never said it's perfect, and many times I've expressed sympathy for the people struggling to get noticed while celebrities, children of the famous, and tired writers of formula get contracts and hit the best-seller lists. As I have said from the very first post I ever wrote on this blog, publishing is a BUSINESS and we need to make money. We do that by TRYING to find manuscripts we think will sell. Our record isn't always great (I'm sure many will bring up the Fifty Shades of Gray example to point to "big publishing's" vast ignorance and poor taste) but the fact is - No matter the size of the publisher, we try every day to find and publish books that people will want to buy and read. End of story.
3. All of that said, I do think I need to clarify a key point. It is true that e-publishing and self-publishing are not necessarily synonymous. Some eBooks go through the same acquisitions and editorial processes as those of print books. In the arguments over terminology, my key point may have been lost: That I respect any writer whose work has been SELECTED FOR PUBLICATION, EDITED, and PREPARED FOR THE MARKET by someone OTHER THAN THE WRITER. This holds true regardless of format. I can't back the following assertion up with anything other than many decades of experience: EVERY WRITER NEEDS TO BE EDITED. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who call themselves editors who can't really edit, just as there are lots of folks calling themselves writers who can't write. Being selected by a reputable editor or publisher (whether for print or electronic circulation) means that your work stands out from the crowd enough to be brought to market in a professional manner - which means professionally edited, professionally typeset/formatted, and professionally publicized. I repeat, once again, that reputable publishers pay for all these services, and the writers do not.
4. Regarding pricing issues for ebooks: I have to thank the many people who commented on the challenges we face here. The model is still working itself out. I personally believe that mysteries (because that's what I publish) should be priced at about $6.99 to $8.99 for most books, or $9.99 for best-sellers. What I perceive going on is the attempt by the self-published to undercut the prices of professionally published ebooks in order to give themselves a competitive advantage. It's not a bad idea - as Walmart has proven, low prices work. And Robert Rosenwald, president of Poisoned Pen Press and a man I respect, recently published an article in which he speculated that some of his experiments with lower prices led to greater overall revenue. That article was an eye-opener for me, but - to foretell exactly what's going to happen would require a crystal ball that I don't have.
5. Here's where I have a problem and will continue to have a problem that it is my (and my company's) job to overcome: Many of these self-published folks behave, and present themselves, as if their books have gone through the same quality-control processes as professional books have. But some of those who commented on this blog may well be right - This may be a case of lots of people making lots of noise about their own work, with very little impact on the market. However, I am going to continue arguing that the word "noise" is very appropriate here, that all of this self-published stuff is competing for people's attention in a world where people are more harried, and have less time to pay attention, than ever before. As a result, messages get diluted to the point where they make zero impact. This makes it very, very difficult to launch new authors - which leads us back to the accusation that "big bad publishing companies" ignore art and focus on what will sell. For those of you who consider yourself artists, I would remind you that even the great Renaissance artists had patrons, and those who make a living as artists today have people willing to pay HUGE amounts for their work. How many of you reading this would be willing to pay $5,000 for the next James Patterson novel?
6. Many comments exhibit a profound ignorance of the economics of publishing. Do you think it's cheap to edit, typeset, format, print, warehouse, market, ship, and publicize books? I can tell you - it isn't. Are you aware that prices are now set based on the amount of money Amazon is willing to pay for a book? That means that if you need to get $8 for a hardback just to cover your printing, shipping, and royalty costs (think of the breakdown this way: a single copy might cost $3 to print/bind, $3 to mail, and pay a $2 royalty), you must price your book at a minimum of $17.95 because Amazon will give you only 45% of the cover price. Note that the $8 doesn't include ANY OTHER COSTS - not the publishing house staff, not the review copies, not the cover design, not the book grubbers promising reviews but just wanting free copies to sell on Amazon marketplace...
This leads me to the key thing I want to say. I found the comments on that other post as revealing in what they DIDN'T say as in what they DID say. Specifically:
1. Nobody acknowledged the massive (and probably illegal, if you consider antitrust laws) market power that Amazon now holds, a power that it wields to set prices and control publisher behavior. Not one commenter addressed any of the many widely publicized ethical issues at which Amazon is at the center. Let's face it, folks: Amazon is the Walmart of the electronic world. How many of you who sing Amazon's praises for "letting the market dictate what's good, letting readers decide what they want to buy" are big fans of Walmart? Because they engage in EXACTLY the same kinds of anti-competitive practices.
2. Commenters seemed to conveniently overlook the way Amazon sells dreams of best-sellerdom to every single person on Earth. From their ads, you'd think that everyone who uploads something onto Kindle is making millions. No - the only entity making millions on all those uploaded books is Amazon itself, because (now that their infrastructure is in place), they let someone else do all the work, and they just sit back and collect the money. Have you seen those ads that promise young women and men that they'll turn them into famous models? How about all those ads promising that those who respond can become "secret shoppers" who can get free goods everywhere in turn for giving their opinion? What about people who promise to get you an "in" with the record company - all you have to do is rent their studio and pay them to produce your demo? All of them - including Amazon - are selling false hope to people. And many (not all, but many) of the self-published are so fixated, so deluded, that they fall for it. And has anyone noticed that Amazon searches now list the Kindle version of a book FIRST? Any ideas why they might be doing THAT?
3. Apple now has more cash than the U.S. government. Do you really think their corporate mission is to act in the best interests of readers and writers? But I saw no comments about Apple, its business practices, or its attempts to wrest control of the ebook market from Amazon. But I have to give kudos to the marketing/publicity folks at both companies - They've succeeded in spinning their stories in such a way that THEY are the good guys, battling for consumers, while publishers are the bad, money-grubbing, corporate scumbags who are out to destroy culture, separate people from their hard-earned money, and collude to fix prices. Oh - and I should add another little thing that I recently noticed. You used to be able to go to iTunes and buy that catchy single you heard on the radio. But the last three times I've tried to do that, I've been told that the single is available only with the full CD purchase. Hmm, can it be that Apple established this business model a number of years ago with this exact goal in mind - to change the way people buy music, to predatorily destroy another industry, and to then exert monopoly power?
I understand that people want to be published - I really do. But to equate a self-published project in any way with a professionally edited and published work is to do a tremendous disservice to those who have passed the quality-control process.
All of this said, I have expressed support for ebooks in the past, and I'll do so again. They're not my cup of tea - I don't like reading on a screen. But many people do - and it's our job as a going business concern to give people the products they want to buy. That DOESN'T mean, however, that we should sell products for less than the market would bear - that would be sheer foolishness. It's going to take a while for all of this dust to settle, so stay tuned.